Several of this year’s Grammy Award artists share something in common regarding how they went about creating their hugely successful records: They released the demo.
“Sacrilege,” you say? How can a hit record be born out of a casual and un-worried-over “demo?”
Oh, and here’s another thing: An off-the-cuff demo can only become a hit if the artist is talented, driven, ambitious, impassioned, and savvy enough to know when greatness has joined the party. Furthermore, these lightning strikes cannot be replicated by the amount of time spent laboring over the track, the use of expensive and sonically transcendent gear, or the grand illusion of good luck descending upon you.
Sam Smith and his writing partners were not having a productive day. No ideas. They took a break, got some pizza, and Smith opened up about some deep personal thing—including his sex life. From those real feelings came “Stay with Me.” Written and recorded entirely in just a few hours, they laid down some simple piano and organ parts, and a basic drum pattern. Smith did all the lead and choir background vocals. It was the very first time he’d ever sung the song.
His record company—being a record company—sent the song around to many different people to make the “finished” production, but, ultimately, the demo held the passion and could not be topped. That demo is the finished record that jumpstarted a career I predict will last a very long time. Now that’s soul power!
Hozier dropped out of a prestigious college in Dublin, Ireland, because he thought his time would be better spent writing songs. All he had to work with was a piano, and some very simple recording equipment tucked away in his parent’s attic.
Then, magic happened.
He “fumbled around,” and came up with the chorus to “Take Me to Church.” He ran upstairs and recorded a rough track, singing right then the intense vocals that quickly won him millions of fans worldwide. In this case, instruments were added later, but that raw and powerful voice—recorded literally with toys in the attic—was his ticket to stardom.
Country artist Eric Church showed up at his producer’s studio talking about a new song. The producer was smart, so he handed Church a guitar, and asked to hear it. Church began playing, and the engineer hit the red button—just to test the recording levels. Listening back, they heard only part of the intro—as the engineer hadn’t quite hit Record in time—and some noises in the room, but they also experienced the sensation of nerve endings registering bliss.
Church’s very first time performing “The Outsiders” fit the emotional piece he wrote. They re-recorded the song a few more times, but nothing happened that matched the tremendous vibe of that first take. So, “warts and all,” that version is the rendition that made it to the album and to the Grammys. Magic trumps all. Or, put another way: People won’t believe in your performance if you don’t believe what you are putting out.
Stay honest. Stay real. Stay passionate. Or stay home.
Scott Mathews is a record producer, composer, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist whose music has sold in excess of 40 million units, and has generated more than 30 RIAA Gold and Platinum Awards in the pop, alternative rock, R&B, country, blues and dance genres.