Interview with iSHi, producer for Tinie Tempah, Eric Turner, Usher, Professor Green - Dec 12, 2011
”Now is a good time to bring in "world music" – people are embracing good music no matter where it’s from”
US and European artists continue to be smitten with Sweden’s studio artisans given their unerring knack for knocking out hit songs shows no sign of abating. The latest in a long, distinguished line of Swedish hitmakers is producer iSHi, who after tearing through the UK charts with a string of hits for Tinie Tempah (UK No.1, US Top 20), Tinchy Stryder (UK No.1) and Professor Green (UK No.1) – including Tinie’s ‘Written In The Stars’ featuring Eric Turner – has now become omnipresent in top studios stateside having recently worked with Shakira, Usher, Ne-Yo and Lupe Fiasco on upcoming releases.
In this exclusive interview, iSHi talks to HitQuarters about the influence of Sweden’s hitmaking legends, his UK and US breakthrough with Tinie Tempah about how he nurtures new songwriting, production and artist talent at his own publishing and production company.
*Note: All artists and industry figures are linked to their contact and credit info where appropriate.
How did you first get involved in music production?
I started in school playing piano and drums – drums when I was 11 and piano when I was 15. I grew up listening to hip-hop, R&B and dance music.
My first productions were Swedish hip-hop acts when I was like 18. Later on I did the music for The Lick TV show [on MTV UK] in 2001, I started working more in England – mostly co-writes. I was trying to find my new sound. I moved to New York in 2003 and was there for three and a half years back and forth.
What were some of the significant cuts you had while you were pursuing your career in Sweden?
My first official cut must have been with DJ Sleepy about fifteen, sixteen years ago. It came about through my old manager who was a friend of DJ Sleepy’s.
My biggest hit song in Sweden was with an artist called Petter, called ‘Det går bra nu’ (2006). I also worked with some of our Swedish Pop Idols when Idols was really big – Darin, Agnes to name a few. But then I just stopped because I felt like that’s not what I wanted to do.
How were you involved with the Swedish rapper Lazee?
In 2008, before I started working with different British rappers, I developed an artist named Lazee. The first single was produced by me and Sebastian Ingrosso - Swedish House Mafia are good friends of mine - and it did really well. We sold Gold out here.
We tried to then make it happen outside of Sweden, and slowly it started to, but because we were a small team and so had to do everything it also took away my main focus – to actually make music. So two years ago, me and Lazee decided to go separate ways on good terms. I needed to focus on making new music.
And so how did you then attempt to re-establish your production career?
In the summer of 2009 I went to England and said to my publisher, “I need to start from scratch. Who do I work with?” Although I’d still been signed to EMI [Music Publishing] during all those years, I hadn’t really been working closely with them. They knew I was doing my own thing – at first I was in New York and then working with my own artist Lazee.
So in moving from Sweden to England were you specifically targeting the UK music scene?
No, not really. I wasn’t really thinking about it. I was just trying to find somewhere to start.
Were there certain UK artists that you had in mind and suggested to your publisher?
I was saying people like Dizzie Rascal and Tinchy Stryder, but they (Amber Davies and Guy Moot at EMI UK) said, “There’s this new guy, he doesn’t have a record deal, or even a publishing deal - his name is Tinie Tempah.” I said, “Sure. Let's do it.”
After first returning to Sweden, I came back to the UK in November and started working with Tinie. The first song we did was ‘Invincible’ with Kelly Rowland. It was like fresh air – it felt so good to start producing again. I had so many new ideas.
As Tinie was a new artist looking to establish himself internationally, were you given any kind of directions in terms of the music you were creating?
There was no direction because I don’t think anyone really knew what we were going to make. Everyone was just focused on making great music.
How did ‘Written In The Stars’ come to life?
We made ‘Written In The Stars’ when Tinie came back with me to Sweden in January 2010. It was a very natural process. I had just found the artist Eric Turner a few months earlier, and he came in and recorded the hook. Eric was so sick at the time. I had the melody halfway put down with the piano so it didn't take long to nail the whole hook.
I felt like I wanted to mix all the elements on it, mixing rock with pop music, and big hip-hop drums and a big chorus with Eric. I never over thought anything – it all came very naturally.
This would have been still just before Tinie’s debut single gave him his home breakthrough. So were you aware of building excitement surrounding him during this time?
We didn’t expect anything because at the time he’d only just got signed. He was showing us YouTube clips, and was like, “Oh shit, look at my new single ‘Pass Out’, it’s on YouTube! I have five thousand views!” Three months later he was No.1 in England. Then ‘Written In The Stars’ came in September of 2010 and went straight to No.1 in England. Along with the album Disc-Overy at #1.
Tinie Tempah was the first but shortly after you started working with a number of UK artists …
I then started working with Tinchy Stryder – I did ‘Game Over’ and a few other songs. I worked with Professor Green, Example, JLS, Alexandra Burke, Emeli Sande to name a few UK acts …
What’s been the impact of the Tinie Tempah success on your own career?
I’m getting a lot of requests from artists and labels around the world. I’m really thankful and happy.
It seems like no sooner have you broken through in the UK that you’re making headway in the US. Was Tinie’s unexpected success in America responsible for that?
My plan with my management was to do a few years in England and then, when the time was right, move towards America. But what happened was that they released Tinie in America without us really expecting anything and he sold Platinum. We got massive airplay, and he reached #12 on the Billboard Top 100.
Also the song was used on major syncs like WWE wrestling, NCAA, Miss America, Major League Baseball to name a few. So with that happening and soundwise, I felt I was ready. The move happened a lot quicker.
Has working at establishing yourself on two fronts caused any difficulties?
I don’t want to loose touch with the UK rappers and pop artists I’m working with, so it means a lot travelling and a lot of work in both New York and in England.
What’s your thought on Tinie’s US success with ‘Written In The Stars’? By that point he was a major artist in the UK but the US can be quite self-contained in its music culture, with artists that have had huge success in Europe being totally unknown …
At first I was thinking they might not embrace a UK rapper like Tinie, but my manager said, “The song will speak for itself.”
Now is a good time to bring in "world music" – it doesn’t really matter where it comes from. People are embracing good songs and good music no matter where it’s from.
Have you found that in being a producer from Sweden, a country renowned for its high quality music, that you get a better reception abroad?
You’ve said that one of the reasons for Sweden’s ongoing influence is that “success breeds success”. As a developing producer were you always aware of your country’s musical heritage, and did it inspire you?
Yeah, definitely. They had a big article in the Swedish newspapers where they listed all the producers like Max Martin on to Anders Bagge (HQ interview) back in 1998, I believe. I was young, but we had this article up on the studio wall. That was an inspiration.
It’s not a big country, so have you had any connection with any of the other big producers and songwriters coming out of Sweden, such as RedOne, Bloodshy & Avant and Max Martin?
Sweden is a small place. So yeah ... I would say all of us know each other. However, Swedish House Mafia are the ones I'm closest to. We go back like 13-14 years.
So what have you been up to in the US recently?
These last months I've been working with Shakira, Usher, Ne-Yo, Mika, Lupe Fiasco, and on Tinie Tempah’s new album – and more. It’s been absolutely amazing.
You’ve said that Lupe Fiasco is one of your idols. With that in mind, are you actively trying to get on projects with artists you admire or are you waiting for the offers to come in?
I would say it’s both. When we first got in touch with Lupe I told him I was a big fan. And as a fan I was actually waiting for his album ‘Lasers’ to drop, and so to then have a song on that album was just an honour.
How you were approached by Usher?
One of the guys in Usher’s team asked Eric about me when he was in America with Tinie. Eric emailed me and we picked up from there and decided on the session.
Did Usher explain to you what he had heard in you that he felt you would suit his current direction?
He’s always reinventing himself, coming up with the new stuff all the time. He’d heard some of my music but wanted whatever I had that was “next level”.
Can you tell us what new things you are trying to do this time around with Tinie Tempah’s second album?
The new album is something crazy - we’ve done something that’s never ever been made before. I’m very happy with the songs so far.
And what have your inspirations been?
When I listen to music, whether it’s rock, house, hip-hop, I often feel that something is missing. That people are not mixing the music enough - there’s not enough fusion. There are a few people doing it but it can definitely be more. I think that's what makes it more interesting.
When will we hear the new Tinie Tempah material?
I don’t know for sure – sometime 2012.
You mentioned making plans with your management earlier. Who is your manager and how significant has their influence been on your career so far?
I could never have done this without my management. We’re not only a team, we’re a family, and sometimes in life you really need to have people that help you to take these big steps. To guide you! I'm very happy to have a mentor that helps me with all my ideas.
My manager’s name is Tim Blacksmith (with Danny D).
He’s had a very successful run with Stargate. They’ve been working more than fifteen years now, having started in England and then taken that whole trip to the United States, doing Ne-Yo, Rihanna, Katy Perry etc.
He’s a very spiritual person who believes in karma and good spirit.
This has definitely helped me a lot on my journey so far. And we still have a long way to go. He has definitely changed my way of thinking in this industry and made me realise that "keeping your focus" and "having faith" is key.
When would you advise young producers to seek management?
Well, it’s hard to say. It varies from person to person. Some people like to be in full control and might not realise that when things get hectic and busy you can't really do everything yourself.
Also if you do decide to go with a management its all about trust. Everything has to feel right.
Why did you decide to start your own production/publishing company?
When I came back from New York in 2008 I didn’t really know what to do or how to actually make it work with new unsigned artists/ writers. So I decided to start 2Stripes Publishing in order for me to have more "free hands" and try my ideas in a better way
What are the advantages of having your own such company?
Mostly control. I mean, I have a vision about the sound and the setup.
I’m doing most of the creative stuff myself. Finding the writers, developing them and making sure they get the best of me. So far the two writers signed to 2Stripes Publishing are Eric Turner and Charlie [Bernardo].
I don’t want this to become a major publishing company where you have like forty or fifty writers. I want to make sure that everyone at 2Stripes feel like they're part of the team and family. And this last year has been amazing and filled with a lot of work. That's why there's only been the two so far. It’s like having two big kids [laughs]. Were one big family.
How did Charlie Bernardo come to sign with 2Stripes?
Charlie has been signed for almost two years, but been with me like four and a half, just hanging out with me in the studio, learning. I originally found him through Lazee and then took him under my wing. I said, “If you want to work with me, you have to first understand how I think, how I work, and then be able to bring your own stuff to the table as well.” I feel the best way for him to learn is just to be around with someone that makes music.
He is amazing. And his skills develop at a crazy level. I sometimes bring him with me when I have sessions and stuff. He is seeking his own impressions and developing his own sound, but at the same time I let him get on projects I have and gets cuts as well. He worked with me on ‘Written In The Stars’, and almost half of the Eric Turner album.
How about the artist Eric Turner?
One of my best friends, who is a sound engineer, heard Eric play at this local event in Stockholm. He said, “I’m not really liking the songs, but you have to hear this guy.” When I met him I straight away felt he had that X-factor. I signed him a few weeks later.
We weren't sure of what to really do at first but it all came very naturally and fast. Almost straight away I told Eric that I wanted him to be a solo artist. He slowly but surely got used to the idea before really getting in to it. I decided that by having him on some “hooks" would probably help to set a "base".
He’s not only an artist, he’s a writer as well. Me and Eric write really well together. ‘Written In The Stars’ is one of the first songs we ever did together. We write hooks for other artists or for him. We never overthink in the studio – we always go for what feels good.
So what would you be looking for in a new songwriter or producer?
I’m just looking for something that’s different. If you really listen to what we’ve done so far then you’ll hear that, sound-wise, we are different.
Eric Turner is different and he has a character in his voice. I’m looking for the new Macy Gray, the new Lykke Li, Amy Winehouse, Adele … Someone who has character.
Are you actively searching for new people?
I would say it’s got to come naturally. I’m always searching. I’m always interested in hearing new music and artists. And I don’t really care about age. They can be 50 or 15.
What’s in the pipeline for the rest of the year?
My main priority right now is to finish Eric Turner’s album. We just signed Eric in America, and his first single is coming out in early 2012.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Special feature on the ongoing Swedish influence in pop music