In Quarantine, Pop Music's Quiet Topliners Are Gaining More Power

Producers and topliners have always had a particular dynamic: The producer usually sits behind the mixing board in the recording studio, acting as the song’s Svengali, while the topliner in the booth — the singer-songwriter who is responsible for layering lyrics and melodies over the beat — follows their lead.

But the age-old deferential relationship has flipped in COVID quarantine: Without the ability to work in recording studios, many topliners have had to become one-person operations, writing, recording and mixing their own songs in isolation and sending their vocals back to producers. This individualized way of working puts the topliner on far more of an equal footing with the producer in the song’s finished version.

Songwriters, especially ones who work in toplining, “have used this time to teach themselves new skills including recording vocals, production and new instruments,” says Amanda Hill, the co-head of West Coast A&R for music publisher Sony/ATV. Hill points out that Sony’s songwriter Freddy Wexler wrote “Stuck with You” by Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber with his co-writers via Zoom, and that producers are also giving tips to songwriters on how to set up equipment and — essentially — produce music on their own.

“It’s very important to be self-contained. The lockdown has taught us that,” Grammy-winning producer Rodney Jerkins, who has worked with Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez and Michael Jackson, tells Rolling Stone. In COVID lockdown, Jerkins has held FaceTime and Zoom sessions with artists like Emeli Sandé and sent files back and forth for weeks to remotely produce songs. (Sandé’s song “Prayed Up” will soon be released.) Jerkins stresses that if topline songwriters can engineer their own vocal sessions, punching in and out on their laptops as they lay down tracks, the whole process can go quicker and smoother. He recommends a home setup that comprises ProTools, Logic, or Ableton, plus hardware like a Slate Digital Mic and an API 512c pre-amp.

Some topliners were already well-prepared for the challenges of quarantine. Nija Charles, a 22-year-old topliner who recently co-wrote Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s “Rain On Me” and has also worked with Beyoncé, Cardi B, and Jason Derulo, is part of a new school of songwriters who have made it a point to learn how to engineer their own music, in conjunction with honing writing and singing chops.

“I used to intern at a recording studio, Blast Off, in New York when I was 17 or 18,” Charles says. “I’d just sit and watch the engineer, who was the owner of the studio, and take notes. Then when I went to the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU, I learned more about compression and EQ, about being hands-on — it was all trial and error.” Charles, who says she loves to “go crazy with” harmonies and stacked backgrounds, stresses the importance of marrying catchy melodies and poignant lyrics with the ability to correctly put them down on a track.

“You never want to be in a position where you can’t record unless you have someone with you. I don’t care if it’s Garageband. Make sure you know how to record your ideas.”

Topliner Kirby Lauryen is a Berklee College of Music alum who was signed bby Roc Nation Music Publishing after writing a song on YouTube for 275 days, and has gone on to co-write hits like Rihanna’s “FourFiveSeconds” and Ariana Grande’s “Break Your Heart Right Back.” Lauryen says she’s by no means a great engineer, but can do enough to get her thoughts down using a home-set up that comprises an Apollo Twin Interface, TLM 103 Neumann Microphone, ProTools, and a MacBook Pro. Her disciplined approach has proved crucial during the quarantine: “You never want to be in a position where you can’t record unless you have someone with you,” she says. “I don’t care if it’s Garageband. Make sure you know how to record your ideas.”

Her technical prowess also allows her to be more collaborative with producers. “I love changing the keys of songs. Oftentimes, the producer sends the song in a key that was most natural to him and I use Elastic Properties in ProTools to pitch it up or down. It’s amazing how shifting the key of the song can completely change the emotion or melodies,” she says.

Lauryen adds that, in light of the police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests against racism, remote and self-directed recording sessions allow her to address the subject of race with her white producers in a way that she never felt able before.

“The days after George Floyd’s death I had sessions lined up, and though it was an emotional time I didn’t want to cancel last minute,” she says. “I’m glad I didn’t, because each session ended up being a two-hour conversation on racism. It was a much-needed conversation on white privilege and what it means to be a black woman working with white men. I think they were shocked to hear how much subtle or overt racism a black person experiences in the music industry.” For example, she says, black songwriters are often asked to write hip-hop melodies or cadences even if they typically work in other genres. “I’ve personally made a decision to be even more careful about my lyrics, and style as a songwriter,” Lauryen says. “I refuse to be used to make a minstrel show out of our music or culture.”

Without a definite end to COVID’s work-from-home conditions, it’s uncertain what kind of role topliners will play when physical recording studios reopen and everyone gets back in a room together.

Hill’s colleague Adrian Nunez, vice president of creative A&R at music publisher Sony/ATV, notes that not everyone wants to overcome the massive learning curve of independent production — and that he wouldn’t penalize non-independent workers when looking for new songwriters to sign. “Some songwriters are more effective face-to-face, or just need the studio vibe in order to work best,” Nunez says.

But he does recommend all writers invest around $900 in their own studio setup to pick up a good microphone and USB audio interface — which can be a steep cost, especially in COVID’s tough times, he acknowledges. Some publishing companies and record labels have helped fund their artists and songwriters’ home setups; for aspiring music creators or those who aren’t signed to a major company, though, it’s still tough going.

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