Interview with JR HUTSON, producer for Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Anthony Hamilton - May 10, 2010
“I put together a hit list every couple of months of the artists that I want to work with and then go after them like a stalker”
When Jill Scott (USA Top 3) and Musiq Soulchild (USA No.1) appointed the talents of producer JR Hutson they were tapping into a deep well of R&B, jazz and soul music talent and experience.
The son of an R&B legend father and opera singer mother, Hutson has soulful grooves and melodies coursing through his veins, and his life so far has been shaped by this musical heartbeat - starting out in a professional boys choir and in music schools, before leading and producing the vocal group Living Proof while still in high school. Now as a producer and songwriter, his wealth of experience behind both the mike and the mixing board has stood him in good stead as an in-demand master of ‘urban classic’.
HitQuarters spoke to JR about his methods for hunting down his projects, and how a chance meeting with Pharrel Williams proved a career turning point ...
When we recently spoke to interviewed the producer Focus…, son of Chic co-founder Bernard Edwards, he said his father never encouraged his music production ambitions at all. As someone with parents also involved in music, did they actively encourage you or just let you get on with it?
They did both. I think my parents were pretty bright in what they did, because they put me in music schools to give me the tools and then once I showed that I wanted to pursue it, they then gave me room to do my own thing.
If music is in your blood do you think it can be damaging for parents to suppress it?
Absolutely, absolutely! But I think at the end of the day, like with anything else, your personality ultimately determines what happens to you.
What do you think about the idea that as music production becomes increasingly accessible and immediate through programmes like ProTools and Logic, young artists and producers are increasingly of the mindset that they don’t need to bother learning music from the ground up, as you have?
That’s a sign of the times. But I think you’re really only robbing yourself. I look at music as a constant learning experience - I’m always hearing new music, trying to find new music, learning from other musicians …
How has being an experienced musician and vocalist first and foremost helped your production learning development?
Well, being a singer definitely helps me as a producer with other singers, because I can understand the mindset of an artist and a singer, and I think it helps me to communicate with them a lot easier as opposed to someone that doesn’t sing at all and has never recorded a record.
When you were younger you were part of your own vocal group called Living Proof. What happened with that and what was it that then made you move into production and songwriting?
That was right out of high school, so we were all young. It was the start of all of our careers and, if I remember correctly, we got signed in high school, released a single, and I immediately saw, through dealing with the producers that were working with us, that I was drawn into production more than anything.
I actually produced most of the demos that got us that deal. And my focus was really just on that. I was more interested in being in the studio than being on the road. That was just where my passion was and it chose me.
You’ve done backing vocals on some of your productions but do you have any plans to take centre stage again in the future as a vocal artist?
Absolutely, no question about it! That’s always been a passion of mine and something I definitely want to do in the future.
You share your passion for smooth R&B and soul with your father Leroy Hutson. Do you ever play him your music and ask for his opinion?
Yeah, we definitely do that. His presence and his opinion means a lot to me.
Has he had more of hands-on role in your production development?
Well, like I said, my dad let me go my own way. He didn’t really get in the way too much.
But any comments he would make I would take to heart and that’s how it all worked out. He would just hear some of the things that I was doing and make comments, and I would take them extremely seriously. So, the backbone of my production was really always to try to please his ear.
Another notable person in your early career was the producer Teddy Riley with whom you served an apprenticeship. How did that come about and what did you learn from him?
Well, right after the Living Proof situation I was really seriously trying to pursue being a producer. And I spent maybe a year just getting my sound and my beats together.
Once I felt confident I went to a music conference in Atlantic City and Teddy [Riley] was there, and at the time - this was mid-90s - Teddy was a god to a lot of us producers. I had a CD player with me and just kept bothering him until he would listen. And he heard a couple of things and invited me down to Future Studios in Virginia Beach, and that’s how it all started.
I learned from him how to turn it all into a business, and how to pursue making your own sound. Teddy made his own sound, he influenced all music, he influenced rock, pop, rap - he was like the Timbaland of that time. And at one point everybody’s music, didn’t matter what kind of music it was, had some resemblance to something Teddy created.
The influence that he had on all music in the world was very impressive to me.
Jill Scott has said that she was introduced to you through Hidden Beach’s A&R rep Charles Whitfield. How did that come about?
A chance meeting with Pharrell Williams was instrumental in that. Charles Whitfield put my demo into Jill Scott’s hands. This was before her last album. So, ‘The Real Thing’ came out in ’07, so this might have been ’06. Charles introduced me to her.
How else do you secure your projects? Do you do a lot of networking or is that the responsibility of your manager?
I operate like I don’t have a manager, in that I still work very hard to get projects. I don’t just sit back and expect them to do all the work. I’m represented by a great management team called Special Assignment Operations (Eli Davis (HQ Interview), Charles Whitfield and Teresa Evans) and they are like the icing on the cake.
I put together a hit list every couple of months of the artists that I want to work with and then go after them like a stalker basically.
Your collaboration with Jill Scott for ‘The Real Thing’ album ended up being much more productive than originally intended. Why do you think you two hit it off so well – was it a case of having similar inspirations and ideals?
Yeah, I think so. I think some people just work very, very well together musically, and she and I are like that. We understand each other - we can communicate with one another on a musical level. I can’t really explain why it works, but I know that you spend your whole career looking for that someone you work really well with.
Were you writing tracks especially for her or did you find that your style was already so well suited to her that you had lots of appropriate material ready waiting?
Right, exactly … I just already had a lot of stuff that worked.
Jill has said she likes your music because it gives her a lot of options, it’s like water that she can immerse herself in. ‘Whenever You’re Around’ has a watery groove that gives the artist a lot of room to play about. How did that come together - did you have the groove laid down already and she riffed over the top of it?
I tried to take a real Quincy Jones approach to that record. I brought in a lot of musicians and we were just vibing to a few different things, and that was one of the tracks that stood out to me in the jam session that day.
So I went back and tweaked and tweaked the track, edited it, did a whole bunch of different things to it and reformatted it, and then eventually ended up with that track. Once she heard it, she just skilled all over it, and that’s what you hear.
A lot of the time, I’ll take the approach where it’ll just me in the studio and I’ll be the one creating all the music. But then sometimes I’ll take the approach where I like to invite other people in and see what comes about of that.
What was the inspiration of the track?
Art imitates life with Jill, so I think that song was very indicative of things that she was going through in her life at the time, and the music just happened to suit the mood and the changes - I’m very big on chord changes and trying to speak to people’s chord changes. So, somehow it spoke to her in that way, and she was able to communicate that particular thing she was going through at the time in her life.
You’re involved with Jill Scott’s upcoming album - what have you been working on together?
We’ve been working on a lot of different stuff. She’s taking a new approach and at the same time she’s trying to capture where she is right now in her career - you know, being, in my opinion, extremely successful in other areas of her career like movies and television and things.
She’s branched out and now got a lot of responsibilities, and yet she’s still one of the most real and down-to-earth people I know.
The aim with the album is to get people to know her a little more personally, outside of the sunshine image she has. She’s now in charge of a lot of different things and with it comes a lot of trials and tribulations, and I think her goal is to just give people a very realistic glimpse of where she is in her life right now.
How is it going production-wise?
It’s going great. We definitely work very hard, but leave room for God to walk into the room and do his thing as well. We’re hoping to have it ready some time mid to late summer, but we’ll have to see.
How would a session with Jill usually come together? Would you be working on ideas together in the studio? Would you be playing tracks or instruments?
Honestly, a lot of the time we don’t know - it’s just about getting in the room and letting whatever happens happen. So sometimes it’ll be tracks, sometimes we’ll write on the spot, sometimes she’ll be going with musicians, we never know.
How did you come to work with Musiq Soulchild on ‘SoBeautiful’?
I stalked Musiq for about eight months [laughs], until he finally decided to come by my studio. And he came by one day and that’s the record we did.
So how did you actually go about stalking him?
I’d been calling his assistant, Donnita Hathaway, for months and she’s the one that made that all happen. She’d been getting in contact with his manager (Victor Grieg) and then she finally told him, “Hey, look, this guy has been calling for almost a year. Maybe you guys should call him back.”
So, they called me back and agreed to come by the studio, and spend a few hours with me.
How did the song come together?
We came up with the basic idea in one day and then spent a couple more days tweaking it.
We’d done a couple of other ideas just off the cuff – I’d played him some tracks. And then as he was leaving I started playing those four chords that are in the beginning of the song. He put his bag down and began commenting on what I was playing. I then started building the track, and he started writing the song - a couple of hours later we had the basic skeleton to the record. This might have been six months before the album was released.
Will you be working with Musiq more as well?
You’ve described your style as ‘urban classic’. How do you keep that classicism in your productions as pop music trends continue to evolve?
It goes back to the learning process - it’s a constant evolution, it’s a constant learning process. I constantly listen to music, talk to people, try to find different perspectives, and see what I can incorporate in my music to keep it relevant. The goal of anybody in this business is to keep thriving and keep relevant, and have fun - at least that’s my goal.
You have a very well defined approach to production –focusing more on layered melodies and chords than beats - are there any big artists out there who you think would benefit from you style – who is on your hit list?
I’m about to start working with Anthony Hamilton. John Legend would be another artist that I would love to work with, Alicia Keys, and obviously Stevie Wonder …
In fact I just got a call yesterday to say that Stevie’s actually going to be playing harmonica on a track I did for another artist. So, I’m getting closer to working with him. But he’s definitely on my list and I will start stalking him soon [laughs].
You’ve said you enjoy working with newcomers as much as established stars because together you want them to discover something musically they never had before. What needs to be ready in order for you to start working with new artists?
The best case scenario for me is that I get a chance to just sit and talk to them, and just find out what kind of person they are and get a feel for the type of artist they want to be.
What new talents are you working with right now?
I’m working with a group called 718 on Capitol Records, an artist named Mishon on Interscope Records. I have my own artist, her name is Liz Paige, and she’s signed to Lifeline Entertainment, and she’s an incredible mix of pop, funk and soul.
What’s in the pipeline for Lifeline Entertainment in 2010?
I got this single on Jordan Knight, who was formerly with New Kids on the Block. Anthony Hamilton, as I said, and Chrisette Michele … I’m also doing a jazz project called Unwrapped Vol. 7.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Prolific hitmaker Lucas Secon on recent work with Kylie, JLS, Alexandra Burke
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