by Dana Feldman
At one point or another it is a safe bet that most of us have enjoyed, even perhaps been caught singing along to, one of musician Chas Sandford’s tunes. An acclaimed singer-songwriter, producer, guitarist and engineer, there isn’t much that he hasn’t done in relation to the music industry. Add creator of timeless classics — that still to this very day resonate with music lovers globally — to that list and you have a man who has, after decades of dedication, earned much deserved recognition for his album “Wag More, Bark Less” from the powers-that-be at the Grammys.
Of the honor of being considered during this most crucial of times, the very first round of Grammy voting, Sandford says of it all, “Obviously I am thrilled!” His song “Let Love Back In This House” is up for both Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year and the album itself is up for the coveted Album Of The Year, Best Americana Album and Best Engineered Album. Sandford is up for Best New Artist.
A total of six categories is no small feat for the man who is definitely not new at this game. Famous artists such as Stevie Nicks (her classic ‘Talk To Me’ was written by Sandford), Tina Turner, Rod Stewart, John Waite (he is still known for Sandford’s ‘Missing You’), Roger Daltrey, Millie Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Alison Krauss, David Wilcox and Sammy Hagar have all covered and recorded his songs over the years.
He independently released his second album back on January 11th of this year. A very personal album to him, he told me at the time, “As we all know, the more real, the better.” He admitted at the time that there are a lot of raw nerve endings hanging out on this album, which he said is about being happier, rather than in conflict all the time. He wrote the songs over the past several years after his divorce and a follow up romance went awry.
It took a bit of time, over two decades for those who had been waiting, for Sandford to release his second album, a follow-up to his debut ‘Parallax View’ (Elektra Records/Asylum), and it is more than clear that the long wait was well worth it.
Born in Atlanta, Sandford presently resides in Franklin, TN. He wore many hats in the making of this album, which he produced, engineered and mixed in his Secret Sound Studio. Some of the world’s top recording artists have used this studio to create music magic. Described as a melodic rock & pop mix of electric and acoustic styles, the album is filled with songs written about the themes of life, love and loss – themes of which we all can relate.
His debut album included songs that were covered by John Waite, Sammy Hagar, Rick Springfield and Sheila B. Devotion. When three of the songs he was writing for a planned second album turned into hits, a #1 hit for Waite with ‘Missing You’ and Top 5 singles for both Stevie Nicks with ‘Talk to Me’ and Chicago’s ‘What Kind of Man Would I Be’, he suddenly found himself as one of the most in-demand producer/songwriters in the music business. Of this change of directions for him as an artist, Sandford has been quoted as saying, “I’ve always wanted to be an artist, but I was on a roll as a producer and writer, so I went with it.”
He has garnered an astounding twelve ASCAP “Most Performed Song” awards and a total of over more than 6,750,000 airplays alone for the hit classic ‘Missing You’, making it one of the most played songs of all time. He has also produced a wide range of artists, including Chicago, Stevie Nicks, Roger Daltrey, Rod Stewart, Berlin, Gene Loves Jezebel, House of Schock and Don Johnson (with a cast of guest musicians which included Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt, Ron Wood and Dickey Betts).
On “Wag More, Bark Less,” he enlisted an all-star group of talented artists including bassist Davis Santos (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, John Fogerty, Billy Joel, Elton John, Phoebe Snow, James Taylor) and drummer Nick Buda (Taylor Swift, Jewel, Edwin McCain, Mindy Smith, Randy Houser), with cameos by Chicago’s Bill Champlin and James Matchack, Survivor’s Jim Peterik, recording artist/ slide guitarist Lee Roy Parnell, and singer-songwriter Nicole Witt on background vocals.
His career in music began when Sandford ran off to Los Angeles at the age of fifteen years old. As fate would have it, he met Ike Turner, dressed in a leopard skin bathrobe and shades, in an Inglewood alley in back of his own studio. The legendary musician invited him to a recording session with Ike & Tina and Delaney & Bonnie later that night, and Sandford has never looked back. He opened for The Eagles on the European leg of their Hotel California tour, then played in a band he put together with future A&R executive Tony Berg (they played themselves in Robert Altman’s ‘A Perfect Couple’ which included a live show at the Hollywood Bowl with the L.A. Philharmonic). Sandford went on to spend two memorable months on Broadway, and then he backed Bette Midler in the film ‘Divine Madness.’ Things continued to get better for Sandford when the late, great James Brown hand-picked him to perform with him at a charity show at the Arena, now named The James Brown Arena, in Augusta, GA.
His personal studio, Secret Sound, which has had incarnations in Los Angeles, Kauai, Nashville and now Franklin, TN, has become a go-to destination for a wide range of recording artists, including Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Madonna, Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, Celine Dion, Joe Cocker, Aaron Neville, Def Leppard, KISS, Keith Urban, Amy Grant, Wynonna, Levon Helm, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood, Shania Twain and Tim McGraw, among many others.
I interviewed him back in January just before his new album was released and here is a bit of our conversation.
What does it feel like to hear other artists perform your songs?
I love hearing other artists perform my songs. I am always interested in their vocal interpretation and delivery. How believable and heartfelt the performance is, if they own it. Everyone hears phrasing and subtle timing nuances in their own way. I have discovered and am often told my feel is kind of unique. Singers sometimes spend a lot of time trying to wrap their approach and feel around what sounds very simple on first listen, but is very different when they try to sing it. If I am involved with, or close to the production, I usually try to get them to just try it their way, but often they want to take the time to emulate what I have done in a particular place or with a particular feel, phrasing or timing. I always like hearing the different production ideas and approaches and, of course, am flattered when they emulate the original version. I distinctly remember being on pins and needles waiting to hear the Trevor Horn production of Tina Turner singing ‘Missing You’. I had not heard anything and got the final mix hand delivered to me just as I was getting on a plane. I put the headphones on and heard the first note just as the wheels left the ground. I had goose bumps the size of Volkswagens! I will never forget that moment.
Do they ever change them in a way that you like more or less?
Of course, that would be only natural. As I mentioned, I loved Tina Turner’s version and Trevor Horn’s production of ‘Missing You’, even though it was quite different and had a slightly different arrangement. I have heard other versions that left particular parts out or just didn’t feel right to me personally, though they were quite well received. So ultimately I am always thrilled and appreciative when someone records one of my songs.
What is the feeling when you see those songs become huge hits and all time classics?
Well there is hardly a better feeling in the world! It is kind of like having children really. You want them to grow up, go out into the world and find their own way and be successful. It is very much like that. I honestly feel as a creator that you are just the conduit where these creations flow through and it is kind of your sacred duty to do your best to honor that and “raise them” to be successful, and hopefully touch others. That is all a part of the full circle of the creative process to me.
Do you think those songs needed to be performed by others to become a hit? For instance, ‘Talk To Me’ (one of my all time favorites) which was performed by Stevie Nicks?
In that particular instance, as in many others I think it is “The Record” which is kind of the perfect storm. It is the marriage of the right song, with the right vocal and the right production that all come together at that right, perfect moment in time. The perfect alignment of all those elements is what makes a memorable or classic record that you remember for years and years. There were so many of those that I grew up on and always remember. Whenever I hear those records, they completely take me back to the first moment I heard them, the place, the time, the weather, the smells, it all comes back to me, that embedded memory seems to exist on the cellular level and becomes so vibrant and vivid when it is reawakened. That is unique to music I believe. Different from a book, a film or any other medium I can think of. I have been blessed enough to have been involved in a handful of those and that is why I do what I do. I love that feeling and experience. I do believe there is “THE Classic” version of a record or song but I always want to hear the original version and appreciate other versions. The original usually has an angst or special element that is coupled with the moment of creation that is unique. There is something magical about that. ‘Talk To Me’ actually was my original demo which I produced and added Stevie to. We did cut another version, but ultimately it was that vibe of the original that won out and became the classic version that we all know, and got the Grammy nomination. I try to record a version of a song as close to the moment of creation as possible. That is why I have always had my own studio. There is an intoxication in that first moment, a newness as it comes from somewhere else, like the first moment of falling in love, the first kiss. I feel like often when you can capture that moment, it is never quite the same when you reproduce it at a later, sometimes much later, date. For instance, all the songs on ‘Wag More, Bark Less’ were done at my studio, Secret Sound, and were the original versions with at least some, if not most, of the elements done as the song was written or immediately thereafter.
Is there ever a regret that you didn’t perform ‘Missing You’ which became a huge hit for John Waite?
No, again that was a classic moment in time and record. And John’s vocal performance was so great. They had tried to cut that several times and it didn’t work for whatever reason. I brought back in the original demo, we re-listened and got back into the vibe of it, recreated the sounds and simplicity of that moment and the perfect storm came together when John delivered literally a career vocal. It was magic and that’s what it’s all about really. I still do that song live and may record it at some point, most likely as a live version. I love performing it and people seem to appreciate my version as well as the song itself. I have enjoyed all the versions I have heard of it, for some element or another, but that version will remain the classic.
Your new album, ‘Wag More, Bark Less,’ is filled with fantastic songs about heartache, longing and sorrow over painful memories of love lost. When writing songs about such personal experiences, do you ever draw the line and keep certain things off the record for the sake of privacy?
Well first, thank you. No, not really. I usually try to write as close to the heart and experience as possible and just let it flow out. I think the more truthful and exposed the raw nerve endings are the more powerful the song. And I naturally tend to frame things in a general way that would let people tap into the experience, the emotion or feeling of what I was going through and wouldn’t usually mention very specific elements such as times, places or names that might pull from, or distract from, the feeling or emotion. That is just my particular style and not so much a conscious effort. There are times when a song may be a conglomeration of events or persons that are blended together to express a single emotion, as well. That’s not to say when I’m co-writing I wouldn’t describe a particular experience and person to the co-writer who might be familiar with them. Co-writes usually start with people catching up, bitching or elated about life or circumstances and someone goes ooohh, and off you go. Of course, those who know me and my life might have an opinion as to whom I may have written something about. Although strangely enough sometimes they are completely wrong! Ha. And as you might imagine, most long past girlfriends tend to think the beautiful love songs are always written about them. So I just smile and have no comment.
When writing songs about love lost, does the process purge that pain and heal you from those experiences, or does it bring up the pain and force you to relive those experiences?
I would have to say both. Of course at first you really have to kind of relive it to bring up the real emotion. You have to re-experience it in a way to genuinely write about it meaningfully or in a way that will touch others I believe. I try to relive and relate the experience and keep the craftsmanship at bay as much as possible. I think that makes for a more powerful song. If needed, I might then use the craftsmanship to tidy up the rough bits and make it flow more concisely. But when it’s all over I always feel better, feel a sense of relief and accomplishment, kind of like having a real good cry. Eventually the pain subsides and you feel much better than you did before.
What advice can you give to other songwriters out there who would be honored to accomplish what you have?
I would have to repeat the things that always resonated in me, keep it real. Write and create from the heart, with all your heart. Write what you know. Learn your craft. Keep the bar high. Emulate the greats and you will learn much and your own style will eventually emerge. That’s what the greats did. They emulated the previous generations. Truly love what you do and don’t get caught up with all the naysayers and doom and gloom predictors. They have always been around and never got anywhere. Pay attention to, but don’t follow trends. They are usually over before you can get good at it. Be yourself. And again, LOVE what you do.
Was there ever anything else that you thought about doing as a career?
Truthfully, no. Other than a brief stint of wanting to be James Bond when I grew up, which in retrospect may have been slightly easier. I started so young I didn’t know any better. This truly has always been my dream and what I feel I was made to do. And feast or famine, I am living the dream.
Sandford has been quoted as saying that his best successes have always come when he is doing his own thing, and this latest album is proof of just that. Sandford says, “I am proud of this album and am extremely thankful for all of the talented people who helped me along the way to get it to this point.”
Song List for ‘Wag More, Bark Less’ (Produced, Engineered, and Mixed by Chas Sandford with Hanalei Music Group):
1. Let Love Back In This House
2. The Best Of Times
3. Someday Susan
4. I Believed
6. My Favorite Regret
7. I’ll Be There
8. Whenever I See Your Smile
9. Waiting For The Sun
10. Love Can Really Mess You Up
11. Because Of You
12. It’s Changing