If record credits were easier to find these days, you’d see the name Malay on the back of many a record sleeve or CD booklet. Born James Ryan Ho, Malay’s song-focused and sonically-rich productions have benefitted Frank Ocean, Sam Smith, John Legend, and Lorde. The Bellingham, Washington, native got an early career kick-start from working on 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and he’s never looked back.
How did your music career start?
I got into music when I was 13 or 14. My family came from Malaysia; I remember my uncles would always be talking about stereo equipment. My dad had a diverse collection of classic rock and everything in between. Getting into Jimi Hendrix was what sparked my interest in guitar. I used to play with friends, and we’d record ourselves. At one point we had a Pink Floyd cover band.
A lot of your productions focus more on the songs.
Yeah. That’s primarily what I’ve always been focused on. I guess I’ve always strived to be an artist-first producer. I’m looking to help guide their vision. There are a lot of people who are successful doing quite the opposite, where you might go to a producer for a specific sound because it’s the hot thing on the radio at the time. That’s great, but it’s never been my forte. An artist could be telling me 50 ideas at the same time, but it’s still my job to make it come to life. What best serves the song? Typically, it’s the vocal performance. Music fans aren’t thinking about microphones, preamps, and compressors. It’s about if they connect with the artist or not. I’m always looking for the most honest approach to the finished song; as long as the listener can believe that person singing. You can get pretty mundane with the processing – to be pretty slick – and take a lot of the emotion away. If you dig through a lot of these new music playlists, a lot of them have exactly the same sound, over and over; or three different versions of a popular style. I can’t even keep up with this shit!
It’s a byproduct of the tools being so affordable now. It makes the role of the modern producer challenging when button pushing can create something that might pass.
For people who have true artistic vision, it’s such a difference. For me, and the people I’m fortunate enough to work with, we always feel it’s a lot of noise. I’ve met people who have been discouraged, “Too many people have access. There’s too much shit that waters everything down.” You can’t control technology and advancement. If anything, people who are attempting to make tracks are adding a new dynamic type of fan base. There are people way more interested in the process now than there were before, because not everyone had access to go into a studio. If you can open your laptop and start making music on [Apple] GarageBand because it was included on your laptop, or download a free app to start making beats, there’s clearly a new level of interest, which is exciting.
But often the value of an expert has been greatly diminished.
In the last couple of years, I signed a young producer [FrancisGotHeat, aka, Francis NguyenTran] who came out of Toronto. He’s more rooted in trap beat production, [Image-Line] FL Studio, etc. When I signed him he was 19. At the time, he’d already done a couple of Drake songs. Out of the millions of kids who were doing that he had something unique; but I’m even more intrigued by it because I have no idea what the fuck he’s doing to make those records. The worst thing I could do is imitate and try to make a trap hit. Maybe I could sonically make it sound close, but there’s that essence of being real and true to that art. Why would I download the drum packs, or whatever the kids are using, and try to make my own beats? On the flip-side, this kid now has some insight into a much bigger process; he’s grown so much in the last couple years. We work on a lot remotely; I’ll send him some parts and ask him to play drums or whatever. He’s understanding that there’s a bigger process. It’s helped him grow, to understand, and to have the desire to do more than just programming something on the laptop. I’ve always pushed him to make records and songs, not just beats. That alone has changed his perspective.
You have such a creative palette of sounds on your records. What’s your approach to the marrying of artists, songs, sounds, and tone?
A huge part of it is stumbling around in the moment. It’s almost always a happy accident as I’m creating. Most of the time it’s me and the artist, or it might be me, the artist, and a top-line specialist who focuses on melody and lyric with the artist. As we’re creating the song, or at least the foundation, I’m finding chords on a Wurlitzer [electric piano] or a guitar. I’m typically also chasing sounds with whatever instrument I’m playing. Where it arrives at something is once I realize we have some melodic concept happening that’s working, or even a lyrical concept we’re chasing. Whatever’s feeling right in the room at that time, I’ll usually latch onto that one sound. If it is a Wurli, I’ll put it through some pedals so it sounds nothing like a Wurli. It’s something that’s helping create the energy or vibe of that song. From there, I’ll start to build that out.
Is it ever driven off the lyric, or are you typically building from the bottom up?
For over 95 percent of the songs that I’ve done, the melody comes first. The melody’s coming usually from back-and-forth between the artist and myself playing some chord progression. Either it’s some sounds I’ve recorded and manipulated, and I’m chopping them up inside Pro Tools to create a progression, or I’m physically playing something. Typically, lyrics will get plugged in throughout the day as I’m building the track and the melody is continuing to grow. Every now and then an artist has an idea, “I have this concept, and it’s going to be called ‘violet.’ This is what it means to me.” I can help paint the scene based on our conversation. Artists might come in and play me four or five different reference songs they’ve been listening to. That’s how I get the inspiration to chase a certain sound. That definitely helps. It can even be a discussion, “I’m hearing some piano that sounds lo-fi.” That can spark the beginning. In the songs I’ve done, most of the original inception that day becomes the final song. At least what was sonically driving it that day.
Is that typical? You end up with a song at the end of the day?
Yeah. I’d say ten years ago I was definitely of that “studio rat” mentality. I felt a song couldn’t be done unless I’d spent X amount of hours on it. I’d be working longer hours. I’ve always been pretty self-sufficient, so I’ve never had a tracking engineer, assistant, or anything. I’ve always done everything myself, even the busywork of editing. For me, it’s part of the journey and the process. But I would spend so much time that I got to the point of beyond the burnout stage. Over the last decade I’ve slowly had that whole – it sounds so stupid to say – but the “work smarter not harder” attitude. If we get in the studio at 2 p.m., and we’re coming up on 8 p.m. and we’re staring at the walls, then nothing more is going to happen today. “Why don’t we come back tomorrow?” A lot of younger artists have the pressure from the label that has signed them. Every day you’re trying to write this “hit song.” Well, okay; that’s not generally how it works, but we can attempt to write the biggest song in the world today. It makes a lot of artists feel more comfortable when they’re with someone like myself who’s been fortunate to do this for a long time. If it happens, it happens. At the end of the day, they’re going to be singing these songs for the rest of a career, and if they don’t like them, they’re going to be miserable. “Why don’t you do something that you’re passionate about and truly believe in?” That could take time. We could write a song today – and it’s incredible – or we might not.
I imagine how you work as a producer with Frank Ocean is different than working with Sam Smith, John Legend, or Lorde.
Yeah. Every time I’m going in, I’m looking for some direction from them. I might not be asking the question, “Do you have a direction?” But we’re there to create, and I’m there to create something for them. Maybe they’re playing me a couple songs they’ve already done for the project. Sam Smith’s the type of an artist who might write a hundred songs for his album to get to that 10 or 12. It’s the type of artist he is. Whereas Frank Ocean, if we had 14 songs on our project, there were 14 songs that were written, with some starts that weren’t used. Sam might blast through it; he and his partner can write so fast. We might write a song that’s just a piano and vocal within two hours. At that point he and his team will say, “We have something. Let’s go back and finish it.”
The songs I’ve ended up doing with Sam, I was able to add that foundation sound, and then chase more natural guitar tones or whatever. Plug it in as quick as I can to help the vibe along. It feels like they just write on piano. Adding a new dynamic, such as guitar, is different, so it helps them spark some new creativity as they’re writing. Every day is different. If I’m working with a rap artist, it can be a whole different approach than someone who’s a melody and top-line person. Their focus is obviously on a whole different aesthetic. I have to be as open-minded as possible, because I never want to assume what an artist is chasing, or what their new vision is for their new project is.
You have your fingerprint in there, but the artist comes through every time, as opposed to you overshadowing. That’s a real gift.
Yeah, man. I appreciate that. That’s good to hear, because that’s definitely been the goal. It’s exciting to hear that.
It sounds like you work pretty quickly.
When I was a fly on the wall when I was younger, I’d see the frustration level building in the room when things weren’t getting done. Let’s say there’s an engineer who’s super slow, and everything he does is, “Oh, wait; hold on a second.” And 20 minutes later you’re finally moving. I can start to feel the frustration building. I always wanted to be as efficient as possible, so there was never any lag or downtime. Even before I had my own space, I’d be making sure everything was ready to go ahead of time, as far as patching in multiple instruments. Obviously, no one’s perfect, so there’ve been a million times where now we’ve got to wait to figure out how to re-patch some keyboard. But you lose whatever the momentum was. Most of the time I’m tracking my own parts with the artist. Not to say it’s the right way, but it takes away another potential issue of a tracking engineer. They’ve got their own set of problems they’re dealing with. Maybe they’re having a bad day, and you’ve got to deal with another personality. For me, it’s always been about getting ideas out as quickly as possible. Most of the great parts that have ever happened are very spontaneous. If you have all the tools set up and you’re ready to go, it’s much easier to capture that. When I built my latest room at Larrabee [Sound Studios] a few years ago, it was the dream I’ve always had; where every single thing is fully patched in. It’s all routed in a template in Pro Tools, so I can hit record and go. If an artist is in there, they might be inspired by all the instruments available and start jamming. It’s spontaneous, and it’s up to us at that time to figure out what could stick or what’s potentially cool. They might want to freestyle a bunch of melodies, improv style, so I have a [Shure] SM7 sitting there so they can grab it while they’re sitting on the couch. I’ll find the coolest parts and create a structure from that freestyle. That keeps the excitement going. There have been so many times when the creative people get it to a certain point, and we’ll go, “Man, I love this so much,” especially the artist. Then the label comes in and they say, “Oh, this is cool, but we don’t think the chorus really slaps. What if we brought in so and so to help? He’s written X, Y, Z smash hits.” We’re saying, “Wait, we love the chorus as-is.” Fast forward to a few months later, and the song never even gets released, because everybody hates it. You can easily overcook or overthink things. It’s part of that process. The greatest work typically does happen spontaneously, so it’s about being prepared for that.
You said, “Overcooked.” That’s the last thing I wanted to talk to you about. I love seeing that you’re a fan of the kitchen and throwing down big meals to celebrate ends of records. We often have this conversation about how many parallels there are between cooking and mixing/producing.
Yeah, if it’s your passion as well, it’s the same part of the brain being used. Cooking is extremely creative and spontaneous. The biggest difference, especially for people like us in the music business, is you go in the studio and it might be extremely spontaneous. Let’s say you did write a song today, and it took you three hours. But the reality is that song might not see the light of day for six months or a year. You might play it for your closest friends, but it’s like, “Man, I can’t wait until it comes out!” But with food, it’s, “Check out this recipe. Come over tonight!” Next thing you know, everyone’s having a great time. I feel that’s one of the coolest things for me; being able to share that with a group of friends or colleagues I’m working with. It’s instant gratification, and it’s such a passion.