Richard Russell

Richard Russell

Courtesy Photo

During a talk at Barcelona's Sonar festival, XL Recordings head Richard Russell revealed that "not telling people to do things that they don't want to do" was fundamental to his approach to producing.

"When I work with an artist I want the music to love them," said Russell. "But you also have to push things forward. That's the challenge."

Sónar Heads South to Buenos Aires, Bogota, Santiago

At his "Inside the Studio Master Class" June 19 at the Sonar +D daytime music and technology conference, the acclaimed artist whisperer spoke onstage with music journalist Hattie Collins.

Russell is known for his work with Gil Scott-Heron, Bobby Womack, Damon Albarn, Kick Like a Mule and recently, Cuban twins Ibeyi.

In April, under the name, RLR (Residence la Revolution), he released 250 12-inch copies of a new song, "I Am Paint," a collaboration with Lee "Scratch" Perry. It was available only by "making something" and sending it to him as a barter through the mail.

During the Sonar session, Russell spoke most extensively about his work with Scott-Heron on 2010's I'm New Here.

"I was passionate about it," Russell recalled, "And it was going to be meaningful. It occured to me that I'd like to hear a recording that is quite unlikely to happen. I called him and it was like he was expecting me. There was something cosmic about it."

Russell said that the famed activist poet and musician, whose previous album was recorded 16 years earlier, was "just happy staying home and watching baseball" when he received his call.

"I had the idea that we could do something good," Russell said. "I was out of my depth and quite scared about it. He was into doing it. He'd said no to people for about 15 years before that.

"If you've got an idea about collaborating with someone and you're straightforward and passionate and honest, there's a good chance it will work," Russell told listeners.

Released a year before Scott-Heron's death, I'm New Here was a critical success that made the Top 40 of the U.K. album charts.

"We had this word "spartan;" devoid of anything that was unnecessary. That was that ethos for the recording."

Talking about his past, Russell described himself as an "obsessive teenage fan of hip-hop," who began DJing at 16, then started "making rave records that were quite unconsidered.

"We used to make records in a few hours to go and DJ with," he said. "It was either good or it wasn't good ... the record label [began] as an extension of DJing, stuff we could play."

Russell characterizes XL today as "an artist friendly outlet, based on keeping it to a small number of artists and getting a message out there." After building up the label in the '90s, he abandoned administrative duties to return to making music.

"I did a college course in Logic," he said. "The professor asked about our day jobs. I had to explain [who I was]. It was kind of awkward ... Now I use a combination of things I find it incredibly liberating to be able to use, particularly Logic."

Russell talked about his love of "the sound of listening to hip hop records on vinyl, layers of hiss [and] dirt," but rejected the idea that playing music on phones has ruined sound quality.

"We've always listened to music on things that sound like shit," he said. "That's part of the teenage listening experience."

Russell said that artists "can work around" promoting themselves on social media. g"You are expected to be very exposed now and that potentially discourages artsits who are more sensitive," he said. "You don't have to engage with social media if you don't want to.

"It's easier to get heard now," Russell added. "The downside is that the media is on to things so they don't have much time to incubate. But there are still things that people haven't heard. People think they've heard everything. But they haven't."