Q&A on Caro Emerald’s breakthrough with DAVID SCHREURS, songwriter and producer - Sep 23, 2011
“Most people just didn’t see it at all. Some labels told us Caro wasn’t suitable as an artist. We realised they didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.”
The last two years have seen Dutch singer Caro Emerald (No.1 NL, AU, ROM, Top 5 UK, GER) first totally captivate her native pop charts with a retro-styled but utterly fresh fusion of jazz, easy listening and infectious modern beats, and then seduce most of Europe, including the UK. Now her sultry sights are set on the US. As this Q&A with her songwriter/producer David Schreurs attests, what’s so remarkable about her story is that she achieved this as an independent artist on her own label and through creating music and image that seems to exist in its own self-contained world totally at odds with popular trends and the advice of “marketing experts”.
How did you first meet Caro Emerald and then come to start working with her?
I met Caroline in spring 2007 at [producer] Jan van Wieringen’s place. He called her in to sing the demo for our first co-production, ‘Back It Up’, a track based on a hip-hop beat by Jan and Robin Veldman, which [songwriter] Vince Degiorgio and I had then turned into a pop song. I instantly fell in love with Caroline’s sultry, jazzy voice. It was a perfect match for the song.
I was also amazed how well trained, professional and versatile she sang. She nailed down the first verse in one take – that’s the take you hear on the album - and then we started coaching her towards what we thought would sound cool, and recorded a goldmine of great takes.
Caro Emerald’s debut seemed to appear from out of nowhere with a fresh stylistic vision that set it apart from everything else. Can you explain how the whole sound and ethos first came to life and what some of your inspirations were?
The sound came to life because Caro, Jan, Vince and I realised we had something special on our hands after we, coincidently, worked together on ‘Back it Up’. That was our model track: a combination of 40s-50s jazz, easy listening, orchestral Latin, all combined with infectious beats.
Vince and I already knew and loved a lot of those types of records, artists like Jackie Davis, Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Perez Prado, Gene Krupa, Stan Kenton, Xavier Cugat, Edmundo Ros, Cab Calloway, all the way back to early 20s/30s jazz records. And then Caro, with her voice sounding extremely jazzy by nature, had always loved The Andrew Sisters, Billie Holiday, Doris Day, Sarah Vaughan etc. Also, I’m a drummer and Jan has a background in hip-hop and so the two of us were really into beats.
So we started combining all this together. We went for a sample-based approach, a bit like Propellerheads, The Avalanches, Hairy Diamond, Apollo 440, Jazzanova and many others had done in the mid-late 90s, but we recorded everything ourselves and added a pop structure.
How were you inspired by Caro herself?
For us, Caro’s voice was extremely inspiring to work with. She has a unique, rich and natural sound. We tried to enhance that with the songs and production. Also with her appearance and looks, it was very easy to picture her as this 50s diva, backed by a big band, casually singing the songs. We could see the whole picture, all we had to do was try and (re)create something that would fit. A lot of the time, we would communicate our ideas by describing images, scenes and settings, and we’d know exactly what to do.
When you were deciding on the direction of the project were you ever considering aspects such where the music might fit in the marketplace or its potential audience?
No, never. I’ve met a lot of writers, producers, artists, musicians, managers, labels, publishers, even engineers, who think they are marketing experts. They say things like “this kick sound is out of fashion” or “it should sound more like this” or “do you think this is suitable for the European market?” People suggested us to add synths to the album to make it more ‘suitable’ for pop radio. I mean, what are you talking about? I believe it’s better to focus on what you are good at, which is writing and producing music. The rest comes later – a lot later.
I actually think our firm idea to not give a damn about markets and audiences played a large role in the success of this record. We believed in our own ideas, and didn’t listen to anyone else. This way, we created our own universe: the Caro Emerald universe. With its own sound, its own visuals and its own rules.
Can you explain the process of how the songs for the album were created and what your individual creative responsibilities were?
Well I’m a backing track writer and producer with melodic ideas and some ideas for topics. Vince is a brilliant top liner and lyricist, with great production and arrangement ideas. Caro hadn’t written much before, but found out she has a great sense of melody and lyrical ideas. Jan is an extremely skilled mixer and producer who is able to make things sound stellar.
When we decided to make an album we started collecting ideas. Our general method was to produce backing tracks at home, and then Vince and I would get together in a room and write the song. I came up with most of the backing tracks, Jan and I did the ‘The Other Woman’ together, and I did ‘The Lipstick on His Collar’ with long-time collaborator Sander Rozeboom. ‘Dr Wanna Do’ do was done by Jan and pianist Daan Herweg.
In November 2008, Vince and I sat down and we started attacking the tracks - ‘That Man’, ‘Just One Dance’, ‘Lipstick’, ‘Riviera Life’, ‘Absolutely Me’, ‘The Other Woman’ and ‘Dr Wanna Do’. One by one, we turned them into songs. Vince always has the lead when writing/completing the melodies and lyrics. My role in this process is to listen, suggest topics, melodies, edit, tweak and be critical (this is why Vince calls me “the chorus Nazi”). For ‘The Other Woman’ and ‘Dr Wanna’, Caro had already recorded some great melodic and lyric ideas, so we worked from there.
In January 2009, Vince came over to Amsterdam for another session, so I made the tracks for ‘Stuck’, ‘You Don’t Love Me’ and ‘I Know That He’s Mine’. ‘You Don’t Love Me’ was actually the first time Vince, Caro and I wrote in one room. The next day we did ‘I Know That He’s Mine’ together, and went for dinner and drinks. It was quite a night, and the next day Vince and I were completely hungover. We had kebab for breakfast - don’t ask - and wrote ‘Stuck’, which could be described as my attempt to add a Latin dance track to the album, and Vince’s attempt to impersonate Eartha Kitt – you should hear the demo!
In August 2009, we were asked to write something for a Martini ad. We liked the idea, but they wanted something 60s and we didn’t want to let go of our own 40s-50s concept. After five days of unsuccessful commissioned writing, Vince and I felt horrible about the fact that we’d even considered letting go of our own concept. So on the last day, we sat down to write at least one more song for the album. So I made the track for ’A Night Like This’ while Vince was packing his bags. We sat down for an hour and knocked out the song.
It turned out a lot more important for us than we thought it would be. We didn’t realise it was a hit, and neither did Martini. They actually refused it at first instance, but changed their mind a few weeks later and used it for their campaign, which was brilliant for us.
Vince and I have a very productive, fast and fun way of working. A song never takes more than an hour from start to finish, and still we spend most of the time laughing. Being in the same room is vital - we never send ideas back and forth. If one of us breaks this rule, we just don’t listen. However Caro is very actually good at recording ideas at home. So we kind of mingle all these different ways of song writing.
As a specific example, can you describe the process of how ‘That Man’ came together?
I produced the backing track for ‘That Man’ at home during the summer of 2008 because I thought a 20s stride piano track with a New Orleans beat would be nice for the album.
When I played the track to Vince he started humming along and then began writing the lyrics. Five minutes later, I pressed record and he nailed the first verse and pre-chorus. I suggested we tweak the chorus a little bit, hummed some ideas, and pressed record again. Then we came up with the scat and call/answer parts in the middle eight. After I pushed record again Vince went crazy and improvised the spoken feature at the end. We call the guy Ramon – he’s so suave and now a bit of a household name in our world. After 40 minutes of fun, we had a song, and Ayako, Vince’s lovely and extremely funny wife, called us in for a perfect Japanese dinner.
The production is something else – Jan and I spent so many hours on it that I’d need a whole book to explain how we did that.
All songs have a story like this: a strong basic idea, some magic, very little effort on the writing side of things, a lot of effort on the production side - and a lot of fun.
I’ve read that you originally had no success in pitching the songs or signing Caro to a label and so eventually decided to release the music yourselves. Regardless of the style, the songs have an immediate broad appeal. What reactions did you get and why did no one take a chance on it?
We first pitched ‘Back It Up’ to a few publishers and labels. They liked it, but couldn’t picture it for any artist. Reactions included, “we think this won’t last longer than two weeks on radio” and “great … so what’s the plan?”
Once we decided Caro was the artist, most people just didn’t see it at all. Some labels told us Caro wasn’t ‘suitable’ as an artist. But in the meantime, radio stations started playing the song, and we got all these YouTube hits and reactions from all over the world.
In September 2008, just before we wrote the majority of the album, we had our first meeting with a record label. But we didn’t like their offer and so we just kept going on our own.
In April 2009, we invited all the Dutch record labels to a showcase where we played all the songs live. Ten showed up. One said it didn’t have a chance at all, the rest saw some potential, but were still hesitant. We had a few more meetings, but after having worked 18 months on the project we just didn’t want to let go of control on the creative and business side. We had a strong idea where it should go, and we knew we really had something and so had quite some demands. The labels were all a lot less ambitious and generally thought we’d sell about 3,000 to 10,000 albums. All in all, we just didn’t meet the right partner and that’s how we ended up releasing it ourselves.
Can you explain what the set-up of Grandmono is exactly?
Grandmono is a production company, but also a record label and management setup. I still take care of the publishing and sync too. We are open for outside production, but the label and management are Caro only. Caro, Jan and I own the project and the companies.
I guess, since I’m the oldest and have a background in entertainment law, I run the business with our staff. Caro spends her time on the road, Jan oversees the live act.
What’s been the advantages and disadvantages of having Caro signed to an independent operation such as Grandmono?
A big advantage is that we can make decisions on important things really fast, without too much discussion, and without any agendas or compromise. We control everything, from the master to video to art to the money. I guess you could describe us as a big indie project. The focus is on the essence, which I love. Also, it’s great to learn so much about the music industry in such a short period of time, and meet so many talented people.
The disadvantage is that we have to do everything ourselves, and we have limited time to learn everything. So I don’t get to spend as much time in the studio as I’d want to. I’m building up a steady team so I can step back a little more, but it takes time, and we seem to go from strength to strength.
First we broke record after record in Holland selling 250k albums in 2010 on our own little label and then in 2011, most of Europe follows. And now it looks like we could have a great chance in the US as well. But I’m not complaining! It’s great to be part of this adventure. It’s changed our lives completely, but we are still the same people.
What were the key factors in Caro's breakthrough in the Netherlands?
Great songs, a great artist, strong focus, and the time we took to build up the project.
‘Back It Up’ was released in July 2009 on our own Grandmono Records without any budget. We didn’t rush the album but just let the song develop. By November, it was still rising up in the Airplay charts – almost six months later! No other label would dare to take that kind of time to build up a record. We just watched it and knew that when we eventually drop the album, everyone will love it.
We then released ‘A Night Like This’ in December, 2009. Judging from what is happening in all the other territories, it’s this song that defines the project. It’s a powerful song, selling huge all over the world. It’s synched like crazy – Martini in Holland, Playboy Club in the US, many commercials all over the world - and the airplay is amazing. It’s literally played five to eight times as much as the other hit songs from the album.
When we dropped this single in Holland, accompanied by a beautiful video shot by Martini, we went to #1. Luckily for us, it was the same week we released the album. That was a dream fit. We now know that ‘A Night Like This’ is the spark to hit success in almost all other territories.
How did you then go on to repeat that success internationally, particularly as a small independent?
By using the same principals as we had when we wrote, produced and released the album - and by knowing when you need help.
We are very fortunate to work with Dutch music industry veteran with over 40 years of experience, Bert Meyer (former Zomba MD). Bert called me in 2009 and offered to help get the record signed outside of Holland. Bert and I developed a great working and personal relationship. His major label background is great for us, and the combination with my fierce indie approach is very fruitful.
We don’t just sign deals, we carefully select partners, negotiate a deal that makes sense for everybody, and then start building up the relationship. Bert spends many hours on the phone with our partners, as does the rest of the team. We talk to most partners on a daily basis.
Finally, what can we expect from the next album, and how have you tried to develop and move forwards?
We’ve written 12 new songs so far, and are still developing the sound. I would like it to be a bit more personal, and add at least as many surprising details as we had on the first record.
Our goal is not to get carried away with the success and unlimited budgets we’ve created for ourselves. So we stick to the same principle – good songs, arranged well, and recorded and produced with a lot of love and dedication.
I think you will hear a bit more of the dark side of Caro, as well as some very upbeat and happy songs. Like the first time, we have a main theme but it’s not going to be movies this time. It’s hard to tell as it’s not done at all but what we’ve wrote and recorded so far sounds very nice. After two years of paperwork and managing the success, I’m very happy to be writing and producing again!
interviewed by Barry Wheels
Read On ...
* Manager Andrew Gertler on building a massive fanbase and media buzz from scratch
* Q&A with songwriter Leo Chantzaras on the value of songwriter camps
* Dutch songwriter Allan Eshuijs on breaking through beyond the lowlands