Hitmaker Greg Kurstin on Working with Adele, Sia, Beck and More
By Erik Philbrook, Editor-in-Chief, @erikphilbrook • September 28, 2016
SONGWRITER, PRODUCER and multi-instrumenalist Greg Kurstin has had his hand in creating many hits over the last decade, including Adele’s “Hello,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” P!nk’s “Blow Me (One Last Kiss),” Ellie Goulding’s “Burn,” Lily Allen’s “The Fear” and Sia’s “Chandelier.” Kurstin also co-wrote and produced three songs in total on Adele’s record-smashing album, 25.
Los Angeles native Kurstin is an accomplished jazz pianist, having spent many years playing with jazz legends Bobby Hutcherson and Charles McPherson, and as a sideman, collaborating with Beck, Ben Harper and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others. He is is also one half of the indie pop duo The Bird and The Bee.
In 2015, prior to the massive success of “Hello” with Adele, Kurstin received his second Producer of the Year Grammy nomination for producing Sia’s 1000 Forms of Fear, Kelly Clarkson’s Christmas album Wrapped in Red, and songs for Lykke Li (“Gunshot”), Lana Del Rey (“Money Power Glory”), Katy Perry (“Double Rainbow”) and Ellie Goulding’s “Beating Heart.” He also picked up a nomination for Record of the Year for production and engineering duties on “Chandelier.”
Kurstin was a top keynote speaker at the ASCAP “I Create Music” EXPO earlier this year. Currently working on a variety of projects, Kurstin talked to ASCAP about writing with Adele, how jazz informs his pop career and what it is like to be one of today’s biggest hitmakers. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.
When you began writing songs with Adele for her new album, what sort of creative demands were put on the table as you two collaborated?
She had played me some things that she had written, and I think she had been working on a lot of music before I even got in the room with her. I know that some of it was possibly going to make the record, and some of it wasn’t, and that she was sort of rethinking a lot of the songs. I got there during a transitional time.
I didn’t really have much direction from her. It was more like, let’s just go, get in the studio and see what happens. I had prepared some ideas. I like to write from scratch most of the time, but I like to have a backup plan just in case.
One of those ideas turned into a song called “Water Under the Bridge.” We wrote the chorus in the room but the seed of the idea I had brought into the studio. “Hello” and “Million Years Ago,” both came from improvising in the room together.
At what point in the process did “Hello” emerge?
The very first week I worked with her, we wrote “Water Under the Bridge.” Then throughout the week I would play different chord progressions, or we would take a break and listen to the music. That’s how “Hello” began, but we didn’t finish it until much later.
We wrote another chorus for it but it wasn’t the right chorus, so “Hello” became like a half-finished song the very first time we got together. It wasn’t until six months later that we got into finishing it. I didn’t even know if we were going to finish it. I just know that she really liked the verse and thought there was a lot of potential. I didn’t have any expectations. It’s been my experience before that sometimes if you don’t get it the first time it just doesn’t happen. [LAUGHS]
But I got the call to work again and I was very excited. We ended up looking at that song again and trying a bunch of ideas. Finally we wrote that chorus that felt like “the one.”
“Hello” shattered all expectations. What do you think it is about Adele as an artist that makes her such a phenomenal success?
As a songwriter and as a vocalist, Adele is amazing. You have that. But then there’s something about her that’s just very honest. I feel like so many people across the board can relate to her and who she is. She’s just so appealing, and very real.
You had a very serious music education in jazz before you really entered the whole pop/rock world. What happened there?
[LAUGHS] I’ve always felt like I had a dual life. You know, even before I really got serious into playing jazz, I was into pop music. When I was a young teenager it was all about The Clash for me and that sort of English punk stuff. Then the Clash led me to all these other kinds of music, classic rock, Stevie Wonder, world music and Brazilian music. I got serious about jazz when I was probably about 14 or 15. I moved to New York to play with Charles Mingus’s pianist [Jaki Byard] and started pursuing a jazz career. I continued to work as a jazz musician throughout my 20s and I got to play with Bobby Hutcherson and some really great jazz musicians.
But I think playing jazz was also very intense, and competitive, not so much with other people, but just because I put a lot of pressure on pushing myself to be as good as I possibly could be. And there are so many great players too. So I think to relieve some of that pressure I entered the pop music world to create. I realized I loved songwriting, ultimately. And I was always producing tracks on my four-track and arranging and writing and making beats and stuff like that, even in my jazz life too. So I’d go back and forth.
What were some of the other skills or positive side effects that you took from your jazz experience into the pop world?
Jazz is extremely helpful because you are improvising all the time, which is essentially writing songs. You have to write very quickly when you’re playing jazz. You have a basic color structure and you have to improvise with that. So it’s very helpful for thinking fast and hearing things in your head and knowing what you want to do very quickly. Pop music is a little bit more straightforward, but you can pull from jazz and throw in a weird chord now and then.
Now I understand why you must love making music with Inara George in The Bird and The Bee.
With Inara I get to incorporate a little bit of both. We just have fun making music and incorporating some great jazz stuff into pop. I feel complete freedom working on music with Inara because we’re doing it just for ourselves. We want as many people to hear the music as we possibly can, but I feel we ‘re we’re very much on the same page.
You said you like to start making music from scratch. Does it start with a conversation with the artist, listening to rough demos, or do you like to get right into the studio and start laying down tracks?
Writing from scratch is probably my preferred way. When you prepare for a session you just never know how it’s going to go. Or you think you’re going to write a song that has a certain tempo or whatever, and then you end up doing a slow song. With me, it’s always completely different than I would have imagined.
So when writing from scratch I can go there and just try to be as open minded as I can and just try to listen for some sort of clues, like which direction to go, you know? I found that always works best. But every artist is different. You know, a lot of times some people will listen to music to try and get inspired and sometimes I’ll listen to their music. Maybe they have like six songs that are recorded for the album, so I might listen to those songs and try to fill in the gaps and try to imagine something that is needed or wanted on the album.
What would you advise artists who are entering into a studio with a producer at your level?
It depends on the situation but I’ve always found it really helpful when an artist has some sort of concept or lyrics or some ideas about subject matter and stuff like that before they enter the studio. I think that’s always kind of helpful. It’s not a rule, but in my situation it’s always great when you start working on something and then there is sort of an idea – we’re gonna write a song about one of these four or five things.
You’ve done some memorable work with Sia. What has your experience been like working with her?
We’ve worked together for a long time. Sia is incredible. We all know what she’s capable of as an artist and as a singer. Amazing.
Sia and I just connected very early on. I think she is very fast to write with, and I feel like I’m fast as well, so together with her it’s fine because we move right along. We also connect. I know where she wants to go melodically. I can sort of hear where she’s going to go. And vice versa. She can hear where I’m going to go, chord-wise. Sometimes we’ll throw in a left turn or something unusual. We used to do that a lot more in the early days before we were both writing super pop music. We loved using a lot of weird chords [LAUGHS]. Every now and then I miss that. I want to to throw in some of those weird chords again. I also feel that Sia doesn’t over-analyze everything. She comes from this very organic place, and just goes with it.
From one extraordinary talent to another...I love the single “Dreams,” that you worked on with Beck.
I’ve been a fan of Beck’s from early, early on, and this song was a pure blast of fun. I’m working on more stuff with him.
How is that coming along? I know you use to play in his band
Yeah, I played in his band on a few of his albums as a musician. That was great. It was just really cool how it came around, you know, because I’d worked with him. I was touring with him, which was a great experience, but I had to break the news that I didn’t want to tour anymore and I wanted to pursue what I’m doing now. And that was a long time ago. But it was cool to have him sort of follow some of the stuff that I did and want to come around and work with me in this new capacity. I think because he wanted to do something, that was really fun.
You are in great demand as a producer now. How do you choose your projects? What interests you?
Well, a lot goes into the decisions. But I try not to overdo it. You know, I like to live life and not work every second of the day, and spend time with my family and stuff like that. Balance is very important for me. You know, like I’m going to stop working at this hour, so I can hang out and not work.
I can only really do so much, so I have to be selective. Artistically, I just try to imagine if can do a good job with this person. And I like to continue the relationships with artists that I’ve worked with before, like P!nk, Sia and Kelly Clarkson, for example. Working with them has been so fun and effortless that I just want to work with them more. I also want to work with new artists that I haven’t worked with as well. It’s a constant balancing act.