As half of one of the greatest duos in pop history, John Oates is certainly no stranger to collaboration when it comes to songwriting and recording. But despite his half-century's worth of experience in the music industry, he says he's never been in involved in anything like new song "Smoke & Mirrors" before, whose studio video Billboard is premiering today.
"It was totally unique," he says of the endeavor. "We wrote a song in two hours with eight people. It was a very unique, cool thing to do."
The eight people he refers to are students of the Berklee College of Music, where Oates served as the Herb Alpert Visitng Professor for a 2015-16 residency. During his second year at the school, the "She's Gone" singer-songwriter devised (along with music business/management associate professor Stephanie Kellar) to work with that group on a new song, which they would write together in the space of a two-hour session, in front of a live audience.
"We had a long table set up, and we had teams of two people working on each facet of the composition," Oates explains. "And I was kind of the ring master, you know, I bounced around." Different pairs of students (collectively referred to as "WritersBloc") were assigned different responsibilities -- track, lyrics, topline melody -- while their professor helped out as needed, and a studio audience observed. "It was just this sense of 'Let's see what we can do, let's see if we can create a song from scratch, in this kind of collaborative environment,'" Oates says.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer recalls being taken aback by how well the project came together. "To be honest from you, I was shocked from the very beginning that it was actually working," he admits. "It could have gone south really quickly… but everyone seemed to be able to relate." Oates explains that once the song's groove was in place, everything fell in step from there. "They came up with a certain feel, a certain tempo, which then began to dictate how the rest of the writers were going to attack the song and bring it to the next level."
Having the song's title in place also helped move the process along. "We had the title "Smoke and Mirrors," and [I said], 'That's a cool, evocative title, but it could go in any direction you want. It could literally be about smoke and mirrors, or it could be a metaphor for a relationship for whatever,'" Oates recalls. "And in the end, it did turn into a metaphor for an emotional relationship... once we locked into that, it really moved quickly."
The ensuing song, recorded in another two-hour session (filmed for the accompanying video) with graduated student Amy Allen on lead vocal -- and Oates, of course, on backing -- is indeed a thoroughly coherent and impressively alluring mid-tempo soul-pop ballad. In fact, it's not totally unlike the kind of gently seductive gem that the song's executive producer scored a couple decades' worth of hits with. "I can't help it, it's a blessing and a curse," Oates jokingly bemoans. "Anything I touch ends up sounding somewhat like a Hall & Oates song, in some shape or form."
The experience is one that the Top 40 veteran says will prepare his students for the fast-paced, ultra-collaborative behind-the-scenes world of contemporary pop music. "Songwriting in the brave new world of pop music has really become a songwriting by committee -- if you look at a lot of modern pop songs, you'll see that there's multiple songwriters," Oates explains. "People are writing songs in different countries together via FaceTime and Skype and things like that. So I think it was really keeping in the spirit with the way modern pop music is being created."
And speaking of the modern pop world, Oates has a handful of projects of his own on deck. His memoir, A Change of Seasons, is scheduled for release next April, and he has two very different musical projects in the works as well: a Christmas single with Vince Gill's country-swing group The Time Jumpers, and an electronic collaboration with progressive house maestro Wolfgang Gartner. "It's amazing to have an EDM single and an old-time swing single all at the same time," the 68-year-old pop lifer laughs.
The track can be downloaded here, along with stems from the original recording for additional remixing, to continue the song's communal spirit, and to "send it out into the world and see what interesting things could happen if other people then added their input, their ideas, to the existing song," Oates says.