“Being in front of the cameras is not my favorite thing to do,” says multi-instrumentalist, producer and songwriter Greg Kurstin.
“But it’s a good problem to have.” Nominated for three Grammys — album of the year, 25 (Adele); song of the year and record of the year, “Hello” (Adele); and producer of the year, nonclassical — Kurstin has come a long way since his days gigging as a jazz pianist.
After playing with the ‘90s alt-rock group Geggy Tah (who charted on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks with their “Whoever You Are”), Kurstin went on to break through to mainstream radio with Lily Allen’s Alright, Still in 2006 and to co-create such pop anthems as Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger,” Ellie Goulding’s “Burn,” Tegan & Sara’s “Closer” and Sia’s “Chandelier.” In the midst of finishing work on Beck’s follow-up to Morning Phase (which won album of the year in 2015), Kurstin discussed eight watershed moments in his varied and accomplished career.
1. 1982: Released “My Mother is A Space Cadet”/ “Crunchy Water,” his debut single with Dweezil Zappa.
“I was in school with Dweezil Zappa, Frank Zappa’s son, and we had a band. Only in L.A. could stuff like that happen. We would hang out in Frank Zappa’s studio, and we released a single in 1982 on his label. I was 12, and that was the first recording experience I had. To top it off, Eddie Van Halen produced it. My life was not always insane like that. Once it was over, nothing like that happened again for a long, long, long time. I went back to high school bands and playing in garages.”
2.1996: Scored an Alternative Rock Hit With “Whoever You Are”
“I was struggling between playing jazz gigs and playing with Geggy Tah in my twenties. We were doing a lot of radio shows when that song broke. People started showing up and we would play our song and there were screaming fans. It was a very brief moment, and then a reality check. I thought ‘Oh my God, I have a song on the radio, I can retire now’ and, of course, it doesn’t work like that. You need another single and another single after that, and we didn’t have the follow-up.”
3. 1999: Played Keyboards On The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication
“When I was playing in Geggy Tah, someone introduced me to Flea. I think he wanted a piano player for a jazz thing that ended up not happening. I got to know him a bit, so he asked me to play on Californication. That was one of my first big sessions, and I got more session work through that, and then I started playing on some pop records as well.”
4. 2006: Started The Bird and the Bee With Singer Inara George
“I really wanted to get into recording, so I had an engineer friend of mine show me how to use Logic. I was playing on Inara’s solo album and was performing with her around L.A. at the time. At the end of the night, we would play a jazz standard in the style of what became The Bird and the Bee, sort of eerie jazz on a Fender Rhodes with her singing. We thought, ‘Let’s just record something,’ and I just recorded a full album and mixed it myself.”
5. 2009: Co-Wrote and Produced Lily Allen’s It’s Not Me, It’s You
“That was the first album I produced that wasn’t The Bird and the Bee. It wasn’t planned that way. We did two songs, and we did five songs, and we were on a roll — we were just working really fast and seemed to be clicking. I think she was writing with other people, but I just ended up doing the whole album in the end. I realized this was a really big opportunity and I didn’t want to blow it.”
6. 2012: Co-Wrote and Produced Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”
“At this point I had mostly only done stuff in London and the UK; I don’t think people knew much about me in the United States. I remember talking with Kelly on the phone, and she wanted to push the boundaries a bit and try something different. I said, ‘I’d love to do that with you.’ At the time, Jeff Aldrich was doing A&R for her, and he heard the demo of an earlier version that was slower, more mid-tempo with a different beat. He said, ‘Do you think there’s anything you could do with this? I like the chorus.’ So I messed around with it, and that became ‘Stronger.’”
7. 2013: Co-Wrote and Co-Produced Tegan & Sara’s Heartthrob
“I think they had not co-written before. I am sensitive to the fact that it can be a new experience for an artist, and I shouldn’t clobber them with my ideas, but just be open-minded and listen. But with Tegan & Sara, the process was effortless. I think they wanted to explore some different sounds, a lot of them being synth and keyboard related, and I’m a big synth nerd from way back, so that was more than a pleasure to accommodate. They wanted to make something cool, and it was okay if there were pop songs on the record. They weren’t afraid to go there.”
8. 2015: Co-Wrote and Produced Adele’s “Hello”
“Going to work with Adele in England, I was excited, and I was also a bit nervous. Writing ‘Hello’ started very easy, but writing the chorus became a huge challenge that we didn’t really nail in the first round of writing sessions. We had to come back a month later to tackle it again, and it was not until the third or fourth try that we finally got to the chorus that ended up on the song. I don’t know if I’ve ever worked so hard on writing a song before.”