Industry Profile: Martin Terefe
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Producer/songwriter Martin Terefe, owner, Kensaltown Studios.
Martin Terefe lives a charmed life.
One of the most creatively diverse musical figures of our time, this 42-year-old Swedish producer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/studio owner is able to collaborate with Milton Nascimento in Rio de Janeiro, and with Willie Nelson in Texas, while still overseeing his sprawling 8-room studio complex, Kensaltown Studios, in the heart of West London, England.
Terefe has worked with such acts as Jason Mraz, Train, a-ha, KT Tunstall, James Morrison, Ron Sexsmith, Shea Seger, Eric Gadd, Jamie Cullum, Joshua Radin, Craig David, Waylon, Martha Wainwright, Sarah Slean, Ben’s Brother, Tristan Prettyman, and Yusuf Islam (the former Cat Stevens).
He has worked with Scottish singer/songwriter KT Tunstall throughout her career, and has been very much recognized as being pivotal in her development as an artist.
Terefe’s profile significantly soared in 2010 with a pair of massive international hits.
His production of "I'm Yours" transitioned Jason Mraz from promising troubadour to powerhouse hit maker. The track charted in more than 15 countries including being #1 in Sweden and Norway, and reaching the top 10 in the U.S., Austria, Australia, Canada, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Spain.
At 76 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100, "I'm Yours" holds the record for most weeks spent on the American music trade’s chart, breaking the previous record set by LeAnn Rimes' "How Do I Live" in 1998.
Meanwhile, Terefe’s co-production of Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister” reached #3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, and was #1 in 16 countries.
Signed to an EMI Music Publishing deal at 15 in Sweden, Terefe became hooked on production after assembling a home studio to record demos for his rock band. He soon turned to recording a wider circle of friends. In the mid-90s, he had some success with his productions of singers Sara Isaksson, and Ardis Fagerholm.
In 1996, Terefe moved to London, where he fell in with such artists as KT Tunstall, Martha Wainwright, and Ron Sexsmith, who began recommending him to other artists.
Today, Terefe uses Kensaltown Studios—with its array of high-end audio equipment, and vintage instruments—as his home base. Kensaltown is also a one-stop shop for a community of songwriters, producers and musicians; and home to songwriter/producers Andreas Olsson, James Bryan, and Sacha Skarbek (who co-wrote James Blunt’s global hit “You’re Beautiful.”)
Besides his production and songwriting, Terefe is also a member of Apparatjik with Jonas Bjerre (Mew), Magne Furuholmen (a-ha), and Guy Berryman (Coldplay). Founded in 2008 to contribute to a charity album for Survival International, Apparatjik functions as a wildly experimental conceptual visual arts project, drawing on the talents of a pool of artists, media technicians, designers, and scientists.
You do seem to live a charmed life.
I feel incredibly privileged. I think about that a lot.
You are in the studio now with Erin McCarley, who is signed to Universal Republic.
I am enjoying this time of my life. It’s about balance, and how I can choose projects, and make time for things. The last few years have been the first couple of years in my life where I’ve figured out that (a career) is in my own hands. You make your own decisions. You are responsible for dividing your own time. Funny enough, once you start thinking that way, you have a lot more time.
As an in-demand producer, you get pitched projects all of the time. How do you pick and choose who to produce? You only have 24 hours a day.
That’s the biggest struggle. Sometimes you choose something because you think, “I need to decide what to do.” Sometimes, you make the right choice. Other times, you think, “Wow. I wish I had worked on that.”
But you can’t do everything.
Luckily, a lot of this success came when I had already learned a lot about burning out. I do realize that I can’t do everything. I have a family and, in the last few years, I have been really involved with a side (group) project, Apparatjik. That is taking quite of bit of time, and I am enjoying that a lot. We all are. There are four of us (in the group), and we all have day jobs in the industry. Not only is it fun to do, but we bring out of it a lot of inspiration for everything else that we work on. So, I am mixing a lot of things.
Do commercial instincts kick in as you assess a potential production? Either, “This is too big to pass up” or “I want to do this, but it may not be commercially successful.”
That definitely happens. I can say from personal experience that some of those decisions have been the worst ones in my career. Sometimes, I have taken on the poised “next big thing” and nobody ever hears about it. It’s nice because you get paid for doing it because there’s a big label behind it, but, as we know, there are things from the major labels that you never hear about. But vice-versa too. I have turned down some projects that have really blown up, and become massive. That’s going to happen. And I have worked on projects that have become massive. It is just one of those things.
I have learned through the years that every time I follow my instincts something good has come out financially of (a project)—either eventually, or it led to something. Sometimes, you make a record that doesn’t sell anything. Then years later, someone who is selling millions of records will say, “I heard that record. You are my favorite producer.”
Do you sometimes turn down people you want to work with?
Sometimes I say no to stuff I really, really love. The flip side of being successful is that you always dream of being offered great projects. It’s an amazing feeling when most of the things that you do is stuff that you really love doing. But, at the same time now, I’m in a situation where most things that I get offered—or most things that I hear about, or most things that people come to me to talk about—I can’t do them. I have to say no to the vast majority of people that come my way.
Who says no?
Well, I say no. I don’t know how much stuff Mike (manager Mike Dixon of Franklin, Tennessee-based Michael Dixon Management) says no to without me hearing about it. I’m sure that happens too. I think that generally he tries to play me everything (he is pitched). If I have to say no to something, and it’s something that I like, I try to at least make some kind of comment (about it). If I can help someone in the future.
We are living in another Golden Age of Pop.
Producers and songwriters having access to collaborators around the world, and the overall lack of industry gatekeepers are factors contributing to this.
I think also that with anything bad, good things come. One of the things with the music industry struggling is that for a lot of young artists, the idea of having a major label deal, or going the route that I’m so used to as a songwriter and as a producer, they don’t even see that as a possible route forward. For a long time, there’s been major labels involved, and their A&R department (in producing recordings). Now, there’s a lot of energy in music-making for the sake of making music. That’s really exciting.
Producers no longer have to contend with labels sitting on top of their shoulders.
Definitely, that’s true.
Are you left alone by labels these days with your productions?
It depends. In the pop world, you make the records, and if people like them, then you are left alone. But, on big established artists that have had success, and (they) are trying to follow-up that success, and you are kind of a caretaker of one of the major label’s few big selling artists, there is still a lot of—not just A&R guys (overseeing), but sometimes it feels like it’s the whole label. There is so much riding on the success of the record. That is sometimes the recipe that the follow-up won’t be a success.
Major labels must trust your commercial instincts after “Hey Soul Sister” and “I’m Yours.”
Obviously, it has definitely become easier. I think that there’s a logic in (their attitude) as well. People buy into something that is apparently working or successful. Even if you are buying a bit of technology, you buy something that has been proven to work.
It is a "follow the leader" type industry.
Absolutely. But also, once you do things, and you make (great) records, I guess that (success) is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once you do have a couple hit records. After KT (Tunstall), the next (production) was James Morrison (as one of the producers of “Undiscovered” in 2006). Then it was a series of artists that were chosen by the labels that were poised to have success. Obviously, it is easier than if you develop something from scratch. And also once you have the ability to make (great) albums, you get asked to do the singles.
How do you balance your creative worlds? Does being a songwriter help you as a producer and vice versa?
Yeah, I think so. At the beginning (of my career), I didn’t intend to become a producer. I didn’t know what a producer was, really. But I got signed to publishing (deal) so early, and I learned (production) from making demos. Starting out, the songwriting definitely helped. But I just discovered that I enjoyed shaping music as well.
Do the two support or balance each other today?
I think yeah. With pop projects, it’s hard to tell where producing becomes songwriting, and vice versa. It is so much about the actual sonics of (the production), and the track. All of that stuff is part of a pop record. It is interesting that I tend to enjoy producing an artist where I’m not involved with the songwriting as much. I don’t know exactly why that is. Most of my favorite artists write their own songs.
Maybe, when you aren’t the co-writer, you can step back a bit as a producer.
Yeah. There are a lot of different aspects to both producing and writing. You can write a song, and it takes on its own life. Obviously, it can be in the recording of the demo; or the first recording of it, if you are involved in the production of it as well; or if it is pitched to someone. I guess the first time that it is recorded you can always have some kind of input on it, but once the song is out there, it takes on its own life. That is kind of nice as well. That it’s out there having its own life. The production is much more about taste and aesthetics. Sometimes it feels as if producing is more self-conscious. Production is a very responsible thing. You have to think about a lot of different things to put a record together. With songwriting, it can be more intuitive.
Your studio complex is off Ladbroke Grove Road on Kensal Road in West London.
I used to own a studio in Stockholm. When I came to London (in 1996) I took all of my gear, and put as much as I could in the back room that I was renting. About a year later, my neighbors were really happy when I decided that I was going to rent a space (in the Saga Centre), which is across the road from where I am now. I worked there for years and the studio kind of grew. Then I got some more space where I am now (in 2004).
What production gear does the studio have?
I have two old Trident (audio) consoles—one from Trident Studios, and I’ve got a nice API (console) from a studio in L.A., which did a lot of Disney orchestra music in the 70s; and I have a Neve console.
How many people work at the studio?
There have been a few different people running the studio. On the engineering side, there seems to be people who come and then move on. Everybody is not employed here. We probably have five to 10 permanent staff at any given time. Then there are musicians, songwriters, and a bunch of engineers.
(Producer/songwriter) Sacha Skarbek works out of the studio as well. He’s the co-writer of "You're Beautiful" with James Blunt, and “Cold Shoulder” with Adele, amongst others. Andreas Olsson, and Canadian (producer/songwriter) James Bryan also work out of here.
Owning a studio is big responsibility, but it’s also a way to attract a strong creative community. Like Motown in Detroit in the ‘60s, or Gamble & Huff, working out of Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia in the ‘70s.
That’s really the vibe that we wanted to create. You just set up the possibilities for (the creative vibe) to happen, and it does. Humans are like that,but not everybody. We have done projects here where artists have expected something else. This is definitely not the place with your own private lounge, and entrance. It’s is very much like you are here, and you are part of what’s going on here. But the people I work with come here, and they don’t want to leave. We have quite a few people here quite often. A lot have made records years ago; they are in town and they just come up and hang, and they end up writing with someone here. I really like the vibe (at the studio), but I don’t know with the way the music business is right now. Sometimes, I get this feeling that (the studio is an) undertaking, and everybody else is going out of business.
Daniel Lanois once told me that he considered traditional studios as unnatural places to record.
Lanois was definitely an inspiration to me.
I never understood that thing of the ‘70s studios—no light, bad air conditioning, and really no vibes. I realized that some people seemed to be putting up gear in a house and that they were making records that sounded great.
As I started producing records, I recognized that there were so many different styles of producers, and I didn’t know exactly why the records sounded different. Obviously, now I know that some producers are very involved creatively (in the production), and some are less involved.
There have been so many records that I picked up, and said, “Wow. That’s amazing.” I’d check for the producer, and it was Daniel Lanois. I started realizing that he’s one of the producers who has a very strong identity, and his own sound. I don’t think that I impose as much of myself on the records, but I certainly think I come from the same school that he does. Just being in there playing; and being involved in a lot of the music-making on the records. Obviously, your own personal taste becomes notable on the records. But he was a big inspiration. I read stuff about Brian Eno and Lanois, and I recognized that they seemed to be working and playing (on productions).
You work with different sound mixers. Why not mix your own records?
When I started out making music, I started out as a songwriter. My first publisher (EMI Music Publishing Nordic) couldn’t give me money. Back then people couldn’t pay or sign someone when they were just 15. So, instead, they bought me a bunch of studio equipment (for a home studio). I could already play a bunch of instruments. Then I learned how to engineer.
My first publishing contract was at 15 with EMI. Then Roffe Persson left EMI shortly after he started working with me there. He started his own publishing company (N.E.W. Music Stockholm), and they put in a new staff. Then, I was signed to MCA Music Publishing.
In your first productions, you did everything yourself?
I did all of the recording. I played every instrument. I mixed everything. Sometimes, when there was nobody for mastering, I tried to master (the recordings) myself. So I learned all of the different (production) parts.
As I started having a bit of success—at least being paid for what I did—I started thinking, “What do I enjoy the least? Where can I get someone else to do something that will free me up to do what I love more?” (Not doing) both engineering and mixing took some pressure off me. They are very labor intensive. It opened up time for me to concentrate on writing, listening, and coming in with ideas from outside.
During this past year, there’s been a lot of Apparatchik activity.
We recently did a big exhibition at the National Gallery in Berlin. That was a pretty major art event that probably was a month for us in time (to prepare).
[Apparatjik was invited by the Nationalgalerie Berlin to present the collective's first large-scale project in March 13-17, 2011. The Apparatjik Light Space Modulator was presented as a twofold project: During two weeks the installation could be accessed in the glass hall of the Neue Nationalgalerie; and three concerts were performed at the same location. The project concluded on March 27 with an interactive composition performed in collaboration with the Deutsches Kammerorchester.]
You four have considerable freedom to work.
We don’t have time for a side project, and we don’t have time to tour, but we are enjoying this creative process. There’s no one telling us what to do. It is totally a playground. In music production, and writing a-ha are legends here, and in Europe; and Coldplay is doing pretty well; and so is Mew. I think that we all feel that this project is just for our own satisfaction. And, it seems that we’ve managed to create something that people feel is imaginative. We still don’t know what it is going to become. It seems like it’s more of a cross-genre platform. We collaborate with all of these crazy people.
Earlier this month (May), we did a performance in Moscow that is leading up to an installation in St. Petersburg in October. Right now, we are trying to get Russian mathematicians and players to compose music by playing chess. That’s what we are working on now.
Did you miss playing live? Is that why you have been doing Apparatjik?
Well, sometimes I do miss playing live, but no. I play so much in the studio. I really love what I do. Like most things in my life, this (project) stemmed from another idea. (In 2008) I was doing a charity album for Survival International to raise money for their work in raising awareness for tribal people around the world so that they can protect their lands. There were a lot of people involved with that record like KT (Tunstall), Yusuf (Islam), and some Americans like Jason Mraz, and will.i.am (of the Black Eyed Peas). There were a bunch of people on that record that I knew from different places.
I wanted to ask a-ha and Coldplay to contribute, but they were both on tour. It so happened that Mags and Guy, who are friends, and I, were in Copenhagen, and Mags had just met Jonas from Mew from a gig in Russia. So we ended up in Copenhagen one night, and we did this song ("Ferreting") for the charity album.
Then we ended up making a record together (“We Are Here” released in 2010) and making films together. Then it turned into an art project. Magne is a visual artist. He has had a career during all of his a-ha career (as a successful visual artist under the name Magne F). We also got Ute Meta Bauer involved. (Bauer is associate professor and director of the Visual Arts Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts).
[“Bruce Parry Presents Amazon - Tribe - Songs for Survival” is a double album released by Kensaltown Records in 2008. The album was released in support of Survival International, the human rights organization for tribal peoples. The themes of the album are life around the Amazon River and other remote tribal areas—topics covered in Bruce Parry’s BBC 2 television series “Tribe and Amazon." All of the music on the album is exclusive, and was written for the project.]
You were very much part of KT Tunstall’s development.
I was, yes. It was years before anyone signed her. When she finally did get signed, it was with a small indie label (Relentless Records), that didn’t have much money to make the record. Steve Osborne produced that record (“Eye to the Telescope” in 2004), but I had been writing with KT, at that point, for about four years. So there’s a bunch of my (production work) from recordings that were made, mixed and put on the record. It was all about getting a record together.
[The second single from the album, “Other Side of the World," written by Martin Terefe and KT Tunstall reached #13 on the UK singles chart. Released May, 9 2005, it spent almost five months on the chart.]
What attracted you to KT?
How we met was a coincidence. I had signed a new publishing deal with Sony/ATV, and KT had signed the same week. We met at some Sony event. Charlie Pinder and Celia McCamley at the company both said, “You two should write something together.” It’s a very interesting relationship for me. I’m not involved in making her records, but I am involved (in her career). We continuously write songs (together). I have songs on all her records, and we write for other people. She’s become a friend. It’s nice to have a different kind of angle with some music.
You don’t write with Ron Sexsmith, but you have produced several records with him.
I have co-written a couple of songs with Ron, but not for his albums. He doesn’t co-write for his albums. We did co-write a Christmas song once, and we have written for a couple of other artists.
I was a big fan of Ron’s when I made the first record (“Cobblestone Runway” in 2002) with him. I don’t know if that is always the best starting point. But I love the records that he’s made with Mitchell (Froom). Then we ended up making almost four records together. Ron is totally his own unique artist. Very few people write songs the way that he does, and in the style that he does.
His style is almost like a bygone era of songwriting.
His songwriting is almost older because there are very few songs (nowadays) that have that normal kind of verse chorus, verse chorus structure. It is very lyrically based, and the verse will lead up to a climax that will have a little refrain. Almost more like ‘60s writing. I think he’s just a fantastic songwriter.
How was it working with Yusuf Islam?
That was really interesting. I’ve have had a few situations like that working with (famous) people. I’ve worked with Graham Nash, Willie Nelson, Yusuf, and even Paul McCartney with Yusuf once. In all of those situations, it’s a funny vibe.
With Yusuf, you recorded the first thing that he did when he started playing again. Nobody even knew he was about to have a career again. How did that come about?
There was this tsunami disaster in 2004 (the Indian Ocean was hit by earthquake-created tsunamis on Dec. 26, 2004), and Yusuf decided to do a charity single. Charlie Pinder made the connection. He said he’d given my phone number to someone but he wouldn’t say who it was. Then I got a really weird call from Yusuf's brother-in-law saying, “If someone came to the studio to record tomorrow, would that be possible?” I said, “What do you mean? Who is it?” He said, “Well just say that we need a band.”
So you produced Yusuf’s charity single “Indian Ocean.”
He came into the studio and I put together a band with Ed Harcourt on Wurlitzer, Magne Furuholmen on piano, and the drummer (Neil Pimrose) from Travis. I played bass. It was quite easy to find people to come down the next day and play with Yusuf. Later, (Indian composer/producer) A.R. Rahman added a girl singing, and David Davidson in Nashville did a string arrangement.
When we started playing in the studio. Yusuf was really shy. He was there kind of fiddling around on the guitar. He hadn’t really been playing for, well, 30 years.
[Proceeds of the "Indian Ocean” single went to help orphans in Banda Aceh, one of the areas worst affected by the tsunami, through Yusuf Islam’s Small Kindness charity. At first, the track was released only through several online music stores, but it was later featured on the Universal compilation album Cat Stevens' “Gold.”
You had earlier produced Ron Sexsmith singing Yusuf’s “Here Comes My Baby” for a charity project.
We connected over that. Yusuf said that he’d heard a version of “Here Comes My Baby” on the radio the other day, and they had changed the riff. I realized that I had done a version of “Here Comes My Baby” with Ron Sexsmith for a Cat Stevens’ tribute album. We did a pretty massive change of the riff to make it different. The Mavericks had done a version of the song (in 1999) based on the original version so we wanted to do something different. He said, “I really like that.” Then he couldn’t really remember how the song went. I remember us sitting on the sofa playing “Here Comes My Baby” and Yusuf checking out the chords. I thought, “This is weird.”
Did you grow up listening to American music?
I grew up in Venezuela. At least that’s where I started listening to music. I was too young before I moved there to remember much (about being in Sweden). I started playing guitar there. I had a guitar teacher who used to come over to our house. He only knew a few Spanish folk songs. I think that’s where the songwriting came from.
What was your dad’s occupation that brought your family to Venezuela?
He was a bio-chemist, and worked at a pharmaceutical company, LKB (LKB-produkter AB). He moved the family there because he was running the Swedish (affiliated) company there.
[In 1986, Pharmacia Fine Chemicals acquired LKB-produkter AB and changed the name to Pharmacia Biotech.]
At what age did you move Venezuela?
I was about five or six. It was the year that I started school, and I don’t really remember things. I think I was 10 when we moved back (to Sweden). Spanish became my second language after Swedish. Now I live in England so English is my second language.
You started playing guitar at age six?
Yeah. My neighbors had this guitar teacher. In retrospect, I now know that he really didn’t know how to play. He would teach me to sing a song much like they do in school. Then he’d write down some chords that would fit that melody. It would be like “Cielito Lindo” (a popular Ranchera song from Mexico) or some kind of Spanish folk song. I immediately understood how (song structure) worked. There were chords and there was melody and there were words. I don’t think I was much older than 10 when I starting writing my own little songs.
Your background likely has led to you being able to work in different locations with ease.
I think so, yeah. It’s a blessing, and a curse. I really don’t feel that…I can’t really say that Venezuela is my home or Sweden or England.
Do you often feel like an outsider?
Yeah, at the same token, I feel like everywhere is my home. Yeah, definitely. Also speaking a few languages helps. You can always communicate with people on some level.
Such a diverse background gives you an international viewpoint.
Yeah, it does.
You also visited the U.S. with your parents.
I remember the first time I went to New York on my own in the late ‘80s. I was 18. I made some money over the summer to buy some music. I realized that if I went to New York and bought (the recordings) it would cost me the same as with airfare and whatever. I went with a friend of mine. We spent a few days in New York. Back then, it was a crazy place. I just thought it was amazing.
You played in several bands while in Sweden. Did you do much producing there?
Yeah, I produced a few records in Sweden. One that was fairly successful, “Red Eden” by Sara Isaksson on MCA Records, and I did some tracks on Ardis (Fagerholm’s) album “Woman” on Stockholm Records.
When you came to London in 1996, why didn’t you apply to work at a studio?
I came to the U.K. because of the Sara Isaksson record. I had already been working in England through the publishing thing, doing some writing. Sara got signed to MCA in London. First for publishing, and then for a record deal. At the same time, MCA was opening up a Swedish affiliate. So (her record) ended up being a co-venture between the two (companies).
My publisher Nick Phillips was then with MCA. As I moved to England, he became the managing director at Universal Music UK. I wrote all of the songs with Sara for her album. Everybody was like, “We should find a producer.” Nick said, "Why don’t you produce her?”
That’s what I did, and the career I’ve had in the States (working) with mixers has been based on that record. When we finished the record, Nick came up with some ideas (for some to mix the album). I just thought, “I don’t know any of these people.” Then one night, the co-producer—who was a friend of mine—and I listened to (Neil Young’s) “Harvest” in the middle of the night while drinking some whiskey, and we thought, “We should mix the album where this was mixed.”
So in the middle of the night I called a guy who worked at Quad Studios (in Nashville). One thing led to another, and we ended up going to Nashville and mixing that record with Richard Dodd who was managed by Michael Dixon. That record was very important in connecting me to people.
You have spent a lot of time in the United States.
I used to have a little place in Santa Monica. But, for the last four or five years, I have been trying to have people come over here (to London). But I enjoy being out there. The thing is that when you travel, when you work in different cities—every time I go to New York and spend some time there—it leads to other things other than what would happen if I was here. I try to balance it. I spend a couple months in the year in the States today.
How did you come to work with David Foster just over a decade ago?
Like most things it was a series of events. I can’t exactly remember what came first but it was a friend at Atlantic, Kevin Williamson who called and asked me if I was interested in working with a young girl who was in town, living in London, and who is David Foster’s daughter. She was living in this house with the Sneaker Pimps, and making this world electronic music. She didn’t really sing. She did poetry. That was Amy Gillies (aka Amy Foster-Gillies). I think that’s how it started.
Around that time, David was working on some tracks for the “Message In The Bottle” film, and I ended up helping on one song on that. I had a flat out in Santa Monica for years when I was working in L.A. and he had a studio up in his house in Malibu. He was really super-generous with me. He always said that he never understood what I did.
David has worked with Barbra Streisand, Céline Dion, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Josh Groban, Michael Bublé, and Natalie Cole. But he also provided the Tubes with their biggest hit “She’s a Beauty” in 1983.
It’s not as far-fetched as you would think (working with Foster) because I used to listen to a lot of records that David played on. One of my favorite records ever is Chaka Khan’s “And The Melody Still Lingers On (A Night In Tunisia)” that is (from the album “What Cha Gonna Do for Me”) which has Herbie Hancock and David Foster. David is playing Moog synth bass on the track. It’s an amazing version. He is an amazing musician, David.
[The Tubes’ “She’s a Beauty” reached #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983. The Tubes frontman Fee Waybill has said that, “[David Foster] is the best producer I’ve ever worked with. Todd (Rundgren), in my opinion, didn’t hold a candle to David. David’s a genius. He completely changed the whole deal for the Tubes. He wouldn’t stand for anything but perfection.”]
You don’t have an identifiable style other than your productions emphasize vocals.
Yeah, I’m glad you mention that because it is probably what differs me from other producers. That is probably what I do most. First of all, I don’t record vocals in booths. I always record them in the control room. My studio in London is more of a living room set-up. We always record vocals in the same room. I am always in the room with the artist when we are doing vocals.
Also I have largely given up on too much comping or fixing that kind of stuff. I used to be (stricter). A lot of vocals on my records are very raw takes. I do take care to make sure that there is an engineer that knows what he’s doing when he records so it sounds great.
I love to be able to hear and get intrigued by a story that someone is telling. To me that is the thing that still excites me about music—when you hear that song that makes you want to stop your car and makes you want to start crying or whatever. To me, it’s never about the hi-hat sound, not even about the guitar. It is always about the story, and the way that the person is telling that story.
Are you fussy about microphones?
Yeah. When I learned about engineering, I did have my favorites. The reason I have seven studios is that I have so much gear that I don’t know where to put it. I might just as well put it all to work.
You went through that whole phase as a producer experimenting with sounds?
Interestingly enough, it’s been a long time since I’ve done any work with David Foster, but I used to be up working in his (Malibu) studio. He’d say, “I don’t understand why you are doing all this. Why are you putting that backing vocal through that distortion pedal, and a space echo and making that weird sound? Nobody is going to hear that. People only care about the lyric and the vocals.”
I used to think, “What a boring way to make records.”
Now, in retrospect 10 years later, I can see what David meant. To me, (production) is a balance. To me artistry is a holistic thing. It’s what you are saying, it’s who you are; artistry is not only the music. It’s so much more than that. Sound definitely can compliment or paint (a track). It is like having a different set of colors to work with. But I do think if you talk about what makes a record successful—what makes it connect with people, at the end of the day—it always boil down to the way that the lyrics and the vocal content are presented. What makes people just hear it on the radio, and go, “Wow! That’s a amazing song.”
A majority of people today first hear a piece of music on a MP3.
That probably proves the point even more. People will hear a great hook, and they will remember it whether it’s on a set of computer speakers or not. That’s depressing, obviously—knowing that you spend all this time making a great sounding record then most people are going to listen to it on bad systems or on a computer system. But you can’t think that way. You just have to realize that, “There are a few thousand people that are going to buy this on vinyl.”
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide: Celebrating 40 Years Of The Juno Awards.