The world's first and most successful specialist vocal producer tells SOS how he coaxes magical performances from star singers like Rihanna, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Mary J Blige and Beyoncé.
"I was always drawn to the excitement of working in a studio, and to being the guy behind the scenes. When I realised that I had people skills, and was able to encourage artists to be a better singer, I got into vocal production, which is all about making sure that I am catching passion, emotion and greatness. I'm after a magical performance. It's like catching lightning in a bottle. And it became exciting to know that I helped create vocal performances that would last forever, and that would be known even beyond the producers of the record, because people are always going to remember a great vocal performance."
Just as Bob Clearmountain single-handedly invented the role of the specialist mix engineer in the '80s, so Kuk Harrell created the role of the vocal producer in the first decade of this century. Today, mix engineers are such an essential part of the record-making process that it's hard to imagine a world without them. The job that Harrell invented has likewise transformed the record-making process. As a result of his efforts, Harrell has become an industry legend, with five Grammy Awards to his name, and a list of A-list artist credits that includes Rihanna, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Mary J Blige, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Rita Ora, Beyoncé, Carly Rae Jepsen, Andrea Bocelli, Celine Dion, Cher, Usher, Ariana Grande, Pentatonix, Cardi B, Camila Cabello, Lorde, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and many more.
The roots of Harrell's calling can be found in his background. Born in 1964, he grew up in Chicago with a mother and two sisters who were both singers, and an uncle who was a jingle producer. "I always noticed how beautiful the vocal harmonies were," recalls Harrell, "particularly in the commercials or songs my uncle had written. When I was old enough to see him and other producers working in the studio, I always liked how they were communicating with the singer, to get the best out of him or her. The way you deal with a singer is different to dealing with a musician, because singers tend to be more self-conscious, and hence a little nervous, and I saw how to encourage them and get them to let their guard down and make vocal sessions fun."
Family connections have always been important in Harrell's career, but other early experiences have also been significant, beginning with learning to sing and play drums and guitar as a teenager, and including his first disappointment in the studio. "When I was 16 years old my cousin and I wanted to record some of our demos in a real studio and mix them properly. So we went to Royal Recorders up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, just north of Chicago, and hired an engineer. We walked into this big studio which had all this outboard gear and two-inch tape, and we thought that because all this gear was there, we had to use it all. We never really got our songs done the way we wanted, because we spent more time experimenting with all the outboard gear. That taught me that just because something is in the room, you don't have to use it. Even when things are complex, you have to keep simplicity in mind. Simplicity is the best. Some of the simplest records with just a few instruments have been the biggest hits."
During his time in Chicago, Harrell eventually graduated to working as a commercial writer and producer, and he was involved in creating the music for ad campaigns by the likes of McDonalds, Kraft, Coca-Cola and others. The family connection again played a crucial part in his next step, when he moved to Los Angeles in 1992, at the age of 28, with his writing and production partner and cousin, Laney Stewart. However, the move to LA turned out to be far more difficult than expected, and Harrell worked as a session singer, and worship leader and choir director.
Family connections once again shaped Harrell's career when he moved to Atlanta in 2004, where two other cousins, Tricky and Mark Stewart, had established RedZone Entertainment. Finally, after several decades in the business, Harrell managed to distil everything he had learnt into the new metier of vocal producer. "That direction really clicked for me in 2007," he says, "when I co-wrote the song 'Umbrella' for Rihanna, together with The-Dream and my cousin Tricky Stewart, and vocal produced the song.
"It turned into a huge hit, and people really noticed not only the record itself, but also the vocal sound. Soon afterwards artists started saying, 'Why don't my vocals sound like that?' and I would be asked to come in and re-cut vocals that had already been recorded. In the same year I also vocal produced most of Mary J Blige's album Growing Pains, including the single 'Just Fine', which had a big impact, and I started to realise: 'Wait a moment, I bring something different to these records.' I tried to figure out what it was, and it's a sense of emotion. Records are so computerised and technical, I want my vocal productions to sound really authentic and have a lot of emotion, yet also have that current sound."
Tricky, The-Dream and Harrell again enjoyed big success in 2008 with Beyoncé's seminal hit 'Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)', and Harrell has continued to operate at the highest level ever since. In addition to the above-mentioned A-list credits, he also co-wrote the theme song for the highest-grossing film of all time, Avatar (2009), called 'I See You'. Sung by Leona Lewis, it ended up being nominated for Golden Globe and Grammy Awards. Following on from this Harrell was involved as a vocal producer with songs for movies like Annie (2014), Pitch Perfect 2 (2015), Home (2015), Grease Live! (TV, 2016) and Ice Age: Collision Course (2016). He also set up a music production company, Suga Wuga Music, which is working in partnership with the Kobalt Music Group.
Today, Harrell's website bears the motto "Taking Artists To A Level Vocally That They Have Never Been Before" — which, of course, begs the question: how, exactly? Although he's currently located in Florida, Harrell spoke to SOS when he was in LA receiving treatment for prostate cancer — he has become publicly very vocal in raising awareness around the illness. In answering the 'how' question about vocal production, Harrell walks through his process step by step, incorporating the psychological and musical sides as much as the engineering side, and always coming back to two essentials: magic and simplicity.
"Most of the time, I don't get to spend time with an artist before the session. Things move so fast now, I don't get the luxury of hanging out with an artist and getting to know him or her. If I'm working with an artist who I have never worked with before, I do my homework. I talk with their A&R person and/or their management, and nine out of 10 times their A&R person will give me the artist's preferences, whether they like to work fast or slow, have audience in the room or be just with the vocal producer, and so on, so the session can run smoothly. The main thing about being a vocal producer is that I have to be like a blank canvas who meets the artist where he or she is.
"When the artist walks into the room and we start a conversation, I can pretty much tell what their personality is, and how they're going to respond during the session. Putting my people skills into play means that I know how to communicate clearly and effectively with them. More than anything it is about listening to them, because they are letting you know, when they talk and in their body language, what is going on for them and what their personality is. Once you get that, it's easy to work with them. When you realise someone is up for having fun, you make jokes and get them to feel relaxed and comfortable. The door is open and they feel they can trust you, and then it's like, 'Are you ready? OK, let's do it.' And you jump into the song. At that point you have created a bond, an easy, warm relationship, that will help create a superstar performance.
"Once again, it's all about people skills, and it's something that's missing in the arts nowadays, because we're in the social media age, with everybody looking at their phones in order to communicate. Especially the younger generation have lost the art of face-to-face communication. Many people do their own thing, and keep their heads down and don't connect. But there's no way you can connect with an artist instantaneously if you don't cultivate the people skills in yourself. I talk with young people all the time about being able to walk into a room and connect with people and make eye contact. The ability to be straightforward, look someone in the eye and communicate with them is the foundation of the road towards creating a superstar vocal performance."
Harrell engineers his own vocal sessions, and while he's happy to adapt to the working preferences of each artist, his own preference is to work in a studio, with the artist in the vocal booth, and Harrell behind the controls on the other side of the glass. The recording setup on both sides of the glass is one of several factors that dictate where he will conduct his vocal sessions
"A key factor in becoming a top-level vocal producer is understanding what it feels like to be on the other side of the studio window, to be able to communicate effectively with the singer. Because I am a vocalist as well, I know everything that may be going through their mind. If they're spending a lot of time on one section, I know it's going to mess with their minds, and they may sink into quicksand, and get frustrated and blow up their voice. So it's better to take a break. At a moment like that I may go, 'Hey, you know what, it's no big deal, we can come back to this section, let's keep on moving.' It's important to always keep the ball moving.
"Picking a place to record depends on many factors. For example, when I do my research on the artist, I find whether they travel with a large entourage or not. Superstars usually have several people with them, like security, so how much space we need is something that I consider when choosing a studio. However, the main factor for me is picking a place where I know the vibe is good. I want to have a good environment, without many other people around the building, and so on. I see myself as the gatekeeper for the session.
"The emotion and the vibe in the studio are important, as is the emotion that I have, because that's going to be present in the room. If my demeanour is intense, with the assistant and others, it's going to build intensity in the room, and as soon as the artist walks in, they're going to feel that. That is not what I want, because we're not going to get the best result. We are fortunate to be able to make a living from music, and so it is all about having fun for me. The environment has to be fun the entire time, because we are there to get a good performance from the artist. For them to feel challenged or intense or beat up is counter-productive."
Kuk Harrell: "The ability to be straightforward, look someone in the eye and communicate with them is the foundation of the road towards creating a superstar vocal performance.