Inner Michael » In the Studio with MJ

In the Studio with MJ

“They don’t make music like that anymore” is not just a cliché. Especially not in this case. They literally don’t make music like that anymore.

In a dark cavern-like atmosphere high in an office building somewhere in New York City in classic tradition of the “Rock ‘n Roll studio complete with red and black curtains, a man stands in the front of the room reminding the audience: “Remember, I am a just “techie,” (a technician.)

The console, with its thousand buttons is attended by his daughter whom he fondly refers to as “Granny.” She is on the late side of twenty and is obviously a “techie” too enjoying her role as dad’s sidekick– but not really, for she is the one “manning” the console and keeping her dad on track. (pun intended)

She remembers Neverland distinctly, the animals, the candy, the carnival atmosphere. What she doesn’t remember is Michael lying on the floor playing with her when she was a babe. She was too young to remember though there are pictures to prove it. Dad, however, remembers it. Jackson’s understanding and appreciation for family is conveyed in stories Sundberg shares in his seminar “In the Studio with MJ” about the “crew” being treated to food catered in daily courtesy of their boss Michael and on Fridays, the day Michael called “family day.” Each Friday whomever was working with Jackson at the time was allowed to invite family to visit the studio, Neverland or wherever the workplace of the “crew” happened to be.

In Brad Sundberg’s case the workplace was both recording studio and Neverland. Jackson, when building his empire tribute to the child, employed Brad as a sound techie to moonlight on his Neverland estate beyond the studio. “There were no birds at Neverland” says Brad but Michael thought the sound of birds would enhance the experience on the grounds, so he wanted bird sounds piped in. To accomplish that, Brad had to wire up phony birdhouses into the trees that hid speakers playing the sounds of warblers that would overdub the sound of music that came from artificial rocks everywhere in the landscape.

Brad suggested to Michael at the ornate entrance to the ranch, the one that everyone remembers with the crest and name “Neverland” spanning the arc over the entrance, that a 4 minute medley of Jackson’s most recognizable songs be looped to greet visitors, citing that Jackson’s own music should greet them.

“That’s not what I want;” said Jackson who instead requested a quality recording of ‘Danny Boy.’

Stunned, Sundberg asked Jackson why he wouldn’t want his own melodies and lyrics to be the first music heard at the entrance to his famous home and constitute their first memory for the visitors to the fantasy oasis.

“I don’t want my music;” Jackson said.

Brad couldn’t understand it. The most famous musician in the world at the time didn’t want his own music at the gate to his first real childhood home? Incredulous, Brad asked: “Why not your own music?”

“Well, it’s just embarrassing” was Jackson’s only answer. And the matter was dismissed and never visited again.

So the music that greeted visitors was ‘Danny Boy.’ And the rest of the grounds played Disney tunes and classical music. Brad remembers people hired to attend the grounds and rides relating a story about the music at Neverland: “Doe, a deer, a female deer, Re, a golden drop of sun; Mi, a name I call myself….” according to Brad, you could only hear that just so many times before having to fight the impulse to tear out big clumps of hair.

Neverland was a magical place, not the child-luring trap that it was painted by cynical tabloid hacks. It was a sanctuary and tribute to the child or for adults, the child within; and according to Sundberg, it was the most beautiful place and indeed magical and more. “It was a class act,” he says, “just like Michael.” It was a place that was built to entertain children and a place for healing.

Healing? Oh yes, research reveals Jackson understood healing extremely well. The healing power of music, of visuals and of embracing the spirit of the child without restraint or limitation. Everything at Neverland was specially made and free. Jackson understood the healing power of music, of water, of a magical atmosphere, the fascination and joy of live animals, the medicinal value of play and rides and carnival, of carefree escape from the world– its problems left behind. Jackson knew that some moments of magic last a lifetime. For some kids, he knew one day of magic might sustain them through a difficult childhood.

There’s a clip of Michael throwing a party for someone on his crew who is destined for the hospital and surgery and gifting the man with videos and a video player. All the videos are films like The Three Stooges that elicit laughter; Jackson knew about hormones and the healing power of laughter. Or the power of being immersed in magic to sooth a tattered soul. He studied it. His gift wasn’t so much a get well gesture as it was a prescription for healing.

Providing daily food and an invitation for families on Friday illustrates not just Jackson’s thoughtfulness, but a deeper understanding of the concept of food as medicinal and fortifying, a kind of communion shared by kindred spirits gathered in a space consecrated for the act of creation and honoring the creative impulse. Inviting families is a subliminal message about community and what makes community– a breaking of bread together with a beloved family. It should come as no surprise that Michael Jackson did this in his personal and creative life as well as in his more commercial message: “We Are the World.” Apparently he lived his message and invited others around him to live it too. He silently built community. He walked the talk and coaxed everyone around him onto that same path.

Speaking of the creative process, the guests “In the Studio with Michael Jackson,” courtesy of Sundberg were witness to the raw creative process of what emerges in a jam session with those of like mind making circle. Just a simple programmed drum beat courtesy of Brad, Michael’s guitarist David Williams, and Michael himself in two hours of playing with music morphed into “Give In to Me” originally intended as a dance number that emerged a hard rock ballad. It was clear from the recording that Michael loved to ad lib and jam and that the music itself led the way to its final destination and to incarnation. Jackson’s advice to those coming up in the music business was always to let the song tell you what it wants to do. That process was obvious “In the Studio” as the creative process itself was the treasure within that two hour recording.

David Williams worked with Michael for years and saw his guitar playing as a kind of “secret spice” that when added in just the right amount, made music a magical cuisine. David preceded Michael in death by only a couple of months and Michael took his death very hard and mourned the loss of his friend and musical accomplice.

Brad talked about the magic trio of Bruce (Swedien,) Michael and Quincy and the “hangin’ chops” of the “studio rats” an unwritten and unspoken protocol that permeated the atmosphere and the vibe it established with the assembled artists. If someone came into the studio who was a thief– as in stealing the center of attention, monopolizing Michael or was disrespectful of the creative process, Michael would just disappear into his “lounge” a tiny room built into the top of the studio.

If Michael disappeared, it was a signal to the assembly that Michael felt this person, more intruder than “team,” didn’t meet the “hangin’ chops for studio rats” requirements. The individual was summarily thanked and mysteriously disappeared never to be heard from again.

Michael’s disappearing act wasn’t reserved just for silent protest, but occasionally for a trick he used to get the sound or effect that he wanted. Apparently he was known to reserve 2 or 3 studio rooms and go between them unbeknown to either set of musicians in the separate rooms. Then he would pit the teams against each other compelling their best work by telling them there was some real “smelly jelly” going on in the other studio. It was his word for maximum funk and music-making magic going on in another room. He and Quincy would sometimes disagree on which songs to release on an album or on the execution or artistration of a particular cut and Michael would secretly work a team in an adjunct studio room sometimes proving his point. For example, Quincy hated “Streetwalker” while Michael wanted it on his “Bad” album seeing it destined for the charts if released as a single. Instead, Quincy vetoed “Streetwalker” in favor of “Another Part of Me.” Brad thinks Michael was the wiser one.

Sunberg shared some of Jackson’s raw work or work that preceded the final released versions. And in a sound studio, the tracks sound much different and much richer than the final commercial tracks. To keep the vibe “pop” and “up-tempo,” some of the original tracks were sped up before release. In some cases, the original had richer sound and a deeper grove and was much more soulful than the released version. It demonstrates Jackson’s soulfulness, vocal chops and depth as a versatile artist to hear the untouched tracks.

Brad was with Michael during Captain EO and spoke of the process and of studios and soundboards and Dolby speakers; in other words, the real thing. And no, they don’t make music like that anymore. It’s more artificial like making movies with green screens. Brad remembers a different time, a different era, different vibe. Some of those vibes rocked Smash Studios last weekend.

All the usual memorable names came up in discussion– Bottrel, Riley, Forger, Bailer, Buxer, George and John Lewis, Swedien, Jones, Barnes, Temperton, Williams, Umberto, Lubbock, Loren, Porcaro and more as well as the tricks of the trade– raising drums above the floor, using different mics to catch different sounds, the blending of tracks and sounds and Michael’s famous nickname for a sound: “Rubba.” Michael lying in bed talking to a mannequin, a hideous looking thing constructed for the spoken word intro to “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” Of course, that prefaced the song solely to thrill the female audience  and it was revealed that Michael loved watching the films of fans fainting and being carried out of the stadiums. What man wouldn’t enjoy being adored by that many females? He knew who he was, says Brad. And he knew how to be “Michael Jackson.”

And then from the speakers comes Michael’s soft youthful voice politely requesting things be tweaked or added. In a fourteen layer multi-track, “Rubba” becomes evident as do vocals and drums as Brad amplifies each track to the exclusion of others, then playing with the control to blend them into the final musical mash. One understands that Jackson’s ear was every bit as discriminate and finely tuned as his voice. And his sixth sense about timing and rhythm and images and sound mixes is all evident in the studio samplings.

Brad remembers Michael in the corner doing music scales and vocal warm-ups with his steaming hot cups of water to prepare his throat and refine the sound. And with a wistfulness and catch in his throat he recalls the blissful ignorance and inexperience of youth that didn’t take note at the time of what he witnessed and was actually a part of– a music history that will never see replay. Only maturing and nostalgia brings it back and colors it surreal for him. And he shares personal feelings about Michael’s passing which he hadn’t fully grieved until he started putting “In the Studio” together as an answer to a request by international fans who paid him to come to Paris and hold MJ memory court with them. His experience encouraged him to continue and refine “In the Studio with MJ” which he plans for more venues in the coming year– Paris again and Los Angeles included.

Sundberg shared visuals- pictures of Neverland, Michael, studios, private rooms and spaces frequented by the superstar and people whose “hangin’ chops he adored– Shawn Lennon who brought in a Theramin and teased Michael with it while Jackson giggled and laughed like a child, finally taking his turn with the instrument and playing with the pitch and sounds like a little kid with a new toy. Brad also showed a film of the Andrae` Crouch Choir warming up and the New York Philharmonic playing background for “Childhood” conducted simultaneously by the Philharmonic’s conductor and Michael as well, in the dark at the mic in the booth, looking every bit that same excited little boy as he gestures with flourish following the score and completes the piece with a sweeping “Yes” gesture beaming with pleasure. While not on the film, it is rumored that the Philharmonic gave him a standing ovation as he exited the booth.

His “Keep the Faith” has always sounded so soulful and urgent to me, coming straight out of the speakers and clutching both sides of the Adam’s Apple, and Brad Sundberg gave the backstory that explains why. As Michael warmed up for it, something happened to his voice that sent him into a tearful tailspin and the studio had to regroup, change all the configurations and set up again for his vocals in a lower pitch. The appreciation for their going the extra mile for him is evident in the song. I always assumed it was the gospel vibe that grabbed Michael in that song. It wasn’t; it was an unexpected and completely mysterious incident where his voice cracked in the demo that produced one of the most authentic and emotionally charged and delivered songs in his repertoire. Sundberg thinks the quality of the vocal was Michael’s thank you to the crew for going the extra mile for him; I think he included a deity in that appreciation. If that wasn’t inspired by God, nothing is.

As a Michael Jackson researcher and part time biographer, after 4 years one expects almost anything such as the recent storm surrounding the AEG trial and the “coincidental” resurfacing of allegations long ago disproved and dismissed. I want to believe Brad Sundberg is as loyalist as he seems and will stay that way. I think he will based on the respect with which he treated Michael’s work. I expected to hear the stories; I expected to hear the same adjectives like “kind” and “generous” and “humble” that describe Michael Jackson by everyone who personally knew him and who trusted their children with him. But something that came out of that studio that left me shaken– a poem and piece of music as yet unreleased that speaks of Michael Jackson’s mission on this planet that I always thought he knew but that I have now heard confirmed in his own voice from his own heart. It was intense. It is the singular metaphysical evidence I have been looking for, for what seems now a very, very long time. It’s not the work of Michael Jackson; it’s the why.



  1. HEIDI said . . .

    Well blessed be Rev. Barbara. Those of us who “Fell Again” with Michael for this very reason have been waiting for you to come on board fully. We could feel a resistance to it before the “metaphysical evidence” you needed revealed itself to you gratis of this seminar. Welcome!!

    Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:56 pm | Permalink
  2. B. Kaufmann said . . .

    Oh Heidi, No– there was no resistance before to recognition. One always recognizes another. And your “pronouncement assumes something that may need further exploration. It depends on what you mean by “fell again” for that has many interpretations. I don’t know your meaning.

    What I am saying is that proof exists. Hopefully it will be released and the world will hear it one day.

    Posted July 8, 2013 at 3:45 am | Permalink
  3. Pam said . . .

    Thank you for sharing your experience, Rev. Barbara. I am looking forward to the seminar in Paris in October.

    Posted July 9, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink
  4. B. Kaufmann said . . .

    You’re welcome, Pam. There is something about “feeling” the music in a studio. I understand why Michael wanted the music at unbearable decibels. He used to say to Brad: “Hurt me'” meaning turn it up to pounding volume. I understand why he wanted the best speakers turned full volume in a concert. (According to Brad, studio speakers were regularly blown.) A Michael Jackson performance, song, short film, or just hangin’ chops was a sensory artist operating and delivering in many dimensions– using visual, kinesthetic, oral, auditory, semiotic, movement, and immersion in experience and a kind of interplay or communion with an audience that I don’t see duplicated anywhere with anyone as yet. Likely it will never happen again. It was a complete sensory immersion. And it was completely intuitive. And viewed by Jackson as created by and in homage to his maker. thus the insistence on perfection and the otherworldly and transcendental nature of it. Much of his work might be called “Ode to the Human.”

    That’s why all the nonsense and noise of the tabloid exploitation of his life is so wretched and painful. The world missed something. And it missed an opportunity to evolve for the “missing piece” makes that very clear. So watch for it. He was calling forth the human in its highest and inspired sense by asking us to recognize who we are. Truly art in service to humanity.

    Posted July 9, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  5. Victoria said . . .

    Art in service to humanity. How noble, how lofty, how incredibly altruistic. To spend ones whole life crafting a talent for the benefit of moving the human race along. To help all of us find inspiration in the beauty of the dance, the sound, the sights, in the LOVE that generated it all. Rev. Barbara I agree that we will NEVER see this type of human creation again. Not only did the world miss something, it is still missing it, over and over again. When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?


    Posted July 9, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  6. B. Kaufmann said . . .

    Art in service to humanity may be noble and lofty but it is not popular, sexy or avant garde. It is often looked down upon as “sentimental” (not in a good way) as is the artist who attempts it. Those who change the world do so at great risk to themselves, their careers, reputations and lives. Yes, we need to evolve from the juvenile smarty pants mentality. The fate of our planet is at stake.

    Posted July 9, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Permalink
  7. Lynaire Williams said . . .

    “Ode to the Human”.
    Barbara that is brilliant. Just a few little words, but to me holds the truth of who Michael was and is. Never accepting the glory but passing it right back to his Creator. Not very human of him, was it?

    Thank you for going to the studio and giving us such a treat. It has been announced in NZ that “Michael One” is coming to our shores!
    Four million happy people!


    Posted July 9, 2013 at 11:27 pm | Permalink
  8. Mary Chapman said . . .

    Thank you for this heart warming and truly inspiring account, Rev Barbara. This all goes towards helping to restore Michael’s messages of peace and love on the planet.

    Posted July 11, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink
  9. Peacelover said . . .

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I was blessed to go to the Thriller Studio tour at Westlake studios in LA last year. Being in that atmosphere and seeing where so much magic was created,is truly an experience I will never forget. Im so grateful Brad Sunburg is touring with this seminar. So many will never be able to visit Westlake studios.

    From a metaphysical perspective, I believe not only Michael’s messages through lyrics, but his voice has a unique frequency and hidden vibrational energy that was needed at this time to lift humanity and push us forward. Maybe this is what the poem and piece of music conveys. I feel it anyway. I long to hear it!! Is it only shared in these seminars?

    I love the personal anecdotes shared by those who worked closely with Michael. I visited the Motown museum and Hitsville in Detroit. They told about the friday “family nights” they shared there. It’s clear that is where Michael got the idea to continue this tradition with his studio families. Bruce Swedien’s book tells of these special family times also.

    I’m happy to hear Brad telling about the healing quality of Neverland, music and laughter. I hadn’t heard “Danny Boy” was the song that greeted you as you entered those gates! Yes, Michael was so much more than we know, and it requires effort to discover this side of Michael beneath the shallow charicature the media has created.

    Posted July 11, 2013 at 6:00 pm | Permalink
  10. B. Kaufmann said . . .

    Love is not just a feeling but a frequency. And everything vibrates at its own frequency signature. Music is no different. Some understand that science; more don’t. Someday the technology will exist to measure these things. A one time science didn’t know of and couldn’t identify DNA and now we can catalogue individual DNA signatures. Music has its own “DNA.” The piece has a deep and unusual groove that sounds African to me. It was the content that was stunning; I have never heard it before and it is unreleased. Maybe someday it will be tucked in a new CD. I doubt that many would see it for what it is. So many didn’t have ‘eyes to see’ or ‘ears to hear.’ Some still don’t. For others, it’s intuitive. Vibe is everywhere. Ancients and the indigenous understand “the land remembers;” everything has an imprint. “Can you feel it?” wasn’t a rhetorical question.

    Posted July 11, 2013 at 6:17 pm | Permalink
  11. Sue Springer said . . .

    I love this Rev. B. I think those of us who are not musically gifted but who appreciate the gift, often forget the mastery of the craft and the interconnectedness of the artist to the divine. Where else could that loving envelope of sound that cocoons and feeds us come from? That vibe you speak of that resonates deep in our being, in our souls, is that link to each other and to our creator.

    The world lost another master of his craft a couple weeks ago, Bobby Bland. Arguably the greatest blues singer of all, and one of Michael’s inspirations. He was also a man who knew the gift came from God and who was compelled to give the best of it to the rest of us. The gifts are the vehicle but the why is life itself, and these rare bringers of light among us give not only the gift of their art but pieces of their hearts every time they create, and they remind us we are family — Michael for all of his 50 years and Bobby for all of his 83 years. That is a love of God and a love of us, humankind, that can only be from the divine. I look forward to the experience of “In the Studio.” Another vehicle of light. Love and peace all.

    Posted July 15, 2013 at 2:30 am | Permalink
  12. B. Kaufmann said . . .

    Beautiful. Yes, hungry ears. Music like that will never come again. Real, rich, deep, soulful and completely organic.

    Posted July 15, 2013 at 3:19 am | Permalink
  13. Lovely article! I wish Brad would come to Houston. 🙁

    Posted August 10, 2013 at 12:29 am | Permalink
  14. B. Kaufmann said . . .

    Brad would come to Houston if you gather enough people to commit to attending and pay his travel expenses. That’s what French fans did and that’s how he got started doing “In the Studio with MJ.”

    Posted August 10, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink
  15. Marge Folkes said . . .

    Thank you for this incredible story. I am so very happy that Brad is coming to Toronto CANADA on November 23, 2013……Houston you can come to Toronto….Only a month away I can NOT wait. Brad sounds and is amazing…

    Posted October 24, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

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