Sit down and hang out with host Arianna Lyrist and Caleb McFarland, a native Virginian, music engineer/producer, world traveler, and Certified Sommelier. Drink wine with Caleb and Arianna as he regales us with stories about his passion for music engineering, journey to Nashville, life in the studio, how to complete a sound check, (one-two, one-two), and what it takes to be a professional engineer in the recording industry. Caleb also talks about what it’s like working with pop stars, the songwriting process with them, and the stories behind the producers who inspired him. Caleb and Arianna compare beer vs. wine, the challenges of becoming a Sommelier and what it takes to really know and understand wine. Stay tuned as Caleb does a blind tasting, discuss the depth of connection a person can have in the music and wine world, connecting people with a story-making people happy and giving a guest a memorable experience-whether it’s writing an unforgettable song or drinking a good glass of wine!
Listen to the podcast here:
I’ll be interviewing Caleb McFarland.
How are you?
I’m doing well. It’s good to be back in the studio and have the episode rolling.
It’s good to be back in the studio too. I haven’t been in a studio in a little bit. It’s got this comforting feeling.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I grew up in a big family in Virginia. I found a love for all things artistic at a young age. My older brothers were in film and music. My sisters were in dance. I loved everything to do with art. I knew I wanted to make it a part of one of my careers. I just didn’t know what for a while. After high school, I took a few years off and traveled to Europe a couple of times. I went to Italy and the Netherlands a lot of the time because I have some friends over there. I went to Germany, the UK and all around. One of my biggest regrets is I didn’t go to France. I really wanted to go, but next time I’ll go.
After that, I came back and was still wondering what I wanted to do with my life. I had gotten some jobs with my brothers at this video editing company. I did a lot of video editing and I was thinking, “This is fun. I love film, but it’s not there. It’s not exactly what I want to be doing. It’s not the thing.” I was thinking about, “What do I want to do? Where do I want to go?” I finally thought about music. It’s the thing and the art that I love the most to connect with the most. I thought, “What’s the best way to get into the music industry at this point in my life?”
I played a little bit of guitar, singing and writing, but nothing to the extent where I thought that’s what I wanted to do. I went back and I realized that I love production, producers, engineering like crafting the sound of the song. When people talk about music and their favorite songs or something, a lot of people will be like the lyrics.
A lot of people connect with the meaning of the lyrics and what the song means. I respect that. That is huge. I love poetry and lyrics, but whenever I listen to a song, the lyrics are background in my mind. My brain almost ignores them because it’s focused on the instrumentation, production, sounds that are being used, melodies, chord progressions and structure of the song.
There are people that feel the same way. I don’t meet a ton of people like that, but I realized that’s how I felt. I looked at music and I was like, “If this is how I feel about music, this is the thing that I’m naturally inclined to listen for, then why not go into that?” I went to school for Engineering. I did a two-year degree up at a community college that had built a brand new state-of-the-art studio. That was super fun to play around with. I moved down to Nashville and I had some friends that went to school down here.
Why did you want to come to Nashville?Just being in a high functioning studio in Nashville, Tennessee is the best training experience for any type of engineering you can get. Click To Tweet
Specifically, it was mostly because I had friends that were down here. One of my best friends, we grew up together, went to high school together and he went to Belmont. When he went, I’ve visited him. I loved the city. It was a great time. There are a lot of cool people I met here. I was like, “It is a music city. That’s its nickname, so let me do that.” I found an internship at OmniSound Studios. I interned there for about six months and that was invaluable. I learned probably more in the first month there than I did in my entire school training. Being in a high-functioning studio in Nashville, Tennessee, is the best training experience for any type of engineering you can get.
Tell me a story from an artist or a day at that studio.
There are a lot of stories around. I’ll tell you a couple of short ones. The first day that I got there, I came in. It was a slow day. Not even everyone was there. It’s just one of the other engineers. It was super slow and nothing was going on. The head engineer was mixing in one of the rooms. I was meeting him and we were doing a set-up for the next day. This other engineer came in. He used to work at Omni, but then he went freelance. He was an older guy. He was super grumpy and pessimistic about the whole music industry.
On the first day, I walked in, and by the end of the conversation, he looked at me and was like, “I don’t know what I would do if I was in your shoes. I don’t know how I’d become an engineer in this town.” It was funny the first day interning in Nashville. I’m like, “I feel motivated.” It was motivating. I was like, “Whatever this guy says, I can find a way.” That was something funny that happened, but it was the very next day. We had set up for the session the night before and I got in there early. The head engineer was running late. The studio manager didn’t know anything about engineering.
I was doing intern and he was like, “You have to start them.” Gladly, the head engineer got there before I needed to do anything drastic, but I had to get everything set up and watching him work at that moment, I had to start setting them up with everything. He came in and got all his EQ, compression, all his sounds in 10 to 15 minutes. It was so fast. My jaw dropped because, in school, it took us the entire class to get sounds. It was like one hour of us messing around, playing with the EQ, doing weird stuff and experimenting. That was the first time that I had seen it. It’s instantly like, “We’ve got sounds. Let’s roll,” and recording songs.
Do you ever get to meet a new artist or someone that you looked up to?
The album isn’t out yet, but there was one band that was cool that I got to meet. It was The Head And The Heart. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them. They’re like folksy Americana. They’ve gotten a little bit more poppy as they’ve grown and they’re one of those blending genres band. They’re cool. They came in and recorded at least part of an album during the tailend of my internship.
I wasn’t there as much, but I did get to meet them and make tie-dye shirts with them. That was fun. There is some other cool stuff. I met a German pop star that no one in America had heard of, but I texted my German friend and she was like, “Holy crap.” She’s cute. She had a TV show being filmed about her. It was a huge thing. That was cool.
Did she start crossing over markets?
She was on like an American Idol show in Germany. She recorded a bunch of albums. She felt like she had lost something along the way. She was going through a breakup of some kind, maybe not, so she came into Nashville to find those like writers and the magic of something a little bit more. She was getting a little bit in her head in Germany. It is what it sounded like to me. I talked with her producer one night. That was a cool night as well.
As far producers, who are some of the artists that you found initially cool? What about producers that you work with or would still like to work with and why do you admire them?
My idols are definitely the greats. Rick Rubin is by far my biggest inspiration as a producer person. He is awesome. He has a podcast with a guy named Tim Ferriss and I highly recommend any aspiring producer, engineer and anyone in the music industry to listen to that. He is an incredible guy. The way he produces is cool too. He definitely does have things that he likes, like sounds and stuff, but he’s very much of the idea that you let the artist be the artist that they were meant to be. You help them discover the best parts of themselves. Artists honestly are very fragile. Some of them have an ego, but I feel a lot of that time is to protect themselves. A lot of them are very insecure about their own art because they don’t know.
That’s the thing whenever you make something, you are not sure if it’s truly good or if people can relate to it, connect with it or if anyone is going to like it. Having someone encourage you, but in the way that makes your best art is something that’s cool. He had some good projects. He has an interesting story because the first album he ever worked on was a Beastie Boys record and LL Cool J. They blew up. His first two records were huge hits.
He was like, “That doesn’t happen for everyone. I had a weird path. That’s not normal.” That’s one of my bigger inspirations. There are always people like the Max Martins of the world who are creating pop hits after pop hits and some others like smaller like indie rock producers. I don’t have that many views on him. He’s good at what he does, but I don’t follow him as religiously as a lot of people do in this town, I feel. He’s good at what he does.
I saw him speak on a panel once and he seemed like a good dude. I’m the same way. I don’t really listen to a ton of the stuff that he puts out.
There is some amazing stuff in there.
Tell me, how did you move to Nashville?
I got an internship at a studio.
Have you started learning about wine or have an interest in wine?
I worked at a brewery before I moved down and I loved beer. I got some beer education and I knew that I liked wine more than I liked beer. Wine was my first love as any alcoholic drink. I didn’t like liquor or beer, but I liked wine. I was like, “I want to learn more about this.” When I moved down, it was a side thing. I was like, “I want to get a job at a winery. That would be cool.” I was searching for a job when I first moved down. I had the internship. The first place that went to interview me was City Winery.
Minda, who was the general manager at the time, reached out to me. She found my resume on Indeed. We interviewed for an hour and a half. It was for a food runner position at a restaurant. That’s who she is and that’s who I am. There was something else going on where I knew that she was looking for people who wanted to cultivate their knowledge. I wanted a place that was going to cultivate me. Through that, I realized that was the place that I wanted to go.
I started working there as a food runner. I quickly became a server. The first day I ever met one of the wine captains there, I tried to ask him, the beverage director and all the somms questions about wine because I wanted to go and learn more about it. The more I learned, the more I found a taste for it. I loved the feeling of not knowing anything about it and learning so much. I did that. I started working at City Winery.Artists are very fragile. Some of them have an ego, but a lot of times that is to protect themselves. A lot of them are very insecure about their own art. Click To Tweet
They have been central to me increasing my wine knowledge. I talked to all the somms there constantly. They would test and quiz me. The opportunity came up to take my level one, my intro to the Court of Master Sommelier. I took it and passed. I will be taking my certified, which is exciting and scary. Studying and learning about wine, tasting wine, learning about the geography and history is fascinating and how something so simple like liquid in a glass can be so complex.
What’s your favorite part about learning about wine and working in the industry?
They are related. I would say that learning things about wine being able to taste the wine then and understand why those qualities are in there. If you are learning about soil types or climate types and you are saying, “Warm climates are going to have these characteristics.” You taste the wine and you are like, “It does,” versus a cold climate wine that has these characteristics. You see those differences. They’re very tangible and you’re like, “This isn’t just something some guy made up one day. This is real.” It’s very cool to have that tangible sensory and cerebral aspects coming together. You’re learning about something, but then you’re also tasting it at the same time.
This ties into the next part of the question, which is what do I like about working in the industry. It is giving that to somebody else, giving that type of experience where I’m telling them about the wine. I’m like, “This is something from something.” Tasting it and being like, “This is exactly what I wanted. This is so cool. This is very interesting,” or giving them a story. There’s one more wine that we’ve gotten our list, the 8 Years In The Desert. It’s an Orin Swift wine. It’s a Zin blend. The story is about the winemaker, who is a prisoner who sold it. This is a big Zin thing in California.
He was told that he couldn’t make wine for eight years when he sold it because he sold the recipe and the rights to the name. They were like, “For eight years, you can’t make Zinfandel.” This 8 Years In The Desert is like his return from an exile of making Zinfandel. It’s delicious and people love it. People love Orin Swift wines in general. They’re very big and bold.
That’s the label on that bottle. It’s the landscape.
It’s the Joshua tree. It has pink tape on it. It’s a weird label, but that’s Orin Swift’s thing. It’s very artsy and people really like it. Connecting people with a story about wine or the type of wine that they want is what I enjoy about it. Similarly with music, making people happy or giving people an experience that they won’t forget is impactful in some positive way.
We have wine here for you to blind taste. I’m going to go ahead and give you four minutes because that is the Court of Master Somms.
If it’s okay, I’ll do it pretty casually. For those reading, I’m sure you’re aware that there’s a rigorous grid the Court of Masters makes you go through to blind taste wine to get what you are supposed to get through. I don’t have that memorized to a T. I know it decently well. I just don’t know it perfectly. I’ll go through it a little bit more casually and give you my call. I expect to be completely wrong, as with everyone fully.
This one is a white wine. It is a medium yellow in concentration and color. I would say that there are maybe some flecks of copper in there. Tearing is light. There’s no evidence of gas or sediment on the nose. This wine is clean. It is showing fruits of citrus, lots of lemons, but a little bit more ripe lemon-lime, a bit of melon, like honeydew almost, maybe a little bit of tropical fruits, some pineapple, a little bit of banana. I’m also getting a little bit of a floral note to it, maybe Jasmine or some white flowers. There’s not a ton of earthiness to it like on organic Earth wine.
I get some touch of minerality, something like slate or wet rock type of thing. I do smell some oak on this one. I do think that there are some vanilla baking spices on the palate. The palate is dry. I’m getting the same fruits, a little bit more of those full ripe fruits, medium acidity, medium alcohol, a medium round body. The similar floral notes that Jasmine still comes through and a little bit of that minerality, that oak is still there, I believe. It’s possible grape varietals include Chardonnay vinaigrette. I would say this is a Chardonnay from California Sonoma 2016.
Is that your final answer?
This was my second guess, to be fair. It could be France because of that minerality and the floral. It’s a Macon Village 2016. It’s Chardonnay from the Macon region in France, where they do some oak aging on their wines. The alcohol felt a little bit hotter. I’m wondering what the alcohol percentage is. It’s thirteen. Maybe it was my palate or the glass. It felt a little bit hotter that I did come medium on it. I should have gone with France there. Old versus new, sometimes it’s very clear and sometimes it’s not. This definitely is more of old-world wine. It did smell a little oaky to me. It smells more heavily oaked. I was thinking maybe California. Maybe a little bit more of those ripe fruits.
How many testable white varieties?
There are 9 testable whites and 11 testable reds for the certified. For the advanced, there’s more.
Do you have a way of what you’re going about learning those certified?
There are a bunch of different ways. I try to drink a different wine almost every night, maybe not every single night, but I at least buy 3 or 4 bottles a week to go through. It’s a lot of wine, but it’s delicious, so it’s not that hard. That’s part of the thing and I usually try to make it something that is testable or I need to learn about for the test. Other than that, I do practice blind tasting. I have a blind tasting group that we meet semi-regularly. It depends on when we can all make it. For the certified, I’ll have to blind 2 whites, 3 reds and it’ll be written down. It won’t be verbal like that.
That’s an advanced or higher type of format. In those cases, you’ll actually be doing six wines, a total of 3 whites and 3 reds. This is also one of the more fun parts. Some people think it’s a parlor trick, which it can be. It can be pretty fun. It’s cool when you start honing in your palate and you can smell. I’m pretty sure part of the thing is I smelled that glass initially and I was like, “This is Chardonnay.” Whether I was right or not, it smelled Chardonnay like a lot of the Chardonnays I’ve tasted and smelled before. There are patterns you’ll be able to pick up the more that you drink wine.
If I had any advice to anyone who is getting into wine and wants to learn about it, drink more wine. Always drink more. You probably can always drink more. If you’re drinking that much wine, you’ll learn soon enough. There are a lot of talks in podcasts or things advice from Master Somms and things like that. A lot of them say, “Drink as much wine as you can because that’s the thing that’s going to hone your palate and get you there.” Learn about all the different theories.
Drinking and studying more.
I know a lot of people that, whenever they’re studying a section, they’ll buy the bottle of wine or two that goes with that section. Join those two together in your mind, the taste plus the theory. That’s definitely a good way to do it.
What have you found the most challenging or struggle? This could be in your journey with music and with working with the wine industry?It's very cool to have tangible, sensory, and cerebral aspects of wine coming together. You're learning about something, but then you're also tasting it at the same time. Click To Tweet
Passing the test like the intro. It wasn’t necessarily the hardest test in the world. It was something that I had to study, concentrate, sit down and focus on. That was a good challenge. For music, a lot of the time is if you’re in a new environment. Now, I do a lot of live sound mixing. I ended up going more live sound, though I still do love the studio. That can be challenging if things are going wrong. Feedbacking if people aren’t happy with their mix and I can’t get it the sound good or if there are issues with things not sounding the way I want them to sound. That can happen a lot in those fields.
Nashville has a pressure of you have to do it quick. Soundcheck is 5 to 10 minutes. You don’t have a full soundcheck to get everybody’s everything going. You have to throw up some faders, hope for the best, mix as you go and adjust on the fly, which I’ve learned to do that. Now that I’ve got better at it, it’s a lot of fun and it can be rewarding, but it definitely was very challenging at first dealing with things that you’ve never dealt with before.
With wine similarly, just learning things. When people throw out wines that you’ve never heard of or ask you about countries you didn’t even know made wine or things like that, that happens less as I’ve gone on. There are a lot of people that have been into wine for a very long time, especially in the restaurant industry. If they’re coming into a nicer restaurant, they know exactly what they like and they know a lot about it.
They’ll know every producer in champagne that they love and the exact covey that they cherish. They’ll come in asking for specific things. I’ll sit there and be like, “We have Pouget.” I know some about it, but it’s not like I know everything about it yet. It’s like that motivating/challenging thing where you’re getting hit with stuff that can be embarrassing sometimes. If you’re sitting there and you’re like, “I’m the wine expert in the building and I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m sorry. I have a small idea of what you’re talking about.”
Yours is in-depth because you know this one area. I’m sure they don’t what you know in general.
Some people know more than me in everything, but I would agree that a lot of the time, in those cases, those people have found a love for a specific type of wine, if it’s NapaCabs or something. They’ve visited Napa and Sonoma. They’ve gone out to all these vineyards and talked with those winemakers. Can they tell me about Argentinian Malbecs, other areas in France or Lamar Valley? What are they doing there? Probably not as much.
Maybe they’ll know that they exist, but definitely, maybe not to the level that someone who’s studying those things does. It’s being able to take that in stride and say, “This is a learning process. I’m still young. I’m still at the forefront of this industry. I’m not an expert by any means yet,” which is a cool thing. I find one of the things that tie me into music and bring me back to music and wine. It is the constant feeling of like, “There’s still so much to learn. Isn’t there? There’s still more out there. There’s still more depth.” They’re both cool industries because of that.
What are some goals that you have in music and wine?
It’s getting my certified. I’m going to take the test. Hopefully, I’ll pass. For music, I would love to go on tour with some bands. I’ve done some tours, but I would love to go on a long extended tour with a band. That would be fun and produce some great albums. I feel like I have internal aspirations and goals in my own life. For things like albums and success, I want to make an album that I’m proud of, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be top 40 or groundbreaking like winning Grammys. That’d be awesome, but that’s what I mean. I have my own internal feelings. I want to feel satisfied. If I get success, that’s also cool. It’s not important that I get to number one.
With a celebrity reputation, you worked with the band and that was a meaningful experience. You helped them create their music and get it out into the world. A tour would be cool. They are sitting up in different cities.
I love traveling. Touring is super fun. I’ve done it a little bit, but nothing like super-extended. I’m hoping that it changes. The problem is I’m going to be busy studying for my intro.
We’d love to have you back on.
From what you know about the test so far, what are you most nervous about?
It’s service. I have a good friend who took it when I took my older one.
Could you explain a little bit about each?
For the certified, there are three parts and for the advanced and master. There are theory, tasting and service. For theory, it’s a written exam where you have to know things about wine.
Do you have any references?
I don’t. I was talking to Kenton. He was saying there were less questions than on the intro exam, but they were harder and weren’t multiple choice. They were filling the blank or long-form answers. It might be 40 questions, but then you have time to do that in 30 minutes and you have 30 minutes to blind your wines. You are called back later for service. Service entails having a Master Somms sit at a table and he will present you with a scenario. You have to perform service for him, whether it be champagne, wine, sake or maybe even beer.
That’s the part that I’m most worried about. That’s funny because that’s the part that I do the most often working at City Winery. I’m now a Wine Captain, which is like a Floor Somm. I do that all the time from my job, but these Masters are going to be hammering me with questions. I’m very nervous. When I’m with myself, I can take a test or blind some wines. If I’m nervous, it’s fine. If I’m performing service for someone, then I have to appear not nervous, be very professional, remain calm and not worry about anything while he’s asking me questions I probably don’t know the answer to or I hopefully do by that point.
Kenton was telling me that when he took his certified, the first question the Master asks was about a cocktail he had never heard of. That threw him off. That instantly throws you. You’re like, “I don’t know anything,” and that you get in your own head while you’re trying to do this thing. I’m not worried about the actual pouring of the wine and opening the bottle type thing, but I’m worried about how many questions they’re going to ask or if I know all the producers that they need me to know. It’s a pretty difficult test. The certified is also one of those tests that are attainable. It’s not the hardest test in the world, but after the certified, it’s when it starts getting very hard with the advanced and the master somm.
Is that something that you are also looking to?
I’m going to take it one step at a time. I’m going to get my certified and then I’m going to figure out what I want to do from there. The problem with having two passions is that it feels like one day I might have to choose. In what capacity, I don’t know what that might be. I can always keep one or the other as a hobby, but now, I run live sound at two different places. Between that and then also being Wine Captain at City Winery, it is a lot of time devoted to working and doing those things. I’m split up about 50/50 at this point, but it’s like, “When will the rubber hit the road?” I still love it.If you're performing service for someone, then you have to appear not nervous. You have to be very professional, remain calm, and not worry about anything. Click To Tweet
To make that happen, just keep going with it. Why not? Just see where life takes you. I definitely want to have you back after you pass or fail.
Maybe not if I fail. We’ll see.
I still want to hear about your experience and what’s going on at that point.
It’s going to be an interesting test, that’s for sure. We’ll see.
I have three years that I read, so I have to take mine. I’m headed to state the WSET 3. I realized it was three years. At that point, I’d have to decide if I wanted to take level two. I would like to, especially in the last three years. I have to go ahead and do it. Go back and most likely I would go through WSET 4 after that, but I would have more time.
How many levels for the WSET are there?
Four. After that, you can apply to Master 1. It’s almost five.
There are like four and the Master 1 is separate.
Thank you for coming in.
It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me. It was fun.