The man behind 'Hello' and 'Chandelier' worked on some of this fall's buzziest releases
What do Adele, Sia, and Kelly Clarkson have in common? Grammy-winning producer Greg Kurstin, 48, who has been behind smashes like “Hello” and “Chandelier.” This fall, Kurstin’s going full rock: He produced new albums by Foo Fighters and Beck and collaborated on multiple tunes from Oasis’ frontman Liam Gallagher’s solo debut. He’s also got a Christmas album with Sia in the pipeline — and has been in the studio with Paul McCartney. EW connected with Kurstin to get the scoop on everything from barbecuing with Dave Grohl to rekindling Beck’s funky ’90s flame.
Foo Fighters, Concrete and Gold
The superproducer met Foos frontman Dave Grohl at a restaurant a few years ago when Grohl came over to praise Kurstin’s own indie-pop band, the Bird and the Bee. From there a partnership blossomed. Grohl approached Kurstin with a batch of demos — Kurstin says they ranged from “ear-splitting guitars” to “beautiful songs that had some really pretty chords” — and asked the producer about collaborating on the ninth Foos LP.
“We talked together about sonically what to do with it,” Kurstin recalls. “I immediately got a sense like, ‘Yeah, this is going to be a really crazy album. It’s going to be really hard and then also could have some beautiful, lush harmonies. It’s [going to] really take you on a journey of these different sounds — and then also have trippy psychedelic overtones on top of everything.'”
Once in the studio, Kurstin became an integral part of the band, who told him to “go nuts.” For Kurstin, that meant pushing them at every turn musically. “My job was to bring my influence and get in there with the lush harmonies and bring some freaky sounds on top of what they were doing,” he says. “I had effects and space echoes!”
The sessions weren’t all hard work, though. “It’s such a chill, fun hangout, but also at the same time there’s this drive that Dave and the band have,” Kurstin says. “There’s an excitement and an enthusiasm like I’ve never seen before. I was really bummed when the sessions were over.” Part of that could’ve been because the Foos fed Kurstin well — Grohl brought his barbecue to the sessions. “Some days, he would be making a feast for everyone in the studio, even the other bands,” Kurstin remembers with a laugh. “He’s running in, playing a guitar track, and then he’s like, ‘I gotta check the smoker!'”
For the follow-up to 2014’s contemplative Grammy-winning Morning Phase, Beck turned to Kurstin, who had played in Beck’s touring band during the Sea Change era in the early 2000s. “We wanted to make a party album,” Kurstin explains, citing his love of the alt-rocker’s wilder ’90s output. That meant drawing on everything from “psychedelic ’60s music” to “angular kraut-rock” to Peter Gabriel. “We wanted to tap into the influence of some of those albums that we loved growing up,” he says.
Due to their busy schedules, Beck and Kurstin recorded Colors over a lengthy period of time — but the two easily slid back into “experimenting and jamming” when they’d reconvene. “I would jam in the room and try to inspire Beck,” Kurstin says. “We really love songs with some complex changes, and Beck has a history of these songs with really cool twists and turns.”
Sia’s Christmas album
“She is unbelievable,” Kurstin says of the woman he’s worked with for a decade. “I don’t know how she comes up with song lyric and melody ideas so quickly. She’s like no one else.” For her forthcoming album, that talent manifested itself as a batch of entirely new Christmas songs. “What really blows my mind is just that she wrote these new Christmas stories, in a way,” says Kurstin, “and it’s kind of amazing that she did that.”
The holiday angle helped — it “eliminates scratching your head” about a topical focus, Kurstin explains — even though the producer is Jewish. “I’m still sort of new at this Christmas thing,” says Kurstin, who also produced Kelly Clarkson’s 2013 Christmas album. “I have some sleigh bells in the studio, so I can get in the mood pretty quickly.”
Working with the enigmatic singer reminded Kurstin of their early, pre-wig days together. “[It] took me back to when we used to get into jazz chord changes,” he says, noting that this record will run the stylistic gamut: “There’s some really fun uptempo Christmas jams, and then there’s also some Sia ballads.” Packed into a couple weeks in May, the fruitful sessions left Sia and Kurstin “laughing at the end of each day.”
Liam Gallagher, As You Were
For the Oasis singer’s solo debut, Kurstin worked on four songs — “Wall of Glass,” “Bold,” “Paper Crown,” and “Come Back to Me” — and flexed some new production muscles in the process. “[Liam] was referencing things that I love but haven’t gotten a chance to do before on a recording — earlier Stones and Bowie and stuff like that,” Kurstin says. “It was really fun for me to break out that gear in my studio and just try to get the raunchiest sounds I possibly could. I would pound on the drums and he would cheer me on. That fired me up to make the tracks aggressive and loud and to get the dirtiest, loudest sounds I could.”
And Kurstin says he and his fellow collaborator, Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt, had a breeze working with the notoriously cantankerous Gallagher. “He seemed into the sounds I was adding, so that got me really comfortable,” Kurstin explains. “He can be really funny, just telling stories, and then he gets on the microphone and he sings and he’s got that amazing voice. I had such a great experience with him.”
Paul McCartney, TBD
“I never know how much I can share,” Kurstin says of his sessions with the rock legend, but “I know it’s out there that I worked with him, and I’m happy it’s out there because it’s a hard secret to keep!” Though there’s currently no public timetable for McCartney’s follow-up to 2013’s New, Kurstin promises great things. “All I can say is that when he brings songs to the studio, it blows my mind that he’s still coming up with the most amazing songs,” he says. “I feel like he’s topping himself.”