Interview With Songwriter, Producer & Guitarist Clint Wells
We recently had the pleasure to catch up with and interview songwriter, guitarist, producer, and top rated session player Clint Wells. Since his teens Clint has been a working professional guitarist. Now residing in Nashville, he makes a living touring and doing sessions with a number of regional and national acts. A prolific songwriter himself, Clint’s success as a session guitarist and sideman is no mystery. Not only does he have sensational chops as a player, he’s deeply committed to playing for the song. Clint has built a career for himself in one of the most competitive places to work as a musician, and his unique perspective has a lot to offer any artist.
You can find Clint’s services here: http://www.airgigs.com/user/ClintWells
Tell us a bit about your development as a musician.
I’ve always had a deep connection with music. Whether it was Prince or Guns N’ Roses or Vanilla Ice (my first cassette tape, actually) I was never without a walkman. My parents divorced when I was young so music really became a refuge. A safe, consistent place to explore my own feelings and the larger world around me from my small southern town. I started playing guitar when I was twelve. I really can’t describe how exhilarating it was to play the opening chords to Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” and realize that I could actually make music sound the way it did on my heroes’ records. I soon connected with like-minded friends in school and we put together our first little band, playing 90’s rock like Pearl Jam, Oasis and Metallica. We also fancied ourselves archivists and challenged one another with obscure Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, ELO, Fleetwood Mac, The Smiths, etc. When I was 16 I joined a prominent local cover band playing in bars three or four nights a week, barely making it to high school the next morning where, inexplicably, I was still a nerd! In order for the bars to maintain their liquor licenses I was not allowed to leave my spot on stage the entire night. So during set breaks when my older bandmates were meeting girls or saying hi to friends I would just sit on a stool playing Ozzy riffs! That’s so funny to think about now. I started touring when I was 21 and I’ve been on the road and making records ever since.
Are you self taught as a musician, or did you attend school (or both)?
I learned to play guitar by sitting down with my favorite records and trying to emulate the guitar parts. Tablature was helpful in the early days but I soon realized that training my ear was just as important as learning the right notes. I would sit for hours with KISS records picking out Ace Frehely licks. I was fortunate enough to have a Tascam 4-track back then so I would take a song like “Hotel California” and record the whole thing on guitar. Deconstructing and recording those songs not only taught me how to play the guitar parts, but also the fundamentals of songwriting. Structure, arrangement, harmony, etc.
You’re a talented and prolific songwriter. Can you tell us a little a bit about how songs come together for you?
It’s different every time. Sometimes the lyric comes first as poetry. Sometimes there’s a riff or chord progression that sounds inspiring. A song usually pours out pretty quickly when I sit down at a piano or play a ukulele or any other secondary instrument. Discomfort is a great starting point in general for any creative expression. An idea I strongly believe in about songwriting is that you have to be willing to do the work, even when you don’t feel inspired. The assumption that one necessarily needs a muse or heartache or personal experience to write a song is a myth. Songwriting is a craft, a muscle you have to exercise. I write up to five songs a week when I’m not touring, both for myself and with artists and other writers in Nashville. They’re not all great songs, but that’s not really the point. The point is taking it seriously and treating it like a craft, the way any disciplined writer does.
You do a lot of co-writing with other artists. Is collaboration important to you as an artist?
For me, collaboration is essential. I grew up loving BANDS. I always wanted to be a part of a team. Even when I obsessed over Michael Jackson records as a kid I would read in the liner notes about Quincy Jones and Glenn Ballard and all the people MJ was collaborating with to make those classic records. In co-writing I always love having other folks in the room, especially if I already know and trust them. I think it’s important to sit with yourself and pursue creative expression on your own, that’s a muscle as well. But the richest moments I’ve had as a musician and the best songs I have written have been the product of collaboration.
What are some of the experiences that helped you grow the most as a musician and songwriter?
The most important thing I did when I was younger is surround myself with musicians who were better than me. I still do this. I love learning from other players and writers. I believe it’s important to have the courage to reach out to someone you admire and ask about gear or touring or family or publishing deals or management, etc. I feel a strong sense of camaraderie with other artists. The other important thing is to just do the work. If you’re terrified of performing you need to go perform. If you’re worried your song stinks, write it anyway. Stop waiting. Put the band together. Buy the guitar. Pitch your songs to a publishing house. Just do the work.
Have you always lived in the Nashville area, or did you move there to be centrally located in a musical capital?
I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama which is three hours south of Nashville. By the time I was ready to make the move I had already been touring with some artists there and had friends I was networked with so I was lucky in that regard. Once I got to Nashville it was clear this was the place I needed to be to do this job. It’s not for everyone, of course. I have many lovely talented friends making music elsewhere, particularly in Austin and NYC. But it’s perfect for me and my family. In addition to the history, there’s a great sense of community here.
How did you get into music production?
I started producing records when I was 20. A good friend of mine owned a studio in Birmingham and was a talented producer/engineer/piano player. He would get artists and bands in his studio and hire me to co-produce as well as play all the guitars and bass. We also did quite a bit of commercial work, crafting ambient music and jingles for national television. It was a great experience learning my way around a studio environment.
Tell us a bit about your studio setup?
Since moving to Nashville, whenever I produce a record I use someone else’s studio. But I needed a good setup for my songwriting demos and for remote guitar/bass sessions. I use an MBox 2, Logic Pro X and a handful of decent microphones. It’s a humble setup but I get great sounds out of it. When I tour I take an Apogee Duet which enables me to do do sessions from green rooms, venues, buses and hotel rooms wherever I may be.
In terms of doing session work, are you best suited for a certain sound or style?
To compete in Nashville you have to be fluent in all kinds of styles. For example, I wasn’t as interested in country guitar playing but now that I tour with several country artists and work on their records I’ve beefed up my chops in that department considerably. I find that I thrive creatively and enjoy myself the most when I’m working on texture, ambience, melody and hooks. I’m much more interested in the body of work Mike Campbell (of Tom Petty) has made than I am of your average guitar virtuoso. My favorite guitar player is Neil Young. He may not be the most technically advanced player in the world, but his solos are lyrical and raw and real (check out “Cortez the Killer,” “Down By the River,” and “Revolution Blues”). That’s really what I’m aiming for when I play the guitar. That directness and honesty.
Can you share any long term music goals, dreams or aspirations?
Every year I do this professionally I’m so grateful. I get to travel the world, meet and work with my heroes, stand on stage in front of thousands of people and get paid to write songs, which is something I would be doing even if I never made a dime from it. When I think about the future I guess I just want to keep moving forward. I want the challenge of the next gig, the next session, the next song. I want to be a better musician. I want to be a better listener. Most importantly, I want to cultivate and nourish whatever it is that continues to draw me to art and music. If I lose that then what’s the point?