Producer on Fire
Musical ability and imagination plus technical finesse in the studio have turned Jeff Bhasker’s career red hot.
By Mark Small
Since 2008, when Jeff Bhasker ’99 began working with Kanye West, his career has been in overdrive. Bhasker stepped into the spotlight as West’s touring keyboardist, then became his musical director, and then went into the studio with him as a cowriter and producer. In many ways, West served as a mentor for Bhasker, and Bhasker returned the favor by helping the rapper develop a melodic, keyboard-heavy pop sound on such songs as “Amazing” and “Love Lockdown” on his 808s & Heartbreak album. Bhasker snared the first of his first three Grammy Awards in 2009 for cowriting “Run This Town,” a hit collaboration for Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Rihanna. Two years later he won again in the Best Rap Song category for West’s “All of the Lights.”
Last year was a banner year for Bhasker. He cowrote and/or produced tracks for Alicia Keys (“Girl on Fire”), Bruno Mars (“Locked Out of Heaven”), Taylor Swift (“Holy Ground” and “The Lucky One”), Pink (“Just Give Me a Reason”), the Rolling Stones (“Doom and Gloom”), and more.
But his most significant project of 2012—producing, cowriting, and playing keyboards for the Some Nights album by Fun.—almost didn’t happen. The then-unknown band had to jump through hoops to recruit Bhasker (who at the time was busy with A-list artists) to produce the group’s sophomore outing. But for Bhasker, the gamble paid off big time. He applied his rap and hip-hop production sensibilities to the band’s pop, rock, alternative, and even theatrical leanings to create a blockbuster album.
There is lots of magic in the tracks. The album’s lead-off single “We Are Young” surged to number one on the charts and was further energized after it was placed in a 2012 Superbowl commercial for Chevy and in an episode of Glee. Ultimately the music and the group were nominated for six Grammys and had wins in the Best New Artist and Song of the Year categories. (The win in the latter category netted Bhasker his third Grammy.) Significantly, Bhasker’s nomination in the Producer of the Year, Non-Classical category for Some Nights prompted a flood of requests for his services.
To realize Fun.’s musical vision in the studio, Bhasker availed himself of a coterie of Berklee alumni, including Andrew Dawson ’01, Pawel Sek ’00, and Ken Lewis ’91. Bhasker’s manager Neil Jacobson ’99 (see “Bhasker’s Copilot” and “Fun. Behind the Board” on pages 15 and 16) was also key. The sessions took place in Bhasker’s antithetically named Enormous Studios and Andrew Dawson’s SoundEQ facility as well as bigger studios in Los Angeles and New York and orchestral sessions at Abbey Road Studios in London.
Fun. gave Bhasker carte blanche to let his seemingly limitless imagination loose on their songs. The mixture of Fun.’s talent and Bhasker’s musical and production finesse yielded music that has dominated the airwaves, despite not fitting neatly into radio formats.
These days Bhasker could fill his schedule 24/7 with production work—he’s inundated with offers. But in May, he turned his focus toward finishing a solo project he will issue under the alias Billy Kraven. On it, Bhasker plays all the instruments and sings all vocal parts. Jacobson (Bhasker’s manager) describes him as “one of the best singers that no one has heard.” In addition to all the songs Bhasker has cowritten with superstars this past year, he’s squirreled away songs he’s written for his solo album. But when Beyoncé Knowles heard his tune “I Care” and asked if she could record it first, he gave in. “It’s hard to say no when Beyoncé asks to record your song.” Bhasker told me.
He also plans to assemble a band and tour after his Billy Kraven album comes out, but has no intention of leaving producing. The bar for new projects will continue to be set high, though. For Bhasker, the superstar status of an artist or offers of big money aren’t what draw him into a project. He’s determined to work only on music that engages him emotionally. His instincts are serving him well as his list of credits testifies.
Coming to Berklee after growing up in tiny Socorro, New Mexico, must have been an eye-opener for you.
It was like coming to music fantasyland. Meeting some of the people I met there was like finding a long-lost brother who liked the same things I did. I was into jazz when I came to Berklee. My first exposure to jazz was my mother playing “Tenderly” on the piano. My piano teacher had given me a tape with the Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy album by Chick Corea and Return to Forever on one side and on the other was the Oscar Peterson Trio’s Night Train album. When I listened to the tape I thought, “This is it!”
Did you start out learning to read as well as to improvise?
I’ve always been a terrible sight reader. I learned everything by ear. I wish I could sight read better, but my strength is listening to music.
Well, having a well-developed ear is mandatory for a producer.
Yeah, listening is what it’s all about. In production, you can study and go by the book, but the book was written by people who just listened. Sometimes you stop listening and look at the computer screen and see all this stuff. I just try to hear everything. When you are writing a song, I think it’s better not to write it down. Just learning and memorizing it is better.
Was becoming a producer your original dream?
I wanted to become a virtuoso jazz pianist. But I didn’t get all the way there; I’m not Oscar Peterson. But I did learn to use what I have and turn it into a song or some other music. You have to start living your musical life at some point and figure out what you want to say. More often than not, I only needed to do 10 percent of what I’m capable of to accomplish that.
In Kabuki Theater, they say you never show 10; you show seven or eight. You need to have 10 under the surface, but you don’t show everything you’ve got. Likewise, you don’t try to play every single thing you learned at Berklee. Make a musical statement. Sometimes that may consist of just a few notes. The point is to say something with what you’ve learned.
For me it was a big step to figure out what it means to be an artist. I found there were things I’d been doing naturally for years, and I had to embrace those things. After going through the training to become a competent musician, I had to go back to the childlike excitement about music. It’s always important for the music to be exciting.
What was the path that led you from Berklee to L.A.?
I left Berklee in 1999, worked for a while in New York, and then got to L.A. in 2005. A track I did for [rapper] The Game was my first placement in 2004. My first tour with Kanye came after his Graduation album came out then I started working with him in the studio.
Kanye West showed a lot of confidence in you by making you his music director.
Yes. When we played live, he would stop the music and I would improvise on the piano as he would rap. I learned from being a jazz accompanist to really listen. We had this creative, spontaneous dynamic going on. In the studio, we did that when writing songs. We had a musical bond and could create together. As a rapper, he is very musical in the way he listens. He’s learned so much music from all the sampling he’s done. His appreciation for music and his tastes are really good. He taught me a lot about being an artist. Kanye is very good at making albums. After working on his albums, I tried to apply those ideas to the Fun. album.
I saw playing piano with Kanye kind of like playing jazz even though he’s not a jazz musician. Applying things in a different way can make the music interesting. Kanye is the ultimate artist and brings his vision to life in interesting ways. He never chooses the easy way out. When we’d work on a melody and I’d say, “Hey, this note could go there.” He’d say, “Everyone knows that note could go there. What’s a different note that we could use to make it special?” He’s never satisfied with the obvious. He wants the artistic choices, not just the ones that will work technically.
You’ve said that you got a strong work ethic from your father. Can you elaborate?
He was born in India and is a medical doctor and the mayor of our town—the longest-serving mayor in New Mexico history. From him I learned about staying organized and on task. You need to make a little progress every day. You don’t have to do something overnight, but if you work at it every day, you reach goals. It’s really very simple. Some people at Berklee would practice for eight hours a day, for three days, and then couldn’t keep up that pace. It’s better to practice one hour every day religiously and get the most out of that hour. You will get better. My dad knows that progress can’t stop; you have to keep going. He taught me to finish a job and do it right.
Did things start getting busy for you in 2009, after Jay-Z’s “Run This Town” won a Grammy?
Actually I became really busy when I was working with Kanye. The Alicia Keys song “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart” was my first big song that I placed and produced on my own. I also did other things for her The Element of Freedom album. That was one of the first productions I did that Kanye said he thought was good.
How did you end up producing Some Nights for Fun.?
They asked me about five times to get together. Finally I said OK. They ended up singing the chorus to “We Are Young” and I said, “We need to record this tomorrow!” They completely sold me. I had been working on urban music, rap and r&b. I love all types of music and had done some pop records but nothing that was rock-oriented and theatrical like [what] Fun. was doing.
When you started the Fun. album, weren’t you in the middle of another project?
I was working on an album with another artist at the time. But Fun. had the DNA of the songs when we started, and I could take it from there. They didn’t play me the demos of their songs; they just sang them for me with piano and guitar. It was perfect. To that, I added a click track and then was able to add whatever I wanted.
That part went fast, but when you get to where the song is 90 percent done, the last 10 percent involved in perfecting the song becomes exponentially harder. Sometimes it can take a month to figure out what to do after not thinking about the music for a while. But it can become a house of cards at that point. If you add or take something away, the whole thing can fall apart. You’re thinking, “If I add this, I can’t have that, and it really needs that.” It can be a nightmare—but the kind of nightmare you live for. Sometimes others will barely notice the things you are obsessing over. In the end, it’s the attention you pay to all of the details that makes something special. It is not an accident that the songs on the album are special, because we put a lot of work into them.
I’m amazed at the range of things you did in the production. How long did it take to complete the record from writing to mixing?
Nate [Ruess, Fun.’s lead singer] and I finished “We Are Young” together, and he had written five more songs. I tracked those, and then we wrote a few more songs along the way. From that point to when the album was mastered was about a year.
Did you work on it steadily throughout the year?
We did it in stages. After we got the first five songs down the band came out here [to Los Angeles] and we worked together on more songs for a couple of weeks. We kind of had the songs written and they knew what they wanted those songs to be. I had total freedom to do what I wanted with them. They wanted to have the album done by the next month before their Coachella [festival] gig. We did the first bit pretty quickly, but as it was coming together, I was insistent that we not rush things. I don’t think you should ever rush. Sometimes you need to have a sense of urgency, but you don’t want go through things too fast. Having a sense of urgency means you stay up later and get up earlier to have the time to do the things that will take hours. After we had the first part done, I wanted to make sure every element was properly executed. That included the strings and orchestral parts, figuring out whether we needed a couple more songs, and then mixing it properly. So we had three or four stages where we worked on the album for a few weeks at a time and then I worked on it in between.
When you worked on it alone were you adding tracks or mixing?
Both. Sometimes I’d feel that the mix needed another instrument. That sense came from my arranging background at Berklee. In a lot of my work, I feel the instrumentation makes the mix. You want to able to hear everything. Some of the tracks were pretty dense so I needed to make sure every instrument was heard clearly and the sound wasn’t a blob. That was a big challenge. I wanted people to hear what we had been really excited about hearing.
The track “Some Nights Intro” is reminiscent of Queen but also sounds a little like a cabaret song with the high female voice weaving in and out and the applause at the end. How did that evolve?
Nate wrote that whole song in his head. He wanted an operatic part in there, but he didn’t know exactly how it would go. We used a voice sample in there at first and later replaced it with a girl singing. He also wanted it to give a nod to [cabaret singer] Bobby Short. Nate had a very clear vision of what he wanted the songs on the album to be. It was my job to realize that. The more we worked together, the more things he pulled out of me that were beyond his natural instincts. He encouraged me to add my ideas and execute.
Even though a lot of the songs were pretty complete, you were still given songwriter credits.
Yeah. I’d add a part or something. In hip-hop the producer is the musician. He gets credit for the music and the rapper gets credit for the lyrics. That’s the tradition I come from. In the rock tradition, the band has the songs and the producer helps to make the record. Maybe the producer will help write a song or two and get some publishing. With Fun., we met in the middle.
Generally it’s words and melody in publishing. But if you use the drumbeat to Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” they get publishing [royalties]. If you use the drumbeat from Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat,” Billy gets publishing. I used that beat for “Girl on Fire” with Alicia Keyes. But even though we changed the rhythm a little and made our own drum sounds, Billy still got paid. There is a precedent for drums and other distinctive musical parts being part of the publishing of a song. So with Fun., we defined what the publishing [rights] involved.
You created a distinctive military beat for the end of the song “Some Nights.”
That was something I programmed. It’s amazing how successful that song was. We loved the music, but the band didn’t pick that as a single. After we won the Grammy, it was played on the radio, became popular, and was released as a single. The song has a great hook but doesn’t fit the mold for a radio single. I’m really proud that our music made an impact on how music of this era sounds. For me as a producer, there was a long time when everyone wanted to make a dance song. Mumford and Sons, Miguel, Gotye, and Fun. have made an impact with different sounds. It’s kind of exciting to be part of that.
What was your take on working with the Rolling Stones?
They were awesome to work with—so vibrant. I soaked up a little of what they are all about. They called the work I did “radio mixes,” but I went into the studio while they were tracking with Don Was, the album’s main producer. We took the files and worked with Mick and Keith separately on how we could modernize the music without it sounding like a remix. To me the “radio mix” of “Doom and Gloom” has all the Stones’ energy and sounds like it is part of music of this era. There is a little stylization to it. They don’t wear the clothes they wore back in their early days, so why should they have a production style like that from their early days? They wear clothes that are cool now, and I took that approach to their music. Being a producer is similar to being a fashion designer. Clothes should make you look and feel good, be the ultimate you. The production should be hip, contemporary, and speak to the times now.
How many album projects do you do in a year?
I try to be productive, but I also try to limit my work to things I really believe in. Last year I worked on tracks for Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, and Pink. We squeezed a lot in. This year is more about finishing my album and picking another artist that I think could be special or different. I don’t want to have a quota or anything like that. I value quality over quantity.
Now that so many people are asking you to produce their music, do you just pick the best of what’s offered?
It’s not always about the best, it’s about what clicks. The guys in Fun. and I just clicked. I look for things that will ignite the best in both the artist and me. I try to make it easy on myself by finding someone with a vision who knows what they want to do and needs help in making it all come to life. My job as a producer is to help them realize their wildest dreams. Anyone can make a song, but it’s about creating magic. You don’t always create it, but you have to keep trying.
I want to work with artists, writers, and producers that can push me and that I will learn from. In life, you want to be around people who will push you to set the bar higher.
Can you talk about your upcoming solo album?
I record and sing all of my own demos and that’s how my solo project came about. I started writing songs under the alias Billy Kraven so that I’d have an alter ego. I like projects to have a point or a concept. Naming a song is very important. It provides a catch phrase and sets the tone for the song. So having the name Billy Kraven gave me a tone and concept.
Is it true that you will offer the album for free?
I will probably post it online. A lot of music acts have taken advantage of the Internet as an access point. People get excited if something is good and offered for free, they will often end up buying it and then other stuff that you are creating. Lana Del Rey, The Weekend, and Odd Future were all put out on the Internet. The good stuff rises to the top.
For me, it’s more about getting people to hear it. I’ve had some of these songs for a while and I’ve gotten good feedback about them. It will be fun to release my songs with me singing. It will be a more pure vision of what my emotion for the music is.
I’ve heard that you’re playing all the instruments on the album too. Will you put a tour together for it?
Playing live is an important part of being a musician and promoting a record. It’s a different visceral experience having people react to your music right in front of you. As a producer making records, you can get isolated in the studio. I always try to keep a connection between live music and the record. The music should translate to a live performance. I like to put things on the record that people will react to in a live show.
It was cool playing live with Kanye and creating the show, and entertaining the people. You want people to leave your concert breathless. I’m looking forward to putting together everything I’ve learned—the lighting and the whole presentation for my project. I will probably start out in 100-seat halls, but you still have to put on a show and build from there. That’s exciting to me.
Do you envision your future more as an artist or a producer?
It’s not like I’m going solo, I’m just making another musical statement that happens to have me singing. So I’ll have to do some different jobs that I’m not used to doing. But it’s fun to be nervous or scared about music after getting into a groove producing or writing. It keeps you alive when you challenge yourself. This record is also an opportunity to express myself without an artist or another producer. I get to control the whole vision.
“It’s about what clicks. The guys in Fun. and I just clicked. I look for things that will ignite the best in both the artist and me.”