Music as Tapestry
Jackson used his intuitive musically as a songwriter as well. While he didn’t read music or play instruments proficiently, he could vocally convey the arrangement, rhythm, tempo, and melody of a track, including nearly every instrument. “He starts with an entire sound and song,” explains producer Bill Botrell. “Usually he doesn’t start with lyrics, but he hears the whole arrangement of the song in his head… He hums things. He can convey it with his voice like nobody. Not just singing the song’s lyrics, but he can convey a feeling in a drum part or a synthesizer part. He’s really good at conveying those things.” Often Jackson would vocalize a new song into a tape recorder until he could get to a studio, other times he would call a musician or producer and dictate to him or her directly. “One morning [Michael] came in with a new song he had written overnight,” recalls assistant engineer Rob Hoffman. “We called in a guitar player, and Michael sang every note of every chord to him. ‘Here’s the 1st chord, 1st note, 2nd note, 3rd note. Here’s the 2nd chord, 1st note, 2nd note, 3rd note.’ etc. We then witnessed him giving the most heartfelt and profound vocal performance, live in the control room through an SM57. He would sing us an entire string arrangement, every part. Steve Porcaro once told me he witnessed [Jackson] doing that with the string section in the room. Had it all in his head, harmony and everything. Not just little 8 bar loop ideas. He would actually sing the entire arrangement into a microcassette recorder complete with stops and fills.”
Once Jackson got down the foundation of the song, he would begin fleshing it out, layer by layer, a process that would sometimes take a few weeks and sometimes take years. “Music is tapestry,” he explained. “It’s different layers, it’s weaving in and out, and if you look at it in layers, you understand it better.” He liked to allow time for the song to reveal itself. If it wasn’t quite there, he would move on to something else and come back to it later. Those who worked with him speak of his patience, focus, and genuine commitment to his craft. “He was a consummate professional,” recalls technical director Brad Sunberg. “If his vocals were scheduled for a noon downbeat, he was there at 10am, with his vocal coach Seth [Riggs], singing scales. Yes scales. I would set up the mic, check the equipment , make coffee, and all the while he would sing scales for 2 hours.
- Man in the Music