AVRIL LAVIGNE, Pink, Fall Out Boy and Katy Perry have all benefited from Butch Walker’s abilities to blend pop and rock sensibilities inside the recording studio. An in-demand producer as well as a prodigious creator of records under his own name, Walker is the rare talent who separates one skill set from the other.
“I have two lives and have to respect how I lead them,” he said. “When I get a call (to produce), they’re calling for one thing: they want something they can sell. They want it catchy, hooky and on the radio. … I learned early on, never cross-collateralize.”
It has been a particularly strong year for producers who also record their own work. Daniel Lanois’ soundtrack to his documentary “Here Is What Is” displayed his genre-hopping talents; Brian Eno revisited late period Talking Heads with David Byrne to create the buoyant “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today”; T Bone Burnett’s “Tooth of Crime” was as smart and distinct as his production on top-shelf albums by Robert Plant/Alison Krauss and John Mellencamp.
Those three examples, though, find the artists sharing DNA with their production work. Walker chooses to leave his albums in one realm and his production work in another. The revelation that the two should be separate relates to his first session with Lavigne, from which “My Happy Ending” was created.
“When I first sang the chorus it was too verbose, too heady. And here she was, already successful, and she wants to make (the record) smart. I saw her cock her head to one side and a light bulb went off in my mind: I saw 10 million little girls cocking their heads and giving the same look. We needed to keep it broad.”
UNINTENTIONALLY, the Georgia native has created a business model rarely seen in rock circles that has become increasingly conventional in R&B/hip-hop, the producer-songwriter who balances those activities with a performance career.
He was first a performer who picked up some extra cash producing demo tapes at his 16-track studio. His band Marvelous 3 developed enough of a following in the late 1990s — at which time he moved to Malibu — that he was asked to produce and write with acts from the then-burgeoning pop-punk school; SR71’s “Right Now” was one of his better-known works from the period.
Since 2002, the 39-year-old has been tireless and prodigious — releasing four solo albums while continually producing and writing for others. In the middle of 2007, he slowed down, suffering a bit of writers block. The floodgates reopened after his Malibu home burned to the ground in November of last year, destroying all of his possessions save for the clothes he had with him on a trip to New York.
SONGWRITING became his therapy to some degree and much of “Sycamore Meadows” references the fire, either in the form of metaphors in relationship or as a turning point in life. His songwriting has become more specific. Walker adds jobs, hobbies, predicaments and geographical locations to his characters, rounding out the people in his songs in a way master storytellers such as J.D. Souther have done previously.
“Ship in a Bottle,” a emotionally naked breakup song, should be a TV music supervisor’s dream — a well-crafted, sweeping ballad filled with images of vulnerability that begs for placement in a heart-tugging scene in an hourlong drama. “Ponce de Leon Ave.,” the horn-driven carefree pop tune that precedes it on the album, could not be more different; it’s a modern celebration of early ’70s pop, a dip into a kettle filled with equal measure of Big Star and Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods’ “Billy Don’t Be a Hero.”
“My motto has been there’s a big difference between a good song and a hit song. I listened to a lot of radio and plenty of pop music and appreciate those elements. It’s exciting to go in that direction — have as much fun as possible and then, if I need to, go back and cry on my fret board.”
Walker’s schedule prior to a March tour includes session work with Dashboard Confessional and the metal band Saosin he has a new song being considered for major commercial campaign; and he’s hoping an animated film project he is attached to will find backers in the near future. “I’m charged to do that now that I have a kid,” he notes. “Animated characters – they don’t have opinions and they don’t talk back.”