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GRAMMY SPOTLIGHT: PRODUCER OF THE YEAR SUMMIT

Producer of the Year stands out as perhaps the most diverse collection of music created between late 2014 and the first 10 months of 2015. The nominees work in country (Dave Cobb), modern dance music and pop (Diplo), pop and country (Jeff Bhasker), jazz 
and singer/songwriters (Larry Klein), rock and soul (Blake Mills).

The five nominees are behind records that were commercial breakthroughs, critical faves and new chapters for established artists. Bhasker’s resume includes Elle King, Cam and Mark Ronson; Cobb worked on albums by Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and others; Diplo manned the boards for the pairings of Madonna with Nicki Minaj and Travie McCoy with Sia, plus his own work in Major Lazer and with Skrillex and Justin Bieber. Klein’s seven album productions in the eligibility period included Melody Gardot, Lizz Wright and JD Souther; Mills produced Alabama Shakes’ second album.


What made the past year stand out for you in terms of the records you have been involved with?
Diplo (Wes Pentz): For the most part just believing and investing in ourselves. “Lean On” was definitely something that stood out for me in 2015. When the song started to bubble, we had the option of almost every major label trying to sign the song, but we decided to do it ourselves, fully independently—take risks and break boundaries. By doing so, we have gone multi-platinum, have the most streamed song ever on Spotify and even hit 1 billion views on YouTube for the official music video. I got a little tired of waiting for people to take chances on me, so 2015 was about investing in myself.

Larry Klein: It was a year in which I possibly worked in the biggest variety of settings, with a wider variety of artists than I ever have. It was like having to break your working palette on every project—I love that. Some records involved opening up new territory in the context of having worked together before (Melody Gardot), some involved working with pace-runners in some areas (songwriting with JD Souther was like what I think playing tennis with John McEnroe would be like) and I did a children’s record, which I never thought that I would do (my son just turned 7). I also did a record with an artist who came from a real gospel background despite being a jazz/ soul artist (Lizz Wright), so that was an area that felt like new territory.

Dave Cobb: I’ve been really fortunate to work with such great talent, and my job has been to support them, create with them and tell the truth of who they are.

Jeff Bhasker: I really tried to expand and change up my approach and do more guitar- and bassline-based productions. Break out of equal temperament. I think that is a common theme in my stuff last year.

Blake Mills: Obviously, working with Alabama Shakes was a phenomenal experience. Between working on the score for Joy with David O. Russell and producing the theme song for Showtime’s The Affair by Fiona Apple, I’ve not only gotten to sink deeper into working on film and TV, but with a list of heroes in each respective field that makes me feel just incredibly lucky.

Across the board, the works you are nominated for are records wherein the artists’ personalities shine through. What’s your method for getting the most out of a band/performer?
DC: I work really hard to make sure the singer and the sentiment of the song are most important. And I try to always move everything else out of the way of who the artist is. I do that by having people all cut live together and always recording live vocals. When I’ve overdubbed vocals, they never seem to feel the same.

BM: Record making is sorta like a Christmas light chain: Is the lyric communicating its message interestingly? Is the singer internalizing the message and delivering it effectively? Are everyone’s performances sympathetic and supportive? The list goes on, but if any one element doesn’t comply, Christmas is ruined.

JB: Love, compassion respect and a good cheese plate—after we cut the vocal, of course.

WP: One of the main things to do when working with various artists is to build a rapport with them, be able to find the same goal. If we don’t have the same initial goal, then it’s on to plan B, which is to really make them feel comfortable and, hopefully, steer them to exit their comfort zone and into the realm I envision. This may not be the best idea, but it helps me get the records to take wide left turns and sounding remarkable. This may be a generalization, but too much music was sounding alike in 2014, so I’ve just been working hard to make sure my productions move forward and evolve.

LK: A good producer identifies where the magic is in an artist, then builds everything around that so that this element is amplified, and made to hit the listener in the strongest way. The first thing that I find has to be in place for this to happen is that the artist has to trust and feel a kindred aesthetic and sensibility with me, as well as any other musicians and engineers that I am involving in the process.

In producing artists today, how do you take into consideration the way it will be listened to, which is most likely as a digital file through headphones/earbuds?
JB: Make sure you have a slamming song and performance. It’s a shame fidelity has gotten so crappy over the years, but in the end the content is what matters; not the format.

WP: To be honest, you need to plan for even more lo-fi options, like your typical laptop speakers. Sometimes I even request a cheap pair of old PC speakers in a studio to hear the way the bass sounds. Bass can be sneaky when it comes to different phonic settings, so that’s definitely one thing I always try to keep in mind.

LK: I still have a set of a few reference systems that I rely on, including my car, which is set completely flat, like the average car listener. If I get a track to sound good through those references, it also generally sounds good on a variety of headphones.

Is it important to have an identifiable sound or working style? Could you explain yours?
BM: When you’re the artist, articulating your identity is everything. When you’re producing an artist, it’s much more about interpreting and responding to the artist’s identity, never creating it.

LK: I always have a picture of what I’m after in my back pocket, but if you’re going to take best advantage of all of the talent that you’re working with, you have to be very conscious of what to say or articulate, when to say it, or whether to say it at all.

WP: Sounds I’ve been involved with, like “Climax,” “Paper Planes,” “Bitch I’m Madonna” and “Where Are U Now,” I really just try and push the boundaries on them and gain a little leverage with artists so they’ll trust me and I can continue to push their and others’ creativity.

Describe unique setups within the studio on your records and the elements of records that came about because of your relationship with the artist. Any examples of songs that came directly from the producer’s chair rather than the artist?
LK: One thing I have found that I am attached to more than ever is making sure that every song on the album feels like one that we couldn’t live with leaving off the album. That usually means overwriting, and having a lot more great songs in the mix before we start than we would ever be able to record.

WP: Spontaneity is the key to all my projects. I was working with The Band Perry recently, and we recorded the initial idea via a voice note on an iPhone in my studio in Burbank, and as the song evolved, I never took those harmonies out. They couldn’t believe I would build a track out of an iPhone message and just add layers to it, but it got written very fast.

DC: I always have the bands record live together, and I try to get as much of the raw energy as possible and add to that from there. I usually play guitar in the room or percussion with the artist live all in the same room so there is no separation between myself and them. I really make sure we’re always a team instead of being in the control room judging.

JB: I’m lucky to work with a lot of wonderful and talented people I am proud to call my friends. It’s kinda like being in a band that never has to break up.

BM: For one song, “Guess Who,” we wanted to layer Brittany [Howard]’s voice about 25 times without losing focus on a particular lead vocal part. I suggested she stuff cotton balls in her mouth for the background parts to drown out some sibilance. We all liked the sound and what it did with depth of field—then someone busted out a tube of Anbesol, and she went and numbed the entire inside of her mouth and lips to sing the rest of the parts. Since then, I make sure the studio’s stocked with cotton balls and Anbesol.•

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