June 15, 2011

Manhattan Motown

By Erik Philbrook

Scott Jacoby

Scott Jacoby

Songwriter/producer/engineer Scott Jacoby nurtures a new label and studio in Manhattan

By Erik Philbrook

Borrowing liberally from Greek and Latin roots, the word "Eusonia" means "home of good music." And that is exactly what Grammy Award-winning songwriter, producer and engineer Scott Jacoby has built in New York City's Flatiron neighborhood with Eusonia, his independent record label and studio. As his website declares, "at Eusonia, art comes before commerce, innovation before mimicry, integrity before celebrity, music before everything."

In today's music business environment, such a simple credo can be groundbreaking. Indeed, Eusonia's first release, This Much is True, an album by earthy pop/soul songstress Maiysha, nabbed a 2008 Grammy nomination for Best Urban/Alternative performance.

Jacoby, who was a successful recording artist himself, has produced artists and written songs in all genres of popular music for record albums, TV and film; and his work has won awards and topped charts in several major countries throughout the world. His recent collaborations include those with John Legend, Vanessa Hudgens, Fabolous, Naturally 7, Vivian Green and Kane. But Jacoby is putting his heart and soul into making Eusonia a creative collective of artists, musicians and writers – much like the legendary Motown model.

Jacoby, who was a panelist at the recent ASCAP EXPO in LA talked to Playback about his career and his hopes for his new venture.

Most people when they discover music and want to make it, they chase it. You initially resisted a music career. Why is that?

I had been playing music since I was about 10 years old, and it was always my favorite thing. My philosophy was always, "Why take the thing that you like the most, and the thing that's your enjoyment in life, and then potentially ruin it by having other concerns surrounding it, commercial concerns, making a living concerns." So that was my thinking. I said that music would just remain pure; I wouldn't have to worry about writing hits or conforming in any kind of way, and just leave it that way.

So that's one side of it.The other side is that I wanted to pursue a career that more directly helped other people. That led me to medicine and I decided that that's where I would have a career. Then my two major reasons to keep music as a hobby both disappeared. I said to myself, "If something is the thing that I like the most, then there's no real reason why I shouldn't do that as a career." The second thing that happened was I got over this "Art is selfish" thing, and that wasn't too hard either once I thought about it more thoroughly. Because you can have a doctor who's a good or bad person doing good or bad things for humanity, and you can have a musician doing good or bad, and there's just as many people in music doing good things and humanitarian things. I think of examples such as Neil Young and Stevie Wonder, people who have advanced civilization, culture and have helped under-privileged people through their art. I thought, "If I'm going choose to be in the arts, and fortunate enough to have a career, then I'm going to do so in a way that keeps true to my beliefs."

When you did make that decision, it sounds like you wasted no time in pursuit of playing and recording music.

I didn't waste any time. I was 27, right when most people, if they've been in music, are sort of deep into their career because, conceivably, they've been doing it since they were 18. When I started, I really had no idea of how the music industry worked, or what I wanted to do in it. I initially tried to be a recording artist and initially wasn't successful in that although years later I was to some degree. And it was during the process of being a recording artist that I realized 1) how to make records and 2) actually what I was interested in was being Quincy Jones, or Phil Ramone or all of these producers that I looked up to.

I didn't really know what producing was until I started producing. I was like, "Oh, there's someone making a decision about the guitar part doing this, or the way that this thing sounds or someone is playing on an ash tray and that is becoming a pattern." When I listened to music from when I was really young, I know I was thinking like a producer, I just didn't know how to define what that was. When I realized that that was a distinct career, I was like, "Oh okay, these are areas that I'm really interested in."

To be a producer you have to give yourself over to someone else's vision. How do you feel about playing that role?

It's a really natural fit for me. I've had the opportunity to meet Phil Ramone and other great producers. Even though these people generally have very healthy egos, I think that in the context of their work they each have such a strong ego that it allows them not to have one. Also, this is a service-oriented profession in the sense that you're helping an artist to realize his or her vision. That's the producer's main job.

You've worked with a lot of artists across a wide range of musical styles. Why is that?

My parents were obviously interested in music, but there wasn't music playing. We had mother's helpers who would come in from all different parts of the world. They were of different races, sizes, socioeconomic status and exposed me to a lot of music. It just became very natural for me to feel comfortable exploring different musical forms.

What goes into your decision to work with an artist?

Good question. First of all there has to be that instinctual "I love this!" That's number one. Number two is that I like people who don't fit elsewhere or who don't fit in, I've always loved people who have either fallen through the cracks, or because of their eclecticism have been ignored. Or they are risk-takers. I've always been drawn to the black girl singing rock or the reverse of that. I'm always attracted to an artist who has something to say lyrically. And finally, their personality has to be right. That's what I've looked for.

There's so much talent, and particularly being in New York City, you can go out any single night of the week and see something on the merits of the music that you could conceivably want to sign. So you have to look for what makes a difference, and you have to choose wisely. You have to pick an artist who is self-motivated, because we know where the music industry is and we know the whole indentured servant model of a record label doesn't exist anymore. It's a very different thing. I view this much more as partnerships between an artist and a label, and to that end all of our deals are 50/50. Having been an artist myself, I just believe in that and I think it reinforces the partnership aspect of it. So as soon as you get your costs back, you just split the money. It's very simple.

One of the positive things that has come out of this whole music industry shake-up is now artists have more freedom to do what they want, and producers can create the sound that they really want to create, without chasing a pre-conceived idea of mass commercial tastes. What are your tastes in production?

As we talked about before, I'm very cognizant of the fact that I've gone in a way that's opposite to the flow of things, where people have become increasingly sort of enveloped by the digital world, where once something leaves the microphone and goes into whatever recording platform you're using, it pretty much stays there. Through the privilege of working with some of the truly great engineers of all time - producer/engineer/mixer Neil Dorfsman is a person who's become a very close friend and a mentor of sorts - I've really gotten an appreciation of the art of engineering and mixing and sort of the beauty of analog signal. And I think that the plug-ins and Pro Tools and like are absolutely incredible, and I think that they're amazing tools, but for me I still hear a difference between running stuff through good gear versus an emulation of that, and so I appreciate that. In terms of making records I've really gotten into the craft of it. And so through seeing these people and learning and becoming increasingly interested, I was like, "I'm interested in this, and I can hear the difference between if you stick a microphone here or you stick it there." I never called my self a mixer, but I started mixing my own stuff and I knew what I want it to sound like in the end, and thought, "Well there's really no reason why I shouldn't be a mixer." And these days, I have a tremendous amount of mixing work. Sometimes I'll just get projects, like today I'm working on something for Universal that someone else produced, and I'm just mixing it, which is something I couldn't have conceived of, years ago. And the joy for me is the analog aspect of it.

What inspired the formation of Eusonia?

My longtime management company had always encouraged me. They always said, "Scott, the way that you'll truly make your mark is to create a kind of Motown." That was ingrained in me and I believed that too.

Then I think the catalyst was in 2006 when four major label artists that I was working with all got dropped, and they were all very interesting artists who became friends who got dropped and were, in essence, "orphaned." So then I quickly got on it. I raised some money from friends and family and got Eusonia started in 2007.

What was your first step?

It was very clear that my first artist would be Maiysha. I had been working with her since 2002, and we had aspirations to get a record deal. We had a deal on the table with Blue Note Records, and then at the last minute, that got terminated. I was like, "Here's a record that I put a lot of love and time and care into, and I think it's great and deserves to be heard. And if there's no venue for this, there needs to be. I've always believed that when there's no opening, you create your own. So Maiysha was the first release, and that was a wonderful way to start this label. We got the Grammy nomination and a whole lot of wonderful attention for that record.

What's next for Eusonia?

Here we are three and a half years later and we're in the process of signing a whole bunch of new artists. I'm sort of thinking this is Eusonia 2.0. We've made our mark, established a brand, a logo, a sound, a personality, and we're ready for the next thing.