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A Change in Seas : Morissette's 'Pill' Transformed Producer Glen Ballard's Profile

August 08, 1996|RICHARD CROMELIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Glen Ballard, one of the hottest record producers in the music business, is a technology junkie, the kind of guy who buys the first model of a new product off the assembly line a year before the price goes down and the bugs are worked out.

But there's only one piece of hardware that he always packs in its special case and takes to every recording session: the espresso machine that he's now operating in the kitchen of his weekend house in Malibu.

The device carries a little symbolism. Ballard says espresso is his only vice in a work-driven, health-conscious life that has gone from just highly successful to out-of-sight.

"I have an enormous capacity for work. I'm very focused," says Ballard, a small-framed man with the graceful movements and clear, intense gaze of a yoga instructor. "This is what I do. It's seven days a week for me. That's my passion. I have no other interests."

Ballard, 43, arrived in Hollywood from his hometown of Natchez, Miss., in 1975 with an undergraduate degree from the University of Mississippi in literature, journalism and political science but no show-biz contacts.

He got a job at Elton John's Rocket Records label, and later became a protege of Quincy Jones, writing and/or producing for George Benson, James Ingram and Patti Austin. In 1986 he wrote both George Strait's country hit "You Look So Good in Love" and Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror." Other entries on his resume include Wilson Phillips, Paula Abdul, Barbra Streisand and Curtis Stigers.

He moved into earthier territory in 1994 when his publishers, MCA Music Publishing, hooked him up with another of their clients--an unknown, unsigned Canadian teenager. Together they co-wrote and produced the record that would go on to dominate pop music in 1995 and beyond--Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill."

His current production projects don't figure to slow his momentum: the new Aerosmith album, and the new songs by Van Halen--with prodigal singer David Lee Roth--that will be included on the band's greatest-hits collection.

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It all adds up to an impressive power base, and Ballard is ready to exercise it by establishing a joint venture between his small label, Java Records, and a major record company. He sees his enterprise, which he expects to complete any day, as "a kind of sanctuary and workshop" for a roster of about six artists.

"Nobody can write their own check right now because economically there's a lot of thought going into what kind of deals really have long-term value," says Danny Goldberg, president of Mercury Records.

"But he's one of the most attractive imaginable elements to be in a deal. I think he's one of the most well-rounded, talented producers of the last 25 years. . . . Two of his big successes have been debut albums, where he's been involved with discovering and breaking acts. So that makes him a more promising candidate for a label than some other big producers might be."

If Ballard has encountered any bumps in his career, they came when he moved from the realm of commercial pop to the alternative-rock world represented by Morissette. Suddenly, the term "pro" was no longer a compliment. It was something to be viewed with suspicion, the mark of a hired craftsman who would turn something honest into mere product.

Ballard is quick to his own defense.

"We shared a vision for what it could be and did it with pure passion," he says of the Morissette collaboration. "She didn't have a record deal, we were doing this for the love of it. This was not a career move for me.

"I'm a musician, and a good one. I've done session work as a player and arranger and all this stuff. I just think that bringing a level of musical skill to it doesn't preclude that it can be spontaneous, that it can be rough. . . .

"I think it's OK that you work on the music. You don't refine it to the point where it has lost its soul. But I have a lot to bring to the table musically. I think the fact that I'm a 'professional' helped to realize some of what is distinctive about that music. I can make a slick record if I have to, but really what I'm about is not slick, it's about serving the artist."

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On top of his music work, Ballard is also a partner with record producer David Foster and financier John McCaw Jr. in a film company called Intrepid Entertainment, which will produce its first project next summer: "Clubland"--based on a script by Ballard.

It seems that growing up in Natchez, cradled between Memphis, New Orleans and Ferriday, La.--Jerry Lee Lewis' hometown--provided more than just musical stimulation.

"I wanted to be writer, of any kind," Ballard says. "In Mississippi, every other person is a writer or a storyteller. Growing up in the shadow of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, it was a good place in that respect. There was respect for the written word, the spoken word.

"And just being around people who could tell a story--true raconteurs who know how to engage you, whether it's telling you a good joke or telling you a long story--that's just part of the Southern tradition, and it's alive and well."

Ballard smiles.

"Everybody has a story they want to tell, and I have many."

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