Interview with LAUREN CHRISTY, producer for Avril Lavigne, Ricky Martin - Jul 3, 2006
"The cream rises to the top. When you keep doing it long enough and you have the talent you can’t be held down"
... assures producer/songwriter Lauren Christy, who broke Avril Lavigne (No.1 US) with her album 'Let Go' and single 'Complicated'. Once a recording artist herself, her first break as songwriter was for Christina Aguilera.
Christy chatted with HitQuarters about getting her foot in the door, working with Lavigne, Ricky Martin and Korn, and her tips for success.
How did you shift from being an artist in the 90s to becoming a producer/songwriter?
I really thought I wanted to be an artist but when I didn’t have this huge success that I dreamt of, I realized maybe that wasn’t my part. I went then with my husband, Graham Edwards, and a friend of ours, Scott Spock (both with Christy in The Matrix production team).
All three of us were very disillusioned with the music industry and when I was trying to get a new record deal for my third album I realised that people are more into my songs than into me. I just kind of decided, OK, time to be serious, time to be a big girl. I made the decision on an airplane coming back from England that I wanted to be a successful songwriter/producer and give up my dream of being an artist.
Sandy Roberton, who is my manager, really made me believe in myself as a songwriter. His enthusiasm gave me the confidence to do it.
Did you move to LA as an artist or later as a songwriter?
I arrived in LA from London to make my first record with Mercury Records, 14 years ago. I was meant to come for three months. I think this happens to a lot of people with LA It’s very seductive; you get drawn in. It became my home.
Have you been with the same management ever since?
No, I went through quiet a few. I was probably a very difficult artist. I originally met Sandy Roberton when I was 16 years old. He managed my brother’s best friend. It’s very strange for me to work with Sandy again years later. I started working with him when I was 29.
Who helped you making the first steps in LA in the early days?
My first manager and the people at Mercury Records. But during my first couple of albums I was writing a lot on my own. I did collaborations but never realised how fun they were. Now I collaborate with my partners all the time.
Were there other people who had a major influence on your career?
My husband. I met him when I was 17 years old and he spotted my talent in songwriting rather than singing. He really pushed me in the right direction. We never thought we would end up working together.
What did Sandy Roberton exactly do when he saw you as an artist?
I made the decision to forget the artist thing. But how do you do that? How do you become Diane Warren? Sandy had no doubt. He treated us like we were very successful when we had nothing going on. He believed in us so much that we started to believe in ourselves. For the first two years when we started The Matrix we didn’t have any success but he treated us like we were the prime songwriters in town.
Then we had the big success with Avril Lavigne and Christina Aguilera. Without his faith we probably wouldn’t have worked as hard. He literally made us go to work every day, saying, “You’re going to be huge, this is serious stuff, you’re professionals”. And he still drives us that way. He still calls me by 11 o’clock and asks me, “Where are you?“
My publishing was free at that time so the first thing he did was invest his money in me. He had a joint venture with Warner Publishing and signed me, Graham and Scott. And then of course he has all this connections with record labels so he could get us in the door. And now he has one of the biggest producer rosters in the world.
Of course we had to be good once we got in the door. I think our first big break came with Ron Fair, a real influence on The Matrix. He was looking for songs for Christina Aguilera and Sandy asked us if we can come up with something, which we did, and Ron, being the perfectionist, said he liked it and asked us to change the chorus and make the lyrics a little bit more grown up.
And once you have one big thing it’s like, “these guys produced Christina Aguilera.“ Sandy had something to work with. We worked then with people like Ronan Keating, Hilary Duff, Liz Phair, Britney Spears... And then this 17 years old girl came along, called Avril. That was a huge thing for us.
Does the record company approach you and ask for co-writes? How does it work?
Sometimes the artist can write and the record company asks us, if we could help out, kind of mould this artist. That was what happened with Avril. Other times we’re just pitching songs. They say: “Christina Aguilera needs a song” and we come up with something.
It tends to come from Sandy’s enthusiasm and him going to record labels and asking, “what have you got, what do you need?” You can’t wait for it to come to you.
Who is doing which part in The Matrix? Is it like one is doing the music and the other is writing the lyrics …?
Actually we all overlap. We all have our particular strengths. Graham comes from playing in many different bands. He has a huge musical knowledge of all the greatest songs in the world and he’s a fantastic bass player. He’s brilliant with melodies and comes up with the most amazing lyrics. His strength is sitting there with a guitar or bass, coming up with new melodies.
I was a solo artist, very influenced by people like Kate Bush or David Bowie. So my thing is to sit at the piano and come up with very artistic stuff. I lean very heavily on the story of the song and relate very much to the artist. I’m always like, “what do you want to say? What do you feel? Tell me what’s going on in your life”.
Then you have Scott, who has a degree in arrangement. He came from being in the jazz world playing trumpet and he’s also brilliant at the piano. He has a very technical mind, he can make amazing sounds with the equipment we have and he also gets very involved with the lyrics. Sometimes he is the one that will come up with the title. So we’re all one: if one stops the other takes over.
But if you have differing opinions do arguments come up?
Oh yes, we fight all the time but that’s a good thing. Sometimes we are literally shouting at each other like, “no no no you are wrong, I’m right!” Then we take a vote and then it’s two against one. But over the years we pretty much all tend to agree on the same stuff, I guess that’s why it works. When we have something amazing, all three of us jump up and go: "Oh my god, that’s it, that’s the chorus!”
If I’m an artist and I want to work with you, how can you make it happen?
The record company would call our manager and say what they need for this artist. If we love the music and think we can help we go for it. Sometimes the music is just perfect like it is and we don’t want to intrude. But if we think it is something so close - if the artist has an amazing voice but they just don’t have a hit song or they have a hit song but it just doesn’t sound right the way they recorded it, and we can work with him or her as a vocalist. There are always many different ways to be involved.
So do artists come to you quite often to do collaborations?
More often than not. We’re really good at that. I really don’t like it if somebody says, “The Pussycat Dolls are looking for songs. Can you pitch songs for them?” That’s just not my favourite thing to do. There are other people who do that very well.
My favourite thing is, “OK, we’re working with an artist. Can you collaborate with him? Can you sit down, get into their mind, and come up with the first single with them?”
How does a session with you look like?
On the first day it’s strange because the artists don’t know you and they are sitting there with three people they’ve never met. So we just have fun, play ideas and eat pizza just to get to know the person, till they feel like they can be free in front of us. You can’t be polite when you’re trying to write a song.
Sometimes it’s really hard when you’re working with a girl and she’s 16 and her mother is there. Then we say: “Maybe just leave her with us for a while.” Then the girl will get to see that we’re just kids and then let her walls down. Once you have broken down that wall, you can start to really focus.
Sometimes it’s just a sweet innocent kid with nothing to write about and you have to invent it for them. At that point we start pulling from our own lives. We are old enough and lived through a lot of heartaches and pain.
How exactly does that happen? Ricky Martin walks in and you start from scratch?
We never go into a session cold. If an artist is coming we listen to their music. We know the style of music they are doing and we always have about three or four ideas to play to them. We have a bit of a chorus or a verse.
Ricky is very opinionated. He knows what he wants. He’s like: “I really like this verse, I could hear something like that.” and then he will go off and say, “How about going into a chorus like this?” I have my notebooks with me and we all have these Dictaphones to store our ideas. Then we pick up the guitar and take the piano and go, “Idea three, idea 22 … these are the good ones” and we sing the ideas to the artist.
How long is a session like this normally?
Normally the first day works from about 10-11 in the morning to 7-8 at night. One song takes normally 2 days.
Do you prepare a rough production and then finish it yourselves?
We never really do demos. Usually when we start writing a song we start producing it. After the second day we have all the vocals on the track, we have a rough skeleton of the way the track is going. Then the artist leaves and we finish the production. That takes another day.
Do you have a pool of musicians that are available on the spot when you need certain instruments?
We’re not going to get a drummer and start putting a live orchestra on the song until the record company has heard it and said they like it. We have everything we need between the three of us to be able to turn out a demo that sounds like it could be on the radio.
If they like it and say, “Ok, we want to put this on the record”, we replace the programmed drums with real drums and maybe there’s a budget for strings or for some other fantastic stuff. Sometimes we get in fabulous guitar players like Dean Parks, Corky James or Randy Jacobs. But some of our demos were hits and were done just between the three of us. We thought they were rough but the record company released them.
When you write a song do you let it sit for a while and then go back to it?
We never take a verse and go, “Oh … let’s work on it tomorrow.” We finish all the melodies and the structure of the song and then we work on the lyrics. The lyrics can take a couple of days because they have to be good. But the first thing for us is the melody. We might have a hook line or the first line of the chorus but the first thing we make sure is, that we have a great structure, wonderful highs and lows and a really great and emotional melody.
Do you stick to structures like verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus?
No, there are no rules. It has to come naturally.
Is it very different to work with Ricky Martin as opposed to Korn, for example?
Oh yeah, absolutely! But that’s one of the things I’m so happy about not being an artist, where you are constantly thinking about yourself and about one type of music the whole time. It’s wonderful for me to work two days with one person and then switch to a completely different genre of music. You never get bored.
If you have a band like Korn, is there one guy who is writing with you or do you sit together with the whole band?
They are wonderful musicians. At first we had to plan, how to come into this situation. You cannot sit with a guitar and a piano in the room with Korn. The way we worked with them was, they go in a room jamming and come up with amazing stuff and we will be recording it in the other room. At night we will take all the jam sessions back to our studio and cut up pieces and make them into chord structures and go like, “this riff would be an amazing chorus.”
Then we will go back to them and sing them some melody ideas. They are always pleasantly surprised and go, “you think that section is the chorus?” and we say, “yeah, check this out”. Jonathan Davis, Korn’s vocalist is very involved in all the lyrics, with which we helped out as well. He really has a vision of what he wants to say. It was a really great marriage.
When you go in a session, do you split the publishing 50/50?
Obviously we let our manager deal with all that stuff. We never talk about that stuff with the artist. When they are established artists or amazing songwriters it tends to be an even split with us. Sometimes, if it is a completely unknown artist that never did anything and we are bringing a lot to the party, we get more than that. We try to be fair because the last thing you want is anyone complaining.
How do you get your inspiration?
Creative people are highly emotional. I suffered from depression all my life. It’s a horrible thing but it can also give you a lot of depth in your thinking and analysing. It helps me with my writing constantly. From feeling sad and sitting at the piano I just let something pour out and a lyric will come to me. With Graham and Scott it’s the same thing.
I think when you are creative you are really in touch with your feelings. If you feel it’s a great day and you are really happy the music changes for that day. You see people who have it for a long time, then it goes away, and so I just say my prayers: “please help us write a great song today.”
Do you have a technician in the studio who is available 24 hours?
Actually all three of us work with ProTools. So Scott, Graham or me are recording vocals. When we go to drum session we have a fabulous engineer who worked with us for the last three or four years. He’s called Christopher ‘Hollywood’ Holmes. He is only 22 years old and we see a great future for him.
What advice would you give an upcoming songwriter/producer to go into the market?
If you really want to do it you have to keep banging on every door and making any connection that you can - because you will come up against a lot of obstacles. But honestly I think the other people I see, our competitors, who are doing the same stuff as us, they are really good in what they do.
If you are really good, the cream rises to the top so eventually you come through. When you keep doing it long enough and you have the talent you can’t be held down.
Do you think it’s important to stay independent at the beginning or sign to a management?
Obviously you have to be careful because everyone who is successful will tell you that they were in some bad record or production deals. Unfortunately it’s kind of a learning process. The one thing I would say is, try to work with a great lawyer.
We’ve been working with Eric Greenspan for years. It’s great, if you find a lawyer, who is going to champion you and work for no money (if you make something, he will make something). At the beginning that’s really important because you need people to believe in you and watch your back that you don’t get into bad deals.
What should an artist that you’d like to work with have?
Magic? It’s hard to say. It’s not enough to have a fantastic voice and be good looking. There is this little extra thing you have to have, the star quality. Some people have this natural talent, it doesn’t matter how old or young they are. You can feel it when you start working with them.
Do you work with unsigned artists?
Sometimes. We try not to because I’m constantly been given tapes and CDs by friends. There’s kind of a right of passageway if you are an artist. When I was an artist I done a lot to get to somebody like Sandy Roberton. He wouldn’t have taken me seriously if I haven’t had been signed to EMI, Polygram Publishing and Mercury Records.
Occasionally a kid will walk out of a shopping mall, knock on the studio door and they are just amazing. But I think that’s kind of the exception. For us it’s better to be approached by the record label because they’ve done their homework: can they really perform? Can they really sing? Have they got that ‘thing’? They obviously have enough to be signed in the first place. At that point we can take something and mould it.
Are there certain conventions or happenings where you can meet people from the record industry like publishers, managers, A&Rs?
I did a panel for BMI two years ago with one of The Neptunes and a couple of other people and we spoke about potential songwriters and artists and how to get into the music industry. There are seminars and songwriting competitions. My friend Lenny Beer from HITS Magazine runs a seminar at UCLA about the record industry.
What was the greatest moment of your career?
The shock of having a number one record, and then the shock of having three number one records, and my husband, Scott and I nominated songwriter of the year at BMI and ASCAP. It was wonderful being acknowledged by the industry. But, to be honest, the biggest thing is turning on the radio in the car and hearing your song.
Interview by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Doug Howard, A&R for Rascal Flatts (No.1 US)
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