Songwriters/producers for G-Eazy, Bebe Rexha and Emeli Sandé talk teamwork, running an efficient studio, and how to keep a fresh perspective on a new song.
To anyone following the UK charts, TMS are inescapable, having written and produced #1 hits by Little Mix, Craig David, One Direction, Jess Glynne, Emeli Sandé, Dappy and Sigma ft. Paloma Faith.
Together, Tom “Froe” Barnes, Ben Kohn and Peter “Merf” Kelleher have writing credits for over fifteen Top 20 UK singles since 2011, with over 30 million records sold and over 2 billion streams to date. Recently, they also scored their breakthrough US Top 10 hit, co-writing and producing “Me, Myself and I” for G-Eazy and Bebe Rexha.
We caught up with TMS to get their perspective on songwriting, production and teamwork:
As a three-person production team, how do you go about working together in the studio? Three opinions can be challenging. Do you all create together, or does each of you focus on a certain aspect?
As a threesome, it would be madness for all of us to sit around one computer working on the same track. So generally, we take on the mantra of “best supporting actor.” We very rarely work all three of us together; most often it’s two of us, and occasionally just one. Over the years, we’ve figured out each other's strengths and we try to use them for the most appropriate task.
All three of us are capable of starting and finishing a record, but it just so happens that certain parts of the process come a little more naturally to certain members of the team. For instance, as a rule of thumb, Froe is our detail man; he’s got the ears and the patience to be a master finisher of records. But we try as much as possible to take ego out of the equation. It’s total communism behind the scenes; we split everything.
You work with quite an eclectic choice of vocalists and it seems they have a unique edge to their vocal sound. How do you go about choosing them? Do they come to you through management, labels?
Pretty much all the vocalists we use are either established artists or songwriters that we regularly collaborate with. A great voice is one of the most important parts of being a topliner – meaning someone who’s focus is on melodies and lyrics. They need to be able to sell the song you’re writing, so they need to have some of the best voices you’re gonna find.
How did the Dappy–Brian May collaboration on “No Regrets” come about?
When we originally did the record, the label actually wanted Slash. But with Dappy being a UK artist, that was quite a difficult proposition. Brian heard the song and loved the lyrics, so the label, Island, got in touch. It probably helped that Island were doing a big Queen re-issue that year!
What’s the creative process like when you work with vocalists?
Generally it’s as simple as getting in a room together and “daring to fail.” One of us will jump on a piano/guitar or load up a small chunk of a musical idea we prepared earlier in the day, and then we all just start throwing melodies and lyrics at it until a song starts to emerge. Sometimes it works great. We remember a particularly creative evening with Emeli Sandé, where we wrote close to 26 ideas in one evening. Once she gets going, she’s pretty unstoppable. Other times it can take you a whole day to come up with a terrible verse. You just have to keep at it and keep “playing in the sandbox” until you find gold, and try not to worry when you’re writing something below par.
Middle-eights seem to be something you like writing – you always have very powerful ones.
Yes, we love using middle-eights since it’s always an opportunity to have some fun. Whether it’s dropping down, building up, changing chords – it’s that bit in a song where you can really push the boundaries. Now you hear it, now you don’t!
Do you have any routines when producing that are key to helping you stay on top?
When you work from a blank slate, time is of the essence and no artist or songwriter wants to listen to you flick through kick drums for half an hour. Perspective is key, so whatever gets you there quickly is important.
When we're in a session and we need to make someone sound good instantly, without killing our process, the CLA plugins help us get a quick sound. We especially love the CLA Guitars plugin. Time is a precious commodity in our business and being able to rapidly load up a plugin in a dial-in sound as good as the CLA Guitars gives you is incredible.
Or using DeBreath – can you really be bothered to chop out all those breaths yourself? Using these tools to move quickly keeps you fresh on the song.
Organization is key. We can go back to any song we’ve done and lift the kick, snare, bass sound, etc. at the touch of a button. A tidy studio is an efficient studio!
How about your vocal production – do you have any specific techniques you like to use for vocals?
Getting a real analog feel that isn’t ‘perfect’ is important. The Reel ADT plugin is great for that, and also for getting a wonky double, widening a vocal, spreading a pad.
There are a few other tools we like to use. We’ve been using the Waves C4 and C6 compressors for years – getting a smooth vocal, frequency-specific side chain, de-essing, you name it. They’ve got it covered.!
What about mixing drum samples?
If you have a drum groove made up of lots of different samples, you can use the Abbey Road Vinyl plugin to give it cohesion and make it all feel like it’s coming from one place. Lots of people have attempted this [type of effect] before but haven’t quite nailed it, so this is amazing.
More generally, we love to create our own samples, and Abbey Road Vinyl gives us the opportunity to add a real authentic vinyl sound to our recordings. We can create a quick guitar/bass/piano loop, whack the Vinyl plugin on it, cut it up and BAM, instant vintage sampler vibes.
You divide your time, working in the UK and in the US. Do you see any differences in the approach?
Ben: Funnily, the working hours. I’m not sure if it’s because of the sunshine or what, but most sessions in the States seem to go late into the evening – often until the early hours of the morning – whereas working in the UK is usually a daytime event.
We also tend to find that most sessions in the States are firmly aimed towards writing a hit single, while in the UK, it’s a little more relaxed and the aim often seems to be creative satisfaction rather than aiming for the jugular.
Merf: The scene in L.A. has the intensity dialed up: that means more sessions, more hours and arguably more opportunities. But it also means you can be in danger of sacrificing lifestyle and never getting out of the studio! Balance is important!
Which producers do you admire?
Froe: Bloodshy & Avant are firm favorites. They’ve managed to span a near 20-year career at the top while being creative, inventive and individual. They’ve also managed to get two artist projects to the top (Miike Snow and Galantis) and are still very much out of the spotlight – the perfect combination.
Merf: Jeff Bhasker seems to be walking an interesting line between commercial and creative while being involved in a high number of huge projects.
Finally, if you could work with any artist you haven’t collaborated with yet, who would it be?
Merf: Too many to list! Just glancing down my “GOAT” Spotify playlist: Little Dragon, Portishead, Beyoncé, Dizzee Rascal, Drake, Coldplay, Fleetwood Mac, LCD Soundsystem. And that’s just from the Top 30 songs! If l could pick just one, maybe Van Morrison. I love his solo stuff and l love [his first band] Them.
Ben: We’ve been lucky enough over the years to work with most of the people we admire. I think less so the artists, and more the writers/producers that we haven’t worked with are the people we aspire to. Max Martin, Pharrell and Dr. Dre are pretty high up on our lists of people still to tick off.