Exclusive Interview: Ron Fair on his thousand mile journey through pop

Legendary A&R executive, record producer and songwriter Ron Fair is known to millions of pop fans around the world for his work mentoring, and producing hits for some music’s biggest names.

In a multi-faceted career spanning more than 30 years, that has seen him serve as both Chairman and President at some of America’s most prestigious record labels, win six GRAMMY Awards and guide the careers of acts including Christina Aguilera, Bastille and Keyshia Cole, Ron’s impressive discography of production credits features some of pop cultures most beloved hits, from Where is The Love (The Black Eyed Peas), Be Without You (Mary J. Blige) and Buttons (The Pussycat Dolls), to Big Girls Don’t Cry (Fergie), Baby I Love Your Ways (Big Mountain) and Speechless (Lady GaGa).

The Black Eyed Peas – Where Is The Love? (Official Music Video)

Away from his role as mentor, record exec and music producer, Fair has enjoyed monumental success as a motion picture musical soundtrack coordinator, spearheading multi-platinum selling soundtracks for iconic films including Pretty WomanReality Bites and Legally Blonde.

More recently Ron has been making waves for his passionate contributions to “The Story of ‘A Thousand Miles’ by Vanessa Carlton”, a captivating new documentary film made by VICE, that charts the rise of one of this generations most loved, and enduring pop songs…

“Making my way downtown…”

Making its chart debut back in 2002, at the height of the teen pop phenomena that dominated culture at the dawn of the new millennium, few could have predicted the impact a song like A Thousand Miles would have on society – it’s mature sound and classical influence, marking a drastic shift in style and tone from the edgy, beat-driven dance tracks ruling the airwaves at that time.

“I instantly liked it; from the moment I first heard it, I was hooked!” Ron tells us from his home in Nashville. “That piano sequence that we all now know and love, just floored me! It was so striking and different; it literally stopped me in my tracks… I just wasn’t sold on the name (laughs).”

Presented as track 7 on Vanessa’s self produced demo CD, and originally titled ‘Interlude’, in its infancy A Thousand Miles as a song and piece of music, was very a different composition compared to the perfectly polished, sophisticated pop record we hear today – it’s core arrangement masterfully reconstructed to create a fuller, more powerful and impactful sound.

“To title the song ‘Interlude’ just didn’t make sense to me, I didn’t understand it.” Ron admits as he begins to think back and reflect upon what was happening in his life at that time. “In fact, funny story, it was actually my nephew who came up with the name ‘A Thousand Miles’ – isn’t that something? He was hanging out a lot in the studio with me in those days, so he was able to meet a lot of the artists I was producing at the time. He and Vanessa had become really good friends, and one day, almost out of nowhere, I just remember him saying ‘hey Uncle Ron, we should change its name to ‘A Thousand Miles…’ those actual words came out of his mouth! And that was it, ‘Interlude’ became ‘A Thousand Miles’.”

“But you know, with regards to the original title, that was Vanessa, that’s who she was – she was super artistic and had this crystal clear vision of exactly the kind of artist she wanted to be; she wanted to make a statement, and she wanted to do things her way. So it was very much in her character to take a track of that nature and give it a super mysterious, cool, artsy name… I mean you’ve just got to look at the title of her debut album ‘Be Not Nobody’ to see that. She was always intent on switching things up and offering her audience a different perspective on things.”

“Vanessa was super artistic, and had this crystal clear vision of exactly the kind of artist she wanted to be; she wanted to make a statement, and do things her way.”

Ron on Vanessa’s tenacity, and desire to always to be an independent,
free-thinking artist in total control of her creative destiny.

“Staring blankly ahead…”

As the fifth instalment of the VICE “Story Of…” documentary series to be released, this particular episode feels to be an incredibly honest and authentic depiction of events that transpired throughout the process of creating the song that would eventually come to be Vanessa Carlton’s breakout, debut hit – it doesn’t sugar coat anything, romanticise the past or shy away from addressing any uncomfortable truths, which in turn makes for truly compelling viewing. We wonder for Ron, was there anything shown in the film that came as a surprise to him?

“I think it’s fair to say there was somewhat of an unhealthy situation at play between her and the A&R she was working with at the time, which I was aware of, but I don’t think I really knew to what extent.” Ron says with a sense of understanding and compassion. “I sort of enter the story following Vanessa’s request to take a meeting with Jimmy Iovine – which I’ve gotta say was a very brave thing for her to do, because… you know, without getting too deep into it, it was a risk for her to speak out! It really was, because at the end of the day, she was this young girl, entering a whole new world with very little leverage within the company she was signed to, and yet she still wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself and say ‘hey this isn’t working for me, I want to make a change…’ I respected her for it then, and I still respect her for it now.”

“As I said before she had this very clear vision of what she wanted, so my job was to come in and stand behind her and see that vision through her eyes, and then try to bring it (her vision) to life… and also deliver a smash hit record (laughs).”

Ron Fair
Ron Fair in the studio, analysing the musical score for ‘A Thousand Miles’ Credit: VICE

A standout scene in the film offers viewers insight into the creative mind of one of the industries most prolific producers and arrangers, as Ron sits alone in a recording studio to break down and analyse the original score for ‘A Thousand Miles’. Animated, invested and focused, Fair seemingly comes alive as he pays close attention to each secular part of the track by deconstructing the arrangement, the orchestration and its anthemic transitions to showcase the beauty of the music behind the big production. 

“It was fun to go back and revisit that score.” Ron smiles. “I’ll be honest with you though, at the time I was a little worried that it was too musical, too orchestrated and too high brow. I mean I loved it, and Vanessa loved it, but sometimes there’s always that little niggle of doubt in an artists mind as to whether you got it right or not.”

“I can remember clearly going into a meeting with Jimmy (Iovine), playing him the song and him saying to me that I had to put background vocals on it, and straight away I said ‘no, no way; I’m not going to do it!’ because for me, the strength of the song was that it was one girl, one piano, one voice – that’s what made it stand out, that’s what made it special. I was so passionate about the fact that it should stay exactly as it was, that I was ready to go into battle, but after I’d stated my case, and to my surprise, Jimmy looked at me, and he goes ‘alright, well… it’s a smash!’

“Vanessa wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself and say ‘hey this isn’t working for me, I want to make a change…’ I respected her for it then, and I still respect her for it now.”

Ron on Carlton’s bravery in speaking out and taking ownership of her narrative
early on in her career.

Walking fast, faces pass and I’m homebound.”

Ron Fair

“So finally, we had the record!” Ron says with a sense of pride. “And so the next thing we had to do was put it out there and get it out to the people.”

In the early 2000’s the breakout success of a song relied heavily on its accompanying music video, with many believing that by creating a striking visual clip, would not only boost an artists visibility and exposure, but also help promote the sales of their work… a concept not lost on Ron at the time.

“We were given $125, 000 to make a music video, which for a new artist was huge! We then got really lucky as Marc Klasfeld signed on as the director and we got to work. It kind of felt like all of the pieces of the puzzle were falling into place, and I think as a collective we were all feeling pretty excited about things!”

Explaining further, Ron adds: “To give you some insight into how things worked at that time, MTV was the thing that dominated pop culture, it was even bigger than TikTok is today, so to get your music video played on there was huge for artists, so we knew we had to come up with something special.” 

“Marc had this fantastic idea of using tracking shots, and having Vanessa sat at her piano moving through all of these different environments, performing the lyrics to camera – and it just worked! The reaction to it was crazy! And I’ve got to say, we need to give props to Tom Calderone (who was head of the station at the time) for that, because he was took a bet on us and played the video on MTV, and from there it went into heavy rotation and people went nuts for it, they LOVED that video!”

“The buzz coming from MTV then translated over to radio, and more and more stations then began to play it, and… well, the next thing you know the song was nominated for a GRAMMY, it was spoofed on Saturday Night Live, it just went nuts!”

A Thousand Miles (Official Video)

“‘Cause everything’s so wrong, and I don’t belong…”

At a time when much of the music industry’s attention seemed primarily focused on image, marketing, big budget music videos, award show performances and how many records an artist could sell in their opening week, along came an unassuming young girl from Pennsylvania, who decided to buck the trend and stay true to herself, going beyond expectation to deliver a beautifully melodic, uplifting love song that managed to cut through the bubblegum pop facade and find its way into the hearts millions of people around the world, in a way that very few songs of that genre had before.

As he reflects upon the documentary as whole, Ron muses “Dan Zabludovsky did a great job in constructing the story; he’s fantastic and it’s been great to share what went on behind the scenes with the fans.”

“But I think more than that, in making this documentary, Vanessa has been able to come to terms with how things played out back then, there’s somewhat of a resolution there for her, where she finally admits ‘hey, this was a great thing that happened to me’. I think she’s been able to make peace with everything that happened, which was very soothing for me to see, it’s a wonderful thing.”

“And I say that because I think in and amongst all of the hype surrounding her at that time, she kind of got caught up in the pop vortex of stardom, and that – being a ‘pop star’ – was just not something she was interested in at all. And I get that, I really do, because as much as any artist wants to be successful and become a star, for Vanessa… I don’t know, that wasn’t her goal. Her goal was to make music and create art, so I feel like in the beginning of her career she really did bristle a little bit at the integration into the machinations of the business, which is totally understandable for anybody with her level of talent, new starting out in this industry.”

Contemplating that thought further, Ron admits candidly: “You know I hadn’t seen Vanessa in person for a long, long time so going back and thinking about that period of my life and career was interesting – there was a lot that I’d maybe forgotten or that had passed me by because I was right in the thick of things.”

Ron Fair and Vanessa Carlton in the studio together, back in 2001 Credit: VICE

As an ever changing industry that thrives on the notion of continuously evolving, the music business is renowned for being incredibly fast paced, and forever in search of the next best thing; with many executives and artists adopting the age old mantra that to achieve success, you must never look back, and only keep moving forward. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the documentary, is that it allows audiences the opportunity to revisit moments and songs from their youth, and appreciate them again in a way that they maybe hadn’t before, but now through grown up eyes. Having worked in the industry for the majority of his professional life, we wonder on a personal level, does Ron ever allow himself to look back and reflect upon the work he’s done in the past, and all of the things that he’s achieved…

“It’s somewhat of an unfamiliar thing for me to look back in retrospect at the things I’ve done in my career to be honest with you, because whilst I’m very present in the moment when I’m working on something, once it’s done and that moment has passed, I’m onto the next. I’m a bit like a race horse, I have these blinkers on meaning I can’t look to the right or left of me, because doing that will only slow me down.”

“I look at it like this, milestones and major successes in your career are simply just moments in time, they’re not sustainable forever. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, but I’m not one to look back on things and think ‘ain’t I grand because I did that’ – that’s not me, I don’t do that at all. So no, (laughs) to answer your question, I don’t like to look back, because I always want to believe that the best things in my life and career, are still in front of me…”

“I look at my life like this, milestones and major successes in your career are simply just moments in time, they’re not sustainable forever.”

Ron on his outlook and attitude towards success.

As the grandson of a radio broadcaster, Ron Fair grew up in somewhat of a creative environment, spending the majority of his childhood, by his own admission, surrounded by “broadcast and recording equipment”. Inspired by the work of his grandparents, who did remote broadcasts from a specially built recording/broadcast studio in a separate building on their property, and his love of music, Ron set out into the world with the hopes of making his passion for the arts his career.

“I was a teenager in the 60’s, when music was really making an impression on the world in a way that it maybe hadn’t before; that energy .” Ron muses. “I felt like I was wired into a different frequency than most other people, I didn’t think or function in the same way, and in my experience it’s the same for all musicians, we’re operating on a different wavelength.”

Having studied music as a teen growing up in Los Angeles, playing piano, guitar and bass, Ron found himself working in the mailroom of Far Out Productions, before meeting the man who would go on to become his mentor, the Oscar-winning composer Bill Conti in 1976. As Conti’s assistant, Fair would earn his first gold record for the recording and mixing of the original soundtrack to the classic film ROCKY.

“In many ways, I guess you could say I was somewhat of a failed artist.” Ron laughs. “I found that I was far more comfortable attaching my vision through an artists eyes, than I was my own, because I never really had a particular viewpoint of my own. So it made it much easier for me to absorb and learn the viewpoint of another artist and help them to bring that vision to life.”

As an eternal champion of young talent, who finds joy in discovering and nurturing new acts, Fair possesses a genuine gift for mentoring singers – working tirelessly with them, sharing his knowledge and expertise to guide them in the right direction so that they are able to reach their full potential.

“The process of falling in love with an artist, and believing in them so much, to the point that it’s almost taking over your life, is what I live for!” Ron says with genuine passion and enthusiasm. “It’s like you become this hopeless, romantic, dam fool and you fall in love with the idea of what you believe an artists music can become.”

“But the reality is, nine times out of ten, when you fall into that hopeless, romantic, dam fool category, you’re going to get your heartbroken because in the music business, a lot of the time things just don’t turn out the way you hope and it’s devastating! And not just for me, for the artist too; it’s like their life is wrecked when things don’t work out. And yet, somehow you wake up the next morning, with a hunger to do it all over again.”

The Pussycat Dolls – Buttons (Official Music Video)

As our conversation drifts from discussing his work with Christina Aguilera, The Black Eyed Peas, Mary J. Blige and The Pussycat Dolls, as well as his role as vocal producer for the iconic 2001 remake of Lady Marmalade with Aguilera, P!nk, Mya and Lil’ Kim for Moulin Rouge soundtrack, Ron interjects: “Do you know what? I think a really nice way to end this talk today, would be to bring it back full circle to Vanessa Carlton, and the reason why I wanted to work with her in the first place, and I’ll tell you why…”

“There was an artist called Laura Nyro, who was this incredible songwriter and piano player who wrote some of the biggest songs released in the 1960’s – I’m talking Wedding Bell Blues, And When I Die, Eli’s Coming… I could go on, but believe me, she was phenomenal! To kind of give you some context or a point of reference, she was in a way a sort of contemporary of Carol King; like her vibe and style was that of being this fabulous, brooding, powerful, Jewish New York woman, but whereas Carol released the ‘Tapestry’ album and became a really big star, Laura never really made it in the same way. That’s not to say she wasn’t successful, I mean David Geffen made his first million dollars with Laura Nyro as his client, so she was clearly working it and doing something right, but unfortunately she died pretty young of cancer.”

“She was like my own personal goddess, her music so influenced everything in my life, she was like the wind beneath my wings, authorising me to take the risks and champion artists I believed in. And I don’t say that lightly, her impact on me was so profound that in my soul, I made a promise that I was going to honour her, by always striving to work with artists who I believed could fulfil their potential in a way that sadly she was unable to. And I hope I’ve done that… and I hope I continue to that in the future.”

Watch the entire VICE documentary “The Story of ‘A Thousand Miles’ by Vanessa Carlton” featuring Ron Fair here.

Let us know your thoughts on Ron Fair over on Twitter @CelebMix now!

Written by Philip Logan

Twitter & IG: @philip_logan