Photo by Ryan Hunter
More Than A Decade In, Songwriter & Producer Ariel Rechtshaid Stays Winning
In late June, Ariel Rechtshaid scored a Hot 100 Number One in the unlikeliest of ways, he says. "It was another random phenomenon in a series of random phenomena that I've witnessed in my life—and another thing you couldn't possibly control or cook up."
The 41-year-old songwriter and producer is talking about "Trollz," a splashy chart-topping collaboration by New York meme-turned-rapper 6ix9ine and actual New York legend Nicki Minaj, which was co-written and produced by Jeremiah Raisen, who’s signed to Rechtshaid’s Heavy Duty Music. While it’s not a direct Hot 100 credit to Rechtshaid himself, it’s one in a string of massive successes the company has racked up this year. In 2020 alone, acts like HAIM, Charli XCX, Bon Iver, Yves Tumor, and Francis & the Lights have enlisted Heavy Duty Music’s stacked roster to assist on their recent projects. "When you're able to take a step back and forget about all the bullshit, when you see the impact that you've made on people's lives, that's really the thing you're most proud of," he says.
And that’s not even taking into account Rechtshaid’s own massive accomplishments over the last decade. Long considered one of the most thoughtful voices in pop music, he’s likely contributed to at least one of your favorite artist’s projects, helming hits for Madonna, Sky Ferreira, Carly Rae Jepsen, Blood Orange, U2, Vampire Weekend, The Chicks, HAIM, Adele, Beyoncé and more (many, many more).
Rechtshaid, a GRAMMY winner (for Usher's "Climax" and Vampire Weekend’s Father Of The Bride), carved an hour of his afternoon in early August to walk GRAMMY.com through his massive 2020, his equally staggering career and the ways in which he’s been able to get business back to usual after the pandemic hit Los Angeles earlier this year.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You're someone who likes to get in the studio with artists for full projects. So how has this pandemic changed the way that you work?
It made me feel like I'm between jobs. I haven't had that in a long time. Everything's been one thing after another. I've taken breaks, but I've never been at home in my studio during that break.
My version of working in this world is not [stacking up sessions with] loads of different people every day. It's just not the groove I landed in. So once we were able to have access to testing, which we're fortunate to have in L.A.—and if it's somebody you know well enough that you feel like you can trust them, and there's transparency—then I was able to start getting back in the studio and do things the same way I'd ever done it. There’s fewer people hanging around, though, and it’s a little bit more focused.
At least a couple of the pandemic months have been occupied by surprise live recordings for artists that I have been working with. I did some work with The Killers on their new album. I did obviously a lot of work with HAIM on their last record. That's been the version of touring or promoting.
Why do you prefer working with fewer artists on longer projects?
I came into it from more of a conceptual, full album state of mind. At first, there wasn't even really an option beyond that. Nobody I knew was even thinking about the idea of working with multiple producers or multiple co-writers. I don't think anyone would be able to afford that. It wasn't an option.
On top of that, the most influential music on me was always made that way too, whether it was hip-hop and a producer like J-Swift doing the whole Pharcyde record, or Dr. Dre doing full records too. Of course there's room for external people coming in to collaborate, but there's an overarching concept you're trying to achieve. It doesn't work by randomly working with different people and making a compilation album. That works for certain records, but it wasn't the kind of records that I think I’m at my peak working on.
For a full album, it's very easy to lose perspective and not really achieve what you necessarily wanted to or could have with a little bit more time and space, but there is control because it's lots of trial and error. So many songs change several times over the course of making an album. Sometimes the concept is found on the journey to making that album.
How do you choose how to divide your time in terms of who gets your attention in any given year?
A lot of it has to do with timing. If I commit to something, I'm in it. Unfortunately, [that means] I'm not available for other things and that's been weird and heartbreaking for me. At the same time, I've never really felt like I needed to work on everything that I like, or that I needed to work on everything, period. I'm so happy to be a fan of music and just listen to an album and not have gone through the hard work, and sometimes traumatizing work, of making that album. It's not a sport for me.
I want to work on things that I understand and I feel passionate about. Sometimes that's just not what people are looking for. When you talk about records where I've done a song or two, it's usually because they were just already making an album that way. Then they came to me and I felt either adventurous that day or I had an idea and there was some sort of reason or chemistry for doing it. Sometimes you want to try something you’ve never tried before. [That’s true of] Usher. I was a big fan, but I never really saw myself making that kind of music in the room with him, but I got asked. I was like, "I’ve got to give it a shot." I was really happy with it. "Climax" is a song that I'm very proud of being a big part of.
I mean, of all the songs to have taken a swing on, you walked away with a GRAMMY-winning cultural reset of a track.
Having been there, I attribute it to nothing less than just chemistry and luck and timing and the mood of everything, because it just happened. We didn't go in there with preconceived ideas. In fact, if I had any, they were incorrect. They were false. They [were just me being like], "Okay, I know what Usher sounds like," to hype myself up.
He really was instrumental in shutting the door on anything you could have expected from him. He was all about functioning on pure intuition, like, "Let's just roll, no ideas." He knew certain things [about what he wanted]: "I don't want it to be a four-on-the-floor track. I want to do something unexpected with you. That's why you're here." I was like, "Okay, oh shit."
It was a very different kind of experience than producing the Vampire Weekend album or the HAIM record. It's almost a completely different job. It's funny that you could be called a producer in both instances; it's such a vague term, in a way.
And yet you do take those single-song swings every now and then, and they seem to pay off. You just did it with The Chicks, who spoke so highly to me of you recently, on Gaslighter.
I had huge respect for the Chicks. Timing-wise, I was available, they were local, it was easy to accommodate the session. We just showed up and we talked. They probably told me a lot of what they told you. It's funny because the demo [of "For Her"] is very banging. Every reference they had was hard-hitting. We started to freestyle around the room and then me and Natalie [Maines] stayed there until midnight, putting together the framework of the song—a little bit of banjo and a little bit of fiddle, just to give it their identity. Then I handed over the stems to them and it was a year later and suddenly, I got asked for approval and I heard a very different version, which is interesting.
On the record, it was a very mellow, long, epic version. Ours was this three-minute, hard-hitting little gospel jam; it reminded me of Tom Petty, hip-hop, and gospel mashed up together. It goes to show how different each process can be.
Do you ever feel weird about leaving your work in someone else’s hands, not knowing what it’ll end up sounding like, if it ever even comes out?
It's so fun for me, really, because it's so interesting and so opposite of what I'm doing 364 days a year. By all means, I do love that. I don't feel like I'm a control freak. I feel like I have a point of view and I feel responsible when I'm hired to do something that that's what they're asking for. I'm here to give it. I'm also very interested in what the people I'm working with have to say and have to offer.
I feel like that's been really instrumental with HAIM and Vampire Weekend, where I give something, they give me something back, and we just keep going tit for tat. The result is far more elevated than either one of us could do on our own. We're pulling each other in different directions and it's fun. It's like a great game of basketball.
Where in the end, both teams win.
That's the idea—or both teams are at least better.
Let’s talk more about that HAIM record. What keeps you coming back to that creative well, three albums in?
They originally reached out to me because they saw my name on the credits of some of their favorite Cass McCombs songs. They also loved "Climax." They were like, "What?" Even though when I first heard them, I was like, "Woah, why me?" I think it was about exploration. They assumed that I was down for all of it and they were right. They were right that my influences and my interest is vast.
What people expected of them, at least for their first record, was based on their live shows—very straightforward rock. They just didn't have the means to expand on that yet when I met them. When I got to know them, they told me their influences ranged anywhere from the Eagles to Pharrell to Chaka Khan. They had a deep, deep, deep musical knowledge, and years and years of playing and studying and rhythmic abilities. It was this huge open canvas.
What's been really gratifying about working with them over the course of three albums is that things were moving so fast for them from the moment I met them. They were already touring and it just kept growing and growing; there was always a finite amount of time for work. That's okay. There wasn't not enough time, but you just hope that the next time, you can expand and go in a different direction and keep evolving. I had seen a glimpse of everything that everyone else has seen now, from "Forever" to "Summer Girl." I'd seen a snapshot of all of that on day one. The fact that we're talking about less than 40 songs or whatever it is? That's nothing. I feel like we could easily get to another three albums and still be exploring new territories.
You worked with Vampire Weekend on Modern Vampires Of The City, and you returned on Father Of The Bride. Is that another instance of you feeling like that’s a band with more to show the world with each album?
Why it worked out with us on Modern Vampires is because, without even having to think about it, I would never have any interest in trying to copy what they’d already done. I'm like, "Okay, let's explore," and that's exactly what they wanted too. They felt like they had already closed the chapter with the first record and Contra, and they wanted to break out of it.
We didn't make a conscious decision to go in and start working on the third record. They were fooling around. I think the process between production and writing is blurred when it's done in house. They’d started a lot of things, but had hit some sort of a wall. I had started to work on Rostam [Batmanglij]’s solo album after Contra came out. Then, at some point, just out of the blue, he was in town with Ezra. He called and asked if my studio was available, and would I be interested in coming and helping a little bit?
Without really knowing it, by the end of that first week, they had knocked down some barriers that they had felt. Then, we just kept going. Father of the Bride was very premeditated and also an experiment. I don't know that it was 100% clear that there would be a fourth album. People talk about how long that album took. It didn't really take that long. There was just a lot of time in between.
Without saying too much, again, it feels like the beginning of a new era. They had albums one, two and three, and then… I don't know. Now I feel like the process continues with potentially four, five, and six.
Am I to understand you’ve also been working with Sky Ferreira again?
This should come as no surprise to you, but fans are beyond eager for new Sky Ferreira music. We've been wondering where it is.
On some level, we never stopped. There was so much that was birthed out of that era of us working together. I can't exactly tell you what's going on internally over there, but I've wondered the same thing. I was always just on the tip of, "When you're ready, hit me up." When I met her, she was very young and she'd had a couple not great experiences trying to make music, trying to get what was inside of her out. I don't know that she had even fully formed a clear picture of what it was she was trying to get out of her.
The chemistry between us was good and we went on an exploration period. Out of that came, "Everything Is Embarrassing" and a couple early singles which clarified the direction of the album. We made that album, [Night Time, My Time], pretty quickly. Honestly, they were demos. After she had some time to sit with it, she realized that these "demos" were what she wanted, so it just came out like that.
I'm honored to be asked to be part of the next chapter. When Sky put out "Downhill Lullaby," I was super happy for her because I know what a struggle it was on the first record, and those previous singles, to find that sound. I know how much she had to fight against. There was an energy behind her but she just was never happy with the music. She was fighting the machine, in terms of like, "Oh, just sing this song this pop writer has written," you know what I mean?
Someone wanted her to be one type of artist, which isn't what she wanted for herself.
From my perspective, it's not such an evil idea. It's just...they believe in her as a personality, and they want to help her put music out. They can't make the music for her, so they can only help her by suggesting this or that. What she and I did together is not something that you can really plan… it was a bit abnormal. We just played around and found something that I thought was very unique and represented her, and she felt the same way.
It was honestly another chance meeting, but for her to feel empowered enough to go do something else and figure it out is really exciting. I also felt that way with Solange. We had done a lot of work together early on. We stayed close and she played me A Seat At The Table, and I was like, "Oh, my God, I'm so happy for you," because I could sense that that was something that she was trying to make early on. She played me songs that she'd done all by herself. She took her time and she found it. It's nothing that I could have done with her. That was her. I was excited for Sky on that level as well. I'm also happy to be called back in for this next chapter, and we have some stuff cooking. It's cool. It's exciting.
The work you did with Sky, and then later with Carly Rae Jepsen, really changed the ways people thought about quote-unquote "pop" music in the 2010s. Suddenly, the most uncool genre was cool again.
I've felt that, but you really only realize it in retrospect. When artists call you to work on their project, you start to wonder, "What are you looking for that we're doing over here in our other world?" Because when I was working with Dev Hynes on Blood Orange, and Sky on Night Time, My Time, and even HAIM on Days Are Gone, it really felt like the periphery of the mainstream. With HAIM, we felt high praise by artists like Taylor Swift. A lot of artists were really inspired by that first HAIM album, and Sky’s too, but you're just doing your thing. The fact that it made a little dent in pop music? It's crazy.
It just kept me honest, really. I worked very hard for those successes, but I feel fortunate to have the encouragement to just do my thing, to not be competing with other trends or producers, to not do something that is not authentically me. In those earlier days, everything felt like little stepping stones of encouragement and confidence, and achieving a slightly higher plane with every artist and every project.
With Carly, it wasn't like any of those songs were as big as "Call Me Maybe," but it seemed like her goal was to make something that felt more authentic to her—or at least authentic to her then-self. It achieved what it was trying to achieve, and introduced her to a new audience. All those things feel good. A lot of times, people just run through a Rolodex of producers who are just getting it done in this era, and that could be me. Really, what they're hoping for is more of the same, and for me to have success with doing this thing that we cooked up in the comfort of our own anonymous little home was a really fortunate thing for me because it encouraged me to just continue to explore and do my thing and be me.
We’ve talked about building up newer artists. But how do you go into a room with someone like Madonna and not lose yourself in those sessions?
I'm fairly sure I lost myself that time.
I mean, not in a bad way. I came into that session with Diplo, who I had a longstanding creative relationship with, which I'm also extremely fortunate for. When we first started working together, it could not be more bizarre [of a pairing]. That first Major Lazer record and some of the stuff we were doing early on was so left field, and the fact that he became such a go-to pop producer was so wild to me. That got us in the room with people like Madonna, but nobody was steering that ship other than Madonna.
I was just flipping through pages of her Sex book and reliving my youth and inspiration from her, with her. She's such a gracious, awesome person in real life. That was just a fantastic opportunity in this weird exercise of fantasy. It's so hard to have a clear perspective on her because she's just omnipresent. Her peers coming up were Michael Jackson and Prince, you know what I mean? It's totally insane. If you've seen her live, that's another experience altogether. Getting to know her, she's like a true eccentric, very smart and very knowledgeable. There's depth and real roots in stuff.
She's also just done it all. You get to a point where you don't know what to expect and it doesn't even matter. She's just continuing to create and add to her catalogue. Who's going to tell her no? I had ideas, but she's a strong personality. And you have to respect the legacy. I wasn't going to be the one to control what direction she went with it. She wasn't even asking me for that, to be honest. I was there to be part of a team of just helping her create and find a vision that she was comfortable with. My respect for her is more than enough to allow me to do just that.