Proving that not every pop star is a manufactured creation, John Newman is as at home in the studio as he is on TV.
"I guess I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about people disregarding me as a producer because I am a young lad singing and dressed up in a suit and going on Jools Holland and Australian X Factor,” explains John Newman, as he and his manager are frantically whisked from one promotional appointment to another in a London taxi cab. "I have such a big part in it, I know exactly what I want and it's just working with people who also know what I want. It's really refreshing to have an interview about making the album, and how we recorded it, and not about all the girls I fancy at the moment!”
John has also become a little weary of interviewers asking who he sounds like, particularly as his debut album, Tribute, begins by naming his influences. Having produced his own music at home for many years before finding fame, John quite understandably wants to be seen as someone who has worked hard to develop a unique sound, and not just a singer who has been shaped by his label, manager and the latest trends in pop.
After signing with Island Records at the end of 2011, the 23-year-old Yorkshireman found himself in the public eye when he sung lead vocal on Rudimental's 2012 number-one hit 'Feel The Love'. His distinctive and soulful vocal was the most prominent feature of the track, and John's own album has fared equally well. Its lead single 'Love Me Again' quickly made it to number one in the UK, and the similarly energetic follow-up 'Cheating' has done just as well.
But before production began on Tribute, John recorded his own set of very focused demos, making use of Logic Audio, a MIDI keyboard and his mobile phone to capture his ideas, as and when they came to him. "I get ideas in my head of how the whole song should be,” says John, "so I've got crazy voice recordings on my phone of me trying to express the whole song in little bits. I'll get melody ideas for vocal lines and everything. Then I do a demo production. The key thing with the demo is making sure that it is locked and giving me a clear indication of where I'm going. The demos are pretty bang on, so once I get a budget, it's just taking it into a bigger studio to re-record and pick out the little bits.
"I've got a nice studio setup at home with loads of analogue equipment and outboard, but it is rare that I use that sort of stuff for demos. When I am trying to express melodies, there is no point running it through an API EQ at that point, because it's wasting time when I could be expressing myself, so I often sit there with Logic and a MIDI keyboard and put it all in there first."I normally start with a piano sound to get the chords down. The piano is an incredible thing. It gives such strong chordal movements. In a lot of modern hip-hop and R&B productions, it is all running off of one note, and I don't want to do that. I'm a melody man and I use a lot of instruments. So the most important thing is to make sure that melody and the chords are right. I leave the lyrics to the end. I'll write out 10 pages of a story, then turn it into a more structured single page, then turn that into lyrical content.”
Although John produced some very carefully realised demos, Island decided that for the making of the album he needed the guidance of a producer with a little more studio experience. Nevertheless, John was clear about how he wanted his record to sound, and was reluctant to hand over control to someone who would stamp their own mark on the tracks. "I always have such big vision and that's why I was scared,” admits John. "I didn't want to go with a celebrity producer, where it is like, 'I'm the producer and you're just the artist,' because I am a producer as well. Obviously my record label wouldn't say, 'John, you produce it.' Maybe the next album they will, but with this one they needed to find someone.”
The producer suggested by Island was Ant Whiting, who had previously enjoyed success with Rizzle Kicks. One of the production tasks carried out by Ant for Rizzle Kicks was recreating the samples used on the band's demos so that there would be no copyright infringement problems. John's demos also made use of samples, and it is this which Ant believes helped get him the job.
"The Rizzle Kicks albums were musically quite different from John's,” says Ant, "but all those songs were based on samples, so the samples had to be recreated and changed to make original compositions, and it was the same with John. On John's demos there were lots of breakbeats, and obviously you can't use samples these days, so it was a lot to do with recreating old-sounding stuff. I think one of them was a James Brown kind of break, which obviously you can't touch! We went to great lengths to create the sound of breakbeats, but did it with live drummers, room sounds, plate reverbs, echoes and peculiar microphones.
"But I'm a writer as well as a producer, so I was initially put up to do a writing session with John. We did a track which didn't make it on to the album, but we were into the same kinds of gear and agreed on how to go about getting sounds. We just seemed to click, and I was chosen to do the whole record. It was as easy as that. Island just wanted someone to oversee the whole thing. The demos were in the right ball park from the start, they just needed bringing to life and made to sound big.”
Ant worked with John on all the album tracks except the single 'Love Me Again', which had already been recorded with the help of producer (and co-writer of a number of tracks) Steve Booker and mix engineer Mike Spencer. Remarkably, the production is very similar to the rest of the album, perhaps because John's methods were consistent, even when collaborating with different people. "It was a similar process because that's me, that's my sound,” insists John. "But at the time, Steve got me and Mike didn't, and I had to fight, because I was a debut artist and producer and a young lad going up to people who have had huge hits around the world and telling them, 'No, that's not right.' They're like, 'Well, it is right, I've been doing this for many years!' But I'm not into formulas. So it was a little bit of a struggle, but in the end we got something amazing. Mine and Steve's original demo was great, and we rescued it from becoming really pop.
"The thing about Ant was he could see that I already had a clear vision. The first few weeks were Ant just trying to learn me and get inside my head so we were on the same vibe. We worked together so well it was amazing. Ant wouldn't do anything without my decision, and I wouldn't do anything without his. We really got each other by the end of it. In terms of roles, I'd be the one throwing the shit on the ground and Ant would be the one picking it up! For example, I'd go into the studio and decide that the kick drum for 'Gold Dust' should be two kick drums together with a mic in the middle and what I thought was a bodhran on the end, and we captured that. The bodhran turned out to be a '40s jazz kick drum, but kick drums have got bigger over time and it was so thin that I couldn't tell!”
The recording of Tribute was split between RAK Studios in St John's Wood, London, and State Of The Ark Studios in Richmond, Surrey. Both venues were favoured because of their friendly, almost home-like atmosphere, their complement of vintage equipment, and the sound of their live rooms and hardware reverb options.
"We did two songs at State Of The Ark,” says Ant, "which has an amazing-sounding live room. The rest of the album we did at RAK Studios. We used Studios 1, 2 and 3, and then we had Studio 4 for two months to pull it all together. Studio 1 has an amazing Yamaha grand piano and the drum sound is absolutely incredible. And also, you can muck about with the sound by moving the drums. There is a hard bit of floor and a bouncy floor, which gives more of an open sound, and their API desk really helps make the whole sound sit together.”
John also had his reasons for choosing RAK and State Of The Ark. "You go into studios around London and around the world, but they are so glum,” he insists, "with the most awful digital mixers and no charm. The thing about RAK is it is like going into a family house. It's incredible, the welcome you get. I think music and creativity centre around good vibes, and when you go into somewhere like that it is incredible. State Of The Ark almost reminded me of Motown. They've just got two rooms, the live room and production room, and again it is almost like somebody's house. They've got an EMI desk from Abbey Road and Fairchild compressors and the history of that is inspiring enough to make a record.”
According to Ant, the demos he was working from were quite simple, and based mainly around loops, MIDI piano sounds, string samples and vocals. The plan was to replace the MIDI parts with real instruments, the strings with an orchestra, the backing vocals with a choir and the drum loops with live drum recordings. Ant and John began by recording the drums, aiming to recreate the feel of the sampled loops and breakbeats that appeared to work so well on John's demos.
"We started by getting the drums right,” says Ant, "playing over the top of the demos very quietly and getting the breaks and their sound right. We had three drummers in total. Leo Taylor did the majority of it. He's a machine, he's incredible. He did all the stuff at RAK, but 'Cheating' was Simon Lea who's pretty good as well. Troy Miller also played and he's great. They all immediately understood that we wanted this break thing. Then we chopped those up. We weren't quantising, just getting stuff that looped well. Then it was a matter of layering everything else on top of that. 'Love Me Again' was the only track I didn't do, but I don't think there are any live drums on that. I think that was samples.
"'Cheating' was done at State Of The Ark and Simon was using an old Ludwig or Gretsch kit. We used a lot of ribbon mics. There were two Coles 4038s as overheads, a couple of big square AEA44s as room mics, and two more old RCA things that I'd never seen before. There was a Shure SM57 on the snare, I think, a Neumann U47 FET and an AKG D12 on the kick, and I've got a Lomo mic that always sounds amazing on the kick, so I think I had about three mics on the kick. I can't remember what was underneath the snare but it might have been a [Neumann] KM84. We took the hi-hat too but hardly ever used that. I think getting the sound of the room is the most important thing.
"Also, I'm a big fan of Dictaphones so we also had an old Telefunken Magnetophon C2100 in record the whole time. You whack it near the kick and snare and distort the crap out of it just to get the crunch, saturation and a bit more kind of farty stuff! We also did that old water microphone trick, where you shove an SM57 in a plastic bag and in a tub of water and you put it near the kick drum. It's basically a dynamic thing so the water is constantly reacting to the drummer's playing and you get this lovely, wobbly, sub thing going on, depending on the size of the bucket.”
While the drums were being recorded, Ant and John attempted to lay down some bass guitar parts using a vintage Fender Precision bass feeding an Ampeg Portaflex amplifier, close miked with a Neumann U47 FET and a Shure SM57, and also supplying a DI signal. To avoid spill problems, the amp was placed in what Ant describes as a "cubbyhole”, which proved a workable solution. Ultimately, though, bass guitar only features on a couple of songs, simply because sub-bass synth sounds left more space for the all-important piano-driven melodies and vocals.
"We tried a few times to get live bass on things but it detracted slightly,” explains Ant. "What you want to listen to is a piano and a vocal, so the majority is sub-bass from Moogs. The sub does a great job. It's just there warming the whole thing up. That was John's Moog Little Phatty. 'Cheating' is live bass, but I have a feeling that Mike Spencer — who mixed it — redid the bass on that one using Jamiroquai's bass player.”
Piano is one of the key instruments on almost all the Tribute tracks, probably because John's demos were built around melodic piano chords. On a number of tracks, such as 'Easy', the sound is reminiscent of the classic, driving house piano. In particular it has a very percussive attack on 'Try', yet on other songs, such as 'Out Of My Head', it is almost classical sounding. In fact only a couple of pianos were used, but different sounds were achieved by taking lots of microphone signals and using differing mixes of them for each track.
"The piano on 'Cheating' and 'Gold Dust' was an upright Broadwood at State Of The Ark,” says Ant."That piano is a bit of a noisy bugger, but we took the front off and shoved two AKG C28s behind the piano player's ears, as it were, an AKG C12 in the middle, and I think we had a Coles 4038 behind the piano. Then the rest of the pianos are the Yamaha in Studio 1 at RAK. We had all kinds of microphones on that one! We had a Coles, U87s, an SM57, Dictaphone, PZM and another pair of mics, so there were nine or 10 channels. That was very useful because it enabled us to get different mic balances for different songs, but the microphone that sounded best half the time was the crappy Telefunken Dictaphone, which adds the kind of crunch and compression!”
Guitars are not quite as prominent as piano on Tribute, but they are used occasionally to complement the piano, typically providing fairly clean melodic riffs and rhythmic reinforcement. "It's all Twin Reverb, vibrato, spring reverb stuff,” says Ant. "Of all my expensive vintage guitars, the main guitar we used on everything was this cheap Japanese Epiphone from the 1970s! It just seemed to work. That went through my old '70s Silverface Fender Twin and that was the only amp we used. The amp's spring reverb is always very important, and the vibrato for sure. And once again it was close-miked with a 47 FET and a Shure SM57.”
Another sound competing for the middle ground on many of the tracks is that of tubular bells. They blend in surprisingly well, despite the difficulty Ant had recording them. "They are probably the most horrible thing to mic up in the world because of the overtones,” he laughs. "You play one note and there's about a million notes going on underneath it! Sometimes it was easy to EQ out a frequency that was jarring with the key, but a lot of the time they just work once they are sat in the track. They were done using just a couple of 47 FETs in Studio 1.”
John's distinctive vocal style is one of the main selling points of his music, so it is unsurprising that he and Ant took their time testing out different microphones to find the best one for the job. "At home I've got some cool mics,” says John, "but nothing too impressive, so when you go to a studio you've got to line them all up. We tried really glam, modern hi-end ones, but the best were the older Neumann mics. We ended up using a Neumann U47 FET, which was so battered it was lovely. It picked up the raspy bits of my voice and was a clear winner. We did a few songs in a different studio, but I made sure that we still got that FET, because I got so used to using it and loved what it was doing for my voice.”
Ant recalls that for almost all the tracks, the feed from John's Neumann U47 FET was processed by an original API 512c mic pre and then a UA 1176 compressor; an MCI mic preamp, racked by the technician at RAK, was also used on some tracks. "On one song called 'Nothing', on the deluxe edition,” continues John, "we used the Empirical Labs Distressor. That's a really brutal compressor, so I wanted to nuke it, but we put it to a 6:1 ratio, which was quite nice, because in the end it turned out to be quite subtle.
"I like to cover my imperfections with a nice bit of reverb, and we had some great plate reverbs at RAK which are great to run to. Plate reverbs can also be quite trebly if you want them to be, and they suited my voice really well.”
Throughout the album, John's performances are complemented by powerful backing vocals provided by a mainly female 12-piece gospel choir. Ant recalls that the choir was recorded at RAK in Studio 2 using spot mics on each section and a pair of valve U47s as room mics. "They just sounded great immediately,” insists Ant. "But some of the tracks, like 'Cheating', had just two singers and they were tracked up to sound like a gospel choir.”
The power of mass vocal shouts, chants and handclaps is something producers have exploited for many decades. John describes them as 'gang' claps and vocals, and fabricated his own gang of people on his demos by multitracking himself. Given the opportunity to do them properly for Tribute, however, he took full advantage. "I love to use them all the time,” says John. "The gang crowd sound in the middle eight of the Rudimental track 'Feel The Love' was my input. If you listen to 'Goodnight Goodbye', you can hear the gang vocals in the post-chorus, and in the song 'Try' you can hear gang vocals in the pre-chorus. We wanted to get gang claps as well as gang vocals, so the way that we did it was I got all my friends to come along to a pub in Camden called The Colonel Fawcett, and we asked everyone to sing and clap to a click. We just took a Mac and Pro Tools and a little Focusrite audio interface and ran a pair of U47 mics into it and that was it. And the charm of getting people to do that was that we got their emotion. People wanted to be part of my record. But I also do my own stuff. When I was making the demos I'd do a gang vocal by doing 10 takes, all in different accents! On 'Love Me Again' they are still there under the chorus.
"In terms of the 'heys' and 'hums' and 'uhs', we used a lot of samples. Norman Cook did a brilliant sample pack, so we had a scout through there and obviously made sure we had permission.”
Further structure is given to many of the songs by a small brass section comprising trombone, baritone sax, trumpet and tuba, all of which were recorded at State Of The Ark Studios using a ribbon mic for each instrument. According to Ant, the horn parts had been roughed out on John's demos, but they were not scored for the musicians."When the horn section was in the room we just described what we wanted,” Ant explains. "They didn't need to read the notes, they just vibed it out. John would be shouting out different lines and they'd interpret that, so it was all on the fly. And we tried to get the parts and not double-track anything, because that doesn't usually sound right. We wanted them to sound quite crunchy, almost like samples we'd grabbed off of some old record. We didn't add any crackle or anything naff like that, we were just trying to make it a bit old-sounding.”
The icing on the cake, in terms of production, was the late addition of a 12-piece string section from the London Metropolitan Orchestra, which was recorded in Studio 1 at RAK. The arrangements were written by Tim Baxter, who also played piano and organ on two of the tracks, and were based on parts sketched out by John.
"On quite a few of the demos there were some rough string pads,” recalls Ant, "and on some of the songs there were certain lines that had to be in there, and Tim realised the whole thing and put these amazing arrangements together. We were updating him as we went along. So every few days we'd send him the latest mixes. It's always slightly nerve-racking because you don't know exactly what it is going to sound like until you've spent a fortune on getting an orchestra in and recorded it. There is an element of trepidation, but the LMO were really good. They turned up on the day and just played through. It was amazing. John had a little cry when they first started up. It was quite emotional.”
Most of the tracks on Tribute were mixed by Mark 'Spike' Stent, but the job of mixing singles such as 'Love Me Again' and 'Cheating' was handled by Mike Spencer. Before sending the songs off, however, Ant and John prepared their own guide mixes, using Studio 4 at RAK, taking particular care to feature some of the lo-fi sounds they wanted to shine through in the final versions. "Mixing took a month in total,” says John. "It's a different form of production really. We provided Mike [Spencer] with so much that it was really a case of taking stuff out. We wanted to be covered in every area and we sent it all off, like the mics stuck in a bucket of water. It was important to us so we had to make sure that we were hearing them in there.
"I'd done the Rudimental track 'Feel The Love' and 'Not Giving In' with Mike and then we began to work together. It was hard because Mike's quite pop, but we got there in the end. I went up there to get him into what I do. When I work with people they kind of frown and um and ah and then they click and say 'I've got you now, I see what you are doing.' That's what I needed to get out of Mike, and I think I did. Mike mixes all my singles now. Mike likes to get fully involved in that whole thing. He will change quite a lot, and it will take a while, because he breaks it down and checks it's all right. In terms of Spike mixing, he likes to chuck in all those rough mics and keep it lo-fi and rough.
"Ant did a mix of 'Gold Dust', and it was so good, it just showed that Ant was so on it with the mixing. We are both perfectionists, and once we'd built up this vision of how it should be we made reference mixes. We knew what we wanted from the mix so when people came off it a little bit we were unsure. We just wanted it to be lo-fi and rough and not glam or pop; we wanted to hear the three kick drums, the horrible reverbs we'd put on and the toms we'd recorded really badly, and we needed a mixer who wasn't trying to make a single out of it. 'Gold Dust' is a song that could sell the album, because it is a strong track in terms of being a production. It feels very album-like.”
John is the first to admit that when he finished the album he needed a break, and had no interest in listening to it at that time. Having had time away to recuperate, he says that he is very proud of what he has achieved. "I've made music that I love and that's all I wanted to do,” he reflects. "The sound is me expressing my influences. I love sub-basses, cinematic pieces, drum loops, high-pitched '90s house vocals and pianos and Motown grooves. I love loads of different music and I think we've got that in there. I am happy with my sound and I knew when it was right.
"The demos are really close. It was just going in and putting the full emotion into it, putting the musicians in there, putting in the hours, and using the lovely equipment. It's almost like I had it sketched out as a drawing, which was pretty bang on, and then we needed to paint that drawing.”
These days almost any musical process can be achieved using software, and there are endless virtual instruments offering near-perfect simulations of the real thing, but John and Ant decided early on in the production process that they would try to capture the sound of real instruments and recording spaces as much as possible, reasoning that their recordings would have more character and originality.
"Ant and I weren't looking for the best quality, we were looking for something that sounded incredible and got us going,” explains John Newman. "There was a battered old organ sat in the studio and for a song called 'Easy' we recorded it into a tape player and then recorded that back into the song. But when we gently pressed the rewind button a tiny bit it went 'Euwww, Euwww,' and then we vari-speeded it so it was in time with the song and you got these weird little imperfections. Instead of going to Native Instruments and getting a plug-in that's perfect and then quantising it, we wanted imperfection and weird raw things that hissed and hummed, and had a lovely warmth about them. And you can let your mind go mental as a producer, and not feel like you are stuck with anything.
"Another thing we thought about was using the rooms of both State Of The Ark and Studio 1 at RAK. You've got to capture the rooms! We had Dictaphones set about and cassette recorders recording all the time, just to get that crunch and punch, and an SM57 in a carrier bag in a bucket of water to get that crispy thud underneath everything. It worked really well.”
"We didn't use any fake reverbs or echoes,” adds Ant Whiting. "I've got a Great British Spring stereo reverb which I love to use, and at RAK they have these amazing plates. Different studios have different-sized plates, so we made sure we took all those signals and echoes too. Sometimes it is good when you overcook it. When you listen back to the reverb feed the return is breaking up at times, but if it sounds all right on the track then it's OK. I have a Roland 201 space echo, but I prefer the Evans SE780. I think in America it is called the Multivox, but it is so much better than the Space Echo. And obviously we used RAK's reverb tanks loads. But the concept of the whole record was not to use any plug-ins. For example, we didn't use plug-in synths, we just used Minimoogs and a Moog Satellite.
"It was all recorded using Pro Tools 10 HD and the now almost obsolete 192s, but we were using it more like a multitrack. We did use it to loop stuff and it is great for that, but certainly not as an effects processor or for compression. There was the odd bit of EQ here and there, but we tried to print everything as it was going down. Having less choice is good. It is infinite what you can do, and it can do your head in! So if you make decisions as you go along it makes for a better record, I think.But I also think a completely retro album wouldn't have worked. It had to have a modern edge. That's the concept of the whole record: retro-sounding instruments played and arranged in a modern way.”
Although John is still only 23, he has been in the public eye for a number of years, thanks in part to his work with Rudimental. He initially signed his recording contact with Island Records in December 2011, but didn't rush his debut, believing that more time spent would make for a better end product.
"I was just doing my own thing and working towards it,” explains John. "I'd just done the Rudimental single and been through an illness and everything was good and I was in a really happy place. But I was struggling to write music, because I do happy productions but not happy music! Then I went through a break-up where I was left in a bit of a state, and that's where the lyrics came from.
"I really worked hard with the Rudimental guys and wasn't very well for a long time, so quite a lot of stuff was drawing me away, but I didn't want to rush either, because if you rush you don't get stuff perfect or take things into consideration. I mean, Ant and I thought we'd finished the album, then we took a week away and realised that there were many more little things to do. Songwriting becomes quite frustrating when you are making an album, because it gets to the point where you just want to get it done and you can jeopardise the quality, so I just really chilled on that. If I'd rushed it too quick I don't think I'd have had 'Love Me Again' because I'd have been happy to go before that.I learnt that if you wait you get better things.”
Audio files to accompany the article.
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