Interview with LUCAS SECON, writer/producer for Kylie Minogue, Toni Braxton, Alexandra Burke, Rivers Cuomo - May 17, 2010
“I used to love producers where I wouldn’t know it was them until you picked up the record and read the credits. Those are the ones that stay around.”
Born in Copenhagen, raised in the US, living in London, handy with four languages, songwriter, producer and artist Lucas Secon is a one man cultural melting pot, and it is a characteristic reflected in the colourful diversity of his recorded output. After a genre cross-stepping solo hit in ‘Lucas With The Lid Off’, Secon has gone on to turn his hand to all manner of styles, working with Mos Def (USA Top 5), Pussycat Dolls (UK No.1, USA Top 3), Damian Marley and, most recently, Kylie Minogue (UK No.1) and Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, an adept adaptability that has helped to cultivate his status as a hugely in demand songwriting and producer maestro.
In this exclusive interview with HitQuarters, Secon identifies a link between his diverse work ethic and his major label success, and talks about where pop is heading next …
You originally made your name in the industry as a solo artist, most notably with your 1995 hit ‘Lucas With The Lid Off’. How influential was that song on your present career?
Yeah, very. I work with a diverse group of artists - everybody from Mos Def to Damian Marley to Sugababes – and that song itself was a mix of cultures - reggae, ragtime, hip-hop and blues. I also mixed rock and hip-hop before that genre came about. So I’ve always been into mixing stars and mixing cultures. And from then I’ve had seven major record deals [laughs] …
Are there any other songs that have really put your name on the map?
Pussycat Dolls, ‘I Hate This Part’.
You’ve been working with Alexandra Burke this week - how’s that coming along and what’s she like to work with?
I did two new records for her. She’s fantastic - she’s a classic ballad chick, but I’m trying to reinvent that, and also lyrically and musically give it a different edge. My approach tends to be a little more to the left. And my specialty is basically poetic concepts, titles, lyrics - it’s more quirky stuff.
You have also recently worked with a rock act in Fighting With Wire and Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo – are you consciously trying to keep your discography as broad as possible?
[laughs] No, it’s something I do naturally. If you go and check my artistry, it’s always been leftfield, but I’ve developed to the point where I can write in many different genres.
The urban and pop genres tend to be quite limited - at least the urban style - so it’s always enjoyable when you get to use the other side of the brain. A lot of my concepts could be more alternative too. The Fighting With Wire is a big single we wrote with Wayne Hector (HQ interview).
Why were you asked to work with them – was it a case of fine-tuning their songwriting to give it a mainstream impact?
No, no, no … Music today is broader than ever, especially in America. I think there’s been an opening of musical styles in the Top 40. The differences in tempo, for example, has never been so wide - you got something like the European drum and bass tempo all the way down to the traditional southern hip-hop, which is like 75 BPM. So I don’t think it’s ever been more open, which is great for a European approach, which is traditionally much more of a fusion.
And what have you been working on with Rivers Cuomo?
We did a Steve Aoki single. He did will.i.am’s first solo single ‘I’m In The House’. He’s like another David Guetta. And we worked on some Weezer stuff too.
With all this stuff going on your scheduling must be pretty intense - how do you manage it all?
I don’t [laughs]. It’s pretty crazy. I’ve got ten to twelve singles coming out in the States. In the last year I’ve done a lot of work in the States - I did Jordan Sparks, Sean Kingston, got two Toni Braxton singles, I’ve got Travis McCoy’s next single from Gym Class Heroes. Here I did the Pixie [Lott] single ‘Gravity’ and I’ve got an upcoming Kylie [Minogue] single …
So you’re based in the UK but you must be spending a lot of time in the US working with all these American artists …
I go back and forth. I was in L.A. seventeen times last year and in New York five times producing. I used to live in New York. I went to school and went to university in New York, NYU. I studied psychology and music business. But for family reasons yes I’m here in London.
While you were a solo artist you left the music industry for a period because you were frustrated by certain aspects - is the lifestyle as a writer/producer any more harmonious?
No [laughs] - it’s just as stressful. You’re dealing with twenty different labels and different artists. Although it does get easier when you get hit records.
We’ve had hits all over the world in the last couple of years, and quite a few #1s, so I suppose people trust you more then - even though that shouldn’t be the case, the music should trust itself.
People start to trust you more when you have hits in a lot of different genres too. That has always been a dream of mine to be able to work in different genres and different styles.
I used to love producers where I wouldn’t know it was them until you picked up the record and read the credits. Those are the ones that stay around. It’s good to have a signature sound, but once that becomes popular, people run it to the ground, and that’s how capitalism in the music industry works.
What appeals to you about writing and producing for other artists rather than being the performer yourself?
Being a performer myself, I tend to be conscious of what I’m saying in relation to my own values and morals. Whereas when you write for other people it’s more like that movie Alien - you borrow people’s brain and give them somewhere to go.
In a sense there’s a lot more lyrical freedom because you’re writing for another human being and you don’t have to feel responsible. When I write for myself I feel personally responsible to be able to back everything up.
You mentioned before that you did an upcoming single of Kylie’s. Her label have said that her upcoming album will celebrate her dance-floor roots - was that the brief you were given when you started working on the project?
No. We did a record [‘Get Outta My Way’] - myself, Cutfather (HQ interview) and Damon Sharpe (HQ interview) - and we had four different artists who wanted to cut it as their first singles. It wasn’t aimed specifically at her. It was just a good dance record, but obviously, it fitted into what she wanted to do. I just do tracks and whatever happens to fit, fits.
What was she like to work with?
She was really easy to work with - a model professional and very humble. I think she’s going to do well. I’ve heard a lot of new stuff and it’s definitely back to that big ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ and ‘Spinning Around’ … but, you know, 2010.
Unlike many pop stars Kylie is seen as someone that has a big say in what music she records and the path her career follows. Was she keen to make any contributions to that particular song?
The track was already done, but she had her own ideas in her vocal stuff. That can always be good, if people have some good ideas.
In terms of both sounds and lyrics, what were the inspirations behind the track?
Just sexy electro disco with some clever lyrics and some real catchy melodies. So you can’t make it out of something that she’s not, I think that’s the problem.
Electro disco is very much the sound of the moment. As a producer with your ear to the ground where do you think the move will be towards next?
I think there’s a big acoustic revolution about to happen in music in America. It’s like an antidote to all the synthetic things - the synthesizer stuff. Definitely a more live approach is coming back. The JLS I’ve done recently is different - a little more acoustic.
You’ve been working with several reality show stars recently – with JLS and Alexandra Burke – how did you manage to get involved with these projects?
I know Syco, and we’d just presented songs to the A&Rs - to David Gray, Sonny Takhar. Then Simon Cowell hears them and picks what he likes, and then we go in and cut them - it’s no more difficult than that.
When you are creating songs for mainstream pop albums where there are several other big name writers/producers also involved, do you feel any kind of competition with them - perhaps a drive to come up with something that will set your tracks apart from theirs?
I don’t feel competition because you can spend your whole life looking at other people but that’s never going to help your own development. Also my stuff never really seems to fit in anyway - it’s always been on its own vibes.
But, obviously, you’re a human being, so you’re going to be aware of what other people do. You have to trust in your own talent, your own instincts, because ultimately you’re never going to crawl out of your own niche by copying other people.
Sometimes it can be a European problem, when you’re not in the scene. You sit and you listen to a record that comes out and then copy it to a T, despite it being black American music. The problem is that you don’t really understand the culture. And so the only thing you can do is to copy it sonically, and that’s never going to create a No.1 record.
How much involvement and influence do A&Rs have in your creation process?
Today the pressure is so high that you have to deliver what sounds like a totally finished record - that’s what A&Rs want. If someone delivers a record that is finished vocal arrangement-wise, lyrically, musically, then that lessens their job. All they then have to do is go in with the producer and cut the vocal and you’re done.
Some people enjoy the development but I don’t think there’s time today. And a lot of people are not into development - they want readymade starts.
How does the selection process work from the record labels point of view when choosing the writers/producers for records such as Kylie’s and Toni Braxton’s?
Unless someone is hired to do the whole album, generally people bring the records in, and if the tracks are hot enough, then they’ll be kept. If I was an A&R and the track is on fire then why would I want to change it?
Also, how would you introduce new people if you never break that mould? Polow Da Don can’t produce every record on the planet, you know what I mean [laughs] - neither can anyone else. You have to be able to introduce new blood.
But are they first compiling a songwriter/producer wanted list based on previous hits?
Yeah, I think sonically they all identify where they want to go with the artist and what producer seem to be good at that. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to judge on the songs that come in, if the track is crazy, why change it? I don’t care who has done it, because you never know who is going to be the next super producer.
How does it work for you in securing projects?
Sometimes people come to me and want me to do stuff. I just did a new artist who’s called Tanya Lacey, and who’s a worldwide priority for RCA. She’s like a Pink meets Alicia Keys.
Other times you present songs and the production is part of the song, so if they want the song the production is this.
With regards to the next ‘super producer’, I note that you have a direct contact email address on your MySpace. Are you happy to have young producers contact you with queries and bang at your door?
Yeah, they do that all the time. You can’t answer everything, and at the end of the day people have to do their own research and develop themselves up. Occasionally I might find something, but it’s very rare - you could be lucky though …
Toni Braxton’s new album is seen as her ‘comeback record’. Was ‘Make My Heart’ chosen as something very attention grabbing and modern that would show she’s back and not just about the ballads?
That was a track I had that Vincent Herbert - who signed [Lady] Gaga and who consults on Toni - actually heard, and said, “That’s Toni’s single.”
It’s kind of a mix of old school/new school, it’s got an Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King sample in the verses, and then the chorus it’s more like soulful rate.
I tried to do something where I respected her roots but also introduced her to a new audience who don’t know her - like my son.
When you’re writing and producing for a pop artist, are you conscious of the music they’ve done before - do you need to research each artist in order to try to do something new?
No, not really.
How was the song actually written together with Makeba Riddick?
I had sent her some lyrics and some concepts, and on that particular one she’d gone in and written the rest of it, along with the melodies, and cut it in New York. We then met in LA, cut the vocals with Toni, and then together tweaked it a little bit.
There’s also another upcoming single called ‘Looking At Me’ which I did the track for. Myself and Makeba wrote it on the spot in L.A. Sean Paul has also done a remix of it.
Does each writer you collaborate with have their own style that you have to get used to in order for it to work successfully?
Yeah, I think it’s about personalities. It’s about developing relationships where you identify as quickly as possible what they’re strong at, and what they can do that you can’t, so that together you can create the best situation possible. And both people have to respect the best idea that comes out and not take it personally. You know, one day I might do 75% of a record, the next day someone else might do 75% of a record.
What have you been working on with Greg Wells (HQ interview)?
With Greg Wells it’s just basically new songs. Myself, Greg and Frankie Storm is a strange combination but I like that stuff. It’s an unusual challenge because Frankie and I, we go back - we wrote Jordan Sparks together, and we’re doing Alexandra Burke together - while Greg Wells is coming from a different perspective.
What’s in the pipeline for the near future?
A new Pixie Lott record. Finishing off these Alexandra Burke records. Going back to America to work with Makeba Riddick on Rihanna, Travis McCoy’s upcoming single, a new band called The Cab’s upcoming single at Atlantic. Maybe some new Sean Kingston singles. There’s a whole bunch of stuff.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Songwriter Claude Kelly on Christina Aguilera's upcoming album 'Bionic'
Read On ...
* Susan Boyle, JLS songwriter Wayne Hector on the art of songwriting
* Greg Wells on working with Katy Perry and Mika
* Cutfather talks about creating the Pussycat Dolls 'I Hate This Part'
* Jennifer Lopez, Kelly Rowland songwriter Damon Sharpe on the realities of songwriting