Music: Lily Allen

Feb 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson

L.A. PRODUCER GREG KURSTIN BRINGS OUT HER BEST

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For the actual writing process, “I break out little piano riffs or simple guitar riffs and she'll like some and reject others. I have to pull out whatever will inspire the best songs, so if she's not feeling it right off the bat, it's usually not going to happen. That happens a lot in the songwriting process, and that's fine. If she likes an idea, maybe I'll put it on a loop for her and then, literally, like half-an-hour later, she'll say, ‘Okay, I have something,’ and she'll sing in what she has — it might be a verse or a chorus — and then once I hear what she's doing lyrically, I'll start to work on the track. The lyrics will often give me ideas where to take the track. Usually, by the end of the day I'll have a finished demo of a song. We work pretty quickly together.

“Production-wise, I'll try out all sorts of things — trial and error — and sometimes it takes me forever,” he adds. “I might try 100 things in a chorus until I can figure out how to make it work. Sometimes it comes together easily — like ‘Everyone's at It’ and ‘Fear’ came together quickly — but it's tricky; you can't predict what's going to take a long time.”

After the writing and preliminary production sessions in England, work shifted a few months later, mostly to Kurstin's studio and Dave Trumfio's Kingsize Soundlabs in the Silver Lake district of L.A. Kurstin's room contains “a computer and desktop and a bunch of keyboards and various toys to the left and right of me,” he says. “Probably my main ones are a Prophet 5, Minimoog, ARP String Ensemble, B3, Clavinet, Rhodes, and various guitars and basses. I have stacks of keyboards in another room, too, including some weird ones, like the EMS synth. I also have a converted closet that I turned into a vocal booth.”

Allen is an exceptional singer, and Kurstin showcases her voice to the fullest over the course of the album's dozen tracks, intricately layering her harmonies, using effects sparingly but effectively, and letting her solid lead vocals carry the melodies. “I love working on the harmonies; it's one of my favorite things to do,” he comments. “Sometimes, I'll work them out; other times, I'll have her improvise a harmony track to see what she comes up with. She's got a really good ear.”

On a song like “Fear,” which is thick with backing vocals, “I probably have six to 12 in that chorus. I'll have a group and then bring up maybe one or two as the lead and have the other ones as more ambient support. I've been into threes recently for some reason. I used to be into pairs, but I've been into threes and sixes lately.”

Kurstin put some real guitar, bass and drums on the album — as well as conventional (i.e., non-synth) keyboards — but then there are also guitar-like lines on a song like “Fear,” courtesy of a 360 Systems digital Mellotron program that he put into Logic and then played as a keyboard, an accordion that is from samples (even though Kurstin can play the real thing) and synth bass frequently augmenting real bass. “Go Back to the Start” opens with weird electronic sounds that came from a distorted Roland 808 kick drum sound; “Chinese” features what sounds like a harpsichord, but is actually a 12-string guitar sample played on a keyboard; and the noisy old-record sound of “He Wasn't There” comes from the cellophane disks of an old Optigan, a favorite of Tom Waits (among others).

Throughout the process, Allen offered her opinions on Kurstin's production choices, and for the most part they were in sync throughout the whole project. “She was really easy to work with,” Kurstin says. “I always looked for her input and approval on things, and she had some good ideas of her own.”

Kurstin mixed the album at home, also in Logic. “It's what I learned on,” he explains. “It's the MIDI thing: being able to pull up my library of sounds real quickly, and keeping the stuff MIDI so I can change the sound later and not have to commit to a certain sound. That can be a good thing and a bad thing, I suppose, but it's mostly been a good thing for me, and it definitely was on this album.”






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