Richie Kotzen Seeds His Songwriting Future on Salting Earth

Richie Kotzen is a human dynamo. The prolific triple-threat songwriter/guitarist/vocalist has just released his, yes, 21st solo album, Salting Earth, on his own custom label, Headroom-Inc., but he doesn’t view that somewhat stunning stat as any kind of milestone. “I started making records when I was 18 [circa 1988], so it all makes sense to me. I’m persistent and consistent,” he says with a knowing chuckle.

Creatively speaking, Kotzen felt he needed to take one step back in order to move two steps forward. “It’s something I really needed to do in order to reset myself,” he explains. This self-induced “charge to recharge” was officially put into play following the highly successful 2015-16 tour behind his band The Winery Dogs’ sophomore effort, the oh-so-appropriately named Hot Streak. And the man’s reset manifesto wound up hitting all the right buttons too. The proof is on display deep within the grooves of Salting Earth, which veers from the balls-out, heads-up declaration of the opening track “End of Earth” to the burning-sky harmonic thrust of “Thunder” to the Prince-like funk-jazz swing of “This Is Life” to the acoustified take-me-as-I-am self-reflection of the album’s final song, “Grammy.”

I got on the horn with Kotzen, 47, to discuss how microphones and preamp choices are critical for getting the sounds you want in the studio, why compression is a good thing, and his views on streaming.

Mike Mettler: What are your overall production goals when you undertake a project like Salting Earth?

Richie Kotzen: All I can do is make sure, when it’s in my camp, that it’s recorded in the best way possible. My studio is dismantled at the moment, but I’ve got many thousands of dollars invested in preamps, like Neve 1073s microphone preamps — the real ones. I have a bunch of API stuff, and some of the top Tech 21 compressors and Samson microphones too. I’ve got lots of great gear, and that’s just the beginning of the process.

As a medium for how everything is captured, Pro Tools has become an industry standard, so that’s what I’m using. In the beginning, I make sure I’m using the best microphones and the best preamps for the applications I use — and that stuff makes the most difference, believe it or not. When you the listener get to hear the final product, it really does come down to the equipment and how it was used, when you talk about quality.

After it leaves the mastering house, I’m kind of out of the equation. If someone puts an MP3 of a song on and listens to it through earbuds, it’ll probably sounds consistent with all the other records that they listen to. If they buy the CD and run it through a really nice sound system in an acoustically treated room, it’s going to sound much, much better.

I know people like to talk about the sound of vinyl versus the sound of a CD. I don’t know how to get involved in that argument because I remember listening to records as a kid, and I don’t know how much I loved that crackling, hissing sound that was happening with the music. It’s nice to listen to a record without that crackling sound, an option that the CD gives you.

Clearly, I know what it’s supposed to sound like in the studio, and I know what it sounds like in my car and on my computer, because I A/B it that way. When you spend a lot of time in a studio listening to the same speakers for years and years like I have, you know how it’s going to translate.

It’s rare that I’ll go, “maybe the vocal’s too loud” and then have to make an adjustment, but overall, as someone who’s been in the studio their entire life, you learn what sounds right and what doesn’t, and how it will translate to a more consumer-oriented format.

Mettler: How important is microphone placement for you? Do you sing really close into it, are you further back from it, or. . .?

Kotzen: These are all good questions, but they all depend on what you’re trying to achieve. For example, if you get too close to the kinds of microphones I’m using and they get too much air, they’ll just shut down. There is a certain way when you get close to a mike as to how you sing. If you get too close to the mike and the mike is hot, it’s going to distort.

There are a lot of things involved. Audio compression is key. You have to have a great compressor in order to control the dynamic range when you’re cutting a vocal, because otherwise, you’ll lose certain words, or certain syllables will come out really loud, and other ones will be (whispers) really quiet. And that can get really weird, and really uncomfortable.

You have to have a great mike preamp, and for me, that’s a Neve 1073, the [Universal Audio Teletronix] LA-2A is a compressor works really well with that preamp, and you get a nice, smooth sound. You stand maybe three fingers off the mike for normal volume, and if you want it to get really loud, maybe you back up a little bit. You learn mike technique as a singer. It’s something we all learn over time.

A lot of it is just instinct. You pick things up and you go, “This sounds a little too dark. Let me brighten up the polarity of the microphone. Let me compress this a little more so a little more breath is coming through.”

A lot of people talk about compression, but they don’t really know what it is. When they talk about “bit compression,” what they really mean is the quality is going down. Compression is an audio term central to the studio experience, and without it, records wouldn’t sound like records.

It’s like on these competition shows where the judges will say a singer sounds “pitchy,” but what they’re really doing is not singing in tune. They don’t know what they’re talking about; it’s kind of comical. We used to say that in the studio years ago: “Do that line again. It was a little pitchy. You’re not nailing all the notes.”

And sometimes, being a little pitchy is cool for some singers. You want that kind of vibe. Chrissie Hynde [of the Pretenders] is an amazing singer, and she wasn’t always in tune. But she had so much character, and she used to be my favorite.

Mettler: The character of an individual’s voice is key. You shouldn’t Auto-Tune something to the degree where you take the life out of somebody’s singing voice. If you had taken out the personal, Prince-like character of your voice during the mixes of “My Rock” and “This Is Life,” your intention as the songwriter would have also been lost.

Kotzen: Of course! And you know what’s funny about Auto-Tune is it’s almost become a mandatory sound for a pop act. Putting out a pop record without Auto-Tune would make it not be a pop record anymore. It’s actually become something where if you don’t hear it, it sounds weird not having that on pop songs.

Mettler: That’s oddly true. I’m glad your body of work spans a lot of genres and styles.

Kotzen: The thing is this: I think of all the great bands and the great solo artists I grew up listening to — be it Prince, Sly & The Family Stone, or Led Zeppelin — it was a time in music where artists were diverse. They didn’t repeat stuff, and there was diversity in the art — which there should be. And somewhere along the line, it shifted. If my record had come out then, it would have been quite normal. It wouldn’t have been something people would have even noticed, me being “diverse.” But it is nice that there is less of a corporate influence in the rock community now, where artists can go back to being artists, and be creative again.

Mettler: You’ve certainly done that here. You start the record with “End of Earth,” a good, hard-hitting kickass track, and then the second half of the record has a more intimate, singer/songwriter kind of vibe. It’s more personal, especially by the time we get to the last track, “Grammy.” As an artist, you have to be able to show all sides of your personality.

Kotzen: Right. And when I write, I don’t get caught up in analyzing things. If I write something on the piano, so be it. If I write on guitar, or bass, or even sometimes I start with the drums, so be it. In the end, I may have 20 things recorded, and I listen to them all and figure out which ones go well together and what I want them to represent.

It’s a process that can take years, but then there are songs like “End of Earth” or “Grammy” that are written on the spot and just kind of come together, for whatever reason.

Mettler: I’d also have to imagine that, in whatever divine world he’s in now, if Jimi Hendrix ever got to hear how you wind out on “Divine Power,” he’d be quite impressed.

Kotzen: (chuckles) That one does have a little bit of a Jimi thing about it. It’s a new song, but there are elements to it that remind me what I was doing on the Into the Black record (2006). Every time I pick up a Strat and record something like that, it takes me back to that era.

Mettler: As an artist, are you OK with the streaming universe?

Kotzen: I guess I kind of have to be. That’s the way things are now, so what are you gonna do? It’s convenient, and everybody wants everything right now. If you don’t participate in that world, it actually hurts you. If an artist takes a stand and says, “You can’t stream my music,” there are a thousand other artists out there who can replace you, so we’ll stream their music instead; how about that?

Mettler: You do have to go where your audience goes.

Kotzen: You’ve got to accept the time you’re living in. You can’t live in the past, right? I mean, I still have some CDs lying around, but they’re out in the garage, all boxed up. I like to have stuff accessible. And since I’m often traveling on planes or in a car, I think streaming is a great technology that lets me take everything with me.

Mettler: Good point. I was looking at your numbers on Spotify, and three of your solo tracks have over 1 million listens each — “Stand Tall” is at 1.8 million, with “Go Faster” and “So Cold” pretty close to that number, and “You Can’t Save Me” right behind them at over 990,000 — so the streaming audience definitely likes what you’re doing.

Kotzen: Well, that’s interesting. “You Can’t Save Me” [from 2006’s Into the Black] and “Go Faster” [from 2007’s Go Faster] make sense, but the fact that “Stand Tall” [from 2015’s Cannibals] has almost 2 million is insane to me. It was a throwaway, so I can’t believe people are listening to that one!

Mettler: You’ll have to contact Spotify to find out why that’s the top track.

Kotzen: There are songs like “Remember” [from 2004’s Get Up], “Fooled Again” [from 2007’s Go Faster], and obviously “You Can’t Save Me” that seem to get the most response — the most action, so to speak — but, hey, that all looks good. That’s still my song, so I’ll take it.

Mettler: You’re literally a virtual success there. People respond to what you’re doing.

Kotzen: (laughs heartily) That’s great. It’s cool. I like it.

Mettler: To wrap things up, how do you feel about your overall success level on Salting Earth? Do you feel you nailed what you wanted to achieve with it?

Kotzen: What I did was, I had the record finished last summer. It was pretty much done and mixed, and then I took some time off, and I stepped back and did some other things. Before I came back and listened to it at the end of the year, I said to myself, “If I’m excited about it when I come back to it, I’m going to put it out.” And I was, and I didn’t modify anything. So I’m thrilled to have it out there now.