Photo: Nate Hertweck/The Recording Academy
Photo: Nate Hertweck/The Recording Academy
Photo: Roots Picnic Facebook
In a music world saturated with festivals, full of massive multi-day, multi-genre experiences, Philadelphia's Roots Picnic just feels different. Perhaps it's the local-heavy lineup, the laidback atmosphere, or the soulful spirit of the city, but more than anything, it's the music.
"There's no egos, everybody really just comes to have a good time, that's what's perfect about the Roots Picnic," says producer/engineer and Philadelphia Chapter board member Dilemma. "You get exposed to new music, new artists and you come to be entertained."
While the gravity of its hosts, GRAMMY-winning Philly band The Roots, and their many musical collaborations and connections may be what attracts the masses to the festival (you never know who will take the stage,) most of the day's music rings out with vibrant discovery of new sounds coming from each of the Picnic's three stages. From burgeoning local rappers on the Cricket Stage, to breakout experimental artists like Tank & The Bangas on the Mann stage, to upcoming queens like Asiahn and Ari Lennox holding court on the Fairmount Park stage, the festival boldy faces forward, embracing its historical ties to the black community.
"This is my first time at Roots Picnic. It's been a beautiful experience, nice and black and soulful," said Lennox. "I love Philly, so it's a dream—I've been hearing about it for years, so I'm glad I can finally be here and sing!"
Since 2008, Roots Picnic has brought together Philly's staggeringly talented music community to host artists from across the nation for what basically is one big party.
"To me it's like a big family reunion," said rapper and official Philadelphia music ambassador Chill Moody after performing with his new project &More. "There's people you may only see at the Roots Picnic every year, but when you see them, it's like you've been hanging with them every day. it's just love and everybody's having a good time… It's bigger than the stage, it's just the camaraderie. It's just family."
Where many festivals find themselves too corporately lucrative to stay focused on a family atmosphere, Roots Picnic has managed to keep this in perspective. This energy is perhaps best exemplified by the unique Live Mixtape, presented once again this year by J.Period and The Roots' Black Thought featuring a string of guest appearances honoring and celebrating hip-hop, including an iconic mini-set with the great Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def.) All afternoon, the Mann stage at Roots Picnic feels like a backyard family party, excpet the bass thumping isn't shaking a house, it's shaking the walls of the dressing rooms below.
A Philly music mainstay in her own right, Donn T spoke concisely as to why the event feels familial: the mutual support.
"[It's] artists supporting artists, as well as the public supporting us," Donn T said, adding, "It's history, It's an institution."
The Roots have been able to create an atmosphere that doesn't just show love to local artists, but different kinds of artists from all over.
"Everybody's here. The DJs are here, the artists are here, the producers are here, the fans are here, and there's great energy when other top artists come to Philadelphia," said Dilemma. "When everybody's under the same Picnic roof there's a great energy, it's always a good time. The Roots always know how to show Philadelphia and on a great scale."
But like any party, there's nothing like showing love to the hosts and this year Roots Picnic main event celebrated none other than the band's 20th anniversary of their classic fourth studio album, Things Fall Apart, with a whole performance of the album that included a surprise appearance by Common. The album, released in 1999, is in many ways The Roots' breakthrough and a major part of their journey towards becoming household names with critically acclaimed, GRAMMY-winning albums and a high-profile gig as the house band for "The Tonight Show."
"The lyrics and the songs still relate to today," said Dilemma. "Seeing how well it was put together… the production, and just seeing how young they were when they created it—it's Philadelphia's Illmatic," he says referencing rapper Nas' renowned debut. Donn T, hesitant to even begin to articulate what the album meant to hip-hop, to Philly, to her as an artist—not to mention as Questlove's sister—brought it down to something simple: "It means everything."
The Roots' influence continues to ripple through so many genres and communities, and with Roots Picnic have been able to create a festival that does too in its own way. Truly providing something for everyone with performers ranging from rap superstar 21 Savage to R&B prodigy H.E.R., the fest has grown into a major event, complete with compelling features like sing language interpreters for the hearing impaired, an arcade with ping-pong, video games and skee-ball for kids (of all ages), and a podcast stage with a silent disco party up on the hill, which features a serene view of the Philly skyline not to be missed.
But the focus at Roots Picnic remains on the music. For instance, when the crowd at the Mann Auditorium went wild for surprise guest Musiq Soulchild's performance during Raphael Saadiq's set, the look on many faces in the audience captured how that moment alone was worth the price of admission. A similarly pleased yet more determined look could be seen on the faces of the various young local artists that took the stages throughout the day who knew that performing at Roots Picnic is a true turning point.
"The Roots, with this platform, sets a certain standard for all Philadelphia creatives," said Dilemma. "Once you make it to the Roots Picnic, you're good."
Courtesy Of Corona Capital
Guadalajara, Mexico might be known as the birthplace of mariachi, but as the second-largest city in the country—after Mexico City—it is a thriving cosmopolitan destination with a modern music scene that draws influence from in and out of the country.
Enter Corona Capital, a festival that believes music should have no boundaries. Through its two events—one taking place in Mexico City, now on its 10th year, and the other in Guadalajara, which is now on its second year—Corona Capital offers a range of acts from electronica and pop to indie and rock. While that lineup formula may sound typical for a music festival, the kicker is that many of the acts who play Corona Capital rarely get a chance to perform in Mexico. But Corona Capital offers them the chance to do it—and for local audiences to enjoy the show.
"We always try to bring in acts that either have not been in Mexico ever or that haven't been here in a long time," says Ricardo Gomez Senior International Talent Buyer for Mexican promotions company OCESA, promoting Corona Capital. "We don't have any Latin acts, and we do that because we want to desegregate Corona Capital from other festivals in the market ... [we] look at trends and what's happening in the music scene internationally [to bring] the most interesting and fresh project that we think can work in the format of the festival."
Gomez says roughly 80 to 85 percent of international acts that come to the country only play Mexico City, forcing fans in smaller cities to travel to the country's capital from all over or miss out on their favorite artists.
This year the Guadalajara rendition is bringing the likes of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Chemical Brothers, Dillon Francis, Phoenix, the Goo Goo Dolls and more to its lineup on May 11 at the renowned Akron Stadium, home to Las Chivas soccer team.
Beyond being enticing to locals, the fest's international flare has brought in people from outside of Mexico, too. According to the fest, two percent of festivalgoers are international; the biggest country of origin is the U.S., with California and Texas being the homes to most of the attendants.
More than just a space to listen to music, the festival wants its attendants to discover new music. It's the reason the fest's campaign includes social media visuals that feature up-and-coming artist recommendations based on established performing artists. For example, one social video features Boy Pablo as a recommendation if you're a fan of Phoenix.
The fest is also amping up its culinary chops and adding an exclusive gourmet experience with a scenic view of the city's forest, along with its Capital Gourmet experience in which local chefs highlight their dishes.
Below, the Recording Academy speaks to Gomez about the festival's background, why Corona Capital is a fest to know, his mindset behind booking Corona's Guadalajara lineup, and more.
Corona Capital began in Mexico City. Why bring one to Guadalajara?
We thought it would be an interesting experiment to try to expand and take this to other cities that maybe don't have these types of lineups. In the past years [there has] been a boom of festivals not in Mexico City, but happening in Monterrey and Guadalajara, especially. And the festivals that are happening in these cities seem to be in line with maybe Vive Latino or in Monterrey, we have Pa'l Norte, which is really really eclectic. So you can have all different type of genres, but for [a] specific alternative rock and international music [festival], there weren't any proposals. So we decided to do Corona Guadalajara to offer that to the market and maybe this is a good experiment to try to expand to other territories as well.
How do you choose which international artists get to become a part of the lineup?
Well, like I mentioned, it's a combination of acts that haven't been in the market or haven't been here in at least a few years so we can have that performance as some sort of value. I really think that overexposing an artist in the market is not a good way to develop them. So we try to wait, at least, a couple of album cycles to bring them into a festival like Corona; some of the acts [were a part of] the lineup we had at Corona Capital in Mexico City last year; some of them had never been here and a lot of them were experiments that we were going try and to see how the audience responds.
This year we got very, very lucky because the artist that we reached out were available and were within our budget so we have a really interesting and cool combination of acts that are really working out. We're seeing that in sales and actually selling really well. We're selling prices as much as we did last year so we're happy with the results.
Yeah, with a newer artist like Boy Pablo and an established pop act like the Goo Goo Dolls, that's a pretty eclectic lineup.
Yeah, I mean we're also trying to speak out to the generation that is now in their 30s and it has that ingredient of nostalgia, which I think is very, very effective in a lineup. You can go and check out [an act] that maybe you remember being a fan of and [then] you can go there and enjoy, like you said, a fresh interesting project from the earlier time slots and spend the whole day and finish with a band like Phoenix, or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or The Chemical Brothers, who you listened to 10 years ago.
For some of the people in Mexico, this is the only opportunity to see some of the acts on your lineup. How hard is it for someone in Mexico to see American acts in the country?
Well, I'd say like 80 or 85% of the artist that come to play in Mexico only play Mexico City. That's because it's such a huge difference in the type of market. Mexico City is 25 million people and the next biggest cities are 1.5 million. Festivals are a great opportunity to check out new bands that might not come to Guadalajara or other territories outside Mexico City. It really depends on the act's availability and willingness to develop a market because they're not going to make the same money in Guadalajara or Monterrey that they do in Mexico City, at least for headline shows.
Which of the artists on the lineup haven't been in Mexico before?
It's the first time for Tops, Boy Pablo, and it's the first time for Kimbra, first time for Christine and The Queens, and it's the first time for Goo Goo Dolls.
How big is the impact of American music in the country?
It's huge. Radio still has a very strong media format in Mexico because of the amount of time people spend in their cars. I was just looking at some numbers from radio in the country and English-speaking radio is the number one-rated radio station in Mexico.
According to Spotify, Mexico City is the streaming capital city of the world, and, as you've mentioned, sometimes it's the only city international acts visit. For people interested in exploring other parts of Mexico, can you tell us what Guadalajara has to offer music-wise, and regionally?
Yeah, Spotify is tricky because sometimes the numbers are deceiving. So maybe an artist will see that Mexico is their number one market in streaming, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they have strong loyal fans there. It has to do with the editorial playlist that they are in, and the type of streaming database in Mexico.
Also, YouTube is really strong because YouTube is free and Spotify has those numbers, but for the premium not a paid subscription. We've seen that in the past. We see that an artist has a huge a streaming number coming from Mexico City but that doesn't necesarily translate to ticket sales.
Now, for the second part of your question. Guadalajara has a very, very cool music and arts scene. There's a lot of acts, like new acts coming out of Guadalajara who are doing really interesting stuff. The food is also great in Guadalajara. You have great restaurants in the city. And it's worth making the trip and coming just to spend the weekend, take advantage that it is just a one-day festival and you can come to the festival Saturday and enjoy the city on Sunday.
For American artists, what makes going to a festival in Mexico different from other parts of the world?
Well, this trend that I'm seeing right now with festivals in the U.S. and in other countries is that some of the headliner budgets are impossible to pay. So I'm seeing that many festivals are trying to make the festival more of an experience. The problem with that is you're going to have lower ticket sales. So I think it boils down to how cheap it can be for Americans to come to Mexico, as opposed to going to Coachella or something like that. Coachella is like really pricey and you can, for the same price that you pay for a general access ticket to Coachella, travel to Mexico and pay for travel, hotels, and also be able to pay for a V.I.P. ticket.
What else would you like people to know about Corona Capital?
It's not only about coming and checking out the bands—it's also exploring a country you don't know. We really put a lot attention on the gastronomical experience and the cooling operation. We have this food area called Capital Gourmet, where we invite local restaurants to showcase their dishes so people can have an added value to their experience in not just grab a hotdog, or a burger, or pizza. But really try local ingredients, local restaurants. And there's going to be a ferris wheel and other carnival rides.
We also have a local market that you can explore with with arts and crafts from the regions around Guadalajara. We will be showcasing street art and a couple of murals during the festival, and there's going to be an [exclusive gourmet experience].
In the future we're expanding to other territories and other cities. We also want to have Corona Capital in, say, Veracruz or Tijuana. We want the festival to have a local essence so that people can still experience the city.
Christopher Cross at the 1981 GRAMMY Awards
Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images
Coming up on the outskirts of the music scene in Austin, Tex., GRAMMY winner Christopher Cross spent the '70s gigging around locally in cover bands, playing the music of the Eagles, the Beatles and Billy Joel on a nightly basis on the bar circuit.
By day, however, this young father would use naptime for his son as an opportunity to pen songs like "Sailing," a song that helped Cross rocket up the pop charts as at the turn of the decade 40 years ago as one of the four Top 20 hit singles contained within the scope of his classic eponymous debut, released during the holiday season of '79.
"I think disco and rock was fading," Cross told music journalist Gary James in an interview for ClassicBands.com. "I think pop was ready to make a resurgence. I think I was in the right place at the right time. I think I had talent and style and worked real hard, but I think I was also very lucky."
Indeed it was a bit of kismet that led Cross to session cat Michael Omartian, who had been cutting his own teeth as a producer in the '70s working on everything from the soundtrack to "Young Frankenstein" to the seriously underrated Dion studio LP Streetheart to albums by Cher and Dionne Warwick and employing a who's who of session musicians at the time. Reading the liner notes and following the path of those who performed on his favorite pop albums was what helped lead acclaimed keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., a founding member of the legendary Los Angeles alt-pop group Jellyfish who is currently a key part of Beck's touring band, directly to that first Christopher Cross record.
"I remember when I was really getting into stuff like Linda Ronstadt, Chicago and Fleetwood Mac around the same time," Manning explained to the Recording Academy. "I would read the credits as a young keyboard player and I was so fascinated by all the people who played on those records. And I would start seeing their names over and over again, people like Steve Gadd, the Porcaro Brothers, Leland Sklar. I began to see this succession of names and I think my mom had bought the Christopher Cross record; we got it through Columbia House, and I knew the name Michael Omartian because he had played on a bunch of stuff already. He came up in the Christian music scene and then became an ace session guy here in L.A. I remember being so fascinated by all of that, and I liked the fact that Michael McDonald was singing on it, because I was on the same Doobie Brothers crest as everyone else, as it was so keyboard-friendly."
The end of 1979, of course, saw our country merely limping into 1980, mired by a previous decade of crippling economic stagflation and the perilous early stages of the Iran Hostage Crisis that would come to define the immediate era. And while many music fans in this period had already established their identities within their own sonic tribes, be it punk or New Wave or the nascent stages of hardcore, hip-hop and thrash metal, for the average radio-listening commuter, the infectious harmonies of "Say You Are Mine" and "Ride Like The Wind" provided a sense of sophisticated cool that was a calming alternative to the alternative.
"Michael Omartian, who produced me for Warners, was in Steely Dan and knew a lot of musicians like Larry Carlton and Michael McDonald and invited them down when he was working with me," Cross told James. "When McDonald came down one evening at Omartian's invitation, he just liked what he heard and said if you want me to sing something just let me know. So, we stuck him up there with a mic. Henley was from Texas and I knew him from my days in the Texas band circuit. A lot of the California people were exposed through the label. I think they're not gonna sing on something they don't like, but I think they genuinely liked the music and that's a compliment."
"There's something so perfectly melancholy about Christopher Cross’s voice," explains musician and non-fiction author Karen Pittelman, whose group Karen & The Sorrows is breaking barriers for queer country music as fervently as Lil Nas X and Brandi Carlile combined. "I remember sitting in my mom’s car as a little kid, listening to 'Never Be the Same,' and feeling swept away by some kind of wistful nostalgia and strangely upbeat grief. Of course, at that age, I knew nothing about any of that, but the music was still able to make me feel it. Even in a song like 'Sailing', there’s such a deep sadness to his voice underneath all that shimmer. After all, sailing may help him escape, but I can’t help wondering why he needs to escape so badly."
Perhaps one of the most astounding revivals in this new young century—at least as far as music is concerned—is just how far we've come in terms of our collective perception of such icons of "soft rock" or "yacht rock" or whatever you want to call it in these last 40 years. The Christopher Cross album would spend 1980 building up steam in terms of chart success and massive radio play that lead up to the guitarist's game-changing victory at the 1981 GRAMMYs, where he remains the sole grand slam champion for sweeping all five categories in the general field, including Record Of The Year ("Sailing"), Album Of The Year (Christopher Cross), Song Of The Year ("Sailing"), and Best New Artist. That kind of shine also led to many detractors, including rock critics at the time turning their poison pens on his efforts, which also went 5x platinum, as of today.
"They always hated me," Cross told James about Rolling Stone, in particular. "I think partly because they didn't have to discover me. I wasn't some cult band they discovered under a rock. I kind of sprung up on 'em when they weren't looking. But, they've never regarded me. They never reviewed my album or taken me seriously. When they put out the Top 200 Albums of the 80s, I wasn't even in there, which is ridiculous, whether they liked the style of my music or not. I was certainly in the Top 200 albums of the 80s. That kind of critical acclaim is certainly elusive for some like myself."
The funny thing, however, is that 40 years later, that distinctive green cover with the pink flamingo gracing its centerpoint has retroactively grown in acclaim, as more and more modern music acts look towards the supple, creamy grooves of soft rock favorites like Cross, Little River Band, Andrew Gold and Boz Scaggs for sonic inspiration. From major indie-pop acts like Toro Y Moi, Vampire Weekend and Drugdealer to the leftfield swagger of such artful West Coast jazz-hop acts as Thundercat and Dâm-Funk, the "yacht rock" sound is, seemingly for the first time, outpacing the other genre influencers of its era.
"What's terribly fascinating for me is that there have always been nostalgia crazes, but I never thought there would ever be one for yacht rock," admits Manning. "Its wild to think of how popular it is now and how business generating. I mean, obviously people will remember all kinds of movements so I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise to see some nostalgia over the easy rock stylings of that time, be it Steely Dan or the Doobie Brothers, Pablo Cruise or whatever. But it's gotten so large and it's such a money-generating thing now. I've got friends in bands where all they do is devote full businesses as yacht rock cover bands. And it really blows my mind, because there are moments of that scene, like any scene; disco or whatever, that I enjoyed but a lot of those styles were the whole reason why we all played punk rock to begin with. We were fed up and tired of AM radio, which is what our parents were tapping the steering wheel to at the time. We wanted our own sound, and England and places in the states like Cleveland and New York City provided that for us. But here we are, years later, and guys like Michael McDonald, Christopher Cross and Daryl Hall are doing just fine. They're probably as big a business as ever."
Pittelman, meanwhile, is glad to see the overall renewal of appreciation for Cross' musicianship.
"I’m a fan of both yacht rock and '90s country for similar reasons: I love really well-produced, carefully crafted music," she tells the Recording Academy. "People also criticize both those eras for similar reasons. They conflate smoothness and polish with a lack of authenticity. But I would argue that the rawest, least-produced song isn’t necessarily any more authentic. All art has to be constructed one way or another, and polish or lack of polish are just different choices. What makes something authentic is the truth of the feeling and the care that you put into making it. You can certainly spend countless hours in the studio and still create garbage. You can also make music that’s authentic but awful! But the best musicians and producers use the studio to make something that’s both beautifully polished and deeply felt. And I think a lot of the songs on Christopher Cross' first album are exactly that."
In the grander scheme, it only took 40 years for music to catch up with the realization behind why Christopher Cross deservedly bested Pink Floyd's The Wall as Album Of The Year at the 23rd Annual GRAMMY Awards. But for lifelong fans of the record like Manning, the cognizance of its enduring appeal has been at the forefront the whole time.
"A lot of the songwriters of the '70s, they had all grown up with jazz. Those audiences were raised within a very sophisticated time for pop music," he reflects. "You had Burt Bacharach and Richard Carpenter making hit records for Middle America, but it was all very harmonically advanced stuff. I remember when I first heard 'Sailing,' I was so intrigued by the guitar chord progressions, they were very moody to me. I love when music makes me feel a certain way, viscerally, in my stomach. The Beach Boys did that a lot. Chicago as well. And this first Christopher Cross record really, really intrigued me in that regard all the same."
Photo by Luke Fenstemaker
If you followed L.A. pop wunderkind Billie Eilish's exploding career over the last few years, you no doubt are also familiar with her super-producer brother, Finneas O'Connell, who goes by the stage name FINNEAS.
The 22-year-old, who produced all of Eilish's haunting bedroom-pop debut WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? from the comfort of his own tiny childhood room in Highland Park, is also on a collision course with the upper echelons of fame. Since the enormous success of WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP..., not to mention its preceding singles and Eilish's 2017 EP, Don't Smile At Me, FINNEAS has become an industry household name, with five 2020 GRAMMY nominations (including Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical), high-profile collaborations with established pop royalty (he produced Selena Gomez's "Lose You To Love Me" and two tracks on Camila Cabello's latest album, Romance) and a burgeoning solo career all of his own, having released his first EP, Blood Harmony, in October. And that's all on top of being the youngest person to be nominated for Producer Of The Year since Lauryn Hill, who was 23 when she was nominated for The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill in 1998.
If the swarm of attention has affected FINNEAS, you wouldn't know it. When we hop on the phone to talk about his and Billie's first-ever GRAMMY nominations, he's casually out walking his dog, Peaches. When asked about his hyper-minimalist production style, where most of Eilish's songs sound near-whispered against a series of spare, tip-toeing beats, FINNEAS just says that he's not afraid of a little empty space. His main goal, ultimately, is to place the artist's vocal front and center. "It's like a room with furniture," he says. "To me, my favorite bedrooms just have a bed in them, you know what I mean? Like, you don't need lights, 16 pillows and, you know, armchairs and sh*t. You could just have a bed."
In the lead up to his and Eilish's first time at the 2020 GRAMMY Awards, happening on Sunday, Jan. 26 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS, FINNEAS told the Recording Academy a bit about his reaction to earning five GRAMMY nods, his favorite past GRAMMY moments and why he doesn't necessarily want to work with his favorite artists.
Congrats on all of your nominations! Where were you when you heard you were nominated?
I was asleep the second they came out, but I did wake up quite early. I woke up at like 6:45 a.m. and was like, 'Oh God, Oh my God, they're out." I've described it to people as like, the same feeling as like falling asleep on Christmas Eve except for like you might wake up and have no prep. That's kind of the line.
At what point did you connect with Billie to tell her?
I called my mom like, "You guys get Billie" and mom was like, "Billie's still asleep." I called Billie back later.
To what extent do your nominations feel validating? You recorded WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? in your bedroom. I expect the industry Powers That Be were eager to get Billie in a giant studio with a bunch of big-name producers.
Well, you know, we were doing okay before the album. We had an EP [2017's Don't Smile At Me] that did pretty well and we were going on tours, and so we were feeling really good about ourselves. There were really great producers that were interested in working with us. And that was appealing to us because we love so much music and sometimes the producer would reach out and they would have made music that we loved in our childhood. And it's like, "Oh my God, we should meet with them." Truth be told we were open to it but every time we would work with other producers and other songwriters on our stuff, it just was never very good. It just didn't work very well. And whenever we worked alone, we made all the stuff that we were proud of, that we're excited about.
And I think the GRAMMYs, I couldn't feel more honored and it couldn't be more meaningful to me because it's such a celebration of the actual creative process. And I think the other cool thing that I feel very proud of, it's like, you know, very rarely now are producers doing entire records or even entire songs. Like, [there will be] two or three different producers for a song, 20 producers on the album, and Billie had only one. And I'm very proud of that. I'm really proud that it's just me and her figuring it all out, making sure it was exactly how we wanted it to be. That made me feel really good.
I think that's really true. In the past, you could directly attribute popular albums to one producer. And today, popular albums feature a mixed bag of sounds and personalities.
All the albums that I grew up listening to were produced by one person. One producer and now it's like dozens of producers on each record, you know?
Totally. But then on the other hand, we’re living in a time where albums don’t necessarily need to sound cohesive to be marketable. The end goal, from an industry perspective, is to get individual tracks on whatever Spotify or YouTube playlist is trending.
Well, Billie and I like eclectic music. Like, our records have a lot of mix. I think it's more like, if you do an album with 12 different producers, you're going to sound like someone else's album because those 12 different producers are going to do other people's records too. That always puts me out, you know?
That makes a lot of sense. Well, speaking of other peoples' records, now you've worked on "Lose You To Love Me" with Selena Gomez and "Used To This" and "First Man" with Camila Cabello. What do you look for when considering working with different artists?
I usually let it just be really natural. Like if an artist makes something that I love, I'll just reach out to them, and say like "I love your music." And then if they like what I do, they write back and say they're fans. Then we'll make something together. But I'm not very, like, thirsty. Like I don't try to work with artists because I think it would be a good career opportunity. I only want to work with people that make music that I love, like Camila, I truly love her first record. I just thought it was so cool and I thought, I just wanted to make an album with that artist. I saw her play live and I was blown away. I just thought she was a true pop star.
What makes a true pop star, in your opinion?
I think people who feel like they have something to say to me and people who have a really unique thing about them, whether it's a unique voice or a unique opinion, or unique life story, you know? Just something that really pulled me into them and makes me feel like they're telling a story that I want to listen to.
One thing that stands out about WHEN WE ALL GO TO SLEEP is that, unlike so many of its peers, it’s the sort of record that sounds best in headphones. Is your production minimalism influenced by anyone?
Well, I mean there are so many producers that inspire me. I used to try to imitate production by certain people. And now I'm only interested in doing the opposite of that. I'm only interested in doing production that like no one's ever done before.
But yes, [I love] Kanye West, Timbaland, Rob Cavallo. So many producers are so good but I’m only interested in carving out my own thing, which seems to be the minimalist approach of making room for every element. You know, it's funny like talking a lot about me being a minimalist producer and really like there's a lot of layers but they're all out of the way of the vocal. I'm mostly just trying to make so much room for the vocal.
Yeah, I get the sense that many producers get nervous about unfilled space, if you will. Kind of like when you’re having a conversation with a quiet person and you automatically feel like you need to talk a little too much.
Totally. People are just trying to fill up the whole thing. Like it's a room with furniture. To me, my favorite bedrooms just have a bed in them, you know what I mean? Like, you don't need lights, 16 pillows and, you know, armchairs and sh*t. Like you could just have a bed.
So, I imagine all of this GRAMMY recognition has put you on a lot of artists' collab wish lists. Is there anyone you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to? Who's on your wish list?
I don't actually have one anymore. I used to but I don't have one anymore. I feel like the thing that I've learned a lot is when you're involved in something, you don't always get to appreciate it for what it is as much. You're focused on the details and how you can make it better. It's kind of torture. I felt really lucky in that I've gotten to know some of my favorite artists; I get to tell them how important they are to me. But that doesn't always make me want to work with people. I feel like if I'm going to work with somebody, it's because I feel like I actually have something to add to them. Like, I don't have anything to add to Paul McCartney. You know what I mean? It's Paul McCartney, he's doing fine. I'm happy to just be a fan and go to the concert.
How do you envision splitting your time between working with artists and developing your solo work?
Well, I work with other artists sort of seldom, I'll do like a couple days a month with other artists. I try to be really careful about them. And then I work on Billie's stuff whenever she wants to. Whenever she's inspired, whenever she has something to say, whenever we're trying to finish something, I work on her stuff. And then whenever she doesn't have time or she's done a photoshoot or she's burnt out, feeling uninspired, I'll go work on my own stuff.
You and Billie have talked a lot about watching the GRAMMYs from your living room at home in previous years. What was one of your favorite GRAMMY moments?
Man, every time Bruno Mars has ever performed, I've been so into it. There was that one performance several years ago that was Lil Wayne and Drake and Eminem and I remember just watching that and my head exploding.
Keep up to date on all the latest 2020 GRAMMY performers, presenters and host news here, and be sure to tune in to the 62nd GRAMMY Awards on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, and broadcasting live on CBS at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT.