You may not be hugely familiar with the name Greg Kurstin, but you’ll have heard scores of songs he’s written and produced over the last decade. The sought-after super-producer has defined 00s chart-pop, working with a real mix of artists, from The Flaming Lips to Beyoncé, Karen O to Kylie and Donna Summer to Devo. He is responsible for Kelly Clarkson’s biggest release ‘Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)’ and P!nk’s chart track ‘Blow Me (One Last Kiss)’ but has long-term relationships with more ‘alt-pop’ artists such as Lily Allen – he’s produced and co-written all three of her albums – and Sia, whose ‘1,000 Forms Of Fear’ has just gone to number one in the US. I spoke to Kurstin about working with Sia, Lily Allen and Lana Del Rey, the health of the music industry, and the track he wishes he’d produced.
NME: Did you expect Sia’s sixth album ‘1,000 Forms Of Fear’ to go to number one in US and why do you think it struck such a chord?
Greg Kurstin: I wasn’t sure if it would go to number one, but you always hope something like that would happen. She wasn’t originally planning on doing a lot of promo, but then she kind of ended up doing a few things and that helped. The single – ‘Chandelier’ – doing well helped. I think the timing for Sia is very good right now too. She’s had a lot of success with song writing for other people and I think pop stars really want her songs and her sound on their albums. There’s something about her music which is more in the mainstream than it was before.
NME: ‘Chandelier’ has been a really big hit with over 70 million views on YouTube. How long did it take you to write that?
GK: Jesse Shatki, my engineer, and Sia wrote it really fast. All I did was add some production to it, to fit it into the album a bit more. Sia writes really fast. I think everything she does really comes fast and if it doesn’t, she won’t stick with it, or she moves on to something else. Usually, within a half an hour or so, you’ll get a song from Sia.
NME: Who’s the most ‘real’ artist you’ve ever worked with?
GK: People are real on different levels, and Sia’s definitely the same as when she’s on a TV show interview as she is in the recording studio. She’s just the same everywhere and never puts on an act. I think Lily Allen is too, she’s the same in any scenario you find her in. And P!nk’s pretty down to earth, I have to say.
NME: How do you ensure a zeitgeist-y pop star like Lily Allen stays relevant?
GK: You have to evolve and consider what’s happening now and the climate. With Lily, I change and my music taste changes a little bit and sometimes I go back to the old stuff. I like to draw comparisons to what I’m into at the moment, so hopefully that helps me evolve. I think we’re both changing and becoming relevant, as long as everyone’s real and talking about something honest. If someone’s trying to do something that doesn’t seem natural to them, people see through that. But, yeah, as a producer I’m always trying to listen to new things, I’m listening to anything and everything and try to taking little bits I like. You can’t be in a bubble being a producer. You have to keep up on what’s happening at all times.
NME: Are there any particular sounds or effects you’ve wanted to bring into albums you’ve worked on recently?
GK: A lot of the time they’re based on electronic music and it’s interesting because I was around in the 90s and, once again, I hear so much 90s music again in popular culture. I think, ‘Wow I was doing that in the 90’s as well’, so it’s funny to hear things that you did the first time around. Especially 90’s R’n’B sounds which I might have dabbled in when that was happening the first time, when I was first learning how to make beats. I’ve always been interested in electronic music and synths. You hear more digital synths now; there was a point when those weren’t very cool. Anything from that era of late 80s/early 90s has come back.
NME: George Ergatoudis, the Head Of Music at of BBC Radio 1, said recently that “the future is in playlists instead of albums”. As a producer who’s contributed the odd song to albums as well as working on the complete piece of work, how would you answer that claim?
GK: I make a lot of playlists so I can understand that. I’m listening to Spotify all the time and pulling in different things. I might find an artist or a song that I like and I’ll pull that into playlists and then you’ll find related artists. But I like an album as a nostalgic thing; I remember buying albums and getting into the whole thing. So I guess, just don’t fight it. Wherever it goes, I’m not going to complain. I think it’s funny when people are like: ‘I miss the days of the album.’ I don’t mind change. I think more and more people are worried about making singles and not so much about albums. I’ll still buy albums from artists I really, really like so my preference is for the full album but I’m not going to fight it if that’s where it’s going.
NME: You contributed a song to Lana Del Rey’s ‘Ultraviolence’ album this year, which was particularly celebrated for being bold in its slowness compared with ‘Born to Die’. Was that part of the conversation when you were writing ‘Money, Glory, Power’? What was that experience like?
GK: ‘Money, Power, Glory’ was one of the earlier songs written on the album and it stuck around. I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen because we did it so early and I know she went through a lot of writing after that point. It’s interesting that what ended up on the album is actually the original mix that we finished that day; we didn’t re-cut or re-record anything. But it was great when I finally heard where she went and I think it was really cool that she went organic with live musicians. It was unexpected, but also a logical step for her. I really love that album; it’s one of the albums that I listen to over and over again.
NME: What’s the difference between writing with an artist like Sia, whose obviously a long-time songwriter, and someone more established in the pop world like Katy Perry?
GK: Sia is like no one else I’ve ever worked with. She comes completely from this non-logical but very emotional place. I could be wrong, but she doesn’t really seem to analyse what she’s writing. She doesn’t really revise it, but goes with that first thing that comes out. And a lot of the time, the song will be written and finished in a short amount of time. When I work with someone like Katy, and it’s always different with every pop star, we come back to the song, and it’s like: ‘Is that the best chorus? Let’s revise the chorus’. And I think she probably comes from that Dr Luke/Max Martin world where they might try five different choruses until the best one comes out. But Sia’s never like that. Most of the time the first thing that comes out is what you’re going to get. That’s the major difference, there’s not a lot of revising and crafting as much as the pop songs, it’s just one emotional expression and that’s it.
NME: What do you predict will be the next wave or popular sound in music?
GK: I’m still waiting for rock bands to come back, something raw and relevant. There are a lot of rock bands out there, but it’s a hard time for rock. Everything is so pop right now so I’m waiting for something to be the anti-version of that. Something raw, maybe a guitar band. I know there are a lot of guitar bands, probably more so than in the UK then there are in America, but it’s really at an all-time low in America. So I’m waiting for something exciting, raw and that to me will hopefully be the next thing after pop has exploded as much as it possibly can.
NME: What song do you wish you had produced?
GK: That’s a good question. ‘Runaway’ the Kayne West song? From ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’. I love that track, I listened to it recently and it’s just so simple but I love it. He definitely throws out some great music and great production. I love a lot of the songs on ‘Yeezus’ and there’s some great stuff on there but I was obsessed with ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’. It was just on, constantly, I just lived it, one time after another.