The Making Of Madonna's Erotica - Interview with Tony Shimkin
It's time to celebrate Erotica, one of Madonna's most original and controversial albums, with an exclusive chat with Tony Shimkin, co-producer and co-author of some of the album's greatest songs.
Tony stops by at Madonna Tribe to take us on a behind the scene journey through tidbits, memories and an unrivaled first-hand report of the creation process of all-time masterpiece tracks such as Erotica, Bye Bye Baby, Deeper And Deeper, Bad Girl andWhy's It So Hard to name just a few, but also Vogue, Rescue Me, This Used To Be My Playground and the much talked aboutRain Tapes.
MadonnaTribe: Hi Tony and welcome to Madonna Tribe. You are a well known and respected producer/composer better known to Madonna fans for you work on the amazing 1992 album Erotica but let's start from the beginning. How did you start your career?
Tony Shimkin: I began in high school by working as an intern at Soundworks studio in NYC which coincidentally is the same studio we mixed the Erotica album in as well as all the remixes of her previous records. I later became an assistant recording engineer and then engineer. During that time I worked with Duran Duran, Teddy Riley and very often Shep Pettibone. I then started editing Shep's remixes on the side. Shortly after that I was hired by Shep to be his personal assistant. It was then that I became more involved in remixing and production. Due to the success of the remixes we were doing, namely the ones for Janet Jackson, Madonna and Mariah Carey, Shep and I were asked to and started composing tracks together for Madonna, Taylor Dayne and Cathy Dennis. MT: How did you become one of the most succesful producers in the business?TS: That's very kind of you, but there are so many producers I look up to as the most successful producers. Sir George Martin and Quincy Jones for instance and I would be very hesitant to put myself anywhere near their category.My success is, in my view, due mostly to my love of a wide variety of musical styles, my respect for artists, musicians and studio engineers and producers and my ability to get along with so many different types of personalities. Being a music producer is akin to a film director.You must assemble the best and most appropriate cast to support the lead Actor or Actors, in music its just Musicians and engineers supporting the artist. In addition to that Location is important... the right studio, the right atmosphere to be creative. MT: So how did you get involved in the production of Erotica?
TS: As a result of our remix work for Madonna, our involvement in The Immaculate Collection which allowed us to collaborate on an original song - Rescue Me - and our succesful collaboration on Vogue, we were asked to co-write songs for her upcoming record.We began by writing music tracks which we then sent to Madonna in LA to write lyrics and melodies to. She then came to the home studio in NYC and we got down to business.MT: Erotica can be described as a concept album. After being very criticized, and even being called a flop when it first came out it has become in time one of the fans favourite albums ever because it really contains very good and strong songs, greatly produced. Were you all disappointed by the first reactions to it? It was like the media wanted to pass it to the public as something else or something it was not.
TS: I understood the initial response I mean it was released at the same time as her SEX book and her highly sexual movie with Willam Defoe, and you had the Erotica and Justify My Love videos, so the press was like ...SEX ...SEX ...SEX, here is Madonna pushing the limits of SEX.The rest of the music on the record kind of got lost a bit. If Erotica had not been the first single that may not have been the case. I think around the time Rain was released people were given a chance to see past the SEX thing.There really was a great deal of diversity in the songs on Erotica and that was lost in the initial reviews. I also think two million is hardly a flop, but measured against her earlier work, which sold as much as seven million upon release, it was viewed as a failure. It's funny because with record sales as they are currently, two million is a great success and since it's release I believe it has sold in excess of five million.MT: You are co-author with Shep Pettibone and Madonna of some of the album's greatest tracks:Erotica, Bye Bye Baby, Deeper and Deeper, Bad Girl, Why's It So Hard to name just a few. Do you remember the process that gave birth to some of those songs?TS: Erotica was definitely a long evolution to the final two versions - those being the album and the more middle eastern inspired version entitled Eroticwhich was included in the SEX book.Bye Bye Baby was a lot of fun as the filtered vocal effect was applied during recording and played with while she was singing, that vocal is also the original first take demo vocal.On Deeper and Deeper during the mix I was fooling around on an acoustic guitar playing some spanish, flamenco style lead. Madonna heard me and wanted to add that part to the song we then added castanets and voila the latin style bridge to that song was born.
We had just returned from vacations midway through the writing process, Shep had been to Jamaica and I had been scuba diving in the Caymans and we both returned with a heavy reggae inspiration, this is the reason for Why's It So Hard. After Madonna had left one day, I played with an idea and added some background vocals. The next day I did not know she had arrived and was playing them back and she yelled from downstairs "What's that.. I like it!", embarrassed I told her is was me singing and she had me re-sing the parts in front of her. That was my major label debut as a singer. It was funny hearing my voice during the Girlie Show over the speakers at Madison Square Garden.Bad Girl was a departure from the rest of the record and a nice break in the writing process because it slowed us down and it was nice to get serious for a moment.
MT: The sound of Erotica seems very raw when you first listen to the songs. Was that a conscious decision?TS: We used much of the demo vocals which were recorded with an SM-57 microphone, which is used more often for live performance, because it just had a great vibe and we liked the performance.When we recorded to tape we used a 1/4" 8 track reel to reel and the 2" multitrack was recorded at 15 ips non dolby to get a warmer more vintage sound as opposed to digital which is what we usually worked with.So the "raw sound" was deliberate and a result of wanting to use much of our demo performances.MT: Which one of the songs on Erotica is your favourite and why?TS: When the album was originally released I was told by Shep I had to choose only one song to put my name on as a writer, knowing what I know now I would have said no it's all or start over on your own.So with that I chose Deeper and Deeper because I knew it would be a hit. It's hard to say now but I might choose Rain because I love the rise that comes with the portamento synth and how it takes you into the bridge and lifts you up, but then again the Video may have inspired that answer.
MT: Recently online there was talk about the so called Rain Tapes. From those it seems that the songs on Erotica had gone through many different stages. Where are these Rain Tapes coming from? TS: I don't know, It certainly wasn't me, I believe only Shep, myself and Madonna have copies of early stages of the demos. So your guess is as good as mine. I have been tempted by offers to release stuff like that but Madonna always treated me with respect and I would not do that without her consent.
MT: An early acapella version of Erotica, known by fans as You Thrill Me, surfaced on the net a few years ago. The music was completely different from the album version. So this means Erotica was one of the songs that went through major changing during production? TS: Yeah it started as a completely different song only a vocal part of it "you thrill me, surround me you fill me" became "erotic erotic put your hands all over my body" and when that happened the Sex thing kind of took over and it wound up going in an entirely new direction.MT: But Madonna didn't forget about You Thrill Me as she reprised it for her 2006 Confessions Tour. Did you listen to that live version of Erotica/You Thrill Me? Did you like it? And were you surprised she went back diggin' the early demo to re-invent that song for the stage?
TS: No I did not hear it, but I will get a copy and listen now that you let me know, I would be very interested in hearing it.Madonna often will explore a new direction or revisit a previous one when performing live and I think that's great, I hate going to a concert and hearing a song done exactly like the recorded arrangement. That's the whole reason for seeing a live show and you can bet people will buy the DVD of that tour just to hear those new/old versions.MT: From what I seem to undestand the "you are who you are" bit was going to replace the "give it up do as I say" spoken part in the structure of the early song and the "you thrill me, surrund me you fill me"" chorus was there instead of the more famous "erotic, erotic put your hands all over my body", right? So basically on the Confessions Tour she sang a song basically made of made of two choruses.TS: Songs really are developed sometimes, I know it's easier to think that it was written once, the way you heard it but in this style of music, as opposed to say the Beatles written on acoustic guitar or piano, the song evolves. Starting with a track for a vibe, Madonna would then sing her ideas. Being inspired by her ideas we would change and build upon the music sometimes changing it completely. Then it becomes a collaborative effort, back and forth until you have what everyone hears.MT: In the album version of Erotica two samples were included, one is a sound from Jungle Boogie and the other is the hauting chant El Yom. I personally think they gave the song some added bonus and it was a great idea. Whose idea was to include samples in the songs?
TS: The samples were from a collection of sounds culled from Shep's extensive record collection and they were used as inspiration in building the songs, often we would get rid of them later once they have served their purpose. With the samples you mentioned, they became such an integral part of the song and the music lacked the vibe we loved when we removed them. Sometimes you can't replace or recreate magic like that.MT: Also a track called Goodbye to Innocence was scrapped in favour of the cover of Fever at the time. How did that happen? TS: When we were in the mixing stage of the production Madonna started singing Fever over the Goodbye to Innocence track. It sounded like a cool remake and we just went with it. I always loved Goodbye to Innocence and was a little dissapointed we were losing it. I was happy when she released it later on.
MT: Fever was also re-remixed in a new version to be used in the music video. Did you work on the production of that remix as well?
TS: No I was not aware that it was done as a video. We did arrange that live version for her Saturday Night Live appearance though.MT: Apparenlty there are a lot of tracks that were written for the album and were never completed or not released in the end. There has been talk of a song you co-wrote with Madonna and Shep calledYou Are The One. Can you tell us more about this one?TS: There were two song we did that were not released. You Are The One and Shame.You Are The One was an uptemo song and it was very catchy, one true thing is that Madonna never came up with any forgettable melodies. Unfortunately not every song always makes it onto the final CD. Maybe one day she will release a collection of unheard songs but I doubt it.I still have a cassette copy of those early demos. I gotta transfer it to digital one day for posterity. MT: In Shame apparently Madonna reprises her Dita character from the Erotica song. I'm very curious about this song...TS: Shame was extremely hooky as well, although the chorus may have been a little too close in melody to another song with the same title, yet it was still very much in keeping with the rest of the material recorded and yes her alter ego of Dita may have been born out of that song as well.MT: Do you think we will ever have a chance to hear these unreleased productions one day?TS: As I said before, that would be up to Madonna. I respect her too much to release anything behind her back, remember SHE WASN'T THE ONE who screwed me with the credit and publishing. NUFF SAID.
MT: Before Erotica you also worked on The Immaculate Collection, Vogue, Rescue Me and the Keep It Together remix. What was your involvement on those songs?TS: Vogue was my first time meeting Mo. She had flown in from LA to record vocals, we had not heard much of her ideas for the song and when she started singing I knew instantly this was going to be a mega HIT. She happened to write the entire rap "Greta Garbo and Monroe... Deitrich and Dimaggio..." on the red eye flight to NYC for the recording... very impressive if you ask me.Rescue Me was an original track we did to be included on The Immaculate Collection, and it was really my first time writing for her although I never was credited. And the Keep It Together remix was one of three we did, the others being Express Yourselfand Like a Prayer.
At that time the remixes we were doing were so well received we were often asked to remix each song as it was going to be released. With Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation we remixed all seven singles, the first was Miss U Much and if you listen to the club remix of that song that we did you can hear much of the inspiration forVogue, just listen to the drums and bassline and you will see what I mean. Sometimes things you do for a remix are too good to only be heard in a club.MT: After Erotica in 1994 Madonna did her Bedtime Stories album. Apparently Shep Pettibone has also worked on some the songs of that album such asSecret, but originally he wasn't credited. Were Shep and you originally involved in Bedtime Stories as well as producers?TS: No Shep was not involved and I was no longer working with him. I know he had tried to write some stuff for that project and he claimed to have done some track that she had written Secret to. Knowing how she is, she probably always had that idea in her book, tried it over his track and when she didn't think it was working moved on. Junior Vasquez was a friend of Shep's, I knew him as well and ht the time he was probably the hottest remixer and DJ so she started working with him. Junior got me involved in some of the post production and remixes for Bedtime Stories and it was fun to work on in a different capacity than I was involved with onErotica. Once you work with Madonna you never want to stop, but she is smart and is known for reinventing herself and keeping each record fresh and sometimes that means changing who you collaborate with or who you use as a producer.Shep took it personally and I think he tried making a stink about Secret because he was hurt, maybe he was credited to avoid any further problems.
MT: I also wanted to ask you about This Used To Be My Playground. Were you involved in that song as well and was it produced at the same time of the Erotica album?TS: Yes we went to meet with Madonna in Chicago while she was on set for A League of their own, and discussed an original song for the movie. I wrote the string parts and the violin section solo. When we recorded it with Al Schmidt at Ocean Way studio in LA we had a 30 piece orchestra and Jerremy Lubbock did the string arrangements, we never included the demo that had the solo string part in it when we had him chart everything out for the orchestra.On the day we were recording we thought we were done and realized we forgot the solo. I quickly sang the part to the copyist who then charted it out for the violin players and they got it recorded with 1 minute to spare on the clock, when you have a thirty piece orchestra it can be super expensive to roll into a second hour of their time. It was a huge learning experience getting to watch a master like Al Schmidt record and mix, he is simply incredible a true craftsman.
MT: You have worked with many high profile artists - Janet as you just said only to mention one. Has working with Madonna been different from all the others?TS: In some ways very much so. I have never worked with an artist as determined as her, or anyone as driven as her. I loved the fast pace we worked at we definitely had that in common. I would often work very quickly when recording vocals and would rarely give much pre-roll when doing punch in's and she was one of only a few artists who thrived in that manner of working. I believe you should be able to capture ideas as fast as they come and she appreciated that.
I remember once during the preproduction of one of the songs on Erotica, on one of our first days really working closely together a funny story. I was arranging stuff on the computer and she was wanting to try something, she asked me if i was done yet. I said no, a few minutes later she asked again. Again I said no, a minute later she asked again. I threw a pencil across the room and said loudly "NO..." "Why don't you go downstairs make some popcorn... make a phonecall... and I'll let you know when I'm ready."She was quiet (probably a little taken aback at this 22 year old kid saying this to her)... then said ok and went downstairs. From that point on she had the same respect for me that I had for her and we got along extremely well from then on. In retrospect that could of been the end of my career, but she respects someone who speaks their mind as she does and doesn't just kiss her ass. All artists have a vision, but her's was always so definite and clear yet she was always open to criticism and suggestions, not that she always agreed but she was open and that is important.MT: What are your future projects you're working on right now Tony?TS: I had mixed an album for an EMI artist Patti Rothberg called Between the 1 and 9. I produced and album for an artist named Michal called Sky with Starsfor Sony that I am very proud of. I have written for Wild Orchid (Fergie's old group) and done many remixes with Junior Vasquez and on my own after working with Shep.
Most recently I produced some material for a band called the Vanderbilts and did a song with Anthony Hamilton and with a new artist named Niia. All of which can be found on MySpace. Over the past couple of years I have composed and produced mostly for TV and film but am starting to write again for artists and hope to get back to doing some more record work.MT: Tony, what's your fondest memory of working with Madonna?TS: Having faith in me to help her achieve her vision, Laughter, Popcorn and Caesar Salads from the Italian restaurant across the street from Soundworks.
NobleMusic Founded by Tony Shimkin in 1991 has composed and produced music for artists such as Madonna, Mariah Carey, Prince, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Nine Inch Nails and Paul McCartney. Noble Music produces original music and sound design for TV, Film and the WWW. From the theme to the MTV show Driven to spots for Mercedes, Diet Pepsi, Calvin Klien, Visa, Ford, Revlon and Scion; Noble Music utilizes our vast connections in the music industry to help our clients with music supervision and licensing music to achieve the perfect union of music to picture.