Interview by Matt Howe / Barbra Archives
Robbie Buchanan, a native of Vancouver, has been a studio musician [keyboardist] and music producer all his life. He was cast as the keyboard player in "The Rose" with Bette Midler in 1978.
His website, Robbie Buchanan On-Line, has a great biography and a very detailed discography - he's worked with so many incredible music artists. He's obviously a very talented man who's made a wonderful career doing what he loves.
Robbie was very generous and took some time out from working on a track in his home studio to talk to me about his work with Barbra Streisand.
Robbie played keyboards and co-wrote a song on 1984's EMOTION album; played more keyboards on TILL I LOVED YOU in 1988; A LOVE LIKE OURS in 1999; and he produced a song on CHRISTMAS MEMORIES in 2001.
Robbie produced three tracks on Barbra's newest album THE MOVIE ALBUM: "Calling You," "Moon River," and "How Do You Keep the Music Playing".
Matt Howe: I got THE MOVIE ALBUM almost two weeks ago. I love it.
Robbie Buchanan: I'm very happy with it, yeah. Some of the arrangements that are on there are just spectacular.
MH: It sounds great. She sounds great.
RB: Doesn't she though? She sounds really good, she's in top form.
MH: The fans that have heard the album or the 7-minute medley that Sony is streaming, are very excited about "Calling You." Personally, it's my favorite track on the whole album. I think it's awesome!
RB: Cool. Oh that's great. Thank you, that's good. That's one of mine. My family and I went to Hawaii and I took that song with me and we rented this beautiful apartment in Kapalua Bay in Maui. It was on Good Friday this year, and we had just checked in. My daughter was taking a little nap. The top of the apartment had these louvered windows that can open to let air in. Kapalua Bay is very windy. So when they're closed, wind seeps through there and goes 'wooooooooo'. And I'm listening to it, and it sounds great. I keep listening to it and I started hearing chords and it sounds like weird voices going 'wooooo' in chords, like a choir kind of thing - but moving around pitch-wise. And it was so weird, and I was hearing all this beautiful stuff mixed into that wind. I couldn't tell what the hell was going on. I thought, that must be just the wind coming through there, and I'm just taking it too far. Then my daughter, who is also a singer, she yells out, "Daddy, come here and listen to this!" She heard the same thing. So we went out on the porch and listened closely. What it was ... it was Good Friday and there was a choir rehearsing for a service that night about a half a mile away in Kapalua Bay and it was coming through with the wind just at that same level. I based that whole arrangement on that sound. It gave me the idea to do it that way.
MH: That's amazing.
RB: Yeah, it was pretty amazing. It was pretty spiritual. That's the track we did the least amount of changes to, actually. [Barbra] changes a lot of stuff.
MH: My friend Paul said I should ask how much you bring to the table when you work with Barbra Streisand and is she open to suggestions? Is she collaborative?
RB: Yeah. They'll say "we'd like you to produce this tune," then I go from there. I do an arrangement on it and then she edits my arrangement. It's very collaborative. She's definitely a hands-on girl. Some songs we do several different versions of. And she's very picky about tempo changes and stuff like that. Sometimes she asks for a key change down, which is a cool thing, too. Like in "How Do You Keep the Music Playing" -- on that I put a modulation down into the last verse. So when it modulates up through the end of the song, it's actually back up to the original key. So it sounds like it's going up.
MH: You're making me want to listen to the modulation in the song again! Barbra recorded a version of "How Do You Keep The Music Playing" in 1984 for the EMOTION album, but it was never released. Were you involved with the original version, too?
RB: No. But she wanted us originally to use that vocal and do an arrangement around it. But it just didn't work because the vocal — she just sang it better now. It's better for her to just do it again.
MH: You can barely tell the difference, though. She sounds just as good today on that song as she did in 1984. Did Barbra want you to be influenced by the original arrangement at all?
RB: No, she specifically said "don't use anything from that arrangement." We did that arrangement probably four or five times. That was a really hard song to do.
MH: I like the piano motif.
RB: That kind-of intro into the beginning and the ending? Yeah, that's part of the theme of the whole thing.
MH: I like that. I like Barbra's humming on the fade-out.
RB: Yeah, well that was her idea, too. That was good.
MH: Can you tell me anything about "Moon River"?
RB: That was the third song I did. One of the songs got dropped that they had already recorded — I don't know what it was — and they came up with the idea of "Moon River" and Jay, the Executive Producer, said "why don't you do a quick little demo of an arrangement and see if she likes it."
MH: "Jay" is Jay Landers.
RB: Yes, Jay is very instrumental in making her records. He's there every inch of the way, he's there for every minute of everything, and I don't know how they could make a record without him. He's just that involved, and he keeps it all together. Because she's a hundred-percent person, she's got a lot going on. And she has a lot to say about everything. So he's the one that keeps everything on track with what she has in mind and keeps her happy and everyone else, too. And he has a lot of good musical ideas, too. I did ["Moon River] up here in Canada — I like to do my arrangements up here.
MH: You're in Canada now?
RB: Yeah. I'm from Vancouver. My family's up here too. I come up here every other week. I just bring my work with me. Your work's easy on a hard drive now. Or you're writing. So I just bring that stuff with me and plug it in - I've got the same system here as I do in the studio down there.
So I did a little arrangement on ["Moon River"], played it for them and they said they like it just like that. Except that she wanted to change the first half to 3/4 [time]. I had done the whole song in 4/4. So they didn't want to do the same as everything else [on the album]. But we tried to model it a little bit after the Audrey Hepburn thing, you know with the guitar from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANYS. So we modeled it on that, which is what she wanted to do, and she loved it. She came over to my house and we cut a track - just her and I together. Then I did an arrangement around that.
MH: You recorded at your house?
RB: Oh yeah.
MH: Do most music people have studios in their homes?
RB: Not everybody, but most people do, I think. It's so easy now. I've had one for 20 years. It's hard for me to think of not having one because I would have to go somewhere if I had an idea and I wanted to put it down. You don't have to drive somewhere. By the time you got there, you'd forgotten half of what you wanted to do.
MH: So Barbra came over, sang the track and that was pretty much it?
RB: Yeah, she sang it. Most of her vocals came from that night, too, for that song. Then I redo my arrangement around what we did there, keeping in tact what I did for the demo. Then we go to the Sony soundstage and record the orchestra. For doing vocals, it's great to do them at home. [The singers] have no pressure on them. It's much easier for them, I think, to do it in that atmosphere. They don't feel like that have to pull up this incredible performance in front of all those people. They can screw up and it's not a big deal. I think that's better for a vocal in the end. Some of her vocals came from the scoring stage too, when there is a bunch of people around. With someone like Barbra, she can do it, but a lot of singers like to have the privacy.
MH: You do different takes of the song, whether it's in your home or on the Sony soundstage with the entire orchestra, and then you create the master vocal from the best takes?
RB: That's right.
MH: That's fascinating. The first time you worked with Barbra was on her album EMOTION in 1984. "Heart Don't Change My Mind" is one of my favorite songs! I think I told you that in my email. If I make a Barbra tape to listen to on my walkman, "Heart" is inevitably one of the main songs I always put on it. It's just the best song.
RB: Oh thank you, man, that's very nice.
MH: You co-wrote that with Diane Warren, right?
RB: I don't contribute any lyrics. Diane actually wrote a lot of the melody. I wrote all the music, and then she started messing with the melody based on that music and then we finished the melody together and she wrote all the lyrics. That's the first song I ever wrote with her actually.
MH: You've written others with Diane Warren?
RB: Yes I have. One's a really gorgeous song called "Any Other Fool." It was done by Patti Austin. Actually, Sadao Watanbe was the artist, but Patti Austin was the singer. She sang it great. We wrote another song called "Love Always Finds a Reason." It was a huge hit in France and it was done by Glenn Medeiros and Elsa. They had a huge hit as a duet. It was the biggest hit there in years. They still play it. We wrote that together. We wrote another song called "Somebody in Your Life" which was a big hit for Luis Miguel. That was a big hit for him for years. They still play it live onstage.
MH: Well, I love "Heart Don't Change My Mind".
RB: Thanks, yeah, that was a good song, a very strong song.
MH: From 1984 to 2003, at least on the Streisand album credits I look at, it seems like you've progressed from session musician to producer.
RB: I don't do sessions any more. I haven't done them for a few years. I eventually had to say no, because people would call me to play or arrange. I ended up having to do a lot with the record itself. I wanted to be heard as a producer so I just started saying no - I don't play on stuff unless I'm producing it. Here I am now, I got to be a producer.
MH: The first song you produced for Streisand was "It Must Have Been the Mistletoe" on CHRISTMAS MEMORIES. A lot of fans, including me, like that song because it's one of the few uptempo songs she's done lately.
RB: Yeah she's not really know for uptempo. She's better at ballads. ["It Must Have Been the Mistletoe"] was one of the less important songs on the record. It was something that she picked that the other people didn't want to have on the record, but she liked it and so they gave it to me to see what I would do with it. So I did an arrangement, and they liked the arrangement. And that's how it got in there. That's how it all ended up happening.
MH: It's got some good background singing too. Sue Ann Carwell and Wendi Wagner.
RB: Sue Ann Carwell did all the backgrounds on Toni Braxton's song "Unbreak My Heart".
MH: Do you choose the background vocalists as a producer?
RB: Usually, yeah. I usually choose all the players. The kind of songs like "Mistletoe", "Calling You," and "Moon River," I play everything. I play all the acoustic guitars and keyboard, and then I get an acoustic guitar player to duplicate it. And I sit there and make sure everything is exactly the same. But if we're going to cut something with an orchestra, sometimes she'll say she wants to have Randy [Waldman] there to play the keyboard part. Because Randy knows her timing so well. Randy is just an awesome player. He's such a great player. If I'm producing, I want to sit in the control room and hear everything that's going on, yes and no everything. On a date that big - a 65 piece orchestra and full rhythm section - that's a lot of people to make sure that everything is played correctly, played well, and played with taste, let alone not making any mistakes. It's hard to sit there and play piano as [overseeing all of] that.
Barbra produced a lot of [THE MOVIE ALBUM] herself. She would have, let's say, Jorge Calandrelli do an arrangement and it would be beautiful or it would be the wrong thing. They'd make a bunch of changes there. Then a few days later they say "oh I wish we'd done that first thing." Then go back and do it again. In her case you can do that. In most cases you can't do that because it's so costly. [Barbra] takes the time and money to make sure she gets what she wants and to make sure it's done correctly too. Which is pretty admirable.
MH: Is there anything that the Barbra fans out there should look for in the future from you? Any projects you'd like them to know about or look out for?
RB: Well, I just finished producing a Bette Midler record.
MH: Oh! Bette Midler Sings The Rosemary Clooney Songbook!
RB: It's a fabulous record. You'd love it. She's singing just great - so good. She's really a great singer.
MH: And Barry Manilow did a lot of the tracks, too, right?
RB: Barry and I produced it together. I produced Barry's Christmas record last year.
MH: I was reading your website - you've worked with everyone! It's so incredible how many recording artists you've worked with.
RB: I've worked with a lot of people. I've been around a long time.
MH: Anything else?
RB: Jay Landers and I wrote a song for Disney. It's the theme song for the Four Princesses. Belle, the Little Mermaid... This song is going to be the song that's behind all of that. Jay is very good, he really knows his stuff. You know what? He wrote the lyric to this song. It's an amazing lyric. He called me and asked me to write a song for it. I wrote the melody and the music and I gave it to him. He said, "well, I want to give it to a lyricist now, do you have any ideas?" I said, "well, why don't you take a shot at it?" Because he's so good with words. Usually when we're doing vocals and we want an ad lib he'll say, "here, why don't you say something like this?" He wrote an incredible lyric. I can't imagine a better lyric than that.
MH: Anything else about Barbra?
RB: I should say something about working with [Barbra Streisand] because that's probably the most important thing [the fans] want to know. She's extremely talented. All hands-on. She's completely hands-on. She's there for almost everything. She's not there when I do my arrangement. But she makes the changes and all that stuff, and she's there for the date, the orchestra. She's right in there on comping the vocals. She makes sure every breath is in the right place.
MH: What is "comping the vocals"?
RB: Comping the vocals means putting the vocals together - taking the different takes and using the best of each take. Everybody does that - that's the way the world does vocals. And she's got an incredible memory. She remembers everything that she sang! Everything. She'll remember the beginning of a line on a take that was taped weeks ago at some other place. "What about that one? That was a really good one. Why don't we use that?" Sure enough, we go back to that one and it was good.
MH: So she studies her takes, right?
RB: Oh yeah, she gets a CD and it'll have take 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. It'll be seven takes of the vocal on one song. She'll listen to them. And we have a system that we use, checkmarks and stuff like that, for what we liked on a song. So if we liked the first line on take one we check it off -- basically we go through the song like that. And she's great at that, she's really good. She actually did the first comp of "How Do You Keep the Music Playing" on her own. I mean, I recorded all the vocals with her, but she picked it. And for the most part it was great. I can't say that there are many artists able to do that. You have to be able to be objective.
You have to get the feeling along with the perfection. That's what a great record is. If you have just the feeling but it's not executed well, like it's out of tune, that's no good. But if it's just in tune and it didn't have the feeling, that's no good either. That's worse. Because the feeling is the most important thing. So the best thing to do is to get the feeling and fix it if it needs to be. Which we can do, because we have the technology. But you have to have feeling, and you have to pull it off technically. That's what makes a great performance. And she's great at that. That's why all those vocals sound so good because she did them both. She's great to work with. She's tough, very critical. But I like that because it makes you do your best. It makes you go that extra mile and take that extra step to get one last extra 2% out of the vocals, out of the arrangement, out of the playing - everything. You really go for it. I like that about her a lot.
MH: Does Barbra work until the last minute when the deadline for the album is coming, or does it really depend on the specific track being worked on and where it's at in the process?
RB: Sometimes she's never satisfied until the last moment. But I find that if she wasn't satisfied it wouldn't go on the record. I think that's where she's at. She doesn't have to. She doesn't have to do what a record company says. She does what she wants to do because she's Barbra Streisand. She can do that. She's not doing it for the money. She's doing it for the love of doing it. So therefore, she's not going to settle for anything less than what she thinks is great.
Robbie Buchanan's work on Streisand albums:
• Time Machine (keyboards & horn arrangements) • Heart Don’t Change My Mind (written by: Diane Warren, Robbie Buchanan) • Here We Are At Last (Synthesizer)
Till I Loved You (1988)
• Why Let It Go? (Synthesizers) • Two People (Synthesizers) • What Were We Thinking Of (Synthesizers) • Some Good Things Never Last (Synthesizers)
A Love Like Ours (1999)
• It Must Be You (Synthesizers) • Just One Lifetime (Synthesizers)
Christmas Memories (2001)
• It Must Have Been The Mistletoe (Produced, Arranged)
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