MBW’s World’s Greatest Producers series sees us interview – and celebrate – some of the greatest talents working in studios across the decades. The latest instalment features Carter Lang, a Grammy-nominated American producer who has worked with some of the biggest artists around today, including SZA, Lil Nas X and Doja Cat. World’s Greatest Producers is sponsored by Hipgnosis Songs Fund.
This year, producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Carter Lang has received four Grammy nominations for his work on songs performed by the likes of SZA, Doja Cat and Lil Nas X.
The recognition marks a seminal moment in Lang’s career that’s so far been shaped by a dogged work ethic and building relationships with artists he feels a connection with.
One of those artists is SZA, whose debut album, Ctrl, the majority of which was co-produced by Lang, hit No.3 on the Billboard 200 chart in 2017.
The two met at a studio session, Lang joined her live band as a bass player at Lollapalooza and their relationship developed as friends first, collaborators second.
“I really got to know her through adventuring, going off the beaten path and going on crazy bike rides,” Lang says. “I didn’t even realise what type of force we were going to have together musically but the friendship led me to understand that that was going to be case.”
Lang’s 2022 Grammy nominations are for Song of the Year nominee Kiss Me More by Doja Cat f/SZA, two Album of the Year nods for his work on Doja Cat’s Planet Her and Lil Nax X’s Montero, and SZA’s Good Days, which is up for Best R&B Song.
Other acts he’s worked with both as a songwriter and producer include Post Malone and Swae Lee (for their 13x Platinum single Sunflower), Jhene Aiko (for her Lee collaboration In The Dark), Camilla Cabello, Five Seconds of Summer and Chance the Rapper.
Lang, who hails from Chicago, started his journey into music with piano classes after school aged seven — he was one of those kids doing recitals while wearing a bow tie, honing his performance skills early.
As he grew into adolescence, Lang ditched the bow tie and piano for a bass guitar, which opened up his social circle and allowed him to collaborate with others. Through various bands and musical outfits (including The O’My’s, who landed a few SXSW showcases), Lang started making beats and took on the role of producer.
After partying his way through a music industry studies course in New Orleans, he returned to Chicago and reconnected with the local music scene, where he expanded his horizons with production by experimenting with different instruments and sounds.
“I felt like I’d broken the Matrix somehow.”
His first big break was playing organ and synth bass on Rihanna’s Consideration, which started with SZA, who co-wrote and features on the track. “That was a pretty awesome moment,” remembers Lang. “I felt like I’d broken the Matrix somehow.”
The song was released midway through the making of Ctrl, which spawned the radio single Love Galore f/Travis Scott (produced by Lang), offering another turning point.
“I’d had a few victories in Chicago with little placements here and there with artists like A$AP Rocky and Lil Wayne but it definitely took a while,” Lang remembers. “I got back from school in 2013 and didn’t really touch what I was looking for until around 2016/2017.”
Lang is signed to Warner Chappell Music through a joint venture with Electric Feel Entertainment. Acts he’s been in the studio with recently include Lil Nas X, Omar Apollo, Teezo Touchdown, Miguel, FKA Twigs, Big Sean and Thundercat.
Here, we chat to him about the role of a producer, what goes into a successful studio session, lessons learned across his career, and much more besides.
What does the role of a producer mean to you?
Being a good producer is having the ability to adapt to the environment or the people that you’re with. Having a few skills that you’re really good at is important, but being able to work in an environment where your skill might be overlapped by someone else’s and learning how to contribute or to be hands off in that situation is crucial.
“being able to work in an environment where your skill might be overlapped by someone else’s and learning how to contribute or to be hands off in that situation is crucial.”
Establishing your influences and then understanding other people’s nostalgic influences by going back and listening to music that’s completely different to what you’re used to, and listening to the music that’s being released now, is also super important.
Also, don’t be afraid to let spontaneous things open you up to new relationships or new experiences that you would not be expecting to have that day or that week. I don’t even go by a schedule most of the time; for the most part, I’m just happy to be able to have an environment where some of these spontaneous sessions happen.
What was your toughest production job or session and what did you learn from that experience?
There was a session where I came across a piece of music that made the artist light up and start writing really fast. They pretty much wrote the whole verse in two minutes, got into the booth and the engineer was not equipped to handle their precision and speed of writing and recording. So the artist left, although, two years later, they did revisit it and finish the song so you never know what is truly a bad session.
I’m not downplaying the engineers but that taught me the importance of being prepared; had I gone to the session knowing who the engineer was, which was someone we didn’t know, I might have tried to find somebody else to make sure the flow was levelled out. The engineer can’t be a stick in the mud, no matter what, they have to adapt.
“The engineer can’t be a stick in the mud, no matter what, they have to adapt. Having a great engineer or helmsman changes the course of your session so drastically.”
Having a great engineer or helmsman changes the course of your session so drastically and it really helps, especially when they can organize stuff. I feel like I’m wondering where in the world my helmsman is because I’m the person who has to steer the rowboat. I enjoy that, for now, but when I’m looking to grow the studio in a few years, having a great engineer to help run the session will be so important.
How about the best advice you’ve been given in your career?
People have always told me, ‘Don’t overwork yourself.’ So I’ve been trying to do a little bit better by taking breaks to enjoy other activities that I used to do when I was less of a reclusive producer. Whether it’s skateboarding, snowboarding or biking, and finding people to do that stuff with… I think it’s really important to mix up the bag.
And then, invest your money and most importantly, invest in your friendships. You can reach everyone so quickly so everyone depends on each other that much more now to get things done and to get them done quicker. I feel like you want to invest in friends who are hardworking but also very humorous and who are going to grow with you and be there for you for life.
Also, don’t lose connection with your oldest friends and with people that do things that are different to production. That’s the advice that I’ve been given.
What would you change about the modern music industry and why?
It doesn’t feel like there’s a very equal playing field for making money from music. Depending on whether you have to make music that’s going to get played on the radio, which is not a terrible place, but you want to find ways to be able to make a living off music while not having to try and please the same artists. It’s kind of a small circle.
I’m wondering if there’s going to be different rates or formats that are going to allow music to get heard a certain way. But I also know there’s a formula for stuff that has a certain sound to it and there’s so much music being released. I feel like we can get lost with trying to keep up with everything that’s out and forget about the things that have passed that are so beautiful and genuine.
“In the future, I hope there’s a way for people to create something out of nothing and really draw attention to those who are doing stuff outside of the norm.”
In the future of all this digitization and the crypto world, I hope there’s a way for people to create something out of nothing and really draw attention to those who are doing stuff outside of the norm.
That’s where my heart resides sonically.
What advice would you offer to someone starting out in production today?
Going to school for music isn’t a prerequisite but having experiences from going to college, or from doing jobs that are outside of music, is so important to how you’re going to be able to work and your expectations and understanding of life moving forward. Don’t just go straight into it where you’re not opening yourself up to those opportunities because they help in the process of making music and working together with people in a beneficial way.
Getting a few instruments and getting good at a few things is important. Then, being able to adapt to your environment and let loose whatever you’ve learned in order to help progress the group scenario, or if you’re faced with a certain problem in the song or certain area that you need to help, do the research in order to figure that stuff out.
“Even if [your team] starts with one person, if that person is really a great person, they’re going to lead you to other great people.”
The most important thing beyond that is having a good team around you. Even if it starts with one person, if that person is really a great person, they’re going to lead you to other great people and your team will start to form. I didn’t really have a team until after Ctrl was released and I met my manager, David [Waltzer].
He introduced me to my legal [team] and now I’ve got a great accounting team and a great publicist. Have these different people to help balance your ship when you’re moving forward and trying to make decisions that are business based, but also emotional, because a lot of the business is with friends and you want to feel fluid but also calculated in what you’re doing.
MBW’s World’s Greatest Producers series is supported by Hipgnosis Songs Fund. Traded on the London Stock Exchange, Hipgnosis was established to maximise the value of music… while also proving that value to institutional investors. Music Business Worldwide