Jason Scheff: You Can't Hold an Artist Down
Chicago's lead singer/bassist Jason Scheff shares his remarkable musical journey—including how M-Audio MIDI controllers enable him to reach new creative heights
Jason Scheff performing for M-Audio at the 2003 Winter Namm show
Though Chicago lead singer/bassist Jason Scheff was born in a musical household—his father was Elvis Presley’s bass player and his mother was a touring musician—he never felt pressure to follow in their footsteps. Scheff was always encouraged to find his own way, which just so happened to lead him into the family business. As he likes to say, “you can’t hold an artist down.” So with the support of family and established industry veterans, the artist in Scheff began to emerge. Guided by passion and a sense of purpose, Scheff’s creative journey has encompassed worldwide tours of Chicago’s chart-topping hits (including “Will You Still Love Me?” and “Look Away”); the release of a solo album, “Chauncy;” and myriad songwriting projects for the likes of David Lasley (James Taylor), Carly Simon, Boz Scaggs, George Benson and more.
Scheff picked up a bass at age 14, and was encouraged by his natural aptitude for the instrument. He started playing with his mom in bands around his hometown of San Diego, CA, and later played gigs as far away as Idaho. Though certain of his desire to become a professional bass player, Scheff was initially resistant to becoming a singer. After joining a Top 40 band, Scheff was forced to sing regularly—but it wasn’t until his first voice lesson that he discovered his true singing voice.
“Once I got to LA, my mom bought me my first vocal lesson with Seth Riggs,” Scheff recounts. “I said, ‘I want to increase my range downward. I know I can sing high, but I want to sing lower.’ So he took me through some exercises and he just stops within a minute and says, ‘Jason, you're barking up the wrong tree. You're a natural tenor.’ I'll never be able to thank Seth enough because he basically showed me who I am as a singer. I kept going to him for probably a year and a half because I saw the future.”
From practicing to performing
Riggs’ unwavering support and encouragement—even when Scheff couldn’t afford to pay him for lessons—provided an invaluable boost to his career. Equally important was the devoted friendship of songwriter Aaron Zigman. After getting a publishing deal at age 19, Zigman frequently hired Scheff to perform the demos of his songs. This brought Scheff into contact with established musicians such as Bobby Caldwell, Steve Cropper, and Jeffrey Osborne, and eventually led to Scheff signing his own publishing deal in 1985.
Within a matter of months, Scheff’s tape fell into the hands of Michael Ostin at Warner Bros., the label for both Chicago and Peter Cetera. When Peter Cetera left Chicago, Warner Bros. solicited material for his solo album. Scheff’s publishing company sent over his tape, and not only did Warner like his songs, the label selected him to replace Cetera as Chicago’s frontman. And at 23, Scheff embarked on a new leg of his musical journey.
“I was 24 when I went out on my first tour,” Scheff relates. “At that age you're stupid enough to feel you can do anything. Now, at 41, if the same opportunity came up and I had been a life-long club musician, I might talk myself out of it. But I was lucky that I was young enough to go for it. It was a great time in my life.”
Reason on the road
Scheff has long been interested in recording on the road, but until recently couldn’t find gear that would enhance—rather than impede—his creative process. However, the purchase of a Titanium Mac PowerBook and the discovery of Propellerhead Reason quickly changed everything. Reason’s ease-of-use enabled Scheff to begin creating music immediately, while the program’s power and depth beckoned him to explore new creative frontiers.
“Within the first day of using Reason I was creating tons of music because it was so simple and compact and automatic that there was nothing that was getting in the way of the work,” Scheff attests. “For the first time in my life I felt prolific. Reason makes me create things that I normally wouldn't. When you've got a basic palette of drumbeats or drum sounds, you tend to program the same type of thing. So I wasn’t being stretched. But with Reason, I love to program a real simple drum beat in Redrum and come up with some part—whether it's a synth or even a REX file—for the percussive element of the groove rather then thinking, ‘oh it's gotta be a high hat.’”
“I also like to go into the bass sounds and find something that is different and happens quickly,” Scheff continues. “You're guaranteed within the first two or three sounds, you'll hear something that you normally wouldn't have chosen which sends you in a completely different direction. And that is the best part because you're constantly coming up with different things. The fact that it's stretching me and my songwriting is amazing in and of itself. It's just been an incredible tool.”
With Reason, even physical distance is no longer a barrier to creative collaboration. Scheff explains how he works with M-Powered drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, “In the old days we could send a MIDI file back and forth but even if you have the exact same synth modules that I do, what are the chances that the mixes are going to be the same? There's something that's gonna be lost in the interpretation. But with Reason, I can send you or Vinnie or anybody my Reason file, and he can open it up in his computer and it's exactly the way that I just put it together. All the automation is built in.”
Portable hardware solutions
A few choice pieces of hardware complete Scheff’s mobile studio setup. He favors M-Audio’s Oxygen8 and Radium49 keyboard controllers because of their size and flexibility. Not only are they effective at controlling parameters within Reason, they compel Scheff to use new and different techniques when composing—with exciting results. Plus, their easy setup enables Scheff do get work done anytime and anywhere—whether he has a quick half hour break in his hotel room, or whether he’s back in a more traditional studio environment.
“I've used the Oxygen8 overseas in Japan, which is pretty neat because once again it's making you create in different ways than you normally would,” Scheff enthuses. “I'm usually a 2-handed piano-playing songwriter. To have to use just one hand at a time and then add the bass later is great because it makes me come up with different chords than I normally would. I also just got the 49-key Radium, which is exciting because I do like being able to play a 2-handed keyboard while I'm on the road. It's a perfect size to store in an overhead compartment on a plane. And I like all the MIDI possibilities with the knobs and the sliders.”
Loving the art form
“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘what's the best way to get a kid into music?’ I said, ‘Well, does your kid like it?’ The answer was ‘yes,’ so I said, ‘well, let him play then.’ No one ever had to force me to do anything. If someone’s really into it, you can't stop him. That's art, that's an artist. You cannot keep an artist down.”
“If you're gonna be going after a career because you want to make a living out of songwriting, you had better really love it for the art form,” Scheff continues. “If it doesn't happen for you it can be real discouraging because the business is full of rejection. I was lucky that my songs got placed and I got noticed by people. But at the same time, I really was meant to be doing it. I didn't win the lottery; it was part of who I was. If you love music and songwriting, just do it for the love of it. And if you happen to become successful at it, that's all the better.”
Scheff even remains positive in the face of a changing industry. “A lot of people say that that the day of being a songwriter and getting songs placed is long gone because all these producers are writing the songs for the artists these days. But don't ever forget that a great song will always find its way out into the light. You can't keep it down. There's always gonna be a movie looking for the great song. There's a place for everybody, so don't be discouraged.”