Cape Breton’s Heather Rankin was in town to play Hugh’s Room Live and, as with any artist’s responsibilities, she was making the rounds promoting a newly minted recording and concert. I caught a robust half-hour conversation; rich in detail and spiked with great laughs before the affable performer hook-up with her chauffeur of the moment. This occasion, the driver just happened to be musician/songwriter/producer extraordinaire, Dave Tyson.
Rankin and I had just listened to a remarkable collaboration between her and Tyson – ‘Titanically’ – from her award-winning recording, Fine Line. I’d spent the morning replaying and following the arc of the record – from lyrics to the melody, chordal movement and savouring the exquisite production. Rankin’s voice soars and at times serves as another source of orchestral instrumentation, possibly a solo violin.
Tyson exits the automobile, shakes hands and almost immediately the conversation turns to music. Not about the many gold and platinum records back home gracing a wall, but the structure of the Rankin/Tyson composition ‘Titanically.’ Sensing David was only briefly in the area; I booked him on my Thursday morning radio show at CIUT 89.5FM.
This was a conversation not to be missed out on!
His songs and co-writes have been cut by Celine Dion, Joe Cocker, the Pointer Sisters, Donna Summer, Hall & Oates, America, Meatloaf, Anne Murray, Jude Cole, Tina Arena, as well as the #1 Hot 100 international smash and Grammy winner "Black Velvet" by Alannah Myles.
He also wrote the country hits "Heaven Help My Heart" and "Love's Funny That Way" for Wynonna; "Birmingham" for Melodie Crittenden; Terri Clark's "Unsung Hero"; and "Dark Horse" by Mila Mason, initially a huge pop hit David produced for Amanda Marshall. He also produced Amanda's other hits off her Diamond-selling debut album in Canada (one million units) - including her pop original of "Birmingham".
Do you live in Los Angeles?
I’m actually, in transit. I lived in Los Angeles for twenty-nine years. I moved there in 1989 just after we had finished recording Alannah Myles. I exited Canada just as it was released here. I moved to L.A. and had a production gig with Warner Bros. and missed the whole Alannah activity in Canada. It seems like I produced, composed and then split; but I was seeking further employment.
Did you know ‘Black Velvet’ was gaining traction with radio?
I heard. It’s funny when you are not exposed to it on the radio, you don’t connect with it. People were saying they heard it all of the time, but you think its just a friend saying that. Maybe it was played once in a week.
Alannah and Christopher Ward were in Toronto at the time and kept letting me know it was going great. It didn’t register with me. I’m a little bit slow registering information from others.
You were locked in a studio, away from the outside world.
You know this, I have a musician's head, and music can register well 24/7 in my brain, but other things not so much. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it's the function of making music from age eight.
Which area of the city did you grow up?
Etobicoke. The only reason I got into music was my best friend was taking piano lessons. It wasn’t like me to say this, but I blurted out to my mother I wanted piano lessons. I wasn’t the kind of person who had to have what some others had. It was divine intervention or something like that because my family was not musical. My dad had a Hammond organ in the living room and noodled away at his favourite songs – played all of the wrong chords and it drove me crazy. He’d play ‘Climb Every Mountain’ and play all the wrongs chords and I’d say, “dad those are the wrong chords”, and he says, “what do want from me, it’s beautiful”.
It’s interesting how dads were from that era. Music was to be dabbled with; it didn’t matter what the writer wrote.
I think if the parent could get through a song, it was a triumph!
After a few years of studying piano, I became my dad’s jukebox. He’d request new songs to my piano teacher – “Can you give David, ‘Moon River’ next week”? He wanted to hear it. Whatever whimsical song my dad wanted to hear. “How about 'The Stripper’, – it goes like this”? Unfortunately, you know well yourself, when you are the family piano player, you play at all of the family functions. If dad was downstairs hosting his bridge quests and wanted to hear a tune, I’d get the shout-out.
Did that make you feel a bit uneasy?
Always. I could skate with those guys. They didn’t know any better, anyways. It was the shout-out to the second floor, “David, would you come down here and knock-off a few tunes?” All (of them) with those 40s’ expressions.
Royal Conservatory – I had grade two theory and grade ten level piano when I got the pop music bug. I started to to play by ear. The moment you discover you can pick up things off the radio; it’s game over. Back then my biggest goal was to learn the organ riff from, ‘Light My Fire’. I was blown away with that song. Realizing I could dissect songs, the melodies and sense of where the chords were going, I became totally enthralled with the notion of playing with a band. My first band was age fourteen.
It was a garage band, and we never played anywhere, but I got some spin-off gigs when I played for high school dances, and I played the piano for a little theatre company in Woodstock, Ontario.
I liked Beethoven and Brahms – I loved the melodies – I’m a beautiful melody guy. I’m a jazz fan too, but there’s something about the melody that speaks to me. It makes succinct sentences in my brain.
You eventually heard ‘Black Velvet’ in the states. Did you pull to the curb or step near a radio to listen?
I was settled in L.A. and got a phone call ‘Black Velvet’ was climbing the Billboard charts, and this got exciting for me because it was all new to me.
I’d been on Billboard charts before with Eddie Schwartz and the song, ‘All Our Tomorrows’. It made it to #22 I think, which was pretty good. I thought, wow, this is easy. Wrong! I wasn’t ever in the charts game anyway; its always been about the music.
‘Black Velvet’ was hovering around #5 or #4, and I thought wow, this is happening. I finally get a phone call from one of the A&R guys at Atlantic Records in New York City who was a Turkish buddy of Ahmet Ertegun. Ertegun headed up and was one of the founders of Atlantic. The guy who called was an A&R guy with a broken accent. I can’t do the accent, but he calls and says – “Congratulations, you are number one, number one.” A voice inside said, pay attention to this moment, it may never come again.
A Spectacular moment!
Yes and no. For those who pursue music, it would be the hypnotic vibe of the track, not the necessarily the #1, as good as that is.
I was driving down Sunset Boulevard and going to a meeting. All of the sudden you're in L.A., and you’ve produced the #1 track in America. You are in demand, and people want to know what you are all about. Everyone wanted another ‘Black Velvet’. They say it matter of factly, 'we need another ‘Black Velvet’, can you give us one?' I started searching my pockets, and I think I bought a couple.
I went to all of the meetings and met the A&R gurus in Los Angeles. Some were bigwigs; successful record executives. These guys, you can’t get to. I was watching like I was looking at a movie. It’s a transient business and tough, and if you fail, you are out. Some are considered hit gurus, and down the hall they have their platinum records, and I’m in awe of all of them.
My job is clearly defined to me. I’m to create the best music I can, get along with the other musicians and create the best record I can. Their job is very different. We musicians are the oil on the front lines – they are the oil drillers and the company. Without the music, they don’t exist. That’s how the hierarchy works. You would never know, being a musician.
Get a hit around the world; you have to adjust – the musician, not as much. We are still analogue humans.
‘Black Velvet’ was recorded primarily at Sounds Interchange – the B-3 organ at Phase One, and we used a small studio with Peter Willis to record the vocals. Alannah liked the demo studio vibe to the big room. She wanted the sense we were kind of loose and not spending a lot of money. It was a basement studio in a private home. We would always end up laughing half the night away. And we’d get better vocals. I would cycle miles to get there and pedal home at three in the morning.
To cut to the present day real quick, I’m teaching part-time at Humber College. This is a brand-new gig for me that started a couple weeks ago. I’m teaching songwriting.
One of the things I relate to my songwriting students is if I were to get together with an artist and am hired to produce a record – actually, Heather Rankin would know this as well, the first day we meet I’m supposed to be the co-writer and producer – that’s the scenario. But it has become my policy, that first day, we do no music. I insist on this. I know other guys would sit down and try to write a song that day, but that’s not going to happen with me. We are going for a coffee and talk and our day will be over and my job will be done for the day. I can’t work with strangers. I said to my students, 'when you see someone walking along the street, would you tap them on the shoulder and say let’s start writing a song now?' It’s different when you go to Nashville. As soon as you arrive you dig in.
What’s the difference between working in L.A. and Nashville?
There’s a, dare I say, a factory mentality. There’s a lot of great talent and great players. Not exactly my philosophy on how to write the best original music. I was coming from the entire band rents a place far, far away and gets together and creates music over the span of two to three months. It cultivates something very special that way. You get to know people, you get to jam. I still think that translates to the modern day. Real original music doesn’t happen spontaneously. I have to let it flow around in my mind, digest and think of possibilities, in the span of a few days or even a couple weeks.
If I, the hired gun producer, digs right in and starts to assert myself quickly, they are going to assume I’m an assertive guy. I think you have to tread lightly. You do that through a conversation about music.
One of my favourite tracks by you is ‘Birmingham’ by Amanda Marshall. How did you meet?
Through the magic of an A&R guy at Sony Music in Toronto named Michael Roth. Mike, I guess, was a fan of Alannah Myles and he suggested a writing session with me. He wanted to send Amanda down and have her feel it out and maybe have me produce a few tracks. I don’t know if they had anybody else lined up or not. Ironically, I’d already been through a prolific writing period. I had a few things prepared and one was ‘Birmingham’. ‘Birmingham’ arose the day after I sat down and came up with a piano riff which you hear off the top of the song. The night before I caught Steely Dan and you may hear this on the piano. After I saw Steely Dan I was blown away with their chords and complexities and their truly liberated approach to pop music.
I came home and put my hands to my head and asked, “what is wrong with you Dave Tyson? You know more chords and melody potentials, why don’t you use them?” The next morning, I resolved to use some jazzier chords.
When was this?
1995. Can she ever sing! I was using Digital Programmer as the audio program, but you couldn’t record audio on a computer. It was sync-up to tape. My tape was the infamous ADAT – one of the first digital tapes using VHS format – the first digital 8-track. You’d get three of them and have twenty-four tracks and synch them all up. You’d watch those machines struggle to get through an album. They were not the finest of machines, yet sounded good.
There’s a lot of good players on there and I had a lot of fun with Amanda. One of the greatest moments of my life was when Amanda first heard ‘Birmingham’ – I think I played it for her when co-writer Dean McTaggart was there. He’s a great writer and friend and we have written a lot of songs together. We had the melody but not the lyrics – maybe I’m wrong, we may have had the lyrics. We had a notion of the storyline. I played it for her and asked her what she thought and she says, “I love it!” I asked if she wanted to try it and she said sure. She said go ahead. I said but don’t you want to hear it a few times? She says, “no, no, that’s OK”. My internal dialogue was, oh sure you’ve got it. Check this out. Not only did she have it – she had it down on first listen. Think of that – that’s really an astute individual. She’s one of Canada’s best raw vocalists, a great interpreter, and a beautiful spirit.
Richard Page, Mr. Mister guy, and another local Canadian guy living in Los Angeles, we wrote this together. Richard had petitioned Celine for years about this and she informed David Foster she wanted to do the song (‘In Some Small Way’) and she did it. This woman was born to sing. She liberates everybody with her voice and she liberated me in 1991 at the Juno Awards when she was introduced by David Foster to the world. As she sang in that hall where the awards occurred, she stunned everybody. I was actually speechless, almost in tears, and thinking, 'this is it.'
To get someone of that calibre touch your song is a life-long thrill.
You know something, I agree with that. It’s a phenomenal endorsement. I was so moved by that happening, I have never been able to tell her to her face. That voice! Singing a melody, a little melody written in my place, the fifth bedroom where my set-up is.
Lately, I’ve been going back and listening to the Billy Strayhorn stuff. At the age of 19, he wrote, ‘Lush Life’ – wow!