Aaron Horn on co-writing & co-producing Doja Cat’s Woman: “This ‘uma-way’ chant turned into ‘Woman’

Artist, producer and writer, Aaron Horn talks about co-writing and producing Doja Cat’s hit single, Woman, the evolution of the song, his series of limited NFTs, AI vocals and why giant Genelec monitors had to be wheeled in for David Guetta at Sarm Studios.

Did you get a big break moment in your career?

I guess I still feel like I'm always chasing that a little bit, but I had a track called Bom Bom with Sam and the Womp. I put that band together with Sam – I was meant to be the Womp. We crossed over Balkan music and UK-based jungle, dance and house basslines. I used to play bass and run the backing tracks and Sam would play trumpet and we expanded the band. 

We had this track called Bom Bom that we used to play for 10 minutes sometimes. It was really housey, and then a great artist called Bloom ended up singing and rapping over it and we caught some success. It went to number one in the UK. We did pretty well around the world and in Australia and Ireland.

I think we still have that synchronised on some adverts, so it's still out there. That changed things a little bit – having an experience of that kind of success and being able to play X Factor before Elton John and play some big gigs, and then ultimately have the project fall apart and melt down because of the success and seeing that side of it. I think that's always part of the story of music where people do well – there are always challenges.

we caught some success with Bom Bom and that changed things a little bit.

You are a Grammy-nominated co-writer and co-producer of Doja Cat’s hit single, Woman. What did those writing sessions look like and how did the song take shape?

In those early sessions at Sarm Studios there were four of us who were in the room before that beat and the hook, and then after it. That was me, Linden Jay, Yeti Beats [David A. Sprecher] and Ainsley Jones, and we were all writing beats for Doja. I met Yeti back in 2012 in L.A. when I was out there and we'd known each other for quite a long time. I've done quite a few sessions with Doja – she wasn't in that session – that was just the four of us.

Yeti was in town and we were writing a load of beats, and this one kind of formed itself. It was interesting how it came together: the feel of the drums versus the hook, that minimal piano line and the laid back-ness of it. We were kind of singing ‘uma-way’, so before it was ‘woman’, it was almost like this chant that was on the hook. 

So, 'uma' changed into ‘woman’, but if you hear her singing it, you can still kind of hear that ‘uma’ is part of the song going through the auto tune. It was a great night and there was definitely a feeling to the track. I was so happy when she took it because you make a lot of music when you're a producer and you don't always have the joy to have someone as talented as Doja Cat turn it into such a fabulous piece, along with another writer.

I'm grateful for everyone who worked on that record, remixed, engineered it and mastered it. It's always a team effort to be part of something like that. Dojo Cat really turned that into something else with the verse and what she did with the hook. I'm just very grateful to be part of that.

'uma-way' changed into ‘woman’, but you can still kind of hear that ‘uma’ is part of the song.

The song's lyrical themes are of divine femininity and feminism. Were you involved in writing lyrics from a woman’s perspective, or was it just the initial lyric idea based around ‘woman’ that you worked on at the start?

The point where we left it was the beat and the backing track. We had a hook that was saying ‘woman’ and that also had the chant under it going 'uma-way' on the chorus. Then Doja Cat wrote all of the verse and she wrote all of those pieces, so we literally just had that word ‘woman’. 

From that, she penned all of this amazing narrative which is such a beautiful journey and has some great ethics behind it and aesthetics to it. I was blown away. She had Pharrell on it as well at one point, but she went with her own verse because it's very powerful and the story she's telling is very beautiful and captivating.

Woman is a fusion of Afrobeats, pop and R&B. How did you approach the production?

I don't think about genres when I make music. I make a lot of different types of music and I try to let stuff come through, if that makes sense. We weren't really thinking about it from a genre point of view. But it totally sits on that housey, lo-fi, afrobeat laid back vibe. 

Part of the aesthetic is that ambience and space. I always try to have something captivating, but present it with space and some mystery. Part of the beat is quite simple, but it lines up in a way that gives space for people, more so than Bom Bom - that backing track was a bit more like, ‘You're gonna need to dance now!’ I like that it's quite chilled out, but it still has that infectious movement to it and that hook. A lot of the sounds from that session ended up on it.

Was Doja Cat involved in the production process at all?

Yeah. She's an amazing producer in her own right, for sure and she can produce and programme. She definitely put her two cents in on this. And like I was saying with Pharrell being on it, and then not being on it and her crafting it the way she wanted to – she's definitely in control.

Doja Cat had Pharrell on it at one point, but she went with her own verse. she's definitely in control.

Does the novelty ever wear off when you hear it on the radio or in shops?

I'm always happy to hear it. I had a weird moment where it was playing through a few radios during lockdown – to hear that sound that we were making during it…It was really entertaining. It was a bit surreal, but it's always a great thing to hear your music being listened to and being enjoyed. I feel very grateful for that. It is nice to have a song that my son knows! I’m chasing any dad points I can get.

Yourself and Alex Preager have unveiled a Series of Limited NFTs with your latest project, A Theory, which uses physics-based theory to code movement and colour as a visual representation of a mathematical formula. The accompanying ambience-based audio is designed to be used as a breathing exercise to bring balance to the mind and lower cortisol levels in the viewer. When did you decide to get involved in the world of NFTs?

Alex and I have been creating music that has a visual aspect and he has a background in rendering, animations and visuals, so he draws from that. We've always imagined that we could create these pieces that are viewed in a gallery space that interact with sound, science equations and different theories, hence the name, A Theory.

We decided that NFTs can be a great way for people to access things they can’t see; we've used physics-based theories that you wouldn't be able to see. So the theories, for example, are based around water tension; you can't see that - you might experience it when you're on a boat that floats on water. So we've taken that theory, and then we've expressed it in a visual form.

They kind of look like clouds or moving explosions, and they glisten and change based on those theories, and the sound is based around that. It's interesting to be able to create these pieces that can be viewed as NTFs, or maybe potentially at one point through VR. It's a bit of a passion project, really. It's a bit crazy, some of this stuff, but the NFT is cool because they break it down and they make it into a series. They make it connected and accessible for people. 

We’re expressing these mathematical formulas and presenting it as being an ambient soundscape; the piece of music behind it gives the viewer this opportunity to get into a meditative, relaxed state quite quickly, so we sink up the audio to breathing rate, so you breathe in and out with each wave of sound. As you watch these sculptures unfold, it's quite a relaxing experience.

labels and publishers are making 20 to 50% return on artists' music, and it doesn't always have to be those organisations making the return.

Do you think NFTs will reshape the music industry?

The idea of people being able to invest in music is an interesting one. There are people trying to find different ways to get funding for musicians and I think that is an important part of how musicians work. Musicians traditionally go to major labels or publishers to get their funding, but as people have Patreon, Only Fans and different ways of supporting their musical work relating to their fan base, that can mean there's a change and people are doing that through NFT's as well in music.

We're evolving with that and finding different ways to diversify and get funding for the art that we make, so yeah, I think there's an opportunity for that. As social media and the internet has expanded, so have the ways that musicians can support themselves and the way that people can invest in music, because music can be a good investment. A lot of these labels and publishers are making 20 to 50% return on artists' music, and it doesn't always have to be those organisations making the return.

What are your thoughts on AI vocals and AI production tools?

It's a really interesting subject. AI is the new technology that we're moving into, and it's gonna affect our culture and art. There are some aspects of that which are concerning, where people's voices are being stolen or used without their licence - we don't have the legal framework to keep up with the technology at the moment; it's moving quicker than our laws are. So as far as Drake being paid for the times when people have made it sound like him on their record, that's not happening. There aren't any ways to protect artists. So the legal side of it needs to progress for sure.

But it's interesting to think how AI might give us another sound palette; another way of working with music or fine art, or experiencing culture. Change isn't always guaranteed to be for the good or the or the bad, it’s usually a mix of things.

I am positive about it, and I like to try and use it, but at the same time, it's pretty terrible. Generally, when you try to do anything with AI, it's just a bit rubbish. All of the times when they've actually got AI to do anything good, it's always a human involved. 

The strongest teams are human and AI, not human or AI. It's always when humans team up with AI that you can get good results. I don't think it's going to take people's jobs. Definitely people could use it to steal, but I don't think it's going to be replacing musicians. I think it's gonna actually give us a new opportunity of working in a clever and new way, hopefully.

Until AI learns to replicate human emotion…?

When you get into that kind of discourse, then you start talking about consciousness as well. Because humans have this idea that we own consciousness; that it's us that's conscious, and animals aren't really conscious. 

So as we delve into the idea of AI, it's this amazing consciousness - but what does that actually mean? What is consciousness? That's going to be an interesting journey to go down. They're saying that hopefully we'll be able to talk to dolphins and other animals using AI in 18 months. That would be an interesting step forward.

What do you think they would say?

Play us more Slayer! I'm hopeful that they will have some input on music as well. I think dolphins are pretty musical! Maybe they'll like the harder end of drum and bass because they're into the low frequencies. No, that'd be humpbacks, wouldn't it? 

Dolphins are more mid range pitch. I am looking forward to a world where Mariah Carey can collaborate ethically with a dolphin on a piece of music - maybe a cover of All I Want For Christmas Is You with the dolphins. That would be kind of entertaining. Probably quite horrific as well.

I am looking forward to a world where Mariah Carey can collaborate ethically with a dolphin on a piece of music.

In terms of essential studio kit, what do you rely on for your songwriting and production work?

I've grown up around music equipment, and I really love it. I seem to be always trying to get new bits of gear and am fiddling with my music setup and how I make music. A lot of people have a huge amount of hardware that they use. I have a relatively simple studio setup and I like to focus on trying to get a clean, high quality signal: Good microphones and then do the processing afterwards usually. I'm always happy to use Genelecs.

We had an absolutely massive set of Genelec monitors at Sarm Studios. Then at Sarm Music Village we also had a nice Genelec system in studio two, and that was the room where we did the work on Woman. They're really modern, loud and present speakers and I have enjoyed working on them.

Genelecs are super bright – they're very modern-sounding speakers that are present, have got bass, bright tops, but also you can work with. They are industry-grade speakers.

when David Guetta worked at sarm studios, we had this big set of Genelecs we'd wheel in.

Part of the reason why we got that massive set of them is because in the old Sarm West, studio two was kind of sketchy. The monitoring there was old, and when guys like David Guetta (or people who did really loud, bassy dance records) worked in there, we had this set of Genelecs that we'd wheel in and sometimes we'd use in the live rooms – it was massive.

It would give you that sound of a big club feel, but also studio-quality. We had a set of them that we would use, and we wheeled them into the studio depending on who was working there. 

If you were recording a band or doing playback at a certain level, you could use the system that was in there, but if you really wanted to crank it and have it loud, they were pretty resilient to blowing… but I think someone did manage to pop one of the cones because people would play things at stupid levels sometimes. 

They have that little light on them and if it starts to go red you know to back off, but sometimes there will be clients that would just absolutely destroy equipment no matter how robust it was!