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Page 2: The Monsters & Strangerz

Halsey 'Graveyard'

The Johnson brothers illustrate their process using ‘Graveyard’ by Halsey as an example. Released in the autumn of 2019, the song went double‑platinum in the US, Australia and Canada, and was a number 1 on the US dance charts. Starting with an acoustic guitar it turns into an electro‑pop track with pulsating synths and hip‑hop‑influenced rhythms. The credited songwriters are Halsey, Jon Bellion, Amy Allen, Louis Bell, Mark ‘Oji’ Williams and Jordan and Stefan Johnson. Production credits, meanwhile, are shared between Jon Bellion, Ojivolta, Louis Bell and the Monsters & Strangerz.

This Pro Tools screen capture shows the final session for Halsey’s ‘Graveyard’. The brothers often spend many days meticulously editing and polishing their productions. (Download the ZIP file for a detailed, enlarged screenshot.)This Pro Tools screen capture shows the final session for Halsey’s ‘Graveyard’. The brothers often spend many days meticulously editing and polishing their productions. (Download the ZIP file for a detailed, enlarged screenshot.)

Download this Monsters & Strangerz Pro Tools session screenshot for detailed larger view: Package icon

“There were five of us in the room when we wrote that song,” says Stefan, “Jon, Amy, Mark from Ojivolta, Jordan and I. We’ve known Jon for a long time and he is one of the most talented guys we know, but at the time he had his own artist career going, so we had not been writing together. Then at the end of 2018 he came to LA and said he was interested in writing with us again, so we booked sessions for the beginning of January of 2019, after the Christmas break. It was the first time we wrote together for four or five years, and ‘Graveyard’ was literally the first song we did on the first day back together.

“The song idea started with the acoustic guitar played by Amy, which we recorded using our Neumann U87. I think Jon immediately came up with the pre melody. We tried to redo the acoustic guitar later on, but for some reason that original demo guitar just had the right feel, and we kept it. We redid the rest of the guitars in the song, because there’s so much going on by that stage, it was easier to replay.”

Jordan continues: “So we had the guitar riff, and the beginning of the vocals, and then we needed a new section, and we came up with the synth arpeggio, quite spontaneously. It wasn’t thought out. It was a quick jam session with Amy playing guitar and then Mark pulled up the synth sound and I think Jon played the idea. It was magic that happened really quickly, and once we caught that, we all agreed that we had something really cool, the bed of something that had the spirit, and we carried on trying to flesh it out. The drums were added after the song was written.”

Over The Line

Once the writing process is completed, the Johnson brothers continue to work in their studio to develop and finalise the production. According to Stefan, Jordan and he tend to finish the production of the songs they’re involved in writing. “In 90 percent of the cases we’re the last people to touch the song. We can be busy with the sonics and production for days, weeks, sometimes months! Finishing can take forever. It’s one of the hardest things, so hard that we learned early on that if you can be a finisher, you’ll work forever!”

Jordan explains: “Writing is fast, because you want to keep everybody inspired, but once Stefan and I are alone with the song, we can spend ages, because you really get into the nitty‑gritty, whether the setting on a plug‑in should be 1.5 or 1.7. We get involved in the smallest details and we care about every single one. I use a lot of stock Ableton plug‑ins to get this job done. I also really like the iZotope Alloy 2, which has a really useful Transient setting on it, and the Output Thermal and Portal, and XLN Audio RC20 plug‑ins.”

Stefan: “We do this in a small bubble, just the two of us, so we don’t drive everyone crazy! We focus on one or two songs at a time without being distracted by people coming in and out. That really helps to get the songs over the finish line. When working in Pro Tools, we are creatures of habit. I learned using all the Waves stuff, and have used every Waves plug‑in known to man, from Neve to SSL to API to the Renaissance plug‑ins. We also have all the UAD stuff, because we constantly get sessions in with it. Plus I often use iZotope Ozone, and the Xfer OTT compressor. It’s funny, some songs call for tons of plug‑ins, and some others for very few.

“In the case of ‘Graveyard’ we were doing the production for a couple of weeks and got the song to a point where it felt amazing. The song got to Halsey’s team, and they loved it. Halsey flipped the concept of the lyrics and rewrote a bunch of the words, and then cut her vocals with Louis Bell. Lou was also instrumental in putting the final touches on this song. He invited us over to his place to do this. It was a great process.”

Make It Better

The involvement of Louis Bell and Halsey took the number of co‑writers on the song to seven, while the production was handled by five of these seven. Much has been made of the fact that pop songs today tend to be written and produced by several people, and that record companies and managements these days also chip in with feedback. It’s led to accusations of formulaic songs written by committee. However, for the Johnson brothers, the input of many people maximises quality and objectivity. “You work with people whose opinion you trust,” insists Jordan. “That’s the number‑one thing. It’s really important to know that your ideas are not always right, and your first opinion on a song that’s being written may not be right, especially in something as subjective as music. So if someone else really believes in a song, or an idea, and I don’t yet, I need to trust him or her enough to be able to take myself out of my own reservations, and go with this. Everyone has different perspectives, and you trust that process, and in the end you always make all the decisions together.”

“We also don’t mind getting notes from labels or managers,” admits Stefan. “Some songwriters and producers are not so open to this, but because we’re always serving the song, if I get notes, I like to try them. There’s no ego involved in writing songs. Did a suggestion from someone from outside make the song better? If so, great, and we keep the suggestion. If not, we explain why we don’t think it works.”

“I love getting comments that may make the song better,” agrees Jordan. “All we’re after is the best version of the song we’re working on. It’s the same with the pressures of the marketplace. We’re not listening to a song thinking, ‘Will this work on TikTok?’ We’re listening to, ‘Do we like it or do we not like it?’ It really is that simple. Of course you think about the marketplace, but we don’t let it dictate every decision we make. All we’re after at any point in time is to make the best song ever.”

Maroon 5: ‘Memories’

The final Pro Tools session for Maroon 5’s ‘Memories’ featured no drums apart from a simple hi‑hat.The final Pro Tools session for Maroon 5’s ‘Memories’ featured no drums apart from a simple hi‑hat.

Download this Monsters & Strangerz Maroon 5 Pro Tools session screenshot for detailed larger view: Package icon

Released in the second half of 2019, ‘Memories’ is one of Maroon 5’s biggest hits. It went six times platinum in the US, Australia and Canada, and platinum in the UK, and at the time of writing had 745 million streams on YouTube. The song was co‑written by Adam Levine, Jonathan Bellion, Jacob Kasher Hindlin, Michael Pollack, Vincent Ford and Jordan and Stefan Johnson, and was produced by Levine and the Monsters & Strangerz.

Stefan recalls: “We go on writing trips a couple of times a year. We often work with Jon Bellion and Michael Pollack, and Jon lives in Long island and Pollack is from there. So in March 2019 we went to Long Island, and rented a house and set up a studio in the basement, with our computer and two sets of speakers and a microphone, and Jordan has his computer for all the sounds.

“We got to the studio and Pollack comes in and says, ‘I have this concept. I just drove here from my parents’ place and memories came flooding in.’ So we’re like, ‘That sounds good, but let’s start something from scratch.’ Two hours later we have a song that sucks, and somebody says, ‘What about that concept about memories?’”

Jordan takes up the story. “Pollack was sitting at the Fender Rhodes and was feeling nostalgic, and started playing the chords, and the melody of Pachelbel’s Canon came out, and we had the idea of using this. Initially we tried to use Pachelbel’s actual melody, but it just felt way too busy. As usually happens with a process like that, we started chipping away at anything that bothers us, so that what we’re listening to feels effortless, and nothing sticks out or feels wrong. Jon’s best friend’s father had passed away a few days before, so he suggested to make it even more serious, and about the memories we have of someone after losing them.”

“Once we had the chords, the concept and the melody, it felt amazing,” says Stefan. “It’s that miracle that happens when two or more parts in a composition collide and make it more than the sum of the parts.

“All credit to Michael Pollack for that one, because he had the first feeling and his instincts helped us get the song over the finish line.”

“The original keyboard sound is of a Rhodes and two synths from a Kontakt patch,” explains Jordan. “I changed the sound a little bit after the initial bounce during writing, and later I could never get it to sound the same, so just like with Amy Allen’s acoustic guitar intro in ‘Graveyard’, the original demo sound is still in there. We did end up blending it with some live instruments.”

Stefan adds: “Going further down the production process, with Maroon 5 every member of the band comes in and plays on each record. We did this with Noah ‘Mailbox’, Maroon 5’s engineer, at EastWest Studios. PJ Morton came in and played Rhodes and Wurlitzer, Jesse Carmichael and James Valentine added guitars, Mickey Madden added bass in the chorus and the second verse, and so on.

“We added tons of stuff, you always record more than you need. Yet it’s a simple song and there was a risk of taking away from its soul and essence. We had multiple drum tracks, with the drums coming in in the second verse in classic ballad fashion, but none of them worked. We were unsure what to do, and we have to give props to Adam, because we sent him a version with and without drums, and he called us the next day at 9am and said: ‘When the second verse starts, all that needs to happen with the drums is just a floor hat.’ I was like, ‘That’s it?’ And he said, ‘Trust me, just put that in and put some reverb on it.’ And he was right.”

Dua Lipa: ‘Break My Heart’

‘Break My Heart’ is the third single from Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia album. It reached the top 10 in dozens of countries, went platinum in the UK and the US, and had more than 400 million views on YouTube at the time of writing. The song was written by Dua Lipa, Andrew Watt, Ali Tamposi and Stefan and Jordan Johnson; Andrew Farriss and Michael Hutchence are also credited, because of a similarity between the guitar riff and that of INXS’s 1987 song ‘Need You Tonight’. The production is credited to Andrew Watt and the Monsters & Strangerz.

Dua Lipa had a very definite sound in mind for her Future Nostalgia album.Dua Lipa had a very definite sound in mind for her Future Nostalgia album.Photo: Luc CoiffaitJordan: “We had a session with Dua scheduled one day, and Andrew, topliner Ali Tamposi, Stefan and I had come early to get the base of an idea we thought would work for Dua. When she came in, she immediately shut down the idea, saying, ‘This is not what I’m looking for.’ So we said, ‘OK, play us your music.’ We had not heard any of the stuff she was working on, and she played us ‘Don’t Start Now’, ‘Levitating’ and ‘Love Again’, and we were like: ‘OK, we get it.’ Andrew picked up the bass, and played the riff, and I put a drum groove underneath that.”

Stefan: “The bass and the groove came first with that song, and we then wrote the pre‑chorus and the chords. She was into this disco‑like uptempo thing that was at the same time futuristic and nostalgic, and was really going for an album that would sound cohesive. Thank goodness she turned down our idea! We love it when an artist has a clear vision, and knows exactly what they’re chasing in terms of feel and sound and vibe.

“One of the best things about working with Andrew, who is one of the greatest producers on the planet, is that he bounces around the room playing live bass, live guitar, live keyboards and even live drums. At the end of the day Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers came in to replay the live drums. We then take all that and add computer and synth elements, ie. manipulate everything in a modern way, and this results in an awesome blend of the live and the synthetic.

“The basic tracks for that song were all recorded in one day, including all of Dua’s vocals — lead vocals, ad libs, and harmonies. Then Jordan and I worked for a week on the sonics, and added new drum elements, like kick samples, because we wanted it to sound new. After that we went back to Andrew’s house to add some finishing touches. The song was mixed by Spike Stent, and we were still working on it and sending him new stems after he had mixed it.”

“We were torturing Spike for months!” laughs Jordan. “It was like, ‘Here are entirely new drum stems with six new drum samples, can you please add them in?’ He was very gracious about it. I think we did 20 versions, and he just rolled with it. Amazing. At the end we decided to put real strings on, which took the song to a new level.

“There’s a filter on the backing tracks in the beginning with all the low end and top end removed, and when the verse starts, more low end comes in, but there’s even less top end, until eventually all frequencies come back in. That was done with the Ableton EQ8. The idea is that the beginning sounds like you’re in the bathroom of a club, hearing the music come through the door. Our aim was to make sure that when the chorus comes in for the first time, the riff feels new again, even though you’ve heard it over and over, because all of a sudden there are all these frequencies that you have not heard before. Especially the guitar suddenly has this bright sparkle that makes it feel new.”