In Rolling Stone‘s series At Work, we go behind the curtain with decision-makers across the fast-changing music business — exploring a range of responsibilities, burgeoning ideas, advice for industry newcomers, and more. Read earlier interviews here.
You’ve likely listened to Greg Kurstin’s songs, even if you don’t know who he is. While Kurstin isn’t a star producer like Rick Rubin or Nile Rodgers, it’s not overstating his success to call him one of the biggest hitmakers of the century. Among his accolades: Adele’s “Hello,” Sia’s “Chandelier” and “Cheap Thrills,” P!NK’s ”Blow Me (One Last Kiss),” Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger,” Ellie Goulding’s “Burn,” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Love” — not to mention tracks from the likes of Paul McCartney and Lady Gaga.
Kurstin, an eight-time Grammy winner, will now be recognized on Wednesday (May 12th) by ASCAP’s Golden Note Award, an award previously given to music makers including Trent Reznor, Jay Z and Alicia Keys. Longtime collaborator Beck and ASCAP president Paul Williams will present him with the honor to start 2021’s ASCAP Experience along with a conversation between Kurstin and Dave Grohl. But outside of the music industry, the producer has opted to avoid a life of overt celebrity. “Seeing it up close, fame seems like it’s really difficult,” Kurstin says. “I have this freedom to go out and live a normal life. I work with so many people who have to deal with the things that go along with fame, and I’m not cut out for that.” He spoke with Rolling Stone about his approach to his work, the catalog gold rush, and the rapidly changing nature of music production.
You’re spread well across pop and rock. Is there a difference between your mindset toward writing for someone like Foo Fighters, versus for a pop act like Sia?
I’ve always got some anticipation trying to imagine what I’m going to have to do in this situation. Working with someone like Sia, she’s so extremely talented and such a fast songwriter. I know I have to be ready for that — all the instruments on and nearby to just be ready — t’s a whirlwind. Someone like Dave, he’s going to bring in these amazing songs, so I think more sonically and about the arrangement. I fit in a different place in a Foo Fighters record for sure, but that’s what I love about writing music.
When you’re working with a new artist, how do you figure them out?
There is a balancing act when you’re in the room and you’re writing with somebody. I’m trying to listen as much as I can. I think there’s points where I have to take the lead and initiate some sort of musical idea, then there’s times where I don’t want to do that because I want to hear the idea that they might have, in case it’s better than when I would contribute.
Adele said you were instrumental in getting “Hello” together. Was that a case of listening or leading?
“Hello” was really a long process. It started pretty quickly — we started with me on the piano. I was searching for chords and started playing the chords that became the verse chords. When she started singing, she felt good about what was happening and I did too, but we couldn’t find a chorus. The original chorus eventually became the bridge.
We left England and went back home with an unfinished song, and it took months to get a chance to go back to England and finish out with her. It took a lot of patience for me. I was very excited about it, but I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought it could just as easily be an unfinished song that’d just stay in a hard drive.
We tried two or three different versions of it. I wasn’t going to give up. I’m really stubborn with that kind of stuff. But when we arrived at the chorus, we felt pretty good about it, but were also at the point where we thought, “This is just it — we can’t write any more choruses for it, and hopefully people like it.”
It’s such a big, dramatic song. You had no inkling it would become such a moment?
I was so close to the song that I couldn’t really have an overall perspective of what it might become. I didn’t really have a sense that it would even be a single. It was also just a ballad, too. In my mind, I was thinking the first single would probably be something up-tempo. It didn’t really cross my mind that it could potentially be the first look of that album.
When you’re working with an artist of Adele’s stature, is there pressure to produce the single at this point in your career? Does anything short of that feel like it isn’t enough?
I can’t put that pressure on myself. Every time I tried to do that early in my career, it just backfired. You can hear that’s what I was trying to do. There’s been so many times where I thought on paper that a song had everything it needed to be a single, and by the end it can get chucked in the garbage.
I’ve written so many songs at this point and watched a lot of them not be hits. You get realistic about how difficult it is. It has to be a perfect storm at the right time with the right artists and the right song for the right platform for everything to really work. I’m still trying to figure it out.
Some groups like The Pact are emboldening songwriters to talk about their experiences writing for artists who take all the credit. Do you have strong opinions about this?
That’s such a difficult balance you have to experience when you’re starting out. There’s always those decisions that will come up, and you feel you have to give away something you’re not comfortable giving away — a writing percentage to someone you feel didn’t deserve it. But then you get your name on someone’s radar because of that. I think it’s something everyone will have probably experienced early on.
I definitely had not the best deals in the beginning, and looking back, I’m still happy I did most of the things that I did to get the experience and get music out there. I had to do that. Looking back at my contract when I signed my first publishing deal, it was probably very appropriate for the time because I really had nothing going on yet. You have to weigh out your options and make sure it’s something you won’t completely regret.
Do you think this business sets up songwriters to succeed?
I’m someone who’s just very much in the creative world thinking about chords and sounds and production. I’m managed by my wife, and she’s very good at understanding the ins and outs of the business.
But from what I do see and hear, things are changing so much. The business is trying to catch up — and it very much needs to. With the songwriter, it’s very difficult. There’s a long way to go. There’s so much mystery about where things are going and how songwriters are getting paid. It’s really difficult for a songwriter who’s starting out and just to make a living.
You’ve got an enviable catalog of hits. Have you thought about selling your catalog, given the hot market for catalogs?
I never considered it, but I see everyone else doing it. It’s definitely very interesting to watch this whole thing play out. It isn’t something that appealed to me personally. I don’t know what to make of it all. I’d like to see in 10, 20 years how it all plays out.
There are such huge sums in these deals. So what’s kept your interest away from it?
There’s an emotional connection to the songs that I have, and it doesn’t feel like I want to just part with them. It’s something I like to hold on to. I’ve been watching everyone do it, and I’m happy for everyone who’s selling. I could see the benefit not having to worry and being comfortable — I get it. I can see why a lot of people should do it, but it just isn’t anything I’ve considered.
Are there any particular songwriters you’ve been into lately?
I had the opportunity to work with Kendrick Lamar and with Sounwave. He was so inspiring to me. To hear the sounds and beats he was making — they were like anything I’ve heard before. Wendy Wang, Troy Samuela and Jesse Shaktin are people where, every time I hear what they do, I’m so inspired because it’s just so futuristic. I feel like I could appreciate anything because technology has made it so anyone can really do it now. I’m just hearing the most amazing sounds.
Some traditionalists think that sort of access has diminished music. You’re a multi-instrumentalist. Why do you think otherwise?
Everyone should have the opportunity to make music if they want to. You’re going to get these incredible artists who wouldn’t have had a chance to do it before. It raises the bar. I love that everybody can do it.