Chris Birkett: Why True Artists Always Thrive
I had an opportunity to interview a legend in the music industry, Chris Birkett, who has worked with world-renowned talent. His story and advice are essential to anyone in the industry.
Sam: Tell me why you wanted to be a musician and how you got into the music business.
Chris: I was passionate about music from birth. When I was eight years old I wanted a guitar, but my family couldn’t afford one, so I built one out of a pieces of wood rummaged from the garbage and some banjo strings. I just started making music on that from the age of eight. When I was twelve, I saved up my pocket money and got my first electric guitar. It was a Top Twenty Fender Stratocaster copy, a real cheap guitar. I’m left- handed, but I couldn’t afford the left-handed model. It was a lot more expensive. I decided at the age of twelve to re-learn the guitar right-handed.
I grew up with an unfriendly stepmother who made me and my sisters’ lives hell. It was a miserable childhood, and the only thing that kept me sane was music. It also kept me out of trouble.
I got an electronics degree at the age of 19, but I knew I didn’t want to be in electronics, I just wanted to be a musician. So I ran away from home with the guitar and a suitcase. I went out to the streets of London and went to every audition I could go to. I got a job at a gas station, working a night shift in southeast London, a place called Peckham, which at the time was a dodgy area. One day while I was working the night shift at 2:00 am, this guy came in. It was Roger Probert, a bass player in a band called Montana Red Dog. He said, “Are you Chris Birkett, the guitarist?” I said “Yeah.” He said, “Well, we’ve got an 18-month tour in Germany and we’re leaving tomorrow morning. We need a guitarist. Would you like to come?” I said, “I’d love to.” In the morning I grabbed a few things from the apartment, got in the back of his van and crossed the English Channel. We turned out to be the best soul band in Germany.
Sam: How much money did you earn at the time?
Chris: Just enough to live. You know, in Germany, all our hotels were covered. We toured all around Turkey, Greece, the UK and Italy. The tours were adequately financed, we were paid a retainer of thirty-five pounds a week in those days, which would be the equivalent now probably six to seven hundred dollars a week now. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to live on.
Sam: What did you do after that European tour?
Chris: In Germany I had been playing guitar for well-known artists including Rufus Thomas, Ann Peebles, Jean Knight and King Floyd, all prominent artists at the time. Rufus Thomas complimented me once. He said, “Hey man, you sound just like B.B King.”
After the tour I joined a band called ‘Love Affair’, a very successful pop band at that time. They had a couple of successful records, including the international hit ‘Everlasting Love’. I spent a year touring all over England, Wales and Scotland with the band. The bass player, Dave Guscott, told me that David Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti, was holding auditions for a guitarist. Full of confidence, I went to the audition and got the job. The band was called ‘Omaha Sheriff’, who were getting signed to Tony’s record label, ‘Good Earth Records’.
Tony was responsible for me becoming interested in studio work; after all, I had an electronics degree. I knew about playing and writing songs, but when we started recording with Tony I became fascinated by how he did things. I was always watching him and asking questions about engineering. He became my mentor. After doing a couple of albums with him, I started to get involved in studio work. Eventually I built my own studio in London. Quote from Tony: “Chris Birkett. I taught him everything he knows, but not everything I know.”
Sam: How did you end up working as a producer?
Chris: Tony decided to fold the company due to trust issues with his partner, so our deal collapsed. I was living in Devon, milking cows for a living and working in a holiday camp in the evening. My band Omaha Sheriff and I had moved to the countryside to record. In retrospect, it was not the best idea. I wanted to get back to London because we’d been living in the middle of nowhere for about two years.
I reconnected with John Kongas [who wrote the 70’s hit ‘He’s Gonna Step on You’], who had a studio in London that needed upgrading. We came to an agreement: I would design and build his new studio in exchange for accommodation in London. When I finished building the studio, John asked me if I would like to be the in-house engineer. I’d never done this, so I was terrified. I recorded my first horns session on the wrong side of the 24-track tape. After six months of blood, sweat and tears I eventually started to become an excellent engineer, and people came down there to work with me. I wasn’t just a technical guy; I was a musician, too. I was the main house engineer at that studio. It was called Tapestry Studio. I got to record for Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Allison Moyet, Thomas Dolby, The Kane Gang, The Proclaimers, Mel Brooks and many more.
Sam: How did you end up working with Sinead O’Connor?
Chris: When I met Sinead O’Connor, I was working with a label called Ensign Records, with Nigel Grainge. Ensign signed Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bob Geldof and Sinead O’Connor. He came into the studio regularly and we got on well. Everything I did for him sounded great, so he ended up taking me on as Ensign’s in-house producer. So that’s how I got to work with Sinead O’Connor. I mixed a couple of singles from ‘The Lion and the Cobra’ album, ‘Put ‘Em On Me’ and ‘Mandinka’. They sounded excellent, and so then they asked me to come in and produce ‘I do not want what I haven’t got’, which was the second album by Sinead for Ensign Records. I made Sinead’s album in 1989, but it came out in 1990 or 1991. The album became an international hit and included the song ‘Nothing Compares to U’, written by Prince. He had originally released that song himself, and so did another American band called Family, but they didn’t break. The arrangement we did was completely different, which with the help of the video became a number-one hit in every country in the world. When they released that song, the BBC – who had ultimate power in the pop world in those days – stopped playing it when it hit #42 in the charts. They didn’t think it was a hit. Then Sinead shot the video in the cemetery in Paris, and she starts crying in the video because the song had relevance to her late grandmother. Sinead loved her grandmother, and she was the only person who was nice to her while growing up in a very challenging Catholic family in Ireland. Her grandmother was her best friend.
Sam: As Sinead O’Connor started gaining momentum, did you start to get a lot of work?
Chris: Yeah, just everybody was calling me to do records. I was the flavor of the month; my life was becoming very stressful, working 48-hour shifts in the studio. I had two young kids, and I never used to see them. After a trip to Africa for a three-month project with ‘Mango Groove’, who had a platinum-selling album in South Africa, my kids didn’t even recognize me, so I thought, “This is nuts, I’m losing out on something imperative, a chance to be a father.” So, I bought this Château with 32 rooms in southwest France. At the time I had plenty of cash; I was getting half a million dollars every six months in royalties. I just bought this house and built a studio in it. I made a lot of great records in that place; it’s called Château Richard, and it’s still there. I left it in 2006 after my marriage broke up.
Sam: How did you end up in Toronto?
Chris: In the late 80’s while living in London, Nigel Grainge called me up and said, “You’ll never guess what?” I said, “What?” He said, “I just signed a legend, Buffy St-Marie.” I said, “Who’s Buffy St-Marie?” I’d never heard of her until then. She flew over to London, we had a meeting and got on really well. In 1991, we made her first comeback album, ‘Coincidence and Likely Stories’. We went on to do four albums together. The last one, recorded here in Toronto, ‘Power In The Blood’, won the Polaris Prize for best Canadian album in 2015 and 2 Juno awards in 2016. Meanwhile, the documentary filmmaker Joan Prowse contacted me to get information about Buffy to make a documentary about her life. My interview was featured in this documentary. I used to play guitar for Buffy, so when EMI records released the album ‘Running for the Drum’, Buffy’s third comeback album, they decided to put on this huge concert at Massey Hall in Toronto. I was on stage at Massey Hall, and after the show Joan came up to the green room and said, “I’m the girl you’ve been talking to since 2008 about the Buffy documentary.” We went out for a drink afterwards. At that time we were both married to someone else, but both our marriages were going “pear-shaped”. We kept in contact, and eventually we decided to get together. So that’s how I ended up in Toronto.
Sam: Now that you’re here in Canada, you’ve started producing records again?
Chris: Yeah, when I came to Canada I promised myself that I would split my time 50/50 between helping other people realize their dreams and helping myself with my own creative dreams, and to get back on stage again. When I got here, I started writing my latest album, ‘Be Creative’. I decided to promote my music and put out my own records. I have a strong message in my words. I don’t just write love songs; my songs contain a social message, too.
Sam: You didn’t concentrate on a music career. It just happened. You just did what you enjoyed in life, and it all came together for you. It took care of itself financially. Is that what you experienced in life?
Chris: Yeah, my philosophy in life is that we’re all here for a reason. Every human being on this planet is here to do something, and if you find out what that something is and you follow it, you will find peace and happiness. I call this “Your Soul contract”. You can usually find what that something is by listening and paying attention to your dreams, because your subconscious mind knows what you are here for. We tend to get caught up in life doing stuff we don’t enjoy because we need to make a living. You’ll find most people become successful at something because they’re passionate about it. I believe that if you find why you’re here and you follow it and put everything into that, everything else will fall into place. That’s what I’ve experienced in life. I’ve never considered money before my passions. I’ve never put money first. If I have a choice, I take the choice I’m most passionate about.
Going back to the early days in Peckham, in Southeast London, I had a regular salary at the gas station that paid my rent and stuff, and then this band came and said. “You want to come to Germany?” I had to give up my job, but my real passion was music. I think if each and every one of us does that, we’ll be a lot happier.
Sam: I can see that’s how you’ve lived your life. It looks like money is not the main thing in your life, and it’s turned out very well for you. Where do you think the music business is heading?
Chris: The record companies aren’t supporting artists anymore, and they haven’t been developing artists like they used to. That’s a positive, because the artists are no longer told what to do by people who control the purse strings and who have another motive for music. The industry used to be run by A & R men and women. Some of them are excellent, like Nigel Grainge, who’s an actual musical A&R man, but others were there to make a fast buck, so their motive was just to make money from the music. They would monetize music in a way that destroyed the spirit of the music.
Now artists are becoming free to express their true feelings and visions through their music directly to the public via the web, so now real artists are beginning to surface. Now, artists who are truly passionate and will never stop being so, are surfacing. The people who were in this creative media because they wanted to get rich or be famous are leaving in droves. The business sharks are looking elsewhere for their food. Great! Go away and leave us alone! I see that as an excellent thing for the future of creativity and art in general.