Interview with STEVE MAC, producer for Susan Boyle, JLS, Il Divo, The Saturdays - Apr 12, 2010
“As soon as the producer starts thinking they’re bigger than the artist then you tend to have a few problems.”
With over 20 #1s in the UK alone and several multi-million selling albums worldwide, Steve Mac is one of the most successful producers in modern pop. His unerring gift for crafting hits was in evidence from the off when in 1991, fresh out of school, his first ever song ‘I Wanna Give You Devotion’ reached #2 in the UK Top 40. A succession of UK and German hits followed before Simon Cowell recognised in him someone that could help bring his pop visions to life, a faith duly rewarded when charges Westlife (UK No.1), Il Divo (USA & UK No.1) and, most recently, Susan Boyle (USA & UK No.1) met with phenomenal success under the masterful studio tutelage of Mac.
A modest figure reluctant to trumpet his triumphs, Mac honours HitQuarters with a rare interview in which the Surrey-born producer-songwriter talks about the challenge of satisfying 300 million expectant fans, freaking out artists with his traditional songwriting methods and about his career evolution from the "naïve" dance pop of ‘Hear The Drummer (Get Wicked)’ to the majestic balladry of ‘Flying Without Wings’.
How do you pick your projects, or do the projects pick you?
I always choose projects where I think I can make a difference and help the artist, not projects where there are a thousand producers out there that could do exactly what I would be doing.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on JLS at the moment, their second record, and just the writing with that.
David Cook was with me last week, and we were doing some writing with Savan Kotecha and Andrew Frampton, which was good fun. I’m writing with Wayne Hector (HitQuarters interview) as well.
For me the start of the year is always about building up my song bank. My main production time is from April/May until the end of October - normally trying to get records out for the fourth quarter. The majority of the records I make come out at Christmas.
At the moment, I’m just building up - I’ve got different writers coming through. Claude Kelly is over here to do some writing. August Rigo is coming over. We’ve got lots of people coming through, which is very exciting for me at the moment.
Can you describe a normal working day in the life of Steve Mac?
I get to the studio at 10 o’clock. Everybody comes to the studio at 10. We go into one of the rooms and carry on with whatever we were doing the day before. We work through ‘til 1 o’clock when we stop for lunch for thirty minutes. And then we go straight back and carry on with the tracking or the mixing, or where ever we’re at, until about 8 o’clock, and then I go home.
I work five days a week and keep my weekends free. I’ve got three gorgeous young girls - they’re 9, 7 and 4 - and my wife at home, and I want to keep them [laughs]. It’s obviously so hard in this business and a lot of people work and travel around the clock. I try to be at home for them, but obviously they appreciate that I have to be at the studio as much as I can. The balance works really well - I get some distance from what I’m working on at the weekends, and then I go back fresh on Monday looking forward to going back to work.
Are there instances where you agonise so much over certain studio projects that it encroaches on your off-time?
Yes, and it kills me - I don’t sleep at that point. For instance, there’s one track I wrote with Wayne Hector that I’m working on, and I know we’ve got a great melody there, and it’s a great lyric, but the track isn’t quite right at the moment. I’m on my fifth time of going back and looking at it again.
Some people could have walked away and gone, “We’ll just do another one,” but I can’t let go of something like that, it’s like a puzzle I have to solve. It must get a little frustrating for Chris [Laws] and Dan [Pursey] sometimes because they don’t know what’s in my head, but that’s the fun side of it as well.
Chris Laws and Dan Pursey are your engineers at your own Rokstone Studios – how long have you worked with them?
Chris and I were best friends at school since we were 13 when I applied to join his band on keyboards. When I left school he started working with me as soon as I got my first production gig.
Dan joined me six or seven years later, again straight from school. This is the only thing we know how to do.
How long have you had Rokstone Studios?
The Studios is in Parsons Green in London. I’ve been here for twelve years now.
What gear you can’t live without in your studio – are you still attached to any old school stuff?
I have a Fairchild 670, which has the two-channel stereo that I absolutely love. That’s for vocals, drums, everything … I couldn’t live without my J-Series either.
We’ve been doing a lot of mixing in the box just in Pro Tools, but I love working on a manual board still, just from a tactile point of view - the feel of being able to smooth fade without asking an engineer to turn up a virtual fader on the computer. I know where I am with a classic board.
In an interview from ten years ago you said it was taking you an incredible two to three weeks to mix a song – is it still taking so long or have you refined your technique?
No, it’s getting a little bit quicker now [laughs]. The great thing in having your own studio is that I have three rooms here, and rather than increase the amount of work we do, it means I can leave a mix set up in one room and then go to another room and work in there. There are rooms here that we leave mixes up for a week, so the A&R guys can come back and make changes. So then we go and work in one of the other rooms.
There’s been a recent trend amongst pop producers to ‘sign’ their productions at the start of the track, as someone that seems to like to keep a low profile what are your thoughts on this?
I just don’t think my name is cool enough to put it on a track [laughs]. My production company is called Rokstone, and occasionally, if it’s a up-tempo or a dance track, I think maybe I could put my name on there. But then I think, “If people want to know, they’ll find out who it is.”
I can’t imagine doing that at the beginning of a Susan Boyle record. I don’t think she’d really appreciate me shouting my name over the front of ‘Wild Horses’ [laughs].
As producers are usually responsible for creating the track, do you think they should get greater recognition amongst music fans for what they do?
The way I tend to work is around the piano. I don’t really sit down and get a beat going and go, “Okay, let’s write over this drumbeat.” I never send out tracks.
Whoever comes in to write, we normally go into my live area where I’ve got my grand piano and we sit down in there. It freaks people out occasionally - new writers coming in - because they’re expecting to sit in a small room around a computer. We’ll then move into the studio once we get an idea.
At the end of the day the artist is the most important thing. This is the artist’s record and the producer is merely a tool for guiding the artist. As soon as the producer starts thinking they’re bigger than the artist then you tend to have a few problems.
Can you remember the first songs you ever wrote?
I’m not sure I can call it a song because it had a rap on it. It was a dance record called ‘(I Wanna Give You) Devotion’. It was the very first thing I did out of school with a guy called Damon Rochefort, and the band was called Nomad.
The track did great, it was #1 around Europe, but it was a real accident. I just remember struggling to get the drums right - I didn’t really know how to work the sequencer properly. I didn’t have that much knowledge of what I was doing, and I think if I had then it wouldn’t have been as good a track.
I spent the next year trying to work out what I did on that track and couldn’t …
Another big early hit was ‘Hear The Drummer (Get Wicked)’ – what do you about those early recordings when you hear them now?
I love the naiveté of what I was doing back then, and I miss that a little bit now. I don’t think I could go back to doing that kind of music because I’ve learned too much since then. I know quick fixes of how to get around things now, whereas at that time I didn’t. From a production point of view and from a song point of view, that changed a lot for me.
Your early hits were largely dance-based pop until you began working with Boyzone – would you say that was a major career turning point?
Yes. That was a conscious effort to try and change where we were going. My manager David Howells said, “This dance stuff you’re doing is great, but it’s very hit-and-miss. You can have a big club record but they don’t always cross over into the mainstream. If we really want to sell some records then we need to be looking elsewhere.”
There was the boyband thing at the time - Backstreet Boys had been around and Take That had been big - so we started focusing on that and approaching different people and playing some new stuff. It was a duet between a French band called Alliage and Boyzone that really got me into that.
I think Boyzone had approached the usual producers and nobody really wanted to do it. So I got a phone call from Polydor and they gave me the opportunity to make this record, which I grasped. Luckily it worked for me and got more work because of it.
Is there a song that you credit for being your career breakthrough?
I would say ‘Flying Without Wings’.
Wayne told us that you wrote that you began by first deciding what the song was about. Is that key to your technique, establishing a strong central theme that you can then work the songwriting and production around?
It’s always been very important to the two of us that it had a really strong thread of where the song was going to go and what the theme of it is about.
We truly wanted to write a song that had a line for everybody. It wasn’t just for two people in love. We had a line for our parents, we have one for people that want to live on their own … We really wanted to write a universal song, and it’s one time it really did work out.
The thing for me, and I’m sure with every writer, the moment you know you got a great song, the production just becomes so much easier. It’s the other way around when it becomes hard.
You’ve managed to ride various pop music trends over the years and consistently find success. What’s been crucial to that would you say?
I think it’s just the faith in a great song. At the times when my writing has been a bit thin and I come away from the writing, or a genre has changed, then I’ve been working on cover versions and more production - middle of the road stuff with Il Divo and Westlife - but the one thing that is constant in all of it is a great song.
If there is no great original there, we will take a great cover. The public don’t really care whether it’s an original or whether it’s a cover, they just want a great song, something that moves them.
Who would you credit as having influenced the development of your style and sound over your career?
David Foster, Walter A, Clivillés and Cole. These people start from a song background. When everybody else was listening to other things at school, when Whitney [Houston] was just coming out and then Mariah [Carey], I was listening to the commercial side that Clivillés and Cole were coming up with - song-based, great production, very tight, very pop.
How much does your work reflect your own music tastes?
Quite a lot. People ask me, “What are my favourite kinds of music?” And I always think, “I’ve got to come up with something clever, I’ve got to come up with something trendy and cutting edge.” But I love a good old-fashioned love song. I love things that move me, as well as obvious answers like Coldplay, Kings of Leon or even Take That.
These are inspirational songs, and I think that’s the thing. Once the hairs in the back of my neck start to go up, that’s all I look for in a song regardless of what genre of music it’s in.
What about current producers - do you keep a close eye on current trends in pop, listening out for new production tricks etc?
I do. I think I’ve been known over the last couple of years for AC stuff. So when you’re doing that I stick to what I know. I don’t need to listen to anything else.
But recently I was doing JLS, The Saturdays and some Toni Braxton stuff, and so you have to keep up with the current trends.
I’m 37 now, and I appreciate there’s always going to be new young producers coming through, and the slightly harder stuff I will leave to them because they do it so well - they don’t have to listen to other stuff, they just do it. I’d rather kind of not be sit and listening to stuff and copying it too much.
Who are the other producers you think are setting the pace for everyone else?
At the moment, you’re looking at Red [One] (HitQuarters interview), JR [Rotem] (HitQuarters interview), Arnthor [Birgisson] … These guys seem to understand the musicality of it – that it’s not just about the beats, the top-line is the most important thing and the chorus that goes with it.
You mentioned your work with The Saturdays being a departure from your traditional oeuvre - how did you hit on that very current electro-pop sound for ‘Ego’?
That’s a perfect example of listening to what’s going on at the moment. You listen to where Red is at and how he’s influenced the current pop trend. There’s no question that without [Lady] Gaga we wouldn’t be where we are at the moment, with what Red has done and how he has changed radio in America, and what’s acceptable, and where dance is.
Can you describe how the song was written together with Ina Wroldsen?
We were searching for sounds and found the basic hook sound that’s in the verse and carries all the way through. I started playing along to it and then Ina started singing along, and the song was written over that. No drums were ever put down.
Once we finished writing the song together, Ina laid a guide vocal over the top of the keyboard sound and then went away and left me to do the rest of it. So it really was built from that sound. It’s an Eurythmics kind of sound.
Ina is quite an exciting young writer - what’s she like to work with?
She’s fantastic - very open, very confident, she knows what she wants to hear. She takes criticism very well - she’s not, “This is my song, this is how I want it to be.” I’ll throw ideas at her and she’ll throw musical ideas at me. She’s a huge talent and definitely one of the writers to watch for the future.
You said earlier that it all comes down to a great song whether it’s an original or a cover. As someone that’s proven to be very astute at choosing covers over the years, I would guess you were strongly involved in the selection process for the Il Divo and Susan Boyle albums. How did that process work with Il Divo first of all?
Simon Cowell would give us a list of say 40 songs that they had whittled down from maybe 200.
Obviously, I would write some as well and pitch them in there with the other outside songs that’d been sent in.
We would then normally have a meeting in LA and I would explain to him what I thought would or wouldn’t work and then he would say, “Now we get down to 18 or 19 songs, but I really want you to try these songs.”
The band obviously had a say in what songs didn’t work when we got down to the 18, and from there we’d record 15 and then 12 would be chosen for the record.
And how about with Susan Boyle?
Susan had a big say in what she wanted to record. She’s an extraordinary artist - she’s an old school artist in that she can only sing what she feels in her heart. She’s not one of those singers that can make anything sound good, it’s only if she feels the passion of it and understands the lyric. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked with an artist that could do that.
Again, they got down to about 150 songs through all the various A&R guys sending songs to Simon, and then when he got down to about 50, Susan was involved with a choice, and we’d sit there and say, “Let’s try this song.” We soon found out which songs were going to work for her and which weren’t. Then we whittled it down to 11 songs after recording 20.
With such a huge level of expectation how did you approach the record to try to meet the challenge?
She’s a phenomenon - everybody knew who this woman was. We’ve never seen anything like this on YouTube with a recording artist and before she was even a recording artist, just from this show Britain’s Got Talent.
The idea everybody had originally was to make a record that started small, ended big - the usual way of making a record. To be fair to Simon, he sat there and said, “You know what, she’s much better than this. We can make a great record. We don’t have to try too hard with this woman - she has a beautiful voice, let the voice do the work.” That was so refreshing to hear. It meant we could strip the songs back.
’Wild Horses’ was notably stripped back – why was that chosen to be the lead single?
Nobody ever thought ‘Wild Horses’ would be the lead track when we discussed the choice of songs in the A&R meeting. That was just going to be a nice album track because I had said originally that I wanted to do it with just piano, strings and Susan’s vocal.
It was only at the end when I said to Simon, “You really need to hear this.” He said, “This has to be the lead track. It’s exactly what I want to hear from her. It’s different. It’s going to surprise a lot of people.”
I think after 300 million people had seen her on YouTube, we needed to surprise them again, and I think we did with ‘Wild Horses’.
In comparison to working with young straight pop acts, is it easier to work with artists like Susan Boyle and Il Divo because you don’t have to keep up with the latest trends?
Most definitely. I think that’s why I’ve stuck around for a little longer than other people, because my main genre is the ballads. A ballad has been a ballad for the last fifty years, a love song is a love song, and it’s all about the melody and it’s all about the lyric. I can always come out of that whenever I like and try to lock into the current trend.
What have you learnt from the experience with the ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ album that you’ll now take into the next album?
We will definitely try out a lot more songs on the next record. Now Susan’s used to the studio and the recording process, this time round we might go even further down a traditional route of recording by getting a band together and rehearsing songs before we go into the studio to see what works, how she reacts with certain parts, and so we can change the arrangements that way. I think that’s going to work much better.
Are you writing for her new album?
Yes, we’re writing at the moment. We’ve got a few songs. It’s always a lot more difficult writing for the second album, especially when you come off the back of 9 million sales.
What themes are you tapping into?
I need to speak to Susan and find out where she wants to come from. She’s got a lot of things she wants to say in her songs, which is lovely. With Susan it’s very important she connects with the public and the public connect with her. She doesn’t want to sing anything that hasn’t happened to her or she can’t relate to.
Besides the Susan Boyle and Il Divo projects, Simon Cowell is a very important ally in your career. How did you first meet him?
I was a teaboy at a studio in Surrey, and Simon was working with a producer, Nigel Wright, who is now his MD for all his TV shows. This was in 1990/1991 and Simon had a record company called Fanfare Records that he had an artist called Sinitta signed to. He used to come down and make records, and I used to make him tea.
I left there and went off to do my own thing, and ten years later he heard a song called ‘Forever’ that I wrote for a band called Damage, and he absolutely loved it. He was trying to find out who had written it and he contacted me and said, “I can’t believe you’re the same guy. I want you to do some writing for me. We have this band I’m putting together.”
They weren’t called Westlife at the time, they were called IOYOU. And so we started doing some writing, and wrote ‘Swear It Again’ and ‘Flying Without Wings’ for them. And then from that day on the relationship took off.
Would he always have final approval on the projects you do with him?
Always. What I love about working with Simon is he will give me my space - he never comes to the studio. We have a meeting before we start about what kind of record we’re going to make, and then he’ll let me go off and make it.
The first time he’ll hear it is when I deliver my first finished mix, which is normally something like mix 6 or 7 because I make six or seven changes to it from the first mix. And then we’ll go through changes that Simon hears on there as well and discuss them. Normally we end up at mix 12 or mix 13.
Is that right that the song ‘Forever’ also marked the beginning of your songwriting partnership with Wayne Hector?
I needed somebody to do background vocals and someone said, “I know this guy Wayne Hector. He’s very good.” He came down and we got chatting and hit it off, and he said, “I like writing songs and I’ve written a few.” And I said that we should have a go at doing it together.
The very first song we wrote was ‘Forever’ and that went Top 3 in the national chart here. So we thought it was worth carrying on.
You said earlier that you like to write with other writers while sitting at your piano, is that how you and Wayne work together?
I find it very hard to write anywhere but in a studio environment, and I love to have the co-writer with me.
Wayne will turn up, we’ll book a week - normally it’s one week a month - and he’ll come down and we’ll spend that whole week near the piano just trying ideas, throwing things to each other. Wayne will come in and sing a melody line and a hook that he’s heard or I’ll sing something to him or play him something, and it’ll go from there.
I would say, seven out of the ten songs we write take six to seven months because we’ll have lots of verses we’ve written over that time, and then when we come up with the chorus, we’ll string them together. Occasionally we have songs that we just finish in a day, but most of the time we take our time and go back to it and change a lot of stuff on the way.
It was with Hector that you wrote JLS’ ‘Beat Again’. How did that song come together?
That was one of the times where I got a track together with Wayne in the room. I was playing the chords, the hook-line, and Wayne started singing over the top of it.
The irony of that song is we were in for a week and for the first four and a half days we thought we’d written the best song we’d ever written - this was another ‘Flying Without Wings’ for us, this was our big one! And at the end of the session we had two hours to spare and wrote ‘Beat Again’.
That first song we wrote, no one has cut that still, but ‘Beat Again’ – which only took two hours to write - is hugely successful. Go figure [laughs].
You then played it to Nick Raphael (HQ interview), who decided it would be the lead off single?
Nick came down to the studio to have a meeting with me because he wanted another ballad for them. He said, “We’ve got this boyband from the show, JLS. We want to go down more of a Boyz II Men route, like ‘End Of The Road’. Could you give us another ‘Flying Without Wings’?”
Doing another boyband didn’t really interest me and in this current climate, I’m not sure a boyband doing ballads is going to be received that well at radio and by the public. So I said, “Well, I can’t do that, but let me play you some other stuff I’ve been working on anyway.”
I said, “I don’t think this one is for you guys, but I really like this song. It’s only a rough …” And I played ‘Beat Again’ to him, which was called ‘No Beat’ at the time. He just flipped. He said, “I need to take this away with me. I love this - can I have it?” I never would have thought a song like that would go to a boyband.
What’s in store for you during the rest of 2010?
Well, we’ll be looking at Susan’s next record. That will probably take three or four months out of the year. I’m just talking at the moment about possibly working with Matthew Morrison from Glee. So I’m quite excited about that.
Apart from that, at the moment we’re just writing and I’m just pitching new songs. I just finished a track for Toni Braxton’s record, a song called ‘Woman’ that I wrote with Wayne. And really just try and keep it as loose as possible, so that I’m available to try some new and different things.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Our series on the hit and star maker label Beluga Heights continues with an interview with A&R Tommy Rotem
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* Interview with Mac's songwriting partner Wayne Hector
* Producer JR Rotem talks sampling and Beluga Heights
* Hottest producer today RedOne on his struggle for success
* Interview with Epic UK manager director Nick Raphael