Interview with LEO CHANTZARAS, publisher/producer/songwriter for Pop Idol and Big Brother Germany - May 19, 2008
"Most of the time artists donít even know what their best song is,"
... says Leo Chantzaras, who combines his love of a strong melody (nurtured by growing up in the '80s) with his ambition and ear for hits.
Chantzaras' breakthrough came with his involvement with huge TV shoes like Pop Idol (No.1 Germany) and Big Brother (Top 10 Germany). But since then he has been involved in numerous successful projects.
He talks to HitQuarters about succeeding through getting on people's nerves, about bypassing record labels by placing music on iTunes, and about how crucial it is for a song to have an up-to-date sound.
How did you start out in the music business?
I started as an artist about 10 years ago. I was in a kind of mixed girl/boy group called Alliance, something like the A*Teens. We were signed to Marlboro Music with BMG in Germany back then.
I was singing and also co-producing and co-writing.
What was significant in developing your writer/producer skills?
I was a writer before I was in the group. I was always writing because played guitar and piano. The group didnít really have much to do with the development of that.
It was after the group that I was still thinking of being an artist, but I was more and more writing and Peer Music offered me a publishing deal.
Since when do you operate under the name Freakchild as a songwriter/producer?
Freakchild exists for about two and a half years. I needed something that sounds international and can work everywhere.
My real name, Leo Chantzaras, is hard to remember. I needed a name like Bloodshy, something that can work as a brand.
I have worked now on three Top 10 albums and two gold albums. I have recently produced or written for Mehdi (EMI), Sistanova (Warner), Ayman (DA) Will Simms (Universal), and I have co-written with Andy Marvel (Celine Dion), Michael Jay (Kylie Minogue), Curtis Richardson (J Lo), Johan Aberg (Christina Aguilera) and several others.
How did you approach the business with your first songs?
In the beginning nobody was really waiting for me. I was sending demos around. I was meeting publishers, artists and record company A&Rs. And it was a hard walk.
It wasnít a problem with the songs. The songs that I was presenting back then were eventually cut, but in the beginning they didnít gain a lot of interest.
People didnít greet me with open arms. I had to go step by step and had to get on their nerves with the same stuff and new stuff. I followed up with new material, but it was not really easy.
I also did something that was not very common in Germany, and is still not very common nowadays. I started doing newsletters, telling everybody what was new with me, whether they were interested in that or not.
I created an email pool and sent it around. Even if it was not exactly for them, they knew what was happening with me and what successes were happening at a certain point in time. So, when I sent something to them the next time, they already knew stuff about me.
If you send a newsletter to 100 people, half will think itís great to get updated, and the other half will think that youíre being arrogant if you think you need to tell them about whatís up with you.
How did you come up with this new approach?
Frankfurt, Germany, used to be a music city. 10-15 years ago we had Sony based here. A lot was happening like Snap and Milli Vanilli. After Sony left, Frankfurt (and Offenbach where I came from), became no manís land for the music industry.
It was not really happening for writers here. There were a few veteran producers like Peter Ries that were around for 15-20 years and they still had their stuff going. But I needed to put my name on the map.
If you are in a town like this, far from Berlin, far from Hamburg, you need to create some hype around yourself. There are few ways to do that. One way is to constantly tell people what youíre up to.
10 years ago, when the Internet came up and it was easy to communicate, you had to constantly tell people what you were doing. And it didnít matter if someone got upset, because if you were not doing it they wouldnít know about you.
What was your breakthrough?
My breakthrough was a Gold record with the Popstars South Africa girl group Jamali who were signed to EMI back then. Another breakthrough was the Big Brother album we did for Universal. We also worked on Idols here in Germany. A few things came together at the same time.
I have already created a big network of co-writers and co-producers. It started through travelling and the Internet with high profile writers like Curtis Richardson who wrote for J Lo, Michael Jay who wrote for Kylie Minogue, and Johan Aberg who wrote for Christina Aguilera.
That also opened doors and made people listen more, because you included the name and the writing roster that were familiar.
How did you get to write for all these big artists?
Because I was constantly there, as well as getting to meet the artists. For example, we worked with Tobias Regner, who won the Idols in Germany.
That happened not because they came up to us, but because I did a writing session with Steve Lee who has written for Britney Spears.
I thought, Ok, heís coming, weíre going to write for a week, so I did what I did with the newsletters; I send the A&Rs a mail informing them that weíre going to have Steve Lee for a writing session and asked if they want to send artists in.
People donít come up to us, I come up to people, and thereís a five out of 10 in results.
What was key in finding your own musical vocabulary?
It was developed over the years. Since I was a child I listened to all kinds of music. I was never addicted to a certain genre.
I had a rock band, I was doing R&B, pop and everything, but the main thing for me was always very melodic stuff, very hit oriented, very mainstream.
It was always about creating a great melody with guitar or piano chords, and then setting up a production around it thatís always up to date.
What style does your name stand for as a writer/producer?
Pure up to date pop music, mixed with R&B and electro. But the main target is pop.
What is significant to focus on for the R&B and pop genres?
You always have to have an ear out to where the music goes. At the moment it changes very fast. It changes like every year.
A great song can still not work if you donít put the production around it that sounds to an A&R like the stuff he knows.
That doesnít mean you have to copy others. You just have to know that if you use a clap or a snare, you have to use the clap or snare that have a contemporary sound.
That is a big mistake that a lot of producers make. They add a snare or a clap that theyíve been using for the last five years. Just because they used it, they know itís a good snare or clap, they know how to mix it.
But if you listen around, you have to just check and see what keyboards are used, what plug-ins, what sounds, and where is the whole music going.
Two years ago, Timbaland brought up these monotonic verses and big choruses. Thatís something that still lasts in the music that comes out here.
What was your vision to start Boominí System in 2004?
I started Boominí System together with Christian Weber. He came from a more techno and engineering background. And I came from an arranging, songwriting and production background. So we created this team because it fitted well together.
The vision was to create a modern production team. If you look at releases in Germany, you will not find a lot of German producers or songwriters. The songs are written by Swedish guys and the production sounds very Swedish.
If you listen to most of the German producers, they donít sound international. There are a few that are up to date to sounds in other countries at the moment.
My main target was to create something international, mainstream, that produces hit records and has an up to date style that can compete.
In Germany, as a German producer and writer, you still have to fight against this prejudice that A&Rs have.
Normally, itís very hard for a German producer and writer to get into a record, because thereís all this competition. All these Swedish writers do a great job. They deliver great demos that sound great.
German A&Rs are so used to that, that they donít really believe you can deliver that inside Germany. They wonít admit it. If you ask them, they will never say that, but itís true.
What does your Ďfresh production soundí actually sound like?
Itís a mixture of R&B beats with electro sounds, topped with pop melodies.
To compare it with the sound of the moment, it would be best described as a mixture of the new Britney Spears album, and Sugababes.
What equipment you canít live without in your studio?
First of all I canít live without my samples. I am a sample maniac. I have all the bass drums, all the snares, all the claps that you can imagine. This is like the basis.
If you donít have these, youíre lost. Thatís the truth. Nobody can tell me that you can go just with a good song. The A&Rs donít give a shit.
The A&R wants to press Ďplayí and listen to a song on a CD that sounds like the stuff they know.
Boominí System delivers Ďinternational qualityí. What does that entail?
For me Ďinternational qualityí means that you put a song in the CD player, you push Ďplayí, and you donít hear that itís from Germany.
Many writers or producers in Germany are not using a native speaker as a lyricist. It starts already there, from the lyrics.
Does it sound international? No, it doesnít, because you say things that a native speaker or an American guy would never say, or theyíd say it differently.
I would never use German lyrics. I work on lyrics too, and I was raised in Germany, but I will always let someone else overlook it and tell me if this works for an American guy. I have to be sure about that.
A lot of records that come out in Germany are ridiculous lyric-wise. They work in Germany and thatís Ok, but you will never sell them anywhere else.
Who in the writing team is signed to Peer Music and who is with Universal Publishing?
I have my own sub-publishing with Peer Music. And my partner, Chris, is with Universal Publishing.
You write and produce for artists from all over the globe. How did these artists find you?
Itís all through my network. Sara Paxton is a US artist we work with now. She worked with Michael Jay, and I worked with him too. One thing led to another.
Sheís an actress. She plays in ĎSuperhero Movieí, which is like a slapstick thing, parodying Spider-Man and X-Men like the Scary Movie series.
How do the co-writing sessions work?
That works very easy. Iím well connected with a lot of high profile writers. Some of them plan writing trips to Europe. So I try to plan that out for them in Germany and I include myself in those sessions if they take place around Frankfurt.
Theyíre not like big sessions where 15-20 writers gather. Sometimes it lasts a week, sometimes a few days. And when I do those sessions I try to include artists in there as well.
Do you offer backing tracks to write top lines to?
We do that a lot, because there are a lot of top-liners out there that just write melody and lyrics and donít produce or make tracks. We team up with them often.
Nowadays, you send a track out through the Internet, they can record vocals where they are, send out the vocals, and then the demo is finished.
When did you affiliate with Das Leihhaus and Stani Djukanovic?
I was a writer signed to Das Leihaus. Itís a sub-publishing company that I own now with Stani Djukanovic. I know him for years. He used to be from my area before he moved to Hamburg.
When my contract ran out with Das Leihhaus, Staniís partner quit at the same time, in 2006. So he offered me to be his partner.
We publish Mando (Jessica Simpson) and Alexandra Prince (No Angels, BroíSis, Gadjo) .
Are you also working in the capacity of A&R consultant?
Thatís something I did on the side. I had all these contacts with A&Rs and Iím really good with other producers outside.
For example, the last signing I did was Darin, the Swedish artist on EMI Germany. That was happening just because I saw Darin on a website.
I didnít know him or anything. I saw this guy and thought he is good looking and wondered whether he was a singer.
I found out he is indeed a singer and that heís huge in Sweden. I got in touch with his manager Micke Hagerman and asked him why he isnít releasing any records in Germany.
I asked him to send over the material and I put it on the A&Rs table and got them in touch with him. And thatís how the deal happened.
This is usually not a lot of work for me. I just get the material, I send it over to the A&Rs I know. If they pass on it, it doesnít work, if they like it, I put the two parties together and they make a deal.
What does the consulting for Parasongs involve?
That involves A&R work for the songs they get sent in for the pitches. Parasongs is a big publishing company who publish a lot of high profile catalogues for the Asian and European market.
I tell them what I think will work and what will not. I also send the songs around to the A&Rs that I know personally.
We try to get material out internationally. We have Sweetbox, who is a million seller in Asia. She was touring over the last 12 months, in the UK, US, Sweden, and Germany. I set up some writers I know for sessions with her.
And you were always a manager as well?
I started that four, five years ago. I manage Mando who has sold several Gold records in Greece and has written a Top 10 hit song for Jessica Simpson. Sheís releasing a new album in Greece and also writing for other people.
What artists are you currently working with?
Iím working with Anna David from Denmark. She had a big hit over there with the song ĎFuck Digí. I work with Will Simms, a new signing to Universal Germany.
How do you combine all those different disciplines?
First of all, I wake up at six in the morning! Iím awake all day. A lot of these things are related. Itís not like completely different areas.
I do my pitching in the morning for Parasongs. After that I do my producing and writing. The management doesnít take me to work every day. I can do that once a week. Mando does a lot by herself. I can combine all that very easily.
There is no team. I do it all by myself. When you are a writer and producer and youíve gone through all these states, you know what itís all about.
I have signed publishing deals. I was an artist myself. I have written songs that Iíve placed myself. I can work faster because I know what writers think for example.
When situations come up I can handle them more easily because Iíve been through it myself.
Do you plan to expand your roster?
Yes, I will, for sure. Thatís the next stage. Iím already looking out for that, but it will take me until the beginning of next year.
From 2009 on I will quit Das Leihhaus and start my own publishing, and encorporate more writers into that. I have some people Iím talking to that I will sign as writers.
The big plan for the next two to three years will be to create a big team of writers, and have like four or five staff writers and deliver more material.
How do you look for new ways to develop your artists?
Nowadays is the best time to promote an artist where you can do a lot by yourself.
In the past you needed a lot of money, you needed a lot of support from a record company. Nowadays with the Internet and a huge network and some investors here and there, you can do a lot by yourself.
I have my ear out all the time. I try to see what is working in the States, in the UK, in Europe, what could be the next big thing that people are looking for.
I work a lot with iTunes. I did some Chillout albums. One was very successful. We offered that album to record companies and everybody passed on it. We brought it out on iTunes by ourselves and it became really huge.
Placing songs in movies, affiliating with a brand or some kind of event; all these things are in my mind and I have people who can provide that.
So on one hand itís easy, and on the other hand itís still hard. Especially for me as a one guy company. But it will be developed in the near future.
There is a big competition, because many others are thinking like me too. People see the future and see how the music business changes.
But the best thing about the whole music business is that it doesnít matter what happens. With one great song, from one day to another, things can explode.
What is the level that an artist needs to reach for you to start working with them?
They have to have their skills. I cannot waste time on somebody who has some talent but needs another two years of vocal training and such.
They also need the typical business features. They have to be good looking, they have to be young, they have to be a bit modern.
The winning lottery ticket would be if itís already a guy or girl with a charisma that makes it very special.
Somebody like Pink, for example. When Pink comes through the door, sheís a singer like maybe another 100 good singers, but she stands out. You can create a Pink, but the skill has to be there already.
If Iím looking for a band, I have to see them live, and it doesnít matter if they donít already have the hit songs.
I can deliver that, whether from my side or I can go to my network and ask to look out for good songs and production.
But when I see them live, it has to be something. They have to play their guitars, their drums, and they have to play really well.
Do you organise auditions?
I have auditions but not too much. I use the Internet. I go a lot to MySpace and all these sites that have talents. 90% of that doesnít work, but I just found an amazing writer that I want to sign for my publishing.
I canít believe that sheís undiscovered. Sheís from Sweden and sheís unbelievable. She sings great and writes very good songs. A lot of people are too lazy to look around.
What do you do when you find someone on MySpace?
Usually, I drop them a mail first to see how they react. If they react on that I follow on with a phonecall. Then I try to find out a lot about them and see how they tick. I meet them personally.
I let them send me stuff that theyíve done. Usually, I let them send everything theyíve done, because most of the time artists donít even know what their best song is.
They tend to choose songs that donít work at all, and songs they donít like are a hit.
Why doesnít the artist know what his/her best song is?
A lot of artists are not blessed with writing skills. But they want to write. A song is something personal. If you are a professional writer then you do this as a job.
When you do it as a job, you still love the song that you write and you treat it as your baby, but itís also business for you. You create a great song and you constantly think, Ok, this can work for Britney. Letís send it there.
A writer that is an artist treats it even more personally. Maybe they created a lyric that means a lot to them, but they donít look towards the mainstream side of things.
They donít think about whether a melody is really strong enough. The lyric may be great, but is the melody a hit?
And to explain to somebody that this melody will not work is to hurt them a bit, because itís very personal and itís their song and they want it like that.
Thatís why careers go down sometimes with the second or third album. For example, with Kelly Clarkson, the last album she did was something that she wanted to do on her own.
She didnít want outside songs. She wanted to do it with her band. It still worked because it was the follow up to a great album, but it was bellow expectations.
Clive Davis told her that he doesnít hear a hit there, but it was personal and she wanted to do it. Why artists are like that, I really donít know.
How do you get all the ideas in tune with everyoneís wishes?
Sometimes there are discussions. Until now, I had the luck to always work with people that were cool guys and girls. There were never any quarrels or fights.
Normally, itís always been like somebody drops in an idea, starts with a melody, and if somebody doesnít like it he or she says so and then we switch.
Sometimes thereís three people in the room and two like it and one doesnít. Then we stay with the idea. Itís very democratic.
I have heard of other situations where it didnít work, but up until now the result was always happy for everybody.
I can convince people and people can convince me too. Everybody has their own taste. Thatís for sure. I can like somebody that someone else hates.
I have always convinced people on something that I really believed in and it turned out positive. But you can never convince people if the idea is bad.
Itís not about my idea. Itís not like I want to convince people because I think itís my idea and I want to get that in regardless if itís bad or not.
When I try to convince them itís because I believe in it, and usually they understand it after a while.
What are the steps taken in producing a track?
I usually create a groove first. I create a bass drum, a good snare. After that I usually first start on chord progressions or I do a bass line. Thatís like the usual first three steps.
After you have a bass, a chord progression and the drums, then you start working on the melody.
But I can also write a full song on a guitar and then start producing it. Sometimes when you have the song already, it gives you the direction as to how you have to present it.
What are your sources for finding new talent?
Recommendations and demos sent to me. I get through the demos, pictures and bios, and you can see and hear that the level of these new talents is very high. You even get finished products that you can put on the market.
But whatís missing 99% of the time when you get something sent is that one special song. Thatís the one thing that determines everything else.
For example, thereís a group that sent you a perfect video already done although theyíre not signed, they have great looks on stage, they have a great demo that sounds great produced, but the song is not there.
How do you get inspired by the new wave of R&B and pop music?
I listen to a lot of music. Thatís my inspiration. And I have a decent base already from the music that I used to listen to since I was a kid.
I had the luck to grow up in the Ď80s. The Ď80s were the most melodic and most hit-oriented period, the rise of pop music. Pop like we know it today with synthesizers and drums. It was so melodic that my base was already there.
I listen to a lot of up to date music, not always because I like the song, but a lot of the times I like the whole track. Like the backing track and how the energy is there. Thatís where I get my inspiration from.
Do you stick to structures like verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus?
It depends. It can be different. I stick to structures because thatís the music I was listening to. But it can be different like verse-chorus-verse-chorus-C part, or verse-bridge-chorus.
Do you let the rhythm of the melody be the foundation to the lyrics?
Yes. And I always stick to that when I have a melody for a lyricist to really go with how the melody works. I wonít stick another word in it and change the rhythm.
What importance do you attach to the lyrics in regards to popular music?
Very important, but it also depends on what territory of the world you are.
In Germany I wouldnít say English lyrics are very important no matter how good they are or not, because thereís a lot of bad songs that have been huge hits here and are lyrically totally cheap. But in the States or the UK, you have to have good lyrics.
What would you like to change in the music industry?
I would change the view of the A&R that the song demo has to be a finished product in terms of quality.
I was in New York and I went to see David Novik from Universal Music, whoís a great A&R. Heís a bit older. Heís a great guy and works for Decca.
He had a piano in his office. I asked him if he plays. And he said that most of the time he had a piano because people tend to come in and sing him songs. Singers audition in front of him. Thatís what I would do.
Nowadays, if you are a writer and you donít have a producer as a partner or you donít own a studio and have the skills, youíre screwed. You have no chance.
There are great writers out there that just play the guitar. And they donít stand a chance because of this policy at the moment.
What type of artist would you like to see gain more popularity?
I would like to have more R&B in the German music business. They might have some R&B coming from the States, but R&B from Germany, not a lot. They donít really sign it.
Whatís coming up for you in 2008?
I have a release now with Sistanova at Warner Music, which is a three-piece girl group that sing in German. They cut a song of mine called ĎSuperstarí that comes out on their album.
We have a single release at Universal Germany with Will Simms from the UK. Heís half French, half British.
We have a cut in Taiwan with a Taiwanese girl group thatís signed to Warner Music over there. We work on two or three songs with Anna David for her next release.
And I have a remix to do for the Greek market, which is where my roots are.
What are the future plans for Boominí System and yourself?
With Boominí System at the moment it looks like weíre going to go our separate ways by the end of the year. Weíre going to get split up.
Weíre not having a fight or anything. Itís all cool. But weíve done it now for a few years and I think I will go on solo now.
I have other views on how I want to proceed. It will be just me as Freakchild. Writing and producing was my main focus all of the time.
A lot of people just know me as a manager or just as a publisher, but my day-to-day job is producing and writing. And Iím still focusing on that all the time, but I just give them different names so people can separate the companies.
I will also travel a bit more. This time I was in New York. I will go to the UK next time. And I will try to write more songs with other writers from outside, but more face to face, because a lot of the times it was just happening over the Internet.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
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