About ten years ago, New Jersey-born producer and songwriter Jennifer Decilveo pivoted from a degree and career in finance to begin a life in the Los Angeles music scene. Since then, she has collaborated with a multitude of artists, including: Amos Lee, Anne-Marie, Beth Ditto, Bat for Lashes, Ben Platt, Christina Perri, Cold War Kids, Demi Lovato, Fletcher, Hozier, Lucius, Miley Cyrus, Melanie Martinez, and Marina among them. This work has racked up sales, nominations, and award wins. Her songwriting and production on Andra Day’s 2016 album Cheers to the Fall and its single “Rise Up” earned her Grammy nominations for Best R&B Album and Best R&B Performance, respectively, plus a Soul Train Music Awards’ Ashford & Simpson Songwriter’s Award win. Her composition work on Angélique Kidjo’s album Mother Nature (2022) earned her a Grammy for Best Global Music Album, and her songwriting and production skills also contributed to Ivor Novello Award, Brit, and Mercury Prize nominations. On speakerphone en route to the studio – and in the L.A. rain, no less – Decilveo chatted with Tape Op about her eclectic career, as well as her personal music-making philosophy.

Talk about the process with SASAMI [Tape Op #157].

So basically, she wrote all these songs, she started demos in [Apple] GarageBand on her [Apple] iPad, and she'd bring them to me. Whether it was me going, "This is great, let's build upon this," or, “You don't have a chorus. Go write a chorus,” or, “What is this about? I feel like, emotionally, we could be pulling more in this direction.” It was basically just looking at the songs in their most demo form and either blowing them out, or keeping them and keeping them calm. That was the process. There are some things from her iPad that made it into the final recording. I definitely did a lot of overdubbing with synths, drums, and bass. We did a lot of guitar tracking at my studio. We did BVs [backing vocals]. It was wild, chaotic, 95-mile-an-hour sessions for 10 hours a day. She's the artist, so she knows exactly what she wants. She'd be sitting behind me on the couch, letting me do my thing, and then she'd say, "Mmm... not that tone.” I'd say, "Okay." And then I'd try it again and she'd be like, "I like that." It was great; it was easy and fluid and awesome. I wish every record was as easy, to be honest. It's because we had trust – that's a big part of it.

And did you establish that relationship through the Cherry Glazerr collaboration?

We had met years ago, through the L.A. scene. She came to my studio; we did a session, and I was pretty sure she'd never want to work with me after that. But we reconnected two or three years later, when she was making this record, and that was it. We hit it off. I didn't even actually know she was in Cherry Glazerr, but I love Cherry Glazerr. I've worked with them, and I produced "Big Bang" and "Rabbit Hole." I love those songs.

They are awesome. I've noticed that you are a big fan of background vocals. It seems like they're a go-to when you are producing.

Well, every artist is different, and every song calls for a different arrangement. I can't really tell you why I do anything that I do when I'm doing it, because it's usually an emotional response. I think the backgrounds can lend themselves as an instrument. Sometimes they can be supportive, or sometimes they can be the focus. For instance, in "Rise Up," they're there in the background and then all of a sudden they're the focus. That was Andra [Day] and me doing that together, coming up with a part that felt natural and evolved from the main lyrics. I feel like Adele does that really well too, where she'll take a leap into a different world of words, but then she still maintains the thesis of the song in the backgrounds. I feel like sometimes backgrounds can be really tight and not reverbed out. They'd probably be... I guess, drier? But [to create] lusciousness, it's just stacks on stacks on stacks with ‘verb. Whatever the song calls for.

Do you have any go-to plates, plug-ins, or gear that you like to use for reverb on backgrounds?

Yes, of course. The [Eventide Audio] H3000 [Ultra-Harmonizer] for delay, but there’re a bajillion presets in there that are just fabulous – the H3000 analog piece, but also the plug-in by Eventide. Then [there’s] the AMS [Advanced Music Systems] hardware, and of course the UAD plug-in. And then everyone uses Valhalla, but it works. I love the EMT 140 [plate reverb]. [There] are parallels that we'll create, like the Valhalla will be a plug-in, as will the UAD. But when running it through the H3000, I normally send a parallel and then we blend to taste. There's this saturation and depth that exists with the actual physical pieces of gear. I don't know if it's mind over matter, but I think it sounds better. Those are my go-tos, for sure.

While we're on the topic of gear, I know that you're very proud of your keyboard collection.

I love the [Sequential] Prophet-6, the [Moog] Minimoog, the [Oberheim/Sequential] OB-6, and the [Roland] JUNO-106. Those are things that I use all the time. I'd say the Prophet and the OB-6 are pretty important for that dirty, gritty, crunchy sound – I love that. Mellotrons are really cool for specific things. Then, of course, we're also doing weird stuff to an actual grand piano, taping it down so that the felt is plucky. I like to use a pencil to hit the note on the string on the piano, as opposed to playing it with hands on the keys. Just trying to come up with sounds that are not stereotypical.

What are some of your favorite strategies for the weird sounds?

Honestly, it's pedals, outboard gear, and good mics. It's a vocal through a [Pro Co] Rat pedal. It's a snare through a Rat. It's everything that you normally wouldn't do. I think the reason that I do that stuff is because I didn't ever know the right way to produce. I got into it later on; I was a songwriter first. I would go around [to] sessions in L.A. and write lyrics and melody, and then I was like, "I want to be making the sounds." That was ten years ago, basically. I didn't have a mentor; I didn't have conventional schooling – which I know a lot of people don't. I don't know if it was because I'm a woman or anything, but I definitely had dudes I could call but didn't call, because I didn't want to feel like an idiot asking, "What does this do?" I tried a lot of YouTube tutorials and a lot of [ideas] like, "The rhythm should be guided by bass, but I'm just going to use a constant kick drum." I didn't have any restrictions, which was so beautiful because I just did what I wanted. I try to keep that spirit alive when I'm making music now.

Beginner's mindset.

Yeah. The spirit is to do weird shit and figure out how to keep it weird and cool.

You started out in L.A. by teaming up on co-writing for Macy Gray.

Yeah, I had a friend at NYU, and he introduced me to his singing teacher who became my friend. She ended up getting signed to Macy [Gray], and we wrote songs together. That was my first [foray] into the business. From that, I started to meet other people – other producers, other writers – and it just kind of snowballed from there.

That's really cool how you fostered those relationships and the community that you have.

Yeah, I feel like it's about connecting. You become friends with the people you work with, and you make music together. If you have similar tastes, you come at it from similar angles with the same goal in mind – which is to make great music – and it ends up being really easy. It's like when you hang out with people, and it’s, “Oh, yeah. I'm going to be friends with them.” Then sometimes with someone else it’s, "Probably not gonna see you again." It's really that simple. We're meeting for music, but it's more than just producing a record. I have to offer a perspective and a lens that is different and bettering the art. Otherwise, what am I doing there? It's always awesome to meet new artists – and new producers and writers – who you can collaborate with that fill your cup.

What reference tracks do you like to use that you keep returning to from project to project – across genres, maybe, or specific ones for certain genres?

I don't necessarily use reference tracks. I'm always listening to Nine Inch Nails. On the flip side, I'm always listening to Regina Spektor. I grew up listening to [bands] like Creedence Clearwater Revival and REO Speedwagon, but also Tori Amos. The artists who have worlds affiliated with their music, where I feel like [it’s] an experience. Of course, you want the songs to be incredible, but a lot of the time it's just like, “This artist gives me this feeling.” Regina Spektor makes me really contemplative and in my feels, and Nine Inch Nails makes me want to sprint a million miles an hour and rage. They evoke different things for me.

What grand musical dreams would you like to achieve that haven't come true yet?

I mean, I'd love to work with Nine Inch Nails, Regina Spektor, and Florence & The Machine, but anyone who has a strong perspective and is passionate, spiritual, and curious about their art is probably someone I want to work with.

I like the way that you use "spiritual,” because that's not necessarily a term that might come to a lot of people.

Well, songs have spirits – if they're done truthfully and if they come from a real place. It's creation; it comes from nothing. It has to have a spirit, right? [laughs]

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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