Interview with KRISTIAN LUNDIN, songwriter/producer for Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Celine Dion and NSync - Jan 7, 2003
“Having a manager is a good idea for a songwriter or producer who is not content with the creation of music in itself, but wants to become a household name.”
Based in Stockholm, Sweden, Kristian Lundin has written and produced songs for a score of artists that includes the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, NSync and Celine Dion, as part of the seminal but now defunct production company Cheiron. He currently co-owns and runs production company The Location with Andreas Carlsson and Jake Schulze.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become a songwriter and producer?
My friend John Amatiello and I were DJing in Sweden in 1992 and we wanted to set up a radio station. We needed jingles, which are really expensive to buy so, because we were students and didn't have much capital, we decided to make them ourselves. We started fiddling with jingles with our little stack of equipment, and these jingles ended up being very long and began to take on the appearance of songs. And we suddenly thought, ‘Hey, can we make songs?! Let's skip the jingles and do something for real.’
We met Dr. Alban around that time. I had a short-term job at a Stockholm-based radio station when he came in to do an interview, and we really clicked. When John and I had finished making our first song, I thought he would be a good person to evaluate it, because we'd never done anything before and therefore didn’t know whether it was good or bad. He was the first person to listen to the track, and he believed in it.
The track, called "Take Me Up (Al-rabaiye)", was for a project we called Amadin. We got it signed to SweMix, a label that we could say was the precursor to Cheiron. We went on to do Dr. Alban's third album, ‘Look Who's Talking’, only six months after having first set foot in a studio. That’s when I learnt what a producer was, a profession I'd never previously considered.
It was through Alban that we met Denniz PoP, who had produced Alban’s first two albums. He was also a DJ and he continued to DJ for the first two years of Cheiron’s existence, as we did. We had a great feeling for each other and he invited us to work with him at his newly established studio and production company Cheiron. That was 1993, and it was there that we began to write songs in earnest. Of course, we wrote the first song we did, but back then it was more about the dance beat - that was the market then.
What were the key events that led your career forward?
When Max Martin and Denniz and I got a breakthrough with the Backstreet Boys’ "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)". Denniz had had monster hits in the US with Ace of Base, and we had shared a couple of minor European hits, but we didn't really gain access to the US market until that song broke the Backstreet Boys. It was a great feeling and it inspired us all very much.
Why Cheiron disband in 2000?
Cheiron was Denniz' creation and when he died in August 1998, it just felt weird to continue - it felt like a party that he was supposed to be hosting. He was Cheiron; he had charisma and talent that just drew people to him. We worked in complete sorrow after that and throughout 1999 we just delivered tracks we had promised record companies. We had troubled fulfilling those commitments, but we wanted to make Denniz proud and did our best. Ironically, it was our most successful year ever.
By the last year of Cheiron, although we were all working in the same facility, we had split into three parties. We had also grown as more people had joined. At first it was John Amatiello, Max Martin, Denniz PoP, Per Magnusson, David Krueger and I. By 1999, Rami, Andreas Carlsson, Jake Schulze and Jörgen Elofsson had joined.
We were really living on top of each other, sharing studio time whilst having to deliver more tracks than ever before. What we really wanted was to be able to leave the studio at night and come back the next morning to find it exactly as we had left it. We had had a lot of fun, and we now had the means to establish our own studios.
And The Location is your new production company ...
Yes, it’s one of three satellites born out of Cheiron and it includes Andreas Carlsson and Jake Schulze. Andreas joined in 1996, after David Krueger and Per Magnusson produced him as a solo artist. We became friends very quickly and started writing together. I think the first thing we did was either ‘Born To Make You Happy’ with Britney Spears, or ‘How Will I Know (Who You Are)’ with Jessica Folker. We felt we shared values and we had the same taste in many things, so when Cheiron ended, we knew we wanted to work together.
Jake and I wrote and produced ‘Bye, Bye, Bye’ for NSync, which Andreas was a part of too, and it just felt as though we were working very well together.
Do you have a production deal with a record company?
No, I set them up for every individual case. As a production company, Cheiron had had a deal with Zomba and we, as the producers, had our own production companies, which were in turn all signed to Cheiron. Following that experience we felt that we should follow what we really wanted to do as much as possible and make no more promises.
Do you have a manager?
No, and I don’t really want one yet, although I do have a lawyer, John Branca, a tough guy who makes the calls I don’t want to make. I like to stay low-key and be left alone, but if I have to discuss things with big cheeses at record labels I prefer to do it myself.
Having a manager is a good idea for a songwriter or producer who is not content with the work and the creation of music in itself, but wants to become a household name. Your management will put you in the public eye, but if you're happy with not being watched and as long as you keep getting the calls you want, I don't really see the need for it.
Although, it might be really effective if you need someone to take control of your schedule or even make sure you have one. You can stick to making music and try to stay out of politics, but they also create a lot of politics and it might not be your agenda you're working for. It can get out of hand and then you suddenly wake up one day and think, "What am I doing this for? I don't want to make this kind of music!"
Do you always write songs for specific artists?
We've always wanted to write in general, but we've never had the time. Up until today, we've always been short of songs and I've never had a song in the drawer. Whenever there was some spare time, I wanted to be in the studio writing a great song that I could just put in the drawer and love, until the right artist came along. But 90% of the time I've known who's going to get it, even though sometimes it has changed at the last minute.
What advice would you give aspiring songwriters on the process of songwriting itself?
One of the most common mistakes new songwriters make is to try to put everything into the song at the same time. You’ve got to leave something out to make you feel as if there's something good just around the corner.
And you must always take a step back and listen to your song as a listener, not as a creator. Listen to every second and feel whether it's fun and whether it's fun in relation to what happened a couple of seconds ago. If you have the slightest doubt, it's probably because there was too much happening a couple of seconds ago.
How do you work when writing the lyrics?
We have to have a musical concept before we go ahead. The next step is often finding a title and after that I continue with the music, and Andreas, who is the lyricist, puts in the story, which I’ll probably edit from a pronunciation and rhythmical perspective so the phrases sound good. You often have to sacrifice some of the value of the story and the smartest sentences might have to go because they don't sound good.
In some songs the hook is a lyric, whilst in other songs it is the style that makes it a hit. A song like NSync's ‘Bye, Bye, Bye’ is totally production driven and it was created from the kick and the bass up.
Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned songwriters on publishing contracts?
Get a good lawyer. You will never understand everything by yourself and you will never find the loopholes if you're not a lawyer yourself. That’s number one, unfortunately. Also, keep in mind what you want from your career, and make the terms of your agreement as short-term as possible, so that you're able to re-negotiate sooner if you are successful.
What are the pros and cons of having your own publishing company?
I'd say that there are no cons as long as the people who administer it for you actually do what they're supposed to. It's simply a question of having more control, because you decide whether to allow the use of your song in a film or a beer commercial and you don't see your songs being used in the wrong places. And if you don't make a bad deal, you get to keep more of the publishing share.
My publishing company just deals with my songs and is administered by Warner/Chappell. I heard good things about them from Andreas, but it wasn't easy to choose, because they're all similar. But I met them and got a good feeling. I think your gut feeling is the only thing you can count on and you have to let that decide for you.
Andreas and I have an American publishing company as well, called Location Songs, which is for other people's songs. It’s something we want to develop; so far we've signed a rock band to it. We're going to the States after Christmas to get an office there and get people involved.
What productions are you currently working on and how were you approached by these acts?
We're working with a band that I can't tell you about right now. They just knocked on our door and came in with their guitars. That isn't usually very entertaining, but this time something just clicked.
Then in February and March we're just going to write songs without having any requests. It will be the first time we've set some time aside specifically for that, so I'm really looking forward to it.
What makes you take on a production?
My decision is based on the song, although most the songs I produce I've written anyway, and then the artist. But the more records I've produced, the less eager I’ve become to produce another one. I still love songwriting, but I need to be inspired and feel that I have an original idea when it comes to producing, so I wouldn't take on a production if someone said, "Can you produce this song? We want it to sound like such and such." It's important to believe that when you've finished, the song will sound a little bit different to everything else.
How much input do A&Rs and managers generally have on the productions?
We don't usually work creatively with either managers or A&Rs at The Location, and it was the same at Cheiron. They might comment on things such as vocal levels, but we usually lock ourselves in and then it's up to us to ask each other and keep an eye on each other's work.
Are there differences in the way you work with artists, managers and A&Rs in different territories?
When you work with A&Rs and managers from the US, everything is about categorising. Is it rock? Is it adult contemporary? You always have to explain what genre it fits in to and that doesn't really happen in Europe. But the good thing about the US is the aggressiveness. They're so used to competing with each other that the machine is always in full steam: you just throw the material in there and it's swung out.
How much do you charge for a production?
I have no set fee, because it all depends on how much I want to do it, but I would say that a higher percentage is always more inspiring and wiser than a large flat fee. If you can get a really high percentage, why charge anything?
What kind of artists are you looking to produce?
They will definitely be new artists. Celine Dion is the best voice I've ever worked with and I'm pretty sure will have ever worked with, so I can't say I want to find a better voice, because to me there isn't one. I would really like to see something new, so I'll just have to keep looking for it.
What did you learn from working with artists like the Backstreet Boys, NSync and Britney Spears?
They're all very different from each other, but the experience we drew from them as a whole was seeing how they developed and changed, and how fame really takes a hold on people, for better or for worse. And we learnt from them because they're talented people. People tend to think that the Backstreet Boys and NSync came out of factories like Popstars, that they were put together the day before they entered the studio, but that’s simply not true.
These guys are irreplaceable singers, and nobody else could have done what they did better. From the start, that was why we did it: they sang acapella for us and that was that. Bands coming out of the pop-factory TV shows right now would not have impressed us or anyone else at that level. I just can't wait until the Popstars era is over; it's really killing and de-romanticizing the business. The business is milking itself dry and it has got to stop!
What do you think are the key things you’ve learnt about producing?
That the most important thing in production is to find out what the essence of the song is. Think of the one thing you couldn't throw out, and then enhance it by making sure it doesn't get lost in the arrangement. What is it that makes the song a hit? Is it the style or the phrasing of the drums? Or has the last thing that you added somehow turned into the most important element of the song? If you've written a whole track and on day nine you come up with a line in the chorus that becomes the most valuable thing, then you could probably throw away the rest of the song and even look at it as a new song and make a whole new production.
In most cases I deal with songs that I’ve written, which is something I've learnt to do. At the beginning I did more producing than songwriting and I produced most of the Backstreet Boys stuff that Max had written. In those cases, it was a lot easier to say, "This song is great. I think it should be done like this,” but it gets a lot more difficult if you've written it yourself and you have to look at it with the distance that is required when it’s someone else's song. It’s important to take a step back and just try to pretend you weren't involved in writing it.
What are your most important pieces of equipment?
The computer, of course, particularly because everything eventually becomes software. There used to be stuff I couldn't live without, but I have stopped thinking like that. During the Cheiron years we didn't have the time to sample any new sounds or even to change the sounds we were using, which was also one of the reasons to why we thought, "This is it. We have to put this thing to rest." Even my grandmother had started to say, "You can hear when it's Cheiron." We had our sounds loaded up and we just went from track to track. Of course, we didn't use loops or anything that was already made, we programmed everything ourselves.
Back in the days when I started, I thought it was really interesting to turn knobs and push buttons to see what would happen! But at some point you get tired of that and start focusing on the song instead.
What important traits should a producer have?
To be able to distance yourself from your work when you listen to it, whilst at the same time always following your own taste. You must really like it yourself. I won't watch MTV and think I want to do that too. It has to come from inside.
Key points for me are timing and flow. The arrangements and rhythm have got to be relaxing to listen to even if the track has 180bpm. I try to make beats sound faster than they really are; I try to programme the rhythm section so 88bpm feels at least like 89, or 120 like 122.
Everything has to have a to flow, and I'm talking about everything, not just the drums but even the phrasing of the singers. That’s why I don’t let anyone else record vocals: I'm a control freak and I'd rather make one song a year than have my name on something that I feel doesn't flow.
And an aspiring artist?
You wouldn't get away with it without showing real hunger. And a unique talent of course, you’ve got to be irreplaceable, you’ve got to give people the feeling that they would miss you if they didn't hear you again, and that you weren't a copy of someone else.
Pride is important. As a listener, you’ve got to feel that the artist is really proud of what he or she is. An artist might have the worst voice ever, but it will shine if he or she knows how to use it and make it interesting. If, on the contrary, the artist has self-doubts and wants to sound like someone else, it will never happen.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
No, and I think we should put that on our webpage as well, because we get so many demos and we don't know what to do with them, because we're not a record company and never will be.
Do you think contacting and sending demos to producers is a good tool for aspiring artists and songwriters?
I can only speak for myself and the people I know, but I would say no. I think it would be better to stick to publishers and A&Rs. It might be good if you have a personal relation with a producer or with someone who knows a producer but generally, sending unsolicited material by post to a producer with a heavy workload is not a good idea.
Do you think artists know enough about the music industry?
There are lots of cases of newly signed artists who get given a fair amount of money to get started and they blow it all and forget what they were supposed to be doing. It's not that they lost their love of music, it's just that all they wanted was that record contract and to be able to say, "I am an artist". The day after that happens, they lose focus. But then there are other artists who have it all planned from day one.
What advice would you give unsigned artists on getting started in the music business?
You’ve got to show people what you can do. If you're a singer, a live confrontation is always good, a demo is great, but meeting the person you want to convince is always better. If you’ve got what it takes, it will show, but people might miss it if you just send a demo.
Try to steer clear of clichés. It doesn't matter that you've loved music all your life. That's not interesting; it’s just as it should be. Don't talk about how much you want to be an artist, just show them why you are the artist they want to sign. Do that by limiting your material to one great song instead of 15 “Hey-I-can-record-something-at-home”. One great take if you're a singer, or a really original production idea if you want to be a producer.
How do you think the Internet will affect the music business?
It has already affected the business and it’s getting late. I hope that someone has a good idea soon, because at first we thought that downloading just boosted sales because people got to hear the music but still wanted the CD. But the CD is not worth much when you find out how convenient it is to get music on demand. Of course it has to be on demand; it's the way everything else works on the Internet, so why shouldn't you be able to download music and pay for it?
Some nerd will always find a way to break through copyright protection, so the industry should stop focusing on that and instead start making it easy for people to buy music at a reasonable price and in a new way, a way that makes a cheesy, 192kbps mp3 uninteresting.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career so far?
We have gold and platinum records on the walls here, but nothing beats the moment five minutes after you've had an idea and you say to yourself, "Yeah, this is great!” That is the best moment, when you think, "Another one's coming! Thank you, God!"
All of us always think that the latest thing we've done was the last. You think it's never going to happen again, but when it does, that’s the moment and it beats everything else, especially when you're writing with someone and you share that joy.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years' time?
Still writing, probably, and I hope I'm still producing. But I know that I will have moved towards the movie side of the business, because that’s actually what I thought I would do when I was younger, before this happened. Maybe when I'm 40 I’ll be a director.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would limit the influence of politics on everything. There's politics at every level, but I try not to think about it for too long: it's the key to being productive.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Special feature: 'Swedes Behind The Scenes: Cheiron, Denniz PoP and the ongoing influence of Sweden in Pop'
* Fellow Cheiron graduate Andreas Carlsson on writing with Katy Perry
* Producer/songwriter Per Magnusson talks Cheiron, Swedish pop and Leona Lewis
* Former Max Martin and RedOne collaborator Rami on his new production house