November 02, 2012

Adam Anders and the Tao of Glee

Adam Anders

As the Executive Music Producer for the monolithic hit Glee, ASCAP member Adam Anders arranges and oversees all of the show's musical productions and best-selling soundtrack recordings. In 2012, he also had the "privilege" of helping superstar actors find their singing voices for the film adaptation of Rock of Ages. Add to that Anders' rotating list of high-profile writing/production gigs, and his brand new label Deep Well Records, and you've got the busiest man in music. A few weeks into Glee's fourth season, Anders took a breather to reflect on his career.


To do what you do you need to have a pretty epic knowledge of the pop and rock music canon. Tell me about your past as a music fan.

A lot of the music I love most, actually, I had to go backwards to discover because it was kind of before my time, or before the time that I really got into music. I remember, like, 1984 is when I really discovered music. It was Toto IV, the record that got me all excited. And then I just became a huge fan of all styles of music. I never wanted to be pinned down to one specific genre or style, even throughout my career. Which hurt me at times, but with a show like Glee, obviously it's a huge asset. I studied jazz bass, so jazz was a big influence; my parents were classical musicians, so I had that foundation. But rock 'n roll is kind of what I loved the most. And that went back to The Stones or Dylan, the Beatles and Toto and more modern stuff. '80s stuff was a huge influence but…if it was good I loved it.

When you first started creating music of your own, did you lean more towards songwriting or producing?

Definitely songwriting. You know, when you're young and you're making music...I didn't even know I could make a living producing, honestly, I just always wrote songs. I remember writing my first song when I was eight or nine years old, and it just kind of came naturally, and so that's just something I did. And then I started studying music and studying bass. That was what opened the door into the business for me, was as a bass player. And even at that time, when I was learning bass and studying, I didn't think I'd make a living as a bass player. So it was just kind of an organic thing, and then you start making a living as a bass player and doing sessions and then going "Well, I can do that…" I grew up making records with my brother and my family and didn't know I was producing all along…I just didn't know it. So then when you get into the business and see other producers working, you realize "I kind of already do that and I wanna do that, too." So that was not my dream, to be a producer. My dream was to do music, and for me that meant writing songs and singing and playing whatever I could get my hands on.

Was there ever a dream of being an artist with your own name or your own band?

There was, yeah. That's really how it started. My brother and sister and I had a band starting when I was 10 years old, actually…very embarrassing. But we had a couple albums out in Europe, and toured. I did a 40-city tour when I was 11, without my parents. So we did that whole Hanson thing, or whatever you wanna call it, the Swedish version. That was what I knew. My dad was a recording artist, so I saw that. When I moved to Nashville after I studied music, and was looking for a record deal, we were getting older and that kind of fizzled out. My bass playing career took off and now, flash forward…

My wife and I have an artist thing called Room for Two. We have a record deal with Curb/Warner Bros. So that artist side has always been there, but it just seems like other things have taken off instead. And I'm fine with that. You kind of go through the doors that open.

Now let's follow up on the Room for Two thing. After I first heard "Roots Before Branches" on the most recent Glee soundtrack, I was totally delighted to find out that you guys have your own version of it and it's been around for years.

That was our first single as Room for Two, my wife and I. And you know, she was a big Christian recording artist, had a lot of success, and then we actually met working on her solo album for Tommy Mottola when he was at Columbia. So we started writing together and have written ever since we met, and Room for Two was kind of a product of her and I sitting in our apartment in Manhattan writing songs together. "Roots Before Branches" was the catalyst of that whole thing. So it was really special for us that that was in the season finale, 'cause that was an important song to us. We'd had some trials and some bad years and that song came out of all that for us. But yeah, that single went Top 10 AC, and then they didn't release the record, so here we are [laughs].

It also just happened to fit perfectly with that scene in Glee, too.

Yeah, it did. And, you know, having seen the script, and knowing it was coming, it just felt appropriate. It was actually my wife's idea: "You need to send this to [Glee director] Ryan Murphy…" I always hesitate to do that. I'm like "Eh, you know, whatever…" but that one felt right; we did, and he flipped out and loved it. It became this whole thing.

How much input do you have over which songs are chosen for Glee?

Not that much, honestly. It's very organic the way they do it. In the writing room they insert songs and move the story forward as they're writing scripts more often than not, and I think Ryan Murphy has the final say on every single song. And then he'll come to me from time to time - "I need an idea for this scene." Or more often than not he'll say "I need to mash something up with this song. Help me!" Stuff like that. But as a rule, when the scripts come out, there're songs in there.

Are there ever times when the writers come to you with their finished script with the song ideas and you think to yourself "Oh, I hate that song?"

There are, but I'd have to kill you if I told you which songs they were [laughs]. There're definitely those moments, but you know what, that's part of doing the job and being professional…music is relative, you know? One man's turd is another man's gold. It's just the way it is in the music business. I might not like something, but other people connect with it, so it is what it is, and you do the best job on that song anyway.

How do you move forward with that? Do you just analyze what it is about the song that you think you can improve on, or is it just like approaching any other song that you're asked to produce?

I think that that all comes from how the song is used. It's really important to try and make sure it fits the moment. And sometimes we don't have that much to go with. Sometimes we're starting songs before the final scene is set, 'cause scripts are changing all the time. When we have a lot of the finished script to go by, then we really can dig in and go "Okay, what's the best way to approach this song here?" Sometimes that means a reinvention; other times, the original is the most appropriate. It just depends. But then there're other songs where you feel like, "We're pretty much doing it like the original, but I think we could tweak this and it'd work better for our purposes." So it's really organic, and it's a case-by-case thing. It's very fluid.

When you're arranging or producing, how do you strike that balance between recreating the original in a recognizable way and turning it into something that fits the project?

There's no magic pill, honestly. I was actually talking to Ryan Murphy about this recently: I feel what people fell in love with about Glee was being inspired. They heard these versions, and a lot of times we would add in like this huge choir arrangement to a song that never had that, and it inspired people. I think at the end of the day that's what I wanna do. So when I take a song and I see a scene, it's like "What can we do to this to make people feel something?" Hopefully [the audience] will feel the right emotion that then connects them to the scene. I think that's when we have the homeruns, is when everything clicks together. Obviously that works better some times than others, but we've had a pretty good success rate doing that.

You have so many audiences when you're producing a song - your directors, the fans of the show or film that you're working on, the fans of the original song if you're doing a cover, and of course yourself. Who do you care most about pleasing when you're working on a production or arrangement?

Ryan Murphy [laughs]. At the end of the day, he's who I have to make happy. It's his show and I work for him, and he's brilliant, and I know that if he loves something then it's the right vibe for what he's going for. 'Cause he knows how he's gonna shoot it, he knows what it's gonna look like more than I do, so if I can tap into whatever he's feeling and wanting to hear then it's gonna work. Sometimes we're doing songs that my friends have written, which is kind of awkward - you're like "Oh man, I hope he doesn't call me and go 'You suck!'"

Other times, you're doing songs from your favorite artists. I've gotten to know Gwyneth Paltrow a little bit and I told her "It's great meeting you and all, but I'm really just using you to get to your husband" [laughs]. But, yeah, when I do something with Coldplay, I know he's gonna hear it. He's like my favorite artist right now, so that adds a little extra pressure.

What would you say is your favorite reworking of a song that you've ever done?

Well, it's hard to top "Don't Stop Believin'." It kinda started the whole thing, and that catapulted the whole show forward, so that was obviously a great one. We've done so many songs it's hard for me to even think of one. Let me think here…I like what we did with "I Want to Hold Your Hand," the Beatles song.

How about the most radical reworking - the one where you took it furthest out from where it was?

That was pretty radical what we did with "I Want to Hold Your Hand" or "Teenage Dream," which was a cappella. Things like that. I don't know if we're ever setting out to do anything radical. I think "Without You" last year, which went #1. I was driving in Santa Monica, and I heard the David Guetta version of "Without You." It's an up-tempo dance track, and I heard it as a piano ballad in my head for Lea [Michele]. That was radical, and even Ryan thought I was crazy. That was one of the times he had asked me for song suggestions for Rachel's comeback song in the show, 'cause she was gone for a few episodes. I was like "I think this is gonna be incredible," and he's like "You're crazy." But then, again, to his credit he knows when to give you a long leash. He let me try it, and it turned out great.

It's amazing to me that your Glee covers of recent hits become top-sellers in their own right. That's something that hasn't really happened much since the sixties, when you'd have Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and other acts recording hit versions of the same song within a span of just a year or two. Do you think your work could lead to a shift in how we think about cover songs?

Yes and no. I mean, I don't think you can do it this close together unless you have a vehicle like Glee. I don't think it would make any sense for a Rihanna to cover Justin Bieber within three months, you know? But I think maybe it'll inspire people to do a completely different version. You even see it a lot, honestly, on YouTube and stuff, people doing their own versions of songs. And that's launched careers. That would probably be the closest thing I can think of that's going on right now. Look, covers are powerful; you already know the song, and then you bring a new twist to it. It does something.

I hadn't even thought about the YouTube thing. Maybe that's replacing the notion of the cover song. You'll have Carly Rae Jepsen coming out with "Call Me Maybe," and then within a few weeks have that video of Katy Perry dancing around and singing it.

Yeah, it's pretty amazing. The new social media world is a whole different thing.

How does your job on Glee compare to what you got to do with Rock of Ages? Is it the same roster of tasks or are they dramatically different?

They're pretty different. First of all, Rock of Ages was a two-plus year project versus Glee, where you have a sense of completion every ten days. I did the score on Rock of Ages, too, which was totally different. And with movies, until it's in the theater it's never locked. You're constantly changing and changing and changing. We don't have that luxury in Glee -whatever my first instinct is is what we go with, and we're done. We just have to lock it, mix it and air it. It's a very different experience that way. You have time to perfect in a different way in a movie, but you also have time to screw it up [laughs].

Sometimes your first instinct is proven to be a good instinct. We've banged stuff out on Glee, and if we had a year on each episode I don't think it would be better - it would just be a little different. So that's a different feel. We mix on Fridays, and you've got this countdown. You've gotta get this stuff done.

And then I did Cee Lo Green's Christmas album this summer. That's a completely different thing than [Glee and Rock of Ages]. Every project brings a different set of challenges and opportunities.

With Glee, you're working with people that were cast partly because they're great singers. And of course Cee Lo is a marvelous vocalist. But with Rock of Ages that wasn't necessarily the case - you're working with actors that aren't all known for their vocal prowess. Who was the most challenging to whip into shape, and what did you have to do to get everyone to in top form?

You know, Tom Cruise was the big challenge in the movie, and the big triumph as far as I'm concerned. This is a guy who'd never sung in his life, and he took on this monster task of becoming this rock star. It was pretty amazing seeing where we started and seeing where we ended up with that process. I'd go to his house almost every day for about three months and work with him on these songs. It was an incredible transformation, but the guy is obviously hugely talented, and we were fortunate that he had an incredible voice. He just wasn't a singer; he didn't know how to sing yet. So that became the task. He's worked so hard, and just committed 110%, so he came the furthest from point A to point B. It was really, really rewarding for him and me.

But then there were others. Julianne Hough's a singer, Diego Boneta's a singer, but it was tough to help them find their rock voice, 'cause Julianne's a country singer and Diego was a pop guy, a boy band guy. So that was a challenge, too, and then it was a challenge to stop laughing hysterically while recording Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin. So they were all completely different, but it was an amazing experience, honestly, all of them. It seems like the bigger the star the harder they work. I guess there's a reason they're such big stars, 'cause they just give you everything they have. They were really, really great to work with.

Were there certain songs that you had to alter significantly to fit the singer's vocal style or register?

You always want to take the key that works the best for whoever's singing, but that becomes very, very difficult on ensemble songs. We have the same problem on Glee; if you have guys and girls singing melody, you have a problem. And you know, sometimes it's hard to get the writers to understand that, because they want a guy character to sing this line and then they want a female character to sing this line. They need to sing in completely different keys for it to fit them, so that becomes my challenge: how do I make this work for everybody? Other than that, when it's just a solo with somebody, you pick the perfect key for them and you're off and running.

That's that balance we have to find, because you might find a perfect key for someone but then that song loses its magic in that key - it gets too dark. When you lower something it gets darker; if you raise it it gets brighter. Some songs need to be bright and some need to be dark. You lose energy when you lower a song, so that's part of our dilemma and our daily challenge on Glee, and same on Rock of Ages. We did a three-song mashup to open that movie. It was a monster, and pretty much everybody sang in it, but we were able to do it without changing keys at any point. And you look back through history. Hairspray is a good example - they change the key every five seconds on some of the songs to try and make that work. So it's no easy task.

It must almost become a part of the sonic wallpaper for something like Hairspray, where the disjointedness of all the key changes becomes part of it.

Yeah, I think it does. I know on the song "You Can't Stop the Beat," which we actually covered on Glee, [Hairspray composer] Marc Shaiman told me that those key changes weren't supposed to be there but they had to just figure out a way to keep changing keys so that everybody could sing their verses. It just had become part of the composition. I don't have that luxury, 'cause I didn't write these songs 99% of the time. And you'll see there's a song actually out now, "The Scientist," which hopefully Chris Martin doesn't have me killed for putting modulation in there. It's something we had to do.

You'll find out how he feels about it. Just ask Gwyneth!

Yeah, if she'll speak to me again.

You've got a new record label with your wife, Nikki Anders. Where did the inspiration came from, and what are you hoping to do with it?

I think it all came out of mentoring. As you know Nikki's on The Glee Project, mentoring kids on that, and I think we just ran into these talented kids that we thought we could help. And as you start going through those motions, you start to realize we can actually be a label, we can actually help them more than we thought. It just kind of organically grew from that. Shane [Harper] was the first one we found, and Zac Poor and Ben Burgess, and then Caitlin Crosby. The roster keeps growing, and it's really fun to be able to mentor these young artists that we think are amazing. They're all different styles and genres, we don't care. We just see what we can do to help them. So I never really set out to have a label as much as "Hey, let's see what we can do to help you, 'cause we think you're good." It just grew from there. So now it's a full-on label, through Craig Kallman and Atlantic and ADA distribution. It's just been great.

Why did you join ASCAP, and how is ASCAP's mission important to the work that you do?

You know, it's one of the classic tales of deciding what society collects better for you in the world that you live in musically, and who can better serve your business interests, with your catalog and your music. Who you can trust to collect on that, and to handle that for you in the best way. At the time, I just felt ASCAP was the place I should go. I didn't even know anybody at ASCAP when I went over there, and you know, it's been a great relationship. I've gotten to know people there and we love it. Honestly, it was just a business decision originally and now it's become personal. But I just think ASCAP does it the way it's supposed to be done. They don't show favoritism, and they just pay you what your supposed to get paid and they take care of the writers if you're small or big time. I haven't felt any difference between now and when I was struggling. It's been the same amount of support, and that means a lot to me.


Read more about Adam Anders at

Visit the Deep Well Records website at

Glee season 4 is under way. Glee out at