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Patrick Leonard

Patrick Leonard

Article from Sound On Sound, August 1991

Patrick Leonard has a surprisingly low profile for the producer and cowriter of many of Madonna's biggest hits, but his production work and nascent solo career suggest that wider recognition is on the way. Paul Tingen meets a man of many talents and strong views.

Patrick Leonard is a man of strong opinions and, unlike many members of the often incestuous elite of record industry made-its, he's not afraid to voice them. Ask him about the state of today's music, and he replies, "We've been sitting in the same crap for years now. Everybody seems to think it's fine, but we're selling it to young kids who are growing up thinking that this is all there is to music. It's poisonous. It's ludicrous."

Ask him how he feels about the role record companies play in all of this, especially in the light of the sales of new albums — as opposed to CD re-releases — actually going down year by year, and he is scathing: "I think that's good. Let them all die a miserable death for what they're doing to music. Then we can maybe start some record companies with different requirements — such as the people who work there actually having to know something about music. Wow! What a novel idea that would be!"

He's equally frank and forthcoming when discussing colleagues or people he's worked with. Of Shep Pettibone, the producer/mixer who remixed Madonna's Immaculate Collection with Q-Sound, he says, "I think he's extremely overrated." But Madonna chose to work with Pettibone... "Well, we all make mistakes." Of Bryan Ferry, whose last album, Bete Noire, he co-produced and largely co-wrote with Ferry, he says this: "He gets so detailed, it's silly. All this labouring over things months after month, year after year, it's based on the wrong thing. It's just paranoia. Being afraid of doing something that's not cool is not a good criterium for making music."

These statements are made very matter-of-factly, and often with a twinkle in his eye, as he talks in the dining room of a luxurious rented house in Twickenham, South-West London, his temporary home whilst producing Roger Waters' next album. In a sense they're an American version of British understatement: deliver verbal bombshells with a dead-pan expression on your face. Then watch how your guest reacts. Leonard isn't just sounding off either. He also knows how to heap praise, on Bob Clearmountain for example: "He's amazing. The exception to every rule about mixing there is." Or on Madonna: "Many people consider what she does musical fodder, and she doesn't help by coming out in interviews saying that she doesn't take music that seriously. But I know that it's much more dear to her than that. The fact is that she has a very special musical gift and ability. But she shouldn't shine it so much or it might go away." ('Shine': US slang for cold-shouldering or demeaning something.)


There's more — much more — but first the man himself. Leonard co-wrote and coproduced most of True Blue, Like A Prayer and I'm Breathless together with Madonna, and also played keyboards on these albums. The music of many of Madonna's greatest hits was Leonard's — notably 'Live To Tell', 'La Isla Bonita', 'Open Your Heart', 'Like A Prayer', and 'Cherish' — with Madonna contributing lyrics.

On top of this he's worked with Nick Kamen, produced Julian Lennon's Mister Jordan album, Rod Stewart's 'Broken Arrow', and albums by Kenny Loggins and Hiroshima. He's also written songs for and with Pink Floyd, Stanley Clarke, Philip Bailey, Sheena Easton, Nile Rogers, Richie Havens, and many others. His film soundtrack work includes music for At Close Range and Nothing In Common.

It's an impressive list of credits, begging the question of why his public profile isn't higher on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps it's because he hasn't (yet) had an album out under his own name. On hearing that Leonard is currently, apart from producing Roger Waters, also working on his own material, one imagines that it's only a matter of time before this peculiar omission will be rectified. Leonard is clearly a man of many talents. Even talking with him leaves you, quite simply, gasping for breath. It's almost impossible to keep up with his constant outpouring of ideas, opinions, and facts, sometimes delivered with irony, sometimes with sarcasm, sometimes deadly serious. His brain obviously works with great speed and agility, as he approaches topics from five sides at once. It makes his account of how he and Madonna put together her last two albums, Like A Prayer and I'm Breathless, almost, if not quite, entirely believable.

"Almost all of the songs were written in three hours, with finished lead vocals and keyboards on tape and most of the arrangements laid out," he says between sips of Cognac. You're having me on... "No, I'm serious. Usually what happens is that I get to my studio at 9.00 in the morning and start working around 10.30 or 11.00. By 2 o'clock I'll have the music laid out. Madonna comes in and I play it to her. She tells me what she thinks of it and we work from 2 till 3 getting a structure and a form, and a vocal line that we both like. She'll then go away to write a lyric, say from 4 till 5, whilst I record the song with the agreed structure. I simply play the keyboards direct to tape, and run the drum sequences to tape off the MPC60. When I'm finished she'll come in and sing the lead vocal. She only does the lead vocal once — she's very good at that — and by about 7 she leaves.

"The next day we do the same thing again with a new song. Like A Prayer took less than two weeks to write. After that we spent a few weeks overdubbing guitars, backing vocals, choirs, drums and bass. For I'm Breathless we sometimes wrote two songs a day. That album was written and recorded in three weeks."


This kind of stuff must be enough to make most songwriters feel hopelessly inept and ready to throw in the towel. After all, it isn't as if Madonna and Leonard were writing trash at a rate of one or two songs a day. Some of those songs are actually, er. .. pretty good. Leonard simply nods and says quietly, almost inaudibly, "I know. I think so too." This notwithstanding the fact that he sees his work with Madonna very much as "a job that I do", rather than where his heart really lies: "I'm still figuring out a form to get the things that are really dear to me out."

In fact, when Madonna asked him in 1985 to be keyboard player and musical director for her Summer tour of the US, he agreed only reluctantly because he needed the money: "Going out on a stage and playing 'Like A Virgin' wasn't my idea of a thrill. And it still isn't." On off days during the tour he and Madonna started writing material, "basically to kill time". The collaboration worked and they went on to write True Blue. It sorted out his money problems — probably for the rest of his life.

Leonard was born in Michigan 35 years ago and grew up in Chicago something of a wunderkind. Son of a well-respected jazz player, he started hitting the piano keys aged 4, and was, he says, "a very fine player" by the age of 10.

He went on to become a well-known session player in the US, but from a very young age his first love was writing. "I started writing down music when I was about 8, and that's always been my main fascination. It has the drawback that I have no repertoire at all. You can hold a gun to my head and I wouldn't be able to play you anything, not even the things that I wrote and played to get a song on tape, and once it's finished I'm on to the next thing.

"I'm not a singer so I never focused on lyric writing. In the bands I played in I always came up with the music. I suggested a melody and someone else would write the lyrics. So I got good at reading what someone wants and would suit them musically."

This quality of being able to read people has stood him in good stead and taken his career to extraordinary heights. With most people he works as a writer and keyboard player, even when he sets out only as the producer. It's notable for example that the only really decent song on Julian Lennon's Mr. Jordan is part-written by Leonard. Many artists have utilised his talent for classy and commercial hooks, to the point that he now feels prompted to change his tack.

"Let record companies die a miserable death for what they're doing to music. Then we can maybe start some record companies with different requirements — such as the people who work there actually having to know something about music."

"I don't want to write all this music anymore and then have people go off with it and be the artist with it, unless it's something really special. So I'm separating my producing and writing work more strongly. But when I do write with an artist, I always end up producing, because by the time we're finished the record is simply done."


Almost all of Leonard's music is written, and in part recorded, in his own Johnny Yuma Recording studio in Burbank, near LA. It's a fully-equipped facility, with 48 tracks of analogue/SR recording, and crammed with outboard gear. Of course his studio is also littered with keyboards. There's a 9" Steinway, plus a 7" Yamaha fitted with the Disclavier system (a real piano which can respond to MIDI data, real-time or recorded on the machine's own sequencer, with physical key movements — a MIDI age pianola). His collection of synths and electronic keyboards is eclectic and heavily biased towards older models. Amongst other things he owns a Hammond organ, a Yamaha CP70, a Clavinet, a Mellotron, a Chamberlain, a Roland Jupiter 8, a Minimoog, an Oberheim OBX, an Oberheim Xpander, a Super Jupiter, a Prophet VS and an Ensoniq ESQ1. Modern sound sources include a Yamaha DX7, a D50, an Emu Proteus, a Korg M3R, and an Akai S1000 with hard disk drive. His master keyboard is a Yamaha KX88.

"I haven't bought many synths over the last few years because they've become like Kleenex," he dead-pans. "Utterly disposable. I tend to hang on to my analogue stuff, to synths that I can actually program fast and easily. You can't really modify the sound very quickly on those modern keyboards, except the vibrato speed or something. That annoys me. Whilst watching TV shows today you can pick the presets, and I'd hate people to watch Miami Vice and hear the same sound on my record the next day. So when I make a record I try to make the sounds personal.

"I like to tailor-make the sound for the part, make it fit perfectly, so that you don't have to add tons of chorus or reverb to make it work. I like a part and a sound to be so right that you can move the fader 10dB either way and it still fits, rather than have this 'we'll get it right in the mix' attitude which many people have. And I prefer to program sounds rather than layer 1000 different preset synth textures. To me that makes just one bad sound. Unless it's so apparently correct that I can't beat it myself.

"The most important thing for me is that you can't often play a preset on the same level as you can play an acoustic piano. I like to have a sense of personal contact with a synth. I can go to my Jupiter 8, knock everything down so that it doesn't make a sound anymore, and in a minute create a sound that I can use. There's a very direct and personal contact with your instrument. Yet on a digital synth there are maybe 200 parameters and you don't know what half these things do. I mean, I've created a padding sound on the D50 and a bass sound on the DX7 which I use a lot. I do try. But with those modern machines you're always discovering things like: if I really hit this note down here very hard, and play really softly up there, the swell comes at a different time... When that happens I go: 'What???' Those things drive me crazy." (Laughs)


No wonder. When you write and record a song a day you don't want to spend four hours programming a sound. Speed, spontaneity and directness are vital ingredients in the Patrick Leonard songwriting method. Many of his compositions come from "noodling around on the acoustic piano at home, sometimes at 7 in the morning with my bathrobe on and a cup of tea. I have three kids you know, so I get up early."

He transfers his ideas onto an Akai/Linn MPC60 on arrival at the studio. Once the arrangement and structure of a song starts to take shape in the MPC60, it's time to stand back and evaluate. Alone or with Madonna, Leonard applies a very simple criterium: feeling. Here lies the heart of his whole approach to music, and possibly the reason why he is so successful. He doesn't focus on playing technique or technology or musical theories, and maintains that these things can seriously hamper your capacity to create good music.

"Occasionally I'm still cursed by the fact that I'm a good piano player. It's very easy for me to play something that sounds good. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it's a good piece of music. You might be playing dog shit. So I try not to be fooled by it.

"You always have to keep asking yourself: 'what does this make me feel like?' That's what matters. Not 'how good does this guy play?', or 'how hip is this chord voicing?' Equally you get people who buy an M3R, hook it up to their sequencer, bring up MIDI drum kit number 2 and get this great rock drum sound with a perfect bass sound, perfect stereo pad keyboards, and they go: 'man, am I good, that sounds just like a record.' But such idiots forget that it doesn't sound like a record because of them, but because of a computer which is fixing their playing flaws and because of sounds which are sampled and created by others. It isn't them at all, but a guy working for Korg."


The pitfalls of technology is one of Leonard's favourite topics, and he emphasises the importance of not losing sight of the forest for the trees, and for 'forest' read 'feelings'. It's the level where he and Madonna, a musical illiterate, meet. "She also focuses on the feeling a song gives her, and she can be very radical at that. There's an emotion in a song, and whilst we're doing overdubs she can suddenly go: 'That doesn't fit!' You go, 'but Madonna, that's one of the best guitar players in the world', and she fires back, 'I don't care, it doesn't fit'.

"Sometimes Madonna can't see the potential of something that doesn't work — yet. Then we fight and scream over it. Or there's a chord she doesn't like whereas to me it sounds great. In those cases I know that's she's looking for something far more simple. I'll try another chord, and she goes: 'it's not like that!' Secretly I'll know what she wants; the sort of lowest common denominator. So in the end I go: 'it's this, isn't it?' 'Yeah, that's it!' 'Well, we're not going to play that one, so forget it!' And we fight..."

The 'feeling' approach was applied to great effect on I'm Breathless, Madonna's 1990 album of '40s music. Although Leonard knew what that music was "supposed to sound like", because of his father's influence, the biggest rule of thumb whilst he and Madonna wrote material was, "the way that kind of stuff makes you feel."

Leonard adds that the orchestral lines he wrote for the album (orchestrated by Jeremy Lubbock) were "heavily influenced by Mahler. I like to listen to eclectic things, like Mahler, Vaughan Williams, Joni Mitchell and Led Zeppelin III. In terms of the music that I write now, put Chick Corea with Keith Jarrett, with The Beatles, with Yes and Pink Floyd, and this is what you get 20 years later. It's not that I want it to sound like them, but much more that I like my music to feel the way that music made me feel. I like my stuff to feel the way Chick Corea's stuff felt to me — that Latin thing where the groove is really deep. Who needs 'boom boom tak, boom boom tak?' Not me. Which is why there's a Latin influence in the grooves that I do. It's not funk-dance music."

"Almost all of the songs on Like A Prayer were written in three hours, with finished lead vocals and keyboards on tape and most of the arrangements laid out."


As mentioned above, Leonard plays his finished keyboard parts to tape rather than work with a sequencer and sync to tape. The reason is very simple: "I don't like hauling my studio around with me. I have a very eclectic gathering of synths. Am I going to bring 20 synths to a mix? But once the Neves are installed (he's just bought three Neve 8068s, two of which are being converted into a custom 64-channel desk) I'll be able to mix at Johnny Yuma, and then I might actually run all my keyboards from the MPC60."

Leonard also has a Macintosh, with Performer software, but tends to use it mainly for writing film soundtracks, or when he's doing rather complicated synth overdubs "and when I'm trying out parts. It allows me to do 10 passes of the same thing and not record anything on tape. I like that. I use the Mac in those situations because it's laid out like a tape recorder. When I'm doing overdubs I want something that works like a tape recorder, because it's much easier to see where you are and what you're doing."

Inevitably, many of the parts which Leonard has written — drums, bass, guitar, orchestra — get replaced by the real thing, as he's a firm believer in live playing: "I'm not excited by records that are played by sequencers. It's not real, it's not human. It can be clever, it can be sonically rewarding and sometimes those things can be misperceived as being music. But to me music is something that a person does with an instrument." Once he was "on a crusade against sequencers and drum machines", but over the years he's grown more pragmatic, recognising that in some cases a sequenced and/or quantised part can work better, or that he's already got the right notes in the machines anyway, so why play them again?

"A lot of times the initial notes I play are the right ones, so I leave them. And it saves a lot of time too." But these are relatively rare cases, and Leonard's approach to making records involves very much an organic, experimental, live atmosphere. Rather than hide in a dark control room and fiddle with digital boxes, he prefers go wild in the bathroom.

"I'll put up microphones in the bathroom, hallway or kitchen, and open up all the doors, before I try a digital reverb. I mean, think about the times you've walked into a rehearsal studio and through the door you hear this great drum sound. So put a mike up there, compress the shit out of it and put it on tape. That's why I have my assistant running around the studio building, placing mikes everywhere, trying out different spaces and sounds.

"Once you have a sound with a distance and a space, if it's too far back in time, move it up with a digital delay. Fly it off and fly it back in closer up. Or fly it in right at the same point as the original drums and use a delay to back it off how far you want it. Or put it in front of the drums. Cut the attack off with a noise gate and put it in front of the main drums so you've got a room in front with a kind of backwards effect. Or whatever. I just sit there and try things..."


This seems to be a side of the recording process which really gets Leonard going. Ideas are now coming thick and fast. As he pours himself another Cognac he elaborates about his love for compression: "I think compression is cool. A very valuable thing. But because it's so obvious it doesn't get used much as a real effect these days. When The Beatles used compression, they really used it. I like that. I'll try it before I try any other effect. The squashing-things-to-death compression I do with a Fairchild LA2 or LA4, or a dbx 160.

"I like to use compression together with noise gates. I might gate a synth pad and delay it by an 8th note triplet, say 167ms, and add chorus. That's a bit like MIDI-layering synth sounds together, but in a more fun way. Or I'll gate the acoustic piano from the hi-hat, delay the hi-hat with an 8th note, take the whole thing down a 6th with a harmoniser and get something that really makes a statement. Maybe it's awful — it's certainly likely to be kind of rough — but at least it's a statement.

"I like using delays and gates to create rhythmic parts. Like if you have a bass guitar playing crotchets, and you gate it from an 8th note delayed drum part. EQ it completely differently and add it as another part. That's nice because you're creating unique new parts from raw material that's already there. You're not adding things." Leonard's very 'physical' approach — bathroom-use and warping-equipment-to-its-limits — is reminiscent of the way records were made in the '60s and '70s.

He grins: "Call me old-fashioned, but I think the organic live way of recording is better. If you want to listen to drum machines all night whilst taking ecstasy, fine, go ahead. Just don't expect me to do it."

"Technology is the wah-wah pedal of the music industry at the moment. When the wah-wah pedal first came out you heard it on every record for a couple of years, and after that its usage gradually diminished. It's the same with sequencers and sampling. I believe that computer technology has benefitted many people and given them the opportunity to do things they otherwise would never have been able to do. Yet along with each one of those people another 50 people walked through the door that didn't have a right to be anywhere near anything that made music at all. Like those people that sample with their $300 Casio from a record that somebody else has made, loop it, and talk the most inane nonsense across. And as long as they have the most insane haircut, they're in, they can sell records. That's a very scary thing."


Leonard becomes thoughtful for a moment. "The only reservation I have about saying all this is that we people in our 30s and 40s, who grew up with Motown and Jimi Hendrix, have to be careful not to become like our parents. My father sincerely wanted to help me musically and understand the things I liked. But he just couldn't get behind it. To him Led Zeppelin and Yes were exactly the same. He couldn't hear the difference between Joni Mitchell and The Beatles. It was all this noise that sounded identical. So we have to be careful not to repeat that.

"My guess is that today's computer-based pop music is no more or less moronic than The Rolling Stones were 20 years ago, when they were playing two chords only and screaming on top of it. The Stones grew out of it, and turned out to be a brilliant and amazing rock'n'roll band. Hopefully the same will happen with today's stuff, but I'm afraid it won't, because it's too easy for the record companies to keep it this way. They're not supporting any innovations or developments in a significant way." And with that risk bankruptcy.

As far as Leonard's own efforts to change this dire state of affairs go, there will shortly be an album out by a new American songstress called Schascle, which he produced and about which he's very excited, and he's scheduled to write and record an album with Jeff Beck this Summer. And his own stuff? Last year he had a record released on which he finally had an artistic free hand. As founder member and principle writer of the band Toy Matinee, he came up with a vibrant collection of extremely tight and biting rock songs, very left-field, with plenty of '60s and '70s influences, yet still catchy and modern. It was probably one of the best records released in 1990. But before you run off to the local record shop, be warned. You'll be lucky to find a copy, because Reprise/WEA have deleted it.

Perhaps these companies do really deserve to go under.

Previous Article in this issue

Sweet Little Sixteen

Next article in this issue

Digitech DSP16

Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.

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Sound On Sound - Aug 1991

Interview by Paul Tingen

Previous article in this issue:

> Sweet Little Sixteen

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> Digitech DSP16

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