[This transcript is excerpted from an Art of the Song interview as broadcast nationally on Public Radio. Click here to listen to the complete show with music.]
Viv: Let’s talk a little bit about the music business, music production and the recording industry. Beginning your career as a songwriter, you got rocketed right into the music industry. How do you perceive that that has changed over the years?
Smokey: Oh gosh, the music business has done a total 360, Vivian. It’s not nearly what it was when I started. It’s a whole other world now. Right down to how records are being made. Most new music is being made at home now and individuals are making them. There’s a computer (program) called Pro Tools and probably nine and a half out of ten songs that you hear on ten records that you hear have been recorded on Pro Tools. There’s so many home studios now and so many guys that are just doing it in their garages, in their bedrooms, wherever they feel like recording it. They are their own music producer. If they’re technologically adept in doing something like that with the Pro Tools. There’s still a few recording studios but it’s nothing like it used to be. We used to have reel-to-reel tape. It’s very seldom that anyone uses reel-to-reel tape anymore. It’s just a whole other thing technologically. I could be right here right now, you guys are in Albuquerque, and I’m in Los Angeles, and we could record a record right now, together, the three of us. Just make a record right now and have it so that it sounds like we’re in the same place at the same time. So it’s really really really a different method right now. I think there’s a pro and a con to that. The pro is that you have so many choices as to what you can do with the technical aspect of it and you have so many tracks. You could put each string of the guitar on a separate track if you want to and blend it again later on. But there’s something missing from that for me because the last record that I recorded, before this one, in fact the last two, I recorded with the musicians in the studio at the same time I was singing. Because there’s a feeling that happens there. I think that that’s what’s missing from, or for me personally, that’s what’s missing if I record over a track.
John: Tell us about the recording of Smokey and Friends. How did you do that?
Smokey: Well Smokey and Friends was recorded, basically, the new way. It was. Randy Jackson, who is like a really good friend, I’ve known Randy forever, and he’s a great music man, and Randy is like a musical almanac. He can tell you about oldies music that you’ve never even heard of that were recorded in 1950 or tell you something that’s going to be recorded in 2015. He’s so knowledgeable when it comes to music and records and stuff like that. So it was a joy working with him because he’s a good friend. He’s my brother and he’s a great music man. One of the greatest joys for me in working on this record was the fact that normally when I’m in the studio I’m involved with the production and seeing that the arrangements are right and blah blah blah and all the stuff like that. All I had to do on this record was go to the studio and sing. And it was such a comfort knowing that it was in good hands. And all I had to do was go and sing.
John: Wow. How about the guest artists? Did they come into the studio at the same time?
Smokey: No, no they didn’t. The closest I came to that was when John Legend recorded “A Quiet Storm”. He was leaving out of the studio as I was coming in. But I had heard John sing “A Quiet Storm”. About five years ago he was doing a live concert and I heard him sing it. I told him, I said, “John, you should record that man”. And he said, “Oh I’ll think about that Smokey”. It turns out that here, he and I are recording it together. But what Randy did was, Randy contacted these artists, and he said, “What is your favorite Smokey Robinson song?” It didn’t have to be one that I had sang. Just one that I had written. And they told him that. The songs that you hear them singing on is their favorite Smokey Robinson song.
Viv: You’ve affected so many songwriters and so many people through the years. What do you think it is about your music that touches people’s hearts so deeply?
Smokey: You know, Vivian, I don’t know. I’ve written a lot of songs in my life but, if I knew that, I probably would have written triple that amount. But I don’t know. I just try to write a song, honey. When I’m going to write a song, I’m going to write a song. I want to write a song. I want to write something that would have meant something fifty years ago or today or fifty years from now. That’s how I approach it. I want to write a song.
Viv: I’m just thinking about that relationship with the audience that we create as performers and that you have that special bond in a live performance. Can you talk about that a little bit? Surely you play your hits, you play some new songs, do you ever take into account the audience and what they’re feeling when you’re playing?
Smokey: You know something, Vivian? I am so very very very very blessed. I get a chance to earn a living doing what I absolutely love. I love the music world. I love writing songs. I love being in the studio. I love recording. I love playing with all the musicians and the singers and stuff. I love that. My favorite part of my work is performing. Is doing concerts. That’s why I still do concerts Vivian. Because I don’t get that anywhere else. There’s a magic that happens when you’re there with the audience and you’re there with your fans and they’re singing and you’re singing and we’re all having a good time together. You don’t get that…I don’t get that…anywhere else in life. So that’s why I still do it.