The Sonics Are Taking Over: New Paths In Pop Songwriting
September 12, 2012 by Janice Brown
CHELSEA: As with all creative professionals, the modern-day songwriter has to be a multi-hyphenate skill machine. You don’t have to have all the skills mastered, exactly – songwriting, production, arranging, engineering and business – but it sure doesn’t hurt.
“When you’re submitting on the level of a major, they want to hear everything final,” says Mat Sherman, the songwriter/producer also known as “1984”. “Even if they’re going to have someone else mix it; they want to hear something that slams and stands up to the next track in their playlist.”
We first met Sherman last Spring, and visited his studio in Chelsea to hear some music and talk about the business. Listening to tracks he’d recently co-written and co-produced with Australian pop band The Veronicas, and hip-hop artist K.Flay, his edge seemed to be his sound. These were driving pop songs, but definitely heavy on the electronic production.
”I try to push limits,” said Sherman. “I want to put the proper musicianship into it but also want to incorporate new, weird production techniques into everything I do.”
Case in point is The Veronicas song he played for us – it’s a four-on-the-floor dance track featuring a cool stutter-edit vocal part that pinballs like a blippy analog synth-line. It’s an unexpected production hook – something you’ll definitely remember about the track.
“The song always has to be the forefront, but in the landscape we’re in now…sonics are taking over,” Sherman notes. “There are DJ-producers now who are making tracks that engineer/producers are hearing and going ‘what?!’ And the audience – much as they want to hear a great album – also want to know that things are pushing limits a little bit.”
1984 is signed to Warner/Chappell Publishing and working the major label pop music circuit where having an edge is essential. And nowadays, he says, a mastery of technology and production can be a real angle – not only because of what a skilled producer can bring to a session, but also because of trends in pop music.
Indeed, the pop music industry has taken the electronic dance music (EDM) popularized by artists like Lady Gaga and David Guetta and run with it. The big picture may still be “all about the song”, but there are new aspects of pop songwriting that have more to do with the sounds.
Josh Grant (aka Chuck Buckett), a Brooklyn-based songwriter and producer signed to the independent Vel Publishing shares: “As much as there may be a formula for pop songwriting, it is really open in the sense that – now that electronic music has been pushed into the pop realm – you can really push limits, create cooler hooks out of parts that didn’t exist before.
“With a lot of pop music now, you’ll hear these instrumental breaks – like on a dance record. When did you ever hear a massive electro-break on a pop record?
“Now, sometimes the hook is just a beat.”
With this explosion of EDM into the mainstream, electronic music producers and DJs have become in-demand pop collaborators and multi-format artists themselves. It’s the other path into pop songwriting and production that’s been paved by DJ/producers like Diplo and no doubt other less ubiquitous producers before him. These individuals are born multi-threats – touring the world as DJs, and collaborating via remixes, mix-tapes and production with pop and hip-hop artists.
They’re a natural fit for major label pop production, which is all about the “collabs”.
“The door has definitely been opened,” says NYC-based EDM producer/DJ John Bourke aka Gosteffects (Duran Duran, Ladytron). “House music has now become a pretty standard template for pop music. [For example] The songs Calvin Harris has been doing, crossing over into the mainstream, have been great.”
The doors opening in this way has also blurred any lines delineating who can be a pop songwriter and who can be an artist, who can be a DJ, producer, etc. Gosteffects, who’s represented by Jux Music in NYC, can be effective as a pop collaborator, and can also continue to evolve as an elusive artist – pushing boundaries perhaps a bit farther with his own electro-house releases and building mystique around his brand; and then bringing that back into a pop song or remix or original music. (He just did all the music for Fuse’s new TV show, Off Beat)
“I love working with other artists,” says Gosteffects. “A lot of the collaborations I do are over the web sending files back and forth. When collaborating, there isn’t a particular part I want to handle – sometimes I’ll write the melody and someone else will have an idea for the vocal, or the other way around. Sometimes I’ll collaborate with people on the music, or sometimes with vocalists to write lyrics.
“There isn’t a set way I create, I just try to do whatever feels right at the moment.”
On the indie-pop side, too, there are producer/remixers doing DJ-style “features” albums of original pop songs.
André Allen Anjos, who founded RAC (Remix Artist Collective), released the first single off the first RAC album in May via Green Label Sound – the track, “Hollywood” featuring Penguin Prison was produced in Anjos’ studio in Portland, and mixed by Michael Brauer.
“I haven’t been in the same room as any of the vocalists on the album,” says Allen. “Some of the singers recorded in New York with [his RAC partner] Andrew Maury, and a NYC session drummer Guy Licata plays on a couple of the tracks – he recorded with Abe Seiferth at his studio in Brooklyn.”
Allen produces all of his music back in Portland in an Ableton Live + Universal Audio Apollo-based studio where he’s surrounded by analog synths. “I feel like Giorgio Moroder, or Vangelis, at least that’s what I’m going for,” says Allen. He, too, has additionally been writing original music for TV and film (Entourage, Holy Rollers).
The Day-to-Day: Works & Workflows
Having a major label publishing deal can mean a grueling schedule – especially for the up-and-coming writers who are still proving themselves.
“I’m in sessions every single day,” says Sherman. “Luckily, this is not a hard thing to do on your own because you’re always collab-ing with someone else – either the artist, or another songwriter.
Of late, Sherman has been paired up with different writer/producers working on tracks for The Wanted, Camille Corazon, Cobra Starship, Anna Nalick and K.Flay. He’ll produce full-up instrumentals, full songs with lyrics and/or sometimes just get the ideas down.
Since his delivery commitment to Warner/Chappell is based on a number of “songs” released, or in reality percentages of many songs that add up to that commitment – the day-to-day work is about getting as many solid ideas realized, or instrumental tracks produced and mixed, that when you get in the room with an artist you have some solid jumping off points. Or, that you can send on to another writer/producer to co-write/produce.
“I recently sat down with this other writer – Jaramye Daniels – and we built this song around a bass riff,” says Sherman. “And we wrote a really great song – which I’m going to finish a rough vocal mix on – but my team may also decide to send the bass line and vocal to someone like Benny Blanco or Mark Ronson, and see what they’d do with it.
“That’s what’s cool about sitting down and writing from scratch – you have the freedom to let the song go wherever it goes, there are no restrictions. You just write it and then cater the production to it later.”
Vel Records / Publishing founder and producer Camus Celli – a former EMI songwriter who had a hand in developing Gavin DeGraw among others – is still an active songwriter, producer and collaborator on many levels of the music business. He would agree that sometimes the more organic the session the better.
“I think the best songs come from a more inspired place,” Celli offers. “I’ve been working a lot with [Brooklyn-based BMI pop songwriter] Nate Campany, and we’re not writing for anything in particular. We’ll just start and when we’re ¾’s done and it’s time to talk about lyrics…then we’ll say, okay who’s looking? Who is this for? A 16-year-old boy? Cool, let’s work on that. But the song already has its magic to it.
Meanwhile, Vel songwriter Josh Grant is busy building a catalog of tracks on his own that will get sent to top-line writers. “If we get something we remotely like, then we’ll go into the studio to demo it,” Grant explains. “I give the tracks to Camus and he gets them into the right hands.”
Grant only recently signed to Vel to try the songwriting thing full-time; for the last few years he’s been producing/engineering with artists like DJ Sasha and electro-pop band, Deluka. Grant also comes from an electronic music background, and produces music he defines as ‘nu disco’, drawing from 90s house music and indie-rock sounds – in other words, blending digital beats with analog synthesizers and live elements.
“The reality of showing up in NYC and handing beats over to someone doesn’t exist anymore [if it ever did],” says Grant. “I lucked out by meeting the right people, and when I realized that being a producer/songwriter was a possibility, I knew it was definitely what I want to do.”
Much like a label deal, signing with an independent publisher can be a very different proposition for a songwriter.
“People may wonder ‘why would you ever sign a publishing deal?’ but the way this deal is structured it’s more like a partnership,” says Grant. “With some big publishing deals, there’s a lot of cash up front but then the delivery requirements can be pretty insane.”
Being one of only a couple writers signed to Vel, Grant will also get different opportunities than a writer on a roster of hundreds. But it also means he has to keep his career at least somewhat diversified. Grant still produces remixes and music with indie artists; he’s building a body of work that could cross-pollinate.
“I’m also going to put a mixtape next month,” he notes. “Kind of a jumping off point to get my name on the map, and hook up with more people that way.”
For Celli, in order to diversify and launch the various aspects of Vel that have enabled him to develop artists and do joint ventures with RCA (Deluka) and others, he had to get out of his EMI contract.
“What I’m doing now only works if it’s exclusive,” he says. “When the time is right, I look for the right JV for Vel Songs – then I become an A&R source. And that’s a lot of what the labels have become, in some ways, while Vel has become less of a label and more of an incubator.
“I take on some of the risk of developing the artist, then bring them to the major and do a JV with the label.”
Engineering As An Edge
Studio-savvy producer/songwriters who can sculpt sounds – as opposed to top-line writers like Claude Kelly who are strong singers/lyricists – have an obvious angle on the electro and dance-pop music du jour. But a producer/songwriter with engineering chops will be a strong collaborator for any session.
A producer that can engineer, says Sherman, also effectively runs the songwriting session – generating the music and recording everything. The more you can do well, the more valuable you are as a collaborator.
“The producer is expected to not only record the vocals, but also comp, edit and tune them,” Sherman explains.
“The climate now is that you kind of have to be able to do everything,” Sherman continues. “Nowadays it’s more about how much can you deliver, and how much can you control? Because the less people involved, the easier and more cost-effective it is for the labels. If the producer can also write, then great – they can just send one producer/writer in with the artist, or put them with another writer.”
Publishers and writer managers pair people up they think will bring different things to the table, plus have the common ground and complimentary talents to hit on something awesome.
“They don’t expect one person to make an entire song for the artist,” Sherman explains. “In my experience, most of the publishing companies and even most of the producers/writers prefer the ‘band feel’ of having a few people in the room.
“If you’re stumped on a chord progression, there’s someone right next to you who will suggest another chord. And all of a sudden the workflow went way quicker and you’re onto the next thing. This is really important because as much as this is a quality business, it’s also a volume business.”
It’s come to a one-stop-shop mentality, Sherman adds. “No one’s hiring instrumentalists to play for you, or a mixer to mix. If it’s two producers working together, that’s two people to handle the workload. They split the work, and one of them does the vocal comp’ing [for example], while the other one adds guitars.”
Obviously for the beat makers and track builders, writing is engineering. “For me, it’s super crucial that I be a good engineer,” says Grant. “I have to hear something sonically sounding good to know it’s a good song – not to mention that with electronic music, part of it being a good song is on the production end; is it a banging enough mix?
“I’ll stop myself mid arrangement to halfway-mix the track to make sure it’s sounding cool,” Grant notes. “And I never send tracks off to people that are half done. I’ll put together a demo in one day, and then mix it over another day. I try to get things ready to where they could get me a vocal and I could mix the vocal, and it would be ready for radio.”
That radio-readiness, says Sherman and others, is what the labels expect to hear. Beyond that, engineering chops can carry the track even further – build it out in dimensions they weren’t expecting. Back to Sherman and his experience: the cool, more out-there sonics may not be for everyone but when they are, they can create a lot of excitement for a song when it’s up against a playlist of other songs.
“Sometimes it hurts and sometimes it’s a really good thing,” Sherman notes of the production-heavier 1984 sound. “For us it means more no’s than yes’s, but the yes’s are bigger.”