July 01, 2014

Jesse Shatkin Swings from the "Chandelier"

Jesse Shatkin<br>Photo by Lindsey Byrnes

Jesse Shatkin, photographed by Lindsey Byrnes

The other night I was at the gym when a remix of Sia's single "Chandelier" came on the PA. Even though this version traded the nocturnal pace of the original for a sped-up, four-on-the-floor beat, perfect for pumping iron, the majesty of the song shone through. It's just that good a song. The 45 million people that have watched its riveting music video would seem to agree.

"Chandelier" was co-written by Sia and Jesse Shatkin, a Los Angeles-based ASCAP member perhaps best known as Greg Kurstin's go-to sound engineer for several years. He's made his mark on fresh-sounding pop from Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry, Ellie Goulding and Kylie Minogue. And recently he's taken on a more creative role, co-writing with top-tier songwriters on songs for the biggest names in pop music. You're going to hear a lot more from - and about - Jesse Shatkin in the near future. I asked him about his journey so far.

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I’ve read you used to craft hip-hop beats. Did it take a lot of work to develop the skill set to move into pop music?

It definitely did. When I started making beats I was strictly sampling, that was my introduction to making music. But there was a point early on when some of my songs were getting axed from records because labels didn’t want to deal with the headache of clearing samples. I took that as a sign that I needed to develop as a writer. It was basically starting from the ground up. I had a feel for drum programming and an ear for sounds but that was basically it. I needed to learn the basics of musicianship and theory, and had to work on finding my sounds. It took years.

When you met Greg Kurstin a few years back, you were mostly doing commercials, film and TV work. How did you two meet? And how did he find out that you’d be such a great engineer for him?

We met through our mutual friend, Kevin Kusatsu. Greg had been extremely busy for a while, doing mostly everything on his own, and really needed help if he wanted to be able to have any kind of life outside of work. To be honest, when I started I don’t think that I was a great engineer. I had an ear for vocals and a good work ethic, but I had a lot to learn. Luckily I learned fairly quickly and was able to stay in the game over there.

What are some of the lasting lessons you’ve learned from Greg?

1. I may be paraphrasing here, but something to the effect of “Get the drums on the f*#cking grid!”

2. “Don’t blow it!”

3. Being cool is cool, but don’t let it limit you.   

4. Find the magic in every step of the process. The magic chords, the magic vocal performance, the magic snare, the magic tempo, etc.  

5. He seemed to keep the attitude that no idea from the artist is a bad idea. It could seem ridiculous or like a stretch, but you never know where it could lead, and meanwhile it makes the artist comfortable.

“Chandelier” is such an insanely good song (and vocal, and production, and video). When you were sitting there writing it with Sia, did you have any sense of what it would become, and how people would react?

Thanks!! Well, I’m 35, and I’ve been making beats since I was 15. We both felt like we were writing a smash when we were writing it, but I’ve thought that about a lot of the things I’ve done over the years. I knew the song had the potential, but as someone who had been trying and failing for soooo long, there was no way for me to imagine or expect the actual success of it. Everyone I played it for said it sounded like a hit, and I kept thinking “I’ll believe it when I see it!”

When you’re in a session with a new collaborator, how do you usually figure out the best way to work together? Can you give an example of a time when things just clicked immediately? How about one where it took some time to develop the process?

After a year of pretty constant writing sessions, I’ve learned it’s generally better for me to start from scratch, as opposed to giving a track to a topliner. It’s a lot easier to vibe together when we’re both actually doing something. It’s also more fun for me as I’m not just sitting there or wandering around the studio watering plants.

I’m constantly finding new sounds to write with, so at the beginning of a writing session I just bring some of them up and see if we can find something that sparks a melody or progression. Other times we’re at the piano, or sometimes a writer has an idea and we work around that. [There are] all kinds of ways to get started.

Often, knock on wood, things click kind of quickly. I make sure that I have a mic going at all times to pick up the mumble melodies the writer is singing, or that they are keeping their voice notes app rolling. I’m a strong believer in trusting your first instinct. “Chandelier” is an example of this. Sia and I were jamming and she had her voice recorder going; the chords and melodies came pretty instantly.

I try to capture and stay true to the initial vibe, but generally at some point I stop and ask myself or my co-writer whether or not it’s good enough. Sometimes it is, sometimes we’ll start over, sometimes we’ll try three or four progressions for the chorus chords, sometimes it doesn’t work out at all. Sometimes I bring in some help.  It can take a while with revisions, but as long as we don’t lose sight of the vibe it can work out.

The way that you work, is there a meaningful distinction between producer, engineer and songwriter? Do you prefer projects where you get to bounce between those roles?

About 75% of the time I’m producer, engineer and co-writer. And I love to wear all those hats. At this point I think it’s dialed in enough to the point that it can all happen at the same time. My vocal chain is up, my sounds are ready, my channel strips and effects are ready. I’m a quick editor. I work hard while not in sessions to make sure that I’m prepared to move quickly while I am, so that we can really vibe and not get stuck on working to make things sound good while we’re writing.

That being said, I’m producing more and more songs that I didn’t write, and I enjoy that as well. I learn a lot from working on outside songs; it helps me to think differently about my own writing.

Is there a particular co-write or engineering job that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m pretty excited about Kelly Clarkson’s next album. It has been a pleasure to work with her as Greg’s engineer on Stronger and Wrapped in Red. To be able to transition into a more creative role on one of her albums feels especially poignant.

I’m also finishing up producing and mixing the new Milo Greene album. They’re an awesome band with a bunch of great songs. It’s been a lot of fun for me to go to a very different place sonically and to figure out how to work within a different kind of framework. Looking forward to seeing how it plays out.

How has your relationship with ASCAP made a difference in your career?

The ASCAP songwriting camp at the castle in France was kind of life-changing for me. To be fully immersed with so many talented people for that amount of time was a truly inspiring experience. I worked really hard the whole time but loved every moment of it and learned a ton about songwriting from all the talented people I collaborated with.

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Sia's new album 1000 Forms of Fear, featuring "Chandelier" as its opening track, is out on July 8th.

Follow Jesse Shatkin on Instagram. Do it.