Craig Bartock has been a music business professional for over thirty years. Craig has written, arranged, produced and performed for some of the biggest names in music. He can definitely be called an all-around studio all-star. While being proficient at keyboards, guitar and vocals, he can also engineer and produce any style of music out of his own personal studio. His work with such legends as Blondie, Nikki Sixx, Tina Arena, and currently the lead guitar, songwriter, and co-producer for the legendary band Heart.
His work with Ann and Nancy Wilson is quite well known and respected. He has established himself as a very successful collaborator and producer in the world of Rock. Equally as important is his work on the pop side with younger artists like Brie Larson, Aly and AJ as well as his TV scoring work which includes such shows as Brothers and Sisters, Dexter and Burn Notice to name just a few. When it comes to his work, there is no style of music in which Craig hasn’t been successful.
Thanks for taking the time Craig to chat a bit. I guess the first thing our readers would want to know is how long you have been the lead guitar player for Heart? How did that come about?
That’s actually an interesting story because I sort of came in “sideways” as opposed to going through the front door. Back in ’03 Ann, Nancy and I had the same management and they were planning on recording their first CD after a 13 year hiatus. They basically took the 90s off to focus on non- Heart related stuff, such as family, etc. Nancy was looking for a “spark” to really get the creative juices going and a person named Carol Peters – who had worked at the management company at the time and still does a wonderful job at representing the girls today – suggested that Nancy and I would be a good fit creatively, so a meeting was arranged. We found that we had an instant chemistry …… the same musical influences down to a tee, even particularly rare, obscure songs, and as they used to call them – “B sides”. There was like 1 degree of separation between us. That afternoon we met, we actually wrote 3 songs, 2 of which ended up on the CD. As the days progressed, it just became a natural thing for us to work together and lo and behold, a year later, I had co-written 14 of the 16 songs on the new CD as well as co-produced it. I never thought in a million years that I would be the lead guitarist, but after the CD was finished, I ended up playing quite a bit of the guitar work on it, and it just made sense in retrospect to ask me to join the band considering they had planned a number of TV shows and a major tour to support it.
Heart is one of our favorite bands – how is it working with the fabulous Wilson sisters?
I have to say, they are two of the nicest, easiest people to work with. I love their philosophy about this band. They don’t micro-manage it. They tend to think of it as a living, evolving entity, which keeps the music fresh. We don’t try to capture the past. We let the songs breathe, and as a result, they are ever changing and growing. They’re just smart people. We rarely rehearse and that gives our live performances an element of danger. I love it! No pre-recorded tracks …. all live, so if we screw up, so be it! We all have the right to interpret the parts of the songs any way we want which is great because the music has a real “edge” to it that didn’t exist in the original recordings. We’re not up there just to bring back the past …. we’re also pushing into the future.
You have been a hard working musician, songwriter, producer for years, tell us a little about your journey before performing with Heart.
After playing in bands during high school and an occasional record deal or two in my early 20’s, It’s pretty much been a studio existence. Producing, writing, arranging all different types of music. For example, in the 90’s I was doing a lot of R & B work for people like Toni Braxton, Brandy, Simply Red, and Madonna while at night I would be scoring animation for Warner Bros. I was doing songs for the Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, classic Looney Tunes …. you name it and I did it. I enjoyed that time because doing two such diverse styles of music never proved to be boring. I’ve always had my own studio, and as you know, even as a kid I had access to one. That has been my playground. Actually I’ve always considered the studio to be my main instrument.
I have had the privilege years ago of working with you and it’s nice to get a chance to chat after all these years, I have always believed you are one of those born to do what they do. You are most certainly an accomplished multi-instrumentalist , songwriter, engineer and producer – which do you find the most satisfying? The most challenging?
Definitely taking the creative process of a song from point A to Z. When I write, I often hear a song just pop into my head and then it’s my job to find a way to get that to come out of the speakers the same way. I tend to hear new music fully produced, so I know pretty much what the right feel/ groove/vibe/emotion should be for it. Sometimes I nail it and then others it just “hides” from me for a while and I have to step back and re- approach it from from a different angle. I love that though. It’s like the ultimate mystery. It’s hiding, yet at the same time in plain sight.
Give us a little rundown on who you have worked with and maybe a story or two.
Well, I’ve mentioned a number of them already, and as far as a story? Let me see. Well, the time I wrote the song “Undone” with Debbie Harry for Blondie believe it or not we never even met. I did the music, “la, la, la”ed a melody for her, sent it off and she wrote the lyrics. The next thing I know, it’s a single on their new CD. I was in LA and she was in NY. The creative process by proxy! We still have never met. You know, you just get these weird calls to do stuff and you never know where it’s going to land. Another example was a couple of years ago I got a call from a friend that was doing music supervision for a movie called “P.S. I love You” with Hilary Swank. They told me that the male lead couldn’t sing and there was a bar scene where he had to play guitar and serenade the audience. They asked if I would sing for him. Since the music business is a bit like the army where you never turn down an assignment, I said “of course I would”. The song was called Galway Girl and when you watch the movie, there he is up there on that stage with my voice flowing out of him. I didn’t even know it until one day I was on a plane and it just happened to be the in-flight movie they were showing. You gotta love this stuff!
This is a site about songwriting so let’s go there a bit – give us a little workshop on your process from writing the song to the finished project.
I tend to write choruses first starting with a hook or a melody that pops into my head. I find that if the chorus clicks, the rest just flows out. And besides, you have to have that thing that draws people in …… it’s everything. You have verses and a middle section to state your case, but it all has to boil down to the chorus ….. it’s the one thing that makes you want to explore the rest of the song. I rarely sit down and just “compose”. I can do that, but I prefer that magic of a song just appearing out of nowhere and being planted in my consciousness. The trick is to be able to get it down as soon as it comes to mind. It’s very much like a dream. When you first wake up, it’s all fresh in your memory and as the morning grinds on, the details and the magic just slips away. From the mind to the mic is everything.
You write and place an eclectic mix of songs on TV and Film. Do you write for specific projects and how do you come to it? Do you write songs and then see where they could be placed?
At times I’m asked for specific things and I have no problem filling the order. For example about a year ago, I was asked to do an entire CD of “tween” songs for various TV shows. The songs ended up being used for a number of MTV series, and other cable shows. Other times I think of mood and emotion first when I am writing songs for TV and film without a specific job in mind. I think “how does this make someone feel? …. is it visual enough?”. I want to be able to create a musical picture that didn’t exist beforehand. Music for me is like radio before television. The mind fills in the blanks with what it doesn’t see.
You have collaborated with some talented folks how do you find that – is it easier or more difficult for you than working alone?
I love collaborating with others. It’s like two roads winding to the same place with different scenery along the way. It’s a very rewarding experience. If it’s a good collaboration, it’s almost like a relationship. There’s a true bond and connection with that other person.
A talent/skill I once admired, and still do, is your ability to add just that right thing to a song to make it zing. Where does that come from in you?
I attribute that to just a true love of music …. all music. Having a vast mental library to draw upon. There’s something to be learned from all that came before us. The Beatles, Louie Prima, Frank Zappa, Kenny Burrell, Miles Davis, Brian Wilson, Randy Newman, Nillson, Paul Simon, A to Z and all of the above. Music is a huge cake-layer of the generations. It just keeps getting piled on the top. But those upper layers wouldn’t exist without the lower ones holding them up. The more you actually understand music, and I’m not talking about theory here but emotion, the more tools you’ll have to draw upon when filling in those pieces to the puzzle.
To borrow a quote from one of your songs, ‘It’s a complicated thing when bombs start to ring in your head’.
It sure is, isn’t it?
Your own work is wonderful and I think folks will be surprised and delighted. What is it you want the listener to get about your own work as different from the work you do for others.
Well, as of late, my own personal music has more of a “I don’t give a shit” attitude. At this point I’m not trying to please anyone. I just have a need to get the music out that’s trapped inside of me. I don’t care if it fits the formula anymore. There’s no more “music business” per se so screw it, I’ll make music for me and if the listener likes it and can identify with it, so much the better. Mind you, I still have to write a song that has a strong melody ….. that’s just engrained in me. Bottom line, I just have myself to answer to.
I really enjoyed the songs you posted on My Space. “Doll House intrigued me – hard rockin’ Beatle-like and terrific! ‘Goodby’s’ lyrics are engaging and accessible.’Dear Simon’ is my favorite- I think because there is some of the things I used to hear you play. I still remember this discussion, one we had years ago. Time has shown you to have won the argument. What’s more important to a good song: lyric, melody, or arrangement? What do you say makes a hit song?
Dear Simon is an interesting song. It’s basically me writing a love song to music and what it’s meant to me over all of these years. It’s like any long relationship. It has it’s ups and downs, moments that hurt, ones that make you smile. Simon was just a metaphor for my own musical struggles and coming to terms with it. And what makes a good song? I can say a good hook (like I did earlier) and good melody, catchy etc, but it just comes down to individual taste. Can you identify with the song and see yourself in it? Then that’s a good song.
You have watched and participated in the music business for decades. What do you see for the music business and where its going?
I could write pages on this subject but I’ll keep it short. In a nutshell, the music business as most people know it is over. The record stores are gone and unfortunately never coming back. It’s pretty simple. I’ll quote from something I wrote on my Facebook page a few months ago…
“Bon Jovi recently made a comment that Steve Jobs is “personally responsible for killing music”. I can’t allow something like that to go unanswered. As I said on someone else’s facebook page about this, people seem to always want to focus on only one reason for why things are the way they are …. music, politics, guns, religion, etc, etc. And as always, it’s waaaay more complicated than that. In the case of the music business, that especially holds true. When music was reduced to zeros and ones about a decade ago, the game was over. Napster comes along and anyone willing to poke around a bit online could download an entire CD for free in about 30 minutes. At the same time, CD burners became standard issue in every computer sold and hence the phrase “You like it? Here, I’ll burn you a copy” was born. At that point, everybody knew that CDs basically cost pennies to make, but the labels were charging 15 bucks a pop for them, so many felt that making copies was justified. The music business was still living in the 90s where albums cost $300,000 upwards to make, and there were always numerous highly “inflated” expenses (some legal, some not) involved in getting a song played on the radio. And as the new decade unfolded, other means of entertainment emerged. If you are 17 years old now, there’s a lot of ways to spend that 50 dollars burning a hole in your pocket …. video games, DVDS, ipods, and other miscellaneous “stuff”. Way back when, music was pretty much the only way to express who you were …. it was the way of rebellion. Now, one just has to go on Facebook or Twitter and speak their mind. Music was everything because there was nothing else pulling at it like there is today. Hmmmm, listen to a CD or stream Netflix, Hulu, or maybe watch YouTube and see/hear the songs for free all you want. It really is true that when there were only a couple of TV channels, there was always something to watch. Now with 800+ of them, it takes the average consumer probably a good 10 minutes before they’re bored and grab for the remote.
I get it. It’s a zero and one society we live in now. Things are very easy to come by and fully disposable. See, it is complicated. You can’t blame the people that saw it coming and took advantage of it. That would be like people that sold horses and buggies for a living blaming Ford for marketing the car. Yeah, he helped, but if it wasn’t him, it would’ve been someone else. It was just a matter of time. Blame the industrial revolution instead, or in this case, the information age.
That being said, I’m still glad that there’s enough people who love music to keep it going. I have a lot of musician friends that would make rotten shoe salesmen.”
What should a songwriter do these days to get work heard and placed?
Just be entrepreneurial. Now you are the record company. Work the internet. Get your Facebook, Twitter and website pages together. Post music. Get out and play anywhere you can. The money is a lot less than it used to be but remember, you have control now. Use it.
For the guitar lovers, what are you playing these days?
My guitar tech Jason Stockwell has been building custom guitars for me on the road. They are basically hybrid Tele and Strat bodies with different configurations. For example, some have P-90 pickups in them so they play like a Fender, but sound like a Les Paul. They’re good, solid, dependable instruments and are road-worthy and sound amazing. I also still use my vintage sunburst Strat, but that’s the only older guitar I carry on the road these days. And as far as acoustics go, I use mostly Takamine. They are built well, very reliable and they sound great …… and they’re a good company. They really stand behind their products. And as far as amps go, there’s just one word …. Vox.
What projects are you working on these days? What’s up in the future?
There’s going to be a huge summer tour for Heart, so I’m just working on finished up various songs and projects before I take off. As of late, I’ve been totally taken by the pedal steel guitar. I love playing that instrument. My latest crop of songs have reflected that. There’s more of an “americana” folksy approach to my music these days. I love the fact that genre can be so honest and personal. It really makes you want to dig deep for that perfect word or sentence that makes it real.
Anything else you want your fans to know about you?
Just thank you for listening, and that I hope the musical globe continues to spin on it’s axis for years to come.
I would invite anyone to follow me on Facebook. From time to time I post new music and give war reports from the front lines of our tours. Sometimes it gets pretty interesting.
And thanks Ken. Nice working with you again!
Thanks Craig for a great interview. We’ll be keeping an eye on what you’re doing and giving our readers updates.
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