If you are a true Ashlee Simpson fan you HAVE TO read this article where John Shanks, the producer of Ashlee’s “Autobiography” talks about the process of making the album. I had a blast reading this because it represents the main reason why I love Ashlee, her talent!
What you forget, though, is Ashlee had a chart-topping debut, Autobiography, a collection of pop-rock gems that helped Ashlee establish her own as a musician. The album, released July 20, 2004 via Geffen, has sold more than five million copies worldwide and spawned a number of hit singles including “Pieces of Me,” “La La” and “Shadow.”
To boot, she had her own (surprisingly entertaining) MTV reality show, The Ashlee Simpson Show, that documented the album’s creation process. While in some respects it was, well, amusing to see her transform from a bubbly blonde into a dark-haired Urban Outfitters-chic rocker, it nonetheless provided a glimpse at her undeniable hard work and dedication.
[When I started working with Ashlee], I think I got a call from a person at [her record label] Geffen and I think her dad at the time. They wanted to have a meeting and wanted to bring her in and wanted to play me stuff. Basically what happened was all these kind of managers and executives [came in] and they’re telling me who she is and what she is and what she sounds like. Personally for me, I said, “Can I just spend 10 minutes alone with her?” and they left the room. I said to her: “First of all, do you want this? Is this their dream or your dream?” And she said, “It’s absolutely my dream.” So I said, “What do you listen to?” We talked about influences: we were talking about Blondie, Cheap Trick, Depeche Mode and rock and the Pretenders—all these bands. And I was like wow, not Fiona Apple, not blah blah, whatever those references [her team] was bringing up.
I said, “Ok let’s start tomorrow.” I changed my schedule of stuff I was working on at the time. I said, “Let’s spend two solid weeks and let’s write. Just you and me and write. Let’s go for it.” The first couple of weeks we wrote basically the five first songs on the record. I think the first song we wrote was “Surrender.” Then there might have been another song, and then I went home and I started writing “Pieces of Me.”
I had the beginning of “Pieces of Me.” I knew the title, I had the music, I had the structure. I knew what I wanted it to be about. I knew the melody. It felt to me that this song had the potential to be, for me, to be a hit song. I suggested to Ashlee at the time that there’s a writer I work with together a lot and we work together really well, this girl Kara [DioGuardi]. I think this song is important to really make sure the lyrics are dialed in on. Nothing against “Surrender”; nothing against one other song she and I wrote. But this could have the potential. Three hands are better than two. I’d rather write a great song with three people than a good song with two, that’s always been my thing.
I called Kara and she was literally going to some other session, and I said, “I think I wrote a hit song. I think I have the start on a really strong song and I need you NOW.” She’s like, “You’re crazy. You can’t just call me at five [minutes] to 1:00.” She’s pretty feisty, you know. But I go, “No, this is one of those moments, I swear to god, it’s worth it. I want to bring you in. I want you to be part of this record. I think the three of us would really get a good rhythm.” She showed up. We wrote “Pieces of Me” that day. I played her what I had. I had the melody and we kind of sonically filled in the blanks. Then we kind of got the angle lyrically. It happened quickly. It was really one of those [songs that happen] in an hour, hour and a half. But unfortunately, I said, “When you’re coming in here get ready because they’re filming us. I forgot to tell you they’re filming [The Ashlee Simpson Show].”
What was nice about the guys who were the producers of MTV, they were very supportive with me. I think Ashlee had a couple bad experiences before me. She and I had this quick rhythm. I was able to play everything, program stuff, play the bass, guitars, help her with the harmonies. It was like, oh, we have a little partnership. I’d walk out and the producers were watching everything. After a while you forget the cameras are there, and I’d walk out into the hall and they’d be like, “You’re doing great. This is awesome. You guys have this really wonderful chemistry. We want you to win, and the song is awesome.” When we were doing “Pieces of Me,” I went outside and went to these guys and said, “You gotta do me a favor. You gotta fuck off for an hour. You gotta just turn the cameras off. This one you’ve got to give me the time, cause we [John and Kara] are gonna argue. I know it’s going to make for good TV, but you have to give me this. This will pay for everything. I’ve done this long enough to know you gotta give me this.” They were really great. They were always respectful. You’ve got to let me work with her alone. Once I have the song, the essence, the lyrics, the melodies—then you can come in. And that’s what happened. Then from that we got [the song] “Autobiography.”
[Before writing “La La”], Ashlee and Kara were like, oh it’d be great to have like a jam, like a rock, lick-oriented [song]. I think they went outside and smoked a cigarette or something, and they came back in and they were like [sings “La La” guitar part]. We wrote “La La.” Again, it happened really fast. It was like a jam. We turned it up really loud. The guitars were really loud; the drumbeats were really loud. There was actually a verse in “La La” that we had to change because it was so graphic. There’s one line, “I’m like a boomerang.” What it DOESN’T say is “I’ll come back and get you off.” That line, [the label] was like, “Yeah, that’s not gonna work.” It was so graphic. It was one of those kinds of [writing] nights. We went there lyrically. We had the imagery of Madonna where she’s crawling on the floor and drinking milk out of a bowl. We kind of went there. But other than that, I think just two lines we changed.
Sometimes albums like that, when no one is standing over your shoulder but you have the green light. I had a green light to do the record because it was this new artist. They gave me full control. I knew I could bring in Kara and a couple people in. That’s what happened with Michelle Branch’s first two records, too. They just kind of let me do it. Nowadays, it doesn’t work that way. You can do it on your own, but you have to pay for it on your own, and then go sell it. But this, I had a track record, we’re giving you her, the whole thing, no other people, no other writers. Which to me is great because that feels like a record — it’s a fucking album –- not like a collection of singles. There’s a conscious effort to sequence a certain way. Every song doesn’t have to be a single.
To this day, unfortunately with what happened with Saturday Night Live should have never happened. My recollection of everything, and my belief in her and my commitment to her was 110 percent. Unfortunately, I didn’t know she was doing SNL. No one called me to tell me. That would have never happened if I was there; there’s no way that would have gone down. How it went down was unfortunate because I know her because I spent 12 weeks in a room with her. I know how to get the best out of her, protect her voice. She needed something like that. That was just my vote or the way I see it. When she played the second time on SNL I was there.
Here’s the thing: Ashlee is an artist. She is. She’s as much an artist as any one of these—I want to curse here, but… To me, I’ve been in the room with all these girls—all of them—every single one of them I’ve been lucky to be around. Ashlee earned her stripes on that record. She put in the time. She put in the effort. She was there eight, nine hours a day working her ass off, tweaking the lyrics and singing, singing, singing. That was a labor of love, and when somebody’s coming from that place, as a writer or producer, I’m in, I’m there. It was a joy that first record. It was a lot of work, but it was creative and fun.
I think the highest compliment of this record is that years later rock dudes, guitar players come up to me and say, “Dude, man, I loved that Ashlee fuckin’ Simpson record. The guitar tones on that song.” I actually had John Mayer call me up at one point and say “What’s the voicing of the chord at the beginning of ‘Pieces of Me?’ Where’s he playing that? It’s a B minor but you’re not playing a B minor.” So I showed him, and he’s like, “Ah, that chord.” It was just one of those moments, it was just good music, and that’s why it sold almost five million copies.
We worked hard on the second [album], too. Unfortunately, it was just a backlash. What happened to this poor, beautiful soul was not fair, it was not just. I don’t want to say it’s bad management or what. It’s like Lana Del Rey—if she had never gone on [SNL], she’d be Pink or Kelly Clarkson. She worked just as hard as those girls.
The thing I loved about Ashlee was that she was the underdog. Going in she was the underdog; she wasn’t [her sister] Jessica. I’ve worked with Jessica. I love Jessica. But I related to Ashlee. I’m the youngest, and she’s the younger sister. We’re scrappers, we have to fight. To me that album—she’s like look, I can do this. I’m a fighter. And that’s what I loved about that record. She just was an old soul. To this day, she would have a big career. She’d still be doing it. She’s talented, she really is. People are just haters. Every time I’m out somewhere or speaking on some panel and people are like, “Fucking Ashlee Simpson,” I’m like: “Yeah, fuck you. Trust me, you come in my room and you work as hard as that girl did for 12 weeks.” That girl deserved every record that she sold. And she wrote every song. She was there and she was a part of it—some days more than others—[and] like all of us we all have good days and bad. She deserves the success on that record, and if it wasn’t for that one moment…
At Coachella [this year], I’m watching Haim, right in front of Este, the bass player, and they were awesome. After the show I’m backstage talking to a friend, and Este was standing there I said, “I just wanted to say hi, you guys are awesome. I’m John Shanks.” She starts hitting me like we’ve known each other a thousand years. She goes, “OK, so let’s just start with that I’ve been sick for two weeks in bed—I’m just gonna start there—and all I did for the two weeks I was in bed was watch seasons one and two of The Ashlee Simpson Show. So let’s just start there. So then of course I’ve been listening to albums one and two. So I’m gonna give you a big hug and you’re a bad motherfucker. We’re going to write in August.” I’m just like wow.
When someone like that gets it, and guitar geeks come up to me, real guitar players, they kind of go, “Man, I gotta tell you, I love that album”—I’m telling you heavy metal dudes—it’s timeless. To me, that album personally was the third extension of Michelle Branch’s second record [The Spirit Room]. I’m proud of that record. If someone comes up to you and goes, “I think that album sucks,” I go, “Oh really? Well I got four million reasons why it doesn’t.” That was a different time. It’s unfortunate that that approach is not used more, where you find this artist. I guess Katy [Perry] did it with [Dr.] Luke and Max [Martin].
Ashlee’s getting married again. I just talked to her mom yesterday. It’s like you went through the war together. I will always love Ashlee. There was something about [the fact] that we created something together and that will never change, and I hope that people can really feel that within the record and that becomes timeless.
Source: My Space – Written by Jill Menze