Interview with REDONE, producer and songwriter for Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, Akon - March 23, 2009
“You never know when the magic will happen - a person sings something, comes up with a lyric, and you compliment it, and suddenly ‘boom!’”
With hits for Lady Gaga (US & UK No.1), Akon (US Top 10), Kat DeLuna (US Top 20), Darin (Sweden No.1) and a World Cup anthem to his name there’s no question that RedOne is a red hot producer right now, and his golden boy status was recently crowned when the ‘King of Pop’ himself, Michael Jackson, turned to him to help orchestrate the legend’s return to the charts.
HitQuarters caught the LA-based songwriter-producer on a break from an exhaustive schedule to discuss his rise to the top, World Cup glory and to watch the open and amiable pop-meister clam up when the confidential subject of Jacko is raised.
What was it that first drew you into the music industry?
I started playing instruments and singing at home with my family in Morocco, and when I was 16 I decided that this is what I wanted to do for a living. Then I tried to convince my family to let me go to Sweden, because there was so much good music coming from there. When I heard the band Europe for the first time, I wanted to be a rock star. So I went to Sweden to kind of meet them.
I left for Sweden when I was 19 with my best friend. I didn't know anyone down there, so I had to start from scratch. I started studying music and played in bands. In 1995 I changed from being a guitar player and singer to the production side and then started writing for other people.
How did you manage the transition from musician to professional producer? Was there anyone who helped you make that leap?
There was this producer Rami [Yacoub] (read the HitQuarters interview with Rami here), who later became Max Martin’s partner. I met him at a birthday party and we kept in touch. So when I decided to become a producer, I called him up and played him songs I had been writing and we decided to start writing together. He taught me about programming and how the software works.
Would you say you are now more a songwriter or producer?
I would say more a songwriter. Melody is so important to me and I always try to make the lyrics as good as possible. But I always paid attention to what was going on in the song - how the drums should do this and how the bass should do that. I always had a vision.
How do you write songs – do you work on your own or prefer to write with other people?
Every time you work with someone else, you will get something out of it and you always learn. It’s just a fun process to be open to other people and not go for the ego thing. Because you never know when the magic will happen - a person sings something or comes up with a lyric, and you compliment it and suddenly ‘boom!’
How would you say your Moroccan background and time in Sweden have affected your music?
Growing up in Morocco meant listening to every kind of music – from rock to pop to dance music, Moroccan traditional, Andalusian music, R&B… Morocco is a very multicultural country and its music is very rhythmic. That always helped me to have that swagger and to have that extra solid rhythm thing.
Living in Sweden added the pop, commercial, quality side of it. People in Sweden just love melodies. It is about creating something that makes you happy, and not complicating it too much. I love bands like Europe, Abba or Roxette.
Mixing these two worlds is the perfect combination. Everyone that hears my music thinks it is so global.
How appropriate then that your song ‘Bamboo’ became the theme for the 2006 World Cup! How did that come about?
It is a Moroccan traditional chant that I always used to sing as a kid. So we were like, “what’s better than that for a World Cup?” I had a connection with someone at FIFA and the song was the first song submitted. After one and a half years of having hundreds of songs from Destiny’s Child and so on, they said there was no song better than the song they heard in the beginning. This was one of the few times where the decision was just about the song and not about politics.
What was your connection to FIFA?
They have a few people that are responsible for organising the music. I luckily knew one person who was looking for songs for their music programme. So when I played it to him. He was like, “oh my God, this is amazing I've got to play it in the next meeting!”
One of the most memorable aspects of the World Cup final was Shakira performing a mash-up of ‘Bamboo’ and her own massive hit ‘Hips Don’t Lie’– how did that come together?
Shakira was supposed to do the song but at that time her record company Epic came out with a single ‘Hips Don't Lie’. So the timing was clashing, and they didn't want to have two singles out at the same time and her other song was already on the radio. But Shakira really wanted to do that event. It was a big thing - there were like 2.3 billion people watching.
So I thought why not combine the two songs and make it work? So they let me try it and I had one weekend to make a version. When I played it to them they said, “it’s beautiful and it works!”
How much of an impact did that have on your career?
Suddenly you get more meetings and more established A&R people are listening to your music, but at the same time it didn't do what I thought it would do. It didn't take me to A-league. It was a good thing for me as a personal achievement but in terms of business or attracting labels to get more work, it didn't have a big impact, especially not in the US. It opened a few doors that closed quickly after.
Before I had three songs that were hits in Sweden and that took me 14 years to get there. Just before the World Cup, I had a big hit in Scandinavia with an artist called Darin (‘Step Up’) that won a couple of awards.
After the World Cup I moved to the US, because I thought, it's now or never. So I moved to New York, and that was a struggle - it was so hard to get a cut. I was just about to go back - I broke down, I lost all my money and thought, this is not working here. And it was my wife who said, “you can always go back to Sweden - it's not the end of the world. But let's give it three more months.”
In the first month I got my first production, because Charlie Walk heard what I was doing. When I worked with Kat DeLuna we did five songs in five days, and one of them was ‘Whine Up’. When Charlie heard the songs he said to me, “you are going to do the whole album.” After that I teamed up with Akon.
So how did you meet Akon?
We had a mutual friend, my partner called Efe. So we started a company together called RedOne Konvict. We decided that everything we do together we put out on RedOne Konvict on a non-exclusive basis. Suddenly all the doors were open and I became one of the A-list producers that everyone wants to work with.
My management company New Heights was always pushing me and fighting for me, but the moment when I teamed up Akon you felt the change in a big way.
Was it easy for you to get a working visa when you moved to the US?
Yeah, because I had hits in Europe and through the World Cup thing I got an O-1 visa, an extraordinary talent Visa.
At that time, what was a typical working day like for you? Did you work from home?
Until I met Akon I was mainly working from home, but with him we had studios booked for us everywhere. Whatever you were doing, you always had the biggest studio booked from the label. I got my own studio when I decided to move to L.A. - all of my work was coming from there, mainly through Interscope. I got so much work from Martin_Kierszenbaum and Vince Herbert.
I was working from the moment I got up till I went to bed. A lot of my life has been work, work, and work. I always want to step up my game and just make quality music.
How long do you work on a song normally?
It varies from situation to situation. It doesn't take me long when it comes to production. When I hear something I know what I have to do. Doing the vocals takes me more time than making the track.
Do you sing on the demos yourself?
A lot of times, yes. Coming up with a good melody is what I'm good at. Outside the US or England people cannot deal with too many lyrics. They just want a nice melody and a smart catchy simple line, where they can sing along - the simpler the better, especially in the chorus. I would say for 90% of the songs I do the melody. Sometimes with Lady Gaga or Akon they come up with killer melodies.
As Akon works as producer as well, doesn't that ever clash?
No not at all. We just have fun - just like kids. Forget who you are and put your ego aside.
If he comes up with something good, why should I say, “no let's do it like this.” He might say, “can you do the bass drum like this?” And I'll try and sometimes it's better. With everything I do I try to look at it from the outside and not think of it as mine.
When you start writing a song, how do you start, which instruments do you use?
That's different every time. Sometime I would just track the chords and then build the song around it, sometimes I have the melody and I built the chords around it. Sometimes I just play guitar and sing to it and if I come across something great, I have to record it and then build the track afterwards.
If you go into a song writing session, how do you prepare? Do you collect ideas? Do you listen to what the artist has done before?
Honestly, before I used to collect. But what proved to be the best thing for me was building something from the energy the artist gives me.
Sure, I do the research about what the artist is, but you don't want to copy what they've already done. You want to come up with something new and mix up the two worlds together. Most of the time, I create the track on the spot. Whatever vibe is there, or whatever energy the artist gives me. With Lady Gaga, I almost feel like I'm a mirror. She has crazy ideas - she's like a born energy of inspiration.
Do you have a set up in your computer that you work with, so you have all your sounds ready?
I use Logic and I have my favourite sounds. I mainly use what is in Logic, record some live bass or a guitar and I have my sample collection that I have been collecting for many years.
With Akon for example I have sounds that are what Akon is to me. If the artist is more rock, I have my favourite rock sounds. Even if I don't have the right sound I will just make it. Tweak, tweak, and tweak until a have the sound that I want to have. You don't have to use the sounds the way they are - if you tweak it suddenly it becomes yours.
Sometimes people over think what they are doing – they think they need tons of sounds, but that doesn't make better music. Even if you have just 10 sounds, you can combine them and come up with something new. Like with the Lady Gaga song ‘Just Dance’, there are only about five sounds. Don't make the production too busy and just let the song shine.
How did you meet Lady Gaga?
Through my management, New Heights - they used to manage her. Actually at the time I started working with her she had just been dropped from her record label. My manager called me and said, “You have to meet this girl, she is the most incredible artist.” If someone is good, it doesn't matter to me if that person has a deal. The first day we worked together, we came up with a song called ‘Boys Boys Boys’ and we just clicked.
How does the combination work in the studio with Lady Gaga - who is doing the music and who is doing the lyrics?
We create things together. It's not me, it's not her, we just do it together organically from scratch. She is involved in the process from zero till the song is done. Of course she trusts me. She is a professional and that makes you become better and better, and she is so talented. Some artists can be over the top control freaks - that just kills the magic. With her it is not like that.
So for example, how was ‘Just Dance’ written?
I started with the synth sequencer line, “du du du, du du du du du…” and then put the chords on top and then of course the drums. She was constantly singing while we were building the track.
We put in pieces of melody here and there and started working on the verses. Then we were thinking, what should the chorus be like? And we were singing the “just dance” lyric. We came up with a melody, but didn't have any lyrics to it. When the label guy came in he said, “No, don't change anything. It's perfect like it is, it doesn't need lyrics here just leave it - do, do, do … just dance!” The funny thing is that the song was written in just one hour - it was magical.
Where do your musical inspirations come from?
I am from a big family, where I was the youngest and so I was exposed to so many different music styles. One brother was crazy about the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, the other brother about Stevie Wonder and my sisters made me listen to Julio Iglesias. That's why I can do every style of music and I am open to anything.
What advice would you give an upcoming producer trying break into the music industry?
Listen to as much music as you can and analyse it. Listen to all styles of music. What makes you feel a certain way? Why is the chorus so big? What elements are memorable to people? And compare with other people's quality. Don't copy, but compare. At the same time work really hard, because the more you do the better you get.
Another thing that is really important is how you are with people. If you cannot do the business by yourself - you are not a people person and cannot meet people and talk to them - then find someone who can do that job. Not a hustler, but someone you can connect with and knows about music.
Always try to maintain a good relationship with the people around you. In times when you are not hot you can always come back and people will always give you a second chance, because you're always in a good place in their hearts. And get someone who can sell your music. Not someone that talks too much. And of course focus on the music and the quality of the music.
You recently started working with Michael Jackson, is that right?
Yes, but I'm not allowed to talk about it.
How did that come about?
Through my lawyer and Akon.
How is it working with Michael? Is he very demanding, or do you get a lot of freedom?
All I can say is, he is the best. He is very inspirational and very open. It seems like there is no limit in what he knows about music, about productions and about emotions.
Were you star struck in the beginning when you met him?
Yes, of course. I couldn't believe it. But he makes you feel comfortable.
Do you feel like there is a lot to live up to?
It’s hard. But you have to believe in yourself and see what you can bring to the table. Follow your heart and make it as perfect as possible, but don't over think things and don't doubt yourself too much.
What are the future plans with Michael?
I have no idea. No one knows.
How about you - what are your plans for 2009?
I want to make more hits, inspire people, work with big artists and break new artists. That is the best thing - if you can help someone become something bigger.
Also, it would be nice to work with Madonna ...
Interview by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Interview with Monte Connor, legendary A&R at Roadrunner Records
Read On ...
* A&R Martin Kierszenbaum (Lady Gaga, Feist, Sting) on finding new talent
* Songwriter Claude Kelly on writing Michael Jackson's 'Hold My Hand' with Akon
* Producer and A&R Knobody on breaking Akon in the streets