Industry Profile: Martin Kierszenbaum
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Martin Kierszenbaum
The music industry is awash these days in forecasters, dealmakers and former label executives predicting continuing gloom.
Meanwhile, music industry maverick, Martin Kierszenbaum (aka Cherry Cherry Boom Boom), is having a great time creating and selling music with acts inside pop music traditions but clearly pushing the envelope.
First and foremost, Kierszenbaum is president of A&R, pop & rock at Interscope Records; and president of international operations for Interscope Geffen A&M overseeing a roster that includes 50 Cent, Keri Hilson, Blink-182, the Game, Eminem, and U2.
As well, he is chairman of Cherrytree Records, Interscope's powerhouse indie-styled label with a roster that includes Lady Gaga, Feist, Robyn, the Fratellis, Cinema Bizarre, La Roux, and Tokio Hotel.
An American-born son of two Argentine scientists, Kierszenbaum grew up in South America and Europe before returning to the U.S. to live in New York, Washington D.C., and East Lansing, Michigan. He majored in music, communications and Spanish Literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Kierszenbaum began his music industry career in 1988 interning at Mercury Records subsidiary Wing Records in Los Angeles. Next, he worked in the mailroom at PolyGram Music Group while studying for a Master of Arts degree at the University of Southern California.
In 1989, Kierszenbaum was hired by Warner Bros. and worked for two years as international publicist for such acts as the B-52's, Jane's Addiction, Madonna, Neil Young, Quincy Jones, Chris Isaak, and others.
In 1991, Kierszenbaum was lured away by A&M Records to be a publicist in its international division, becoming VP of international five years later. At A&M, he worked with Sting, Bryan Adams, Sheryl Crow, and Soundgarden, among others.
But, in 1998, lay-offs swept A&M after PolyGram--its parent company--was sold to the Canadian liquor giant Seagram’s, and merged into Universal Music Group.
A handful of artists and employees, among them Kierszenbaum, were folded into Universal’s Interscope unit which, despite a potent roster of cutting-edge acts like Nine Inch Nails and Snoop Dogg, had no international profile.
Kierszenbaum was tapped by Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Interscope Geffen A&M, to create and head the international division of the newly-formed IGA label group. At IGA, Kierszenbaum has been instrumental in establishing and developing the international careers of Eminem, Limp Bizkit, Gwen Stefani, Nelly Furtado and the Black Eyed Peas.
In 2001, at Iovine’s request, Kierszenbaum began doing A&R for the division while continuing to run its international operations.
One of his first discoveries — signed in a partnership with Universal’s Russian affiliate — was the Russian teenage girl duo t.A.T.u., whom he also wrote and produced for. The group's breakthrough "All the Things She Said," co-written by Kierszenbaum, spent 4 weeks at #1 on the UK chart.
In 2003, Kierszenbaum and Nick Gatfield, then president of Universal Island, signed British band Keane as part of a joint venture. Keane's 2004 album, “Hopes and Fears” debuted at #1 on the UK albums chart, and has sold over 5.5 million copies worldwide.
Kierszenbaum started his Cherrytree imprint in 2005 with the release of Feist's album "Let It Die.” Feist’s second Cherrytree album “The Reminder” in 2007 received a substantial boost when “1234” was featured in a commercial for the iPod Nano. It achieved U.S. gold status and garnered 4 Grammy nominations.
In 2004, Kierszenbaum happened to talk to Flipsyde's manager on the day the band was auditioning for Warner Bros. Kierszenbaum asked for a CD, The next day, he was in Oakland listening to the band play in a garage. The following day Flipsyde had a contract. Kierszenbaum later co-wrote and co-produced "Happy Birthday," their top 5 European breakthrough hit.
Why Kierszenbaum is having a better year than most music industry executives is because he co-wrote and produced 4 songs on Lady Gaga's stunning recent debut album, including the title track "The Fame.”
The album's lead single,” Just Dance” topped the charts in 6 countries. The follow-up single, "Poker Face" reached #1 in nearly 20 countries.
“The Fame” reached #1 in Austria, the U.K. Canada, and Ireland; and #4 in Australia, and the U.S. It has sold 3 million units to date globally.
Kierszenbaum’s creative moniker Cherry Cherry Boom Boom is referenced in the Lady Gaga’s "Eh Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)” which he co-wrote. He has also used such aliases as B. Recluse, K-Bomb, Hennesy Williams, MK Chilly Dog and Robots to Mars for his writing and production work.
How did you come to co-write four songs on Lady Gaga’s debut album?
The first time I met her she came into my office. She didn’t look like Lady Gaga yet. She was a brunette. But she was dynamic, and had that exuberant personality we all know now. She hadn’t recorded any of those songs—“Just Dance” or “Pokerface”—yet. She was brought into the company by Vincent Herbert (who signed Lady Gaga to his Streamline Records label, a joint venture with Interscope). Then Akon (Aliaune “Akon” Thiam) got involved.
She started talking about Prince saying “He’s the greatest.” Well, I love Prince too. So we started talking about his records. I said, “Come to my studio, and let’s work. If you like Prince, and you want to get down, let’s do it. I have all of the old drum machines, and all of the old keyboards.”
She came over, and the first song we wrote was “The Fame.” She then told me, “I love this song. I want to call my album this.” So my song becomes the anchor for the album. She developed a whole campaign, aesthetic and persona for it. We ended up writing three more songs including "Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)" which went to #2 in Sweden. It’s also the single in France.
Didn’t the album break out first in international markets?
It really did. It simultaneously broke out of Sweden and Canada. Jeremy Summers (VP marketing & promotion, Universal Music Canada) was like a superman on it. He got CKOI in Montreal to put (“Just Dance”) on. It just spread from there. Jeremy went to #1 with that record in Canada before the U.S. had even got one station on it. On an American artist (in Canada), that is an achievement. Jeremy came to Los Angeles; I introduced Lady Gaga to him; and he saw her perform. He was blown away. I said to him, “If you go with the record, I will support you. I’ll get you a video. I’ll send her to Canada. Let’s do it!” He stuck his neck out, and brought it home.
In Sweden, (Universal’s GM) Johan Lindgren led his marketing and promotion staff with "Just Dance” and having the video and having the artist in the market.
Shortly thereafter, our Australian (Universal) friends--led by (managing dir. George Ash and (GM of marketing) Tim Kelly-- jumped in, and broke Lady Gaga in Australia (Lady Gaga also had the theme song for “Australia’s Next Top Model” which helped there). She’s broken in every country since thanks to our Universal affiliates around the world.
Before “The Fame” album was released, there were over 25 sync placements. That’s unusual.
That’s how we do it at Cherrytree. It’s the new way. I want to infiltrate culture. I want to use lifestyle techniques. And, also, radio needs support. You can’t ask a radio station to just go out there with a song that nobody knows. So we try to get underneath (the traditional system). It’s nice if you have the big crossover record, and sell lots of units like Keane or Lady Gaga. But if you don’t, you need some back-up support (in the market).
So that’s what I always want to do. I want to create a real act with a fan base using the Internet, press, remixes in clubs, web episodes, touring, and personal appearances to really touch fans directly. Then, if we get the crossover song, we will sell three times as much, hopefully.
Was it a fluke getting Feist’s “1234” in a IPod Nano commercial?
Cherrytree has had two syncs with Apple. The other one was the Fratellis. Was it a fluke? It’s a total gift, of course. At the same, I feel that our tastes converge a lot (with Apple). Look, I like slightly left-leaning pop. Apple is attracted to that. So I don’t know. Was it a fluke? Yes, it was a fluke but was it influenced by the music, and our taste in music? I’d like to think so.
Feist’s iPod spot marks the first time Apple has used footage from an artist's music video (in this case, directed by Patrick Daughters) in one of its ad campaigns.
It was the first one to use video because the Nano happened to be video compatible. So it was a bonus.
While the iPod Nano spot introduced Feist’s music to mainstream America, she is not identified in the campaign. How did you link the artist to the song in the commercial?
You have to remember that her “Let It Die” album came out in 2005 (as Cherrytree’s first release). Two years later, we put out the next record (“The Reminder”). We had sold 200,000 (units) in America off that record before the IPod spot. People forget that. She was already performing in theatres. We had done the work for 2 1/2 years before the IPod spot hit. The IPod spot connected the dots we were already drawing.
Will we see a new Feist studio record soon?
We will see a Feist movie in DVD. She’s putting together a movie of this footage she collected (in the past few years). She’s been editing it in Toronto for awhile now. The movie will come out when it’s ready. I thought it was going to come out in November (2009) but when I saw her recently she said, “I am also processing my ride (of success) as I am doing this.” She wants to understand what happened to her over the past few years, and the movie is helping her. She said she didn’t know when it would be done. I told her, “When it’s done, we’ll put it out.”
Cherrytree seems to operate as a boutique label within Interscope.
Yeah. I started it in 2005. Jimmy (Iovine) was very encouraging about it. The concept, indeed, was to have an areas where we could incubate things in a methodical, steady way but still have the muscle when we needed to take (a project) worldwide and mainstream. Feist described (the label) best. She said that “Cherrytree is like a boutique store inside of a department store.” I like that analogy. That is what we’ve tried to be.
You seem to have taken influences from different parts of your career to build the label.
I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great artists and a lot of great executives in environments where music was first. Obviously, the A&M part was my formative years. I worked at Warners before that, during the Mo (Ostin) and Lenny (Waronker) times.
Warners was a major label in the ’70 and ‘80s but it felt like it was run as a boutique label.
That’s how it felt. Probably because there were always musical people at the helm. Lenny was a producer and Herb (Alpert) was right there (at A&M) the whole time. I only got about 2 1/2 years of Herb and Jerry (Moss) at A&M but it was enough to learn what the tone should be of a label. That you respect and protect artists and amplify their vision without distorting it. That sort of is the idea behind Cherrytree.
Why did you feel the need to have a label when you already had you hands full running the International division, and doing A&R at Interscope?
(The label) became about branding my taste in a way. I am attracted to a certain type of act that is slightly left of centre pop that we can bring the mainstream towards. I like pop music, but I like it with a twist. I was gravitating toward those groups anyway (in my signings). Jimmy encouraged me to brand (signings with a label). The label created this comfort level that attracted artists like Feist. That’s why I think I did it. I also liked the idea of running a boutique label. It’s rewarding.
Had you been aware of Feist through her working with Broken Social Scene?
Actually, no. I knew about her from my European colleagues. My friend Jean-Philippe Allard, who was running PolyGram France, had signed her for the world. She was living in France at the time. She was making the record with (producer) Renaud Letang that became “Let It Die,” and Jean-Philippe signed her. I also heard about her through David Joseph (then co-president of Polydor Records and president of Universal Music Operations in the UK). He’d gotten a letter from Jean-Philippe as well about Feist. So I heard about her from both of them.
When you finally heard one of Feist’s demos, how did you react?
I flipped out for her voice, I and went to see her right way in a little club in Rotterdam. To me, her voice is very intimate. It has a bit of reediness. It has this breathiness. It’s my favourite kind of voice. it is almost impossible that it exists but it just does. I saw her, and I flipped out again. The club was jam packed with people hanging off the stairwells. She was playing with just her guitar and (using) some effect pedals, doing the delay thing she does. But she had the swagger of a matador. I always call her “The Matador” and she laughs. But she has this toreador thing, this magnetic presence.
You are one of the few people at an American label that is a true internationalist. What’s your background?
I spent my formative years -- high school and college -- in Michigan. My parents are both from Argentina so I lived there. My first language is Spanish. I’ve always spoken Spanish at home; I still do. (After college), I ended up moving to LA from Michigan. I put everything in my car and drove out here.
I got a job interning for (producer) Ed Eckstine at Wing Records (a Mercury Records subsidiary that had Vanessa Williams and Tony! Toni! Toné!). I worked my way up to the mail room at Polygram in Burbank. I was so happy to be in the mail room because I got paid to live in LA, and I could get free chicken at the John Cougar Mellancamp release parties. I got to clean up the parties, and take home the left over food.
Then I got this call from Warner Bros. in 1989. They saw on my resume that I spoke Spanish. They said, “Come over, we have a job in the international department (headed by Tom Ruffino, VP of International). If you can type, and speak Spanish, you have a job.” They gave me a typing test which I passed. I didn’t really know what (international) was. The job paid more than the mail room so I said, “Okay, I’m going.” I was over the moon. And I start learning about international.
The international department of a label in those days was a sleepy little department.
It was where you sent the bad people from the domestic company. It’s true.
How developed was the international department at Warners then?
There were no fax machines when I joined. No telex machines. No computer. They weren’t set up like thy are now. It was still WMI (Warner Music International) but we went directly to the affiliates (to attain releases).
Back then American acts stayed in the North America for most of the time.
Yeah. It was an uphill battle for Tom. However, he did have a lot of successes. Paul Simon sold a lot of records outside of the U.S. So did Madonna. We had a-Ha and Rod Stewart. There were a lot of acts. I just saw Depeche Mode at the Hollywood Bowl. I remember (receiving) their “Violator” platinum plaque in 1990.
I was there for two years working with the most amazing acts. Warner Bros. was probably the greatest label in the history of the record business in those years. I caught the tail end of that. I caught the mid-to-late end of Warner’s hey-day. (Producer) Ted Templeman worked there. Benny Medina was there at the time. It was amazing being part of that. .
Much of your career has been working international markets. You have an international perspective. That always wasn’t appreciated.
I got the job at Warners because I had lived in South America and in Europe. I totally got treated like a geek for that. All of a sudden there’s an application for it. Wow. I have language skills. Over time, I was fortunate to get involved (further) in international as it became a real business, and became a big part of a record companies’ business. It went from being the most uncool section to now that, if you are well versed in being international, you have a leg up on people. So I’ve just been lucky.
Twenty years ago international reps in North America would turn down acts from abroad. Overseas, international reps would say “American acts don’t work here.” The MTVing of the world pushed those barriers aside.
Also the wholly-owned affiliate operations became real international. So you knew you were going to get paid when you sold records. There wasn’t some crazy licensee that wasn’t going to pay you. That meant you could now invest in tour support to sent an artist over there. I went through all of these ups-and-downs. But in the process I got to work with people who taught me a lot, from Tom to Jay Durgan (then senior VP of international at A&M).
You next went to work with Jay Durgan at A&M international?
What happened is that Warner had a huge international hit with the B-52s with “Love Shack” (reaching #2 in the UK, and #1 for 8 weeks in Australia) in 1989. I worked on that project doing international publicity. Their managers Martin Kirkup and Steve Jensen (of Direct Management Group, Inc.) told Jay Durgan at A&M about me. Jay called me and asked for me to come over and talk with him. Polygram had bought A&M in 1989, and laid off a third of their staff. That’s why Jay got elevated to the head of international.
You were happy at Warners?
I was working with all of my favorite artists, and they were on fire at the time. But I said “Okay.” So, I go to see Jay, and I loved him. He was so aggressive about everything. He offered me a raise. I remember saying to him, “Thanks man but I’m cool at Warner Bros.” A few days later, he calls and says, “How about if I pay you this much (more)?” I thought, “Okay, that’s interesting.” I told him if he really wanted me to come and work over there that I wanted a new computer. This was before anyone (in the music industry) was computerized. We were all still sending telexes.
Jay said, “We don’t have any computers in the department.” But I insisted that I wanted an Intel 386 microprocessor. He said, “Okay, I will get you a computer and it will be on your desk a month from when you start working here. You will also help me computerize the department.” I went there because of that.
While you worked international at A&M, a number of acts there translated their hits from English to Spanish and re-recorded them.
After Bryan Adams, with your help, re-recorded his 1991 hit "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You" in Spanish, he played Mexico City, and got booed for singing in Spanish.
How do you know about that? That was something I was never able to explain to Bryan. That record went #1 in Mexico but the only people that can afford the front seats of the arena in Mexico are the international English speakers. So when Bryan was onstage, all he heard was those guys saying, “Sing it in English. Sing it in English.” I was in the back with 20,000 kids going crazy, yelling “Sing it in Spanish.” But Bryan never saw that.
It was the craziest night. You know those glow sticks that people spin around? Someone cut one of those, and spun it around so the liquid went everywhere. It went in my eye. After the show, I went backstage and my eye was just burning. Bryan opened up a first aid kit to rinse my eye with some saline solution. I think he was mad at me (for being booed), but he felt sorry for me because my eye was hurt.
You did similar projects with Sting, and Diana Krall.
I only worked in the studio one day with Diana and (producer) Tommy LiPuma for one track. With (producer) Mutt Lange and Bryan, it was three weeks because we did several songs. I would write the Spanish lyrics, and I would coach Bryan on how to sing (them). He’s got a great ear. I’m like 23 or 25 and I’m in the studio with Mutt Lange and Bryan Adams. Nobody even sees Mutt Lange. I spent three weeks with the guy asking him every possible question about AC/DC, Def Leppard, and Graham Parker. I went crazy. That was in 1992.
Your relationship with Sting dates back to A&M.
I met Sting the week after joining A&M. I had traveled to Atlanta to supervise an interview with a Dutch publication for his “Soul Cages” project. I went backstage at the Fox Theater to take him to the interview room. We both got in the elevator there. It was an old elevator where you have to open the screen door manually when you arrive at your floor. In the elevator, Sting was holding a plate, trying to squeeze in his supper before doing the interview.
When we got to the floor and the elevator stopped, I spaced and didn’t open the screen. Sting couldn’t because his hands were holding the plate. So, the elevator automatically went back down to our original floor. Sting looked at me and said, “You fucked up.” I’ll never forget that.
You handled the international marketing of the Leonard Cohen tribute album “Tower of Song” for A&M in 1995
I have a signed (Leonard Cohen) lithograph in my office I’m looking at right now. It was an incredible experience. I went to see him and Kelly Lynch (Cohen’s then manager married to Steve Lindsey who was producing A&M artist Aaron Neville at the time) with (A&M’s) U.S. product manager Celia Hirschman when Leonard was staying at a house in Hollywood.
We are at a table in the kitchen and Leonard starts talking about how he sees the project launching. All of sudden, we hear this inferno screech outside of the house, and then a car crash sound. So Leonard, in the midst of a sentence, gets up and walks downstairs. We all follow. He’s in a suit. There’s been a car crash right outside of his house. A grandmother, her grandson and another person are involved. Everybody is okay but they are shaken up. Leonard asks the grandmother to come in. He gives her a glass of water. He lets her call someone. An hour goes by. The cops come, and everything is cool. Finally, we go upstairs again. We sit down, and Leonard starts the sentence from where he had left off. That was unbelievable.
[In 1995, A&M Records released “Tower of Song” with 13 high-profile artists that had recorded Cohen compositions. The project featured Billy Joel, Sting, Don Henley, Elton John, Trisha Yearwood, Bono, Tori Amos, Aaron Neville, Peter Gabriel, Jann Arden, Suzanne Vega, Martin Gore of Depeche Mode, and the Chieftains (paired with Sting).]
Seagram's $10.6 billion acquisition of PolyGram in 1998 led to the merging of PolyGram and MCA under the renamed Universal Music Group. Geffen Records and A&M Records were merged into Interscope. Was that a difficult transition period?
Most of my friends at A&M, unfortunately, were let go. It was very hard to lose a lot of friends and colleagues. I worked at A&M almost 10 years. That was tough.
When Seagram’s bought Polygram, I had been running A&M International. Jay had already moved on to the Polygram job (as Senior VP, international, for PolyGram Holdings). Interscope didn’t have a strong international situation so they kept me. I came over with a few of my team and started the international division here from scratch.
Jimmy throws you in a pool, and either you swim or you don’t.
I had worked with Jay Durgan, David Munns (former Sr. VP of Pop Marketing of PolyGram who was then managing Bon Jovi), and with Bruce Allen (manager of Bryan Adams), lots of people. So I felt pretty good about my knowledge of international. I was pretty confident. I took a stand about how to do (the job) and Jimmy had faith in me. He backed me with resources, and we started getting traction.
It was difficult at first because Interscope had initially focused on building its domestic market share. Remember, they weren’t wholly owned. They were creating value for the company. It wasn’t a part of the process to invest internationally. So I had my work cut out for me in getting them to give me the resources. But I was able to make some compelling arguments. I took a couple of chances, and they panned out. When that happens, they give you more chances.
Among the early Interscope successes after the merger was Limp Bizkit. Their second album “Significant Other” debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 In 1999.
Limp Bizkit was the big (success). I definitely felt like I might be fired every day for the first year. I would say crazy stuff like, Give me $60,000 for tour support, and I'll sell 500,000 units.” I remember saying to Jimmy, “If I don’t do it, you can fire me.” He laughed, and said, “I like that deal. Here you go.” Jimmy was very supportive. I think he just liked that I was kind of nuts.
It took several years for Black Eyed Peas to break but you were working them internationally from early on.
Before Fergie (Stacy 'Fergie' Ferguson) even joined the group. I loved the Peas even before I came to work here. I was a big fan of the first album (“Behind the Front” in 1998). When I got here, I started touring them around the world. In fact, the first gold record ever was from Australia. I was sending them everywhere. We believed in that group from the very beginning. It ended up paying off. Fergie did join and then they had the big commercial song ("Where is the Love” featuring Justin Timberlake in 2003). We (international) were the first to really break them. We started with the big units.
Along with Black Eyed Peas, there’s a whole list of Interscope acts that have impacted globally, including Vanessa Carlton, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog, Nelly Furtado,
Look, a lot of it has been our department being at the right place at the right time. What can I say? We’ve also had the belief and support of all of Cherrytree/Interscope's Universal affiliates around the world.
While at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, you performed in a bilingual rap act, Maroon.
Maroon was, basically, me and my friend Will (M.C. Will E.P.) in the same dorm. You have to remember that in 1984, you didn’t have guys in Michigan doing hip hop. People today think that hip hop has always been everywhere. It wasn’t. I loved hip hop and I met Will, who was from Chicago, and he loved hip hop. There was no Internet. All we knew about (hip hop) was from reading borrowed copies of Jet magazine and watching some videos, and listening to some 12-inches we’d get from Detroit.
Your parents are scientists. What did they think of you performing hip hop?
They thought I was crazy. But I loved hip hop. I would listen to WJLB in Detroit. So I got together with Will and we made this record. I produced it; and he rapped. We made an album called “The Funky Record” on Arb Recordings named after the arboretum in Ann Arbor (the common spot for Ann Arbor's students to gather at the University of Michigan).
We sent the album to the Village Voice and Robert Christgau rated it A-. Next to our record was Boogie Down Productions with a B+, Run-DMC with a B+ and Ice-T a B+. All of a sudden, we started getting calls. We began trying to sell the album on consignment. It didn’t go anywhere because we were goofy kids. You can still get copies of it. It’s pretty funny.
[Wrote Richard Christgau in the Village Voice: The Funky Record [Arb, 1988] College wise-asses is all they are, biting the Beasties as if they'd made the shit up, stealing hooks from operas and disco records I never even heard of (or heard, anyway). Their gimmick is that they're not stupid (or stoopid, whatever)--mention Icarus, dis guys who don't know their mikes from their dicks ("should be castrated," very funny). Also dis Reagan and Koch, for that "political" touch. Pure opportunism. Must admit I get off on their skinny little beats, though. Beats count for a lot with this shit. A-.
Being in a band gave you your first taste of dealing with the music business?
I was always the guy the other guys (in bands) nominated to talk to the club owner or the local writer. They didn’t want to do it. So I found that, in my circle, there was a need for someone to interface on the business side then to play in the band. So, I slowly began to go away from the performance (side). But I’ve always loved songwriting.
Did you get away from songwriting during the 9 years you worked at A&M under Polygram’s roof?
The truth is that the culture at Polygram was very different than the culture is at Universal. Polygram was a very marketing driven company at the time. There were two different areas of the company. This is after Herb and Jerry left (A&M).. Basically, you were a marketing guy or you were an A&R guy. A&R guys made the record, turned it in, and got out of the way. Marketing guys sold the record and didn’t talk about the A&R.
In international, we had a bit of leeway because we would adapt product (for individual markets). We would do remixes or whatever. But, for the most part, the culture of Polygram was, “You do this; you do that” which was good for me. It made me hunker down and put (songwriting) to the side. I would write at home but (my songwriting) was never integrated into my life.
Meanwhile (at the label) I was learning about P&L statements. Polygram sent me to management classes and I learned about the stock market and other things. This was very good for me. It made me very disciplined (as a business person). It taught me how to run a department.
How did you start to do A&R at Interscope?
Jimmy noticed I was pretty musical and he asked me about my background. The minute I told him his next request was that if I was out there selling Limp Bizkit records, could I find (an act) from outside (the U.S.) to sign. If you think about it, it sounds like a simple thing (to request) but no chairman of a U.S. label was saying that. Nobody was looking for outside stuff. (The U.S. music business) was very myopic and insular then. So when he said that to me I was like, “Wow.” Slowly, I began to integrate my two sides. I didn’t have to punch out and go write music and punch in. It made my life so much happier.
Jimmy’s got a background too of taking creative risks, like grabbing Eminem early on and sending the tape to Dr. Dre.
What about Nelly Furtado working with Timbaland? What about that one? Jimmy doesn’t think inside a box. That’s the thing I have benefited from here. I’m very lucky. Most guys would have said (to me), “You have sold us a bunch of records internationally. Sell some more.” He said that but he also asked, “Can you contribute in this (A&R) way as well?” He gave me a chance (to sign acts). Who was the last international guy to cross over to A&R at a major company?
t.A.T.u.--the duo of Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova--came to you through Universal in Russia in 2002?
Universal Russia had done their deal three months before, and were presenting (their CD) to everyone. I think they had already made the rounds of every label (within Universal). They had taken the girls to the New York labels, and everything. I guess I was the farthest away from Russia because they didn’t send it to me right away.
So I got this disc, and I popped it in. it was all in Russian. I was mesmerized by their voices. it reminded me of ABBA, and I am a huge ABBA fan. Over the next few days, I found myself becoming addicted to (the songs) and singing phonetically along with them in Russian. Their voices are so high. The music, which was primarily composed by this young composer in Russia (Elena Kiper), seemed to have elements of what I imagined to be Russian folk music and modern music, whatever the MTV influence was. I just thought, “Wow, it’s great music and great voices but there’s also this cultural component to it.” I was attracted to that.
Did you go to Russia and see them?
I sent an e-mail to the head of Universal Russia saying I had heard the record. I asked if they had English versions (of any songs) or if there was a video. It took a week to get a response. I was told the girls had never sung in English but that they were sending me a video (of “Ya Soshla S Uma” eventually released in English as "All The Things She Said") that was taking off on MTV Russia. Another week goes by and this video lands on my desk. I put it on, and I flip out.
Reality check here. A Russian pop act that doesn’t speak English?
I didn’t know what I was going to do. I remember going to Jimmy and saying I need some help. He said, “Do they speak English?" I said they didn’t really speak English. He asked what was I going to do with them. I said, “I’ll sub-title the video.”I just had to say something. He said, “Okay, go do it. “ We ended up doing a joint venture with Universal Russia.
Was it pretty cool co-writing a #1 in the UK for four weeks with t.A.T.u.”s "All The Things She Said?:
Man, that was amazing.
How did Trevor Horn come to produce t.A.T.u.? How did you get involved in their production as well?
Jimmy was having lunch with Trevor Horn and he asked me to join them. I played Trevor the t.A.T.u. stuff ,and I said, “I think this could be Frankie (Goes To Hollywood) 2002. What do you think?” He said, “This is crazy. Let’s do it.” So we went in the studio with two girls who barely spoke English. One didn’t speak English at all. The other had some schooling. We did (vocals) phonetically. All my experience coaching people how to sing in Spanish came in handy.
Then Trevor said, “Look man, I will do the singles for you but you can’t afford me for the rest of the album. You should do did it yourself.” I talked to my wife and she said if Trevor said I should be able to do it, then I should do it.. So I did it and the album (“200 km in the Wrong Lane”) sold 5 million copies and we had a #1 hit. That was nice. That sort of rekindled my songwriting (career) and it legitimized it in terms of the industry.
The only reason that I am in this business is because I am a musician. That’s what I love to do. I studied piano for years. I’ve got a degree in music theory. (Songwriting is) all I ever wanted to do.
You’ve been both a co-producer and co-writer for Flipsyde.
Flipsyde was a band I’d signed without intending to write for. I’m very shy about writing because I don’t want to have a conflict, ever. My primary job is to get up in the morning, and think about my artists. I don’t necessarily have to write or work with them or I wouldn’t be signing acts like Keane or Feist. I prefer self-contained acts because you can get more done. But every once in awhile I will get an act that will ask if I want to work with them in the studio. Flipsyde was one of them. It was the one song "Happy Birthday" also featuring Piper and t.A.T.u.] that I produced (with Robert Orton) on the record. it went top three in 6 different countries in Europe.
How did you come to sign Swedish pop singer Robyn for the U.S. in 2005 so many years after her American breakthrough with "Show Me Love" and "Do You Know (What It Takes)" in 1997?
My friend Nick Gatfield (then president of Universal Island) walked into my office and threw a CD onto my desk and said, “You are going to love this.” I’ve been friends with Nick for a long time. He and I had signed Keane together as a co-venture.
I obviously knew Robyn but I don’t even think I had heard "Konichiwa Bitches" which was the set-up track that was starting to get played.” He said to play ‘Cobra Style.’ I remember the feeling. It was the same feeling I had with t.A.T.u. I put it in and I went crazy. Her voice. Everything.
Robin had started her own record label (Konichiwa Records) out of her kitchen after becoming disillusioned with the BMG system. She built the label up from the ground herself which is so cool. Her record had already sold a bunch in Scandinavia and was starting to filter over to the UK. Pete Tong started to play it on BBC’s Radio 1. So Nick was on the hunt to get North American rights. She had made it clear to him that she only wanted to do a deal with him for parts of the world. She was going to carve out the U.S. and Canada. He didn’t have a chance of getting it.
The next day I called him and said, “I am obsessed with this artist. What do I do?” He said I had to call Robyn because she runs her own label. So I just stalked her. I flew here, there and everywhere. I met her manager in New York and LA. Fortunately, she decided to come with us. Again, I think it was because of the Cherrytree (boutique) thing.
What new releases do you have coming on Cherrytree?
We have a bunch of releases coming out before the end of the year. We just released the album “Bang” by a German band called Cinema Bizarre. They are like a mix of the New York Dolls, Sweet, Duran Duran and Adam and the Ants. They are a little glammy. We have a La Roux record this month (September). We have a Tokio Hotel album coming in October. We also have an album in October by a guy called Space Cowboy (real name Nick Dresti) who has been in Lady Gaga’s group for about a year.
You have launched a multi-media, social networking site (cherrytreerecords.com) for which you write and produce original content, including overseeing the live performance program.
I want to create a cultural destination (on the net). We don’t limit (content) to Cherrytree acts. We showcase acts that fall under the pop alternative umbrella. We created this radio station that has been running for a year now. We have artists do radio shows. I do a radio show called “Martin’s Vinyl Vault” in which I play music from my vinyl collection. We also do a show in my office called “The Cherrytree House.” where artists come and perform, and we film it. Lady GaGa, Sting, Robyn, Keane and Feist have all come in and performed.
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.