Interview with GREG WELLS, songwriter and producer for Katy Perry, Mika, OneRepublic - Feb 16, 2009
“It's a big risk to try and forge your own path, but it’s the only way to do it.”
Grammy-nominated producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Greg Wells has lent his formidable talents to records by a mind-boggling array of artists, from Katy Perry, The Deftones and Carole King to Aerosmith, Pink and Rufus Wainwright.
And it’s clear why the Canadian native is such an in-demand songwriter and producer - CDs featuring his songs have sold over 60 million units worldwide, and his production mastery has helped craft One Republic’s worldwide number 1 smash ‘Apologize’ (“the most legally downloaded song in US history”) and one of the world’s biggest selling albums of 2007/08, Mika’s ‘Life in Cartoon Motion’, amongst many others.
The LA-based “studio Swiss Army Knife” takes time out from producing Mika's latest record to talk to HitQuarters about his long road to success and what it is that unites the wide-ranging acts he works with. He also offers tips for young producers and reveals the lesser-known similarities between the music and coal industries.
Your introduction to music came incredibly early, when your mother and grandmother began teaching you the piano at the age of 3 - do you think you would have followed the same kind of career path without them guiding and pushing you?
From my mom's insistence on my studying classical piano, I definitely have a leg up musically because I know what key the song is in when I hear it, I can recognise the chords, all the time, without seeing it. It's taken me a long time to forget everything I've learnt about the architecture of music. I'm very happy with the training that I have, mind you I didn't love receiving it at the time. I wanted to be playing rock guitar and drums - but I'm thankful for it now.
I popped out obsessed with rhythms in particular. According to a family friend who's a percussion teacher, I was playing rhythms on my crib at six months. Whether that's accurate or not, I was freakishly bent towards music. I probably would have wound up professionally in music. My mum would help me read music, but my grandmother was never pushing me, she just played it by ear. So it was a thing that was happening anyway, which they tried to corral, to mould and shape a little bit.
So both nature and nurture?
How did you come to join KD Lang’s band, and do you consider it your break?
I consider it one of my breaks. I've been doing this for so long - I'm 40 years old now - this is all I've ever done. I had a big break in Canada before that playing with the Kim Mitchell band, who were at the time very famous in Canada. I auditioned to join and got it, and that led me to getting the KD Lang job, because the tour manager for the Kim Mitchell band wound up being KD Lang's manager. He knew they were looking for someone who could play a whole bunch of different instruments - I just got a phone call saying, "do you want to go on the road for the next three years with KD Lang?" I didn't even audition. He vouched for me and they flew me up to Vancouver and we started.
I learned so much working with KD, and she's still a friend of mine. This is a long time ago - 92-94 - but she really took me under her wing. She had a huge record on that tour, and she won Grammys - we did three nights at the Albert Hall, three nights at Radio City Music Hall in New York. It was fantastic for me, and taught me a lot while watching a brilliant artist tour her way to a platinum record and a Grammy for best female vocal. Once the tour was over, it also taught me I didn't want to stay on the road, as I couldn't get my career off the ground in Los Angeles.
So that's part of the reason you moved towards production?
I read that Miles Copeland (legendary pop svengali and brother of the Police’s Stuart Copeland) gave you some of your first gigs after that. Why do you think he hired you?
Well, I think he knew I was cheap, and he is always trying to match as much talent to as much cost-effectiveness as possible. I owe him so much - he was just a huge early believer in me. I found it so flattering as I was a huge Police fan when I was younger. I produced several indie records for him on what was at the time I.R.S. Records. He just threw me into the fire and said, “go do it!”
He invited me to his songwriting event at his castle in France. The first few times I was just like “I'm not even a songwriter, what am I doing here?” But it turned me into one. Actually, on paper, I'm the biggest success story that has ever come out of that castle. The songs I've written there have sold over 40 million records - songs that he has a part of. And they've paid for many castles since then. So it was great to have someone of his stature really believing in me and giving me the opportunity to be the producer.
Your talents are responsible for creating records that, as you say, have sold millions. Do you wonder about all the people who achieve sudden incredible success, but who don’t have the natural talent and ability – has it ever made you think, “it's funny how the industry works?”
Well it did, forever. My career hasn't been an overnight success - it's been a slow, slow climb. I've been here 19 years and seen lots of other people move here and have a huge hit and they're off and running with their career. It might not last very long, but I’ve seen a lot of people with that perceived success, and it often doesn’t have much to do with talent.
At this point I'm OK with that, as I think there are so many intangible elements involved with something that becomes a hit record, movie or book, and it plugs into some sort of collective mythology where people can see themselves in the song or movie - and that's something you can't control. You just have to get lucky with that.
There's plenty of producers whose work I really admire and am influenced by, who don’t approach it as I do and aren't even capable of approaching it as I do. I'm very hands-on. Some of the best records are made by guys who didn't play any instruments and don’t even know how to operate the equipment, they just use their objectivity and their ears.
I'm a huge fan of Nellee Hooper - he just listens to stuff apparently. I’m a huge fan of Rick Rubin. Rubin can't play an A chord on a guitar, can't plug a mic in - he just knows if it's right or not. He approaches it completely differently to me. But at the end of the day, there's something really great going on. I realise that talent is a hard thing to quantify. What is talent - playing an instrument, writing a song? Some of the best musicians are horrible songwriters - some of the best songwriters are horrible musicians. It manifests completely differently.
When things take off, there's so much luck involved. Haydn said the invention of a simple melody is a work of genius. I stand behind that. To do simple at a level of excellence is the hardest fucking thing in the world to do. To nail simplicity and to have it believable - does that take a lot of talent? I don't know.
In a way you've answered your question by defining the key to a good act - but do you ever see anything strange working with such wildly different acts. On your website, you have Otep followed by Jesse McCartney [Greg laughs]. Do you see any contradictions there? Do you love it all equally, or is it all just work?
Oh no no, it's not all work. I have to work at things I love or I don’t know how to make them sound good. The contradictions are apparent, but at the end of the day it's all storytelling. Whether it's death metal or incredibly conservative pop, or Mika, or jazz, or a painting - it's all storytelling.
For whatever reason, I like all kinds of music - I've always been that way. I have all kinds of friends. I had birthday parties when I was a kid and there would be enemies sitting across from each other, wondering what they were doing there. And my discography is like that.
So do you enjoy producing each and every song?
Well, it's a lot of work - a lot of effort, a lot of focus and concentration. It's never easy. The enjoyment is at the end when you get it to where it's as it should sound, and there's a feeling of, “ah, listen to that, finally!” But getting it there is hard.
It's hard to make a good record. Real music is a live thing where you can see them doing it, not just hear it. There’s an imagery from them going to the audience. You take away all those elements and you're only left with the audio coming from the speakers, and it is very unforgiving. I think that’s why there's so many bad records made, as all those things that can help you through the musical experience are all gone. The speakers are merciless, and it takes a lot of effort to get the stuff coming through the speakers to move you in the way that a live experience can move you.
If you had a top tip for someone that wanted to be a successful producer, what would it be?
Well, the ultimate litmus test is to compare your favourite records made by your favourite producers to your own work. If you're mixing something, put on your favourite records - switch back and forth and compare the difference. I still do that. On my iPod I have a play list called 'mix reality check'. It's everything from Grace Jones to No Doubt, to Neptunes - stuff from different eras. Just stuff that sounds great. It's humbling, but you have to be humbled sometimes.
Listen to their best work and analyse it. Figure out what they are doing, figure out what they are not doing, and experiment, experiment, experiment until you get something that starts to sound like it competes with that.
Do you get approached by young producers hoping you can help them out?
And how successful is it for them?
I used to do the same thing, approaching producers. I remember going to the Canadian Awards show - I knew Quincy Jones was going to be there, and I had a cassette in my pocket to give to him. I did all that stuff.
But rather than chasing a producer, I learned other producers weren't going to give me a break - they all viewed me as potential future competition. I didn't get anywhere chasing producers. But where I did get somewhere was of being of use to people such as songwriters and publishers. If a songwriter wanted a demo done I would make the best demo I was capable of doing. I started writing songs, I started hooking up with a publisher and getting publishers to pitch those songs to artists. Once I learned about my craft, people started saying, “who did those tracks?” and my name started getting around. So I don't recommend chasing producers.
Now I'm one of those producers who younger kids occasionally chase, which is a weird feeling. I always recommend trying to hook up with a publisher, and try and create and build your own thing. Don't try and latch onto someone else. I've seen others do it but it never pans out and they're always in that person's shadow. It's a big risk to try and forge your own path, but it’s the only way to do it.
Do you get approached by a lot of artists, and do you turn many down?
I turn just about everything down because I've become very picky. When it's great, I can't turn it down.
What was the last thing you heard that you decided was great, and that you had to work with them?
This artist in Miami named Rachel Goodrich is brilliant and I hope I can produce her record.
So what do you look for in an artist? Apart from talent obviously…
Well, talent to me isn't as important as great songwriting, or great presence as a storyteller. For me, Mika - I'm in the middle of his record right now and he's probably within earshot of me - is the ideal artist, he just tells his own story so confidently and uniquely. I like the element of surprise, I like the juxtaposition of ideas. I like that the music sounds happy but the subject matter is actually pretty fucked up.
I like a bit of mystery and I like something that's a challenge to me. I don't like to make the same record all the time, and so artists that I find appealing I feel like there is something to be learned from them.
I'll tie it up with a few questions on the industry's future. How do you feel about file sharing?
The greed that has gone on in the industry is completely the reason that everyone is file sharing. If songs in this country were 25 cents instead of 99 cents then they'd probably make more money. You can't stop it. The industry has had its head in the sand for ten years now.
I just met with three of the main label heads over Grammy week, and all they’re focused on is saving the music business and file sharing, to the point where they are having to let other people take care of the creative stuff - they can't be A&Ring records at this point. So it's unstoppable but the need for creative people and new music will never go away. The music industry will be downsized and that is clearly already happening.
I think there are things to be learnt from the gaming industry, or the DVD industry and software industry, where things have always been protected and it was never questioned. The music industry has been asleep at the wheel, and it's been frustrating for me as I’ve sacrificed so much to get here and when I finally arrive here everyone is stealing music. You know, look at Mika's first record - it sold 5 or 6 million worldwide. If that was 20 years ago it might mean 30 million, or 40 million. I have no doubt that 30 to 40 million people have his record worldwide, and they didn't pay for it.
So where does that leave major labels in ten years time?
[laughs] Er… pretty fucked! They provide a service that other companies don't - I think they'll still exist, but they'll be pretty downsized. My lawyer has an analogy - he compares it to the coal industry. During the industrial revolution coal was king, it was so king it was sexy. Today there is less desire for coal. It still exists, but there is no sexiness.
There’s so many options to get your music out there. A lot of new artists have no interest in signing with a major label, and for some of them, I think that's the right decision. But for some of them I think there is a great benefit in doing it. Look at Katy Perry, who is someone I've developed over the last several years. She went completely the traditional route of the old school record company route of an A&R guy, the A&R guy found producers, and she has a huge hit record now, and it can still work. There are so many options now, and I think ultimately it's a healthy thing.
One final question seeing as we were talking about buying music. Presumably you get a lot of music for free - what was the last album you paid for?
I've never stolen music - I'm quite virtuous about that stuff. I think once I went on to LimeWire, as there was an Aerosmith song I wrote (‘Fall Together’) - I had the demo but not the final version. But I literally couldn't buy it in this country. But other than that I buy it, I make my money from royalties, so in a way I’d be stealing from myself.
I guess for me that was also a question about your tastes. What was the last thing you had nothing to do with work wise that you just had to get?
I love the new Air record - that came out a year or two ago. I love the latest Arcade Fire record. I like the new Radiohead record a lot. There is a record I have been able to hear parts of - two brothers from North Carolina called The Avett Brothers. Rick Rubin has produced their new record and they are geniuses - it's amazing and I can't wait for it to come out!
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