Interview with Record Producer and Songwriter Michael Jay
We sat down with multi-platinum selling record producer and songwriter Michael Jay, and asked him about his career, his lucky breaks and greatest accomplishments. Eminem, Kylie Minogue, Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, Mandy Moore and many more A-list artists have drawn on Michael Jay’s songwriting and producing talents over the years.Michael gives us the inside scoop on why a publishing deal is a good thing and why Nancy Kerrigan (yes, Nancy, the figure skater!) didn’t become a Popstar in the 90s. Growing up in Chicago, Michael didn’t waste any time getting his feet wet in the music industry by zooming to an A&R position for none other than legendary Soul/Funk/R&B artist Curtis Mayfield who owned an independent record label named Curtom Records in Chicago, Illinois.
You’ve seen the progression over time on how a record is produced. Is the recording process different today than back in the ’70s when you started in the music business?
Yes, in fact, my first real insight into what it takes to record an album was watching Curtis Mayfield record in his studio. The way albums were recorded back then was very different than how it is done today. Then, all the musicians were in one room playing instruments and recording music live, which is not really done that way anymore.
You started out as an A&R, but later developed your craft as a songwriter/producer. How did that come about?
Actually, when I moved to L.A. I didn’t even think about writing music as I always thought of myself as being a record executive. So during my transition period to L.A., I started to write songs in my spare time. I also collaborated with various songwriters whom I met while working for multi-Grammy Award winning record producer Jay Graydon (Earth, Wind & Fire, Johnny Mathis, Patti LaBelle, George Benson, Dionne Warwick, etc.). One of those early collaborations was with David Foster and Burt Bacharach.
How did you score your first publishing deal?
I bumped into Alan Melina, who was Vice President of Famous Music (worldwide music publishing division of Paramount Pictures) while we were both on a panel at UCLA. Alan was very interested in getting songs to Graydon, who I knew very well, and in the process Alan heard and liked my material and thought he should take a chance with me. He subsequently signed me to a publishing deal.
What advantages do you see being signed to a publishing deal?
In my case, since the publishing company I was signed to was directly tied to Paramount Pictures, I found myself writing music for films such as “Top Gun” (starring Tom Cruise) and recording with Gloria Estefan within the first year. As such, working with a publisher can grant you access to some high-level projects and the ability to form relationships with top A&Rs.
Another advantage in being signed to a publishing deal came when I wanted to produce my material. Famous Music was extremely supportive not only in developing me as a producer, but also in pitching the material to record labels with myself attached as the producer of the project.This way it was possible to add my own sound to the recordings of my songs which were being released. My first attempt at producing resulted in my first charted hit singles with the popular UK group Five Star.Furthermore, a publisher (and manager) will send you a lot of backing tracks to topline from some of the best producers in the world, which is a great way to tap into new ideas.
Interestingly enough, I hear from a lot of new songwriters that they don’t want to do a publishing deal, because then they can keep their publishing. I dont necessarily agree with that approach, because for all the work the publisher puts in they deserve to get a piece from the outcome and they can be quite effective in developing you as a songwriter/producer as well as in creating new opportunities and connections for you. A key to succeeding is collaboration. When you have other people working with you there are always more opportunities for success.
You just spoke about adding your own sound to a recording, do you try to copy things you hear on the radio?
I dont like to copy, but I certainly listen to all the things on the radio to keep track of the latest sounds and beats. I am a music lover and try to keep abreast of all kinds of music that exists. I even have an entire archive of roughly 20,000 to 30,000 CDs in my office. Some say it looks like a record store the first time they see it.
Some songwriters/producers specialize in one genre. Is that the same with you?
Actually, I like to vary the type of music I write by going to different countries and co-writing with a wide variety of people. For example, in Scandinavia I like to work on Pop material or I fly to Nashville to write Country songs and while at home in L.A. I write a lot of Hip-Hop, because it’s a big Hip-Hop community here. I find Europe especially great for Pop music. I even keep an apartment in Prague and visit London and Copenhagen and various other locations.
What were some of your highlights in the past years that youre particularly fond of.
I had a fantastic time with Kylie Minogue when she came to visit me at my house and work together. She is a great person. Another project I have great memories of is when Celine Dion recorded my song “Declaration Of Love” for her “Falling Into You” album. (The album went on to win a Grammy Award for Album of the Year as well as Best Pop Vocal Album.) But my favorite and most recent success is when rap superstar Eminem recorded a new version of my song “Toy Soldiers” which was originally a hit in the early 90s by Martika, an artist I discovered and developed. It was great that Eminem was able to make our song a hit all over again.
What’s your most recent project?
I just finished a track with Howie Dorough from the Backstreet Boys. I also just finished a new track with Chesney Hawkes who had a hit back in the 90s called “The One And Only.” He’s such a great singer, he deserves to have more hits! Finally, I’m currently developing a rock band project for movie/TV actor Riley Smith (Fox’s “Drive” & “24”).
Why have you been so successful in pitching your music?
Believe it or not, I used to never pitch music myself. Because I spend so much time in the studio I always left the job of pitching songs up to my manager and publishers. But due to digital tools available these days, pitching is much more fun and I enjoy being proactive in placing my material. When I do send out material to an A&R, I like to send out perhaps 1 song at first, because A&Rs then tend to listen to it immediately and give you feedback. If I know the A&R very well, I might send out more.
Back in the 80’s it was easier to get your music placed, but today many artists want to get involved in the writing process, which is perfectly fine by me, because then it allows us to take a common approach and vision to produce the project.
Have you had any fun stories while in the studio?
Actually, there was one amusing project I was involved with, which was with 1993 American Olympic figure skating silver medalist Nancy Kerrigan. Due to her popularity at the time, I thought it would be a great idea to produce some songs with her. So we did it was very funny, because when she came to my studio it took weeks for us to get even one song down, because she didn’t have any vocal training. Universal released it, but it didn’t sell not sure what I was thinking when I thought a figure skater could become a Pop star!? But Nancy is now trying acting with a small role in Will Ferrell’s new comedy “Blades Of Glory.” She’s really open-minded about taking on new challenges. I love that about her.
Given the changes in technology and how the music industry is currently structured, how does that influence new songwriters?
It was easier to make the decision to enter the music business back in the ’70s, because there were more record labels. Now, there are only four major record labels, which means fewer opportunities. Nevertheless, with the advent of digital downloads, companies will need to become comfortable in how music will be sold in the future. It’s still very confusing and will take a bit of time, but eventually there will be more avenues for success in the business.
I also believe that there will be many more independent labels established which will allow people to succeed independently without having to rely on a major corporation. If you asked whether I would want to go into the music business today, I would probably think twice and more likely than not go study at law school or similar. But if you’re determined to pursue a career in the music business, you have to have talent, luck, continue to write music every day and network to get to know a lot of people.
About Michael Jay
Multi-platinum selling record producer and songwriter Michael Jay is based in Los Angeles, where he owns Jambo Studios and continues to work with A-list artists as well as new and developing talent. Past clients include Celine Dion, Kylie Minogue, Jon Secada, Mandy Moore, Lara Fabian, Peter Allen, Eminem and many others. He began his career as an A&R for legendary artist Curtis Mayfield’s record label Curtom Records in Chicago, Illinois.