THE GRAMMY WINNER TALKS EMOTION, RECORDING ADELE AND MAINTAINING HIS EDGE
In a world full of cookie-cutter pop music where it sometimes feels every song is just a continuation of the last one, perhaps the most revolutionary act you can perform is to cut to the core of creativity and create a series of tiny gems, whose polished facets reflect the light, illuminating a musical whole and revealing the honest voice of the artist. It’s an act of musical sculpture producer Ariel Rechtshaid has proven adept at over and over, from his Grammy-winning work on Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City and Usher’s “Climax” to work with artists as wide-ranging as Snoop Lion, Carlie Rae Jepsen, HAIM and, most recently, Adele, with his production of “When We Were Young” for her massive 25 release.
The one common thread revealed in chatting with Rechtshaid is the desire he shares with the artists he works with to make music that carries some weight. “I didn’t start making music to be successful,” he says. “I think a lot of the artists I work with, their goal in life is not necessarily to be successful. It’s to make music that matters. It’s to make music that impacts the world the way music impacted them when they were younger—[when they] heard something that really moved them.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, Rechtshaid’s family were devoted music listeners. “My mom loves classical music. She had me playing piano before I can even remember. I don’t even know if I knew how to talk yet,” he says. The emotional connection to music seems to have always been a key for him, and is what drove him into engineering and production. “I was in a band when I was in a teenager,” he explains. “I went in the studio with a producer and recorded stuff. I hated the way it sounded—it just didn’t sound the way I wanted it to. It wasn’t even about it sounding the way I wanted it to sound. It didn’t emote. It didn’t have a feeling that I was feeling inside of me. That’s kind of what got me really interested in experimenting with recording. I kind of became obsessed with trying to figure out how to capture that emotion on recorded medium—to capture the moment when the music is just emoting, the way my favorite records emoted to me.”
Combined with that goal of conveying emotional content is a strong desire to not recover the same ground. Unlike many producers who are in demand for their signature sound, Rechtshaid tries not to repeat himself. “You have something in your head,” he says, “and you’re trying to get that feeling to come out of the speakers. With certain kinds of music, if it’s all about vocals, and you have a vocalist who really expresses themselves very naturally and very well, then it’s easier. But other times it’s not, especially with tracks and especially with bands—especially in 2016 when so many amazing records have already been made. How do you keep it moving? What is the future of hip-hop? What is the future of rock and roll? What is the future of pop music? It’s undefined. So you’re out there trying to do something that you don’t even know what you’re trying to do. If I could imagine it, then it’s not good enough. I have to discover it while I’m making it. It’s hard to articulate, but it’s all part of the process. It’s really just exploring, exploring music.”
Another differentiating factor in his work is that Rechtshaid is very careful in choosing projects, since he looks at his production work as very much a collaborative process. “I don’t usually take on projects like a job,” he says. “You know I came from a songwriting background and being in bands when I was much younger, and I think that I sort of become—even it’s a solo artist—I kind of become a band member, so to speak, and so it’d have to be something that I want to be part of and I just kind of trust my instincts on it.”
Those instincts extend beyond just the next hit, as well. “I’m not looking for what’s going to be necessarily the biggest thing,” he says, “but just something that’s going to make an impact that feels important to me. I think of records as part of a legacy and I grew up with records made long before I was around, and I continue to discover records that were made long before I was around, and I think of records in terms of their whole life and posterity and so on. That’s the kind of stuff I’m interested in making—something that you’ll listen to 20 years from now and be like, ‘that’s cool, that’s interesting.’ I kind of paint the picture of what was happening at the time. A lot of it is just how I feel when I hear something or when I meet somebody, but it’s kind of a sense of importance. Like something that I’ve felt from different artists I’ve worked with in the past. You know, making music is not a choice. It’s not like sort of a vanity project. It’s something that I have in common with artists … just essentially needing to make music. It’s basically like most of the people I [work with have] just oozing out of them. It’s something they have to do, and then, with that said, if any of it strikes me as having a perspective—something that’s unique and different, not part of the flow of the things necessarily, but just something that’s kind of living in its own world but can relate to [this] world in some way.
His most recent work with Adele, “When We Were Young,” on 25, is a great example of his ability to elicit transcendent performances from artists. “It’s not often that you get to work with someone with that kind of — that specific kind of a voice and yeah, I think I was just having fun, which is — you know, having her sing to me and really pushing it as far as it could go in singing. She is just such a strong singer that it, typically, it can be pretty effortless for her to nail something. I think I kind of wanted to shake up her environment and get her to struggle a little bit. I think we captured some of that in the song and I think it was great.”
Working with such a breadth and variety of artists means that Rechtshaid has worked in situations from bedrooms to iconic recording studios, and with gear ranging from a 4-track cassette recorder to the most advanced digital systems. The resulting flexibility has created a huge toolbox from which to draw, and sometimes inspiration comes most strongly from what’s at hand. “I think that gear is meant to realize what’s in your imagination,” he says, “what you’re hearing. Whether it’s a microphone on the top of your laptop, or a [Neumann] U47 or [Shure] SM57, or any kind of mic—if you can sing into it, and it records, that’s what’s most important. I’m constantly changing it up. It just depends. Again, if you end up writing a song in a hotel room and you’re singing into the computer, sometimes you capture a magic it’s not worth trying to recreate. And I believe wholeheartedly in that. A lot of people tend to use lack of money, lack of gear, lack of resources as kind of a crutch, or a way to put [things] off. You know—‘When I get that, I’ll do this,’ or whatever. You should never wait for anything. That’s the one thing I look back on and somehow I was always comfortable making music in my bedroom, in my parent’s garage—wherever it was. In a closet. I probably made the better part of the “Climax” track in a small little overdub booth at the studio while everybody else was making noise in the control room, just trying to come up with the idea. So it can happen anywhere, and it can happen with anything. The main piece of the gear, like the Neve mic pre and Universal Audio compressor are great, but almost anything works these days.”
That having been said, there is gear that gets more than occasional use. “I’m such a fan of all the Universal Audio digital stuff, as well as their hardware,” says Rechtshaid. “But just they keep blowing my mind with their plug-ins and the Apollo interface keeps getting better and better. I’m also really into the more modern stuff like the Teenage Engineering. And the [Dave Smith Instruments] Prophet 6 is really fun.”
When all is said and done, though, Rechtshaid firmly holds that ground that it’s about combining what’s best in the old and the new, and using it to restate some basic emotional truths. “I think that growing up listening to hip-hop and sampling and that sort of thing, being a modern art form in itself, sort of taught me to appreciate the sounds and the recording techniques of yesteryear, but also trying to incorporate them into something never—what’s the word I’m looking for? Never retro sounding, just more like incorporating into something that’s modern and unlike anything you’ve ever heard before as well. I mean that’s the way to go.”
With many new projects on the horizon, including judging and producing an EP for Guitar Center’s Singer-Songwriter competition, Rechtshaid’s work ethic and vision is unflagging. “I will say the records I’m most proud of are records that I really, really challenged myself, and it took a lot of work, and, like, nearly killed us,” he says. “More often than not, you feel like you’re losing sight and failing, and making what could be a horrible record. But it’s because you’re sort of embarking on uncharted territories and you don’t have anything to compare it to. It’s a vulnerable place. Whenever you reach that, it can go one of two ways. It can either not resonate at all, or be some breakthrough record. Either outcome, I think, is just as important, just as long as you’re trying new things and trying to not lean on something you’ve done before, or something someone else has done before.”