Though he's the first to tell you that he's still finding his voice, Mike Odmark's sonic signature had arguably begun to rear its head by the time he made his first attempt at recording an album. After following his brother Matt Odmark out to Nashville in 2004, the younger Odmark landed an internship at Mitch Dane's Sputnik Sound facility. Dane had co-founded Sputnik with Matt's band, Jars Of Clay, whom he's worked with extensively. Nepotism aside, once Mike got his foot in the door he moved quickly from errand boy duties to testing the waters with comp vocals and trying to deconstruct and put his own spin on Dane's mixes. By the end of 2004 he hit the ground running, essentially beginning his career in earnest by working as producer-engineer on childhood friend Evan Goodberry's full-length, The Middle of the World. As Odmark explains, he threw himself into the producer's role without hesitation in spite of having little prior experience. For that project, Odmark relied mostly on his memory from watching Dane, notes he'd taken and of course late-night phone calls to the producer for advice. Mainly though, Odmark — who is still at somewhat of a loss to explain how he managed to sculpt the record into the shape he was going for — relied on his instincts. Clearly they've served him well. Since completing Goodberry's album, he's racked up twenty producer/engineer credits over the last four years. While that alone wouldn't necessarily set Odmark apart from any other aspiring studio rat, a cursory listen to his various credits reveals a distinct touch anchored by a definite, if unobtrusive creative vision. Odmark possesses an unmistakable flair for crafting spacious, earthy mixes and brings a fresh perspective to recording acoustic-based roots music. He has also attracted a group of upstart artists flying well below the radar in Nashville's underground folk scene. Now working mostly on his own using a combination of his home space and various studios throughout Nashville, Odmark caught up with Tape Op to discuss his principles and working methods.
How much did you ever envision that you'd be recording people for a living?
Growing up in Rochester, NY, I did a lot of recording and producing in some way. In high school I had this room in my church that used to be a radio studio, which I was given a key to. I used that to record stuff with friends — demos and writing stuff with people. So when I was thinking about what I wanted to do for college, I wanted to do producing, engineering or something in music, but I wasn't really thinking that I could do it as a career. My brother had lived in Nashville for about ten years at the time. He told me about Belmont University, and it seemed like a good fit because he's 11 years older than me and I'd never really gotten to know him. That was reason enough to move there. I started working for Mitch Dane almost right away.
Since then your career seems to have fallen together very gracefully.
I think that mainly happened because I fell into this community of artists, either from Belmont or just from having met all these songwriters and making friends with them. The next project after Evan's was an EP [Already/Not Yet] with Aaron Roche, and it was really natural for him to approach me. At that point, I was still working at Sputnik after hours and it was still free, so that had a lot to do with it. [laughs] I think it's been so natural because I'm genuinely excited to collaborate with them and not just get something for my production reel.
How did Nashville differ from what you were expecting when you arrived?
When I moved to Nashville, I expected it to be a lot larger. I thought of it as a big city, where it would be really difficult to tap into a community and easy to get lost in. But it's pretty small. A lot of the indie singer/songwriters see each other a lot. They all hang out at the same coffee shops and go to the same shows. It's pretty easy to meet a bunch of people, and before you know it they're your friends. It's the main reason I really love it here.
How much do you see the role of the producer as a collaborator?
I see it almost completely as that. When an artist comes to me with the record that they want to make, I don't feel it's my place to take it in a completely different direction, grab the wheel and run with it. Sometimes an artist wants that, where they just have these guitar-and-vocal songs and they don't really know where the destination is. But for the most part the artist knows what the destination would be, and I'm sort of offering them another way to get there. I'm just trying to push them (lightly) in a direction, and set the scene up so that they can do what they do naturally. I need to help them highlight what makes them unique and authentic so that the listener will be able to hear those aspects first.
You recently wrote on your blog, "Sometimes I think I have a secret crush on the '70s."
I think it's pretty clear that the '70s are the high point for how records sounded. I often go back to that with the sound or vibe I'm trying to get. That seems to have been an age when it was very much about capturing a performance. You could hear a band playing in a room, whereas it just doesn't seem to be about that anymore. It's about everybody doing things separately and everything being too perfect.
What records do you hold up now, either as sonic reference points or albums that had a profound impact on you?
Lately I've been listening to [John Lennon's] Imagine, a lot of Otis Redding and Stax stuff. I'm talking a little bit about the sonics, but mainly there's just this magic where those performances are so incredible. I think those are good examples of the golden age of how records were made.
There are elements that are common...
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