Greg Wells hails from a rural farming factory town in Canada. Or in his own words, “I grew up by a cow field”. A preacher’s child, he became obsessed with the church organ at just two-years-old, and was playing it by three. His grandmother would let him tinker with pots and pans on the kitchen floor when he went to visit, but his parents weren’t so keen on the noise, so decided not to buy him that drum set he so desired, “which is probably why I give away a set of drums every three months now on Twitter, some crazy overcompensation,” Wells jokes, with a smile. Although he never saw himself as a songwriter, many a Grammy-winner would beg to differ. In the last decade alone, he’s penned some gems with some of the industry’s most acclaimed songstresses including Katy Perry and Adele, and he was effectively the whole band on Mika’s stunning debut record, Life In Cartoon Motion, which sold close to six million units. So how did that happen? And when did he realise he could write songs just as well as he could play piano (and guitar, bass, and drums for that matter)?
“I think I viewed the church as a stage, with my dad being the star of the show,” opens Wells, with a half-smile, adding that the church organist was particularly encouraging even when he didn’t really know what he was playing. He was only three at the time, after all. “You only get one set of roots, and I remember as I got a little older, dad would sometimes play the radio in the car, and I’d hear Carole King or The Jackson 5, and I’d freak out - start drumming on the car! There was no video taping or documenting of something that was on air back then. If you missed it, you might never hear it ever again.”
At this time, Wells had a sense that he was in the wrong place. He craved music, but had no idea where to go, or how to do it – whatever it was - and there was no money to go there – wherever that was. With this in mind, from the age of 10, he joined every band that would have him, and by the time he entered his teens, he was fortunate enough to find an amazing music teacher in his hometown, who really set the musical ball rolling.
“I got really deep into classical piano around 13-years-old,” Wells recalls, fondly. “Then I remember taking the two-hour bus ride to Toronto, to study with some badass teachers there. My heart was never fully into classical, and I had already become a church organist, bought myself a bad drum set, and not received much encouragement from anyone, so everything felt like a ridiculous pipe dream, to be honest!”
Did this make him rebel against the cause? In a word, yes.
“It was my rocket fuel,” Wells confirms, eyes widening. “And in retrospect, I’m glad, because it built
a weird monster, too – one that I had to keep in the cage [smiles]. We’re all plugged into our own roots, and I wanted to become a musician, and to get out of my hometown. I didn’t know what to do, until this one high school student, four years older than me, told me about this modern music school in Toronto called Humber College. She saved my life - and not just once. When I joined Humber, she was already in her third year, and she told me over lunch about this thing called the Canadian Government Arts Council, where you can apply for a grant for almost anything; and if they think it’s a good idea, and you’re good enough, you might get it.
“I’d never heard of it, but I thought it would be great if I could study in LA with this guy called Clare Fischer. He died recently, sadly, but among the many things he did, he wrote and conducted the string arrangements on every Prince record. He and Prince never even met! Prince just sent the analogue tapes to Clare and said, ‘do your thing’. So I applied for the grant, then forgot I applied for the grant, and a year later I got this letter saying I had been given $14,000 - enough to stay in LA for a year and live simply, and pay for these lessons... So that’s what I did.”
What Wells didn’t foresee happening was Clare recommending him for studio work – and a lot of it.
“I started doing these sessions for cash, and ended up getting hired to play for KD Lang - a beautiful, amazing singer,” Wells explains. “We toured in England all the time; we’d do three nights at the Royal Albert Hall, three nights at Hammersmith Odeon. This was my first break in a big band.”
It was Wells’ ability to multi-task instrumentally that helped secure him the KD Lang role, and that’s effectively become the catalyst to his successful songwriting collaborations. Lang soon asked Wells to become musical director of her band, but he politely declined; he wanted to make his own music, stay in LA, and become a record producer.
“I remember she just said, ‘you know what, that’s exactly what you should do’, which was a huge validation; she’d just won the Grammy for best female solo, after all,” Wells says. “So I became a studio musician for a lot of older producers towards the end of the ‘90s, and by now I was playing a lot of instruments. I worked with a great English record producer called Steven Lipson who did Slave To The Rhythm with Trevor Horn, as well as most of Annie Lennox’s solo stuff. I did a record with him in Nashville, and they wanted me to play bass and drums. I knew everything about Lipson, career-wise, and we really hit it off. Then he started hiring me to come to London and be the band for some of the records he was working on. He didn’t care it wasn’t four different people, which was another big validation, and it’s a master class in production every time. After that, people started asking me to co-produce songs on a record, and co-write with artists that had small deals.”
Songwriting still didn’t feel like second nature to Wells, but that was all about to change.
“I was getting asked to a songwriting camp, which I now happen to run in France,” he laughs, admitting that the first time he went, he felt totally at sea, and the second time was the best experience of his life. “I could demo songs, but there was no real instinct. I was too much of a muso; that was my language. Then something clicked. I realised all my years of accompaniment, that was my role as a songwriter. I accompany the story teller. It’s the same as me playing for the church choir; it’s the same muscle. I am certainly not the great storyteller, but I can direct it.”
Wells cut his first record for record executive, Tommy Mottola’s record label, and although it wasn’t a commercial success, Mottola saw something in Wells’ work, and encouraged him to work with a brand new artist from England called Mika. This was in 2007.
“Tommy called me and said, ‘you should meet this kid, Mika; he’s 20, and I just signed him’. A couple of weeks later, he called again saying he was recommending me to everybody as a writer,” Wells recalls. “All these guys were asking Tommy, ‘who is Greg Wells? Have you even met him?’ And he said, ‘no, I haven’t’, and they said, ‘maybe you should, because you’re cutting everyone else out of the running!’ It was really strange. So he then asked me to New York; I had a one-hour meeting, we got Mika on the phone, and Tommy told him to come to LA to cut a song with me. He then said, ‘what you doing this weekend?’, and that was that [smiles].”
So Wells found himself back in LA, and Mika flew in a few days later. At this stage, all he had was a video of a showcase Mika had played in New York, and no copy of any of his music.
“I showed up, I’d rented a drum kit, had a bass and a guitar, and they had a piano and an engineer,” smiles Wells. “He had this one song called Grace Kelly that really jumped out at me. I suggested working on that, but he wasn’t sure, as he’d demoed it six times, and it was problematic. I said it spoke to me, so we tried it. We then cut it in one day, and everything on it is first take except the vocals. I played everything else as there was no budget to hire anyone else! We were under the gun, didn’t have much time, and it was Mika that said, ‘Greg, you play the piano’, even though I love how he plays. And that is exactly what got released, and it’s his biggest song ever. He really liked how it turned out, and he asked if I could do a second song - a really fun song called Lollipop - and musically it was very different to anything I’d worked on. Mika’s music is hyper-happy, and exaggerated, but he’s had quite a hard life as a child, so his lyrics are kinda messed up. All I know is, I just saw he was a special talent.”
Wells’ management were unconvinced. With two Mika songs in the bag, they wanted him to leave the project and move on. But Wells had other ideas.
“I wanted to make the whole record with Mika, so we spent about six months on it, and then when Grace Kelly came out as the first single, it went to number one within a week, and sat there for seven weeks! We were freaking out!” Wells recalls, with a beaming smile. “His MySpace went from 300 to 25,000 or so overnight, and record sales amounted to almost six million. That’s like 20 million sales, 15 years ago, and that changed everything for him and for me. Labels were suddenly offering me so many projects, whereas before I always felt like I had my hat out, asking what I could do for them, you know? My perception within the industry changed so much.”
Throughout his career, Wells has made music from a string of genres: death metal, jazz, rock, pop. But in principle, it’s all the same: storytelling.
“All I need is to get the music; if I don’t, I shouldn’t be working on it,” Wells states, with a shrug of the shoulders. “It’s a bit like leaning in to kiss someone you don’t really want to kiss. It’s gonna be an awful kiss that you do not want to repeat. If I work on music I don’t feel compelled by, I won’t touch it. It drives my managers crazy, but I can’t work on stuff unless I feel it’s really something.”
Which brings us on to Katy Perry. Wells first met this acclaimed songwriter some 10 years ago, and has worked on every record she’s made ever since.
“We just hit it off. We’re both preachers’ kids; her dad was a travelling minister, a little different to mine, but it’s still a thing, so we had that in common; and I still have the same click with her now that I did the day I met her. She’s just a really smart, talented goofball,” Wells says. “She has a lot of heart, great ears, and she is a better A&R person than anyone at any label.”
Although Wells has penned a couple of big hits with Katy, it’s not always about going for radio jugulars:
“With Katy, it’s emotional; we’re getting out the things she really wants to say. The Grammys have asked her to perform the songs we’ve written together twice now which weren’t mega-hits, which shows someone out there is listening. The last one was By The Grace of God, then we did Not Like the Movies. I am very proud of the stuff I’ve done with Katy, and she is a tremendous singer. She actually used to come from a singer-songwriter vibe, and at one stage we thought the last record would be like that, but it didn’t become that. I’m not sure realistically that she can do that now, as she’s such a great entertainer and front-person.”
Another of Wells’ favourite artists to work with is Adele, who dropped by his studio for three days during the making of her second record, 21.
“I remember when I drove in, I had two ideas come into my head, and played them both to her, and she liked them both, thankfully. One was a big band drum beat which became Devil On My Shoulder, but it didn’t fit the 21 Album, as it was a different vibe,” Wells reveals. “She has emailed me since then saying she loves that song though, so maybe one day! Then we did One and Only, and that one did make it onto the record. I always knew it would be Rick Rubin producing it, as he recommended me, but the experience was amazing. She is a really great songwriter, really funny, and totally self-deprecating, which is immediately charming. She was only 21-years-old, but she really wasn’t; she was very wise, and very aware.”
During the writing process of One and Only, Wells was somewhat taken aback by Adele’s performance. He was looping a chord progression on the piano, which she asked him to keep playing, as she wandered around his vocal room searching for a riff. And then, boom!
“She was working on this chorus idea for some 10 minutes, and when she had it, she said, ‘this might be complete shit, but tell me what you think’; and actually, what she did there and then is exactly the same chorus that is on the record. She belted it out in full voice right at me - a high C, too: ‘I dare you to let me be your one and only’. And it was really overwhelming! I was trying to keep it together, and I just cracked up. I was like, ‘I think we might have something’. [smiles] I am so happy for her success, because she made a very brave record. She told me the only criteria she looks for on a record is that her mother likes it and she likes it; she doesn’t really care what anyone else thinks."
ALWAYS IN GOOD VOICE
Our conversation turns technical, and Wells’ techniques when recording vocals. He has recently finished developing a very cool plugin with Waves, the VoiceCentric, which essentially allows anybody to recreate a Greg Wells vocal sound with the turn of a virtual knob. Right, Greg?
“Yeah, that’s about right. You know, it took me a long time to learn how to record a vocal well, then even longer to learn how to mix a vocal and make it sound like a record - and that phrase means something different to everyone,” he explains. “It’s about adopting techniques that are kind of surprising. I soon realised that some of my favourite EQ on a vocal is not EQ at all, it’s compression; and that there is a way of using compression - sometimes two compressors in a row - on a vocal, that will EQ it in a very intuitive natural way that sounds great through the speakers. It just manages it, controls it, balances it, and keeps it at the front of the mix; and this plugin is the product of those 20 solid years I’ve spent in the studio.”
Wells admits that 20 years ago, he didn’t understand how to use compression at all, and it was only after years of asking mix legends such as Spike Stent, Chris Lord-Alge, and Tony Maserati, ‘how are you getting that?’, that he started developing his own techniques:
“Once these guys realised I wasn’t a total idiot, they were all very generous and specific! I would try these techniques hundreds of times before I figured out little bits of each person that really worked for me. I like a vocal to sound full, so I go with a big frame most of the time, and I have figured out ‘a thing’, basically. There is a lot going on behind the curtain with this plugin; it’s deceptively simple, which is what I wanted. I wanted it to be for someone like me, 20 years ago.”
Wells began working with Waves on VoiceCentric in January 2014, and has always been a fan of the company’s ethos.
“Waves is about creating, not just modelling older pieces of gear. If you look at the C6, the Renaissance Axx guitar compressor, and the L2 - these things haven’t existed before, but you can immediately tell what’s great about them. I always have the Linear Phase Multiband Compressor on my mix buss, very subtly, and it’s magical; and the H Reverb is beautiful, and very musical. So I couldn’t possibly put my name to a plugin unless it was perfect, which for me, VoiceCentric now is,” Wells explains. “Rather than turn 15 knobs to get to where I want to be, I can now turn one knob, so it’s a thing I can use, my friends and my competitors can use, and also my kids can use, and get a vocal they recorded in their bedroom sounding like a Katy Perry vocal. And that’s what they’re looking for.”
And the further you crank it, the more exciting it becomes..?
“Pretty much, actually! When you’re on zero, nothing is happening, but when you start to crank the knob, some EQ shapes start happening, which gives you more of a natural vocal, a little more clarity, and nicer presentation,” Wells explains. “Some things don’t even come on until you’ve turned the knob to 60%; that’s when the compression starts to kick in, in a very musical way, and the tube compressors kick in. And then all this stuff is happening with the EQ. Then at 80%, things start to go bananas. It doesn’t sound bananas, but it would look bananas if you could see what was going on! It was very important that we achieved a smooth transition from setting to setting, with no road bumps; and that it was very easy to use, which it is.
“The reason I love Waves, and working with talented artists, is that everything else gets out of the way, and you can get to the music. The better the gear is, the more invisible it becomes. A certain school of people might well look at this plugin and say I’m helping these kids cheat; and yes that’s true, but who cares? The hardest thing to do is make a great song, and it’s harder still to make a great record. If they can get to that sound quicker, they can just focus on the art, which is a great thing, in my opinion. And I’m using it on all my mixes now, as it sounds better than what I was doing before!”
As our conversation comes to a close, I ask Wells to leave us with a tip or two for the future generation of musicians, songwriters, and producers. He pauses for thought, then says:
“Make a playlist of your favourite songs, and while you’re working on your own music, whether it’s a mix or a production, hit stop, and play something from your playlist. Then go back to your own project, and listen to it. That will teach you more than any school will teach you, or anyone can ever tell it. Then do it the next day, week, month, and year after that, and it will always improve you. By the time you’ve heard the song three or four times, your objectivity has shrunk from 100% to 25%; if you listen 10 more times, it’s really getting small; and after 50 times? It’s the head of a pin! [smiles] This will give you a perspective that you can’t really get any other way.”