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Tony Visconti on David Bowie, Blackstar and beyond

David Davies 7 April 2017
Tony Visconti on David Bowie, Blackstar and beyond

“I am working too much but really, I cannot think of a better thing that one could be doing,” says Tony Visconti as he discusses a hugely distinguished career in music production that is now nearing its half-century mark and will soon yield a further round of releases from artists including singer/songwriter Kristeen Young and fashion designer turned singer Daphne Guinness.

Suffice to say, there isn’t much opportunity for taking stock in Visconti’s day-to-day life, although the phenomenal run of acknowledgement that he has received during the last 12 months – including the International Producer of the Year and Outstanding Contribution to UK Music trophies at the recent Music Producers Guild Awards, and multiple awards as part of the team that worked on David Bowie’s final masterpiece, Blackstar – can’t help but prompt a little reflection on the long road travelled.

“It is a great honour [to get a lifetime achievement-style award] and it is wonderful to be recognised by your peers in this way,” says Visconti, “but I certainly don’t feel as if my career is over…”

Blackstar was one of his very best…”

Such a strong sense of continuation must surely be welcome after a 2016 that saw the death of arguably Visconti’s most important collaborator: David Bowie. From 1969’s eponymously-titled second studio album, through ‘70s landmarks such as The Man Who Sold the World and the somewhat erroneously-labelled Berlin Trilogy (Low, Heroes and Lodger), and on to the post-millennial reunion with albums including Heathen and The Next Day, Visconti produced or co-produced many of Bowie’s most influential and best-loved albums.

The partnership continued right up until 2016’s Blackstar, which – as has been well-documented – was recorded during Bowie’s battle with cancer and released just three days before his passing. An extraordinarily inventive album recorded with a new band of primarily jazz-oriented players, Blackstar appeared to constitute a bold new chapter in Bowie’s creative story. But contrary to the perception that still lingers in some quarters, it was never regarded by its creator as the final chapter.

“With the previous album, The Next Day [released in 2013], there was a sense of trepidation as David had had a ten-year lay-off and no one was quite sure [in the initial stages] whether it would actually be released or not,” recalls Visconti. “But with Blackstar he had a different attitude, and knew that he wanted to make a kick-ass album, for want of a better term!”

Despite his illness, “he didn’t think he was going to die, and in fact he thought he had maybe found a new muse with this album. Throughout the sessions his energy was spectacular… and he did intend to make another album after Blackstar.”

Visconti himself regards the LP as “one of David’s very best”, although it is to be expected that he finds it difficult to listen back to the album at this point in time. “More than a year has passed and I am still at some stage of grief,” he confirms. “Occasionally I get very choked up when speaking about him…”

One of several important ways in which Visconti has been able to process his grief has been through touring with Holy Holy. Established specifically to perform Bowie’s early ’70s music, the band features Visconti on bass alongside original Spiders From Mars drummer Woody Woodmansey and Heaven 17 vocalist Glenn Gregory.

As fate would have it, Holy Holy was booked to play a show in Toronto on the night after Bowie’s passing. “At the time I felt like going home and crying my eyes out, but I thought to myself that that was not the way to handle it and that we should play the show,” says Visconti. “I told the others that even if we do break down onstage, the fans will want us to continue and play. And after that realisation it started to become therapeutic.”

The Holy Holy project is very much ongoing, and at the time of his interview with PSNEurope Visconti was looking forward to a short tour at the end of March, including two shows in the newly-anointed UK City of Culture, Hull – where Woodmansey formed the Spiders of Mars together with the late, great Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder all those years ago.

“Studios are on the rise again…”

Although archival projects for Bowie and other key former collaborators such as Marc Bolan (for whom he produced most of his ’70s classic recordings) are always likely to form part of Visconti’s workload, it is clear that his primary focus is on new recordings. As well as the aforementioned Guinness and Young, he has also been working with singer/songwriter Mary Epworth. In fact, she was the first artist to work at Visconti Studio, a recently opened facility located at Kingston University, with which he has a long association.

Visconti – who received a Honorary Doctorate and Visiting Professorate from the university last September – is full of praise for the new studio, which features a 300sqm octagonal live room and a myriad of vintage and rare recording equipment. Centre of operations, though, is an Audient ASP8024 Heritage Edition console, which Visconti describes as “absolutely amazing”.

The producer’s homebase is New York, where he operates a studio in a creative complex called Human Worldwide. Primarily geared towards post-tracking work such as vocals, keyboards and mixing, the studio is “Pro Tools and Logic based with some great preamps and channel strips” from the likes of Universal Audio. Visconti works in the box, although he is currently mulling the possibility of acquiring an analogue console.

For his tracking needs, Visconti travels far and wide, having recently logged time in cities including Los Angeles and London – but admits that the situation back in New York isn’t exactly ideal. The Magic Shop, where Bowie recorded much of his music in the final years of his life, closed its doors last year, and overall “there are unfortunately fewer spaces available.” There are studios that are doing well, notably Electric Lady, “which is really thriving, but you might have to wait three months for a booking.”

Nonetheless, Visconti senses that “something is in the air” and even ventures the opinion that “studios are on the rise again”, pointing to a recent uplift in the number of smaller, project- or producer-led facilities in the UK and US.

He’s got his own album to do…

Despite having wholly or partly produced more than 100 albums, releases under Visconti’s own name – 1977’s Visconti’s Inventory and a fine 2007 memoir entitled The Autobiography: Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy aside – have been rather scarce. But as he reveals to PSNEurope, that could soon be about to change with the possible release of a solo album.

“My schedule has been crazy, so it’s taking a while,” he admits. “But I think I have become a better composer now, so if and when I do put out an album it will be the very best that I can do. There are both instrumentals and songs, and I think I could be ready by the end of this year…”

When asked to describe the material stylistically, Visconti responds with a laugh, “Oh, it’s pop music; nothing very deep!” Those who have followed his career over the past five decades might beg to differ, as it has often seemed that he has done more than almost any other producer to enrich and extend the possibilities of pop – and long may he continue to do so.

www.tonyvisconti.com

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