Making Records: David Baron

David Baron

Since its inception nearly a year ago, the Making Records series of conversations has attempted to shed light on the Hudson Valley as a hive of commercial recording facilities and audio professionals whose studios may be deep in the woods but whose place in the world of music is a little closer to the center of the action. Producers are, on the whole, a loquacious and thoughtful bunch. And they spend a lot of time alone. They have cheerfully welcomed me behind the curtain of music production, speaking with breadth and depth about the art, science and business of music and the musical climate of the Hudson valley.

In these conversations (of which this is the fifth), the name David Baron kept coming up, usually cited as an example of a Hudson Valley professional who is really killing it. The stats back it up. A Woodstock native who resettled here permanently in 2008, Baron is the child of a notable audio professional, Aaron Baron, an innovator in live and remote recording whose engineering credits include The Allman Brothers Band’s seminal At Fillmore East among many others. After studying music at Oberlin, the younger Baron partnered with his father in Baron and Baron, a successful New York City television scoring and audio post-production company.

As the market for television music faltered, Baron moved full-time into pop and rock music, scoring a signature early success as an integral contributor to Lenny Kravitz’ well-received 2001 record Lenny (the beginning of a lasting relationship). And from then on, it’s on. The Baron credit list across the new millennium looks like a veritable traffic jam of names you know, or will: Kravitz, The Lumineers, Shawn Mendez, Jade Bird, Shania Twain, Peter Murphy, Meghan Trainor and many more, including a number of nationally registering locals like Simi Stone, Fiona Glenn and Chris Maxwell.

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As producer, keyboardist, composer, and—this most of all—arranger, David Baron’s pawprints are all over the music of this moment. If the Hudson Valley has a house style — organic, roots leaning rock, folk, blues and jazz — Baron is one of only a handful of locals who is working far outside that earthy sweet spot, out in the strata of big budget pop. And yet it is not that simple. With his frequent co-producer Simone Felice, Baron is very much implicated in the ecstatic nouveau folk rock of this decade, the place where indie enthusiasms and major label pop meet in the figures of the Lumineers and Jade Bird, two successful practitioners of roots pop, or pop roots. 

He is a busy man. I felt fortunate to get some questions answered.

John Burdick: A generation of would-be classical composers — Korngold, Hermann, on and on — went instead into film composition and ultimately into pop arranging too, not just because the money was there but also because they weren’t feeling Schoenberg and the stringent rules that prevailed in 20-century serious music. As a result, even to this day, we get heavy cats like you architecting deliriously smart pop music, making it sneakily rich and savvy. Of all the heavy Hudson Valley recording professionals, you seem to be the one most involved in mainstage pop. I wonder if this is due primarily to your renown as an arranger. That is a traditional, high pop skill in a world where rock bands tend to arrange themselves unless they need a string quartet, and sometimes even then.

David Baron: I started in television scoring and branding and had the opportunity to work with every conceivable ensemble and budget. This was my training ground as an arranger. Pop music is all about an effective arrangement. It’s not like a band jamming out something. The elements are very deliberate — how you frame the song, when you add a beat, when you build with strings. The details matter. I love that challenge. I love putting songs together. Luckily, some of the songs have become successful. This allows me to keep doing what I love.

JB: You have worked straight through the decline in guitar-based pop and its purported resurgence. Any thoughts on that?

DB: Guitar will always have a place in pop music. It went from being the central ingredient to just one part of the recipe.

Pop music can be thought of as four things: vocals, rhythm, bass and special fx/arrangement. Guitar is in the special fx/arrangement category. Interestingly, I think piano is more popular than ever. Tons of huge current pop songs feature piano. I’m grateful for that as a pianist. I’d advise any budding pop student to study piano no matter what other instrument they play.

JB: You have recently finished a record of original solo piano music. The advance track from it, “The Han,” is an elegant piece that straddles pop song and Chopin miniature as if there were no significant difference. How did you find the time and the emotional space to do that? Did the production simplicity of that project appeal to you given the complexities of your usual work?

DB: I constantly compose music. I have a deep love for piano music. I own three pianos including a Steinway B grand piano in an acoustically expansive room overlooking the Ashokan Reservoir. I started recording original piano music in the cracks of my schedule. I ended up with a few hours of original piano compositions, which my label is whittling down to the very best. We will release the solo piano record on piano day, March 29. Nils Frahm spearheaded the day, and, luckily, he has also agreed to put “The Han” in his Spotify playlist for that day. It is very encouraging. There are a few tunes with a trio: Ben Perowsky on drums and Byron Issacs on standup bass.

I have to say I was surprised when Apple put “The Han” in a big playlist and it went top 20 classical on Apple two days after release. John Cunningham from Here and Now Recordings UK has believed in me from the beginning. He originally contacted me after Bat for Lashes “the Bride” was nominated for a Mercury Prize in the UK.

I did not think anyone would be listening to “The Han.” I had written it for myself and for my son Oskar, hoping he would appreciate that kind of music one day.

JB: Listening to “The Han” as well as to “Whisperers,” a chamber pop masterpiece you wrote with the young singer Fiona Glenn, I am curious who some of your favorite classical composers are and whether you feel you draw on that tradition directly or indirectly.

David Baron

DB: I love Debussy, Ravel and lot of impressionist music. I love music for dance: composers like Aaron Copland and Stravinsky. Bernard Herrman’s film scores and the Beatle’s arrangements all play into my inspiration. I listen to quite a bit of modern Neo-classical like Arvo Pärt, Ólafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm, music on the labels Erased Tapes and Mercury KX. Both the [Lumineers’ pianist] Jeremiah Fraites record I co-produced with Jeremiah and music I did with the incredibly talented artist Josin are on Mercury KX.

I love Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Erroll Garner, and Dave Brubeck. I do not consider myself a jazzer, but jazz/classical fuse into my style.

JB: Can you describe your working relationship with Simone Felice, the division of duties and focus, or whatever else makes it so fruitful and sustainable?

DB: Simone and I are the perfect team. He is a natural born A&R man. He loves songs and taking them apart: lyrics, form, presentation. We share a passion for emotional songs. I am a technical musician and engineer/programmer. I love the nitty gritty of parts and arrangement. What mics and compressors, what chords, harmonic movement and so forth. Simone has great taste. Production is all about taste and perspective. We love a lot of the same music. We work all day and then listen to music and sing loudly alone at night. We are basically like excited teenagers that get to do whatever they want. That’s probably why it is working so well.

JB:  Have you noticed disruptions (or accelerations!) in your business in the Covid era? Has there been a big impact on your working style?

DB: My music production business has never been busier. Artists that cannot tour want to record. I am also arranging a lot. We worked with Shania Twain at my studio on an upcoming record, then I ended up arranging a Christmas Song for her remotely. Work begets work. Artists always seem to return. It’s really great. You become wonderful friends.

I have also been working on film projects. I have been working on the follow-up project to Ashes and Snow (Gregory Colbert) for years. Gregory and I continue to work every month, but now remotely with musicians all over the world including our wonderful locals Jerry Marotta and Tony Levin. I scored an excellent feature documentary about PTSD in the military in the past few months as well.

JB: We have a concentration of recording facilities and professionals up here that is vastly disproportionate to population, and a pretty great pool of players too, from that Tony Levin elite level on down. Do you think great original writing/performing talent is coming out of here as well? What are your thoughts on the venue/live scene?

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DB: I like the openness of the music scene at the Pines. Jeremy Bernstein is a wonderful host. They did a wonderful job renovating the Colony. I saw a band we produced, The Wandering Hearts, play there before it shut down the first time. I love the Falcon. Tony Falco has a huge heart for musicians. Levon Helms’ Barn is a magical place.  I remember hanging out with Levon when I was a little boy because my dad did quite a bit of work with the Band. My dad also liked to party with Levon. I am looking forward to seeing and hearing the renovated Bearsville Theater. So much history. There is a lot of untapped potential.

I am certain that in the post-Covid era live music will explode. It will be the celebration to end all celebrations. Our roaring twenties. I am looking forward to seeing tons of live music. I even hope to play again someday in front of people. Maybe solo piano or with a trio. The only live gigs I’ve done in the past few years have been for live television when artists that I work with perform (and kindly ask me).

We have talented writers and artists here, but typically they are not mainstream. We have brilliantly successful artists like 4-Tet and Pat Metheny. I found young Fiona Glenn when she was nine singing with Elizabeth Mitchell at the Hoot. She recorded “Whisperers” with me when she was 13. “Whisperers” has over a million streams and steadily gets thousands of streams a week. People from all over the world have written to me how much they love her voice. I have more Fiona songs coming soon.  We have the talent. I would love to see more pop come from here.

JB: You maintain a very active presence on social media, most often in a fascinating role as conversation starter and mediator. You are not necessarily known for making strong pronouncements yourself, but rather soliciting them from others. Does that play into your work at all, keeping your finger on the pulse of what fellow professionals as well as music fans are thinking?

DB: I like to discover new things. I also like to hear perspectives on musical subjects that help me think differently. We all tend to be collegial. The way to stay inspired and relevant is to have an open mind and open ears. Music is in constant cultural evolution. I love to talk too. Probably a bit too much.

Learn more about David Baron https://www.thedavidbaron.com.

Check out more articles from the Making Records series.