Music: The music academy that leaves a mark
Published 15/11/2015 | 02:30
Sheila E is talking about the time in 1979 when Quincy Jones called on her to contribute to a track he was producing. It turned out to be Michael Jackson's 'Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough' and the young Californian's inventive percussion helped make it great. The song would kick-start Jackson's solo career in spectacular fashion - and yet the lady born Sheila Escovedo was forgotten in the credits for the resulting album, Off the Wall.
It's one of an abundance of anecdotes that has me rooted to my seat at La Gaîté Lyrique, the striking multi-disciplinary arts centre in the heart of Paris, and although the veteran drummer - who's worked with Prince, Marvin Gaye and Sammy Davis Jnr - is talking for two-and-a-half hours, I could have listened to her all day.
The occasion is the 2015 instalment of the Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA), which this year is being held in the French capital and runs for a month until November 27. Devised by the energy drink firm in 1998, and held every year since in a different city (including Dublin in 2000), it brings together 60 fledgling musicians from around the world and provides each with a fortnight of 'lectures' from industry figures like Sheila E, hands-on tuition, the use of top-quality studios and equipment, and the chance to collaborate with open-minded peers.
They're flown over, given accommodation, fed and watered and handed free passes for a plethora of gigs and exhibitions that happen every night. I get to see Nicolas Godin of Air play his home city but the gig is only modestly successful. The only reason participants would have to put their hands in their pockets is to buy souvenir figurines of the Eiffel Tower. It's limited to solo acts only: even global conglomerates with massive marketing budgets have to draw the line somewhere. But it leaves a mark in the form of a permanent studio in each city it visits.
Unsurprisingly, there is a huge number of applications every year for what's surely the music equivalent of the golden ticket that Charlie finds to gain access to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. And when I met the Irish participant, Gareth Anton Averill, I believe him when he says the intensively creative fortnight has been nothing short of life-changing. "It's made me rethink my approach to music," he says. "I've been taken out my comfort zone and got to make music with people I simply would never have met otherwise. Back home, I've a good circle of musician friends, but we're used to each other's work and sometimes there is, for want of a better word, back-scratching.
"Here, I've been thrown in with people who hear my music for the first time and they can be objective. If they don't like something I'm working on [participants are obliged to work on new material during the course of their stay], they tell me. I welcome that."
Gareth is the son of a well-known figure in Irish rock - Steve Averill, frontman of '70s post-punk band Radiators from Space, and sleeve designer of every U2 album from Boy to Songs of Innocence - but his music is much more low-key and atmospheric. He uses the Great Lakes Mystery moniker and calls his work "music for moving pictures". He has scored short films as well as a clutch of television ads, including the current offering from BMW Ireland.
"Coming here has been like a palate cleanser," he says. "I'm lucky enough to work in a nice studio every day, but this is different. There are eight studios here.
"People are sharing music and getting feedback and there are mentors here all the time who are incredible people themselves and they're coming in to each of us and saying, 'What about this? What about that?' It's completely inspiring."
Last year, the Academy was held in Tokyo and the Irish participant, the electonica artist James Kelly, aka WIFE, found the experience to be "very beneficial".
"I wouldn't say it impacted my work as such, rather it gave me a wider perspective on my approach to the work and how I could better it," he says. "For me it was largely about inspiring one another - getting in a studio with a guy from Pakistan and a girl from Chile, sharing your different inspirations and motivations."
He was fired up by several of the talks: "My favourite lectures were Chris [Frantz] and Tina [Weymouth] from Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club as I'm a huge fan of their work. Robert Hood was also very interesting. I'm not really a techno fan but it was inspiring to see someone speak with such conviction."
I get a sense of what he means when I sit in on a talk with Andrew Schleps, one of the most in-demand engineers, mixers and producers in the business. The LA-native has worked with everyone from U2 to Red Hot Chili Peppers and from Adele to Jay Z, and he mixed Hozier's enormously popular debut album as well. His enthusiasm would infect even the most jaded listener and he is happy to talk in great detail about the finer points of his trade.
Later, he tells me that creative camps like RBMA help to make young musicians reappraise the way they go about making music. "I hope the idea enters their heads that you don't have to do everything [and understand that]; they're not responsible for every single aspect of the production. They can find someone who's better than them that will then inspire them to be better at the stuff they're good at. The number of jobs in any music production can vary from five to 30 and to think that you're going to be the best person to do all 30 of those jobs...
"To have someone come in and write a bassline that's much better than you, say, can make your song a hundred times better. It used to be really obvious, but now it would never occur to them."
"It's been the most incredible experience," Gareth says. "I've made some friends for life - but I've also made some collaborators for life too."