2012 saw the AntiTour, K25 and Abbey Road. It was hectic but also celebratory year tocelebrate Kylie and, critically, her songbook. 2 years on, what do you make of k25?
I loved every single minute of it - there are so many of my best memories associated with that year from being lucky enough to make a record at Abbey Road , the Proms performance which was a real highlight and of course the Anti Tour which we all hold so dear to our hearts. It was the most warmth I’ve felt in a room of strangers in my entire life and she had an absolute ball. It was the perfect way to celebrate 25 years and herald the beginning of the next 25.
I have to ask, will we ever hear the studio version of That's Why They Write Love Songs?
There is one and you never know one day it might appear on a Special Edition of a CD as a bonus track but that would be up to the label. We’ve let it out to play a few times live and it holds a special place for us - you never know - one day it might appear somewhere...
Talking of which how is the Kylie musical coming along? Is it still in the development stages?
These things take time, that’s all I’m saying.
Looking back, you've done Rent Remixed, The Hurly Burly Show, Little Belter, Viva La Drag , Orchid and the new amazing show starring Denise Van Outen Some Girl I Used To Know written by Terry Ronald (writer behind Becoming Nancy). Bit by bit the glare of the musical and stage are taking hold - what has been the key attraction that has drawn you to the West End?
I’ve always loved West End and Broadway theatre (can’t you tell!) but to me its not that different from putting on a huge arena show. Its about entertainment and really focusing on the audience being with the show all the way. I’m incredibly lucky to work with a close team of amazing people on most of these shows and it helps we are all really close friends too. William, Terry, Ashley and I have known each other forever so its just second nature when it comes to putting on a show - first and foremost it has to be fun for everyone even though we are all incredible perfectionists. And of course it was inevitable we would all end up working on a world class drag show! One of which we are all very proud of mainly due to the incredibly talent of the girls and their superb voices.
In many ways - the difference between a club and a musical is you can swing from mirrorballs in one and chandeliers in the other. Through your stage arrangements, your remixing but with a different intention?
I’ve always said that remixes are just the new name for traditional musical arrangements - its taking the song and making it fit within the remit of the show which can sometimes mean not changing it too much and others totally reinventing it which we did a lot of in “The Hurly Burly Show” especially changing something like ‘Bad” into a sleazy big band jazz number. I’m massively inspired by the creative vision on all of these shows and probably none more so when it comes from someone like William and especially Kylie for her shows.
I mean, Denise sings an amazing version of Sonia's You'll Never Stop Me From Loving You in such a way that deconstructs not only the song but the way you perceives the pop song. Was that the way you wanted it to be?
The story there is I knew Denise loved that song and she kept bringing it up. Terry was adamant that it was wrong for the show so one morning before we had a studio session I put together an arrangement for it and surprised her with it later that afternoon. Her face absolutely lit up - she recorded the vocal that day and Terry just turned round and said ‘that’s got to go in the show!”. I have so much love and respect for what Stock Aitken and Waterman did and beneath all that processed pop are some beautiful melodies and lyrics which can be allowed to shine even more when stripped back. Her vocal on it is extraordinary and the first night she performed it Terry just turned to me and said ‘dear - its happening!” . It always gets a massive round of applause.
Now when I first heard it, I was immediately reminded of the genesis behind Kylie's new version of Never Too Late!
I think “Never Too Late” is much more delicate. Again the extraordinary brilliance of Stock/Aitken/Waterman songwriting and one of the most tender and beautiful vocals Kylie has ever performed. I knew that “You’ll Never Stop Me From Loving You” had to go big at the end as boy does it!
Indeed, the entire album? How was that experience? With Kylie & Cliff Masterson?
Abbey Road was probably the most satisfying and brilliant recording process I have ever been involved with. I loved going to work everyday , it never got old pulling up in front of that beautiful building and signing in (its a tradition everyone does). We filled Studio 2 with our amazing band , singers and orchestra for 3 weeks of amazing memories. We had previously work-shopped and rehearsed all of the songs so it was all about getting them recorded well. I still think Kylie’s vocals on that record are amongst the very best she’s ever performed and we had a blast doing it. Also it was great to work with Colin Elliot (who I had admired for a long time especially for his Richard Hawley productions) and as always with the brilliant Cliff Masterson who has the best sparkly baton in show business!
Were there any songs that the list of songs you all wished to do but then didn't quite work out in the recording stage?
Amazingly no - we had a a great two week workshop rehearsal and the ones that seemed most natural within the new sonic environment worked out perfectly.
And with the AntiTour? What songs, if any, just didn't quite cut the mustard during rehearsals?
And with the AntiTour? What songs, if any, just didn't quite cut the mustard during rehearsals?
Again none - in fact we kept adding as the tour went on - by the time we got to London it could easily have been a 3 hour show. We all knew it was a one time only thing so the more we could cram in the better!
What was that like to be in the same rehearsal space as where Intimate & Live was rehearsed?
Absolutely amazing not only because of that but its the warmest, loveliest rehearsal space I’ve ever been in. Obviously the sunshine and staying in my adopted second home of Melbourne really comes into it plus so many memories of the first band rehearsals I had ever done in my life back in 1998 for I & L.
You are currently working with the new artist Harriet in-between your work with Kylie, Susan Boyle and Leona Lewis. You can hear interesting correlations between songs & the arrangements you've done with Kylie (including the likes of Come On Strong and You Are There) with Harriet. Where do you similarities between the two artists come from?
I think certainly the Abbey Road side of Kylie is present in the sound of Harriet’s music, its very organic and very much driven by what inspires her and the sound she has dreamed of making ever since she grew up in a house full of music predominantly from the great singer/songwriters of the 70s such as David Gates. Carole King and Stephen Bishop. What I love about Harriet is her voice stops people and makes them listen , really listen to the lyrics and melody. Judie Tzuke said that it sounded like it was from another place and time so we wrote a song about that called “Whats Mine Is Yours” that addresses it ‘some part of me has been here before, you can hear it in my voice’. Its so true, What makes it even more fascinating is that she’s so young and incredibly beautiful that when the voice comes out people are genuinely taken aback. We’ve pretty much written an album together and I can’t wait for everyone to hear more as this year progresses.
How would you best describe Harriet? And what did you make of that voice when you first heard it?
I would say she a contemporary old soul , by that I mean as much as she adores everything about the great artists of the 70s she’s just as much at home listening to Drake or Daft Punk and her look and style is absolutely now. A lot of the time when artists reference something from another time its because they fall out of love with the now but this couldn’t be further from the truth with her. I do remember the first time I heard her voice it stopped me in my tracks and I knew I had to work with her but it felt so important to me to bring out what she wanted to do rather than impose any idea of what I thought she should be. It just so happened they were both the same thing so it worked perfectly. I always say play to your strength, if you love something then embrace it no matter how many people tell you that you should be doing something different - you can be completely true and it might take longer to get there but at least when you do you’ll know its not down to a massive compromise.
I think it will appeal to fans of everyone from Carole King to George Michael. Its an album of beautiful songs arranged really organically but with an eye on pop appeal rather than just musicianship for the sake of it. In one word, honest.
Harriet is also working with Cliff Masterson for her album. Both you and Cliff previously collaborated on Susan & Abbey Road so what can we expect from Harriet's work with Cliff?
I’ve worked with Cliff as a collaborator on string arrangements for far too many years than either of us would care to mention now - we have that thing where we don’t really have to say it now as one knows what the other is thinking. However the Susan album was the first time we co-produced and we both loved it. Susan is so much fun and when she hits those vocal moments in the studio its like that first time on BGT every single time! I’m thrilled with the first songs Harriet and Cliff have written together - can’t wait to hear more.
I am taking some time to absorb the latest Kylie album - I know. Its certainly unlike her previous releases. My favourite two tracks are the title and Mr President. Quite different in style and yet both very "Kylie".
I think there are some incredible hooks and melodies on there - whether everyone likes every track or not its undeniable that they won’t be able to get them out of their heads (sorry). For me I think the song “Kiss Me Once” is one of the best things she’s ever done - its beyond glorious and the chorus just explodes, loved it from day one. I also really love “Mr President” as i think its so her , “Sleeping With The Enemy” which is sublime and of course “Into The Blue” which is the first one she played me and I adored it from then.
Which recorded KM song was you most disappointed when you’d seen it hadn’t made the final tracklisting …..
The thing is - if the tracks are really good they always find a way of sneaking out one way or another. For instance I really love “Sparks” which isn’t on the “KMO” album but is on a limited edition version. Going back I always wished “Love Is Waiting” was on KM94 but again it ended up on a rarities disc so all good.
Gosh, What I LOVE about Love Is Waiting is that amazing vocal especially at the end (with terry ronald doing the vocal prod on that!). Epic. Looking at the Steve Anderson songbook, you work with artists who use their voice at the very essence/art. Whether its Harriet, Kylie, Leona, Susan or Mark...there is always familiarity of tenderness conveyed in the way sing……
I’m all about vocal performances - its the essence of the record for me and the most important thing much more than technicality is believability. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with such an incredible selection of singers over the years and that human emotion is what I think really touches people especially in an age where the record buying public are often mistrusting of some of the technology used in vocal production. The one thing that can’t be digitally manipulated is emotion and believability and thats what I strive for with any performer I’m producing. My biggest inspiration for this was Phil Ramone who sadly passed away recently just after completing work on George Michael’s “Symphonica” album. He produced everyone from Frank Sinatra to Amy Winehouse but reading his book it was fascinating to see how much emphasis he placed on making sure the artist was completely comfortable and in the right moment to sing. People don’t realise that even though it may only be 3 or 4 takes, records last forever so its actually some of the most important moments in an artists career when they are in front of that mic. Everything has to be right so they can almost go outside of themselves and deliver something magical. Its like stardust, honestly it is. Especially with Kylie, there is often one take that seems like its from another world - it comes out of her mouth perfectly formed and totally true and that’s one of the many reasons I love my job and never for a moment take it for granted how lucky I am to do it.
Actually how is Mark's new album coming along?
I’ve been friends with Mark for a long time now as I worked on a lot of Westlife tours. There was actually a song on one of their albums called “Talk Me Down” which I produced and featured Mark very heavily - it was then that we started writing together and when the band split up we put some sessions in to start seeing where the sound would go. I really don’t want to give too much away at this stage but I will say its probably the last thing people are expecting, Its very honest and comes directly from him plus of course he just happens to be my favourite male singer in the world so the vocals are extraordinary.
Developing his sound as a solo artist....I really appreciate he's taking his time...thats been really important for Mark right?
Exactly - I think people are sometimes in too much of a rush to get things done and out. He wants to make an album he’s incredibly proud of and one that his existing fans will hopefully love as much as a new audience. I love perfectionists so we get on really well - when its ready its ready but I would say it won’t be too long now. I can’t tell you how excited I am for people to hear it.
How do you bring the skills you've learnt on the road with KM, Westlife and Leona and their tour arrangements.....to your work with the likes of Harriet who are just entering the industry?
Its all about a love of music and entertaining. Every situation is different but essentially its people in a room hoping they click creatively and what we call ‘daring to suck’. Meaning that writing a song sometimes with a complete stranger for the first time is one of the most harrowing experiences you can think of but once everyone realises they are all gong to come up with a bunch of really bad ideas but in the middle there will be a gem that’s fine. Regarding new artists I don’t really treat them any differently to established ones as we are all learning all the time. A new artist can teach me things just as much as I can teach them, This is why I have such a passion for new music and continually blog and tweet about ace new music because that’s where the inspiration comes from. I have never tired of the feeling I get when I hear something for the first time, fall completely in love with it and can’t wait to play it to my friends, This is why I adore doing the radio show with Larry Flick on Sirius. I get to share new music and if just one person picks up on it and finds something they can fall in love with that is the best feeling in the world.
How does the song-writing process work for you? It seems a very collaborative affair for you. Does the artist present the lyrics and you mount a melody over that or is it more messier. I mean where did Can I Keep You (free download here) come from?
Its always different - sometimes it can be a musical idea or in the case of “Can I Keep You’ it was the title plus the fact we’d written two songs that fitted with what we thought we should do so we let ourselves off the hook and decided to try and write a more traditional song structure so not verse, bridge , chorus but more two rounds of one melody , once bridge section then back again - a lot more like standards are written. Then it was about making sure the words really delivered as those songs can so easily drift into Hallmark Cards schmaltz - they had to be honest, true and heartfelt without being cheesy. Luckily that one happened quite quickly - a lot of the best ones do - like you’ve had it there for a while and it just flows out. It really is different every time though.
Was it initially a song she wrote about her mother - I mean have you see the fan video online? Even if it wasn't written about her mum it relates and conveys. That's what i love about songs like Can I Keep You or Flower - they can mean so much to the songwriters but once those songs take flight - the listener rewrites them into their own narrative. Its quite magical how that happens.
I think you are absolutely right - every song means something different to every person. “Can I Keep You’ could be about a mother, about a baby or it could be the perfect wedding song. Its so important to let the listener define how it affects them emotionally as that way each one will find their own connection with it.
That triangle between the artist, audience and label has always intrigued me and recently undergone huge developments. The British music industry has become streamlined in recent months. Indeed, a lot of capital stems from streams and the dust appears to have settled from the loss of EMI - the last British label. The majors are now either French (Universal), American (Warner) or Japanese (SONY). What do you make of the future of the music industry in the context of the breaking artist/writer?
Thats true but I think that the UK still has some of the best A&R talent in the world and we do make incredible records in this country. Its interesting because years ago people needed record companies to be able to get intro studios to make records - now so much can be done relatively cheaply but people still need help when it comes to promoting and often guiding them. I’m sure artists 20 years ago would love the technology as much as artists now would love the input from a record company. Obviously there are always horror stories when it comes to corporations but I still believe there are some incredibly talented people who just happen to work for someone different than before around today.
How do you think the growth of the label services & the likes of Kobalt?
I’m really interested to see what happens with Caroline at Universal as that’s a superb team of people. Ultimately the artist still needs a source of revenue to be able to pay for the elements a traditional label would have done before. Its much easier for an established artist with existing fan base to go through label services as they can pretty much guarantee their fans will buy whatever the release and go to the gigs. Its a little harder when it comes to new acts but I think both majors and label services can exist side by side for the best of both worlds.
In ten years time do you think the distinction between major and minor label will be as bold as it is today?
I think its all music whichever way you look at it - as long as the cream rises to the top and for every Pitbull there is a Luke Sital Singh I’m happy!
And…..lastly, I’ve always been intrigued with the song Butterfly which you co-wrote with Kylie all those years ago. It was then produced by Mark Picchiotti. Or rather the version we got to hear on LY was the Mark production. How did the original sound? The one by you?
It didn’t sound that different actually - obviously it was a very rough demo from Real World and was a little more piano/strings (of course) but I loved where Mark took it - it needed a more contemporary club sound but he kept all of the gospel backing vocal ideas and the ending etc. Similarly with Johnny Douglas and “So Now Goodbye” . The essence was in the demo but he glitzed it up even more.