From Björk to Britney: Songwriter and Producer Guy Sigsworth on Being a Kindred Spirit in the Studio

on September 27, 2017, 5:00am
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The eulogy for liner notes has been written hundreds of times since the advent of the mp3, but it bears repeating: we lost more than the physical act of holding a record in our hands. We lost an opportunity to examine the credits, to act as students of music uncovering the magicians behind the curtain. The access to information that the internet offers is astonishing, but the act of learning from the liner notes is a lost art. “I educated myself a lot in music just by reading credits,” says multi-instrumentalist/producer Guy Sigsworth. “It would mention instruments that I didn’t even know, and I miss learning about the strange instruments I was hearing.”

That note sums up perhaps the two most important aspects of Sigsworth’s career. The fascination with obscure instruments informed his early work studying classical music, as well as his eventual contributions of instruments like clavichord and celeste to records from Björk and Robyn. However, it also displays his thoughtful, considerate approach to life and art, always eager to learn and quick to acknowledge the work of others. There’s no pretense to his craft; in fact, it relies on knowing that artists are at their best when they stay true to themselves rather than aspiring to be someone else.

Sigsworth has made his name both as a producer and as a musician in his own right, but in all cases, he’s done so by being relentlessly curious — and appreciates the same in others. He found Seal at a time when the singer was only beginning to find his way in the industry, yet they both knew exactly what they were hoping to achieve. Though performing at very different ends of the spectrum, the producer credits both Britney Spears and Alanis Morissette for their honest vision. His work with Imogen Heap (or Immi, as he affectionately calls her) under the banner Frou Frou was rooted in her innovative ideas. Sigsworth’s work with Björk (notably on the sublime Homogenic, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary) stems from a similarly shared passion for discovery. In our conversation, we spoke with Sigsworth about five key artists he’s co-written with and produced, as well as the lessons he learned during those iconic sessions.

In addition to being a producer and multi-instrumentalist, I believe you have a debut solo album coming out at the beginning of next year? 

Yes, we hope so! I haven’t officially decided on the title of the record yet, but I’m calling the project Stet. It’s a cool word that comes from a Latin abbreviation when people write or proofread, which I suppose you as a journalist may be aware of. Stet is a sign that means “let it stand.” So, if you write something unusual, you write “stet,” and then people know not to correct it. It’s like saying, “It may seem weird, but I really mean it!”

Are you singing on the album, or is it instrumental?

Oh no, no, no! I don’t think the world needs to hear my beautiful singing voice [laughs]. I’ve worked with Björk, Imogen Heap, Alanis Morissette, so I’m definitely not thinking, “I’ll show ’em how it’s really done!” It’s music that I’ve written, with some guest vocals, including a couple tracks with Imogen, as well as Anil Kamalgharan and Malcolm Grech. But there will be a lot of instrumental music. It’s always hard to describe this style, but it’s modern classical that’s probably closer to Ólafur Arnalds than it is to The Three Tenors. It’ll appeal to the kind of people who have wound up going to classical concerts because they like what Johnny Greenwood does with Radiohead rather than because they thought they had to grow up and stop listening to pop music.

I grew up somewhat isolated in the Yorkshire Dales, and my dad only liked classical music, so that’s mostly what I knew. I didn’t really know much pop music (I’ve always liked the fact that I speak pop with a slight foreign accent — it makes me different). Of course I wound up having a career in pop, and now I’m trying to get back to my roots in classical.

Can you connect with producers better now? Do you feel like producers are more pressured to do things now than in the past because of the ever-changing landscape of the music industry?

I feel like the world’s become more like me. I started making recordings with some basic computers I bought for myself while living in the front room of my brother’s flat. I got let into studios because I co-wrote songs that wound up on Seal’s first record. I didn’t come through the conventional studio apprentice route; I was somebody working at home who then got allowed into studios because people liked my demos. I see it as a positive that today someone can write an album on their Macbook in a cafe if they need to. They don’t need to have access to expensive studios.

Something happened — I can’t say exactly at what date — but we’re now in a world where, with very few exceptions, you can’t really tell how expensive an album is anymore. You can still tell that the last Daft Punk album is a very expensive record because it has lots of famous musicians on it. But you sometimes hear music that sounds very lo-fi, and then you discover that it’s a big hip-hop artist working in a hugely expensive studio, but mostly using it as a hospitality area, and the musicians are still actually working on beats on their laptops. On the other hand, you might hear something incredibly deluxe and then discover that someone did it all at home. People in a basic home project studio may not have the most expensive equipment, but they have their own time. And that’s precious.

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Photograph courtesy of Alanis Morissette

Some people revel in a boundless space with unlimited time, but I suppose the mobility aspect is interesting when it comes to creativity.

 I’m always excited by new technology, and, if anything, I’m wary when people become overly nostalgic for “classics.” At the moment, there’s a fashion for rebuilding vintage synthesizers from the 1970s. Moog have even built an exact replica of Keith Emerson’s synthesizer at a price which only wealthy businessmen can afford. Don’t get me wrong. I love Moog; I love what Bob Moog has achieved for musicians, but I also want to see completely new musical instruments made for now. I suppose when I was playing all these ancient instruments, like harpsichords, they were old. But they were also new because they’d been forgotten and then rediscovered.

That’s right. You really brought new ears and new energy to the harpsichord, the clavichord, the pipe organ, and the celeste. You brought it in where it sounded like a human organ, like human breath.

Especially with Björk, who really embraced it.

In addition to producing, you co-wrote as well. Was that always the plan?

There was a moment when I realized I was good at playing baroque music on the harpsichord but that other people could play it even better than me. I drifted out of that world, and I bought some basic electronic equipment. It was around the time where the whole acid house scene was happening in Britain, which I mostly heard on pirate radio rather than by actually going to raves. I loved this unselfconscious way people were using electronic sounds — it was very different from academic electronic music — and I tried to create similar noises with my cheap gear. Then I met Seal and we wound up working together on his first record writing songs. Personally, I find it easier if I write with the artist, because then I really know what’s important: I know the mission. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is not to be too precious about my own art. If the artist vetoes my wonderful backwards tabla idea, don’t worry: its time will come later. Try and see the difficulties of making art as pleasurable waystations along the route. Viewed like that, music-making is the most wonderful thing in the world.

Click ahead to read Guy Sigsworth’s liner notes from working on classic albums by Seal, Björk, Britney Spears, Alanis Morissette, and his own group Frou Frou.

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Seal – Seal (1991)

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In 1989, I was living in my brother’s front room. I had one of those little 4-track cassette recorders that I plugged my Atari computer stuff into. I recorded some demos for a singer, and he took it to John Wadlow, the owner of Beethoven Street Studios. Wadlow didn’t like the singer or the songs, but he said they sounded amazing, and he invited me ’round. The day I went in, Seal was in a programming suite, trying to create some music, and I could hear that the engineer didn’t understand what he wanted to do at all. I just popped my head around and said, “I think I know what you’re trying to do. And I can do it.” So Seal came back to my brother’s flat, I played him a backing track, and it became the first track on his debut album, a song called “The Beginning”.

To begin with, he sang a Jimi Hendrix song over the top of it. He told me he’d write his own melody later. An hour after leaving, he phoned me to say he’d blagged us 24 hours in a proper 24-track studio. At that time, all I had was four bars of music. I stayed up all night creating loads of variations on my four bars, figuring that I could paste the bits together once I knew what Seal was actually going to sing. I loved it. I always thought Seal had the kind of beautiful, irresistible voice the world was bound to hear all over the radio. I could tell that even hearing him without a microphone. When I was recording his demos on my 4-track, I kept having to ask him not to sing along in the room because I’d mix him too quietly, thinking those extra vocals were actually in the recording.

At that time, Seal liked playing guitar, but just tuned to major chords. He played the outline chords of “Crazy” to me exactly like that. But we didn’t want it to be mainly a guitar-driven track. So my demo just used my basic gear (two synths and one sampler). When you don’t have a lot of of gear, you get more creative. You find every way to push what you have to its limits. My Roland sampler had these crunchy resonant filters. I made them sweep up ever four bars; then I gated the sound on and off with MIDI volume messages, and that became the hallmark sound of the song. Later on, when we were recording it for real with Trevor Horn, I had access to much better and more expensive synths. But we stuck with what I had because it just worked better.

There’s this amazing British filmmaker, Derek Jarman, who made these wonderful low-budget films in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I was reading his diaries, and in it he says the trick is to take advantage of your limitations to create your style. You don’t make them seem like shortcomings; you transform them into glorious features. He had to shoot films on Super 8 because he didn’t have any money, but before he knew it, directors of very expensive commercials were hiring Super 8 cameras to try and make things look like his films [Laughs]. Even when you’re feeling frustrated, remember: almost every musical instrument has at least one thing, one “trick,” it can do really well. Your task is to find it.

In a similar vein, I think it’s much more fun to work with real artists who’ve got opinions, because I love the challenge of helping an artist who wants to do something that seems impossible. It’s much more interesting than someone saying, “Can you make this sound like that other song on the radio?” If they’ve got some weird, drug-fueled dream or something, it’s like, “Okay, well, how do we realize that fantasy in sound?” That’s a wonderful challenge.

“Violet” is my favorite song that I contributed to Seal’s record. It has more of my personality in it, I guess. It has some quirky things that I hear that other people probably don’t. Seal had gone out and bought this brand-new synth and asked me to play it. I’d never seen it before. I found this noise that happens where you just change the patches — a mistake noise — but it’s still on the track as a feature. It’s wonderful when things like that survive to the final mix. Again, it’s maybe something that only I notice, but I find it charming. It makes me smile.

One thing that may affect my approach is the fact that I owned a sampler before I owned a synthesizer. Sampling makes you think of ways to manipulate the audio that’s already there, rather than simply overdub another layer. There’s a bit in the middle of the song “Crazy” where the guitarist, Kenji Jammer, plays wah-wah guitar, but pitched down to half-speed. It sounds more interesting, more unusual than a straight recreation of a ‘60s wah-wah.

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Björk – Homogenic (1997)

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I met Björk through Talvin Singh. Talvin and I toured Japan for the Japanese artist Nokko, and we bonded a lot. As soon as he got back to London, Talvin became involved in recording the strings for the song “Venus as a Boy”. Björk then asked him to be in her band, and he said, “Well, get Guy in.” The first attempt to form a band for her debut album, Debut, was just her, me, and him. Obviously, we realized we needed more than just voice, tabla, and keyboards, so we got other people in and formed a fantastic live band.

Live, it was always a joy to be standing within six feet of Björk on stage. I had the best seat in the house to hear her sing. With a first band, you don’t have the money that you have later on, so we had to make her songs work within our limitations. What I loved about her attitude was it was always about making sure the feeling of a song is still communicated, even if you have to radically change its instrumentation. When you’re starting out, you can’t hire 30 different musicians, so you have to take a band and make the most of their skills in any way you can. And if it means that a track that had three saxophones on the record can only have one live, you adjust. She was ingenious at working around those constraints, as long as the core feeling of the songs was honored.

I performed on the whole of her debut album tour, as well as the Post tour. Then I became a dad and decided I didn’t want to do so much touring. So I left the touring side of things, but we carried on working together. I wrote with her on Homogenic and played on that album as well. I played clavichord on “All Is Full of Love” and also collaborated on Vespertine.

Before I had written the first note of “Unravel” with Björk, I had this idea in my mind. I wanted to create a piece of music that sounded too slow. At the time there were all these techno records by bands like the Prodigy that had sped-up, helium-like vocals. These records always sounded like they were too fast. So, I thought, what’s the opposite of that? It had to do with using samples that were detuned a lot, trying to create a feeling that everything’s being dragged back. Like being on a planet with heavier-than-Earth gravity. It’s as if Björk is trying to pull the song forward, but it pulls her back again.

Another reason that’s a rare song is that the vocals are literally the first take. I played the backing track that I had for her, and it’s exactly what you hear on the record, and then she went for a walk to write some words. When she got back, she just picked up the handheld microphone (SM58), not even a posh microphone, and sang it. You can’t usually use the first-take vocals, because you’re still writing the song and you change your mind about something. The only thing left was for Mark (Spike) Stent to mix it. It was wonderful. There was a little “me” inside just punching the air with excitement. I learned a lot from watching Spike mix that song. He taught me to always start with the voice. Just put it in plain sight, and let it tell you what the rest of the music is allowed to be. It sets the parameters that you work within. I discovered that once I did that, my own arrangements and productions got a lot better.

When I went to Spain to work on Homogenic, I assumed Mark Bell had done the majority of the work on the drums; but I know that Markus Dravs also had a role. On “Unravel”, I brought in the entire backing track as a finished instrumental, so that was straightforward. But I’m not actually sure who contributed which sounds on many of the other songs. I don’t want to fail to credit anyone. I’ve always loved Mark’s beats. I really miss him. He was brilliant. I played on “All Neon Like”; I heard his drumbeat the wrong way round and then learned the song off-kilter. I had to keep tricking myself to hear the beat upside down, because otherwise I’d start to mess up. I’m also on “All Is Full of Love”. I overdubbed clavichord just before Spike was about to mix it. I was very happy to be a team player, because I could see it was that kind of a record.

Homogenic is a very brave and bold record, and I love Björk’s clear sonic vision for it. There was a definite idea of the sound world, and we all found a way to serve that. I prefer records like that rather than ones that simply compile whatever songs you happen to have lying around. In fact, I remember when we started worked on Vespertine, we deliberately tried to imagine a sound world that wouldn’t be like Homogenic. We had to make sure it wasn’t Homogenic Part 2.

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Frou Frou – Details (2002)

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I first heard a cassette of Imogen Heap’s very early demos that she must have made when she was still at school on the tour bus with Björk. I thought, “I really like this girl’s voice. It’s really unusual.” Then we met and we really got on. I’ve always had a great relationship with Immi. If we sit at a piano, we tend to love the same chords and the same intervals in a melody. I wrote one song with her for her debut record, iMegaphone, and that was enough to solidify that we really got on with each other. I’m also Immi’s biggest fan. I’ve been delighted at the success that she’s achieved. It’s a real achievement that she got the Grammy for recording her own record. Most of my records have had lots of other talented people around to make sure it all still sounds good, but she did that album totally solo flying. She sang it, played it, programmed it, arranged it, and mixed it. The only thing she didn’t do was master it.

Immi is one of those people who really can multitask. If you’ve seen her live, you’ll know she’s perfectly capable of singing while playing any number of instruments at the same time. Complexity is not a problem. I had this feeling that if I said, “I think this song needs a bassoon,” she would go out and buy it and learn to play it and play it really well! Her singing is very different from Björk’s, but she is just as unperturbed by difficulty. Immi can always see the complete picture. She has a very analytical ear at the same time as having a big heart. I feel like we challenge each other in a good way when we work together. A lot of women that I’ve worked with, and a lot of the artists I listened to growing up, like Kate Bush or Joni Mitchell, are also very brave and adventurous with melodies. I love that.

Before we knew it, we had a good half of an album worth of material that we both liked, so we decided we should just form a band and do it. It was just a matter of waiting for her record label to finally fold up and disappear, so she would be free to make the Frou Frou record. And it was a wonderful experience.

When Garden State came out, we didn’t know what the story line was, but everyone was saying, “Natalie Portman is making your ‘Let Go’ song well-known!” It was brilliant. We saw the film together with Zach Braff, and we realized he’d written the scene listening to the song. It was such a perfect fit between music and drama. There is always that strange thing with musicians where you alternate between expecting all seven billion people in the world to say your music is the best thing ever and then being surprised when even one person likes it. When we saw “Let Go” embraced, it was great. It was a victory.

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Britney Spears – In the Zone (2003)

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I did a couple of songs with Robyn, and she was mates with the whole Swedish crowd around Max Martin. She played them the tracks that we’d done, and they really liked them, and said, “Hey, we should bring Britney around.” She just came around to the place where I’d worked on the Frou Frou material, and initially I wasn’t quite sure what to do because she’s famous for her more dance-y songs, and I’m not. But it all turned out great. She had the root idea for “Everytime” (on her album In the Zone), and I could really tell that her heart was in it. I knew what my mission was. I could see the picture. She believed in the song, and I had to find a way to present it that was true to the simple emotion of it. It was a joy to do.

At the time, Britney had started to play the piano a bit, and she could certainly play well enough to spell out the root chords. She’d show me what she had, and I would say, “Well, here’s how we could fill this out.” We both knew where it needed to go, so I could color it in after she’d sung the main vocal. I love it when I get the vocal very early on, and I’m free to experiment with arrangement ideas while always hearing that final vocal. I love it when it can happen that way, though not every time is like that.

We both knew we had to avoid all the cheezy power ballad cliches. No windchimes into the chorus. No giant snare drums. I loved it.

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Alanis Morissette – Flavors of Entanglement (2008) and Havoc and Bright Lights (2012)

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I think Alanis is wonderful. She knows that basic truth: that music is great but the music business usually sucks. So try not to let it fool you, or blind you, and above all, keep your sense of humor. That’s a common feature of all the great artists I’ve worked with. They know what to take seriously and what not to take seriously. Take your music seriously, but don’t take the weird theater around it too seriously.

The early buzz around Alanis was happening when I was traipsing across America on tour in 1995. I weirdly missed Jagged Little Pill the first time around. When you’re on tour, there are releases you just don’t get to hear properly. And it was much later when I saw her do an acoustic version on Jagged Little Pill that I was like, “Oh wow, she’s a really, really good singer. This stuff’s great.”

She came over to see me and we immediately clicked. She’s somebody who finds it very easy to write songs when she’s in the mood. They happen effortlessly. She knows exactly what she wants to say and her part of it — the top line — always happens very quickly. For that reason, it’s good to record her vocal very soon after she’s just written it. On the odd occasion where there were a couple of fix-ups that had to happen months later, it was much harder to match the style of performance because it was harder to get back into being that person again.

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I wanted to make sure that every song was a hybrid of sounds. If I used an acoustic guitar, I would balance it with a synth bass, for example. To be fair, even Jagged Little Pill is like that. Even when she’s got a rock band playing, there might be a breakbeat drum groove. I wanted a midpoint between a rock band and full-on electronica. And a midpoint between London and Los Angeles. [Laughs] I didn’t want to make it sound totally like a London record. Even that was a matter of hybridizing those two different influences: London rain and LA sun.

I think Alanis writes by having a series of ideas for songs floating round in her head. The best way that the writing sessions would go was if I had maybe three different musical ideas to play her, and then she would pick one because it was the right background for that specific thing that she wanted to write about. It was like she was waiting for me to find the right background, and then suddenly that would be the key into it, and she’d be off on her journey.

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