Interview with MICH ‘CUTFATHER’ HANSEN, producer for Pussycat Dolls, Jordin Sparks, Pixie Lott, Jamelia, Christina Aguilera - Nov 2, 2009
“You’re never better than your current project. If you don’t deliver for the project you’re on then you’re probably not going to get the call again.”
In the ever changeable world of pop, few can hope to match the amazing longevity and success of production, songwriting and mix maestro Mich ‘Cutfather’ Hansen, who since the mid 90s has clocked up 37 Top Tens and 7 No.1s in the UK alone.
Although this hit record reflects his long-time focus on UK artists, the Danish producer has recently set his sights across the Atlantic, and is already reaping the rewards, having recently secured hits for Pussycat Dolls (UK & GER No.1, USA Top 5), Jordin Sparks (USA & UK Top 10), and a production date with Kelly Rowland (USA & UK No.1).
HitQuarters talks with the Cutfather about his recent ventures into US, the creation of Jamelia’s classic ‘Superstar’, his adeptness at choosing the perfect songwriting/production partners and also finds out how the classic film The Godfather influenced his career.
In our last interview 8 years ago you said you wake up wanting to go into the studio, are you still as enthusiastic and ambitious about your job now?
Yes, I still like to be there. I still love it. It’s all good.
Pop music is known as a very fleeting genre where the one year’s big success is forgotten the next. Is that the case with pop production in that you can’t live off past glories for long but have to keep re-establishing your name with hits?
You’re never better than your current project. If you don’t deliver for the project you’re on then you’re probably not going to get the call again. That’s my feeling.
As someone with considerable history of production credits, do you find any of your older recordings – such as with Jamelia and Mark Morrison - carry weight with the modern artists you work with?
I have had a couple of instances where people have asked for it. Obviously in the ‘Return Of The Mack’ days everybody wanted to have a track sounding like that. A lot of people have also asked whether they can have a song like ‘Superstar’.
As time evolves and if I keep doing what I do, certain songs will come back in fashion and I will have people asking for that kind of thing again. But right now, it’s other stuff that they’re asking for.
Although working in the pop field you have to keep very up to date, you’ve described your recent work with your current songwriting and production partner Jonas ‘Jay Jay’ Jeberg as taking music “back to the roots” – what did you mean by that?
It means using something that I grew up with, such as with the song ‘Let The Music Play’ [by Shannon] that I’ve just used in that Jordin Sparks song. It was one of my favourite songs from growing up as a DJ and I like pay tribute to where it comes from.
As a Dane that has had a very strong working relationship with the UK market for many years, would you say there is a difference between what makes a hit in the European and US markets?
Stylistically there have always been differences. The US market seems to be more urban, and the lyrics more streetwise – at least in the urban market. The UK market has for a long time been more pop.
In the recent climate though, I think it has changed a lot and it’s much more pop in the US now than it has ever been before.
I also think it’s come back round to dance - the old soul and soul disco dance in a way as well. It’s hard to say where it’s going to go next.
You’ve recently worked with the US girl group Pussycat Dolls - did the American focus affect the way you approached the production?
I didn’t know this song ‘I Hate This Part’ was going to be for Pussycat Dolls at first. The song was made at the studio in Njalsgade together with Jonas, Wayne Anthony Hector and Lucas Secon, and we basically did the song and the track in one day and one night. And then it took a couple of weeks where we didn’t do anything, and then we mixed it.
The same day we mixed the demo, I sent it off to Ron Fair at Interscope in America (read the HitQuarters interview with Ron here), and he replied the same day saying he loved it. The next day we had a cut with Pussycat Dolls.
How did the original track come together for the song?
It came from a piano line idea, and then it tagged on from the piano idea to bringing the beat on it and then the melody came on top and then the lyrical concept. It was very fast - within only a couple of hours.
The Pussycat Dolls didn’t record the song with you at your studio in Copenhagen?
The vocals and the strings were recorded in LA, and the rest in Copenhagen. They didn’t come to Copenhagen, no.
How long have you had your recording studio in Njalsgade, in Copenhagen?
It must be since about 1997.
Do you work away from your studio much?
It happens sometimes, like we’ve just been in the UK to work with the X Factor group JLS.
Do the other studios you work in need to have certain qualities?
Jonas works on Logic - so, mainly we work on Logic - and then all we need is a good vocal booth and a good vocal mic. As long as the rooms have a good sound, studios can be very basic today.
What equipment can’t you live without?
The Sony mic C-800G and the Mac computer.
So you don’t have any preferences for old school analogue equipment?
I think the type of music we do can all be done on a laptop.
How long did you spend recording the Dolls themselves and then how long was spent in mixing and post production?
We spent about two days vocal recording, and then I think they had a couple of tries on some different things and then we tried some guitar stuff. We then did strings in one day with Ron with him conducting. And then we mixed for quite a bit. We flew back to Copenhagen, and then back to LA again where we did the mix for a couple of days. It was back and forward. It probably took about four days to do the mix.
Did all the Dolls take part in the vocal session?
It was only Nicole [Scherzinger] that sang on the track. Only her.
It sounds like the A&R Ron Fair had a significant involvement and influence over the sessions – what actual input did he have on the music?
Even though it’s the same musical path that’s on the demo, the song sounds quite different in the final mix. There’s a lot more effects and a lot more space on the final master compared to the demo.
Also I think that vocally, even though Jonas more or less produced the vocals, [Fair] had some input that took it in a quite different direction.
What kind of input was that?
In how her voice should have a lot more howl in the outro. His input was that she needed to be more dramatic and more powerful. It was nothing major though.
In general how do you find it dealing with the A&R of artists? Do they let you get with your work or do they, as in the case of Ron Fair, get more involved in how the music is created?
I think it’s very different. It can be either - some A&Rs really want to get involved and some just let you get on with it.
With your recent work with both Pussycat Dolls and Jordin Sparks you seem to be a moving more towards US pop artists. Is this a conscious move – do you want to work more within the US market in future?
I’d like to work more with US artists. Right now it looks like I’m going to record something with Kelly Rowland in the next couple of weeks.
A lot of the time I think US artists have it easier in becoming successful in both the US and Europe, whereas European artists have it harder finding success in the US. It is happening more and more though, but it’s normally the other way around.
Is that more urban, R&B influence also something that appeals to you about US pop?
Yes it is.
You’ve worked with a number of different production partners – including Joe Belmaati, Pilfinger and Jonas Jeberg – why is that?
I do work with different guys. Mainly it’s because I don’t do the programming anymore myself - I haven’t done for years, since I worked with Soulshock, my first long time partner. I’ve worked with different programmers and producers that are better at that, and I spent a lot more time with these guys.
Would you say your inspired choice of production partners has be key to your longevity in the industry?
I think that partnerships are very much a key thing in my working life. It’s about collaborations with different people that are good at what they do, and in my world, that’s how the best music gets done.
Do you think there’s a limited time you should work with another person before it’s time to start afresh and move on?
I don’t think there’s a limited time. It depends on how the relationship goes. When I broke with Joe [Belmaati], it wasn’t me ending our working relationship. We’re still good friends. But he’s not doing music anymore, not for the time being anyway. I think he was getting tired of the way the music business was, which I can’t really disagree with.
He came to me and said that he wasn’t sure if he thought it was the right way where everything was going and that he thought that we just should have a break for a couple of weeks. And then after the couple of weeks he came and said that he wanted to quit. This was three years ago.
What else has been important to your continued success?
I think it’s about having a good ear for the right melodies and the right beats. I like to be associated with chart music and with radio hits, and so I think it’s also about finding out what’s going happening on the radio today and tomorrow, and what’s going to become the hits.
Every day I spend quite a bit of time researching what’s going on in the charts around the world and just listening to new stuff.
You said that whereas your strengths were in communicating and networking, Joe’s were in programming and the technical aspects of recording. Does your current partner Jonas ‘Jay Jay’ Jeberg also offer this good balance?
I find a really good balance with him. But he’s also doing stuff on his own. It’s not like we’re doing 100% of work together. Like he’s just on the new Amerie album that’s coming out in a couple of weeks time in the US. And I’ve done other stuff. I’ve got the new Jordin Sparks single out - ‘S.O.S. (Let The Music Play)’ - which I’ve done with another producer called Pilfinger, who is another young guy here in Copenhagen. So, there’s stuff that we’re working on and then there’s stuff that we’re working with different people on.
How did you meet with Jonas?
Jonas I met because he had a studio in the same building in Njalsgade as I’m in. I’ve been working with him for three years now.
How did you first hook up with Jordin Sparks?
Jordin came through Jeff Fenster at Jive Records (read the HitQuarters interview with Jeff here). He’s the A&R there and he liked the song [‘One Step At A Time’], and passed it on to 19, the management company. Robbie Nevil then co-wrote the song. He did a demo with Jordin in LA, in his studio. From there that became the record more or less.
So with regards to the songwriting you and Jonas created the track and then Robbie Nevil toplined over it?
Yes, it was written by Jonas and me. We did the track, and then sent it to Robbie Nevil, who wrote the song together with a girl called Lauren Evans.
How did Jeff Fenster get the song in the first place?
I can’t remember if it was me or if it was Robbie’s manager.
As pop reality shows are meant to promote top quality singers, have you found that in the studio they are very professional, and quick and easy to work with?
Most of the time, yeah. We just worked with Alexandra Burke as well as with Jordin. They’re very professional and very good singers.
In nailing first takes for instance?
Not nailing the first take. They are certainly quick, a lot of them. On the last Jordin Sparks song ‘S.O.S. (Let The Music Play)’ that is out now, she was only there for about 2 and a half hours to do the whole vocal.
Pixie Lott is said to be the first British female pop artist to top the UK charts without being from a reality show for a long while. Is her individuality something that appealed to you?
I think she’s a very talented singer. She’s a beautiful girl and she has got a great voice, and she has a strong label and management team behind her as well. It looks like it’s really paying off now. I think she’s a very cool girl and we used to have a lot of fun. She has been here to Copenhagen three or four times.
What was the original inspiration behind the song ‘Superstar’?
I was originally inspired by a Liberty X song called ‘Just A Little’. I liked that song and wanted to do something, not similar, but something in that vibe.
So how did the songwriting come together with Joe Belmaati and Remee?
Remee had a vocal idea with some of the melodies, and we started to do the track around that, and then we built up the song around that track. That went very quick as well.
‘Superstar’ was originally a single for Christine Milton. Was it originally written for her?
How did you come to produce it for Jamelia?
EMI signed the song. They liked it pretty much both at the same time.
The two versions are very similar but would you say you altered the track in any way to fit Jamelia and a more international audience?
Yes, they’re very similar, but I don’t want to get too much involved into that because we still have an issue about it legally.
What have you been working on recently that’s due for release?
The Kelly Rowland stuff is looking like that’s going to go through. And then we’re working with a really talented guy called Ed Druid, who’s signed to EMI in the UK. Then there’s a girl on Def Jam in the US called Kerli. And there’s the Australian Idol girl, Jessica Mauboy, that we had a No.1 with in Australia. I think that’s coming out in the UK soon. We just did a song with Booty Luv in the UK.
You’re represented by XL Talent in the UK. How did you first get involved with them?
I got involved with them pretty much right before ‘Return Of The Mack’ came out in the UK, and then I’ve been with them ever since. It was through a guy called Gordon Charlton [former Reverb Music and XL Talent Partnership creative director], who was visiting Denmark because he had a Danish artist that he was working with. I knew him from his earlier A&R job at CBS, and he came to see me.
Do you think it’s necessary for a producer to have a manager?
I think it’s a good idea.
How much direct communication do you have with them?
It’s intense – I’ve probably spoken to them about five to six times already today. Maybe it’s a busy day, but it’s certainly almost every day.
Do you still accept unsolicited demos?
Yeah. I listen to demos quite a bit through MySpace.
Have you discovered anyone this way?
A couple of producers and a couple of songwriters asked me to get involved to write top lines to tracks. Those have been very good, I think.
What would be your advice for upcoming producers in how to present themselves and take that next step to a professional level?
In this day and age it’s about being very focused on what’s going on in the marketplace. It’s about getting your network up to a level where you can get your material to people that at least have access to the right people. Having a network is one of the key things today if you have the right material.
Finally, where does the name ‘Cutfather’ originate from?
It originated from my DJ career when I was in DJ mix competitions. There was an organisation called Disco Mix Club, and they held these competitions in Denmark and around the world, and I took part in them. When I was starting rehearsing as a DJ, me and my friend were watching The Godfather, and I decided from then to become The Cutfather.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: The A&R behind the rise of Paramore and Shinedown, Steve Robertson, is interviewed
Read On ...
* Archive interview with Cutfather & Joe from 2001
* Songwriter Chris Braide on writing with Pixie Lott
* Pixie Lott songwriter Nicole Morier on getting her first publishing deal
* A&R Ron Fair on engineering Pussycat Dolls' breakthrough