Josh Cumbee on songwriting, AI vocals & copyright infringement: "copying a vibe becomes endlessly subjective"

American musician, multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter and record producer Josh Cumbee explains why his debut album, Trustfall is about heartbreak, struggle and quasi-redemption, reflects on working with Grammy winning songwriter Toby Gad and offers his thoughts on AI vocals and songwriters accusing others of plagiarisation.

Josh Cumbee is a morning person. “Yep! I’ve got my cold brew and I did my hot yoga. It's 9:30 am and I'm ready,” he enthuses from his home studio in L.A. “I tried to buck the stereotype of the night owl musician because a lot of the fun stuff happens in the morning, plus I get to talk to people across the pond,” he grins.

After finishing a music business program at University of Southern California, Cumbee ventured into TV composing, writing music for adverts and popular TV shows including The Bachelor, Ready for Love and America's Next Top Model. Another breakthrough came when he was hired to work at the studio of Grammy winning songwriter Toby Gad (best known for co-writing John Legend's All of Me and Beyoncé’s If I Were a Boy, among others)

“I saw a Craigslist ad that said, ‘Grammy winning producer seeks assistant engineer and everything else,’” he reflects. “I kind of felt like that’s the way that you get your kidney taken on the black market. Obviously I was like, ‘Well, that's worth it!’ That's worth a kidney and a half!”

Under Gad’s watchful eye, Cumbee wrote, produced, played instruments, programmed and engineered for artists including Janet Jackson, Sia, Madonna, Take That, Adam Lambert, Sean Paul, Galantis and Anastacia. 

More high profile songwriting opportunities followed: Cumbee co-wrote three songs for Spanish artist Natalia Jiménez’s album, which was nominated for Album of the Year at the 2015 Latin Grammy Awards, and he has written for Armin van Buuren numerous times.

trustfall was all about exploring the story that I wanted to tell and what I felt like needed to be in the world.

Recently, he decided he was long overdue in releasing his own project and put out his debut album, Trustfall. Cumbee explains the different mindsets required when writing for others compared for his own album:

“It was odd at points because you do really lean on the gate check of artists and other songwriters when you're working on other projects,” he considers. “It’s always like, ‘Hey, I'm here to amplify your artistry and tell your story.’ 

"And obviously I'm going to touch back to the experiences that I have that relate to that story, but at the end of the day, I don't have to dig deep within myself, comparatively. So with my artist project, it was all about exploring the story that I wanted to tell and what I felt like needed to be in the world. That was a bold new endeavour.”

In terms of honing in on what this album says about his own story, that required some soul searching:

“I had to go, ‘What do I think isn't out there? What do I want to say? How do I do it in a way that is interesting, different and special?’ And then I have to ask, ‘But does it work? And is it cool? Or is it cheesy? Am I like overplaying this?’ It's a lot to balance.”

Cumbee landed on an album that is about heartbreak, struggle and what he calls quasi-redemption.

“I mean, for all the waxing poetic about doing things that are incredibly original, here I am writing a song about having my heart broken,” he laughs. “Super original! But obviously, we all go through things in different ways. 

"I'm a fairly analytical person so as I was going through the process of putting back the puzzle pieces of what was broken, I was thinking, ‘Man, this is really interesting; I can journal into the songs and see if I can explore it in a way that if somebody else catches themselves in this process, maybe I can help grease the gears of healing.’”

copying a vibe becomes endlessly subjective. sometimes things get to the trial phase that shouldn't be there

As a songwriter, Cumbee shares the concerns of many about the increase in artists taking others to court for accused plagiarisation, highlighted in the press most recently when Ed Sheeran was taken to court again, this time accused of ripping off Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On on his 2014 hit, Thinking Out Loud. Of course, songwriters’ work must be protected from those attempting to pass their work off as their own, but where is the line drawn to stop someone trying to make easy money from a popular artist who they consider can stand to lose the cash?

“I was upset when the Blurred Lines lawsuit went through and the state won,” he reflects, alluding to Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke being found liable for copyright infringement for alleged similarities to Marvin Gaye’s 1977 single Got to Give It U.

“Personally, I think that copying a vibe becomes endlessly subjective and it's very unfortunate that – especially with the way the American legal system works – sometimes things can get to the trial phase that shouldn't be there. 

"And even if you're completely in the right, as Ed [Sheeran] and Amy Wadge [Thinking Out Loud co-writer] were, you're still putting out 10s or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal fees from your own pocket that may or may not be recoupable just to defend yourself from this absolutely frivolous money grab. I think it's atrocious. I don't like the way the system works, and that it even got that far.

I was upset when the Blurred Lines lawsuit went through and the state won.

“I think this [win] is a huge triumph for creators; I don't want to live in a world where they didn't win this, as far as what that would mean for what we could control copyright-wise, because that also really impacts the future,” he adds.

“Obviously we’ve got to be reasonable because it's not fair to steal things – I think we all agree that you can't just take somebody's melody or lyric – there needs to be some form of compensation there. But also, we do have a 12 note progression and there are certain rhythms that are more common and there's certain chords that are more common. To limit that expression would just be cruel to creatives.”

Another technological innovation raising concerns today is due to the increase in AI vocals, with the tech able to imitate the voice of well known artists, essentially making them sing whatever the programmer choses, with no say in the matter for the artist.

“There's a lot we have to figure out from a legal perspective in terms of protections, because we don't even really know how to protect the timbre and tone of the human voice – it doesn't fall under copyright,” Cumbee points out.

“It doesn't really fall under trademark, strictly. So as far as protecting that, we have a long way to go. It is going to take government legislation to get there. With these AI voice models, until it's regulated, we're going to have that problem where you can make an artist ‘say’ anything.

until AI vocals are regulated, we're going to have that problem where you can make an artist ‘say’ anything.

“In terms of what that can do to the artists from a PR / image perspective, that can be a runaway viral and damaging moment for them that may or may not be recoverable. Even once people figure out that it's AI, the sheep may have already left the cage, so to speak, for lack of better words…

“I think there's a lot of really exciting potential with this though,” he counters. “Like, it's cool for me as a songwriter to come in the room and go, ‘Hey, I'm going to do this song and pitch it for a K-pop band. I'm gonna have a rap part, but rather than hear me rapping – because you don't want to hear me rapping – I can do it and then use one of these style transfers to have the actual voice of a rapper and it's gonna sound much cooler.’

So if there's a way to do that where it's legal and it's licenced and permissible and artists go, ‘In the same way that I made a sample pack for Splice, I'm gonna make a voice timbre pack; you can use that in your productions if you pay this licence fee,’ that could be good. I think there's some really exciting stuff that can happen there and a lot of inspiration that can come from that, but it just has to have guardrails,” he reasons.

I felt like I could see the whole soundstage in front of me in infinite detail. That's irreplaceable to me.

In terms of Cumbee’s studio equipment that allows him to focus on his songwriting, demo and production work, there is only one brand that springs to mind:

“I’m past being a Genelec user – I’m a Genelec fanatic,” he enthuses, pointing to a pair of 8351s behind him. “I bought The Ones monitors and was l like, ‘Man, that's an ostentatious name for a speaker! The Ones – that’s incredibly presumptuous.’ No – it's legit,” he stresses.

“They are the chosen ones, for real. Before, I didn't really realise – from a stereo imaging perspective and an acoustical tightness perspective – exactly what was going on in my songs. I wasn't doing a lot of mixing when I was using other speakers and then I got these and I started mixing more of my stuff because I felt confident in being able to actually pull out that microscope and see those details.

“I honestly felt like I put on glasses,” he adds. “The first time I sat down behind these and had them set up and calibrated, I immediately went, ‘Wow, there is so much detail beyond what I thought possible, not just in terms of frequency space, but in terms of exact placement of things.’ This is looking at it like a compass – I felt like I could see the whole soundstage in front of me in infinite detail. That's irreplaceable to me.”

Cumbee teases that he’s working on a lot of new music, so stay tuned for his next announcement, although don’t expect it to be any time soon…

“I obviously just released my album last year, so I'm letting the dust settle from that before I figure out the next step for my artist project,” he smiles. “I'm keen to dig in and figure out what my next love letter to pop is going to be, so that'll be on the horizon.”