Interview with LOUISE PORTER, formerly manager for Mis-Teeq - April 14, 2008
"I would bring more women into A&R. Itís still a bit of a boys club."
Louise Porter is an expert in R&B girl groups. She formed, groomed and broke Mis-Teeq, who ruled the UK charts in the early '00s with a string of Top 10 hits, one of which, 'Scandalous', broke the US.
Since then, Porter has been busy trying out different combinations and is now ready to enter the market again with a new group, Ensue, she believes can repeat Mis-Teeq's success.
She talks to HitQuarters about combining R&B with other styles like garage and dance, about the need for braver A&Rs, and about starting artist development in school!
What was your introduction to the world of music?
Iím from a musical family in Cardiff, Wales. I started off as a Charlotte Church type classical singer when I was younger. I moved to London when I was 18 to pursue a career in music. I started in 1978. I was signed as an artist initially to EMI Records, and to EMI Publishing as a singer/songwriter. Iíve always loved R&B. I was very lucky that when I first started, one of the first songs I co-wrote was produced by George Duke, a Grammy Award winning top American producer. The song was recorded by Angela Bofill, who was a huge American R&B singer.
Iíve written and produced for Alexander OíNeil. He recorded one of my songs. I was influenced by him and he could hear it in my songwriting.I went on to Virgin Records, Virgin Music and various other dance labels and independent publishing companies. I met David Brant, and we formed a songwriting/production team. I was offered a deal by Ian Wright and Gordon Charlton to sign to Reverb Music, so I asked them if they would also sign Brant, and they said yes. We received an advance to get a studio together.
We started writing and at the same time I started putting girl groups together, who would record the songs we wrote and produced. I first put together my R&B girl group N-TYCE in 1997. I signed them to Telstar. They had four hits in the UK, and acquired a massive deal with Sony in America through Telstar. When they split up I started Mis-Teeq, which featured Alesha Dixon, who has become quite a big star recently. Mis-Teeq had seven Top 10 hits, two double platinum selling albums, Top 10 in America. Unfortunately, the label I signed them to, Telstar Records, went bust in 2004. A year later, Mis-Teeq split up.
Since then I put together another girl group called Enrap-ture. They were the first act for the UK Eurovision Song Contest show. The group members are from Norway, Denmark and Britain. Most recently Iíve put together another girl group called Ensue. We just recorded two singles with the girls, and weíre looking at labels now.
What was significant in developing your managing skills?
When I started out as an artist, I found it very difficult to find good management and a lot of the time we did it ourselves. Thatís how I gained a lot of experience in how to secure and negotiate record deals and get things done.
What was your vision for approaching the business with Big Out Ltd?
Big Out is a top production and management company founded in 1995, specialising in UK R&B girl groups and female R&B artists. I was just going on instinct. I already had many years of experience. It all comes down to great songs and a great act. Iíve always tried to just make sure Iím working with really talented people with a professional attitude. It might even be that I just see a beautiful girl on the street.
In the case of Alesha Dixon, I spotted her at a dance studio. She was an 18-year-old attending a dance class. She wasnít a singer, songwriter or an MC at that time. The next step was that I trained her in singing, writing songs and I asked her to learn to MC, which she embraced. Itís easier for me to teach other girls to sing and to write songs from a female perspective.
Iím not against boy groups or male artists. I love all kinds of acts, but as I work on my own I found itís best just to specialise in that. And obviously, thereís a limited budget, so I must be careful with what I do.
Do you only do R&B?
With Ensue weíve gone down the dance/house route. Weíve done two covers of classic '70s songs: The Emotions' 1976 No.1 hit 'Best of My Love', but weíve updated it to 136 BPM. It was originally an R&B tune, turned to a really good dance mix done by Bassmonkeys, who are very hot at the moment. Weíve also done a cover of Angie Stoneís classic 'Wish I Didnít Miss You' over The OíJays' 'BackstabberĒ sample, remixed by Soulshaker. I produced both tracks myself with my programmer/engineer partner James Hockley, then brought in the hot guys to remix the tracks.
What artists are you working with at the moment?
At the moment I have Ensue, which Iíve been working on for the last two years. Theyíre fronted by Suzie Furlonger, a vocalist in the league of Leona Lewis. She was formerly in Sony/BMG's girl group The 411. She already had two Top 10 hits in the UK, one of which she co-wrote. It is a similar situation to the one with Mis-Teeq that took two years to take to the highest standard, because with a girl group every member is at different levels. You might find someone who is a strong dancer who needs to work on their vocals or the other way round.
You need to get all members up to the same level. Weíre just about there with Ensue. Iím looking at various dance labels to sign them to initially. Iím speaking with Ministry of Sound. Theyíre doing their first gig at Ministry of Sound Club on May 7th. I also work with a fantastic 17 year old R&B baseline house singer called Lovelle Hill.
Where do you advertise when you are looking for new artists?
I use starnow.com, thestage.co.uk, loot.com. Recently, I placed adverts for singers, and nearly 500 people applied. Iím in the middle of auditioning people and working my way through all the applicants. Out of that I can probably put 30 girl groups together.
But playing live is very expensive. And in the current climate, UK R&B is not hot at the moment. It was hard to break Mis-Teeq initially. Thatís why we went down the garage route. And thatís why with Ensue, which is basically an R&B girl group, Iím going down the dance route. Iíve just about to have a baseline house mix done of one of the girls' tracks.
Are you mainly looking for very young talent?
I'll work with whomever comes along who I think has got it. But it is unlikely that it would be a 30 to 40 year old. To some extent itís down to the song. If somebody turns up and theyíve recorded their own song and itís great, obviously, Iíll push them. But teenagers or girls in their early 20ís are better for me. With a limited budget, I canít take too many risks.
Who is doing the vocal and dance coaching?
I do the vocal coaching myself, and I have various choreographers that I work with. I had some top choreographers that worked with Mis-Teeq and N-TYCE. But I like to encourage new talent as well. Ensue has been working with three choreographers so far. All fairly unknown, but very gifted people.
Do you have your own studio?
I have my own recording facility for recording vocals. I record the vocals and then sent it out to be remixed by the producer.
When did you first meet the Mis-Teeq girls?
I met Alesha Dixon in 1997. I was going to have a six months break because N-TYCE had just split up. That had been two years of full-on work. But when I saw Alesha at that dance class I couldnít resist her. I thought she had a lot of potential. I could see it just from her dancing. I built Mis-Teeq around Alesha.
Sabrina Washington applied to one of my adverts. She was actually in a duo at that time. She started off as a rapper. I auditioned her and her partner. I told Sabrina that she was fantastic, but her partner was not what I was looking for. Luckily she called me and came down to sing for me and Alesha, and we snapped her up. Su-Elise Nash came along two years later. Weíd been looking a long time and auditioning lots of girls until we found Su-Elise. I just bumped into her at the Dance Attic in Fulham, London, where we rehearsed. Sheíd just been attending an audition for another girl group. Luckily for me, I was able to snap her up too.
Initially there were four girls. They all wanted to be in a group together, but when youíre putting together a group and people donít want to work together you canít force them. It was all very friendly and nice, but Zena McNally pursued another avenue. Now she is doing very well as a radio DJ at Radio One.
Did they need any development before they entered the professional level?
I'm looking at development differently. Iíve just written to Margaret Hodge, who is a Labour Parliament Member. Sheís trying to get music into schools. These people that Iím auditioning canít sing and dance. It means that I have to spend thousands of pounds training them. So Iíve written her to ask if they can encourage kids and teach them to sing and dance in school, so that it's less work for someone like me!
Mis-Teeq, for example, were raw talent. Only Sue-Elise had any dance experience. Alesha was making the effort to go to dance classes, and thatís how I found her. But she wasnít a singer, songwriter or MC at that time. That took years to develop. We used to rehearse two to three times a week. All that I had to finance myself.
When were they ready to open doors?
Every time we recorded a new song their vocals improved. They learned how to write songs and everything about making records. It just naturally evolved. They did a lot of live shows. Eventually, David Brant and some other people from Reverb Music wrote this song called 'Why?' and luckily for me, David gave it to me for the girls and we recorded it. In the next studio where David was, Darren Stokes from Tin Tin Out (Virgin Records) overheard the record and took it along to Steve Long at Inferno Records, who really liked it. Steve called me up, we had a meeting, and he offered me a deal for the girls.
Originally, it was an R&B tune. And it wasnít really going to happen. Long had commissioned a garage mix by DJ Face and Matt ďJamĒ Lamont. And that just blew up in 2000. We knew then we had a really hot act. And as we couldn't meet the demands for the 12Ē vinyl, we could also tell we were going to have a big hit. And thatís when the major labels started to get interested and offering us really good deals. We decided to go with Telstar Records in conjunction with Inferno.
Were you involved with the debut album recording in 2001?
They were signed to my production company. It was my job to make the records and oversee everything from the photography, the videos ... absolutely everything.
Where did the success of breaking Mis-Teeq take you?
It meant that Telstar gave us a guaranteed album deal. We had the funds to really make a great album, and for the girls to have enough money to start writing. We had them in the studio for three months. They co-wrote some great tunes with Stargate in Norway. They were one of the first acts to work with Stargate, who is now working with Beyonce, Rihanna, Ne-Yo, and everybody who is hot now.
The first album, ĎLickin' On Both Sidesí, had five Top 10 hits, went double platinum and entered the charts at #3. It was phenomenal. While I was developing the group, I was also looking for songs. I sourced many songs. I secured songs like 'Why?' and 'All I Want' for the girls.
Where did you find the songs?
As mentioned earlier, David Brant Ė who by the way I discovered as well when he was 16Ė co-wrote 'Why?' with Marianne Morgan, Alan Glass and Ron St. Louis. They also wrote 'All I Want' in a similar vein, and we gave that a garage mix by Sunship. That was the girls' second single and it entered the charts at #2. The third single, 'B With Me', was co-written by the girls with Mushtaq, a really talented R&B producer. That was remixed in a dance/garage style by Bump & Flex.
We were worried about making a transition from garage to R&B. We successfully did that with the girls co-writing with Stargate. When one of the songs out of that collaboration, 'One Night Stand', entered the charts at #5, we knew we had a really huge act.
Was trying to break the US a struggle, despite the success of 'Scandalous'?
It wasnít a struggle. We were very successful with 'Scandalous'. It was a huge hit, which featured in the Catwoman movie with Halle Barry. It was a real shame that Telstar folded, because the girls were just about to really make it on the international platform.
What contacts did you have there?
Mis-Teeq became so huge. I had a big team helping me. It was mainly Telstar that dealt with that.
Is it always your strategy to break the US?
Definitely. That's where the real money is. And itís also very difficult to do. Well done to Leona Lewis to doing it. Itís the second UK act to have a No.1 there in 20 years.
How has the market changed these days in comparison to Mis-Teeq's time?
There is less money. Pop, which is really what the act was, is not really hot at the moment. Itís more singer/songwriter orientated stuff now like Mika or Amy Winehouse. There arenít many acts actual groups out there. I donít know if thatís to do with money, because itís obviously more expensive to sign three or four people than a solo artist, or if it's just the current trend. Thereís a huge indie rock explosion again as well. As Iíve been in the business such a long time, Iíve seen this before. I think paces will change again and R&B will become hot again.
In what way do you have to adapt to all the changes as a manager?
Iím primarily a production company, which is the making of the recordings and getting the acts together. But the change mainly means having just a little less money. You really have to do a lot more yourself nowadays. As in the case of Ensue, I produce the songs myself, get the remixes done, all self-financed. Iíve got two records in my hands now, plus I need to get the act ready to do live shows, which used to be the record company's job. Nowadays the production companies have to do the bulk of it.
What are the Mis-Teeq girls doing nowadays?
I would like the girls to reform. I think they can do that. I have some great songs and producers for the girls. Alesha won Strictly Come Dancing last December. That really catapulted her into the stratosphere. Sheís now in demand for film, adverts and everything, and has a new record deal in the pipeline. Sheís been recently off to Japan to promote the album that she made for Polydor. Sabrina is always writing and recording songs. Su-Elise started her own performing arts school in Kent.
For many, a live show is the best way to judge an artistís potential, is it the same for you?
I judge an artist's potential when they turn up for the audition Ė whether they are on time, whether they sing well. I normally ask an artist to sing a cappella for me. Bring in photos, a biography, and also do a short dance routine. Then I can see if there is any potential. Thatís what itís all about at the end of the day, the singing and the performing.
What package needs to be ready in order for you to start working with them?
You canít force people. You just need to bide your time and be patient, and not panic too much about the amount of money itís costing. Iíve been doing this for so long, if you just stick with it, it always comes through in the end. It normally takes two years.
Whatís discussed on first meetings with a new act?
I try to keep it fairly light. I donít say, sit down, hereís the contract. You get to know people. I donít normally contract artists to my company for a few months until both parties are sure they want to work together. Itís just generally finding out what services I can provide, the music that I specialise in and like to do, and what they would like to do and what their hopes and aspirations are, and if I can meet their requirements.
How involved are you with repertoire and production?
I'm involved with the whole thing. Thatís my real key area. I always had a good commercial ear, having been a songwriter and singer myself. And I worked for Food Records' dance labels as an in-house producer, programming, writing and singing songs. I really do understand how to make good records. And how to rewrite songs, correct them, and polish the production. Thereís no money in management unless youíre making and selling records. Thereís no live work, no publishing deal unless youíre selling records.
In what ways do you look for new avenues to develop your artists?
Obviously, there's Myspace and all those other sites, but I still do it the old fashioned way, which is get the act up to the highest standard behind the scenes. As Iím going along I do invite publishing companies or record companies to pop in and see the girls, just on a casual basis. I think itís good for the girls to have a little taste of what itís all about. And itís also great for record companies to see what Iím doing.
What does that highest standard you mentioned consist of?
You know what a hit record is, and what isnít. I never had a flop record. Iím very lucky. With both N-TYCE and Mis-Teeq, every record we released did well, or extremely well. Thereís no point in putting out a record if itís not going to go Top 20. Sometimes it's not even worth it if itís not going to go Top 10.
Itís all about waiting for the right song. As with Mis-Teeq, with 'Why?', we knew when we were mailing it out to the DJs. All the clubs were playing it. The demand for the girls to do live PA was phenomenal. People wanted to buy the promo records. We knew the act was extremely hot. Radio was playing it. The girls were in demand to do radio appearances. And then television got involved. They were on every TV show. Itís just an instinct. You know when the record is right. Itís about a great mix, great vocals, and great arrangement, all properly and well recorded.
Do these young girls have a work ethic?
Not all of them. This is what you find out. This is what takes a couple of years. I get them out doing live shows. If they donít turn up for the show or theyíre late or they donít want to rehearse for it Ö I feel Iíve got to make sure Iím delivering a professional act that wants to work before I sign it to a record company. Lovelle Hill is one of the most professional. Iíve been working with her since she was 16. Sheís never late. She turns up even if sheís sick. Itís about a passion. A lifestyle.
Whatís the best way to target the UK R&B market?
Now Itís really about waiting for a taste to change again. Itís not the time to push it. Iíve seen this happen before in the early '90s. R&B was not hot. And then in 95-96 it started to blow up. American R&B is still selling very well. Itís just UK R&B that isn't doing as good. Thatís partly because we have so few R&B producers that can make great records in this country. The ones that can are working with artists like Amy Winehouse. I donít have a record deal at the moment, so I canít pay 10-15,000 Pounds to a producer at this stage.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes, everything, because you just never know. I do listen to everything thatís sent to me. And I do reply.
How should aspiring artists present their material nowadays?
It's not just about presenting the demo, it's how you present the whole act. If youíre a songwriter or a producer, find your own act, singer or group and present the whole thing. Unless youíre looking for a publishing deal.
What does it take for a demo to grab your interest?
If I get an intro longer than 20 seconds with no singing, just music, I switch it off. I get so many songs. Itís the sound, the production as well. As soon as it starts, if the sounds are all wrong, I switch it off. Iím looking for songs that are almost finished productions.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would bring more women into A&R. Itís still a bit of a boys club. After 30 years, and Iíve been extremely successful, I still feel a bit an outsider, which I shouldnít be after what Iíve achieved. Itís still very male dominated. And I donít think A&R managers are willing to come out enough and see acts. They should get out like I do, and not wait for it to come to them. I can walk up to somebody on the street, a total stranger, and give them a chance. We need a little bit more of that in this country.
Iím one of the few people that specialises in R&B. Right now itís more trendy to look for acts like the Arctic Monkeys rather than a girl group. There are very few people that would be willing to take that risk now.
Whatís coming up in 2008 for Big Out?
Iím just about to launch Ensue that Iíve been working on for two years. Iím really excited about them coming along. Itís probably the strongest girl group Iíve ever put together in terms of all three being fantastic singers. Theyíre all absolutely stunning. Iím just looking at labels. Iím just deciding whether or not to do what I did with Mis-Teeq, which is to break them through the independent dance labels. Build them up through the grassroots. Let the DJs do the work with the promos, to attract a major record deal. We're doing a lot of the work by ourselves. Theyíre just about to do their first show. Iíd be able to see then if I think theyíre ready to showcase for major record companies.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Interview with Safta Jaffery