×
×
Skip to main content

How Superproducer Greg Kurstin Brings Out The Best In Artists From Adele To Maren Morris

With a session musician's patience and intuition, the Hot 100's top producer of the year elicits the best work from music's biggest stars.

It’s ostensibly a big morning for Greg Kurstin. As we speak in the sunlit lounge of his Hollywood recording studio, the Grammy nominations are being announced — and as is often the case, the veteran producer’s name is connected with a few very big artists expected to make significant showings.

But if Kurstin is at all nervous, he doesn’t show it. Whether out of politeness or commitment to his “maybe boring” daily routine — drop his two kids at school, come back to the studio, make hits, get home in time for dinner — Kurstin, 53, neither tunes in to the broadcast nor checks his phone as the nominees are announced.

Related

Instead, Kurstin has the same focus as always: the music that got him here. A lifelong pianist, he amalgamates his considerable abilities on a range of instruments, his love of jazz and his history as both a session musician and band member (Geggy Tah, The Bird and the Bee) into an improvisational accompanist’s approach to pop music. The artists who’ve called on him as producer — a wide range including Paul McCartney, Sia, Beck, Halsey, Foo Fighters and Maren Morris — look to Kurstin not for a distinct, signature sound, but for his ability to bring out the best within them.

The most famous of those collaborators, of course, is Adele. Since her 2015 album, 25, and its smash “Hello,” she and Kurstin have had a prolific creative relationship — one that continued in 2022 with 30. He co-wrote, produced or co-produced six of the 12 tracks on the album, which spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. One of those was lead single “Easy on Me,” which tied “Hello” for Adele’s longest No. 1 run on the Billboard Hot 100 (10 weeks) and led Radio Songs for 15 weeks — her personal best and the sixth-longest in the chart’s history.

All of that went a long way toward making Kurstin Billboard’s top Hot 100 producer of 2022. And by the end of our conversation, the nine-time Grammy winner (including two for producer of the year, non-classical) will rack up another five nominations: best pop vocal album; song, record and album of the year (all for 30); and best country album (for Morris’ Humble Quest, which he produced). But here in the studio — emitting cool dad vibes in jeans and a T-shirt — he’s immersed in the 9-to-5 that produces that award-worthy work, insulated from much of the buzz it has generated.

“Sometimes I’ll do a song with an artist,” Kurstin says, “and I’ll be like, ‘I wonder if that song did well?’ And then you go see their show and it’s like, ‘Oh, these people know the song!’ ”

It seems like you have the luxury of choice, in terms of artists you agree to work with. Besides your track record of hits, what do you think they’re looking for from you?

I’d like to think that they’re coming to me because I want to support their vision and learn where they’re going musically and try to achieve that somehow, to bring out the best song they could possibly need at this point in their career. Everyone is different. A lot of people I work with are people I’ve worked with before, over and over, and so there’s a lot of history there, too.

You’ve said that artists come to you for the support you provide during the process, rather than for a particular sound.

I don’t think I necessarily have a sound or a particular style that’s recognizable. People have said to me, “I could tell you did that song,” and I’m like, “Really?” I just bring it all back to when I was just a side musician accompanist working with a singer. I would try to support what they’re doing and not be a distraction, but to bring out the best emotion by finding the right chords and the right arrangements. I translated that to production, in a way.

Adele’s songs in particular are so intensely personal. To what extent are you helping her unpack that emotion?

I’m definitely there to navigate that emotional terrain. I have to find the right sequence of chords or the beginning of a song that ignites something in her and whatever lyric she’s wanting to write that day. So, I will search. Sometimes it takes a long time; sometimes it happens immediately; sometimes it’s at the very end of the day. Usually, I’ll just improvise, trying to imagine where she wants to go.

Are there conversations happening as you work?

We don’t really discuss it… I get on the piano and then I’ll get a sense of, “Oh, she likes this little bit I’m playing right now,” so I’ll stay there. Sometimes I do that for an hour or two while she’s formulating lyrics, and I just know I don’t want to move; I don’t want to change anything, because if she’s writing, I feel like it’s going well. So I’ll stay where I am. It’s like a meditation. Also, it’s amazing how much she remembers — just a little seed we started like, a year ago, she’ll say, “What about that little thing we did?”

Is the pressure around a new Adele album something you have to try to tune out?

Yeah. I mean, it’s so hard for me to tune it out. It definitely stresses me out, in a very positive way. There’s excitement, but there’s also just the feeling of like, “I don’t want to be responsible for something not performing.” That’s just me. I probably would take it personally, which I shouldn’t, but a lot of us artists have issues where our self-worth is wrapped up in our performance. But I try to stay grounded and healthy and just know it’s out of my control… Grammy time brings up a lot of those feelings again, because the attention on the album starts coming back.

Despite your accomplishments, you keep a low profile. What’s your day-to-day life like?

My days are pretty normal. I mean, aside from that I work with these extraordinary artists. I take the kids to school, then go to the studio. I just focus on the thing I’m working on, try to do a good job with that, then try to get home by dinnertime. That’s pretty much my life, which is kind of unusual in my line of work. A lot of producers work on the opposite time frame. When I’m going to bed, they’re starting.

For me to be healthy, I have to have a schedule, a structure. The way my mind works, it will start to race, and if I work too late, then I have trouble sleeping and that messes up my next day. Artists are happy to adapt to working that schedule. I want to do a great song for them and send them on their way so they can have a life and go out at night to do whatever they want to do. I’m totally friends with a lot of artists I work with… but I don’t want to keep someone longer than they want to be there.

You mentioned the anticipation you feel around Grammy season. What is your relationship with the awards?

It’s a crazy experience to be invited or involved, and I know I won’t be invited forever. There will be a point where people will be like, “OK, you can go now.” (Laughs.)

Eventually they’ll show you out the back door.

Exactly. Like, “We’ve had enough of you.” While it’s happening, I’m just going for the ride. It feels very good for your work to be recognized. I don’t take it lightly when people are voting for stuff I’ve worked on. I have fun when I go, although it makes me nervous when I’m there, because I hate speaking in the microphone, but that’s also a good problem to have.

Where do you keep the nine Grammys you’ve already won?

They’re in the bedroom, kind of staring at me. If I’m in a bad mood, I can look up and be like, “Come on! Chin up.”

All that said, do you want to check and see if you’ve been nominated this year?

(Looks at phone.) OK, I got best pop vocal album, song of the year, album of the year, country album and record of the year. So there’s that!

This story will appear in the Dec. 10, 2022, issue of Billboard.

VIEW FULL STORY ARC Sign Up