INTERVIEW: Martin Kierszenbaum, CEO of Cherrytree Records

By Stephen Jones Music Week/  06/18/11

From the post room to A&R supremo, label head and hit writer for Lady Gaga, Music Week’s Stephen Jones hears the story of the rise to the top of the tree of a music business polymath.

MUSIC WEEK (MW): You are perhaps best known, to Lady Gaga fans at least – it is in the Urban Dictionary – by your pseudonym Cherry Cherry Boom Boom which features in the lyrics of several of her songs. Your label Cherrytree Records takes its name from a translation of your surname doesn’t it?

MARTIN KIERSZENBAUM (MK): Well my name is a Polish spelling of a German word that means cherry tree, but I’m my parents are Argentinian, born and raised there, so is my Grandma, so basically their Polish immigrants to Argentina. And my parents got PHDs and they got an internship working in San Diego, which is where they also go their PHDs, so I was born in San Diego.

Then, as a baby, we moved back to Argentina, so I grew up there in my early childhood and then my Dad got a job working in a lab in London and we came to live here for a while.I lived here for a year actually, in a place called West Wickham. And I went to school here, and learnt to speak English here, believe it or not, because in California we spoke Spanish at home. Then my father got a job at Yale, a prestigious school but a tough town, so I show up with a British accent and got my ass kicked everyday in the neighbourhood until I lost it. We were there for a couple of years then I ended up in Michigan which is where Detroit is, but we were in a smaller place called Lansing, which is the capital, and my dad got a job at the university there. I did my formative years there which was cool, in High School.

MW: So presumably some point along this line you grew up learning to play instruments and writing music?

MK: Yeah, I started piano from a really early age, but I wasn’t until we kind of stopped moving around aged eight, when I was in Connecticut, we moved up to New Haven and I took piano lessons and stayed taking piano lessons all through college, I studied classical piano and I got into composing as soon as I started learning music theory.

MW: So what sort of age would that have been?

MK: I started writing music at 10-years-old, it was crap. But I got into it…That’s how I got into the music business, my sister’s a classical violinist, and I got into pop music and I started writing songs, I had a band in high school, started producing records, songwriting was really my first love, that’s kind of why I’m doing this.

I’ve always kept it up and, what started happening though, was that when I got into college, I started playing in bands and I was sort of the guy in that band that could talk to the club owners and the publicists or whatever it was, so the bands kind of said ‘okay you deal with that’ – there seemed to be more need of a guy, that, in the band doing that then necessarily focusing full time on writing or whatever. I actually got to develop both skills then I moved to California, packed up my stuff from the University of Michigan and just drove up to California. I got a job in the mail room at PolyGram, but I was playing music as well, I was playing out in a band and delivering mail.

MW: So you are that kind of cliché? Well, there’s a better word than that.

MK: I’m probably the last of the cliché mail room guys

MW: Starting in the mailroom, working your way to the top?

MK: Yeah, because it doesn’t work like that anymore

MW: So did you go from the mailroom Into A&R?

MK: No, I had it very secure, actually lucky, but I was working in the mail room at PolyGram and Warner Brothers was looking for an international publicist – I had no idea what that was – so I went and applied for the job and there were two pre-requisites: you had to type fast, which I can do because of high school, and you had to speak some languages. I spoke Spanish, so I got the job. I still had no idea what it was but It turned out it was working in the LA base of Warner Brothers Records when Mo Austin was running in back in 1989 – so it was Mo Austin and the whole Warner crew, Benny Medina, it was the tale end, of probably, arguably the best record label ever, in the history of the record business.

So I’m 23, I got a chance to work with Madonna, Prince and Rod Stewart, Jane’s Addiction and Chris Isaak, and B-52s had a big hit so I spent two years there doing international publicity and then because I worked on B-52’s’ record, the Love Shack song, a big hit back then. A British guy named Martin Kirkup who managed the band at the time recommended me to a guy that was looking for a international publicist at A&M records; he called me and I ended up going over there in ‘91 after two years at Warner’s.

So in ’91 at A&M as an international publicist, I was again, fortunate, because A&M had just been purchased by PolyGram in the late 1990s, and they just kind of reduced their roster and elevated some of their middle level executives who were young and hungry and I got a job working for one of them and he let me computerise. I was really into computers, it was very early, so I was really into those early computers, 386s or whatever – I got one as part of my deal for coming over there and It spread it across the department. We started emailing, and faxing but I was really a kind of renaissance you know, like Bryan Adams who had massive hits, like Everything I do I Do It For You, you know, really massive hits at the time, Sting, Susan Vega, a band called Extreme which the song was called More Than Words, that was massive, I did all the international publicity for them, Soundgarden, one of my favourite bands ever I got to work with really closely.

MW:: And presumably Sheryl Crow?

MK: Yeah, absolutely. I was really lucky I went from these amazing artists from Warner Brothers to these amazing artists at A&M and I built some really long lasting relationships, like, to this day, I still A&R Sting. That relationship started by being his international publicist in 1991, but I spent the better part of nine years at A&M and sort of worked my way up and by the end of it I was running the international department. In 1999, Seagram bought PolyGram, and merged it with Universal, which they owned, and on the West coast, which is where I was based, they amalgamated Interscope, Geffen and A&M; they took a few people from A&M and they added it to Interscope basically, and a few people from Geffen, because Interscope was on fire at the time, and Jimmy (Iovine) was the guy orchestrating the merger on the West coast for Doug (Morris) and he brought me over to run their international department, it was really not a big department.

MW: Jimmy Iovine bought you over?

MK: Yeah, so I went over to Interscope which again was super exciting, it’s almost as if my trajectory from my year has followed my record collection, like I had all these Warner records, I was a huge Prince fan, I had all this A&M records, I think the first record I ever had was Herb Alpert.. I loved the Black Eyed Peas, that first record they put out. This was like serendipity, I didn’t plan it that way, it was a passive elimination, they chose me to be at Interscope, they had international guys in other labels, they had their own, and Geffen and they picked me.

MW: So your title, when you were running International, what was that?

MK: I guess, I was Vice President of International Interscope and then, well, I was Interscope Geffen and A&M. Of course, those first years were hard, Interscope really was only nine-years-old, they started in 1990, and they were really focusing on America, you remember most of the deals outside for that 10 years, were licensing deals, so it was hard to invest in international for that.

MW: So, before Limp Bizkit?

MK: Yeah, this is what I’m getting at, this is what happens, I join and of course they were great A&R guys, Jimmy, Tom Whalley; you know, Jimmy’s amazing at A&R – the best ever – and all of a sudden this repertoire came about and here I am, I’ve been doing international now for quite a few years, and a lot of the network that was absorbed into the new Universal rights with the PolyGram people, that was my A&M friends, so I’ve been working with them all for many, many years.

And now I have this incredible repertoire, and I have the relationships and so we were able to take some chances on some things. I have this faith and belief like, ‘oh here I come with a white rapper.’ And they’re like “who’s this?” so I give them my Elvis speech and all of a sudden Eminem gets some attraction here (the UK) and I travelled with him all over the world. I’m the one who got him to come over here and It was lucky because Eminem was from Michigan and I’m from Michigan, I spent a lot of time in Michigan, so we had that bond, with Paul Rosenberg the manager, so It’s really kind of one of my first things. The Limp Bizkit, which in retrospect, wasn’t easy, in America they’d done all that ground work touring and it was hard to get them to tour internationally, but if you remember they had already built up pretty big in the US.

MW: I remember here it kind of kicked off with the whole Mission Impossible II soundtrack.

MK: Exactly.

MW: I thought that was very clever at the time because there was no rock being played on radio here at all.

MK: I was trying because I could, whatever I could and the pressure was pretty heavy, I was the new guy doing international, they’re blowing up in America and what’s going on internationally? “Will you go on tour Fred?” “No, I only do festivals and stadiums” and I’m like “Shit!” so we had to figure something else out so we used that as an anchor and we did festivals so we felt good,

MW: Wasn’t he involved in running Geffen?

MK: He was VP of A&R definitely, actually though, he signed Puddle of Mudd, which sold over 5 million albums, so yeah he’s talented though.

MW: I was at the first Eminem gig in London were you there? It was exciting, and I was telling a lot of people over here recently, when Odd Future came over, I couldn’t remember it being anything like this here since that Eminem gig

MK: Yeah, that’s right. Do you remember when we did the press conference in Brixton? At the boxing ring? I got photos of that; it was exciting, really fun. We have this fast food chain, Taco bell, which you don’t have over here, so I used to get people to get the food, and overnight it, we would have a little toaster oven here and I’d be like “hey we got Taco Bell here now” and that was for Eminem. (laughs)

MW: It must have been incredibly busy?

MK: Every time one of my kids was born I think I was on the road a week later. I thank my wife for that, it was an intense time, it was very high pressure. Interscope really hadn’t sold records over here yet outside the US, with exceptions of one offs like No Doubt.

2pac would then have a hit, so I had to set up a system we could keep. WIth hits like California Love, they had single sales, they weren’t used to selling albums and they weren’t used to investing in international because you would sell albums so then part of that time they’d be licensees so they’d get paid late. One of my biggest jobs was to instil confidence in the company to invest in international, and get that tour support, and get that marketing so that really meant just putting my ass on the line:

“I will sell this many Limp Bizkit records if you give me that tour support” I remember saying this to Jimmy: “If I don’t you can fire me!” – he thought that was great, he was like ‘oh, that’s funny, alright.’ And I remember he gave me the tour support for that first festival for that tour around the soundtrack we were talking about and of course we ended up selling five million albums so we could do it again.

MW: So at no point in this career had you been involved in writing or producing artists?

MK: I’ll tell you what happened. I was a musician, I was writing songs, still playing, keeping a studio in my house, offsite or whatever and Jimmy was the first guy, because it wasn’t this way at PolyGram, to go: ‘Hey, I hear your meetings, you make musical comments, what’s the deal? You’re a musician?” and I was like “Yeah,.. “ And he was like: “Why don’t you do that for us?” which was a crazy novel concept but at PolyGram the culture was such that you were ether a marketing guy or an A&R guy, you weren’t both and I just thought that was normal, and it actually made me more disciplined because I got to learn more about putting out statements and managing staff and things like that. But once I got to Interscope. Jimmy thought about it differently, it was all one thought, you know what I mean?

He was an A&R guy who sets the tone and drives the project through the company and out to market, so when he noticed I had some music ability he said: “When you’re out there flying around and marketing Limp Bizkit or whoever in Japan if you can find something we can put out here in America”. I know it sounds crazy but at that time a lot of the American companies were very insular, and still are to a certain extent, so for him (Jimmy) to say; “Hey, if you’re out there in Europe or wherever you are and you find something that’s viable bring it to me and I’ll put it out here in America” So that’s what I did.

MW: So was t.A.T.u. your first thing?

MK: It’s a funny story actually, the first thing I did was I found this tenor, who sang opera, Alessandro Safina, which was signed to a Dutch company, or one of the Universal companies, I can’t quite remember, but I figured, ok, if I sign rap I’m going to get killed because there were all these hot shot A&R guys and Interscope was the house of rap, so if I sign alternative music, same thing, Interscope is like jamming, so I’m going to sign something crazy, I’m going to sign a tenor, and I took it to Jimmy. Jimmy is like “is this what you want to sign?”

And I go: “ Yeah, I think this could be the thing” “Well how you going to market it?” (Jimmy) And I go: “Well I’m going to need some money, we’ll do a PBS special, do PBS, get pledges, it will get played again if it gets a bunch of pledges and then we’ll market it around, it will be like Andre Bocelli.” “Ok man, this is your shot.”

So we get a bunch of money, make a PBS special, and it comes out, right after September 11 2001, no one’s going to give money to PBS! They’re going to give money to New York, PBS is like Public Broadcast, so they have pledge drives, they show programming, and if its high ratings they get more pledges, and if they get a lot of pledges they keep re-programming that programming; and then you drive record sales, well at least you did back then, and of course, no one donated because they were all donating to New York, and it literally broadcasted September 18, which is a disaster, and so the thing tanked.I thought: ‘Ok I’m dead, I spent a lot of money on the special’ it was shot in Sicily, a lot of money, my days of A&R were over, I thought,…

Three months later I get a call from Jimmy, he’s like “come to my office” I’m like “whoa!” And he says: “Great fucking job on Alessandro Safina.” And I’m like “what are you talking about, it tanked?” and he goes: “No, Doug Morris just called me, it sold a quarter of a million units in Holland.” And I’m like “yeah, but that’s Holland” and he says: “I don’t give a fuck where it sells man, as long as it sells. Sign more!” And I just thought ‘Wow!’ That’s a cool boss right?

Then he got that worldwide vision so the next thing I signed were these two Russian girls, called ‘t.A.T.u.’ that was literally the next thing, and it was a joint venture with Universal Russia, because again, I started fishing in the pond I knew, so I had relationships where people would call me with the new hot thing, and I got a call from Universal Russia “Hey we got this thing on TV, they’re singing in Russian, it’s kind of blowing up here.” So I said: “Do they sing in English?” and they said: “No, not really!” so I listened to it, it reminded me of one of my favourite groups, Abba, so I freaked out, took it to Jimmy and was like “I want to do this!” and he said: “But they don’t even sing in English!” and I’m like: “Yeah, I know man, but, there’s something going on here, but I’m freaking out here, their voices are really high!” so he said: “Ok, let me see the video.” So I play him the Russian video and they’re kissing and he’s like: “Ok, I get it!” That’s what I’m trying to sell him. “I’ll subtitle” I say, and he’s like; “Ok go do it.”

MW: But they ended up singing in English?

MK: And that one was amazing, because Jimmy introduced me to Trevor Horn, not related to that project, he was just like: “I’m going to lunch with Trevor Horn, you want to have lunch with us?” And I think ‘yes, I want to do that.’ So it was all stories of like “when I produced Tom Petty, when I did Frankie Goes To Hollywood” you know, I was watching them with stories like this and the whole time Jimmy’s like “why don’t you help us with this record? Here’s a CD, you should do this, you should do that” So Trevor Horn walks out of lunch with like, 10 CDs “pick whatever you want, you should work with us” so as Trevor’s walking out, I’m like “Can I show you something? I think it’s (like) Frankie Goes To Hollywood 2002” And he’s like “Ok” so I pull him into my office and show him the t.A.T.u. stuff and go “I think,…” and he’s like “Ah, give it to me” and puts in on top of his pile. That was a Friday. On Monday he calls me and says: “I’ve listened to all the CDs, I want to work on t.A.T.u. with you.” And I just thought ‘if Trevor Horn likes this shit, I am not wrong.’ So we came to London, we flew him over with the girls, they were like 16, 17. And Trevor was great, he was like; “Man, you’re a musician, why don’t you help me write this stuff.” And that was it, we wrote ‘All The Things She Said’ together.

MW: So you got your first writing credit on that?

MK: Yeah, I wrote the lyrics. And Sergio Galoyan wrote the music, he’s great. And then what happens is, I used up all my money to help Trevor record three songs and I’m like; “Trevor you got to do the rest of the album” and he’s like; “you can’t afford me!” and he goes: “you do it, you can do it” because I’ve been doing piano for him and stuff, but I’m not used to it. At first I’m committed to being the A&R guy for the company, because I come from International, for me it was two different worlds, I wrote, recorded and produced outside of my work, it would be an odd thing, I come from this PolyGram culture and Trevor’s like “what are you talking about, you play all these instruments, you can do it!” So I talked to my wife and say “so Trevor Horn thinks I can produce the rest of the record?” And she said, “If Trevor Horn thinks you can do it, you can do it!” So that’s what I did, I produced the rest of the album, and wrote it, it comes out and sells five million copies. That was good. (laughs) And I saw Jimmy again, and he’s like: “That’s fantastic! Do more!”

MW: So what came next?

MK: I think the next thing I signed was, I signed a band with Nick Gatfield who was running Island Records at the time, was Keane, it was a joint venture, together, 50/50 risk, 50/50 profit. And that was great, because that one sold five million copies. We had a good run. And then I started pulling more to the A&R side, then Jimmy said: “What do you want to do?” and I said that I’d love to start an imprint.

MW: So up until this point, you were still VP of International, so you still had your day job?

MK: Yeah, I still am! I’m Head of International Operations for Interscope, I have 12 people who work and really a great Head of International Marketing, that runs it, but yeah, Jimmy still wants me to cross international stuff,… I mean, I’ve been doing it now since ’89, I love it still.

MW: Well you got to love it still, if you’ve got that much to do!

MK: Oh yeah I love it still. For me, what’s happened still, over that time, think about it, companies have become multi-national so they own their affiliates, they’re not licensees anymore. You get paid every quarter, it’s a very lucrative business, it’s not like someone off with some licensee you’ll never see again. It’s a legitimate business, so now there’s a lot of profit coming from international, which makes it very important to the company. Secondly the internet, everything’s inter-connected. I can break a record, in fact, Lady Gaga, we broke that out of Sweden, Canada and Australia. Everything’s inter-connected, those YouTube users are aggregated across countries, so marketing in France may actually affect what you do in America or in the UK for the first time ever in history. So here comes all my experience in International, and then all of a sudden International becomes very important to the mix. So it’s all one thought process for me. And then I signed a group, like Robyn, who’s from Sweden, she’s on Cherrytree.

MW: Yes but she wasn’t your first signing was she? What year for you was it then that Jimmy said start a new imprint?

MK: 2004, so we started it in 2005, the first record on Cherrytree was Feist’s Let It Die. Which ended up selling 86,000 units in America but amazing accolades press and it started to buzz on the internet, I’m really proud of it, it was a great record to start the label with. And then I remember what she said, because she was really reticent to sign to a major, in fact in Canada she signed to Arts & Crafts, because she didn’t want to be on a major.

So I saw her in Rotterdam, she was playing in a club, I went to see her and I was blown away, and I said: “Look I’m starting this imprint, and my dream is to be almost a hybrid between an Indie and a major, so we’ll incubate and protect like an Indie but when it’s time to uplift we’ll be seamless, because I’m an Interscope employee, I’m in the meetings, so I don’t have to come from outside the building and say ’ok lets uplift to a major now’, so you’ll have the resources when you need it, but at the beginning we’ll organically build it.” And she was attracted by that. And I remember what she said, because I used it for so many years to explain Cherrytree, she said: “You’re a mum and pop shop inside a department store.” She’s really eloquent with words, but I love that, and that’s really kind of been the inspiration and that was the first record and of course the second record went gold and had 1,2,3,4 on it and on the Nano ad commercials.

MW: So was that the idea basically, to find artists and break them in a kind of, a cooler way?

MK: Well, No, I wasn’t really worried about the cool way, I mean what is cool? I think just, authentic, organic and with integrity. But really its two things: one is to have the time and resources to incubate an act properly and not rush and not judge it too prematurely. The second is to have pure reflection of my taste throughout the years because I grew up all over the world, I have this pop taste but it leans a little bit left of centre. I like maverick acts inside the pop tradition, so the idea of Cherrytree is to get with artists that are slightly left of the mainstream and bring the mainstream towards them rather than dilute them or change them to have them appeal to the mainstream, if that makes sense. And that takes a longer time. So, I’m definitely attracted to artists like Feist, and La Roux and Robyn and Tokio Hotel, for art movement because their slightly left when they come out, and then all of a sudden with work and energy they bring the mainstream towards them they become the mainstream but they did it by pushing the tradition of pop music forward,… that’s kind of the motive to combine that flavour with ability to incubate those kind of groups so that they grow and when they do break, they do it with some gravitas, like Feist, again, took us two albums to break her and she did have that Nano commercial, no-one questioned her credibility, we’d already sold 200,000 albums when that Nano commercial started to hit, she had a fanbase and a live following, everyone knew she wrote and played her own songs, and when you get that exposure from the Nano commercial, you don’t live or die by it, you just amplify it.

MW: So what came after Feist?

MK: I signed a group called Flipside that didn’t do so well in America but they got a number two hit in Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Austria with a song called Happy Birthday which I co-wrote, which actually sampled t.A.T.u. So that kind of kept it going. Then, what came next? I’m trying to think of the chronology, it gets hard now (to remember) I signed Robyn at one point.

MW: Yes, there was the Robyn deal, that was a different kind of deal wasn’t it?

MK: That was a direct deal for North America with Cherrytree. Often I do intercompany-licensing deals like with Frankmusik which is through Island.

MW: And was that very successful in the States?

MK: Not so much in record sales just yet, but she just sold out Radio City Music Hall which is 7,000 people in New York and she’s going to headline the Hollywood Bowl.

MW: I used to write about her in the Nineties. It’s great to see her doing her own thing, which presumably you have allowed her.

MK: Yeah she was like 16 then. Now she’s totally running the show and I love it. It’s inspiring.

MW: And so, at some point around then you came to (Lady) Gaga?

MK: Yeah, here’s what happened. There was a guy named Vincent Herbert who had worked with Blackground and signed JoJo the singer, and he had just got a joint venture deal with Interscope, which is Streamline Records, that’s his imprint, and he had this act named Lady Gaga that he was looking to find someone to help him incubate and build and so he brought her to me, because of course were in the Interscope building, Cherrytree is right there, she had black hair then. Then I just connected with her creatively and she started talking about Prince in a knowledgeable way and I hadn’t heard a young artist talk about Prince in that way, it was a multi-fascinating presentation, it was about the songs but it was also about the band, the concept and the videos and live performance and she had a bigger vision for everything, and was like ‘wow this is really impressive’ and the way we connected really was by writing and I said I have all the old drum machines Prince used to use. And she said “oh, I’d love to come see that in the studio, do you want to write together?”

She was also a t.A.T.u. fan, so she came to my house, to my studio and the first song we wrote was The Fame and she said: “You know, I think I want to make this the basis for the concept of my album!” and I was like: “What are you talking about? A concept for your album, this is cool!” Most artists are just like ‘let’s string a bunch of songs together’, so this person was really special. So we end up writing a bunch of songs, four of them ended up going on The Fame.

MW: At your house?

MK: Yeah, and I played all the instruments, like I usually do, and she sang. It’s in LA, in Westwood by the University. But she’s got an amazing voice, all the takes were like two or three takes, we didn’t have to really labour the vocal tracking part which made it really enjoyable for me, so we could just focus on the writing and it was just really fun. And one night, I wrote in the studio and she was playing the piano, and we’d already started to get traction on Just Dance, but people were sceptical, it was called Just Dance, you don’t know if its auto-tune, if Akon was on it, know if she was real or not, and she was there playing and I was like “people need to see this, they need to see you playing the piano” so she goes: “What do you think?” I said: “I think you should come, and be on this show I do called the Cherrytree House, come play in my office.”

And she said: “Let’s do it tomorrow.” And so she came, and I don’t know if you remember, Poker Face of her playing, and it got Tweeted, posted by Perez (Hilton) an eventually got sampled by Kanye West for the Kid Cudi single, that’s in my office, that’s her playing Poker Face in my office at the Cherrytree House and we ended up putting an EP out in America called the Cherrytree Sessions. But yeah, that was it, there’s was a really creative connection, so of course then we helped build it, I started the show called Transmission Gagavision every Tuesday at 6:30pm. I had it edited into my voice as the intro, we showed you what Gaga did that week.

MW: We’ve missed out a bit here, we’ve jumped from the imprint to Cherry Tree TV, so you had this imprint, you can do what you want, kind of essential, you’ve got your other job,…

MK: Ish,… I sell records still, that’s how were not an indie! (laughs)

MW: But you also had this idea for the label that it was going to be some kind of multi-media thing as well?

MK: No, not at first, at first my only goals were to get interesting maverick type artists and protect them to the point where they could get the mainstream interested in them. But what I ended up seeing is that for the first time ever through the Internet I could talk directly to my audience. Think about it: record labels really can’t do, that they were using radio programmers to tell their audience about stuff or retailers to convey the passion of an album that was made, here also you’re talking to the DJ and you’re talking to the other kids listening to the DJ, and that’s pretty cool, and all that’s happening on

MW: I remember other labels were setting up networks where A&R scouts could chat to each other about what they were looking at different territories and stuff, but it never occurred to them that if you actually opened it out to music fans that,… well I don’t suppose it occurred to them, they were trying to keep it secret,…

MK: Well what’s happened is we’ve got a pretty big register, in order to get 600 people in London that’s a pretty big worldwide net, and they’re very committed fan, because you’ve got your registry, you’ve got to put your information in there, its free but it’s still a commitment. So its people that really follow us and we have a dialogue with them and so we can have a platform to launch new things and get feedback.

MW: So you set this up from the start as well?

MK: No, I’ll tell you what it was, it was probably 2007 that I set up the website and it didn’t have social networking until the end of that year.

MW: And then you introduced a TV show element to it as well?

MK: Well here’s the thing, I’m a musician, and I love instruments, so I always keep instruments in my office and people would pick them up, so I was like “why are we not filming this?” There were some pretty amazing moments. So we started this Cherrytree House, put up a Cherrytree logo behind them and they’d play. We had The Pipettes were signed to Cherrytree, The Feeling did one, Robyn did it, Lady Gaga, Ellie Goulding’s done it, Sting played the lute on it which is pretty cool.

MW: So going back to Gaga, you got it down, and you showed people her playing Poker Face on piano,…

MK: And also because we had that platform,, we started doing this three minute show every week on Tuesdays at 6:30pm, just as if you were tuning in to a TV show, you’d get three minutes of what Lady Gaga did that week, and in fact, if you go in it now you’ll see we did 40 episodes, we retired it after 40, you can see the trajectory of her growth in 40 episodes of transmission, it’s pretty cool. By the end of the show, it won’t sound like a lot now, because Lady Gaga’s massive now, but at the time we were breaking her and we had aggregated five million views on those 40 episodes.

MW: So she wasn’t actually signed to Cherrytree?

MK: No, what happened was Vincent and her were signed under Streamline during the venture with Interscope, then he asked me for help, so she became a Cherrytree artist and then also Akon contributed in a big part at the beginning so it was a Kon Live, so there was four logos on it; Streamline, Cherry Tree, Kon Live and Interscope. And what part of Interscope sells? It’s easy .

MW: It’s clear to me, although I’m not sure it’s clear to everybody else!

MK: No, because it’s not that clear, I don’t have to sign someone on Interscope, I just have to do an inter-company deal. Vincent was looking for someone to champion his act and market it and the Cherrytree corner really fit creatively, so that’s what happened.

MW: So that would have been around 2008, what have you been focused on in the last two years?

MK: I’m super excited about Frankmusik, that’s one of the most exciting things on the label and I feel privileged to have them on Cherrytree because he had a record on Island, which is a great label and I’m friends with (Darcus Beese) since our early twenties, I was talking to him yesterday, because yeah, I’ve been at Universal 20 years now. We kind of all came up together and I really respect him. And Frankmusik, it’s an interesting story. I was a fan of his first album, and he did a remix actually, for (Lady) Gaga, to the song I wrote, Eh Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say) which ended up on her remix album and sold a million records, so it’s great for him. But he moved to LA after the first album, and I didn’t know he’d moved to LA, I think I got a call from Louis Bloom and he said “Hey will you meet with Frankmusik” and I said I’d love to because I’m a huge fan.

So he comes to the Cherrytree office, I just started talking to him and he plays the piano, the one (Lady) Gaga played, and I was blown away. He beat boxed, he sang, and I knew he produced all his own stuff and I guess I hadn’t focused on the fact that he had such an amazing voice acoustically, and I said “Man, if I can help you in anyway, I will help you.” And he said “cool” so we started writing, is what happened, he was like “hey, you want to write with me,” and I was like, “yeah ok!” Sometimes I don’t have to write on stuff, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t write on, I don’t touch Keane’s music, or Feist’s – great! But sometimes it’s good to kind of get to know each other, especially if you’re on the same musical wave length by going in the studio together. And I don’t even look for it, my rule is I’ve got to get invited because I don’t ever want to feel like I’m imposing on anybody so I almost err on not doing it but he (Frankmusik) is such a generous guy musical – he wants to collaborate, he’s a producer, so he produces other people and he kick started all this people like (Ellie) Goulding,… he’s just really talented, you rarely meet someone that talented.

So we started working in the studio and it was very easy because we’re both producers and we both play keyboards and we both know our way around Logic and Pro Tools. So I would start something and if I needed to go to a meeting or leave he would finish it, or he could start something or work on something else so it flowed really well. Also, he’s such a great producer that all part of my job was to encourage him and say “look dude, your great!” Or he’d write a song a be like, “I’m not feeling the chorus, can it lift somehow?” and I’d write an extra melody or whatever and we ended up doing this whole album together and I’m really proud of it, I was really proud to see him perform (at the showcase), he’s just in the zone.

MW: Well he’s got his head together, that’s what’s really happened hasn’t it, and you helped him get there?

MK: But I didn’t really know him before, to me, he’s always been a really focused kind of young man, I don’t know what happened on the first album, I listened to it and I loved it but your right, he seems very focused, I don’t know how he was before though.

MW: Well it’s my own personal opinion, but just think he had this kind of issue on whether it’s okay to do pop, who am I in this business? Do I fit in? Because he is slightly different,…

MK: Maybe that’s why he left the UK though? There’s scrutiny like that here,… he moved to L.A which is far away and he could hit the lead on everything, and it’s interesting because he moved downtown LA. That guy has a radar on him, he finds the next thing before anybody else does and it’s so weird to me that he comes to LA, where he’s completely foreign, and he ends up in downtown L.A which is the place to be right now, and he was there a year and a half before that’s where,… it’s this burgeoning place for artists completely experiencing a renaissance right now. I don’t know if you know LA well but downtown LA was kind of a baron for people working on the left,… imagine downtown LA is a lot of art galleries, a bit more bohemian but also there’s a lot of transience, an area that’s been gentrified, that to be it used to be the Mecca in the Forties, it looks like a proper, beautiful downtown which you don’t really see in LA, it looks like a New York kind of downtown. Slowly all the cool A&R people are moving there. The general manager of Cherrytree lives over there, and that’s the place, slightly dangerous, and he moves there! And the first thing I asked him (Frankmusik) was “How the hell did you know to move here, it’s where the cool people are?” and he was like “I don’t know, it felt right!” like he just has this radar.

MW: So he’s now signed to you?

MK: He’s signed to Island and I license it from the inter-company for America only, Island signed Frankmusik. We signed him for America, I don’t want to mislead, but I do want to give Island credit for sticking with him and believing in him but he’s on Cherrytree for America and I’m proud of it.

MW: What do you think of the record he’s made?

MK: Well I’m biased, you know, I helped him to make it, and I produced it with him and I wrote a lot on it and I mean, we tried to do that, we just tried to follow his instinct without worrying about the scepticism of pop music. He really is in-between someone super edgy and you know, pushing the boundaries, and someone with a lot of pop melodic sensibilities and that’s why I’m attracted to it. I think he’s taking pop music to a different place, and that is really what entices me about music.

MW: You had your showcase last night which you have been doing in the US the last 18 months, is it the first in a series of showcases around the world?

MK: No, I got some good emails today about turning it into something like that, which is exciting. We’ve done the little Cherrytree events and they’re all designed to expose the acts obviously and to give attention to that, and if I could have Cherrytree be anything it would be a platform to launch new music and congregate people who love new music, that’s what we try to do.

In the first one we did was in this very historical place called Lucy’s El Adobe we called the Cherrytree El Adobe, there was this Mexican restaurant which was the hub for that southern California sound of the Seventies, Linda Ronstadt used to date Jerry Brown and go there, Nicolette Larson, Jackson brothers, and they all hung out at this restaurant. It’s been a little dormant, because it was the Seventies, so we rented it out and had a party there and we had Robyn play acoustically, Frank(musik) did a song, Florence (Welch), (Randy) Newman came and played Colette (Carr), Kelis who’s not on Cherrytree came and played acoustically, she was on tour with Robyn, and that’s where it started,… maybe 250 people, a few burritos and we had a really great response. So the next one we did was New York, we took over the Hard Rock in Times Square and released it for Far East Movement and they played, and we debuted some videos, Die Antwoord and Natalia Kills,… and it was fun and about 450 to 500 people showed up.

MW: And you had of course your signings LMFAO headlining in London, who have had huge worldwide number one smash.

MK: Yes, so that’s why we got brave and we decided to do it. Also it’s the proximity to the capital summertime ball, which gave us the anchor to get some of our bands over here and so we did it the following day.

MW: So your experiencing all this success, what’s next?

MK: Well for me, it’s more of the same, I really don’t know, I’m not one of those guys who is in music to get in the movies, I love breaking new bands. I love making music, being around music, for me, Frankmusik is next,… That’s it, that’s who I try to sign, people I hope things are going to happen for, it makes me feel good.

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2 Responses to “INTERVIEW: Martin Kierszenbaum, CEO of Cherrytree Records”

  1. Mona Says:

    I really enjoyed this interview, it shows sincere and pure music lover.

  2. melissa Says:

    excellent interview. i am envious of this man’s sheer luck in the music industry to work alongside such talented executives and artists!

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