British producer James Sanger is the magnificent creator of an inspirational and timeless sound where organic and electronic vibes beautifully fuse together. In his studio he has recorded with the likes of Phil Collins, Mel C or Siobhan Donaghy, just to name a few. Recently, two records he has worked on –Dido’s ‘No Angel’ and Keane’s ‘Hopes and Fears’– have reached the top five in the ‘Best Albums of all Time‘ list voted by BBC Radio 2 listeners.
For his brilliant contribution to pop music, he is one of the most admired musicians by ARTPOPstudio and last week we had the honour of meeting him to discuss his prolific career.
When did you discover your passion for music?
I think I started recognizing the power of music as a young child. At that time I had really bad asthma and if I had an attack my mother would rock me to sleep while singing. These health problems got worse as I grew up and I had many intense near death experiences. It was around age 8 that I started writing poems and songs. I attribute this to the times when I was feeling that I wanted and needed to leave something behind. I remember at the age of 15 I wrote a book of poems that I printed. I went around book shops trying to get them ‘on sale or return’… I used to enter Poetry and Prose reading competitions and I even won a few as a youngster.
What are your early references in terms of sound and production?
I was and still am a big fan of Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, Sid Barret, Durrutti Column, New Order, Brian Eno, David Bowie, King Crimson, Joy Divison, The Cure, Kate Bush, David Gilmour, Annie Lennox… I really like the sound of people who are being free, creating what it’s in their hearts rather than what they think will sell or will be ‘acceptable on radio’.
One of your first jobs was assisting Brian Eno in the studio. How did you find the collaboration? Could you talk about this experience?
Well… actually I kinda got the gig out of a disastrous situation that would have been a crushing blow if it hadn’t worked out the way it did. I’ll tell you the story: I was working –programming, synths…– with Bryan Ferry at his studio. Brian Eno –my hero!– was booked to come in and play keyboards for a few songs we were working on. Brian Eno arrived with an old synth called a Yamaha DX7. I had not used one before and I plugged it in to my midi rig in the normal way you plug in keyboards: in and out. It worked ok for a few minutes, then the DX7 went completely mad. The keyboard started playing weird notes that were out of order. Also what was most worrying is that the special memory banks had disappeared. Everyone at the studio basically thought I had broken it somehow and I was in the firing line as it looked like it was my fault. Brian was naturally a bit concerned and cheesed off; not exactly furious, but not relaxed and happy either.
I begged Brian to let me take the DX7 away for the weekend to figure out what was wrong with it and fix it. I think that he said ok because I couldn’t make it any worse than I’d already made it.
So I took it away for the weekend and tried to find out everything I could about DX7 –it was a special one with the ‘Grey matter’ memory board–. Eventually I found out that some kind of midi feedback had occurred and had turned on a strange pitch table that disabled the extra memory slots. Once I turned it back, it was all fine: disaster over, phew! (laughs)
On the Monday morning I made sure I was outside Brian’s own studio at 9 a.m. with the DX7 and a letter explaining what the problem had been, how I had fixed it and what to do in the future to prevent it from happening again. He took the keyboard back and read the letter while I waited. Seconds later he offered me a job on the spot! I was taken aback. To be offered a gig programming for him was like an amazing dream come true.
Since 1999, your unique style has been requested by big names such as Phil Collins and U2. How would you define your own sound?
I was asked by Phil Collins to work with him on the album called ‘Testify‘ after I had been working with Mike Rutherford and Alex James from Blur. I was told by Phil that Mike had rung him up to share how amazing my programming was. At first, I was worried that Phil might have wanted me to just do protools and not need me for the creative and trippy programming I am more excited doing… but Phil wrote me a letter assuring me I’d have artistic freedom. I went to Switzerland for a fantastic album session in an old chateau. Phil Collins has a genuineness and sincerity that stands him out from the crowd as a credible artist with musical integrity.
Phil Collins – ‘Wake Up Call’, third single of ‘Testify’ (2002)
What projects are you most proud of? Why?
I suppose I would say that the most exciting tracks to have worked on would be Dido‘s ‘Here With Me’; Keane‘s ‘Bedshaped’, ‘Sunshine’ or ‘Under the Walnut Tree’; Siobhan Donaghy‘s ‘So you Say’, ‘Don’t Give It Up’ or ‘Medevac’ and more recently Kidd Feather‘s ‘Sirene’. Also I have been working with the band Felix Pallas and we have done some new sounding unique material!
Dido – ‘Here With Me’ (1998)
As well as producing, you are a brilliant A&R. What are the main differences between these two roles?
It is flattering to say that. I see myself as A&R in the traditional role which is artist development. I help to define the sound and feel of an artist’s songs. I have been lucky to be at the beginning of several careers and to consult the artists along their way. I suppose a good artist developer, producer or A&R would be able to balance the artist, help to keep the right audience/artist equilibrium. Sometimes you need to give your artists confidence, sometimes you have to be there to stop them making mistakes or you have to help them take risks… I like to give artists longevity and this comes out of concentrating on the songs, making sure that the production is true to the song and not just full of new gimmicks and trends.
…Taking about being at the beginning of the careers, you worked with Mel C so closely in the recording of ‘Northern Star’, her first solo album. Could you tell us about the process of developing this new direction?
I moved to LA to work with Mel C and the amazing songwriters Rick Knowles and Billy Steinberg. I was there providing ‘vibes, beats and trippy programming’. A lot of these recordings made it almost unchanged to the master recordings, but some where completely re-done. Mel C is another artist who has real depth, a lot more than you come to expect from modern day corporate girl band pop acts. In my honest opinion, this kind of empathic spirituality is what was captured in that record. While I was in the States I worked for Madonna, KD Lang and a few more Sinead O’Connor tracks. I also worked with Bryan Adams. Hollywood and Studio City in Los Angeles have an exciting feeling. Rick asked me to stay there but I decided against it in the end. I like the countryside too much!
Melanie C – ‘Northern Star’, second single from her first solo album (1999)
In 2001, you discovered Keane and produced their critically acclaimed debut. How did you feel about their success? Did you expect something that big the first time you met them?
When I first met Keane they were a kind of loud rock band with screaming guitars and wide, slow, epic choruses. I had just finished working on Dido‘s ‘No Angel’ and was looking to find a band to do a similar thing with. Keane had good songs, but I felt they were wasted in their big rock sound. I asked them if they fancied coming to France to develop a new sound with me. They were happy to do so and they signed a development deal with me. Sadly their success co-incided with the illness and death of my Mother. The album ‘Hopes and Fears’ to me represents a great sadness in my life.
Keane – ‘Bedshaped’, third single of ‘Hopes and Fears’ (2004)
Tell us about your current projects…
I have been really busy over the last few years. I co-produced the Mumiy Troll album ‘Vladivostok’, I also developed, co-wrote and produced an album with the band Rubylux who signed to BMG…
Last year I spent six months developing an artist called Kidd Feather who I really believe is breaking boundaries. He is brave and relentlessly passionate. We had a fantastic time making the wildest and most wonderful record, totally without any limitations or reservations. He got in touch with me originally because he liked my work with Siobhan.
I also made a record with a great band called Felix Pallas. We made their debut album with in only three months. The band is formed by two brothers, PJ and Simon. They both sing, Simon plays acoustic guitar and PJ keys. Then there is a fantastic drummer called Ziggy and a brilliant guitarist called Xavier. The sound is very much adult, credible pop with great vocals. We ended up writing and recording many songs, around 35 that we narrowed down to 15.
Now I have just started at the 1st of January with an artist called Inge. She has a wonderful singing voice. We are at the writing stage now, with long sessions booked with great composers such as Louise Sanger, my wife, who is a great songwriter and singer; Rosabella Gregory, she is enormously talented writer, singer and performer and has a limitless depth of music at her fingertips; Dan Garland, another great piano and writing talent; Grant Ransome, who is a very creative musician; Matt Turner, great pianist and horn player who I have worked with many times before and Ben Ranyard, who I worked with writing some of the Siobhan Donaghy songs. This is a ‘dream writing team’ and we are getting really into creating some great songs for Inge at the moment.
With which artists, songwriters or producers would you like to collaborate in the future?
I’ve always wanted to work with David Bowie, Kate Bush and Robert Smith (The Cure), Björk… I also managed to work with Vini Reilly from the Durutti Column, but sadly we never got in the studio as he did not feel up to it at the time. I would have liked to work with the reformed Mutya/Keisha/Siobhan in a production capacity. At this stage I have provided a few songs which they like and I am looking forward to providing more!
What are your ultimate goals as a musician and producer?
As a musician I like creating a kind of weird, trippy ambient music. I have been doing this almost as a hobby for many years, and I hope to be releasing songs in this style in a while. As a producer I’m happy to be busy developing, writing and producing. Creating artists is a kind of art-form in itself, and it is very satisfying. I have a saying that is ‘If you do what you love, the universe will reward you‘. And, in a way, my main ultimate goal is just to keep doing what I love.
Siobhan Donaghy – ‘Don’t Give It Up’, first single of ‘Ghosts’ (2007)
–For more information on his work and studio, visit: www.vibeystudios.com