The success of Jax Jones demonstrates that there's still a role for old-fashioned musicianship in electronic music!
Jax Jones brings an unusually diverse variety of backgrounds to his work as a producer, songwriter, DJ and musician. "My father is from Turkey and my mother from Malaysia," explains the Londoner, whose real name is Timucin Fabian Kwong Wah Aluo. "I grew up with her and my stepdad, who is from Nigeria and a big music lover. He has a big record collection, with lots of tapes, CDs and vinyl, with music ranging from blues to rap — basically a lot of black music, and jazz as well. I also listened a lot to grime and, for example, admired someone like Skepta. So yes, I am mixed-race, and a lot of my life is about the contrasts between many different identities. I have always had this clash of influences. And I've been constantly searching for a place where I belong."
That search has powered an extremely successful career in pop and dance music, which started with his commercial breakthrough in 2014 as a featured artist on Duke Dumont's number-one hit 'I Got You' and has since yielded six top-10 singles and eight top-20 singles under his own name, plus the UK's bestselling dance album of 2019, Snacks (Supersize).
Jax Jones also enjoyed an unusually diverse musical upbringing. As well as learning to make beats on a computer, he mastered the guitar, played worship music in churches, and even enjoyed a stint playing electric guitar for London rap act N‑Dubz. "Because of her Asian background," explains Jones, "my mother's view of music centred on classical music. So I learnt to play classical guitar, until about grade eight. While the first tape I owned was a rap tape, I was also listening to classical music, though very much from an academic perspective: I was identifying chord changes and rhythms. As a result, when a song makes me feel good, I can understand why I like it. I started playing electric guitar at age 18 because I had heard somewhere that Slash was Turkish, or something like that! I played guitar like Slash, wanted to be an R&B singer like Usher, and to rap like Nas!
"I regularly played both acoustic and classical guitar in big churches, with a few thousand attendees every week. It's how I paid the bills for a while. It was serious stuff. There's a whole circuit for it. It was a baptism of fire every weekend. Some of the musicians I played with were amazing, and I learned so much. Many of them are self-taught, with very deep knowledge of chords and melodies. It's like being in a jazz band, because you learn to improvise and do everything by ear. People are often singing and creating a mood, and I was learning songs on the fly. It was really interesting.
"As I was searching for a place where I belong, I realised that the only thing that I'm good at is composing stuff. This was already the case as a kid. I had noticed that in classical music many players are amazingly good at playing what is on the page, but they might not be able to make up stuff from their own imagination. However, it was what interested me. I wrote my first song when I was 13, and luckily I had teachers who were willing to help me.
"My first equipment was a four-track cassette recorder, and I used to create tracks on that, recording loops, and writing songs and raps. I was trying to express myself. I recall the Men In Black soundtrack, with Will Smith, and when I was about 11 I wrote a Christmas version of it, changing the words and rapping them. It may have sounded stupid, but taking my influences from everywhere is still the way I work. I try to make something new from anything I have ever listened to."
"I embraced electronic music about six years ago. At first, I liked it because it reminded me of rap music. What I love about it is that anything goes, especially in the house music genre. You can bring all your experiences to it. A few years later, after having been in front of a computer for a very long time, I realised that I'm also about playing instruments. In addition to playing the guitar I taught myself to play piano, bass and some drums — I'm a really shitty drummer! For me, that connection with instruments outside the computer gives me a real-life, tangible feeling, that I really enjoy. It's part of the human element in the kind of music I make, which is crucially important.
"That grounding in instruments really helps me with writing and production. Even today, 90-percent of my music is done by writing the song first, with the singer in my room. That definitely harks back to my experiences in church, and working with vocalists in that context. It taught me how to communicate with singers and musicians, and create an energy in the room. I enjoy the chemistry of working with a singer, and digging into our emotions and finding something we both relate to and write about that. Every song has to be like that, even something as simple as 'You Don't Know Me'. Electronic producers today often send their song out for singers to add vocals to, or if they work with a singer in the room they'll cut up the vocals to make them fit their music. For them the production comes first. But the production is always secondary to me, because I know I can find a hit in a vocal that's really strong. That is the bit that not everyone can do."
'You Don't Know Me' was Jax Jones's 2016 breakthrough hit under his own name. It went to number three in the UK, and also charted highly in several other countries. It features singer Raye, and samples a bass line from the famous 2005 house track 'Body Language' by German duo Booka Shade and label founders M.A.N.D.Y. Other Jax Jones hits since then include 'Breathe' (2017, featuring Ina Wroldsen), 'Play' (2018, with Years & Years), and 'This Is Real' (2019, with Ella Henderson). The latter suddenly raced back up into the UK top 10 at the beginning of 2020, a few months after its release.
The room where Jones lays the foundations of his crazily catchy pop songs is at his house in London, and contains a combination of the hi-tech and the traditional. "I have a Wurlitzer, a guitar, a piano, all ready to play. The fact is that these instruments are reliable, and they always sound the same, so you don't have to work hard to get a great sound. They allow me to work out what I'm doing in a raw form, and I then translate that onto computers. However, I rarely record my real instruments. Instead I prefer to cut up samples from Splice or from a record, and spread them across the EXS24 sampler in Logic or Ableton's sampler. I may also start a track in my computer, and then go back to my instruments to work out the key and chords.
My computer in my studio is my private place where I try out things. I am always collecting ideas, manipulating and degrading samples, and creating loops with them, and then combining these loops, and so on. It is so addictive to sample, it's like an instant vibe. You hear something you like just sample it! The beauty of sampling from records also is that if you don't cut your sample cleanly, the result can be very musical. Instead of fitting something perfectly to a grid, you're throwing things in a page and there's a magic in that. Sometimes, when you clean it up, it doesn't sound as cool. The process of running things through a sampler and stretching sound to get different pitches also can create groove and musicality!
"I normally play musical parts into the DAW, but the good thing about clicking is that it allows for a degree of randomness, especially in bass lines. If you use 'capture all' when you play, you can later go into the MIDI information and shift things around, clicking away, and manipulating things, for example holding notes for a certain length of time. This is where clicking can get you some magic. I use the best of the electronic approach and combine that with human feel. It is the combination that makes computers so good. It gives you the best of both worlds and the je ne sais quoi in the groove that is really hard to get otherwise."
Jones' creative process involves multiple pieces of music software. "I use Ableton to come up with ideas, like loops and so on, and I then write chords and songs in Logic, and finally I mix my stuff in Pro Tools, together with Mark Ralph, at his place. After the four-track cassette recorder I went to Cubase on an Atari, initially at a friend's house, because at the time I did not have a computer of my own. My first experience of recording audio was in Logic 5, again at a friend's, and I then bought a second copy of Logic and a Mac G3 for £50 on eBay. I used that for years. Later I noticed that the club guys love to use Ableton, so I got into that as well, and found it a really musical program. Logic requires human input to produce something good, whereas if you input something in Ableton, it will immediately translate it into something musical, for example in identifying the tempo.
"I have collected pretty much every plug-in ever made, but I love to use boutique plug-ins, because they make you feel like you have something special. I feel that the smaller plug-in developers are the most exciting. For example, with Ableton you can get the Max for Live stuff, allowing people to make their own plug-ins, and you can buy some cool plug-ins, like Grain Scanner and Instant Haus. These plug-ins are so musical, you just chuck them on your audio and they immediately give you new inspiration. In addition to my instruments and my Mac with Logic and Ableton, I have Focal SM9 monitors, a UAD Apollo soundcard, a MIDI keyboard, and I keep some decks with my records. And that's all I need, though I'm trying to get a pair of Yamaha NS10s, as I'm very used to their sound and swear by them.
"When I work with soft synths it's usually Sylenth and Native Instrument's Massive. I can do basic sound design, but love working with presets. I let them jump out at me, and then write something with them. It's like having an acoustic instrument: the initial sound has to be inspiring. I also use the Arturia stuff, and Xfer's Serum. I may put an envelope on a classic wave, but you don't want too many effects, because it does not sound as cool. ReFX's Nexus also is great, especially when working with singers, because you turn it on and it immediately sounds good. It allows you to write stuff really quickly, which is important when you have people in the room."
Jax Jones: "At this level, the only thing that separates musicians is taste, and the humility to keep pushing."
When Jones works with others, he tends to rent a commercial studio. "When you start writing actual songs you need to be able to have the space to walk around. I want everybody to hang out and get to know each other, as that allows the song to arrive. I therefore like to go to big studios, particularly where they have lots of instruments, because, once again, I need stuff to get me out of the computer. I want to be able to touch an instrument to allow inspiration to come. When I am working with vocalists, the instruments are particularly important. During the songwriting I usually use a piano, sometimes a guitar, to make sure the melody and lyrics are strong. When I play just a piano or guitar, I can focus on the song, and not be confused by the production.
"With songs like 'You Don't Know Me', 'Breathe', 'This Is Real' and even a club song like 'Cruel', I had made a bass line in my studio, something very simple, just to give a key, a groove and a feeling, and we then wrote the song to that. The most important thing is to make sure you have a great song with a lot of feeling, because I know that I can get the production right later on. So after the song is written I do the production and turn it into what you hear.
"For example, on 'You Don't Know Me' I had only a Sylenth bass playing my remake of the bass line in the Frankie Knuckles song 'Your Love', and we wrote the song over that. I later realised that it was in the same key as the Booka Shade bass line, and I remade that in Ableton's Operator plug-in, and it sounded great. In fact, I'd seen this cool guy remake the bass riff on YouTube, and imitated that. We all do it! There's something really fun about wondering how to do something, and then finding some genius on YouTube who has done it, and you can change it from there. Another good source of inspiration is Reverb Machine, who also make really cool synth presets.
"Microphone-wise, I keep it very simple. For singers it usually is just a Neumann U87 and a Neve channel strip. I don't overcomplicate things. I often think back to the time when I worked on four-track and everything was so simple. Starting on a four-track cassette recorder meant that I did not get bogged down by technology. It forced me to create a song made of just a few tracks, and make each track sound good. I still think like that. There's the magic rule of three, where you have a simple musical motif, some sort of rhythm, and the vocals, which is what most of the audience can understand. If you start to put loads of stuff on, it starts sounding very SoundCloudy. It sounds a little less confident, because it usually means that your core idea is not that strong. So I always really focus on the basic idea.
"At this level, the only thing that separates musicians is taste, and the humility to keep pushing. Some people think that because they like something, it's good and they don't want to mess with it any more. Sometimes that's true, but often you have to be humble enough to try new versions, which may lead you to a new hook, or a whole new section, and then you go: 'This is dope!' Typically, the best ideas are written fast, and then the editing process can take a long time. But the initial idea always is quick, because it has to be fun. It's my favourite bit of the whole writing process!"
In November 2018, Jones released an EP called Snacks, which contained nine already released hit songs. This was expanded to become his Snacks (Supersized) album, which was released in September 2019, and contains a further two already released hit songs, complemented with four previously unreleased tracks, bringing the total to 15. For a pop artist like Jax Jones to release an album was deemed so unusual that the Head of Marketing of Polydor felt compelled to give a public statement of explanation, saying that the idea was to "reimagine the album as an ever-evolving playlist that would update on an ongoing basis and eventually culminate in a full album release with extra songs".
"In 2017, after I had my first hit as a solo artist with 'You Don't Know Me', my only goal was to get bigger," comments Jones. "That was it. I just wanted to be more successful, and for my music to reach more people, and to make better music, and not have the curse of being a one-hit wonder. I released more singles, but obviously also had songs that were not released, and that had nowhere to go. My manager is from the old-school era, he used to work for a record label called 679 Artists, and released stuff by Plan B and Kano and so on, and he was going all the time: 'I really want you to do an album.' My reply was, 'No, because nobody is going to listen to it.' To this day I am surprised that I have fans, and that people want to listen to my music.
"This conversation went on for a year, but then I finally committed to doing an album, and in the beginning of 2019 we started to finish off the additional songs. That was a really fun process, because I ended up seeing value in records that I had made just to make music, rather than to try to make a hit. It removed that pressure and I fell in love with just finishing music because I like it. Now that the album has come out, I can see that it has become an important flag for my career, that says: 'Look, guys, I am a real artist. I am more than just a few songs.' It is like a mission statement. And for my fans it is something that allows them to go deeper into my world. In a way, the album also had already gone gold even before it was released, because of all the hit singles on it."
Jones' previously released hit singles were included without any changes on the album, though some, such as 'This Is Real', were finished only shortly before the album was released. Jones: "That actually was the song I got signed on four years ago! But to be able to release it last year we had to update the production considerably, because dance music has changed, and I have matured as a producer. We redid the bass on that song using a Roland SH-101, and I also redid the drums, so they're more modern and similar to what's in the clubs. We did not re-record the vocals, because there's something magical that you get from when the vocalist first delivers the song. Sometimes you lose emotion when a singer knows a song too well."
By 'we' Jones means himself and Mark Ralph, who has in recent years become his closest and most regular collaborator and owns a hybrid studio called Club Ralph in North London. The well-known mixer and producer, who featured in the November 2018 issue of SOS, co-produced 13 of Snacks (Supersized)'s 15 songs. "When I finish a record, I work similar to the older guys," says Jones, "like Mark Ronson, the Neptunes, all the way back to Quincy Jones. I believe in working with the best of the best, and that's why I go to see Mark Ralph. What I do with him is more technical, and he excels in that. He's got ATC monitors in his studio, NS10s and an SSL E-series desk. I always laugh when I give him my stems, because the moment he sends them through his SSL there immediately is so much more width to the record, it's unreal.
"When I first went to see him, I would bring him tracks that were 95-percent done, but we have become more and more collaborative over the years, where he also helps me edit and simplify my tracks. Mark often removes things, using a lot of corrective EQ. He makes sure everything is in the right place and not confusing. It's like distilling alcohol! My music is like a house of cards: if you move one thing, it can fall apart. So we have to be careful when removing things. The only place where he adds is that he will often say that I need more sub frequencies, particularly when the chorus hits. He'll often say: 'That sounds great, but your kick needs more bottom end.' I tend to ignore sub, because I'm all about melody and chordal information. But in pop music, when you hit the chorus, it has to feel like a moment, and more bass coming in really helps.
"Mark and I will mix as we go, using his SSL. I give him version one of a song, and he'll do his corrective EQ, and he'll put on Avid's Smack! compressor, and other things he likes. However, he'll often use my reverbs now, because there's a lot of vibe I get from them, for example by distorting them. Mark will use my sound design stuff, and will follow my taste, and other than that we go back and forth for a while.
"I love working with Mark at his place. He'll make sure that all the parts are there that are important to make a song a hit. Working with Mark is like having a great quarterback in the room while you are experimenting! When I did not have a budget to finish records, I used my friends. I played them music and asked for feedback, and that worked. Just don't show it to everyone, because that's a mistake. I just showed it to friends who I trusted and whose taste I knew.
"I still have one best friend who I play my music to, and he has a sanitation business, but he loves club culture and I know that if something resonates with him, it's a very pure feeling. Other than that, I now work at a different level, and have producer friends whose opinions I trust. It just happens that this friend may be Mark Ronson. But it's still the same process. I go for what's best, and it's fun."
Unusually for a DJ, Jax Jones incorporates quite a bit of performance into his live sets. "My live set is a hybrid DJ/musician set. It's like my little playpen. I have a Pioneer DJ player, instruments, and I trigger MIDI sounds from Ableton. I resample my patches in Ableton and play them live. I have two systems of Ableton, one on either side of me, so if one drops out, the other kicks in. I don't actually enjoy it, because I find it quite stiff. By contrast, I really like the Pioneer CDJ players. It just does one thing, and within that you can be quite musical, with the effects and the looping and stuff like that. They are like an instrument. I have used Ableton Push and the Akai MPD stuff, and they just feel flimsy. These Pioneers are like modern electric guitars, you can throw them and they're still going to work. But in terms of playback, it is still an ongoing fight, because many of the guys I work with want me to use Ableton, but I far prefer the CDJ as a playback system."
Jax Jones wouldn't be a 21st Century pop artist and beatmaker if he didn't also regularly collaborate with other songwriters. As one specific example, he describes the process that led to his song 'All Day And Night', a UK top–10 hit in Spring 2019, which he wrote with the famous French DJ Martin Solveig, with contributions by singer-songwriters Becky Hill, Hailee Steinfeld, Kamille and Jin Jin, as well as producer Mark Ralph.
"Martin and I have known each other for a few years, from me playing at his Pacha residency in Ibiza. We have similar taste in music and a good chemistry, and when we got into the studio we approached things in the same way. Martin says that I'm ruthless in trying to find the best moments in a song, and don't mess around. We worked at Mark Ralph's place, and I had a keyboard riff with some chords, using the Wurlitzer, and I wrote the song with him and Jin Jin and Becky Hill and Mark. Martin actually went out of the room to come up with some melodies. My keyboard riff is still in the song.
"After that Martin and I worked in separate places on the song. I did a bass drop that he was not feeling, so he put the big synth stabs in that you can still hear today. He's also similar to me in that he doesn't really like using synths, but instead chops up synth shots from sample packs or records. He'll take little blips from a record he likes, and make something new out of that. Martin wanted a drop without words, but I felt we needed a bit more, so I called a friend called Camille Purcell, who is a great songwriter, and we spent a couple of hours tightening the song and lyrics and finding a new vocal moment for the chorus.
"I often work like that: if I think I have a good idea, I'll work and work and I don't care who I contact to come in and help make the song a hit. Actually, finishing a song can sometimes be a horrible process that can take up to a year. If I know it's going to be a single, I work and work until it's done, and I may end up with 50 versions!"