Music Interviews
5:04 pm
Sat December 8, 2012

Calvin Harris On Dance-Pop As A 'Futuristic Experiment'

Originally published on Sat December 8, 2012 8:14 pm

The Rihanna song "We Found Love" has been a monster radio hit over the past year. But as happens more and more in the world of pop music, it's not the singer, but the producer behind it, who is now in the spotlight.

Scottish-born DJ Calvin Harris is that producer. His new record, 18 Months, is a collection of the many songs he's produced over the last year and a half. Harris says he first began tinkering with music production as a teenager in his bedroom.

"I just got obsessed with it and spent all my time trying to make songs," he says. "I was doing it instead of going to high school, which I don't recommend."

Here, Harris speaks with NPR's Guy Raz about chasing his favorite singers to collaborate, how European dance music infiltrated the U.S., and why his limited vocal range hasn't kept him from singing.


Interview Highlights

On the song "Feel So Close" and his own singing voice

"It's like the same way you experiment with sound — you know, experiment with synths and guitars and make them sound good. [After] 12 years of trying to make my voice sound good in the studio, I finally learned how to do that. I know how to treat my voice to make it sound as good as it possibly can — which is still not that good. There's still a very limited range there, which is why I like working with other people — especially female singers because they suit dance music a lot better. There's only so much you can do with a male voice in dance music."

On working with Florence Welch on "Sweet Nothing"

"I was chasing her to do a track for about two years. She's in Florence and The Machine; they're quite a kind of left-field indie band with these incredible songs, and she's an amazing frontwoman, but she'd never done a dance record before. ... I just really, really didn't want her to do one with someone else if she was ever going to do one because I thought I could do it better than anyone else could. I understand that world better than maybe some other DJs do. So I chased her and eventually convinced her. It's definitely my favorite track on the album."

On 2009 as a turning point in American pop

"I know will.i.am had an obsession with European dance music, and he wanted to work with the DJs that were making it and make some for The Black Eyed Peas. He saw it as a futuristic experiment. So he worked with David Guetta for "I Gotta Feeling," which I believe was their biggest selling record. David just timed it really well with the release of his own stuff. Also, Lady Gaga came along, and she was making [four-on-the-floor] music, which was also unusual. Those two records came along at the same time, and when radio started playing them at the same time and people liked them, it was kind of a snowball effect."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE FOUND LOVE")

RIHANNA: (Singing) We found love in a hopeless place. We found love in a hopeless place. We found love...

RAZ: This is a song by Rihanna. It's called "We Found Love," and it hit number one around the world earlier this year. The song was written and produced by a British deejay named Calvin Harris. He's written a string of smash hits for some of the biggest pop artists in the world. Now, not that long ago, Calvin Harris was living with his parents in Scotland, remixing songs for fun on a computer his brother left at home when he went away to college.

CALVIN HARRIS: I spent more time at home because I was working on music, and I forgot to learn any sort of skills, which was sometimes a problem. But it was OK. I just locked myself in my bedroom and made music.

RAZ: I mean, you locked yourself in your bedroom, made music. And you say you're socially awkward, but you perform in front of tens of thousands of people. You even sing. I mean, the song, "Feel So Close," which is a huge hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL SO CLOSE")

HARRIS: (Singing) I feel so close to you right now it's a force field. I wear my heart upon my sleeve like a big deal.

RAZ: How do you go from being that kid, that kind of socially awkward kid, to being able to do that, to stand in front of tens of thousands of people and perform your music?

HARRIS: It feels like a long time. You know, I first started playing around when I was 14 years old, so that's half my life. You know, I can't really sing, that's another thing. When - I'm on my third album now. When my first two albums came out, I was kind of like the singer in a band that I made up to present the music that I was making in my bedroom, which was quite an interesting concept. But it works in the UK. You know, those records did pretty well.

So I had gotten used to relatively large crowd compared to what I had in my bedroom when I had my cat. And maybe my mom would come in sometimes and not enjoy what she was listening.

RAZ: It's interesting that you talk about your voice that way. When I first heard the song "Feel So Close," I would never have imagined a white kid from Scotland being the voice behind that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL SO CLOSE")

HARRIS: (Singing) I feel so close to you right now it's a force field...

RAZ: How did you sort of discover your voice and the voice that you now sing in?

HARRIS: By, you know, maybe 12 years of trying to make my voice sound good in the studio, I finally learned how to do that - or as good as it could be, you know? So that was what that song was. There's still a very limited range there, which is why I like working with other people, especially female singers because they suit dance music a lot better. There's only so much you can do with a male voice in dance music.

RAZ: One of the female singers you work with is Florence Welch, the lead singer from Florence and the Machine, who has this incredibly powerful voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET NOTHING")

FLORENCE WELSH: (Singing) You took my heart and you held it in your mouth. And with a word, all my love came rushing out...

RAZ: You have her featured in a song called "Sweet Nothing."

HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah. She's incredible. I was chasing her to do a track for about two years. She's an amazing front woman. But she'd never done a dance record before. But I just really, really didn't want her to do one with someone else if she was ever going to do one. So I chased her and eventually convinced her. It's definitely my favorite track on the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET NOTHING")

WELSH: (Singing) But I'm trying to hope with nothing to hold. I'm living on such sweet nothing. And it's hard to learn, and it's hard to love when you're giving me such sweet nothing, sweet nothing, sweet nothing. You're giving me such sweet nothing.

RAZ: That is such an amazing song. It's produced by DJ Calvin Harris. His new record is called "18 Months." Calvin, I lived in the U.K. for many years, and electronic music was always part of the mainstream there, unlike here in the U.S. But that's changed in recent years. I mean, you turn on the radio now and you hear these sounds in almost every pop song. And you have big-name producers and deejays like David Guetta and yourself involved in that process. How do you explain that? How did that come about?

HARRIS: One of the biggest bands in America - biggest pop bands in America - at the time was the Black Eyed Peas - maybe three or four years. And will.I.am had an obsession with European dance music, and he wanted to work with the deejays that were making it and make some for The Black Eyed Peas. He saw it as a futuristic experiment. So he worked with David Guetta for "I Got a Feeling." Also, Lady Gaga came along. She was making four-four music.

RAZ: Four-four, you mean, four-four...

HARRIS: Four-four I mean by, like, the beat, you know, rather than hip-hop - which was also unusual. And those two records came along at the same time. And when radio started playing them at the same time and people liked them, it was kind of a snowball effect. And everybody wanted to make that kind of music.

RAZ: Give us a sense of how you produce a song? Like, break it apart for us. So this song is "Let's Go," which features Ne-Yo. And, as I say, if someone's listening to this in the gym right now, it's not coming from the speakers. It's coming from your headphones from NPR. So, let's take a listen to "Let's Go" for a bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GO")

NE-YO: (Singing) Let's go, make no excuses now, I'm talking here and now, I'm talking here and now. Let's go...

RAZ: How many of these sounds is synthetic and how many of them are real?

HARRIS: In this particular track, probably about 50-50. The main synth riff is about 10 different instruments playing at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GO")

NE-YO: (Singing) Let's go, let's go...

RAZ: And you're playing all of them?

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, most of - all of these instruments here are played by me.

RAZ: So you make most of this music in the computer. I mean, Ne-Yo goes to a studio, he sings. But aside from that, there isn't really much need for a studio, I guess, right?

HARRIS: I mean, there is for the monitors and the fact that I'm playing guitars and basses. I can't make any of my records in front of a laptop, you know? I can't make records on the road. I need to play instruments. That's where I differ from a lot of producers, actually. And that's kind of what helps the sound and make it a little bit more full. You know, like on "Feel So Close," there isn't a single synthetic instrument on there.

RAZ: That whole song is live instrumentation.

HARRIS: Well, yeah, it's as live as any indie band or rock band, because all their stuff runs off computers as well.

RAZ: I was looking at the video for "Feel So Close," and it's had 49 million hits on YouTube. I mean, you're a kid from Dumfries in Scotland, a place that you say is - was the middle of nowhere. Did you ever think about that? Did you ever just think 49 million people have seen that song and (unintelligible)?

HARRIS: No. I never think that. No, I don't. It feels great that it got so popular, but I see it as luck, as well as hard work.

RAZ: That's deejay and producer Calvin Harris. His new record is called "18 Months." Calvin Harris, thank you so much.

HARRIS: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GO")

NE-YO: (Singing) Let's go, let's make it happen, oh, let's make it happen tonight. Let's make it happen, ooh, let's make it happen tonight. Let's make it happen, oh, let's make it happen tonight. Let's make it happen, ooh, let's make it happen...

RAZ: And for Saturday, you've been listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on programs and scroll down. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.