Author Jake Brown: Why Literacy Is Something That Always Needs To Be A Priority
…Hmmm… I don’t like to wade into those kinds of waters too much, sharing personal political or social views, I would say LITERACY is something that ALWAYS needs to be a priority, it’s such a basic in our society that is amazingly still one of the most lacking basic skills among so many. So that would absolutely be one I’m safe saying I’d like to make Universal. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of my books show up over the year in both the public and prison library systems, and that’s one place I hope they’ve made a difference in getting someone interested in reading. But I love audiobooks too, and am luck to record series like Doctors of Rhythm, Beyond the Beats, Scientists of Sound, Prince in the Studio and Behind the Boards: Nashville for Blackstone Audio, in case you’re more interested in listening to books than reading them.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jake Brown. Jake Brown has just hit the 50 book milestone! His published catalog includes books with bands/artists about the making of their hits/albums via series like NASHVILLE SONGWRITER, IN THE STUDIO, BEYOND THE BEATS and his latest book BEHIND THE BOARDS: NASHVILLE, as well as memoirs. Highlights include living guitar legend JOE SATRIANI, country music legend Freddy Powers, etc. He read audiobooks for Blackstone Audio, including BEHIND THE BOARDS: NASHVILLE Vol. 1 & 2, which are out now, and PRINCE IN THE STUDIO: The Hits 1977–1994, which comes out at Christmas.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
I wish I could say it was my plan from childhood but I’d be lying. My writing career is very much a happy accident, I was a musician throughout my entire childhood, piano, drums, bass, guitar, etc, and I came from an amazingly open home to listening to whatever I wanted to really, my parents were very cool in that way. As an ear player, I really absorbed those records musically, and MANY of those bands and producers are who I have made a career out of writing books with because I’m really just celebrating the music of my childhood. Growing up in the 1980s was an amazing experience in that way, as you heard so many styles of music on the Top 10 together, from Dance and Pop to Alternative and New Wave to Rap and R&B to Rock and Metal, etc. So that’s the muse I write from, and have been very fortunate that so many new generations of fans with streaming and live touring have continued to discover these bands and therein have an interest in reading about how their favorite records and greatest hits were made. With my latest book, Behind the Boards: Nashville, for instance, one of our favorite features is that synchronized digital multi-media experience where you can stream along to the songs or records you’re reading about being created in the studio, its very interactive, and with the e-book or even audiobook, which has 2 volumes, you’re covered if you’re more of a listener vs. reader. With 600 pages, 30 of Country Music’s most legendary producers and over 300 # 1 hits, we hope everybody’s covered.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Hmmm… Too many to pick just one, this will be a mix of favorite moments and stories:
1. Hearing from Eddie Kramer that Jimi Hendrix hated having people watching him record his lead vocals, and because of that, put newspaper up on all the glass windows of the vocal booth so no one could watch as he recorded.
2. Interviewing childhood heroes like John Mellencamp and Jon Bon Jovi for Kenny Aronoff’s book so I could tell them what a huge influence their music and seeing them live had on me as a kid. My mom took my brother, aunt and I to see Bon Jovi and had side-of-stage seats so I got to watch everything going on backstage and had my proverbial Ed Sullivan/Beatles moment that I was going to work in the record business as a career, period. Then John Mellencamp was such an enormous influence on me as a songwriter as I started trying to do that growing up in St. Louis, those were fun moments.
3. John Fogerty telling me “40 Books! Okay, wow, I’m impressed,” and allow me to use it as a quote on my website. ☺ I grew up on CCR like so many millions of rock fans, and then the opportunity to interview/profile Doug ‘Cosmo’ Clifford in Vol. 1 of BEYOND THE BEATS: Rock & Roll’s Greatest Drummers Speak! book.
4. Tony Brown telling me about his 48-hour rescue operation recording a 2nd version of “How Do I Live” from the CON AIR Soundtrack, reflective of just how amazingly talented these record producers are working at that elite level. He saved the day, put the recording session together in 24 hours, had Jerry Bruckheimer wired in from Hollywood into the live studio recording session, and Tony had strings done by Ronn Huff, and had Trisha Yearwood deliver a vocal that became an iconic soundtrack to the ending of the film where Nicholas Cage reunites with his family all in 48 hours. It was cinematic, and is in the book among hundreds of great stories!
5. The Death Row Chronicles BET 6-part docu-series that aired in 2018. I was fortunate as to be the biographer-of-record for that whole special and was featured in all 6 episodes, the when it aired, I was sitting there watching like everyone else and got the SHOCK of my life when back-to-back with my interview excerpts, SUGE KNIGHT was speaking in a secret interview the producers had conducted with him while in LA County Jail supposedly on a gag order to give no interviews. So it was just surreal to watch that as it was kind of a full-circle moment from that being the first book I ever had published — through Amber Books in 2001 — so to then seeing him confirming a lot of what we had in that book in his own words for the first time, etc. It was wild. That’s still to date the only memoir on Suge Knight, and I’m proud of that distinction because that book still holds up, and believe me, there’s been some in a catalog of 50 books that I cringe looking back at 15 years later (R. Kelly, would be one example I wish I’d never done. ☺)
6. Writing a book with a former adult film star of some notoriety, Jasmin St. Claire, which came out back in the 2000s, that one by its very nature was an adventure in writing.
7. Working with the Tupac Shakur estate, and specific his mother Afeni Shakur, on the TUPAC: In the Studio book, where I had the honor of interviewing Johnny J in his one and only extensive book interview on his record-making process, and the late, great Big Syke from Thug Life. I have an updated version of that book coming in the next couple years that has a whole bunch of new producer/engineer interviews about the studio years and post-humous catalog, including his brother Mopreme Shakur. Being such a huge 2Pac fan growing up and in my young 20s before he died, it was just an honor to write that book.
8. Working with living guitar legend JOE SATRIANI for 3 years on his STRANGE BEAUTIFUL MUSIC: A MUSICAL MEMOIR, which came out in hard cover in 2014 through BenBella Books and then had a paperback update in 2017, Joe’s just such a gentleman of the profession and by far was one of the high points of my career and catalog to work with him. One of my top 2 or 3 best so far.
9. Writing the NASHVILLE SONGWRITER book series, which put many of the unsung heroes of Country Music in the spotlight comprehensively for the first time in a book series. We told their back stories, how they discovered and developed as songwriters, the stories behind their greatest hits, etc. Country music lyrics have a very unique pedigree of reflecting the everyday lives of the listeners in their hits, and many of these songwriters draw their inspiration for many of what have become Country’s biggest hits over the past 40 years. Its been an honor to write that series for the past 8 years, and to continue with NS III, which has 30 more songwriting legends. There’s lots of great advice on the craft and business of songwriting woven within those chapter interviews too, so its just a luck series to write all-around.
10. Hmm, lastly for the moment, I’d have to say the trip it always is to see a book you’ve written printed in a different language where I’ve been lucky throughout my catalog to be published around the world, in Japan for instance with Beyond the Beats through Yamaha and Prince in the Studio through DU Books, the UK publishers I’ve written for for Motorhead, AC/DC, Iron Maiden and Tom Waits: in the Studio, Lemmy’s Motorhead in the Studio was also published in France and Italy, Rick Rubin was published in both North America and Italy, and there’s other examples. Its always fun when you think other music fans in other parts of the world who were influenced by or fans of those artists I’m writing with or about are reading about them.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
LITERARY AGENTS. I’ve had a couple really good ones, a couple so/so ones and some REALLY bad ones! As an author just starting out, you really need a literary agent to help get your book on the desk of the right acquisitions editors at diff publishing houses, and so it’s inevitable you’re going to give up 15% right off the top, and they may be worth every penny but then they may not. So it’s very important to do your research before you sign anything, both in terms of checking out the latest placement section and newly sold titles of their agency website, then cross-referencing those publishers/titles to see what kind of books they publish, caliber of company, etc before you sign anything or sell your book to a publisher.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Yeah, I had a few lol. Even if you get an advance upon selling a book, most writers work on spec, which means you’re working up front without compensation — say in the case of a memoir for a couple years sometime — so when you’re fronting your own costs, and say are young in the business and trying to rack up as many authorized collaborations as possible, you can wind up working on book projects that for whatever reason don’t get picked up by a publisher and you wind up in the hole to yourself. That’s why it’s important to be smart about every new book project you take on, and to try and make sure you have a publisher attached as early on as possible so you have a support system beyond just an agent. It’s a tricky business to make a living in, even after as long as I’ve been doing it. But yeah it would have been taking on certain projects that looking back now I wouldn’t have. I’ve been lucky that about 85% of the book projects I’ve taken on over the past 2 decades have found publishers, but I’ve had a couple that didn’t too. ☺ So always have multiple irons in the fire, but be careful about which you take on.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
As touched on above, my guiding philosophy is always have multiple irons in the fire… Even in my mid-40s, I try to keep 2 or 3 projects going. Right now, I’m working on a memoir with the family who ran the summer camp I attended for 5 years as a kid, Forty Legends, which is a personal highlight, then as I mentioned, there’s NASHVILLE SONGWRITER III, the 2nd volume of BEYOND THE BEATS, which features 30 more drummers, including the beat-keepers from The Police, The Clash, Iron Maiden, Steve Ray Vaughan, Huey Lewis and the News, Santana, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, etc. and an update to The Spree of ’83: The Life and Times of Freddy Powers, which features Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, which is presently in film development too. We finished the screenplay last year and are currently held up a bit because of the Covid shut-down on that one, but are excited about getting that project into production in 2021. Then there’s a book coming up sometime in the next year or so I co-wrote with Tomiko Dixon and the Willie Dixon estate, so that should be pretty cool for Blues fans.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
There are again too many to just list one, both because each of the 30 producers interviewed in the book have all lead equally-as-fascinating lives that led them into the business of record production. Some came to Nashville to be stars, some started out as session players for other stars and producers and learned the ropes from the best that way, others were songwriters who by virtue of being what today are commonly referred to as “track guys” — like Ross Copperman, Zach Crowell, Ray Riddle, Luke Laird, Chris DeStefano and others interviewed in the book who are multi-instrumental and can play all the instruments on a song themselves a session band would normally have to- they became producers almost by default. Every one of these amazingly-talented, multi-platinum scientists of sound has their own approach and method to the way they make hit records, but they all are interesting so I’d have to say all of them, vs one specific story. The book was sort of written by design that way so if you more wanted to read just about your favorite country stars and how their greatest hits went down in the studio, how Tim McGraw sang “Live Like You Were Dying” or Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert dueted on the studio on “Somethin’ Bad” or how Jimmy Buffett’s masterpiece “Margaritaville” was constructed, and boy was that a project, we have you covered — no matter the generation of star.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
Just how remarkably-talented these masters of music making are, from the raw instinct they have to have about what makes a record sound right for fans to the art of actually bringing that sound from their head to life in the studio. Nashville has a very unique system of record making, it begins in the music publishing houses on Music Row with the songwriters that write most of the country hits that then go out to the song-pluggers, label heads and then producers and ultimately the artists who make them # 1 hits on the charts. For instance, George Strait’s producer Tony Brown recalled listening to between 2000 and 3000 songs for each new 15-track studio album, same range for Tim McGraw, Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and other superstars whose catalog are covered in the book. It’s an incredible synergy that really the producer has to keep moving like an Oz behind the curtain, so to speak, from dealing with the labels, managers, publishers, songwriters, session players, the artist, and so forth song after song for year after year if they hang around as long as many of these guys have.
One remarkable thread that wove commonly throughout this book — and country uniquely compared to other genres — were the career-long collaborations between say a Tim McGraw and Byron Gallimore, or Jason Aldean and Michael Knox or Jeff/Jody Stevens and Luke Bryan, or Miranda Lambert and Frank Liddell or Brad Paisley and Frank Rogers, both of whom worked together with their respective artists for 15+ years and the bulk of their greatest hits catalog, or Kenny Chesney and Buddy Cannon, or Buddy and Willie Nelson over the past 15 years, or Dann Huff and Keith Urban, Taylor Swift and Nathan Chapman, Moe Bandy and Ray Baker, Dave Cobb & Chris Stapleton or Shooter Jennings, Ray Riddle and Smo, or Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne’s work with Midland, or Ross Copperman and Dierks Bentley, Jesse Frasure and Thomas Rhett, Don Cook and Brooks & Dunn. Then you had giants like Paul Worley, who signed/produced the Dixie Chicks, The Band Perry, Big & Rich and perhaps biggest of all, Lady A, Josh Leo, who produced Alabama and the Nitty Gritty Band but was also a label head, signing Martina McBride and other stars, or James Stroud, who ran Dreamworks Nashville and then the great Clint Black — who co-produced or produced his entire catalog was a totally different path that, like all of these producers, traveled their own paths to wind up in the same spots behind the boards. Bobby Braddock takes fans back to the start of Blake Shelton’s career, and legendary mixer Justin Niebank pulls the curtains back on the finishing touches any of many of the hundreds of country music hits go through before they hit radio. The same commitment to excellence runs through the pedigree of all of these producers that made them the biggest in the business.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
Hmmm, there’s more than 5. There are all kinds of other little things that are more small warning signs to look out for along those same lines when selling a book: think about the book’s marketing while you’re writing it (who is your target audience, etc); have a really solid book proposal where you can articulate clearly for prospective publishers who that target audience is, which will make a publisher feel better about the $ they’ll be investing in your book, both in the pressing and promotion, if they publish it; if you have the budget, even independent of the publisher, hire your own publicist, especially if you’re a first-time author as you’ll need all the press you can get in your specific medium, and more generally as an newbie author if you have hopes of building a name among a reading audience. They have to hear about your book, and I tell new authors whenever asked about this expense that while yes, most publishers have an in-house publicist, they are like a social worker with 30 cases stacked up on their desk, and only so much time to devote to your book, so you have to be your own greatest advocate, and that means also surrounding yourself with the right team of advocates, from the agent to the publisher to your editor at that publishing house to the publicist and so forth as you try to get your book out in front of a reading audience. That hasn’t changed in 20 years for me.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
I don’t like the word “GREAT” writer, but I’m a working writer, which is how you keep doing it as a career so rule # 1 is ALWAYS BE WRITING. Always be looking for new book titles, concepts, etc that haven’t been done before. For instance, I’ve been fortunate to have several series in my catalog, the trademarked IN THE STUDIO being one example with 15 books including books I co-wrote with Ann and Nancy Wilson and HEART, Lemmy Kilmister and MOTORHEAD, the 2Pac Shakur estate, and that covers a huge stylistic array from Tom Waits and Tori Amos to AC/DC and Iron Maiden, Dr. Dre and Rick Rubin, etc. Or BEYOND THE BEATS, which is my Rock Drummers series, book one featured interviews with 12 of the biggest in the world, including Aerosmsith, Metallica, Motley Crue, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Guns N Roses, Foo Fighters, Jane’s Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins, Journey, Creedence Clearwater Revival, etc. NASHVILLE SONGWRITER has been a signature one for me with country reading audiences, featuring 60 of the biggest hit songwriters in Country between the first two books, and there’s a third volume of that coming in the Fall of 2021 that has another 30, including legends like Sonny Throckmorton, Clint Black, Kinky Friedman, Bobby Braddock, etc. BEHIND THE BOARDS is another lucky example, there’s 2 previously-published books Hal Leonard put out that focused on profiling many of the great rock producers from across the ages. So I’ve been very lucky to write across the stylistic spectrum with a really great collection of collaborators from the stage and behind-the-scenes sides of the record-making process.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
Hmmm… I don’t actually, I write so much that the authors I do read are really for the purposes of escaping from the kind of books I write, so Lawrence Block’s Keller Hitman series, John Grisham, I’m a HUGE Elmore Leonard fan, that kind of fiction.
Suppose the scenario where you’re a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Hmmm… I don’t like to wade into those kinds of waters too much, sharing personal political or social views, I would say LITERACY is something that ALWAYS needs to be a priority, it’s such a basic in our society that is amazingly still one of the most lacking basic skills among so many. So that would absolutely be one I’m safe saying I’d like to make Universal. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of my books show up over the year in both the public and prison library systems, and that’s one place I hope they’ve made a difference in getting someone interested in reading. But I love audiobooks too, and am luck to record series like Doctors of Rhythm, Beyond the Beats, Scientists of Sound, Prince in the Studio and Behind the Boards: Nashville for Blackstone Audio, in case you’re more interested in listening to books than reading them.
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Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!