Following a stint with Pro7ect’s latest songwriting retreat, the award-winning producer and engineer shares his insights on relationships and recording
Earlier this year, 26 budding songwriters from around the world attended the Pro7ect 7th annual residential songwriting retreat at the iconic Rockfield Studios in Wales. The gathering of like-minds in this collaborative and creative environment would probably make for an inspiring and insightful experience in itself, but the attendees also benefit from being mentored and supported by a headline producer. At the helm on this occasion was award-winning music industry professional Greg Haver.
Now based in New Zealand, the Welshman returned to the territory where he made his name as a producer, engineer and musician in the 90s and 00s, when he worked on a string of successful releases by the likes of Manic Street Preachers, Melanie C, Catatonia, Super Furry Animals and Bullet For My Valentine.
Knowing this, we invited Pro7ect’s Creative Director, Lisa Fitz, to interview Greg and share some of the insights he’s gathered from more than 30 years in the business…
Why do you think songwriting events are important?
“It’s the collaborative aspect of it all. Getting everyone in a room, exchanging ideas, networking… There are so many positives to it that are not just music-related. Just the ability to be able to create those connections. A lot of really good partnerships come out of writing camps, and I’ve seen a general elevation in whole music communities just by having a regular writing camp, or regular seminar. And it’s good for people’s mental health as well, you get to see that other people have the same problems as you. So, there’s nothing but positives in my book for things like Pro7ect and other songwriting camps.”
You’ve worked here at Rockfield many times. Tell us a bit more about your experience at the studio.
“It’s the heritage that makes the place so special. There are plusher-looking studios. There are studios with more equipment, but there’s something inspiring that comes out of the walls when you put a musician in a room that they know their heroes have been in. And I feel it the same, I feel a sense of responsibility, and so many producer friends of mine love coming here. But we also feel that we don’t want to be the one who lets the side down, that records we make have to be good because of the people who have gone before us. So, there’s that little bit of extra pressure, but it’s good pressure.
“The environment’s great, and the people are great, and Kingsley and Lisa [Ward] and family are fantastic. You feel like a family member when you are here. That’s why producers keep coming back really. It’s got one of my favourite-sounding drum rooms in the world here in studio one in the Quad – 60 years of heritage just comes out of the walls and it’s a wonderful, inspiring place to be.”
What do songwriters need to consider when choosing a producer?
“That whole production-artist-songwriter relationship is a really delicate one. It’s like any relationship throughout life, it’s something you have to choose very carefully, and make sure they’re the right person. Sometimes you make mistakes. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s a happy accident. Sometimes you put a lot of thought into how that relationship’s going to work. The key for me, with any relationship between artist and producer, would be communication. That’s got to start a long time before you go into the studio. Talk about music, talk about anything, and see if you actually connect, or if you have different views that those different views could benefit the project.
“It’s often good to have people with different musical styles working together, especially in writing camps as well. A lot of the really creative things happen when you force two different styles against each other. And sometimes that works in a production relationship as well. But I think it’s important for any artist and any songwriter to spend time with the people that they feel they’d like to work with. Don’t just look at what they’ve done before.
“That’s a pointer to the sort of things that you might like, but it still doesn’t mean that they’re going to be the right person for you because it’s more about the personality connection than it is about the work they’ve done previously. Because you don’t want to make the same record as someone else, you want to make your own record, so you’ve got to find someone who’s going to take you to that place rather than just recreate something they’ve done before.”
If a band or songwriter want to work with you, how do they approach you? And what would they need to make you want to work with them?
“It’s really different now how I would choose an artist to work with because I don’t really go out and pitch for work anymore. I’m in a very fortuitous position where I can pick and choose what I do. I’ve also reached a point in my life where I physically can’t do everything that I wanted to do when I was younger. I can’t do the 24-hour day sessions, month to month and endless records back-to-back, so I have to be quite careful about what I pick. My first decision is always ‘do I like the person?’ Do we get on? Could we have a good working relationship? Do they genuinely want me to make it? Or could I suggest somebody who would be better for them? I’m quite happy to pass on work to other producers, especially within New Zealand, where I run the Music Producers Guild (MPG). I don’t want to be the person who takes all the big jobs. I want to be the person who enables other producers to be able to get work. I’ve been lucky, I’ve had a good career.
“If I get on with a person, they send me some demos and I like them. I feel like I can really add to those… sometimes people send you demo’s that are so good, it’s like, well, you don’t really need me. You just need a mix engineer or maybe go and work with someone on the vocals, or I’ll come in and work on the vocals with you. It doesn’t have to be from the ground up anymore. It can just be an additional production thing.
“So, if I like them, if they want to work with me send me some songs, let’s have a chat on the phone, see if it works. I’m very relaxed about it now. I still have a manager, Stephen Budd management in London, and some work comes through Steve, but a lot of the time people just pick up the phone, or they just send me a message on Twitter or Instagram or something, ‘Do you want to make my record?’ It can be as simple as that. I think the ability to DM people now has changed the whole game really. So, you can go to people that you would think were untouchable before, and they’ll often reply. Just try it! What’s the worst that can happen? They don’t reply. If you like me and you want me to make your record, get in touch and we’ll see.
“And budget is not the most overriding factor anymore as well. It used to be a hugely important part, especially when we had to hire studios all the time. Now, with a realistic amount of money, you can make a really great record. For me, it’s more about the content than it is about how much I can earn from the record. I still like to earn some money from it, but you want to be looking at a record that could be successful and look at long-term income streams as opposed to ‘how much can I get upfront’.
“And legacy as well. You want to leave records that are really great, that people like and they connect with, and that’s a big part of it. I think the more you produce, and the older you get, the more that idea of leaving a body of work behind is kind of important. It sounds really morbid but it’s an important part. How many people make a record? How many people get to produce records? So, you want to make sure that what you leave behind is a good, solid body of work.”
What’s the music industry like in New Zealand at the moment?
“It’s very healthy. It’s a really good industry. It’s run by a lot of very skilled people. A lot of people have immigrated to New Zealand which has really helped, a lot of American and British industry people have moved there, and it’s made the structure of the industry itself really strong. We’ve got some really great songwriter-producers, Joel Little obviously a prime example – Taylor Swift, Imagine Dragons, he worked on the Lorde record, that’s how he got his break. Josh Fountain, Dion, lots of really good producers, but also a lot of hip hop producers who are working on Kanye records. There’s a lot of remote working, that’s been a really big part of the industry as well. It’s definitely very healthy.
“There’s a lot of government support for music as well, a lot of financial support, which is really welcome, especially in a country that’s so far away. Support to be able to go and tour overseas, and some support for making records as well. We’re pretty blessed really. We have a prime minister who not only knows what she’s talking about but she’s a minister for the arts as well [now she’s stepped back and is Deputy Minister for the Arts] but she’s always been there and understands the music industry. She’s a DJ, somebody who understands the industry… that’s a rare thing for a politician. We’re pretty lucky really.”
What advice would you give to your younger self?
“Don’t eat so much bad food in the studio [laughs]. Don’t smoke in the studio… that was weird, when we’d smoke in studios, it’s really rare now. Don’t be scared of stuff. It’s really easy to be scared and think the competition is really tough and there are so many great producers out there and ‘I’ll never get a break’. You’ve just got to be good so when your break happens, you’re ready for it. You don’t know who the person is who’s going to walk through your door. I’ve had this conversation with so many producers… you just keep plugging away, you get good at your craft and then when somebody walks into your door, who can change your life (which has happened to myself and to a lot of producers I know) you’re ready for that moment. You usually get one chance, and you don’t want to mess it up.
“It’s easy to be overwhelmed by it all, especially now when so much music is getting released. Just make the record for yourself first, and the artist you’re working with. Make it really good, and make it a pleasurable experience, enjoy the music and the universe will decide what the rest is going to be… To quote Douglas Adams, ‘Don’t panic’.”
What’s next on the agenda for you?
“I’d like to spend more time this year concentrating on the Music Producers Guild (MPG). We’ve just received funding from one of the governmental organisations so now we have some resources to be able to run some more upskilling programs and do more outreach to producers. There are a lot of production communities that aren’t well served in New Zealand – we’ll try to outreach to them a lot more, bring them into the fold and realize that we are there to help them.
“I’ve got a tour coming up with an artist called Troy Kingi who I’ve been producing a new album for, I’ve got a lot of touring and festivals and stuff to do with him over the summer… bearing in mind the New Zealand summer is December, January, February.
“I’m going to step out of the studio for a few months because it’s been a long stint – I’m seven albums in since last July. It’s been a lot of Covid catch-up albums, finishing albums remotely… It’s just been a really big stint of recording, so I’d just like to spend a few months away from the studio just to refresh myself. And then I’ll see what’s out there and, yeah… whatever happens, happens.”