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,...