As publisher of CM now for over 20 years, if you were to ask me of all the people I have known in the Christian music business, who did I have the most fun talking with over a dinner in a restaurant… well, the prize would go to Ian Eskelin. Yes, he is a hot-handed producer in Nashville and has been a virtual “top hit machine” as a songwriter, but Ian’s fun loving attitude looms just as large as his producing credits. He has a very quick wit and loves a challenging conversation… replete with barbs, jabs, and puns running amok. He is my kind of guy – intelligent and goofy all at the same time. Some of the songs you are singing along with on Christian radio right now Ian had a hand in… either co-writing it, producing it – or both! Let’s get to know this Nashville based producer better…
CM: Ian, tell us how you got started in music in the first place?
Ian: As a kid, I remember being completely overwhelmed by melodies constantly swimming through my head. I would air guitar and sing in front of the mirror to The Police and Adam And The Ants, pretending I was on stage. I’m thankful there is no video footage of this.
Even though I was average at best and not classically trained, I gravitated toward keyboards and singing. At 16 I worked all summer long as a hotel bellhop to buy my fist keyboard – a Yamaha DX 27 that had a split-able keyboard; bass down low and synth on top (whoa!). The natural progression was a series of embarrassing 80’s synth pop bands where I excelled in the finer arts of bad hair and worse dancing.
Looking back it was cool to come up in a time when music technology was in its infancy. Working in the first sketchy versions of programs like Performer 1.0 entangled in a nest of MIDI cables running random boxes certainly has given me a huge appreciation for where we are now. I still have nightmares about locking tape and machines with SMPTE.
CM: You signed with a record company and had a career as an artist back in the day when there actually were a lot of record companies. How did that come about?
Ian: I like to joke that as an artist, “I’ve been dropped by every record company in Nashville multiple times”. In reality it’s not far from the truth. After college I moonlighted in a few bands like Code Of Ethics, Newsboys, etc… playing keys and doing a bit of singing.
This led to the release of my first solo album on a division of a division of a division of Word Records, and a follow up album with Reunion Records. I was about to be label-less again when a three month tour sharing a bus and opening for Steve Taylor changed my whole perspective on what Christians could be singing about. I immediately transitioned my solo thing to a band thing called All Star United, which is where my career really started to take off. It was really freeing to be able to write Christian social commentary songs with a hint of wit. Though I don’t tour anymore, I still do some recording as All Star United because it’s so much fun.
CM: How did you transition from artist to producer?
Ian: I only really wanted to be an artist and a writer. Honestly, I was a reluctant producer. In hindsight it was a bit strange that my labels used to give me a small budget and say, “Ok Ian, go make your album.” I guess because I had an early grasp on the music technology and the sound I wanted there was never a discussion of hiring a producer.
After the heavy touring days I started writing songs for other artists, and when the demos started to get pretty good, presto! I was a producer.
CM: Let’s talk about the recording studio you have built for your projects. What are you using as far as recording? Monitors? Mic’s? Signal processing? Guitars?
Give us the skinny on the tools you use for making those number one songs…
Ian: I built “The Holiday Ian” about 10 years ago and it has served me well. I call it the incredible shrinking studio, because these days you just don’t need very much. I didn’t build a drum room because in Nashville you can bounce around to phenomenal drummer’s places who are all set up and ready to rock. I then bring it all back on a hard drive called, “The Holiday Ian Express”.
I’m not much a gear hound, but I do have some go to stuff: Pro Tools, Nexus, API 512c, BAE 1073D, LA-3A, Purple Audio MC77, Distressor EL8-X, Neumann TLM 49, Christmas lights, and (my secret weapon) the access Virus TI.
At the end of the day, good production is all about managing artist’s expectations and delivering something on time and on budget that gets people high-five-ing in the room. And it doesn’t really matter what gear you have if you start with a great song!
CM: Cool, let’s talk about those number one songs then… Who was your first one, and walk us through a few of the recent ones too and how those particular songs came about?
Ian: I still laugh at prophesying the success of one of the first big All Star United songs entitled “Smash Hit”. Ha!
Anyway, almost two decades later I still get just as giddy when a big connection song pops out. I’m thrilled for the 7eventh Time Down guys with their latest hit “God Is On The Move”. That was one of those songs that came late at the end of a co-writing day and just poured out in about 30 minutes. Another recent #1 is “Holy Spirit”. Francesca Battistelli wasn’t really known for recording worship songs, but when she started singing it in the studio that day I knew it was something special.
I’m really excited about the new single “Trust You All The Way” by About A Mile on my new label Radiate Music. Check them out.
I count it as joy to be apart of anointed songs that speak to people through anointed artists.
Ian: I tend to be a reactive type of writer. If I can get you talking there’s always a word or phrase that sparks some kind of reaction and usually a title. I really like writing from a title because it gives me a point not to stray too far from. I’ve found the best songs for me always have a really tight focus and engage the listener from start to finish. I get excited about trying to convey a nugget of truth in under three minutes 🙂
CM: You teach at the Songwriter’s Bootcamp at the Christian Musician Summit each year. What are some crucial elements for songwriters to keep in mind?
Ian: A lot of artists and writers are so stressed out. I keep telling people “It is just music… it’s supposed to be fun.” Pretend you’re writing a song for someone else and watch how much simpler and easy it comes out. And I always say, “Dare to suck!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said the stupidest thing in a co-write and it ends up making the song.
CM: It has been said that most worship songs out there have the same chord progressions over and over again. How do you keep your chord progressions interesting?
Ian: I’m probably not the guy to ask, as I subscribe to the philosophy that more than three chords is borderline jazz. Although I’ve been know to pull out the tricks for some pop songs. My fav is the mod up for the bridge and back down for chorus 3.
CM: Do you listen to a lot of mainstream music as well as Christian? What might we hear in your car while you are driving to a producer gig?
Ian: As the proud father of a 12 year-old boy who has recently discovered “Weird Al” Yankovic, I currently only listen to parodies of mainstream hits. My Spotify early brit-pop playlist continues to grow (The Jam, The Clash, Oasis), but all I really listen to is soccer talk radio. Most people complain about watching a game that ends in a 0-0 tie, but those are the people who have never listened to one.
CM: As a producer, are you mostly working with your own label, Radiate Music, or are you also still being hired by other labels for their artists?
Ian: Yes; it’s pretty nonstop around here. I spend a lot of time writing with artists in various states of their career. Some have label deals already, some make sense for what I’m doing with Radiate, and some are indies who are still discovering their sound. But it’s usually the chemistry in the writing process that starts the production conversation.
CM: If I was an indie musician, what elements/traits would you be looking for in me to consider me as a possible artist for your own label?
Ian: Currently I’m working with five Radiate artists… The Neverclaim, About A Mile, Austin & Lindsey Adamec, Aaron Buchholz (BUCKS), and Pearl City Worship. Stylistically they’re all very different, but the one thing they have in common is that they are all self-starters. I find myself gravitating toward people who understand their calling and would be doing it whether I came alongside to help out or not.
I encourage all writers and artists to constantly create, complete, and move onto the next creation. We serve a God who is into new – new songs, new mercies, new lives! So keep the new stuff coming and don’t hand me a demo from 2013! (laughing)