Richard Buskin talks with two of Sweden's hottest writer‑producers about their ongoing work as part of the Murlyn Music Group, including recent hit recordings by Jennifer Lopez, Samantha Mumba and Jessica Simpson.
In a forest just north of Stockholm, overlooking one of the city's many sea inlets, is Vantorp, a traditional wooden villa which once housed the mistress of a 19th‑century Swedish king. Wheareas said monarch would simply row across the bay whenever he felt the urge, today Vantorp is the venue for action‑packed activities of another kind: it serves as the headquarters of the Murlyn Music Group, an all‑encompassing operation with a fast‑growing reputation for turning out the hits. Founded in January 1998 by Christian Wahlberg and Anders Bagge, Murlyn boasts an in‑house setup of four studios, a publishing division, and a stable of producers that includes Bagge, Arnthor Birgisson, Christian Karlsson (aka Bloodshy), Fredrik Odesjo (aka Fredro), Daniel Eklund, David Eriksen and Henrik Korpi, who write, record and mix the songs of an eclectic bunch of artists. Four new studios are about to be added, while another three are already based in Oslo, Norway.
Given this one‑stop‑shop setup, MMG could easily be perceived as an archetypal 'hit factory', churning out records as if they're on a conveyor belt. However, to the team of Anders Bagge and Arnthor Birgisson this couldn't be farther from the truth, especially as there is no one sound or style that can be attributed to any of the Murlyn songwriter‑producers, let alone an identifiable 'hit formula'.
"It's great having all of these producers under one roof instead of sitting by themselves in their studios," Bagge says. "I'm like a lost soul without Christian and the whole organisation, because I need someone to take care of the business so that I can concentrate on just doing music, and that's what Murlyn does. We see to it that all of the producers get to do what they're best at with regard to music, and Christian does what he's good at. When he sings, everybody cries, but for the wrong reason. He's the world's worst singer, but he's a true music lover and a great businessman, so part of what he does is to oversee the schedules and make sure everything is delivered on time. That doesn't make us a factory. That makes us a wonderful environment in which to work and achieve the best results.
"I think one of our strengths as producers is that we're very versatile. When I started out, there weren't all that many projects in Sweden, so I had to take whatever came my way. I did folk, pop, dance, you name it, and I had to familiarise myself with all of the different music genres. As a result, I'm not specialised. I just love great records; records that last, songs that people remember, in any kind of genre."
Bagge's pedigree is a solid one. His father, Sven Orloff, was a producer from the 1950s through to the 1980s, and by the age of five Anders was not only accompanying him to the studio, but also following in his footsteps as a trumpet player while learning to play the piano. To this day his favourite producers are Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Arnthor Birgisson, meanwhile, has equally impressive credentials. Attending an arts‑oriented school whose curriculum was based around music, he was singing and playing upright bass in a jazz outfit by the age of 10, and within a few years he was also being encouraged to take up songwriting. Enjoying the experience, he would eventually make a career out of this. In the meantime he also played bass in a classical orchestra, and became hooked on the hip‑hop and R&B sounds that he'd hear over the PA system when performing on the basketball court in his mid‑teens.
Birgisson eventually opted for the studio environment, and by 1996 was learning how to record anything from vocals and drums to string quartets. At the same time, the Stockholm studio where he was working also accorded him free time at night to work on his own independent projects, and it was during the production of a rap album at Anders Bagge's home facility that the two men first met. This was only a month after Bagge and Christian Wahlberg had commenced their own joint venture, and almost immediately Bagge and Birgisson started writing just for the hell of it. The result was 98 Degrees' 'Because Of You'.
"That was the first song we wrote together," Birgisson confirms. "It was a hit, and so we decided to keep on doing it."
And done it they certainly have, writing and producing hit records for artists not only in their home country but, increasingly, overseas, resulting in chart success for the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Samantha Mumba and Jessica Simpson. The songs themselves start life in a variety of ways — a guitar part, a drum beat, a keyboard hook or melody. "We don't have a set plan," says Birgisson. "It just depends on what mood we're in and what kind of song we feel like writing. We both sing and play keyboards, and while it would be better if one of us played guitar it still works out fine. Anders might have a keyboard idea, I might run in and add to that, and then he might jump in again and take it to the next level. At the same time, it also helps that we can sing and arrange the vocals, laying down all of the guide parts. For example, 98 Degrees pretty much copied all of our harmonies."
Throughout the past year the general modus operandi has consisted of Bagge and Birgisson working together during the recording of vocals, but otherwise contributing separately to their joint projects; Bagge perhaps laying down some synths, Birgisson then recording some drums, and each taking a break while the other does programming or adds another keyboard‑based part. In this way they retain an objectivity and freshness of perspective.
"Arnthor and I like the same things," says Bagge, "so it's rare for one of us to come into the room and think, 'Shit, what is he doing?' I mean, we usually start off by writing the song together and in that way we find a direction, but we've been working so closely for the past three years that we really know each other; we know 'This will be perfect for Arnthor to jump in,' and 'This part will be perfect for Anders.'"
"Neither of us feels comfortable singing or playing in front of a lot of people," adds Birgisson. "We prefer to really get into the whole thing by ourselves, and so when the song has been written it's common for us to each spend a couple of hours at a time working on the arrangement. It's a good way of pulling everything together. We'll usually write for a day, and then tell the band to take a break the next day and not come in until the late afternoon. That way we can spend the whole morning just programming by ourselves and doing edits."
Both Bagge and Birgisson are fully versed in the technical as well as the purely creative: Birgisson is an accomplished engineer and Bagge is also adept with his fingers on the faders. However, in his case the skill was acquired out of necessity.
"When I started producing at the age of 17, the budgets in Sweden were so low," 33‑year‑old Bagge explains. "For my first gig I was given $400, out of which I had to get a studio and pay the musicians. So, I had to learn to become an engineer."
What's more, along with Arnthor Birgisson and Christian Karlsson, Anders Bagge has also had to learn to become an A&R man, for since late last year they have been scouting talent for the Stockholm‑based, Universal‑funded MPI label which sees Murlyn sourcing artists through Interscope in the US and Polydor in the rest of the world. Among the first signings have been Irish rocker Mark Roche and Nashville R&B singer Ruby Amanfu, as well as an Anglo‑French all‑girl R&B group, and in each case the initial challenge has been to devise the musical direction.
"A day before the first session we usually get together with the artists," says Bagge. "We go out with them, spend some time with them and just get a vibe, and we then merge what they say they want with what we are feeling. I mean, if someone asked me to come up with a copy of 'Play' I wouldn't want to do that, because that song was conceived specifically for Jennifer Lopez. What we usually try to do is sew every new artist his or her own clothes, providing them with a unique sound, not just our sound. You know, we've done everything from 98 Degrees to Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, and it's a challenge every time to try to find a sound for each new artist.
"We write a lot around the vocals, trying to get into the sound of their vocals, and then after that we'll start to create. So, sometimes we've been recording a song and then totally rearranged it after we've heard the vocals, meaning they've had to sing it again."
"On our last few productions I've pretty much taken care of the bass and drums while Anders has dealt with the keyboards," adds Birgisson. "However, that could all change on our next project."
The genesis of each song is often the title; a catchy word or phrase, an interesting line picked up in conversation. When Leila Bagge (wife of Anders, and an artist in her own right) came home with a new perfume called 'Play', her hubby got inspired. He and Arnthor Birgisson then utilised this as the starting point for a song.
"We knew that [Sony Music Entertainment chairman] Tommy Mottola was searching for songs for Jennifer," Bagge says. "I usually have three or four projects running through my head at any one time, so I'll gather ideas and write them down. It's hard for me to just go into the studio and say, 'OK, let's write a song.' I need to have something in my head beforehand. I need to have an idea and I need to have a title, because I think it's so important to have a catchy title and also to have an idea of what the song's going to be about."
Birgisson agrees, although things don't always pan out as intended. "I might wake up with a concept or a title in my head," he says, "but usually when we know that an artist is looking for a song and we get into the studio thinking about that, things will head in the opposite direction and the song will end up going to another artist. It's difficult to plan these things."
Nevertheless, in the case of 'Play', Tommy Mottola knew it would be ideal for Jennifer Lopez... so long as the number was tailored according to his own suggestions.
"'Play' is very much a groove song, and it's that groove that we started with," Anders Bagge recalls. "Arnthor did a keyboard part, I played another keyboard part, and initially when I sang the hook it sounded almost like a '60s thing, with an R&B rhythm and a high vocal line. We did a very rough demo in about 30 to 45 minutes, and then Tommy came over and we played it for him. He immediately liked it, and he also started contributing ideas, which is something that he's really good at; suggesting where cuts could be made and even singing some backing parts to help illustrate his thoughts. It really was a case of working with an A&R guy who knows what he wants. That makes the job so much easier, and the same thing goes for Colin Barlow [at Polydor] in England. We've been working with some really good A&R guys who make suggestions and explain what they're looking for.
"At the same time we're always very open to hearing what the artists have to say, although during the past three years there hasn't been all that much input from the artists. 98 Degrees had a lot of input because they wrote together with us, but sometimes, to be very frank, it's better if the artist remains the artist and doesn't try to become the writer. That often happens on a second album; people suddenly become writers when they've never written before, and that can create difficulties. You can always tell when that is the case. For instance, Samantha Mumba is an amazing writer, a real talent who comes up with melodies right then and there, whereas other artists who I won't name shouldn't write. They would be better off just singing what is delivered to them, whether it is my song or somebody else's song."
Meanwhile, another number that was composed very much with the eventual artist in mind was Jessica Simpson's 'Irresistible', co‑written with Pam Sheyne.
"We wanted to write something for Jessica, and we were at Anders' house, starting from scratch," Arnthor Birgisson recalls. "Pam came up with the title 'Irresistible', and as she started talking about the whole concept we immediately became inspired and began working on the music. You know, when we hear a concept or a title that we like — no matter if it's ours or somebody else's — both Anders and I get a feel for the song's vibe; a feel for whether a keyboard or guitar should be used to give it a certain character, be it upbeat or melancholic. So, when Pam mentioned the title, we immediately came up with the tempo and the whole feeling of the song, and then she came up with the lyrics. There was a really good flow to that song. We played around with the melody, put down the demo, and it was done.
"Pam is very good at capturing the female point of view. Guys can be a little one‑dimensional at times, and so it's good to have female input if you're trying to express a woman's feelings. A guy can write a big ballad, a big love song, but 'Irresistible' has some very feminine angles, and Pam was excellent for that. She also gets involved with the melody and is a very good singer, so she laid down the vocals on the demo."
For the vocals proper, Jessica Simpson turned up at Murlyn, where she also recorded another couple of songs during the same visit.
In general, the writing and programming of a Bagge/Birgisson song takes a full day, the words being contrived by varying permutations of artists, composers and a stable of lyricists. Another day is then spent on the recording of numerous guitar parts, while two to three days are usually required for the vocals and a couple of days for the mix — an average of seven days per song, although this number has doubled in certain cases and diminished in others. One track was recently recorded and mixed in just one day.
With the exception of some vocals, the venue for all of this work is Bagge and Birgisson's own room at Murlyn, where an 80‑channel Euphonix CS3000M and Digidesign Mix Plus Pro Tools system are complemented by a standard choice of contemporary gear and comprehensive array of keyboards.
"I really love the Euphonix desk," says Birgisson. "For one thing, the automation and total recall means that we, as songwriters and producers, can work on different songs on successive days without any problem. It doesn't have a clean, clinical sound. It gives things character, and I like that. It can sound pretty hard, but combined with analogue gear and bounced down to two‑inch tape it sounds great. A lot of people just use the computer and standard plug‑ins, but we like to incorporate a lot of analogue. Among my favourites are the Manley equalisers and vocal preamps, as well as the REF C microphone which especially brings out the brightness in male vocals. The sound is naturally bright without being harsh, and the same goes for all of the Manley equipment. Without it I would be miserable. Then again, for female vocals I like the Sony C800. It gets the voice right in your face. I mean, female singers also sound great on the Manley, but their voices might be a little too bright and lack some presence."
"We work a lot with Logic and the Akai MPC3000," adds Bagge. "Logic is so workable and there are so many tricks you can do with it. For example, you can tone all of the vocals — if a vocal sounds a bit heavy, you can make it lighter without changing the pitch, almost like stretching it up to the next key. At the same time, it's also extremely fast, and it works really well with the MPC3000. For me, nothing is as good as Logic."
In terms of as‑yet unfulfilled ambitions, Anders Bagge and Arnthor Birgisson are agreed upon the one artist with whom they would most like to work: Janet Jackson. "That's my dream," says Bagge. "She's the one I would give anything to work with. The ultimate female artist."
So, is there a song ready for her?
"Well, let's just say we will definitely be prepared if and when that happens," asserts Birgisson.
While maintaining their love for numerous musical genres, Bagge and Birgisson are currently displaying an inclination towards pop R&B with hard‑edged guitars, as evidenced on Maya's last album. Nevertheless, in the long term a definite goal of both men is also to write orchestral music for films.
"I wouldn't want to base myself in Hollywood, but Anders and I would love to provide music for the movies," says Birgisson. "Maybe we'll do that when we retire."
"Arnthor and I are both very easygoing," adds Anders Bagge. "We're two Swedes, two Vikings, a little crazy sometimes, and there's a lot of laughter when we're together. This is not a business to me, this is my life. I started working in music because I love it so much, and this is what I'm going to do until I die."
- Aardvark Aardsync II word clock generator.
- Adams‑Smith Zeta 3 synchroniser.
- Alesis Masterlink CD mastering recorder.
- Apogee PSX100 converter.
- Apple Mac G4 733MHz.
- Digidesign Mix Plus Core Pro Tools system with two DSP Farm cards, three 24‑bit 888 interfaces, and two 20‑bit 882 interfaces.
- Emagic Unitor 8 interface (x2).
- Euphonix CS3000M 80‑channel desk with full automation.
- Fostex D5 DAT recorder.
- Genelec 1038 monitors.
- KRK E8 monitors.
- Manley REF C microphone.
- Otari MX80 analogue 2‑inch 24‑track.
- Sony C800 microphone.
- Yamaha NS10 monitors.
- Akai S5000 sampler and MPC3000 sampling workstation.
- Alesis A6 Andromeda analogue synth.
- Clavia Nord Lead 3 synth.
- Emu Mo'Phatt and XL1 sound modules.
- Korg Triton workstation, Electribe EA1, ER1 and ES1 desktop units.
- Kurzweil K2500 workstation.
- Roland JP8000 synth, XV5080, JV2080, JV880 and JV990 sound modules.
- Studio Electronics SE1 analogue synth.
- Yamaha EX5 workstation, CS6R sound module, GT2 digital piano.
EFFECTS & PROCESSORS
- Dbx 902 dynamics processors (x2).
- Lexicon MPX1 and PCM70 multi‑effects.
- Roland RSP550 multi‑effects.
- 16 x Euphonix compressors, gates, filters.
- Eventide H3000 Harmonizer.
- TC Electronic D•Two delay and M3000 multi‑effects.
- Antares ATR1 Auto‑Tune processor.
- Korg DL8000 digital delay.
- Smart Research C2 compressor.
The most important part of any pop recording is usually the vocals, and unsurprisingly, this is where Bagge and Birgisson lavish much of their attention. "We're really into the vocals," Birgisson admits. "We can sit for hours, making sure we get things exactly how we want them by way of comping. This may not actually be necessary for a particular song, but we'll time‑stretch specific breaths and do whatever it takes to get what we want. In that respect we are perfectionists, although in other ways we always try to retain a human touch. For example, we've recently been working with the Irish singer Mark Roche, a 20‑year‑old Bono‑type singer who's also an incredible writer, and all three songs that we've done with him are just one take from start to end. It's not perfect pitch but the feeling is there, and that of course is the most fun. It really captures the whole magic of the work. So, we're definitely not locked into just comping all of the time."