As the music director for Bruno Mars, Kanye West, and Lady Gaga, Jeff Bhasker eventually parlayed a keen musical sense into a successful production career, with credits on iconic records by Kanye, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, fun., and Mark Ronson [Tape Op #105]. In 2018 he produced Angelique Kidjo's cover album of Talking Heads' Remain in Light, a wonderful exploration of the original release.
How did Angelique's record come around?
I met Angelique during a charity event that I was a music director for, and she was the honored guest. We hit it off; it was speaking to my past career resume as a music director for Kanye West and Lady Gaga. Also, I come from a jazz background and so does she. We hit it off and stayed in touch. She said she wanted to do something together, and I suggested that we do something in English, because she'd never done an album in English. I think she kicked it around in her head, and she's said in other interviews that she remembered the impression that The Talking Heads' Remain in Light album had made on her when she moved to France from Benin, Africa. She started making these demos, adapting that music in her style, and then she brought them to me. I intended to only do one or two tracks, but I thought it was such a special project that I told her I wanted to do the whole album. I actually brought it out on my record label [Kravenworks]. I went from hedging a little bit on the responsibility I wanted to have for this project, to really buying into all of the themes and content. It was such an awesome opportunity to combine the storytelling of these topics – colonialism, racism, and heavy, political messages – and also collaborate with some legendary people, like Tony Allen [drums], Pino Palladino [bass], Alicia Keys, and Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend. People who all have these connections to African music, and to Angelique. That's the trajectory the whole project took. It was a real labor of love, and a special project in my career. Not to mention Angelique being such a powerhouse, and such an incredible person. After the first day I spent with her in the studio, I was like "Wow, that's the most fun I've had in a studio in a long time." She has that effect on people. She's also one of the most dynamic, powerful, and pure performers. That was one of the first things I noticed at the soundcheck of the event; she puts the pedal to the metal. She gives it everything she's got in every single performance. When you watch her perform, it's obvious. It was a real thrill to work with an artist like that, who gives everything to what she's doing.
You said she demoed some of the songs. Did she already have a vocal direction in how she wanted to present them?
It was really interesting approaching such an iconic recording. I hold Brian Eno [the original album's producer, Tape Op #85] in such high esteem. He's an innovative producer in the field of recorded music. David Byrne [#79] also. They're second-to-none when it comes to really unleashing creativity on the recording process. Yeah, she had all these demos. Her husband [Jean Hebrail] is also a musician, producer, and used to play bass in her band. He's also familiar with Pro Tools and whatnot, so he mocked up various basic tracks for her to sing over, and she also recorded all these African chants that go along with every song. It's like a dual song in every song. They also had all these recordings, like field recordings of Beninese musicians that they had compiled. He filled in the blanks with tracks from those sessions. Most of the vocals were already recorded really well. We only re-recorded a few parts. In learning about the process of making Talking Heads' Remain in Light, it was interesting to find out that a lot of times musicians were recording very out of context, and even made to think that the "one" was in a different place. It wasn't very straightforward! I reduced everything to its essence. In a more songwriter aspect, or pop aesthetic, you want the song to be able to live on just piano, or guitar and vocal. There shouldn't be too much razzle-dazzle on the production side to make the song live. Trying to reinvent that, I broke everything down to djembe and her voice – took it all the way to Africa. Her percussionist, Magatte Sow [Fall], is an incredible talent and already has this connection with her. He was part of the original concert we did together. Her guitar player, Dominic James, is also a whiz. I tried to reduce everything down to percussion and guitar, and then started filling in the blanks a bit with tracks from the old demo and replacing it, or having Tony Allen come in, or me putting on synthesizers. My trademark [Roland] Juno-106 or Moog vibes on there ended up representing technology and colonialism. That's really most apparent on the song "Listening Wind." It starts with this synthesizer wind, and there's a balafon and these synthesizer sounds. It's like the clash of colonialism with traditional African values. That was the process. Not to mention just trying to figure out like, "Okay, how do you actually cover these songs?" Like "Born Under Punches," what is going on in the bass line? It wasn't until I dove into YouTube videos of the live versions that I discovered it's actually two bass parts playing at the same time. If you listen to the actual studio recordings, there are a lot of mysterious elements going on that are really hard to decode. I tried my best to deconstruct what Talking Heads and Brian Eno had done, as well as how to re-approach it. I didn't want to cover it like it was a surface-level thing. Some songs took longer to crack than others, but in the end I'm really happy with the result. It's a really amazing project. It was really great to hear David Byrne himself talk about it. He wrote a piece about the circle of them [Talking Heads] being inspired by music from Africa, and how this release is full-circle. I think that's a really cool element to the whole project.
I've interviewed Brian Eno and David Byrne. David told me that on this record they would build pieces of music, and he'd go home and try to write words for them. They were building in a completely opposite way from you coming back at it from the top-down, having a finished song to learn.
Wow, that is so cool that you mentioned that! I never thought of that. That's so true.
You're getting a glimpse of what he didn't get to see until he finished it, starting backwards.
That's right. Man, that's such a good comment. Everything is reversed. She was inspired by them, but it is like a circle. That's a good point.
You can take that album on a really surface level, and get the chord changes and the words, and maybe that's the song. But you do have to understand the layers and how it's constructed to get the gist of it, don't you?
Yep. My engineer, Ryan Nasci, commented how he was listening to albums to prepare to do the session, and how it's a very difficult album to listen to. It's not an easy listen. There's a lot of tension in there, and there's a lot of dark energy. In some places, we inverted that. "Once in a Lifetime" has a very celebratory feeling. "The Overload" is a very tender, fragile piece, where on the original it's a very brooding, ominous tone. But then on "Listening Wind," I turned it into more of an ominous vibe. So, we tried to keep the themes in there, but rotate them around. It's almost like having different actors play a different part in a play, but the play is still the same. Even the cover [is similar], which was shot by world-renowned artist Kerry James Marshall. I really wanted a single image – to really say what hours of discussion between Angelique and myself about these themes and this album – to encapsulate that in one single image. It took someone as brilliant as Kerry to bring out this idea of shooting the cover with UV black light. It's not just remain in light, it's remain in black light. There's a light, where we think of things in white and black, and white is bright and black is wrong. There's this 400-year propaganda campaign against the color black, virtually. I thought it was sheer genius for him to create that cover, as well as to take that title and reimagine it as thoughtfully as we tried to do with the music. Parallels, mirror images, circles, and cycles happening on this album that made it really fun to bring to completion.
Did you find it a real process of reduction to find the songs through all the parts? Was it a reductionist vision to get to the mixes on that?
Yeah, absolutely. I was breaking it down to just the drums and her voice, then bringing the guitar back in and taking it from there to see what really, really, really needed to be added. That was fun too. Sometimes I'd pop in parts from the old demos. Like in "Once in a Lifetime," those horn parts are so wacky and out of time; they almost don't belong. It sounds like traffic going by. One might not have thought to write the part in that way. It was sheer magic, a very Eno-ian discovery.
The record is dense, and there's a lot going on. You want to showcase that in a different way, but not lose that, for sure.
Where did you end up doing most of the recording and mixing?
Well, we actually did it at my home studio, which is a house that was a studio. Actually, it's more of a studio than a home. It was built to be a studio, and then I ended up living there. The reverb that's in the large sunroom ended up being the reverb on the percussion. It's this medium-room sound. "Wow, okay, that's really alive." My engineer, Ryan, has the sensibility of having sounds very punchy and hard-hitting. He used some compression to make tracks really punchy and aggressive, and that house suited itself to that. That's where we did most of the tracks. We tracked percussion, tracked Pino. Tony Allen recorded most of his parts in France, since it was more convenient for him to do that. That was interesting. It's almost like the electricity had a different quality, in the way they mic'd that. I really loved his part on "Houses in Motion." Usually he's quite in the background on those old Fela Kuti recordings. He's there, but there's a lot of percussion and horn work that is more prominent in the mix. It was like, "Let's put Tony Allen in the front of everybody. Let's put him at the front of the stage." Basically you're inside his drum kit. It's very stereo-panned and modern. You're really living inside. It's so interesting to get his parts back. He re-wrote the bass line. It's like, "Well, I hear your bass line, but the bass line should go like this." We used his bass player [Rody Cereyon] on "The Great Curve" and "Houses in Motion." What he's doing is unreal. Some of that was done remotely, but mostly at my house. Michael Brauer [Tape Op #37] mixed it. This was one of the final projects mixed in his Electric Lady room.
Yeah. I was over at Michael's new studio recently. How did you start working with your engineer, Ryan Nasci?
I met him through a producer that I signed and mentored, Alex Salibian. He worked with him on a Young the Giant album [Home of the Strange]. I was like, "Wow, he's really fantastic." I wanted to work with him on the Harry Styles album [Harry Styles] that we did two years ago. He's become my in-house engineer, and he's also worked with me on a bunch of other projects. My old production was a lot of programming, from a hip-hop tradition. It was nice to steer back a little bit towards an acoustic instrument approach, and an old-school approach to recording. Microphones, channels, electricity, and consoles. I let Ryan do his thing on the Harry album and this Angelique album. I pushed back against it when I felt like it, because it's a different approach than I'm usually hearing: that bass-heavy, muddy sound with this big, sweeping, wide vision, like what I've done with Kanye or Alicia Keys. It was fun to let him lead the way sonically and chime in, and also to break out of my normal habits. Ryan also cut his teeth under Tony Maserati in L.A., before he worked with me.
The Harry Styles record was a tighter combo with a live band. I assume you find that in stark contrast, as there are so many writers and producers involved in a lot of records that you've produced or co-produced.
It's interesting to see how many fingers get in the pot on a lot of these songs and albums. How do you navigate that as a musician, as a producer, or as a writer?
I don't necessarily have a preference, one way or the other. I've been part of both approaches, and like the results. I'm concept-driven when it comes to my approach to a project. I really want to help the artist say something clearly. With Harry, what I heard him saying was, "This is my voice, and this is my band." We put a band together and worked on the album with those parameters in mind. That's why it ended up being a small circle of people. It sounds different than those One Direction records. They have a lot of the same influences, but it feels very different. Both approaches are very valid. I try my best to help the artist decide what they want to do, and then encourage them to do that. The last thing you want to do is get muddled with your message and make it less potent. You want this music to be impactful and clear, and [to have it] hit eardrums in a way that wakes them up. It's a cliche that I either want you to love it or hate it, but it's really true. What's the use of listening to it if you don't get a reaction? How you get there is okay. I don't think it matters how many people are involved, as long as the message comes across clearly. Maybe when there're so many people, it feels more difficult to get that clear message, but not necessarily if they're talented. The different processes are the way you achieve a certain result. It's fun to play with that, and to try and make sure some message comes across. "What are you saying with this music? What are we blasting on a huge megaphone to the world?"
When you're in the producer role, do you find yourself really going in and digging into an artist's lyrics and helping them focus?
A little bit. It's more like therapy. Let them say it. Let them help themselves. Encourage them to create a safe place. It's a fine line, because when you want to help you may not really be helping if you don't let them find it. It's mostly about creating a safe place for ideas to flow. I learned a lot about that from Kanye West. He's great at that, at bringing people together and creating a safe place for ideas to flow. It also helps if the artist has an idea about it in the first place, which is what was so great about the Angelique project. She did the vocals. She added her own melodies. She added an African chant with a deep wisdom in another language. She encapsulated what it did. It varies how far the artist is down the path of what their vision is; but, ultimately, we want to encourage them to be brave in realizing their vision.
You initially got quite a break working with Kanye West. How did you go from being a keyboard player to collaborating in the studio with him?
You're right, I really did. He's one of my biggest mentors, artistically. I was the keyboard player, and then I was the music director, so we kept aligning. Also, we aligned in our way of looking at where he was at, and I where was at, which was being really excited about melody. This is the tenth anniversary of 808s & Heartbreak, which was a melodic explosion. I was transitioning into wanting to really hone my songwriting craft, and so was he. I started to add more and more melody to his material. Sometimes at the shows, the band or DJ would drop out and it would just be me playing keyboards and him rapping and talking. We developed a connection that ultimately transferred into the studio. [We had] a trust and a perfect symbiosis of him having incredible vision – as well as a sense of design and artistic expression – and me having a really great sense of organization and support for his vision. I was trying to inspire everyone around us to buy into that. I ended up being a really good student of what he was following, and I grew into my artistic skin through that process. I was very lucky to fall into that situation of working with [someone] who I consider to be one of the most brilliant music and artistic forces of this era.
He'll keep creating, but those are records that people have obviously responded to.
Right. He's always trying to do that, and he's raising the bar every time we're making records. Have fun, but the stakes are high. Take your responsibility. Ultimately we're contributing something to society, and the world. You are in service to the world in some form, to do your best work and to do meaningful work, even if people don't agree with it.
You've got to put it out there and be behind it.
Exactly. Be fearless. I think the artist always appreciates if I push them more, in the end. They might be a little uncomfortable at first. I have to remind myself of that. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, and I don't want to be an abrasive person, but sometimes it feels like that when I'm trying to help someone get out of their comfort zone. It's uncomfortable, by definition. But I feel like that's my job. I've learned over the years that it's my job. If I don't do my job, what am I doing there?
Exactly. After Mark Ronson's Uptown Special came out, I interviewed Mark and ended up hanging out in Memphis with Boo Mitchell [Tape Op #120] for an interview.
Oh, cool. Nice. That's a perfect example. Actually, a lot of that was up to Mark. He's a connection master and knows all these people. But it was on me to push him a little more outside. "I'll create some cool tracks and have cool guests on it, and it'll be great." But to synthesize this story that goes through the album, it got overshadowed by "Uptown Funk." I wanted to encourage him to stretch out as an instrumentalist and a writer, but he was so humble that he didn't really toot his own horn or think about. He was devoted to the old idea of a producer who does not interfere with the writing process or interject himself into that. He's quite a skilled musician, [plus he's] a really intelligent guy; clever, witty, and quick. I was like, "You can write this music!" He had all these ideas, and I said, "That's great!" I'm sure a lot of his older music came from him too. But to break him out a little bit of this idea of, "I'm collaborative," to feeling like, "This is your album! You're an artist. You have control over the narrative, and you're like the source of the music." That was a good example of what I was trying to do, which was push him out of his comfort zone and go from being "Mark Ronson, the DJ and producer" to "Mark Ronson, the instrumentalist and songwriter."
It obviously worked, and it brought you full circle with Bruno Mars, whom you'd worked with before that, right?
That's absolutely true. And full-circle with jazz and instrumental recording, which set the tone to keep going forward with the Harry Styles sessions too. Mark really inspired me to delve back into recording in a more traditional way, as well as to embrace jazz harmonies and instrumentation – really return to that. That was a special project to reinvigorate that part of my musicality.
People may see you as a producer, but you've also got to feed yourself, and keep yourself interested and growing while you do this work.
That is so true! Perhaps some people are different, like the old-school producers. Maybe it was a little bit more like an organizer. But if you do have an artistic bone in your body, those bones need to be fed, for sure.
It would seem like, in the same respect, once our careers take off, we start to pick and choose a little bit more so that we're not working on sessions that are too draining but are still interesting and creative to us.
You read my mind.
What is Kravenworks, your label about? What's been the focus of that?
It's a good segue from what you said. It was an outlet to break out of this system of making license plates in prison. It's a pretty horrible analogy when you're getting paid millions of dollars to make records, but for a creative person, it's like you're in prison for a little bit. Kravenworks is a play on Dreamworks, and Billy Kraven was this alter-ego I made for myself, as an artist/songwriter, who gave me permission to start writing songs instead of just producing them. As Billy Kraven, I started writing songs and doing demos. Creating the label was also an extension of that, to help redefine the type of music I want to be making, as you alluded to, where my heart is creative. It's learning the ropes of that. It's an experiment. I have one other band, Vacation Forever, on my label, and I have an imprint with Cam [Cameron Ochs] on RCA; she's the first artist I signed. That's a little more in their hands; how the marketing and everything goes. In this new world, where the media game and everything you can do is so much more powerful, you can do everything yourself. It's an exercise in figuring it out to be honest. You've got to start somewhere and take it from there.
Have you felt like you've worked on records before that unjustly disappeared into the void of the record business?
Absolutely. Or not even disappeared, but when it got presented, it's like, "Wait. This is not the right story being told here." That's like Kanye, with him being in full control of how everything got rolled out. The packaging and everything is a part of the whole experience. I'm definitely getting my feet wet with how all that works. It's definitely been a big learning process. Mostly I'm used to making records: they come out, and they're either a hit or they're not. It happens pretty quickly. If you get these artists, it takes quite a while – like five to ten years – before people are [aware of them], like fun. They won [a Grammy for] Best New Artist, but they'd been around for years; all of them collectively, honing their craft. As a label, it's also learning patience to let artists develop. You're planting seeds.