You might not know producer/engineer/songwriter/label executive Eric Corne as a performer, but you've probably heard his musical influence, with Corne working with everyone from Sugaray Rayford to Walter Trout to John Mayall. Corne's work with Rayford is especially impressive, the two having formed a bond making it hard to know where the singer ends and the songwriter begins.
One wouldn't think the two artists could be so intertwined. Rayford is black and American, having come to music after time in the military. Corne is white and Canadian, with bona fide indie rock credentials. Yet the pair understand each other, creating two beautiful soul-blues albums to date: 2019's Grammy-nominated Somebody Save Me, and 2022's In Too Deep, with Corne writing all of the music and most of the lyrics.
The relationship, and Corne's role as songwriter for so many different artists, recalls Willie Dixon, who wrote hundreds of classic blues songs. Dixon, unsurprisingly, is one of Corne's heroes. Of course, while Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Corne is from further north and west: Winnipeg, Canada. The son of an opera singer and grandson of a concert pianist, Corne's great-grandfather helped to start Winnipeg's symphony orchestra. But familiarity breeds contempt and his family discouraged a life in music.
Corne went to college in Montreal, playing in bands, and realizing music, despite his family's wishes, was his calling. He finished his political science degree and then moved around Canada, spending time in Vancouver and Toronto. He eventually wound up in Los Angeles in 2004, connecting with producer Dusty Wakeman, who gave him a job as an engineer at Wakeman's Mad Dog studios, where Corne worked his way up the ranks. The experience got him thinking about branching off on his own. "I was working with the sidemen of people like Lucinda Williams and Sheryl Crow and Dwight Yoakam and just kind of felt like I had my own little version of the Funk Brothers there," he says. Corne took the plunge and released KaiL Baxley's double EP, Heatstroke/The Wind and the War on Forty Below Records, Corne's new label.
"I thought it was an amazing first record to put out," Corne says. "And [Baxley] got on NPR World Cafe right out of the gate. We got offered Tiny Desk. We didn't even know what it was. This was like almost 10 years ago, and we fucked it up. So the label kind of grew from that."
Corne also met blues legend Mayall along the way, after Mayall guested on some Trout records. That led to to Mayall signing with Forty Below, which Corne calls a game-changer in terms of credibility for the label, opening up distribution networks. His work picked up steam from there.
Corne is a thoughtful, talented songwriter. Here he speaks about the logistics and challenges of writing for other people as well as what that much songwriting has meant for his own solo career. He also discusses his relationship with Rayford and how he's able to maintain Rayford's personal voice and vision within songs Rayford isn't writing.
Photo by Allison Morgan
Writing for Sugaray Rayford
Working Mojo: I loved Sugaray's In too Deep album. What was the writing process like for it?
Eric Corne: That's funny, I just sat down on this sofa in my backyard where I wrote most of the album. The pandemic had just hit. I was about to go into the studio and produce a record with Davy Knowles and they were touring from Chicago to L.A., when the pandemic hit and shows started getting canceled, and they started getting scared, and they turned around and went home.
We ended up doing the record that August, but that was March. I just finished Walter Trout's record, I think the last one at that time, Ordinary Madness. And then I had the dates cancelled with Davy and I was like, 'I'm not going to just sit around and I'm going to have to write Sugaray's record at some point, so I'm just gonna start it now.' And bam, the songs just started coming. I had a lot of the hooks in my phone, old ideas and then it's like, alright, let's develop this one. Let's develop that one. So we kind of went from there.
WM: When you're thinking of these hooks and putting them in your phone, are you putting them aside for Sugaray?
Corne: Yeah. I have kind of a stable of artists that I not only produce but also want me to contribute to the writing. And so when I get ideas, I put them in folders, for like 'Oh, this would be good for that person. And this would be good for that one.' And then I start developing when the time comes.
WM: So what's a Sugaray-type song?
Corne: Something that's leaning soul and funk. And there's a certain pool of influences that I think we overlap and share, whether it's like Sly [Stone] or Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers, so when I get ideas that feel like they come from that lineage, I right away think of him.
When I get something that feels a little more like Waylon Jennings or Little Feat, I think of Sam Morrow. So it just depends where I hear that the ideas could go.
WM: Do you ever think about mixing it up and giving Sugaray something a little more country?
Corne: Yeah, I think I do that. To me a song like "Golden Lady of the Canyon" is country soul. And that's about as country as Sugaray wants to get [laughs]. No, seriously, I know that. We talk. I explored what are the boundaries? What are the limits? I want to know, and I want to push artists, but I also always recognize that it should always still feel that it really represents them, and that they're really proud to put their face on the album and tour it for a year or two. So there's a lot of looking each other in the eye and really talking through.
Building songs together
WM: At what point do you bring in the the person you're writing for? Are you showing them stuff as you're writing?
Corne: No. Usually, once I've got the lyrics and the melody and just the chord structure, I then find a drum groove. And then I just lay down, usually just one guitar part, usually a guitar line, a drum beat, and a vocal.
Sometimes I have a little fun with it: put down some harmonies or an extra part, but I purposely leave it really skeletal. Even though I have ideas of what the other musicians should do, and I go over that with them at the session, I still like to let them get impressions, and not totally fill in the whole picture. Because I tend to work with session guys who, we can cook up a song in a couple of hours that nobody's ever heard before. And it's sort of an exciting process where there's a lot of riffing.
So I usually kind of just finish a skeletal sketch of a song, and then I send it to the artist, and see what they think. And if it's something they want to do, and develop, we do. And if they don't, we don't. But I don't usually send people something unless I think it's really great.
WM: And of the people you work with, is there a person you particularly enjoy writing for?
Corne: Well, I'd have to say the chemistry that I have with with Sugaray is very unique. I think that, like I was saying earlier, we have some really strong shared influences, and I think one of my passions and strengths is writing about social issues, and socio-political and socio-economic issues.
I have a degree in political science. And I think that Sugs really, that was something we talked about, in the very beginning, is that we had a real overlap and wanting to just use our voice, and we identified that in a lot of soul, and even blues music, and Willie Dixon, and others, going way back. There [were] definitely social and political issues. They were usually explored poetically and with humor, and very veiled, but they're there. And we really both get excited about that. And so I feel like both the topic, subject matter, we're really on the same page.
And then with regards to like, the stylistically, we share a lot of the same influences, and I think Sug likes the way that I do things a little different, because I'm not really trained in anything, even as an engineer. I never went to school. So like I said, I have a degree in political science, so I maybe come at things a little differently. And I think I have something pretty special also, with Sam Morrow, and I think something really developing with with Davy Knowles.
WM: With Sugaray, a lot of the stuff that he sings about, he's experienced. Do you have conversations about those things and it becomes a song? How much is you translating his personal experiences into a song versus more of the political science lens of understanding these larger social issues?
Corne: When I'm writing with an artist in mind, I really try to put myself in their shoes. And I have conversations with them about stuff. So Sug and I, he was telling me that he was having trouble sleeping and talking to me, opening up a little bit about his PTSD. And I had this riff for "Invisible Soldier," and the lyric kind of came to me. And so I called him and I said, 'How would you feel if I wrote a song about this?' And there's a line in there like, 'Feeling numb or seeing red.' [Those were] the emotions that I got from him. Like he either just felt numb from it or he's angry. And so I try to listen for that stuff and put it in the songs as much as possible.
WM: What got you into the blues?
Corne: Really, Winnipeg's a big blues town. Big folk. You got Neil Young coming up there, Joni Mitchell next door, so I think folk was really big and blues was really big. I had a friend's older brother [start] lending me a lot of records, a lot of blues records. I remember getting like John Mayall's Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, and the early Savoy Brown record.
So I really fell in love with Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, Howlin' [Wolf], John Lee Hooker, on and on from there. And I liked being a little different. A lot of my friends were into like Psychedelic Furs and Cure. And I like some of that stuff. I like the Smiths a lot. And others. I love bands like Blur, but when Britpop was really popular, I kind of went to this American roots tradition. And I've moved back and forth. I've been into heavy music and I've been really into indie rock.
You can hear it for sure on records I do with Sam Morrow, KaiL Baxley, and Sugaray Rayford. I try to stylize things, just give things a real style. And that's something I really appreciate about indie rock and indie pop, bands like Spoon and Wilco and My Morning Jacket. Things are really arranged and sculpted in a cool, creative way. I try to do that, as I can, in roots music, but I always take cues from my artists.
And I know, like I was saying earlier, some artists don't want to veer too far into that. And I respect that. And I'm going to help them really nail what they want to do. I don't need to try to do that on every project. But the ones that let me really run free, like Sug does. Sug just lets me totally do it. And he'll tell me what he loves. And if there's something he thinks can be different, but that doesn't happen often.
But there's other projects, they want to do something. John [Mayall] wants to do something a little more traditional. But we shook it up a little bit on this new record with Scarlet Rivera on violin; Jake Shimabukuro on ukulele sounds like an electric guitar [laughs].
WM: Are you working on your own album now?
Corne: It's funny. I'm starting another record with Sam Morrow this weekend. And I was playing Sam one of the songs over the phone because he was rehearsing with the drummer. He was trying to he was trying to remember how it went. And then my assistant, Ryan, was like, 'Dude, you've got to record that!' [laughs]. I just thought it's funny, because I'm writing and producing a lot of my own songs, but with other artists doing them, I'm kind of living vicariously through them. And there's a lot of material.
I haven't done songs that I've written for other people on any of my own records. I thought at times it would be really cool to do those tunes, but I'm not going to try to have a career as an artist, really, because I know what's involved, and how it has to really be your sole focus, and I can't do what I do.
The only way that would happen is if like one of my artists really broke big and there was a demand for it. And I had more help with the label and all those things. So I'd never say never, but it's not really... I'm sure I'll do another record, but there was like 10 years between the two solo records I put out. So, that's kind of my pace [laughs].
WM: Do you have a folder on the phone for yourself? Even for something like 2032?
Corne: I'm not that prolific [laughs]. It's a lot, when you look at how many songs maybe I'm writing in a year on other people's records. If I was not doing so much of the other stuff, like not running a label, and even if I wasn't engineering, as producing is one thing, and that's a big thing, especially when you're working with string and horn arrangers, but the engineer can never leave the room [laughs]. So, that makes it hard to do a lot of other things. But as I get older, it'll be fun to diversify in different ways.
WM: Do you like to engineer to give yourself ground-up control of the sound?
Corne: Yeah, totally. I just like to get my own sounds. And when I was playing in bands in Canada, I worked with some really, really great engineers, engineer/producer guys, guys like I do what they were doing. I really learned a lot from people I worked with, in the studio, through the years, in Canada and then in L.A., working at Mad Dog.
I learned so much from working with Eddie Kramer quite a bit. And David Bianco, of course Dusty Wakeman, the owner, Ken Allardyce, a lot of big time engineer/producers, and so I learned to how those guys engineered records and I got the hang of it, and so it's at the core of what I do now.
And I think there's just a synergy between all the different facets in a way. I compartmentalize them a little bit; I don't tend to think about the instrumentation until I've got the song all sketched out. Then I start to think about the instrumentation. I don't get too much into thinking about the mix when I'm focusing on the production. I want it to sound really great raw. And I'll be experimental and get sounds as I'm recording them, but I'll print them. I won't be mixing in the box, as I'm producing. For the most part. I try to put it all down as we record it, and then mix when I mix. And that's how those guys made records, so it's kind of old school.
Making great tracks
WM: What elements go into a well-produced blues album?
Corne: I think at the core of it, for me, is really great songs. And I think that's what a lot of records are missing. I'm not interested in verses that are just a vehicle to get me to the solo. I'm really interested in songs and lyrics and melody and harmony, and guitar parts. And, yes, some great solos, too. But it all has to be part of the broader emotion of the song. And I like any production of any kind of music to really embody that and express and reinforce that at an emotional level. And I think I like songs to have good grooves and good melody.
And I don't distinguish that from blues and other genres really. It's important to have a good bit of spontaneity and energy. To me, blues is, as much as any genre, kind of music with everybody playing in the room looking at each other, feeding off each other. And when I make records, that's how we record. Everybody playing together. And then we'll add on top of that.
WM: As a songwriter, how do you find new perspectives in blues songs, since it's such an idiomatic form.
Corne: It's funny. I'm writing, I'm working, I'm about to start a record with a, I don't want to say who yet, but he's a Blues Hall of Fame artist [NOTE: 40 Below announced it's Joe Louis Walker]. And I've written some songs for his upcoming record. And he said, 'You know, you write a little differently than most blues writers, but I like that' [laughs].
And I was trying to think about what he meant, and I kind of get it. I don't really reflect that much on it, but it's always a challenge to find what a song should be about and the direction. I often look to who I'm working with, and where we might have common ground. But I think there [are] certain things that are universal and timeless, like love, good and bad. And I think, like we talked about earlier, just things going down in the communities and social issues is a big part of blues. That's always changing yet, there's deep roots in it that you can draw on. And sort of create new imagery that's influenced by a lot of that old imagery.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.