March 11, 2014
Inside The Recording Studio: An Interview With Jesse Shatkin
You might not be familiar with Jesse Shatkin just yet, but by the end of the year, you will be: The up-and-coming pop producer has been steadily crafting songs for some of the most anticipated records of 2014.
Before he was writing euphoric pop anthems for international pop icon Kylie Minogue or tinkering around in the studio with Sia, however, he was crafting music in high school — hip hop beats, to be exact.
“I’ve kind of had a couple phases along the way in my career,” Jesse says of his early start in music production. “I started doing hip-hop as a kid. I did rap, but I had a rap crew that I made beats for and everything.” And while a few members of Jessie’s rap crew went on to achieve some underground success, including Murs, his hip-hop phase didn’t last too long: “It kind of fizzled — a lot of the people I was working with didn’t move on to do bigger things. I was just left to do my own thing,” he concedes.
And so, he went on to produce for commercials, film and TV. And that’s when he met someone who would transform his career once again: Greg Kurstin.
By now, Kurstin’s become a household name in pop world alongside fellow production powerhouses, Dr. Luke and Max Martin. Although he’d already been making waves as one-half of indie-pop duo The Bird And The Bee, his mainstream break came with Lily Allen‘s 2006 debut Alright, Still — and again, to an even larger extent, as the sole producer of her 2009 follow-up It’s Not Me, It’s You. From there, his presence was felt on pop’s biggest albums of the latter half of the decade, including Kylie’s X, P!nk‘s The Truth About Love, Ke$ha‘s Animal, Sia’s We Are Born and Marina And The Diamonds’ Electra Heart. Most recently, he helmed Kelly Clarkson‘s Wrapped In Red and Tegan And Sara‘s Heartthrob — two of last year’s most critically acclaimed pop records.
After signing on as an engineer with Greg, Jesse acquired a dream production education in record time: “I was there working with him on all these amazing projects and learned a lot…I didn’t even know about chord progression. When I made beats, it was all feel and all vibe. I didn’t really know about classic pop songwriting in any way. I just kind of soaked it all up and asked a lot of questions and watched him do his thing,” he explains.
After a few years of working behind-the-scenes, Jesse eventually felt ready to take his own productions to the next level. And so, with the help of Greg and Rachel Kurstin, he started to set up writing sessions with some of the artists he’d come to know over time while working with Greg, including Sia.
“I became friends with Sia when I was working with Greg and I worked on [Kylie’s] ‘Kiss Me Once’ with her, but I work with her all the time. There’s always a few Sia songs going on,” he explains.
With Greg at the helm of Sia’s upcoming record, Jesse spent plenty of time in the studio with the industry’s most in-demand songwriter. Together, the three artists worked to craft the singer’s new album. But the record’s soaring lead single, “Chandelier,” came as the result of an impromptu jam session between Sia and Jesse.
“At some point, Greg had to run out, and me and Sia were in his live room with his piano and drum set and just kind of jammed for a second,” he recalls. “Greg has a marimba, so I was playing marimba — some weird notes — and Sia was playing the piano. She records everything on her phone, so we just kind of figured out a chord progression together. She sent it to me on a voice note, and I turned it into a track. She already had the melody instinctively while she was writing the chords. We were real excited that she wanted to do this for her record, and then Greg added his production. I was really proud of it.”
The result is one of Sia’s most full-bodied productions to date, equipped with a striding beat and something that sounds less like a traditional pop chorus than an explosive, off-the-walls exercise in vocal acrobatics that only Sia could ever pull off. “It was one of the first things that I did with her. She’s just a phenomenal, mind-blowing talent and I was just so excited about it. And for it to be a single is crazy — a dream come true,” he adds.
But before Sia’s upcoming record, Jessie’s work with Kurstin would pay off in the form of his first major label release: “Kiss Me Once” — the rapturous title track of Kylie Minogue’s twelfth studio album.
“It was shocking,” he says of the decision to use the track as the album title. “Sia told me that it had been a consideration, but I don’t believe anything until it happens. But then my publisher texted me a photo of the cover, and I just kind of lost it for a second.”
As with Sia, the Kylie connection came along with his work as Greg’s engineer. “I thought she was so sweet. She’s so awesome. You can’t say that about everybody that you work with in the studio, but she was just fun to work with. I was excited to work with her for so many reasons. She’s a legend,” he enthuses about his time with the pop princess. “But also, it’s kind of nice when they’re nice,” he adds with a chuckle.
If kicking off the year with a Kylie record and the lead single from Sia’s highly anticipated new record wasn’t enough, he’s got even more to be excited about simmering quietly in the background from the likes of some major pop players, including Kelly Clarkson.
Jesse’s history with Kelly dates back to the days of 2011’s Stronger (including the GRAMMY-nominated title track “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”), and most recently with her holiday record, Wrapped In Red. But far from the festive classics that she belted out in time for Christmas, the Idol alum’s now opting for songs that sound “a little left-of-center and cool” for her upcoming studio album, due out later this year. “One of them is kind of an electronic banger, but it has kind of a haunting melody that I think she was attracted to,” he says. “She’s really open-minded.”
And his writing credits are only diversifying with each passing day: He’s worked with UK rising “Solo Dancing” synth-pop starlet Indiana, indie-rock duo Matt & Kim and fellow songwriter Eden — the artist formerly known as Jessie And The Toy Boys — for an upcoming EP. “It’s just more ‘her’ than her trying to go for anything else,” he explains. “I think that we got into a little bit of the reality of her life to a certain extent.” Together, they’ve been penning tracks with a slew of fellow songwriters, including MoZella (Miley Cyrus, “Wrecking Ball”) and Sean Foreman (3OH!3). “She actually co-wrote one of the Kelly Clarkson songs,” he adds.
He’s not just working stateside, either: Girls Aloud member-turned-bonafide solo UK pop diva Cheryl Cole has already cut several songs with Jesse, including a hip-hop track co-written with MoZella and Jon Bellion (Eminem, “The Monster (feat. Rihanna)”), as well as a ballad. “It’s strong, it’s powerful and really from the heart. She loved it,” he says of the track. “She sounds awesome.”
For now, he’s just trying to do as much as he possibly can with as many artists as possible to explore the full potential of his craft. “We’ll see what comes of all these sessions, but I’m super stoked about how things are going,” he says, optimistic about climbing up the ranks as a producer in his own right.
Judging by what Jessie’s accomplished already, it’s only a matter of time.