How do songwriters hone their craft?
Do they hole up in a cabin or do they work with existing teams — learning by example and through experience? I recently talked with Kenny Sharretts, a back line technician for Stevie Wonder and Rhianna, about what he’s learned from watching the master at work.
Hi Kenny, thank you for talking with us today. So you have a pretty amazing perspective on what it takes to “make it” in this industry. Besides for working with some of the biggest names and touring around the world countless times, you’re also a songwriter and musician and I know that’s really starting to take off for you. That’s what I was hoping to talk about today. I want to pick your brain about transitioning from side-stage to onstage. But before we get into that, let’s talk about how you got started. What was your first tour?
My first “professional” tour as a drum tech was in 2002 with Melissa Etheridge taking care of legendary drummer Kenny Aronoff. Talk about a challenging start to a career! I was living in Austin, TX, and I had done a series of SXSW showcases drumming in a band with Melissa’s guitar tech Trace Foster. Because most of the band was not in Austin, it was my job to coordinate all the production, and hire the rest of the band members. Through that experience, Trace saw I had what it took to be a good tech and he helped get me hired on with Melissa. After years of clubbing with my bands and touring regionally with many great artists, to roll with the big dogs was an amazing and eye opening experience.
What were you responsible for back then?
On that first tour, my main responsibility was all things Kenny Aronoff. He was a great guy to work for. He had a giant drum set on a huge rack that required ALL of the top heads to be changed and tuned every show. Thank God for the Evans drill bit drum key! His kit also integrated electronic samples triggered with pads and kick drum triggers. In addition, I looked after the self-mixing monitor rig, the programmed drum machine, his dressing room setup, and a small E-drum rig for his nightly duet with Melissa. So from my first job on, there was programming as well as drum duties. Along with that, it was standard tech-fare — ordering equipment, endorsement maintenance, and utilizing stage hands to build the show no matter what language they speak. That gig taught me to be proactive in my methods, and to always maintain the hearts and minds of your artists. The most important part of my job beyond all that, however, was making the load out go as quickly as possible without damaging gear. Like they say in my business, it’s all about the out.
And now? What do you take care of?
Okay, that is a seriously loaded question as I have had the blessing this last year of bouncing between my two main gigs as drum tech/programmer with Rihanna and drum/percussion tech with Stevie Wonder. Thankfully my drummer with Rih is also my drummer with Stevie so there was a bit of continuity to my work. With Stevie, I set up and take care of the drums — two massive percussion rigs and Stevie’s Roland V-drums. With Rihanna, I’ve been taking care of an electronic percussion rig, a drum setup for Rih, and a MASSIVE drumset covered in triggers and trigger pads. We were using triggers on all three snares, both kicks, as well as pads and kick pedal triggers routed through a TurboKAT midi controller to fire samples from the sampler bank. The objective was to integrate sounds from Rih’s numerous hit records into the live show organically without sacrificing the playability of Chris’ drum kit, or the live vibe of the music.
Other “unofficial” duties included part-time keyboard tech as our keys tech was also our pro-tools tech during the show. That’s how I became a well versed keys tech; quite handy now considering that I am currently Rihanna’s keyboard technician. But that’s also a point I learned to stress when touring. Teamwork!
I just completed Rih’s 777 tour which was 7 shows in 7 days in 7 countries. It was totally insane and completely amazing, but without teamwork it would have been a mess. We have an amazing crew on Rihanna.
See, that’s something that I’m not sure that everyone always understands or thinks about. There is a whole team that makes a concert happen. It’s not just about the musicians; all the techs and back-line crew members are equally important in pulling off a show. So let’s shine that spotlight on the back-line for a bit. Who usually gravitates to back-line positions? Are most techs also musicians?
Strangely enough the range of backgrounds of people who gravitate towards live production is incredibly broad. I know a LD/Rigger who was once an investment banker and my current dentist was once a lighting tech for some of the biggest acts in the world. I have a BBA from University of Texas and I actually use much of what I learned EVERY DAY in this job! Backline techs, however, usually tend to be a musically inclined bunch, or tech-nerds, or both. I work with a few techs who are monster players. I know other techs that can’t play a lick but their gear is immaculate; they rule their gig and they are a joy to tour with.
That being said, Bryan Jones — my main songwriting partner and guitar player in my band the So Called Underground — techs guitars for several of the music worlds’ biggest acts. I do believe that if you are a tech who has experience performing live, you possess a unique advantage of being more aware of your player’s needs. Hence the chance to create a perception that you might possibly be psychic. In the maintenance of hearts and minds, that is an invaluable asset.
What’s the longevity of the gig? How long do most people stay in it for? And when they leave, what do they usually transition to?
Longevity is a strange thing in this business. When I first started, I moved from act to act as work became available but I also saw a lot of my friends who had been with the same act for years. Unless you are with a touring juggernaut, most tours last between 3-5 months, so it can be tough to establish yourself. Thankfully, I’ve been with Stevie Wonder since 2007 and Rihanna since the beginning of 2011.
As far as transitioning to other careers, there are so many places to go. Many backline techs I’ve known simply move up the “corporate” ladder to become production and tour managers. Or they try different positions like audio engineering, lighting, or video. Other jobs I see people transition into include A & R at musical product companies with whom you have developed relationships, artist management, and production management for the promoters you meet in every city through which you tour.
And you? What’s your long-term plan look like? I mean, it’s really fascinating if you think about it. Like everything in life, it usually boils down to who you know. And over the years, you’ve definitely made some interesting friends.
One of my long-term plans is to become the first drum tech at the Grammy’s to win a Grammy. Call it a pocket dream if you will, but I’m enjoying working hard at it. I have met some amazing people in this business to say the least. Hopefully they will continue to be a part of my “life-term” plan. Not only in the production world, but also as a musician and as a songwriter.
After the Diamonds tour is done, I’m looking forward to writing some new songs and performing with So Called Underground. In addition, I will be doing local production work and of course playing a lot of drums back in the Austin music scene. If I hadn’t established great relationships during my full-time playing days in Austin, I wouldn’t have the work I have when I’m not touring. I always try to remember that it’s not just who you know but who knows you — so always try to make good impressions.
Do you think that due to proximity and connections, you have a better chance of getting your songs picked up?
I would say in general no, because as a tech, you can’t really go up to artists and say “blam! Here is my song.” The more people you meet and work with, the more likely they are to ask about what you are working on. Take for example the song “Empty” on my band’s latest CD “How to Paint a Silver Lining.” I was working on a mix while touring with Stevie and a few of the band members heard the song. They offered to play on the recording. I had composed the music and the lyrics but when these incredible players added their parts to the song it truly came alive. That song also opened up doors to writing with many players I tour with, which in turn has brought me much closer to my songs being picked up. As in any field, the more relationships you develop, the more likely you are to meet someone who can help your career.
Do you write with specific artists in mind?
Yes, So Called Underground. LOL! No really, while most of my ideas just come out of the blue, I regularly find myself writing with certain singers and genders in mind. My most current song project is a country duet. Considering the popularity of duets in Nashville lately, I can’t help but have certain singers in mind. Writing with a certain singer in mind can actually bring out melodic elements in your composition that you may never have thought of. I am learning to let the influence of incredible singers and writers grow my writing rather than stifle it. Otherwise, I just write what I write.
Since you see what audiences respond to on a nightly basis, you have a bird’s eye view of the whole live sound/concert industry. Has that changed how you approach song writing?
In one sense no because like I said, I write what I write. In another sense TOTALLY. I’ve been touring with Stevie Wonder for 6 years hearing him compose new songs and perform some of the biggest hits ever. How could it not affect my writing. Especially with the skill level it takes to play the music. Rihanna’s songs are a big influence as well. Dope beats, incredible synth lines, and melodies that get right up under your skin. She has some incredible compositions in her catalog that created trends. Hence my writing style is definitely leaning towards what is trending right now. Although I do believe the true hope of any artist is that his or her style of music becomes THE trend. So I keep working at it from both sides.
You definitely get to see what trends, and what doesn’t. That has to profoundly affect how you think about the art and craft of it all. With that in mind, what do you think makes a “hit song”?
So many things affect what is a “hit song” that it’s hard to distill the answer into a few thoughts. A good beat, a great melody, and a vibe or a topic that people connect with is a great place to start. After that it could be anything from a simple twist of fate, to proper song placement in a movie, to perfect timing in release that pushes a song to the forefront of the public’s consciousness. I’ll get back to you with more on this topic after I write my first hit song.
And lastly, you’ve spent your career with some of the greatest musicians of our time. You must have picked up a few tips and tricks and some pretty interesting philosophies. Is there anything that you want to share?
There are so many tips, and tricks, that would take another whole article! There are, however, a few things I find useful in this business. Always be kind and have fun at what you’re doing. It will carry you through the hard times, and if you have to toughen up a bit, they’ll never see you coming. Be dedicated to what you are doing and let the rest flow from there; especially with songwriting. One of biggest lessons I’ve learned came from watching Stevie write on the road. Sometimes he would come in with all the music actualized, but no real words, and a skeleton of a melody. Then I would watch it evolve as melody affected lyric writing, and lyrics sculpted the melody. Sometimes he would come in with a whole melody and lyric flow, but spend months on end fine tuning the musical vibe with his band. The whole time I’m realizing this is just how I compose. Watching him validated my process and stopped me from thinking there was no way I could ever write songs like Stevie Wonder. Turns out “in a sense” that I already did write songs like Stevie does. Be true to yourself and you’ll be surprised what you can accomplish.
With that Kenny, thank you so much for sharing your expertise and insight!
Kenny Sharretts is a professional back line technician, drummer, and songwriter based in Austin, TX. In addition to being one of the busiest drummers in the Central Texas music scene, Kenny has spent the last 12 years touring as an A-Level drum and keyboard technician for many of music industry’s biggest acts including Melissa Etheridge, American Idols Live, Kelly Clarkson, Rihanna, and Stevie Wonder. Combining influences, and knowledge from both his careers, Kenny has also been developing his career as a songwriter both as a writer for hire, and with his band So Called Underground.
This interview was originally published by Mike Dias for Ultimate Ears