Hot Tracks, the Collaborative Method

JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.NY Times 2/10/12

IN October 2009 Adele arrived at Paul Epworth’s cramped London studio for a songwriting session in ragged shape, sad and wrung out from a breakup with her boyfriend. That afternoon they composed and recorded “Rolling in the Deep,” the song that dominated the 2011 charts and became one of the biggest crossover hits of the last quarter-century.

Adele, the British soul singer, is a heavy favorite to win a Grammy on Sunday for the song and for “21,” the multiplatinum album on which it appeared. Critics have heralded her as a game-changing musical talent.

Mr. Epworth, meanwhile, has remained largely in the shadows, the little-noticed co-author of three of the songs on the album and the producer of two of them. His partnership with Adele has propelled him to a dizzying pass: Having never won a Grammy, he finds himself nominated for record of the year, song of the year, album of the year and producer of the year.

Yet it would be a mistake to say Mr. Epworth, 37, is riding Adele’s coattails. Since 2004, when he made his debut as a producer with the Futureheads’ first album, he has played an influential role in defining British alternative music with his experimental and omnivorous style, drawing on everything from punk to hip-hop to electro-house and transforming it all into pop.

He combines a rare set of talents, having worked his way up in traditional studios, fronted his own indie band and produced dance remixes under the monikers Phones and Epic Man. He has shaped the sound of artists like Florence and the Machine, Bloc Party, Plan B and Kate Nash. More recently he has become the go-to British producer and song doctor for American pop stars. He helped produce hit records for Cee Lo Green and Foster the People that are also nominated this year for Grammys.

As he arrived in Los Angeles in advance of the awards show, Mr. Epworth spoke about working with Adele and about his evolution from an obscure musician known for remixes into one of Britain’s hottest young producers. Here are excerpts from the interview.

Q. Is this your first trip to the Grammys?

A. Yes, I still can’t quite believe I’ve been nominated. It’s very strange. It’s so funny having been part of making a record that has such a cultural impact here.

Q. We know her music, but what is Adele like to collaborate with?

A. She’s very focused, and she is an absolute professional, even down to being punctual. She’s just a joy to work with, and she keeps in touch as well. One of the funny things of being a producer, you have these fleeting, intense relationships with people, and they go off to global megastardom, and you don’t see them.

Q. Tell us a little about how “Rolling in the Deep” came about.

A. I had all these chords I thought would be perfect for her. You know, little musical riffs or themes. I tried all these out on her for about two hours. She literally sat there with a pen in her hand staring blankly, and she just went, “I’m not feeling anything.” And then she went, “I’ve got this riff, this idea, that’s going round and round my head,” and I went, “Go on then, what is it?” And she went, [sings] “There’s a fire.”

I said wow, and I just grabbed a guitar and quickly tried to figure out what the key was. She had all the verses, that thematic melody that she uses all through the song. I put all the verses down as one long recording, and then we put spaces in the track to start work on a prechorus and a chorus. We wrote the core of the song — her verses and the chords — in under 15 minutes. And the rest of it was structured over two hours.

Q. Her vocal track that you recorded that day for a demo ended up on the album. Why didn’t you redo it?

A. Adele was going through something. She had had her heart broken, and she was in pieces, and you can really hear that, her anger and her sadness. Sometimes I just don’t think you can recreate that or fake it. My hunch is that we captured something in her vocal performance that was going to be very hard to recreate.

Q. Who generally comes up with the ideas in your collaborations with her?

A. A good musical collaboration is like a Jackson Pollock of musical paint, where everyone’s throwing ideas at a canvas and some of them stick and some of them don’t, and the final picture you end up with is a combination. She’d come forth with an idea, and I’d say, “How about this,” and it develops and hybridizes on its own into something.

Q. Do you think her success with this raw, soulful album might herald an end for the manufactured pop diva?

A. Every musical scene has a cycle. Something about who she is and her artistic identity really struck a chord in people, and that means there was a place in people’s musical affections to be filled. I think there was a gap in the market. You only have to look at everyone trying to mimic that now. The calls you get, people saying we want someone to sound like Adele.

Q. Are a lot of American artists reaching out to you now trying to tap that Adele magic?

A. They are, but the problem is, with me, they probably come to me asking for something that sounds like Adele, and they’ll get something that sounds electronic, like Modeselektor and Flying Lotus.

Q. It’s interesting that someone with such left-field tastes has become the go-to producer for retrosoul and pop vocalists. How did that happen?

A. Deep down, I grew up listening to pop music on the radio as a kid, and I was introduced to soul music by my parents — Stax and Motown. I’ve always been deeply affected by the power of an amazing song from a writer like Smokey Robinson, or all those teen-age anthems Phil Spector created. Pop music has greater power to change people and to affect people because it’s a universal language. You don’t have to understand music to understand the power of a pop song.

Q. You’ve been working on a solo album since 2008. Are we ever going to see it?

A. I’m 70 percent of the way through it, I think, and when I get back from the Grammys I’m literally going to put my head down and finish it off. It’s definitely much more electronic than a lot of the other stuff I’m doing.

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