The man behind colossal hits for Harry Styles, Miley Cyrus and Florence + the Machine takes a surprisingly old‑school approach to writing and production.
“Our job is to make people feel something. You don’t need to be the best musician to do that. You can make someone feel something with two or three notes played slowly, or a song with just two chords. Harry Styles’ song ‘Golden’, which is one of my favourite songs that we have done together, has just two chords. I’m a professional, but I also try to maintain a degree of unprofessionalism. Otherwise, things get too shiny.
“You can go on TikTok or Instagram today, and there’s always some guitarist or piano player who is insanely, mind‑blowingly good. It kills me, and I think, ‘Oh, I suck. Why can’t I do that?’ But it doesn’t make me feel anything. It just makes me jealous that I can’t do the same thing. However, the goal is not to be good. The goal is to make you feel something. It’s important to remember this.
“Having said that, some people can be good in a way where they contribute to the music being incredible, and making you feel something. The Michael Jackson stuff is incredible, because amazing musicians and jazz musicians are playing with a pop mentality, and everything crosses over into a world where you can appreciate the musicians from a technical point of view, and the songs are great and they make you feel something. To me, that’s the pinnacle of music.”
Tom Hull, aka Kid Harpoon, is one of the world’s biggest songwriters and producers, as acknowledged by his 2023 Songwriter of the Year Brit Award and two Grammy Awards. He co‑wrote and co‑produced Miley Cyrus’ megahit ‘Flowers’, and dominated the charts in 2022 thanks to his work with Florence + the Machine, Maggie Rodgers, Lizzo and, most famously, Harry Styles. Hull co‑wrote all but one song and co‑produced all songs on Harry’s House, including the ubiquitous single ‘As It Was’, which spent 10 weeks atop the UK charts and 15 weeks atop the US charts, and was Spotify’s most‑streamed song in 2022.
Rather than rely on programming, samples and DAWs, Hull prefers to write songs with several people in a room playing traditional instruments, and using analogue gear to record them — again, with the emphasis on feel over technique. “The hardest thing in the studio is when the best guitarist in the world walks in, and everyone just accepts that they’re going to play guitar. But that’s not necessarily right. You don’t necessarily want the fastest or the best, you want the correct idea and something that feels exciting. Someone could play three notes really badly, but put it through Ableton and pitch it around, or put it through a sequencer, and you’re like ‘Holy shit, that’s amazing, that’s the vibe.’
“It is helpful to have skills. When you have skills and knowledge, you can experiment with it. It gives you more tools to work with. When I was younger I was into punk, but my school was very classical with grades and theory, and you needed to be playing cello or clarinet or something. Guitars were nothing. It made me stick up my middle finger to music theory. But as I got older, I was like, ‘I wish someone had shown me this.’ Because now I enjoy it. You learn one new chord, and at some point you remember it and put it in a new song, and it’s cool. Learning inspires the creative side.
“It is also helpful to have the right gear. I’m a very out‑of‑the‑box producer, and I have a lot of outboard in my studio. I come from the original approach to recording and like to record with microphones. I play guitar, piano, drums and everything, and have live amps, and so on. I also do a lot of programming on MPCs, and I have a ton of drum machines and synths. And I use samples and try to make things sound modern. It’s not like I want to be outside the box making pure live‑sounding music, but I find that it’s quicker and more exciting to play a synth, or to program a drum machine, or to play a drum beat, and to chop it up and edit it and place it where I want it, rather than use an Ableton station to come up with everything. There’s something about a drum kit and a drummer and that mindset that makes a drum beat way more tied together. Otherwise you end up thinking ‘kick drum’ and then ‘snare’, ‘hi‑hat’ and ‘percussion’, and then another snare is going to come in in the chorus. Even if you end up replacing all your drums, when sitting behind a kit you can feel a rhythm, and make it feel more natural.”
Kid Harpoon: I’m a very out‑of‑the‑box producer, and I have a lot of outboard in my studio. I come from the original approach to recording and like to record with microphones.
Hull’s philosophy has its roots in his early years in music. He was born in 1982 in Chatham in Kent, and started playing guitar when he was 10 years old. The instrument has remained central to his musical life.
“I started on acoustic, but also wanted to be like Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan. I learned to sing and played some piano as well, and started performing live early. My first recording experiences were with Jim Riley at his Ranscombe Studios in nearby Rochester. He recorded to tape, and was very focused on the performances. Around that time I did a show under the name Kid Harpoon, after a character in a story that I had written, and the name stuck.
“What I did at the time was all acoustic, though I approached that very different differently than most. When someone goes on stage with an acoustic guitar your heart kind of drops because you expect it to be all sad and introverted. I wanted to do be the opposite of that. I was into Gogol Bordello and other indie punk bands, and wanted to have that kind of energy.”
When he reached his 20s, Hull moved to London and joined the music scene there, particularly at a live venue called Nambucca, where he became resident songwriter. He toured as a guitarist with acts like Jamie T and the Kooks, and in 2006 signed with the independent label Brikabrak, which released two EPs under the name Kid Harpoon. In 2009, Hull signed to the Young Turks label, which released his first solo album, again under the name Kid Harpoon. Once was produced by the legendary Trevor Horn.
“When it came to making my records, everything was fully Pro Tools, and I didn’t know what to do. I tried all sorts of different things, and we actually made a version of my album on tape, and then transferred things to Pro Tools, but we messed it up because we’d recorded too quiet on tape, and when we then in Pro Tools boosted everything, there was a ton of noise. I realised that I didn’t know how to do the studio thing. So I tried to find a producer.
“Trevor Horn’s publishing company, ZTT, had signed my publishing. He explained to me what we had done wrong with the recordings, and said, ‘Let’s go to LA. I’m going to put a band together and we’ll record it in just two weeks, because you already have the songs.’ We recorded the album at his house in LA, and did some mixing at SARM in Notting Hill.
“The record came out great, but I felt during the making that I had missed my moment. As an artist you’re looking for a wave and when you find one, and suddenly something goes viral, you surf that wave, and then the next one. When making that album I realised deep down, ‘I missed my wave.’ When you’re working on a project, you need everything to be rushing forwards so that when it comes to the release...