Paul Womack

Paul Womack interview: from Wiz Khalifia to The Roots

Producer/engineer Paul “Willie Green” Womack shapes the sounds of the most original thinkers in alternative hip-hop. We learn how his focus on authenticity—and willingness to take risks—has made him a standout in the genre.

Paul Womack has always done things his own way. Growing up in a musical family, his passion for music led him to sneak into clubs as a teenager to perform in his uncle’s reggae band. After graduating from Berklee College of Music in 2003, Womack eschewed the traditional apprentice path, fast-tracking straight to opening his own studio.

In 2007, he moved to New York, securing a gig at Right Track studios and building a list of blockbuster credits spanning hip hop, gospel, and R&B. Today, he runs The Greenhouse Recording Co. in Brooklyn, where he provides recording, mixing, and mastering services for both indie and major label artists.

With a discography showcasing projects with Wiz Khalifa, The Roots, Open Mike Eagle, The Alchemist, L’Orange, Ella Mae Flossie, Donnie McClurkin, and Valerie Simpson, Womack has made a name for himself as a top producer in both mainstream and independent urban music.

An educator and advocate in the pro audio community, he is a former governor of the Audio Engineering Society and a member of the Recording Academy, and lectures at conferences and schools across the country.

But Womack is most in his element when things get weird. One of the leading sonic architects of Art Rap, along other forms of alternative hip hop, he’s collaborated with the genre’s most original thinkers and creators, from ELUCID to billy woods; and released two albums of his own.

We sat down with Womack to find out how he harnesses technology to fuel experimentation and empowers artists to be their most authentic selves and create with confidence.

AMI:  You recently built a new studio in Brooklyn?

Yes. I’m in a very nice part of Brooklyn, Carroll Gardens. About a year and a half ago, I moved in here when I was re-emerging from the pandemic. I’m part of a bigger facility, which is nice because what I realized I missed when we were all in quarantine was the bumping into people in the lobby of a studio. That’s something I missed from the Right Track days, just being around a lot of different music. The place I’m in now is called Brooklyn Recording Paradise. It’s two rooms: my room in the front, and then a tracking room in the back where I’ll record bands.

AMI:  You’re a Cubase guy. Do you have a hybrid set up?

I am hybrid. I’ve got a lot of really nice plug-ins, but there’s something about turning knobs and making something happen; it feels good and it sounds good to me still. I would say I’m mostly in the box, but I’ve got a Neve summing mixer. Then, my favorite thing: I’m running into the Handsome Audio Zulu. It’s this passive tape emulator; you don’t even plug it in. It’s just circuitry and you can just push it, and it sounds amazing. That’s most of my mix bus. I mix with a lot of distortion, so I like to be able to run out to weird, funky boxes or old compressors here and there. I’m trying to mix for sound and character more than being super surgical.

AMI: Do you have go-to vocal chains?

I use the Softube Console 1 a lot. I use that on all my channels, and that’s the hub, in conjunction with Cubase. I’m usually using one of their channel strips for compression, EQ, and saturation. I’ve got a couple other things lying around that I like: I’ve got this really cool USB-controlled analog compressor from WesAudio called the Rhea, it’s a vari-vu design. I’ve been trying to use fewer plug-ins. I’ve got a lot of stuff that I like, but once I start getting chains that are six, seven plug-ins long, I’m like, “Am I just undoing the things that I did three plug-ins ago?” I’m trying to make conscious decisions and really mold the shape of sounds, rather than, like I said, getting too surgical, because I can get really lost in notching frequencies, but I’m not really being musical at that point.

AMI:  How do you approach leveraging technology as a creative tool?

I’ve always been a technology nerd, but I want it to be seamless. When technology gets in the way, that’s when it gets really frustrating to me. There’s nothing worse than being in the middle of a great mix and then some plug-in glitches or something like that and you’re spending an hour trying to figure out why it crashed.

I was born in the ’80s so I have a relatively healthy fear of artificial intelligence, but the idea of technology being able to anticipate what I want and make it easier to facilitate is really exciting to me. I love all the modelled old vintage compressors, but what really excites me are plug-ins that are doing something brand new that nobody has done yet.

I find that kind of stuff really exciting because I don’t want to make the same music that everybody else makes. That’s what their music is for. You can listen to them. If you’re listening to something I’m doing, from an artistic standpoint, I want it to be something unique. From a work standpoint, if you want that sound, you have to hire Willie Green. That keeps the phone ringing and that part is important, too.

AMI:  I want to ask you about collaborating with artists. One of my favourite quotes of yours is, “No one likes apologetic music.”

Yeah. If you don’t love your song, why should I? If you don’t believe, why should I?

AMI:  That calls for artists to be vulnerable. How do you gain their trust and get them out of their comfort zone to create something with conviction?

A big part of it is patience. The scariest place in the world is in front of the vocal mic, getting ready to sing or rap or perform something that you wrote from the heart for the first time. In the studio, I’m the first one to hear that, and so I need to take care of people when they’re in this position. Whether it’s a very emotional singer or the hardest rapper, somewhere in there, there’s a person about to perform something for the first time, and you have to make space for that and approach it like you care.

If I care, they’ll care more. Things like, I ask them about the song. I had a client and we were getting ready to record and I said, “All right, so what’s the song about?” He said, “Nobody has ever asked me that before in the studio.” I was like, “Damn.” That felt like such a sad statement. You come in to record these songs, they’re probably personal, and nobody ever asked you about them.

AMI:  That can also feel transactional.

It feels transactional, and yeah, I do this for a job, but I don’t do it for the money, if that makes sense. I like to make good music. I like to make music that matters to somebody. A lot of vocal production is just therapy, listening to people. If I’m engineering, I’m just trying to make space for people to perform. If I’m producing the vocal, I’m sitting down and saying, “Let’s talk about the song. Let’s talk about where you were mentally when you wrote it, because we need to get back there.” There have been times when it’s painful for people, but when they’re done, they always thank me for taking care of them through that whole difficult situation.

AMI:  You bring a range of perspectives as a co-writer, producer, and engineer. Do you take a holistic approach when you’re collaborating with artists, or do you shift roles?

I really try to check in with what they want. So many artists now are doing a lot of their own production, whether it’s making their own beats or recording themselves at home. I’ve never been the kind of producer or engineer who’s like, “I need to do everything or you can’t work with me.”

I’m going to give my opinion. I make bold choices when I work, especially when I mix, but I always check in. If the client doesn’t like it, it’s, “All right, I guess we’re not doing that thing today.” The more label money that’s involved, the more people are involved, the more opinions there are, and really, it’s the artist’s control that gets squeezed. So I’ll give my opinions, but I want the artist to have control over how their stuff sounds.

AMI:  When you work with big label projects, do you walk a line between stretching yourself creatively versus having the label over your shoulder?

I don’t do as much major label stuff. The major label stuff I’ve done has been cool, but I don’t feel the license to be able to experiment because of the amount of people involved. It’s like, “All right, record this clean vocal, send that thing in, and call it a day. Let’s not play too many games here.” What’s great about working with indie labels, especially with Backwoodz, is, they come to me and they know, “Okay, Green’s going to do what he’s going to do.” I always take the client’s input, but I’ve got free rein.

With indie clients, when you hire me, one of the things I want to ask up front is, “What of my music have you heard? Are you familiar with how I work?” and make sure that we’re all on the same page. If you want just a clean pop thing, I can do that. I can tone it down, but generally with Backwoodz releases, I have more free rein, and that’s where I prefer to be. I listen to more indie music than I do mainstream, so I make the music that I would be listening to anyway.

AMI: Tell me about your Press Play exhibition at New York’s Massey Klein Gallery, in which you “sampled” paintings and textiles from the gallery and created an album of sonic interpretations of each work.

I enjoy museums, and I like art; I’m really into landscapes in particular. When I mix, I always think visually, think spatially, and I like big, bold, very deep mixes—just like the landscape paintings that I like, like the Hudson River School, these very Americana, very big, epic scenes. That’s what I like my mixes to sound like. Then I had the idea of, “How can I put them together?”

I’ve sampled a million records, so if I knew that if there’s software that can turn images to sound, I can sample them. I worked with these images, and some good friends of mine had a gallery and they were really open to the idea of sampling their paintings. I had free rein, so I just dove in and developed the process as I went.

Gallery patrons listened to recordings stationed next to each work. It was interesting to listen and also look at the paintings, and it made people look at the paintings for longer. If you listen to a three-minute song and stare at something, you realise how long three minutes is.

It’s actually a really long time, but you’re there in front of the painting, tethered by the headphone cord, so you’re looking deeper at the painting, you’re getting more details. And some of those details might have been what inspired some of the writing, because as I was making the beats, I would have an image of the painting up.

AMI:  It’s interesting in that it invites this deeper engagement with a piece of visual art which is, I think, what we’re always trying to do with music.

Yeah, I work on a lot of pretty complex music, with lyrics where you really are supposed to catch all of the words. There’s nothing wrong with party anthems, but there’s a time and place for everything. The time and place for the music that I make are when you’re ready to sit down and really try to hear everything that’s in there. Go back and there’s more in there.

AMI:  Are you embracing machine learning and AI in other ways?

I’m trying to more. In some ways, as a tool, yes, especially when it comes to noise reduction. I get all kinds of crazy sounds and samples and vocals recorded in all kinds of weird places. Machine learning in that way, as far as restoration, has been super helpful with RX 10 and SpectraLayers, and those kinds of tools.

From a creative standpoint, I haven’t dug in too much. Using AI to write yourself a song, I think, is a real corny way to use that kind of technology. But using it to create a cool sound that I could then chop up and sample and turn into something else, that sounds more interesting to me.

Look, computers can do all kinds of things, but there’s a point where artistic intent matters. If a human creates something, and does it on purpose, and that intent elicits feeling in another person, then that’s art. I don’t think it’s so bad if you enjoy AI art. I follow AI art accounts on Instagram. I’m very sorry to all my painter friends, but I like it, so I follow it. I like your stuff, too. It’s a thin line between technology and humanity in the art world, but at the end of the day, doesn’t it come down to, well, do I like the thing or not?

AMI: It sounds like throughout your career you’ve taken risks and just gone for it, and that’s worked out for you. What would you tell the younger version of you?

I would tell younger me to be more confident in the chances, and appreciate the ride and enjoy the moment. When I get going with something, I’m fretting about doing it wrong, so a lot of times I want it to be over, because at least that way it’s done and I didn’t screw it up. But I’m not enjoying any of the actual doing the thing that I like. That’s not a good way to approach things. Be confident and enjoy things, and just generally just be happier.


Welcome to issue 7 of Audio Media International