Nanci Walker: Director of A&R, Island Def Jam Recordings

Interview by Doug Minnick
Director A&R Def Jam Recordings
Where did you grow up?

I grew up between Nantucket Island in the summer and New Hampshire in the winter. My parents owned small inns and hotels. It was great. I went to college at Boston College, and I had gone to a boarding school in New Hampshire called New Hampton. That’s how I got into the music business, actually.

That’s my next question! How did you get started in the music business?

In the inns, they always had a bar with a jukebox. The man with the singles would come by and my dad would say, “Nanci, sit down and decide what records we’re going to keep in the jukebox and what records we’re going to give back.” So I would get all the latest singles, and I would sit and decide what to keep and what not to keep in our jukebox. To me, I thought I could do that for a living. I just didn’t know what job that was.

After I went to New York, I was actually going to secretarial school—a really proper secretarial school called Catherine Gibbs. By day I was going to secretarial school, and by night I was waitressing at the Rainbow Room and going out to see bands. Somewhere in between there, I was trying to network in the music business. I finally got a job as a secretary for a guy named Mike Lembo of Mike’s Management.

He had hired someone to start a publishing company, and I was also her secretary. He was kind of a big personality, and I think he freaked her out. She started showing up with nodes taped to her from her doctor. They were measuring her heart levels because she was so freaked out by Lembo. Finally one day she just ran out and we never saw her again. (laughter)

He said to me, “You can take her job, but I don’t have time to teach somebody how to do this.” That’s how I started, basically as a music publisher. I learned publishing by signing—along with Mike Lembo—bands like Soul Asylum and some other really interesting artists, for basically very little money. I learned the game of publishing from the ground up. We also published Jules Shear, who that year, had a song “All Through The Night” by Cyndi Lauper which was huge. It was a really good kamikaze course on publishing.

After that, I came to LA unemployed. I didn’t know anyone. I met a man named Lester Sill, (a music biz legend, look him up -ed.) who basically said, “I don’t have a job for you, but I think you’re great and I think you’re going to go far. Why don’t you take an office in my company and look for a job from here.” That was at Motown. I was basically looking for a job, but they paid me a small amount of money. It was really a favor from Lester Sill—such a great guy. My family still points to the fact that I was a wreck, and this kind man helped me out. He had come from EMI, so he arranged for me to have an interview there with Gerd Muller (then head of Screen-Gems/EMI Music)Gerd was looking for a song plugger, and I knew after the interview that I didn’t get the job. I didn’t like pitching songs. I was always the type of person that said, “No, I sign bands.” I went out to my car and realized I had left my glasses and my keys in the interview. I was just standing there weeping, and Gerd came running out with my keys and saw me crying. The next thing I know, he was like, “Come back in,” and they ended up making a job for me! (laughter).

I basically worked with Gerd listening to stuff. This was in the Eighties, and we were signing a lot of hard rock bands.

Then I left there and went to work at BMG. I signed Cypress Hill to a development deal. I signed Victoria Williams, who ended up doing extremely well. Then I left there for Peermusic. I was there for about five or six years. It’s a wonderful company. I helped them build a studio, and we started developing artists in our studio and putting indie records out.

From there, I was offered a job to be Senior Director of A&R at Columbia Records. That was my first A&R job. I was involved with three artists that I brought there. One was a young band called Flick from Missouri. We made one record with them. The lead singer was 13 when we made it. Since they were so young, to Columbia’s credit, they let them sit for a while, and believe it or not, the next Flick record is just coming out this year. I think the singer is 19 now. The next thing I brought in was Evan and Jaron, the twins.

And then I signed Pete Yorn. We did a very small deal with him. He made the record in a garage. He went on to go gold. Now I’m at Island Def Jam, and I haven’t signed anything here yet.

What gets you excited about an artist?

I think a vocal that is interesting. It doesn’t have to necessarily be a perfect vocal, but a vocal that can only be that person’s voice. Something that when you hear it, you instantly recognize it. Or in the case of Cypress Hill, for instance, when you heard this nasal sound, you knew it must be Cypress Hill.

I like an artist to have an image that is either extremely attractive or extremely interesting. Again, I look at it all—image, vocals, and to me, lyrics. A lot of people don’t listen to lyrics. I listen to lyrics. I want to know what the artist is singing about, and I want to care about it. I think I’m more interested in all of that more than a following. I know a lot of A&R people say that bands need to have 200 kids every time they play. I think that’s great, and that’s gravy on top of it, but I think it’s more important that the person is an artist and that they’re coming from a real place.

Where do you normally find out about new artists?

For me, I usually read. I pick up probably six inches worth of magazines every week. I just read reviews all the time. I’ll track the music down on the Internet, or I’ll go buy it at Amoeba Records or something. That’s normally how I end up signing stuff. I find it by reading about it, versus someone shopping it to me. Besides reading, it’s knowing people and trusting their taste in music. I’m on the phone all day with people that work in or around the music industry, or the fashion industry, or the film industry who tell me, oh you should check out this artist. So once I do find it, the very next thing I’ll do is go see it live. The reason I do that is I’m waiting, when I’m in front of that artist, for the hair on my arms to stand up. I’m waiting for that special something that comes right off the stage and hits you in the heart.

Do you call them first before you go see them?

Sometimes, but not all the time. If I’m going to get on a plane, I usually tell them I’m coming. If it’s local, then no. I’ll just go see them.

At what point do you decide to get on a plane? Do you have to hear more than three songs?

I definitely would want to hear more than three songs. But if one of the songs is a hit… When I first sat down at this desk, the first thing that was put in front of me was the All American Rejects. I listened to that song “Swing, Swing” and thought, “that’s a hit.” So I got on a plane and went and saw them. You could have just played that one song for me. They happen to have a whole album, but that one song was definitely enough to get me on a plane. The added bonus of them is that they’re great looking. They have elements of the Cars. They’re young, and they’re going to grow into the next album. I love the fact that they’re young. They just recently graduated from high school.

So when you hear something that has those elements, what do you do next? What is the process?

After I’ve seen them, I will have them play in front of the whole company somehow. I’ll probably fly them to New York. I’ll also have them go through the offices and meet everyone.

I just saw a band in Van Nuys in their garage. They played just four or five songs, and they were really good live. These are young kids still in high school. Then we flew them to New York. They performed for the president and the heads of the departments. Everybody was involved in seeing this band. Then after the band and the department heads left, the A&R department sat around, and we all said, “Okay, who wants to sign the band?” We all voted. That’s the way this company does it. I don’t think all companies do it that way.

So many A&R people tell us these days that it is practically required for a new artist to have the big regional following and big independent CD sales. It’s almost like they’re not interested unless you’ve got those things. Do you share that view?

No, but I actually think that’s true for a certain kind of music. For me, that is probably true for music that is not breaking any new ground. If you’re not doing anything different in the first place, then you’d better have a following.

On the other hand, Queens of the Stone Age—if you heard that CD, would you say, “This is really good but if you only had a following, then we’d come see you.” How dumb would that be!?

Pete Yorn didn’t have a following. Crazytown didn’t have a following. We saw them in a rehearsal room, and they went on to sell millions of records. I’m not sure that Hoobastank had a big following either, and they sold a million records. So no, I don’t buy it. I think it’s great, by the way, if you get a great band with great songs, and on top of that they’ve already built up a huge following, hallelujah.

Although it seems like the completely sensible thing to do in retrospect, at the time that you signed Pete Yorn, they’re weren’t any male singer-songwriters getting played anywhere. How much does radio affect your decision-making process?

I think radio probably affects my boss’s decision-making process more than mine. I don’t think you can predict what is going to be on radio. I really don’t. And frankly, if you can, then you’re doing something really boring. That’s my theory. If you’re signing something that is already exactly like what you think is going to be on KROQ, then you’re playing it really safe.

On one hand, you probably should sign a band that you know you can go straight to radio with and there is a built in audience for. Hopefully, if you’re right, then you have sold a million records. That’s a really dangerous game to play, though, because if you’re wrong, you feel like an idiot. If you’re not passionate about the music, and it’s just a money-making project, that’s the worst kind of project to be wrong on.

But on the other hand, if you find a great artist, that is unlike any other artist that you’ve come across in the last ten years and therefore, (whether he sells a record or he doesn’t) we need to get involved with him because that’s why we’re in the business… Those are the ones that, when they work, are the most satisfying.

I do think there has to be a balance between the two. Someone once said that a record company can only carry so many “artistes,” but if it is truly an artist—like Jeff Buckley—then the company will carry that artist. It’s up to the other bands to carry that artist. You can’t have a whole company of “artistes.” So I guess my roundabout answer is that it’s different with every artist. If you hear a hit song, and you say this is going to go straight on radio, you’d be stupid not to pursue it.

And also, radio changes. Like you said, you can’t predict where it’s going to be a year from now.

I think I was unemployed at the time, but I was standing at South By Southwest watching the White Stripes thinking, this is brilliant. Now, that took a brave person to sign the White Stripes. Who would guess that the White Stripes would be all over rock radio? Nobody. So you just have to go with what you think is great, and at that point I guess it’s whether you’re blessed or not. I don’t know who could say why one person could do that and it worked, and another person does and it doesn’t work. The stars have to line up.

How ‘ready’ does an artist have to be these days?

I think you have to be ready to make a record right away. Even if you’re ready right away, it still takes a year probably to make the record and eventually get it on the store shelves. I think development is probably happening more on the indie label level. We’re doing something now where we might sign an artist and then put them on an indie. Or we might contribute to an indie. Sometimes I help fund that just for goodwill’s sake, with the idea that when they’re ready to move over to a major, they’ll think of me first. We’re starting to do deals like that, believe it or not.

So they aren’t official relationships with the indies?

Nope. And they’re not tying up the band with us either. It’s a goodwill situation where we believe in the band, but we just don’t feel like they are ready for the major label push. No matter what, when you sign a band to a major label—even if the advance is very small—it’s a million-dollar investment.

How much of your day is spent listening to new artists?

I think about 30-percent.

What are some of the other responsibilities of an A&R person?

I’m fielding phone calls all day, which I feel I should personally return. Now with the advent of email, I’m returning emails and phone calls all day. Those phone calls are from lawyers, managers, artists who happen to have gotten my name and phone number—everybody just saying, “Are you coming to this show? Did you get the tape? Are you going to sign the band?” I haven’t signed a band here yet, but at Columbia, I was also assigned other records to work on, even though I might not have signed the band in the first place.

When you sign a new artist, do you work with them on making their songs the best they can be, or do you just take whatever they turn in and let them put it on the record?

Oh no. When I’ve signed an artist—whether it be as a publisher as a record company person—the first thing I do is sit and go through the 75-150 songs that they’ve written in their lifetime. With Pete, I sat down and listened to everything he had written—his whole catalog of songs—to come up with the songs we should focus on for the record. He also wrote songs while he was making the record. With all of my other artists, it’s a matter of first looking at what’s there, and then saying maybe, “This song is great, but the chorus isn’t strong enough or whatever. So yes, we definitely work on the songs. Then I try to hire a producer who is very good at arrangement. If there is ever a problem, it’s usually an arrangement issue. You’re always saying, “if this was just arranged a little bit different, or edited a bit. A snip here and a snip there, and this could be a hit song.” I try and find producers who were songwriters themselves. We definitely won’t make a record until the songs are there.

Are the artists always receptive to the input?

The artists I’ve signed personally have been, yes.

Would you sign someone who wasn’t receptive to that kind of input?

No. I’ve been assigned a couple of artists where they were not receptive. They thought they had already written their next album, too. When I tried to set them up with co-writes, they were extremely against the idea of co-writing. But I definitely contacted all of the publishers and said we need some co-writing to go on here. But if I felt like they were not receptive, I would not sign the band.

How many artists does a typical A&R person get to sign in a year?

Unless you’re at the senior vice president level, you get to sign about two.

If you had a nephew in high school who was in a band and asked you for advice, what is the best advice you could give him?

I would immediately say, make your own record. Write songs, make a record, sell it at your gigs. Learn how to make a record and what it takes to sell one. It is really helpful when you meet an artist who has already done that a couple of times and understands what goes into recording an album, doing the artwork, selling, and marketing, and promoting the record, and getting the record played on the radio. I think my nephew should do that before he ever comes and knocks on a major label’s door.

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