Interview: John Newman

Singer and producer John Newman has come a long way since his humble beginnings in the house scene. Currently operating out of London’s Tileyard Studios, the Yorkshireman was keen to tell Colby Ramsey how he wants to be known for more than just his vocal talents when he dropped in for a chat…

Since releasing his second album Revolve late last year, singer/musician/producer John Newman has refocused his ideas and has some big plans for the rest of 2016.

Phase one of these plans is a new base of operations located at Tileyard Studios in London, where he has been working hard since the New Year. A successful recording artist and producer in both a collaborative and solo capacity, Newman speaks candidly about his influences, ambitions and habits in and out the studio.

How did you initially get into music production?

I started off producing hip-hop as a kid – taking old samples and putting hip-hop beats under them in fruity loops. The house scene was just getting big then and it’s just continued to grow since. I started mixing and then eventually went into producing house music, which I did for a while. My first single Love Me Again was the point when I stopped producing music as a side project and basically learnt then that it was what I wanted to do as my main project.

What perhaps isn’t widely known is that you’ve done a lot of your own production on the first two albums. How have your skills developed over this time?

One thing I’ve learnt is that you shouldn’t get too excited by the space you’re in, and should just use it for what it’s good for. Inside the box is just as important as outside the box – it’s not just about using every plug-in you can; it’s about reaching a compromise – that 50/50 meet in the middle.

When I make music I produce at the same time as writing. I think you’re wasting your time making demos and then pumping loads of money into producing it and totally rewriting it. I made loads of demos with a certain person for my first record and then they turned around and claimed they owned the rights to all the sounds. They wouldn’t give us access to any stems or anything so we had to remake the record, which kind of threw me off liking it as much as I think I would have in the first place. With the second record I made sure that wasn’t going to happen so I was always producing towards the final thing.

While I was preparing to do Revolve, the second album, I realised that it’s often quicker to get the idea down simply with Logic on a laptop and a microphone. I tend to have a full vision of the sound as a whole and it’s quicker to just record everything on an SM57 and then put it straight into an interface, which is what I do on the road quite a lot. When you want to sit and think about that sound you can just replay your voice but on an instrument. It’s definitely the oldest technique but it’s also the closest technique to being able to put exactly what is in your head straight out as an idea.

Could you talk about your current setup at Tileyard and what you set out to achieve with the studio?

For this studio, we actually took loads of inspiration from [producer] Greg Kurstin, especially with the guitar and synth stacks – they were custom made by Studio Creations.

I was working with Greg a lot on my second record and he does the whole outboard/on computer thing so well. That definitely inspired this studio. Having all your instruments and outboard set up so easily and permanently wired makes it feel like it’s in your computer. The instruments are just a plug-in but you’re getting the true sound and it feels digital because it’s so quick. You’re not having to put like five plug-ins after your instrument sounds to give it any warmth or organic-ness.

I produce from the off really so that’s why everything in the studio’s set up for sheer speed. We have all mics in the live room sent through to our outboard on these little 500 series lunchboxes. Drums and piano are ready to go at all times and I think we’re now slowly discovering what we want our sound to be; it’s difficult though because I need a drum sound that fits with almost any style of music. I’m about to set everything up as presets on my pedals so I can just fly through tones both for synths and for guitars.

We’re not trying to do anything too breakthrough, just trying to take what we know and what I’ve gathered along the way and do something with it. It’s about discovering things along the way to then finally having a base like this where I can put all these weird and wonderful things along with the standards – and then it’s the ear that creates the sound.

What kind of equipment are you running at the moment and do you have any particular favourites?

I’ve used the PMC twotwo.6 active monitors in various studios but they’re a new addition to this one. This sounds ridiculous because it’s the music that makes the music, not the speakers, but they deliver something that’s very clear and spot on, with a little bit of excitement thrown in. Some other brands just give you too much whereas these are very true to the sound.

The speakers were in here for about three weeks on their own, then they integrated the twotwo sub 2 active sub and you still don’t know it’s there wherever you’re sat in the room. It takes the load off the speakers so the mid/low-mids get 20-30% more power and then that deals with the rest.

I’ve got this Akai 4000D tape recorder that I bought for about 30 quid from an old charity shop when I was living in Stroud Green. When you get lazy if you’re working into the early hours of the morning it’s really cool. You’d only run little elements through it like guitars and synths, which sound great. The Cocktail X100 is also great, as is the EDP Wasp synth – I used that loads on my first record on a song called Losing Sleep. I also like nuking things on my distressors.

In terms of mics, we’ve got a copy of the Flea 47, as well as a Peluso 22 251 and a new BX44 – a classic massive-ribbon vocal mic which we use as a room mic and lots of other applications on drums and such.

Nearly all of the synths in here are getting MIDI from the computer, so you can switch between any synth in the analogue world while it’s still running on the same inputs in Pro Tools. This way, the workflow’s just continuous – you don’t have to stop the music and you can just jump between sounds to really hone in on what you want. I’ve been trying to do it for a while in the best way possible and it’s easier to just have everything permanently ready to go.

How does collaborating with other producers compare to working alone?

I always work with people. David Bowie would never do everything himself – he would have a vision and then dedicate talented people to do those jobs – like a brilliant dictator in a certain sort of way. I’m constantly looking to find people that I can get the best out of and who understand what I’m trying to do. I’ve always sat and worked at home by myself but having this studio means I can work with other artists a lot more and really start to push that. I’ve always been quite persistent and I’ll always listen to people, but I’ll never work with someone who is telling me what to do because they don’t have to release the record and put their name on it. It’s nice having the freedom to sit and do the job alone. It’s also nice for me to take on an engineer, to have more space and more equipment, and to put all my toys in one place, all being operated right. It kind of gives you better focus and lets you be a bit more experimental.

I co-produced my first and second album, and have been heavily involved in the work I did with Rudimental and Calvin [Harris]. It has always been a big thing to be a respected producer and I’ve always taken it seriously, so I always hope that my production will be taken seriously and continue to do so. I have a lot of love and respect for making music and I will always have a heavy creative involvement in any of the work I do. While the new studio is a very nice place and has lots of toys, none of it makes the music.

What do you have planned for the future? We understand you’re even looking into launching a record label?

I’ve been working with Sigala and Nile Rodgers on a new single called Give Me Your Love which is out on 17 June and I’ve been working with Calvin loads. I’ve got five, maybe six singles coming this year and I’ve been working on this band idea but this is going to be my base. It’s exciting because I feel like the studio’s allowed me to open up a bit more. I like the idea because I travel a lot and do a lot of work on my laptop, so it’s quite nice knowing that every time I’m sending something through I’ve got Pete Hutchings and the PMCs ready to check it sounds alright.

In the future I’m going to start a publishing company depending on how the label develops, how many records we make, and how many talented people I get on board. I want to find an old warehouse – somewhere with charm that feels like home and family to everyone who’s involved. That’s going to take time. As soon as we had the idea for a record label, me and Tom Willers (who’s going to be running it with me) wanted the biggest and the best, looking at massive office spaces etc. I think what we’ve done here is right though because everything’s got to progress organically and find its own, which is what it’s doing here.

We’ve been making records here for two or three months now and I’m making a home studio in Kent at some point. It’s going to be a room in a converted barn and I think that’s just so I can relax, sit and do my own thing. Sometimes it’s nice to just get away and not rely on anyone. I’m trying to build an empire – an empire of music!