This week marks the twentieth anniversary of Rich Mullins's landmark recording A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band. Anyone who bought that record, or many other recordings by Mullins before his death in a car accident in 1997, was bound to see another name in the liner notes, that of producer Reed Arvin. Arvin, who has spent his years since working with Mullins as a novelist writing legal thrillers as well as teaching and writing on creativity, recently took time to reflect on working with Mullins and the recording of that album.
I assume you met Rich Mullins on the road touring as a keyboardist with Amy Grant. How did you become his producer?
I did meet Rich on the road. I don't recall the city, but I recall seeing him for the first time. He was wearing a dark overcoat and looked pretty disheveled, but in an intentional way. I shook his hand but had no idea the role we would eventually play in each other's lives. I don't think I saw him again for a year or so.
Eventually, Mike Blanton, Amy's manager, asked me quite spontaneously, "Do you think you could produce a record for Rich Mullins?"
What would you say your approach to producing was? Specifically, what did you add to Mullins's songs that wouldn't have been there otherwise?
I cared about the song more than the artist, which is not smart for a producing career. My approach was simply, "What is the emotional core of this song, and how can I bring that forward?" I really wanted to feel things listening to music. Still do.
The early records were a bit catastrophic; neither Rich nor I had any real idea what we were doing. I was in love with experimenting at a time when experimenting wasn't economically feasible. So, some of the early stuff is unlistenable. Partly, it was because of a lack of competence, but also because we would try stuff, it wouldn't work out, and then we were out of money to regroup.
Everything changed with Winds of Heaven, because that record was made for very little and sold a lot—I don't know how many, but it was certified gold (500,000) a long time ago. I imagine it must be close to platinum. We got better budgets as a result.
In terms of what I brought to the process: Probably a more musically diverse background. I knew a lot about world music and I could write orchestrations and conduct them. I had a big soundstage in my head and I liked pushing together latin percussion and orchestra and dulcimer and what not. But there were downsides to that, too. I had never been in a dirty, grungy rock band, and there were times when that would have suited Rich's music better. But to be fair, the '80s and early 90's was not a time for dirty, grungy rock bands. We were listening to Mister Mister and Toto and virtuosic bands.
Most people are surprised to learn that Rich wasn't particularly involved during recording, simply because he wasn't interested. He would disappear for long stretches. I would beg him to stay around more, because I was quite worried that he would come back after we'd spent a good deal of time going in a direction and pronounce that he didn't like it. But he very rarely expressed opinions about things musically. I very rarely had musical discussions with Rich. On the other hand, I had many, many discussions with him about politics, religion, and philosophy. And the music business. But to actually sit and talk about what to "do" with a particular song, no.