- Wednesday, Jun. 14, 2017
Not sure it makes sense to say that I “ran into” my colleague from back in the day on YouTube, but that’s sort of how it happened. Bob Power was an engineer, producer, musician and composer, often working out of Calliope studios in Midtown, which was Bang’s “crash pad” in the early 90s. That’s where I started the company, in this hip-hop haven where Bob worked with late century legends like Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Black Sheep, Big Daddy Kane, The Roots, Mos Def… making some history!
So, back to YouTube. Couple weeks ago I was checking out something of Pharrell’s, and suddenly Bob’s image came up on the “menu.” Along with Pharrell. It was a video of Bob’s “Master Class” at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, NYU/Tisch, where he’s an associate arts professor as you can read about here. Tisch had invited Pharrell to attend a listening session with his class and share his impressions of the songs created by several students. I watched the video, transfixed. The last of the three “presenters” to take a chair beside the professor and the artist was a young woman, Maggie Rogers. She seemed shy and unassuming, dressed like she was ready to do laundry, or throw frisbee in the park. Rogers talked a little bit about herself and then played her song, “Alaska,” for the class and the “master.”
Within a few bars of music, Pharrell’s face showed a sign of surprise. Up went an eyebrow. He glanced at Bob. As the song reached its chorus, he looked genuinely moved. His eyes began to well up. A “wow” was uttered. He turned to Rogers, who shyly deflected his gaze, surprised by what seemed to be happening in the room.
That class took place a little over a year ago. The video went viral shortly after and not only were a few million viewers moved by this subtle drama, so were some industry professionals. Maggie Rogers now has a record label, Capital, a new EP,
“Now That The Light Is Fading,” and a world tour. What a whirlwind. I kind of love another of her singles, “Dog Years,” which also finds a seductive intersection between folk and minimalist electronic music.
I met with Bob a couple of weeks ago to talk about his work at the school, the young people he teaches and mentors, the “old school” artists he’s worked with over the years…and how Pharrell came to preside over that Master Class.
“I first met Pharrell in the early 90s, when he was a teenager, just trying to find his way into the business. I was at Battery Studios, in Chelsea, recording A Tribe Called Quest when he sort of peeked into the room. Q-Tip invited him to sit in on the session. It was an electrifying moment for Pharrell and I know it stayed with him. He’s got a very pure soul and he doesn’t forget the people who helped him early on. It was pretty fantastic to re-connect 25 years later in the Master Class!”
When I questioned the value of a music school at a time when so many learning tools are available online, for free, the professor didn’t take the bait. “Look, the value depends upon you and what you do with the education. You can be a great artist with or without school. But 50 percent of the learning here is about how to be an entrepreneur—how to take control of your destiny in this business, whether it’s as an artist or promoter or engineer…the whole spectrum. Although there are introductory freshman classes, Nick Sansano and I teach a year-long sophomore production class about all things production—technology, recording, mixing, learning the tools of the craft. While they may not all be in studios, 60 percent of our graduates are working in the entertainment industry—pretty incredible!”
But the Maggie Rogers moment—how often can that happen?
“Honestly, I believe the other kids who presented that day are just as talented as Maggie. But it was her moment to grab the brass ring. That element of serendipity certainly helps along with the hard work and the talent!”
When I asked Bob if he missed the recording and mixing part of the business he corrected me. “I still record and mix in my studio—never stopped, still passionate about it! Mixing to me is very much like arranging—you’re legislating / informing the levels of what’s important sonically in the song. So I guess I’m fortunate, I get to do what I love: be in the studio, and in the classroom.”
Any new music you’re listening to that’s made an impression? “For me, ‘Sound and Color’ by Alabama Shakes is the best record I’ve heard in probably 30 years. It’s amazing.”
Hmmm. Not gonna challenge that—Brittany Howard and the Shakes are indeed amazing.
Any advice for the young songwriter, in or out of school? “Take away everything you think you need to make your song great—all the sounds and FX. Sit with a guitar or piano and write it. It’s a revelation! A great record is a compelling performance of a great song—the rest is just dressing it up.”
I was thinking about Bob Power and his students the other day, in a different context. A few weeks ago we were horrified at the sight of the terrorist bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, UK. The young lives and young families lost. She cancelled her tour immediately. Then, a week later, Ms. Grande decided she must do something for the city and those who survived, so she and her manager Scooter Braun determined to put on a benefit concert, “One Love Manchester,” just a few days later, on June 4th. It sold out immediately. And immediately, the stars appeared in Manchester to show their support. Pharrell, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Coldplay, Robbie Williams, Marcus Mumford and others. And of course, Ariana Grande. An organizational nightmare turned into an inspirational night of unity, solidarity and, yes, love. Over 10 million dollars were raised for the surviving victims and families of the departed.
In olden times (ha!) I assumed the heavy lifting for the biggest benefit concerts would be handled by the likes of Paul McCartney, U2, Billy Joel, Bruce… you know the list. But it’s really about the transformative power of music, isn’t it? The instruments will always be passed on to another generation. Here are a few of my favorite performances from One Love Manchester. (And thanks for the Master Class, Bob—see you soon!)
Chris Martin / Coldplay “Don’t Look Back in Anger”
Pharrell + Miley Cyrus “Happy”
And of course, Ariana Grande closing with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”