©2011 Master Seven. All rights reserved.
Interview with Bernie Chiaravalle
Master Seven Interview by Tom Beninate
Copy Editor: Susan Castellano
For the past 22 years, Bernie Chiaravalle has toured the world as Michael McDonald’s lead guitarist. He has recorded four solo albums, written the No. 1 hit song, “Speak” and co-written songs with Michael McDonald, Larry Carlton and others. He has toured with The Doobie Brothers, produced an Amy Holland (McDonald) album and the list goes on.

Congratulations on your latest CD, “The World Around Me.” How is it progressing?

Thank you very much. It’s going good. You know these days with the way the record industry is, it’s a challenge to get anything out there in the mainstream. I’m having a lot of really nice feedback on it and it is selling moderately well.

You can very clearly hear the songwriting effort that was put into this album.

I appreciate you noticing that. I feel the same way. It’s kind of hard to find that these days, but it’s out there.
Jan 3, 2011
Bernie's website:
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How have downloads and free copying affected what you are trying to do?

Well, obviously people downloading without paying for the music is really tough on any artist or any songwriter because it takes away from your livelihood. I do it first and foremost for the love of it, and you would like to be able to make a living off of it as well. Anytime someone downloads your music for free the writer is not getting any money for it. That certainly affects me. On the other hand, the download format itself when it’s legit is a great thing for us. It has a good and a bad side. The good is obviously it’s easy for people to access your music. If they don’t want to buy a whole CD they can buy individual songs, which is great for the consumer. I’ll admit that sometimes I’ll go to iTunes to get a couple of songs because the album isn’t worth getting. The down side is you actually get paid a little less for downloads. For instance Amazon, without the artist’s control, will offer your record for 3, 4 or 5 dollars. It decreases your cut of the record so to speak. Whereas … you don’t see CDs for much less than 9 or 10 dollars – so the profit margin is higher on the actual CD. But on the other hand … (it) is a lot easier (for people to access your music) with digital downloads. I … predict it’s going to head that way. You can see the decline in record stores…. (They) are closing left and right. Now when you go into Best Buy or Walmart … you can see that their (CD) bins are shrinking….

Should the independent artist be selling in stores or on the Internet?

It depends on what level you are talking about. I work for Michael McDonald. He’s always been on big labels – Warner Brothers, Reprise. He was on Universal for 4 or 5 albums. He’s even at a point now where he is exploring those options. For me, let’s put it this way. The record industry is really controlled by 3 major labels. And they all go through the same record promoters and distributors, even if you are a small independent label. For example Aimee Mann, who is a great artist … (is) not on a major label but she still uses those same distribution people that the big labels use. Obviously the big labels have more money. For me at my level, it’s better to do it … (myself). Basically you are paying distributors huge sums of money to peddle your record to the store chains. So for me, it’s not worth it to pay those people. I’m better staying at a smaller level. Let’s say I set my goal for selling 50,000 records. I’m not looking at selling a million records because that’s unrealistic. A lot of artists, even at Michael’s level … (don’t) even think that way…. These days, they are thinking 100,000 records is stupendous, it’s unbelievable. If you are not giving the record company 90 percent of your profit, which is what the major labels pretty much take, then your profit margin is so much bigger if you’re selling 100,000 records. If you are Rihanna or Lady Gaga, then it’s a whole different story because they are looking at selling mass amounts of records. If you want to set your goals smaller, you can do it yourself so to speak.
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What kind of promotion would be necessary for a singer-songwriter who takes the
do-it-yourself approach?

Obviously the Internet is a huge tool for all of us. It gives you a forum to get your stuff out there. For instance CD Baby is an amazing company. Anybody can get their record out there, If you have the ability. … I’m grateful that I have the ability because I’ve always been sort of a self-sufficient guy. I’ve got my own recording studio. I play a lot of instruments. I can produce a record by myself. First and foremost you have to have that part of it together. Then once you have a product, these days there are so many companies where you can do your own artwork, you can basically manufacture it yourself for a pretty low cost. And then you have the Internet, like I said with CD Baby, you can sell your physical CDs. They distribute … (them) to all the digital dealers for downloading. Of course you want to use your social networks - Facebook, MySpace, your website and whatever else is out there.
So you link your social network prospects directly to CD Baby?

Yes. Try to think like the big labels do. Offer promotions: put your record on sale, offer a free download if you buy the record, (have) two records for a certain price, a sale price. Try to be a marketer, use Facebook, get out there and network, make friends, hook up with other musicians, get yourself known, get yourself out there. If you have a live act, obviously get yourself out there and play.

Great advice, though artists and business people usually have different philosophies.

Do you mean the left and right side of the brain?

Sure. Artists believe in their creativity and generally prefer to outsource business decisions and marketing to others. Should they get more involved in promoting their records?

In this day and age, I don’t think it hurts. First off, not everybody has the luxury of having management and second … even Michael is having a tough time getting the music he believes in out there. The reason we are not hearing a lot of singer-songwriters out there is because that is not what companies are looking for. They are looking for sensational acts, people that are going to draw a lot of attention.


Exactly. I don’t consider myself not to be an entertainer, because I can get in front of an audience and entertain. It’s just a different format. I think a lot of artists are running up against that problem. It just doesn’t hurt to use what you have. Especially since these days with the Internet we have so many resources and they are pretty easy, even if you hook up with a friend that is computer friendly. It is really up to us to get our stuff out there.

It seems that we have come full circle from 50 years ago when the record labels had a lock on the industry. It took bands like the Beatles to break that lock when they started their Apple label.

I agree with that 100 percent. I was just reading David Crosby’s book, his second book, where he is talking about this very thing…. Radio became this sort of free form format where they actually encouraged their DJs to mix it up … use (their) imagination - don’t just play one kind of music. I remember listening to FM radio in the 60’s and the 70’s. You just never knew what was coming on. But it became so successful that corporations came in and started buying it out. The minute they owned it all it became junk and now all the radio stations sound exactly the same and they are all being programmed and told exactly what to play.

So today  the Internet is yesterday’s FM radio?

Absolutely. That is exactly what I feel….  I’ve been real fortunate to be with Michael for a long time. I’ve gained a certain amount of fan base from him. You know Michael is a singer-songwriter. So if they see somebody in Mike’s band whose music might fall in the same category as far as the kind of music or the kind of feel it has … they are anxious to hear (it). They don’t want to listen to Lady Gaga. Now I’m not putting Lady Gaga down, because I kind of like her. You know what I mean. It’s looking for the kind of music we are talking about. There is an audience for it…. The Internet gives you access to those people. And if you show them that it’s there, they’ll probably buy it, as I’ve seen they are….  It is going to be interesting to see where it all goes. The Internet is sort of like the new frontier in a sense.
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What is a hit song?

Wow! … First off technically it has got to be well-written. That’s a hard question because what makes a rap song a hit song and what makes a John Mayer song a hit song are two different things. But I think a hit song is reaching a certain market, reaching a certain audience that you know is going to buy that particular song. That’s the marketing side of it. As far as writing a good song, maybe that’s a different thing to me.…
For example, your hit song, “Speak.”

Ok. First off it’s got to be well-written and well structured. It has got to have good lyrics, good melody and then it has to be recorded well. They give awards at the Grammys for a song and a record. (You need to consider) … the sound of the record, the production, … where the drums sit, where the vocals sit, what kind of effects are used. That’s a big part of it. I’d say it is at least half of what makes a hit record, the sound of the record.

Is the typical independent songwriter capable of writing a hit or is a certain amount of experience required?

Well, obviously the word experience is premier. You've got to write and write and write. To me … I can write 10 songs and one of them may pass the grade. I know that (is true) for many writers that I write with. You have to write a lot to get to the good ones. Sometimes a lot of it is just exercise  to me anyway.

So, a songwriter that has listened to hits, and can determine which of his or her own material is more worthy, has the potential to write a hit?

Yeah, I think so. I feel that I know. And most writers that I write with or that I work with … know. You have the instinct to know when something is above the grade…. Technically … a hit can be a song that is poorly written. A hit can be a song that you can’t stand but it’s promoted right and it is pushed out there until it becomes a hit….  But if you are talking about writing good songs that can be a hit, that’s the craft. That is putting yourself down to the grindstone, and writing it and doing it…until you get better and better at it. Because … just about any song can be a hit on the business side….  But again if you’re referring to writers that are doing it independently, you know, that’s … a whole different ballgame. Do whatever you want and do whatever you’re comfortable with and don’t be concerned about what a hit is. Just write good well-crafted songs. The hit will kind of become itself, I think. I hope that answers your question.

Absolutely. It reminds me of George Harrison timidly asking the other Beatles about his draft of the song, “Something.” Of course their response was that it is a hit.

On that note, another important thing to think about is that you never really sit down to write a hit song…. I know the Beatles too. My inclination is that George Harrison didn’t sit down to write a hit song. He was inspired. When you are inspired to write, you go with your gut. You feel it and it comes out of you. And if it is a great song it can be a hit, it’s obvious, do you know what I mean? The other Beatles probably did … (say), “Wow! That’s an amazing song.”  First and foremost, just write … and do the best you can. Experience gives you those guidelines where you know if you are going too far this way or too far that way. You know which rules to follow. To me when I write, I’m pretty structured. I know I’ve got to have a verse, chorus, verse, chorus and a bridge. That’s pretty much pop songwriting. But you can be innovative in your own way and inspiration will take you where you are supposed to go. And then the hit comes for you.

Bernie, in your career, you have performed, written songs, made records and produced records. What do you enjoy doing these days?

That’s a good question.  I would say I enjoy the writing, recording and producing process more than I do (playing) live. And that’s a real narrow margin, because they are all really exhilarating at times. But as I get older, the traveling part of playing live gets harder and harder. It gets tough to be away from home, away from your family, traveling through airports, being on tour buses, getting bad food, you know what I mean? It gets kind of old (as opposed to) staying home in your own studio and recording. That has always been a love of mine since I was a kid. I’m just fascinated with recording and will always love it. On the other hand, playing with Michael McDonald is the best thing I’ve ever done - when you’re having a good night and it’s really clicking and everything falls into place. There is really no feeling like it. You can’t compare it to recording because it’s completely different. And it’s very spiritual and inspiring. But recording can be the same thing. While you are recording, it can be kind of tedious and hard because you are really working through problems one after another.  When you are doing takes it can be fun, but there is a lot of editing and writing and re-recording and it’s real tedious. But the finished product can be so gratifying and that’s the payoff. (Playing) live … is more interactive and spontaneous.

How did you get started with and how do you like working with CuBase 5?

My good friend Jon Vezner is a great songwriter and married to Kathy Mattea. He wrote, “Where’ve You Been,” a really, really beautiful song…. Jon came over and we did some co-writing and he said you ought to check out CuBase. I … (had been) using Soundscape Digital for a good 7 or 8 years. He got me into (CuBase) … and I… was reluctant, believe me….  Anytime you make a change like that it is major no matter what anybody tells you. I got CuBase 2 first and then progressed up to CuBase 5.… I really like it. More and more people are using CuBase. I know that ProTools is the staple, what most people use in the industry. There are so many things that CuBase does that Soundscape can’t do, more so than the other way around I think. I love the digital domain. It kind of refreshed my interest in recording. As a songwriter, it is such a great tool … for me…. It used to be in the old days if you had a song idea you would put it down on tape. You really couldn’t go back and change it much unless you were an expert with a razor and wanted to cut your tape up…. These days you could pretty much write as you go along. You go, oh, wait a minute. This will sound better over here. Just cut it and put it over there. The possibilities have really opened wide up. I really love the digital domain. I know there is the debate about what sounds better. Probably 2” tape is the champion … (from a) sonic (point of view). But it’s getting so close now, that it … doesn’t even matter to me.

What do you use for recording ideas or song concepts?

Usually I use my iPhone. It has a memo recorder. It has really good quality. If I‘ve got an idea for a song or if I’m doodling  I’ll just throw it down on that.... If it‘s something that really sticks out for me a day or two later, I’ll go ahead and put it down straight into CuBase. On the other hand I may have an idea like one song on my record, “You Got Nothin’ on Me.” That was a bass idea that I had. I started playing the bass and I liked the feel so much that I went directly to CuBase. I plugged right in, picked a tempo, threw down the bass live to a drum loop and then built the track up from there. It was never on a memo. I just basically did that one from scratch.

It is a very catchy bass riff.

It’s a rip-off from McCartney. I’m a McCartney freak. I think he is the best bass player that ever lived. It was inspired by his style of bass playing, even though the song turned out to be a little more R&B. Generally, that’s how I write. I’ll write until something feels like … (it) should (be) developed. A lot of them stay on the(iPhone as a) memo.… The ones that stick to me a little bit more and kind of pull at me … are the ones I’ll go directly to CuBase and just start developing them. And then I’ll write a lyric.

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I understand that Steve Leland gave you a poem and then you wrote the music to, “For A Little While.” Do you prefer to write music or lyrics?

That was a real fun experience actually. I’ve only done that a few times where I’ve actually written the music to the lyric. He had a lyric and he handed it to me. That came out really fast and really fluid. I was really surprised…. Lyrics quite frankly are a struggle for me and most writers I know will tell you the exact same thing. They either come real easy or they come real hard. There’s never any in-between. I like my lyrics to say something and I like them to say it in a way that’s not too obvious.… I like the words to sound musical. Generally I’ll write the music first. I’ll write a track. The melody will pretty much come to me immediately. I can hear melodies pretty easily - I’ve always been very fortunate. Trying to get the lyrics in there … (is) a little bit of homework. The first song on the album, “No Way Out” - that one came really easy. I wrote the track. It sat for a while. One day I was looking at another song that I was working on with someone else, and something about it struck an idea with me. It wasn’t that I pulled from it, but it inspired me. The lyric came out in twenty minutes. I had the whole thing written.
That’s inspiration!

That’s inspiration! Then there are other (times) … where I’ll spend twenty days working on a lyric and trying to iron it out…. Both ways could give you good results.

Perhaps that is why there are so many well-known songwriting teams where one person is fluent in writing lyrics.

Yeah, and back to the Beatles - they sort of changed that mold. They got … away from that … Tin Pan (Alley) style of writing where all of a sudden the singer can be the writer. It changed everything.

And that lead to Paul McCartney playing most of the parts on his first Wings album.

... He just recently released, “Band on the Run” remastered. I didn’t realize that he played most of the instruments on that record. I knew that he did that on some other stuff, but right around “Band on the Run” he lost his drummer. So it was just basically him and Denny Laine. I … heard “Band on the Run” in a whole new light where he’s playing drums and everything on that.

He actually started replacing some of Ringo’s drum tracks as the Beatles were falling apart. Can you imagine that you have Ringo Star –the quintessential pop drummer in your band and you still have the need to play your own drum part?

Yeah. Those four guys, especially the three writers, and especially John and Paul … became such individuals. If you think about it, they were 30 years old when they broke up. That’s like – you’re still a kid.… They were such strong visionaries and writers. It’s only natural that McCartney would hear a drum part differently than Ringo would.

Ringo is a rare drummer in that he customized his parts to the song. You can almost hear the song in his drumming.

He’s unbelievable and he is still my hero. Even when I drum these days, he’s the guy I turn to for inspiration. He is the premier song drummer.

Bernie, do you record your drums live or use triggers?

I do both…. I started out on piano and then the drums when I was a kid, and then picked up the guitar. But I’ve always been a closet drummer and bass player. On past records I’ve actually gone down and played the drums, and with digital (software) … you can go in and fix your mistakes. With this last record… I played them through MIDI with a program called Abbey Road Drums…. They are just phenomenal…. They are actually drum kits recorded in Abbey Road studios. I think it is comprised of 8 drum sets. There is a 60’s program, a 70’s, an 80’s and I just recently got the modern drum set. I used … the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. You can go in there and pick the kick, snare, toms (and) whatever you want. You can control the amount of room sound. You can tune the drums. It’s just amazing how great they sound. And they are actually the real drums. I wrote the parts myself. And then you get in there and use your compression, EQ and whatever to … make them fit in the track. They are the best sounding sample drums I’ve heard out there. Again, for an independent songwriter-artist like myself they are just the perfect tool. I absolutely love them.

They sound great on your record.

Thank you.

What projects can we look forward to you working on next?

Right now I’m getting ready to go back out with Michael McDonald. We start up again in about three weeks. We’ll do scattered dates throughout the year. I’ve already begun working on another solo CD. I’ve got about half a dozen songs in the works right now. I’m lazy. I don’t get out and play much as a solo artist. I should. I’ve been seeing friends do it lately and it’s pulling at me like I need to get out there and do that. That is sort of one of my New Year’s resolutions - to get out and play more (of my own stuff). That will pretty much keep me busy - believe me. But playing with Mike and doing a new record, that’s … my first two priorities this year.

In researching for this interview, I noticed a family-type association with you, Michael McDonald, Amy Holland (McDonald), The Doobie Brothers, your songwriting partners and others.

Oh yeah!  Well, I did a tour with the Doobie Brothers with Michael back in 1995 - John McFee was unavailable for that tour. So I was asked by Patrick Simmons to fill in. It was a reunion tour with Mike, Tom (Johnston) and Pat. I think Cornelius (Bumpus) was in the band then. We did … ten or twelve weeks. I got to be really close with those guys. We all exchange Christmas cards every year. I talk to them a few times a year. I just played with Pat in Hawaii last summer. Yeah. Those guys are really great guys. We do feel like brothers.

That friendship comes out in various documentation and album liner notes. It is interesting how you guys cross promote each other on your websites and it is refreshing to see that family-style networking among artists.

It is very nice.  And it is exactly like you said. Everybody roots everybody on. We all pull from each other and inspire each other. That’s why we’re here. It’s nice to have that. I love all the Doobies. I love Mike’s band (and) all the guys that have been playing in Mike’s band. Our sax player Vince Denham has been there about 25 years. A lot of the band has been there for 5 or 10 years. We are like family. We really care about each other. It’s nice to be involved with something like that. And Michael is a great guy. He sets that precedence. He makes that happen with the band. He gives everybody a lot of freedom.

It seems like you guys know what is really important in life.

That’s exactly right. When it comes down to it, as they say, “It’s only rock and roll.” Everything else is way more important. We’re just up there playing songs, but we really appreciate it and really love to do it.

Bernie, is there anything you would like to add before we close?

No. I think we covered quite a bit and you did a great job and had great questions.

I appreciate that. It’s been a pleasure talking to you today and I wish you continued success.

Thanks Tom.

You can purchase Bernie's latest release, "The World Around Me" at:
CD Baby - http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/berniechiaravalle
and on iTunes - http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/the-world-around-me/id410207893

Click here for our December 16, 2011 update to Bernie's interview
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