A fascinating person, Blake Morgan is a songwriter, producer, engineer, studio owner, recording artist, music rights activist, and the owner of ECR Music Group, an independent record label. Living in New York City, he has built up a strong following with his music. ECR works as a sanctuary from the often-treacherous music business, and, alongside Blake, it’s also home to Lesley Gore, Janita, David Poe, Jill Sobule, Blak Emoji [Tape Op #148], Tracy Bonham, and Terry Manning [#58], to name a few. His 2022 album, Violent Delights, was released in the midst of a six-year run of sold-out concerts at New York City’s Rockwood Music Hall as well as hundreds of live shows on both sides of the Atlantic. Besides his own music, he's produced a number of artists, and I found his thoughts to be quite inspiring.

You went to Berklee [College of Music] and then you got a deal with Phil Ramone’s [Tape Op #50] N2K [N-Coded Music] label. What would be the best way to encapsulate those years of your life?

Blake Morgan in studio
Miles East & Blake Morgan at The Bunker Studio working on Violent Delights. Photo by Alice Teeple

Well, I'm often asked, “How did you get into music?" In my case, I can't remember. I was in music school when I was five, and my relationship to music is identical to my relationship with oxygen; I love doing it, I want to continue doing it. But if I didn't love doing it, it wouldn't matter because I'd still have to do it in order to be alive. My "career" really began with Terry Manning and the record deal with Phil Ramone. Looking back, it's all a wonderful experience that taught me an enormous amount. The record deal part of it also taught me what not to do as a label owner. I’ve been lucky to have had powerful mentors in music; I was able to apprentice under them and learn from them, and, eventually, I'd healthily disagree with them in certain ways so that my music and how I make it would become my own. That's what we're all supposed to do. Today, that chain of master/apprentice has been broken, with people making music much more isolated from each other. I feel lucky that right when my career was starting, I was able to find myself under the wings of Terry Manning and Phil Ramone. I also feel very lucky that, of the people who are in my circle – my friends, my crew, other New York City musicians that I know and love – I'm one of the only ones who got a major label deal and made a record [Anger's Candy in 1997] that I still love. Although Ramone’s label had many problems, one of the irresponsible things they did was they allowed me to make exactly the record I wanted, with the person I wanted.

You got to record with Terry Manning when he ran Compass Point Studios?

Yes, it's really all because of Terry. Through a friend of mine, who was acting as my sort of manager, Terry got a hold of some early recordings that I'd made and – unbeknownst to me – he really liked them. Even more unbeknownst to me, he got on a plane from Nassau, Bahamas – where Compass Point was – and flew to Miami, sat in Chris Blackwell's office, and refused to leave until he would meet with him, saying “You're going to sign this guy, and I'm going to produce the record.” The same manager/friend went to Phil Ramone, pitched me to him, and, when he heard that Blackwell was sniffing around, he made me an offer. Phil was always lovely; a great music maker, and a great musical mind. He treated me with love and respect. Not the greatest label owner, he'd be the first to say it, but a beautiful man. In our first meeting, like a young and impetuous person, I said, “The two things I want are: I want to know that I'm going to be with this label for my entire career. And I want Terry Manning to produce the record with me.” I'd already met Terry, and we’d fallen in "musical" love by that time. Phil said, “Well, you're out of problems. So, are you going to sign?” I did, and he signed me to a seven-album deal having heard only six songs of mine. As a label owner now myself, I have to tell you this was terribly irresponsible, but it worked out! [laughter] Terry and I ended up making the record together. Lenny Kravitz sings a duet on it with me. Terry is still one of my dearest friends. And Terry, and his imprint Lucky Seven Records, are now signed to my label, ECR. It’s truly full circle, all these years later.

Anger's Candy sounds great. Thanks to Terry, it has such a timeless sound.

Blake Morgan in studio
Photo by Alice Teeple

He does have a timeless fingerprint, indeed. I think the reason is something fundamental that he taught me: He taught me to make decisions in the studio. What I learned from Terry, more than anything, is to make decisions. Have a vision, make decisions, and stand by them. Print the effect. Choose a microphone and then stick with it. Which I do to this day. One of the first things I do on a record that I'm going to produce – either for myself or for all the artists that I work with – is I storyboard the record as if it's a film. We'll do a microphone test, and we'll pick one. "Is this a [Neumann] U 47 record? Is this an AKG C12 record? What works on this vocal?" Then I'll try to use that microphone as much as possible for everything on that record, from the acoustic guitar to the far room mic on drums. He taught me to make decisions and to stand by them, thereby trusting one's vision and one's instincts. That's one of the reasons that his work stands the test of time, because he was coming at it from a timeless standpoint as opposed to something more ephemeral. I wonder if you agree with this, but in music – even with professionals, and certainly with laypeople – I think people are fundamentally unsure of what a producer really does.

Oh, certainly!

I think laypeople instantly understand what a film director does, but not what a record producer does. A record producer is to music exactly what a film director is in cinema, and a recording engineer is a cinematographer. The songwriter is the screenwriter. The recording artist is the actor. Inherently, we understand what those roles are in film. But even high-level music professionals don't really understand what a producer is. And Terry is a film director. There are some producers out there that revel in not having a fingerprint, and that's completely valid. I am not one of those guys. I'm one of those producers that wants to have a fingerprint, and does have one. Those were my instincts early on in my career, but he validated it.

We see a lot less commitment with recording now because of the ability to have unlimited tracks. Records are put together piecemeal, as opposed to meeting at the studio every day for four weeks.

I'm someone who'd rather hear a record that was recorded on a Tascam Porta One that has intention than a record that was recorded in an enormo-studio that has none. I believe that there's a profound difference between recording and tracking. Recording is recording sound. Which, frankly, anybody can do. Tracking is the recording of sound with intention, and specifically the intention that the sound you're recording is going to be living next to other sounds that you're recording. Tracking, to me, is like stacking bricks, whereas recording is just piling stones. That intention is critical when you're trying to follow through on a vision for a record. When you're trying to follow through on rendering some art that could move people or even raise people's heart rates.

There are pieces of music that will just devastate me still.

You can't do that without intention. I think that "creativity" is vastly overrated and "artistry" is vastly underrated. Creativity is cool. It's about exploring and it's about allowing yourself to make mistakes. But artistry is about knowing when a mistake is beautiful, when a mistake has merit, is virtuous, and knowing when to keep it. Artistry and expertise are not getting the day in court that I wish they were, at this particular moment in history. They're being assailed, are they not? Expertise is critical and artistry is critical. So, when the CEOs of various “friendly” tech-overlord corporations talk about embracing creativity, I know that they don't know what they're talking about. Musicians aren't really after creativity. Such as I've experienced it, they're after artistry. The records I love, regardless of the decade they were made in, are in possession of artistry, and artistry comes from intent.

Absolutely.

Blake Morgan in studio
Photo by Alice Teeple

I'm convinced that if you're in music because you're interested in serving the art of music, then you're going to have a great life. You're one of those gals or guys who can't get away from it. It's oxygen, right? But if you're here to serve yourself, you're cooked. You're making music for likes and follows. If you're making music to try to get a big record deal or you want to play at Glastonbury, I think you're in trouble from the get-go. All my heroes, whether they're producers, artists, drummers, or whoever, they can't stop being themselves for five consecutive seconds. They can't get away from making music, because where would they go?

I remember asking a young artist once, “What do you want this recording to achieve for you?" She said, “I don't know. Maybe make some money.” She couldn't give me one answer of what she wanted the record to feel or sound like, or what she wanted to express.

I love that you're asking those questions. Any time I start making a record I get out a stack of blank index cards and a Sharpie, I start talking to the artist I'm working with, and we start talking about what this record is about. "What is it going to sound like? What are we hoping for?" I start writing things down on these index cards and throwing them on the floor and it becomes a storyboard for what we're doing. We may not know where we're going until we pull back and start looking at these ideas on the index cards. During the sessions, I put them back out on the floor so that we stay on track. It can be 20 or 30 cards. I just made a record [Between Lightning and Thunder] with Miles East – who's been my long-time drummer – and he’s stepped out to make a beautiful singer-songwriter record. His record is somewhere between Beck's Sea Change and Paul McCartney's RAM. We had to talk about, “How are we going to do that?” Then we started bringing in elements; sometimes they're technical and sometimes they're just emotions or colors. I'm at a point now, luckily, where I don't have to work with anybody I don't want to. Usually, the first couple of conversations get people straight, as far as what the purpose of the record we're trying to make is, which, in the simplest terms, is to make something great.

A lot of times people approach it in a paint-by-numbers way. Sometimes I’ll go in a studio and people will have a huge piece of butcher paper up with all the song titles, and they're checking off basic tracking and overdubs.

Blake Morgan in studio
Miles East & Blake Morgan at The Bunker Studio working on Violent Delights. Photo by Alice Teeple

I can't get away from the cinema thing. Alfred Hitchcock famously storyboarded every film and every shot. There were no surprises on the set. So, I work horizontally. What does that mean? It means that we're going to talk about the drum sounds for a long time, then we're going to figure out how to render those drum sounds, and then we're going to cut them. Then we're going to do the same thing for bass, guitars, keyboards, percussion, and vocals. Again, this is tracking instead of recording. In that sense it is what you're talking about, but I do it a little bit differently. I'm not doing it song by song. I would never say, “Let's cut three songs and we'll come back and do another three.” It's very important to me to make albums that sound like records. And the way to do that, in my opinion, is to think horizontally. That's why I'll pick a central microphone for the whole record. In terms of the piecemeal thing that you mentioned, I think that as we all increasingly work in the box, one of the real traps that people fall into all the time is the amount that's available to them. One of the index cards that's on the floor in pre-production all the time is, “What's the console that we're using?” Even if we're working in the box. I'm making a record with Chris Barron from Spin Doctors, and it was very important to me, based on coalescing that vision, that we were going to use [Universal Audio] 610B preamps for tracking that record. I don't understand people who use one preamp for the kick drum and another preamp for the bass guitar. It's like they never worked on a console. I want my records tracked on a console. Miles East’s record, that's like a '70s record. So, that's Neve 1073 preamps all the way. If you do that in the box, those choices begin to stack up and they read so that you're making an album that sounds like a record. I'm fortunate to have come of age as a musician and as a studio person working on the hardware versions of [Pultec] EQP-1A EQs, 610Bs, and API 2500 compressors, so while I'm working with plug-in versions, I know what I'm expecting. I use those tools not anachronistically; I use them as one would expect, and then they actually work better for me, especially in mastering.

I totally agree that there can be a consistency, but I do pick certain mic preamps for different elements when tracking!

When we were all working on tape, one of the challenges was trying to get definition and clarity. Everything was bound together because it was all going to be on the same piece of tape. In the digital world, it's the opposite. Everything is so disparate that I'm always looking to bind sounds together, so they feel like we're entering a world. I'm not just choosing something; I'm rejecting all the other choices on purpose so that the record sounds like something. I like records that sound elegant, and elegance, more than anything, is refusal. It's not gaudy. Another one of my mentors, Phil Nicolo of the Butcher Brothers, has taught me so much about music, but the most important thing is that it's not the plane that gets you there; it's the pilot. The most important piece of gear I have is right between my ears, and in my chest, and in how I feel. That's the most critical thing. Also, when people ask me how I made a record or how I'm doing something specific in the studio, I always try to tell them, because there are no “secrets" in music. You could make a record in every single way that I make records and I could make a record in every single way you make records, Larry, and it would still never come out the same.

They'll be totally different, for sure.

We're flying that plane differently, which is the beautiful thing. Someone said to me last week, “You know, Blake, you always have an answer. And sometimes that answer is, 'I don't know.'”

Right?

When I don't know what to do, I don't do anything until I know what to do. That, again, speaks to intent. Creativity versus artistry, right? Recording versus tracking. As a songwriter, when I’m writing a song, I rarely feel I've invented something. I feel like I've discovered something. All those notes and all those words were available to anybody, but I discovered a way to combine them in a way that is new. Being a recording artist and a songwriter is a huge advantage as a producer. When recording artists produce other artists' records, it's maybe not looked down on exactly, but sometimes it's given the side-eye a little bit. “Is this person really a producer?” Well, Jason Falkner [Tape Op #35] and Daniel Lanois [#37, #127] are a couple of my favorite producers. Being a recording artist is a huge advantage in the studio in the same way that I would argue being an actor is a huge advantage in being a director, whether you're Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Ida Lupino, Spike Lee, or Robert Redford. An actor who's a director can communicate with actors on a set in a special way: In a way where that director can be believed. If you talk to the artists that I work with, especially when producing a vocal, they feel that it's an advantage that I'm a singer who can help craft a vocal because I know what it's like. I know how difficult it is.

Blake Morgan in studio
Photo by Alice Teeple

Being in there alone on headphones and feeling under pressure is scary.

I almost wonder, with producers who aren't recording artists, how they do it. There is huge responsibility that I feel when I'm making a record of any kind. I've had people say that when I'm working on their records that they feel like I'm bringing to it what I would bring to a record of my own. That's a wonderful compliment, but my response is, “Your record is my record. My name is on it. I'm standing by it.” That’s where my record label came from initially, and what it is today. After my major label adventure, with my own music or the music that I was producing for other people, I couldn't hand it over to people who I felt were going to screw it up. I was walking down the street with my mother, about to showcase for other labels yet again, and I was like, “If I had any guts, I would start my own label on my laptop. Our successes would be our own, and our failures would be ours and we could learn from them.” My mother said, “Yeah, if you had any guts, that is what you would do.”

[laughs]

She meant it lovingly. I remember, I was standing on Fifth Avenue and 11th Street, I put my hands on my knees, and I went, “I'm going to have to do that." And I did. It started on my laptop and now it's become a wonderful, successful, truly independent label here in New York City, built around my recording studio in Greenwich Village. Yes, for promotion. Yes, for marketing. Yes, to win an audience for the records I believe in, but also for protection. We can make the music we believe in. It's not a new story; it's an old story. It's Johnny Mercer starting Capitol Records, Berry Gordy starting Motown, and Ahmet Ertegun starting Atlantic Records. Those are three musicians who started labels because they wanted to put a roof over the music that they were making, writing, and that they believed in. ECR affords me the opportunity to stand behind the music that I'm making, from index cards on the floor to mic’ing the kick drum, to writing the press release. That is exciting to me. I never thought that I would wind up being a recording artist, record producer, and label owner. It's hard, but it's a lot easier than handing music over to somebody who doesn't care about it as much as I do.

There's that dark cloud over many studio sessions. We're like, “This is great. This is wonderful.” Then reality hits, and we have to ask, “What's going to happen to it? Who will release it?"

Right? That never happens in my world. If that was the only thing that I was able to give an artist, that would be a big thing. Fortunately, there's a lot more than that. Taking that pressure off and putting it on my own shoulders is a responsibility that's a heavy one, but also a beautiful one.

How is ECR run these days?

We have a staff of six. Many of them are artists on the label. David Cloyd is one of our beautiful artists, and he’s also our VP of Creative Operations. Janita is another one of our tentpole artists, and she’s also our Communications Director. We have an office in L.A. with my dear friend, Tommy Merrill (who’s not a musician), and we have a new office in London that's opening this year. I'm the President. What we do here is we make the music we believe in, then we figure out how we're going to make money and how we're going to win an audience for that music. The balance between art and commerce has always been a challenging one, but that's how we do this. This is a label that is like the other historic examples I've given, one that's about putting a roof over the music that I believe in. Now, we have a new publishing division, a new artist-services division, and we have major label distribution with The Orchard and Sony. We have a major label attitude, paired with a fiercely independent and fully autonomous heart.

There's also I Respect Music and some of the campaigns you've been involved in.

Yeah, my artists' rights activism arrived at my doorstep unexpectedly. But not really, because the record label itself is an expression of artists' rights, and how I go about making records is an expression of artists' rights. For anyone who makes music, being paid fairly for that work should be a given and not seen as a privilege. Broadcast radio in the United States has never paid artists for radio airplay. We're the only democratic country in the world that doesn't pay artists for radio airplay.

I've found that to be mind-blowing.

Only Iran, North Korea, and China share the United States' position. And of course, there’s also the absurd micro-penny remuneration that we get from streaming companies, one certain Swedish streaming company in particular. Again and again, artists are often the canaries in the coalmine when it comes to people not being paid fairly. The downward pressure on independent musicians – and middle-class recording artists like myself – is the greatest of all. Pop music, in whatever form it's come in, has always been an art form that has worked its way from the fringes, and on inward to the mainstream. That is what we see less of today, and what at ECR we're trying to turn around a little bit. Artists have to be able to eat and pay their rents in order to render something worthwhile. We're living in a society that places less monetary worth on music. Is it any surprise that we wind up with more worthless music?

It's also happening at the same time that it's much easier to create and distribute music. There’s a hell of a lot of music out there that no one ever hears.

That’s absolutely true. We hear these numbers, like 93,000 tracks come out every day, but as a music maker that's why I want to make bold choices in the recording studio. That's why I want to have so much intention behind every choice that we're making. Human beings know when something is better, but they need to be exposed to what is better in order to understand that. That's actually a part of our business plan at the label: To make music that a wider audience at this moment isn't particularly used to hearing because we're using older production tricks that they're not familiar with.

What was the process like for your last record, Violent Delights? It sounds great. When I first put on that record, it jumped out at me. The voice is clear. The energy is focused.

Well, thank you. That means a lot to me coming from you. That was the most fun I've had making a record of my own. It's, wonderfully, the most successful record of my career so far. It's the embodiment of how I like to go about making records. A lot of what we're talking about in this interview was brought to bear on that record. I'm playing all the instruments on the record, except for drums, played by Miles East. People sometimes ask, “Isn't that hard being the artist, producing your own record, and playing all the instruments?” Again, I point to Chaplin, Orson Welles, and beyond. It's not a struggle. Often, as I am right now, I'm working on five different records at the same time and that helps me keep objectivity. I had a lot of fun making Violent Delights, and when I hear that record I can tell. The process of making it was everything that we've been talking about today. I storyboarded the hell out of it. I picked guitars. I picked amps. I held to those decisions. Something that helped me on this record, as opposed to my other records, is that I really knew the songs. I'd been singing those songs on tour for a couple years. I've logged a little over 175,000 miles on tour since 2016, so when the time came for me to sing those songs in the studio, I knew what I wanted. I wanted that record to be a cross between The Police's Ghost in the Machine and AC/DC’s Back in Black. You'd never listen to my record and hear any of that, but it's in there. I wanted it to be consistent in the tracking process, in the gear chosen, and in the performances. It was a good demonstration of my methodology. And that's the whole point of having a methodology, isn’t it? That it's there for you when you need it.

One aspect that your working methods fight against is this fear-based conservatism in the studio. “Oh, that reverb's too wild,” or, “Can a song start with a chorus?” Fears that come up where I'm saying, “Of course it can."

Or not wanting to have an intro in a song, because it won’t grab people on streaming services. Well, you should listen to Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here album, because the vocal comes well after eight minutes in. However, you can make people feel something, and that's what we're after. Aren't we here to serve the art of music? If you serve yourself, you're going to be rejecting bold choices. We're trying to cause an involuntary emotional reaction from a listener. That’s what record making is. That's the magic of it. That's why my smile muscles hurt when I talk about this. [laughs]

You know that's when it's working. When it really feels like something.

Bold strokes, broad strokes, and brave strokes are the coin of the realm. What's the point? Where are we going with this? Quo vadimus?

Blake Morgan
Photo by TAYLOR BALLANTYNE

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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