Interview with JON O'MAHONY, songwriter and producer for Liberty X, Kylie Minogue and Natasha Bedingfield - April 6, 2009
“I think the people that have total control and ownership of what they do are better able to move quick and to cut the right deals.”
Jon O’Mahony is clearly keen to immerse himself in every conceivable aspect of the music industry. Since finding number 1 success as a drummer in the pop band Ultra, he set up Goldust Productions (with ex-bandmates Michael Harwood and Nick Keynes), a self-contained pop factory that not only writes and produces for the likes of Liberty X (UK No.1), Kylie Minogue (UK No.1, Germany No.1 & US Top 10) and Natasha Bedingfield (UK No.1 & US Top 5), and creates music for films, computer games and advertising but also takes care of label and publishing duties.
From deep within the Goldust nerve centre, the London-based O’Mahony talks to HitQuarters about why such overriding control is important in the industry, and he also recounts his experiences as a number 1 star in Italy and Asia and offers advice for song placement in films and other media. What’s more he joins the queue of producer/songwriters clamouring to work with the queen of pop - Madonna.
What projects are you busy with at the moment?
We are busy with two in particular. First is a band called Honey Ryder and the second one is a singer/songwriter called Marli.
Honey Ryder was the first project that we launched on our new label. They’ve already had two Top 40 singles. And the Marli project is just about to launch. The album is finished and we’re just putting a team in place to take its market.
Now to go back to how your career got to this point, your first forays into the industry were with the pop band Ultra – along with Michael and Nick. How did that start?
I was at school with Michael and James, and a year or two after school we decided to form a band. We’d all been in different school bands over the years and we thought we’d start one together and start writing our own songs.
It eventually got to a point where we started looking for management. We met another manager called Tony Gordon, who used to manage Curiosity Killed The Cat and Culture Club. And we’d just done some new demos and he took them to some of his label contacts, and one of them was a guy called Max Hull at East West [Records] in London. Max played it to Ian Stanley, who was the Head of A&R and also a very good producer, and Ian loved it and we signed to them. That was back in 1996. Ian Stanley then made our record and then it got released around the middle of 1998.
As Depeche Mode inspired your name I’d guess they were a big influence, but what other artists were influencing you at the time?
A lot of stuff really - we were a gigging band on the London circuits for a long time. And at the time our main influences were Jamiroquai and the Stereo MCs. We were a bit more acid jazz, I suppose. And when we signed to EastWest and did the albums, it came out a lot more poppy, which was a good thing.
And yeah, then we broke into different territories. Italy, Spain and Australia were quite big for us. We had number 1s out there. And that was a great time.
The Italian chart is an unusual one for a British act to crack, why do you think you were successful there?
First off, we had a bit of luck in the beginning, because we had a call from the Italian office of EastWest at the last minute saying, “we’ve got this big TV show called Festivalbar and one of our acts just dropped out. Do you have anyone that could stand in?” And obviously we said yes. And since then everything kind of snowballed and within a couple of months from doing that show we were number 1.
Musically, I think in certain countries there’s less stereotyping from media and maybe fans as well. You know, because we were a band that played our instruments - which was unusual for pop music at the time. I think they liked that. And we were seen as a less of a boy band over there, more of a sort of a credible pop band, I guess.
You were certainly popular with Italian girls - I read you were mobbed by thousands of teenagers at a record signing in Milan – was that fun?
[laughs] It was fantastic! We had police everywhere. It was in the big Duomo Square in Milan, and I remember we were in a cab going there and thinking there would be 50 people, maybe 100 max. And then we saw all these police cars, and then just a mob of screaming fans, and it was quite surreal. The police made little tunnels for us to walk through. It was very odd but good fun.
A nice thing about the band is that you leave England where no one really knew who we were and go to Italy or Asia and live the popstar life for a few weeks and then come back to the anonymity.
Despite selling over a million records worldwide, Ultra lost their contract before recording the second album. You then split up in 2001. Why did you decide to call it a day?
We thought it’d be better to have a break and do our own things. James went off and did some recording with other writers and artists, and we went off and did other productions and writings as well.
As somebody that established themselves in the music industry, but later worked with Fame Academy runner-up Alistair Griffin, what are your thoughts are on pop reality shows as a way of breaking new stars. Would you have ever followed this route yourself?
No. For me I think the shows are great in terms of giving people a chance to get noticed. And you have some fantastic artists that come out of it like Will Young and Leona Lewis. But I think for the rest that don’t reach those heights, it finishes their career prematurely. A lot of people that we know that have been in these sort of shows have ten minutes of fame, a little bit of success, but after that no one wants to know because they’ve been on what is seen to be a bit of a gimmick show. I think it’s quite detrimental to a lot of their careers.
What was the motivation behind setting up Goldust Productions in 2001?
Well, when we were finishing being a band we were sort of scratching our heads and thinking, “my god, what can we do now?” We’d been writing and producing for a number of years, and the manager we had at the time (Gary Wilson) was looking after Liberty X, and said, “look, I’ve just taken this band on. They need some songs and production. Do you fancy doing it?” And we were like, “yeah, we’d love to.” And then we did a day with them and got along really well, and wrote a couple of songs, and we ended up doing about twelve songs for them in total over their career. And I think that was the project that probably set us off down the sort of writing/production route. And that’s when Goldust was formed really.
Pop acts naturally have a limited shelf life so was it a conscious way for you to stay in music for the long term?
I think we all wanted to stay in music. And I think maybe it was the obvious move for us. I don’t think any of us wanted to be session musicians or go on tour with other bands. We all had experience with studios and engineering and equipment and writing. And EMI actually, our publishers, they offered us a new deal to re-sign as writers. They gave us a bit of money and helped set us up.
As you are a team of three, how do you work together – is one more responsible for songwriting and another for production for example? Or do you have an equal say in everything?
Very difficult. I think sometimes actually it’s easier with three than it is with two or four, because I think the right decision always gets made. Because when the three of us feel strongly about something, we all agree. If it’s two against one, again, it’s kind of an easier democratic vote, although it does have its version of arguments. It’s like a marriage [laughs]. But I think good things come from conflict and we constantly question each other. We have three sets of filters to go through before things actually get finished. So, yeah, it does work well.
How do you work with artists - is it a ‘hands off’ approach, or are you actively involved with creating the sound?
It depends really. We’ve done from one extreme to the other. You know, we’ve recently worked with a band who have a very definite sound and style. And we wanted to let them develop that on their own. We try and develop that further and take the good bits and make them better and get rid of the bad bits. It’s a new up and coming rock band - I can’t say their name actually.
At the other end of the spectrum we’ve worked with artists who come in and don’t really have an identity and our songs are going to give them one and give them a sound. That’s a process that we do enjoy, although it takes a lot longer than working with something that has already got identity and is further down the line.
Why did you decide to incorporate both label and publishing duties as part of Goldust?
We bought our catalogue back from EMI two years ago because we wanted to have ownership and control of everything that we did, just to be able to kind of be our own boss really and to be able to cut deals where and when we wanted under our terms. When you’re constricted by a deal, things are out of your control.
The way the music industry landscape has changed, I think the people that are in total control and ownership of what they do are in stronger positions to move quick and to cut the right deals.
As well as pop artists, Goldust have also provided a lot of music for TV and film soundtracks, and advertising campaigns, is it a key part of your business?
It’s one part of our business - I think we see our businesses as split into three really, which is the writing/production side, the publishing and the sync side, and then the label and management side. We’re now branching out into the records and the management side, but I think the writing/production will remain a core part of our business.
And yeah, we still get calls from people at Harvey Weinstein’s asking us to do some stuff on their films. So, yeah, we enjoy it and it’s a big part of what we do.
One particularly memorable soundtrack project brought you together with the formidable movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, Kylie Minogue and classic British children's programmeThe Magic Roundabout. How did that come about?
Harvey asked us to write a load of songs for ‘The Magic Roundabout’ (the film) and it was a bit of a suicide mission. He called us on a Friday and said, “I need nine songs by Monday morning written and produced. Can you do it?” And it was all hands to the deck.
But we did it, and we were sitting in a meeting with Harvey and the guys over at Pathé, and we had a song called ‘The Magic Roundabout’ that we thought could be the theme, and they loved it. And Harvey said, “Right, I’m going to get Kylie to sing this.” He picked up the phone and it was done, done deal, and Kylie was in about a week later.
Can you explain what steps are involved with getting a song placement in a film?
It’s very tough. I think you have to have a relationship with the director or producer, someone involved at a high level. And you have to have a good track record, and a good show reel. And once they ask you to pitch, you’re probably up against a lot of other people who are also pitching, probably for free. If you come up with the right song for that scene then you probably get it, I think it’s as simple as that. There’s no easy way.
Once you do get a song in a film or a couple of songs, then it becomes a little bit easier and you have a bit of a better relationship with the people that are making the decisions.
What special skills are required for writing for an advertising campaign or a computer game?
I think the ability to hear in your head what would go with the picture that you’re seeing. What mood it is, what feel… If you get given a 30 second picture, there’s an infinite number of routes you can go down. I think it’s interpreting, and then coming up with something fresh, and something that obviously suits the picture.
Your studio is described as “state-of-the-art”, what does that term constitute these days?
I think in terms of outboard equipment, it’s the old stuff that is still being used, and the kind of vintage stuff that has been around for twenty to thirty years that still sounds fantastic today. And that’s kind of the staple of our studio. We’ve got a lot of vintage gear mixed with computers and more modern technology - it’s a nice blend.
What is the Goldust sound – is there one?
Big! I think we all have different sounds. But I think a big kind of pop rock sound is what we all like. Although recently we’ve just been doing something with Marli that is just her singing and a piano - it’s very intimate. I think our Goldust sound is melodic, that’s really the best thing to say. It’s all about the songs and the melody really.
What advice would you give up and coming producers/writers and what do they have to keep in mind when writing for the pop rock genre?
The advice I would give is to try and include the artist in the writing process. Often I think when you’re writing songs just for the sake of writing, they don’t get used. I think you need to have a particular artist and goal in mind, whether you’ve had a meeting with the artist’s manager or publisher and they say we’re looking for songs like this.
I think just writing songs is obviously important, but it’s easier to get them cut if you actually write with the artist or have a direct relationship with any of their team.
How should songwriters present their work initially?
Well, in our opinion, when we write demo songs we take them to quite an advanced level in terms of nearly being finished. So, when the people that are listening to them put it on, they are like, “wow - this sounds great!” And they don’t have to do much thinking or have to have that much imagination because they’re going to hear it all in place.
The danger is that you could have a good song that you just record on acoustic guitar that just may not come across as well as a semi-finished production will do.
What artists would you still like to work with?
I would love to work with Madonna. We’ve been massive fans for years. Pretty much every album she works with different people and kind of reinvents herself, and we love to do a record with her.
Have you ever presented any material to her?
No, we never have actually. Maybe we should [laughs].
What it’s in store for Goldust in 2009 - who should we be listening out for?
I think it’s going to be a good year for us actually. Honey Ryder are about to break in the UK we feel. It’s a really great album, and I think the best is yet to come from them. And Marli, obviously, is one to look out for. We’re giving her a big push in the next few months.
And there’s also another couple of younger bands coming through that we’ve been working with, who are still kind of in development, but we feel have massive potential. It’s going to be an exciting year I think.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Kill Rock Stars founder and artist manager Slim Moon
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