MBW’s World’s Greatest Producers series sees us interview – and celebrate – some of the greatest talents working in studios across the decades. Here we talk to Kid Harpoon, aka Thomas Hull, one of the main writers and producers behind Harry Styles’ record-smashing hits, and a collaborator with the likes of Florence + The Machine, Lizzo and more. World’s Greatest Producers is supported by Hipgnosis Song Management.
Before Harry Styles, it was actually Florence Welch and Paul Epworth that changed Thomas Hull’s life.
Hull – better known as Kid Harpoon – had reached a crossroads in his solo career. He’d mutually split with his label, Young Turks, after his long-awaited (and actually very good) 2009 debut album, Once, had failed to capitalise on the buzz he’d built up over years on the live circuit. He’d signed a publishing deal with Universal on the basis of his new songs as he plotted to reboot his solo career, but realised he was likely to run out of money before his new direction kicked in.
So he rung up his friend Florence (of ‘And The Machine’ fame) and asked if she fancied doing some writing. She came over after an all-nighter and they wrote “half a song”. Then-Island UK A&R boss (now Polydor President) Ben Mortimer liked this half-song and suggested Hull should join Paul Epworth in the studio to help finish it off.
Impressed, Epworth told him to come back the next day and, before he knew it, Kid Harpoon was heavily involved with one of 2011’s biggest albums, Ceremonials. The real lightbulb moment, however, came when Hull played Epworth some of his new solo material…
“He said, ‘You should just [focus on] the songwriting stuff,’” smiles Kid Harpoon today. “‘You’re really good at this – it feels like a good fit for you and it works.’ That hit a spark with me because here was this guy at his peak – he was doing Adele and crushing it, he was flying – giving me some advice that I really needed to listen to. It was that conversation that made me go, ‘OK, I need to fully shift – I can still do that [artist] stuff but right now, this is my future in music and what I’m good at.’”
It’s fair to say that ‘shift’ has worked out pretty well. Since that chat with Epworth, Kid Harpoon has worked as a producer/songwriter/multi-tasking musician with everyone from Jessie Ware to Haim, Shakira to Shawn Mendes and Maggie Rogers to Lizzo. Oh, and some bloke called Harry Styles.
But Harpoon prides himself on not just being some quick-fix hitmaker-for-hire. His specialism is a refreshingly old-school ability to build a project from the ground up over multiple records. With Styles in particular, it’s paid spectacular dividends.
The journey from boyband star to credible solo artist is not always a smooth one but, over three albums, Harpoon, Styles and fellow co-writer/producer Tyler Johnson – backed by Sony Music’s Rob Stringer and the Columbia label – have achieved the perfect combination of commercial success, critical acclaim and cultural impact.
The stats speak for themselves. Styles’ third album, Harry’s House, released earlier this year, topped the charts all over the world, while lead single As It Was is now the longest-running US No.1 by a British artist ever (with 15 weeks in the top spot) and the third longest-running No.1 in Billboard Hot 100 history.
“I can’t process the numbers side of it,” Harpoon laughs as he joins MBW from Los Angeles. “It’s too much for my brain to handle. The way music is consumed now is so different to how it was consumed 60 years ago, it’s hard to compare yourself to these records that are being broken. The real impact is culturally, and seeing what that will do over time will be great.”
That will be more than enough to make Kid Harpoon a serious contender in the upcoming awards season – he should surely be in the frame for any Producer and/or Songwriter of the Year gongs out there, as well as having a stake in every Best Album/Song contest – but Harpoon has a lot more than just Harry’s House in his holdall.
He fizzes with stories about assisting Shawn Mendes in crafting his Wonder album; or helping Maggie Rogers record her songs on Surrender without losing the charm of the magical demos; or the time he and Florence wrote What Kind of Man, the lead song from 2015’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful while “consciously trying not to do a single, because Florence needed a break from that world”.
Indeed, Harpoon claims to never instinctively know if one of his songs will become a hit (“I didn’t think As It Was was a single and it’ll probably be the biggest song of my career!” he laughs), but he does know good music when he hears it – and there is plenty more of that to come, with a number of hush-hush assignments currently on the boil.
He also has ambitions to helm more leftfield projects, citing Brian Eno’s ambient albums (“That stuff is the Harry Styles of ambient music!”) as envelope-pushing examples of what’s possible.
But for now, this Chatham born-and-bred multi-hyphenate has questions for us about life back home – mainly to do with his beloved Arsenal (Harpoon also loves a sporting/music analogy) and the UK’s incompetent new rulers (“Is everyone just getting a bit panicky, or is it a shitshow?”). And we, of course, have questions about Harry…
How does it feel to be in the middle of the Harry’s House phenomenon?
It feels pretty amazing because, at this point, me, Harry and Tyler are best friends as well as a team. So it’s like celebrating with your mates. If we ever win anything and go up [on stage] together, it’s not going to be like, ‘We wrote this song in a room three years ago with two strangers’, it’s going to be real.
We get to enjoy it in the same way, text each other saying, ‘This happened! Can you believe this?’ I’ve been doing my thing for a bit and it feels like this is what I’ve been working towards. Through working with Harry and the other projects I’ve done, I’ve now got the skills to do the things I always wanted to do.
Your way of working is quite unusual compared to most of the pop side of the business…
Yeah, it’s not as common. But it helps you create an environment where you can dare to fail. If you’re only in for a couple of days, your ideas have to be incredible, otherwise you’re never going to get on the project. When people jump around and think someone else has got the idea that’s going to fix it all, then it takes it out of your hands and the artist’s hands. Our way is about saying, ‘OK, if this is a problem, it’s our problem to fix.’ How do we make the best Maggie Rogers album or the best Harry Styles album? And what do they want their best album to be?
Harry was playing me some crazy jazz piano piece the other week and he said, ‘I love this.’ OK, how do we now turn this into Harry Styles music? Or Maggie Rogers will come in and play me some thrash metal, heavy punk song and I’ll be like, ‘OK, how do we figure this out for Maggie?’ You put all the influences into a melting pot and figure it out. It’s like a fun musical game.
Was there any pressure on Harry’s House after the huge global success of Fine Line?
Not really. We’ve got such chemistry between the three of us now that I’m as excited about what we do next as much as anyone. We’ve been through a process and we’ve definitely written some of the worst songs you’ve ever heard! Going through the process of writing those and then saying, ‘These aren’t good enough’, has enabled us to get to the point where we’re even quicker with that. We’ll start an idea and know within an hour if it’s not happening, and we’ll just move on. There is pressure, but our process is separate of whatever happens commercially.
I’ve worked with people who’ve had massive success on a record before and you can tell that every chord they hit, they’re thinking about how it’s going to be perceived and it feels like a real burden. I was really aware of that going in with Harry so we always say, Just keep writing all the time. You can’t control what happens [commercially]. But you can control being good at the writing process and creating music and learning and improving. I know Jamie Muhoberac, he’s one of the best keyboard players in the world and has played with everyone. And he still has piano lessons to learn new things – it’s a practice, not an end goal. And songwriting and making records is the same.
How do you see your role? Are you a producer, a songwriter, a musician or a combination of the three?
The good thing about me, to use a cricket analogy, is I’m a bit of an Ian Botham – an all-rounder. I play drums, guitar, keyboards, piano, I can engineer on the computer, I can write lyrics and melodies.
And I was an artist, so I have an oversight part of my brain where I can see the bigger picture. As a producer, I’m more in the creative vein. Some people are a lot better at sitting on the sofa, listening and directing the musicians. I’m definitely more coming up with sounds, instruments, parts and ideas and it tends to be like that in the songwriting process as well.
Does it help that you had your own artist career?
Definitely. I made a lot of mistakes in my artist career. We tried to do everything all at once and, at the time, it was an absolute nightmare, a complete mess. I was touring a lot but I wasn’t making a lot of records.
Essentially, tours are for promoting, but I was just promoting me, rather than anything in particular. I couldn’t crack [my] record; I went to a couple of different producers before I went to Trevor Horn. Trevor is about as good as it gets as a producer, he is unbelievable. I’m not sure the record we made [Once] reflected what I was doing live, but it taught me so much about making records and what it is to be a producer. I was watching my project through his eyes and realised how I should have been approaching it. He was such an inspiration.
Do all artists need that sounding board?
Well, you’re dealing with so much anxiety as a solo artist. I always used to get jealous of the Arctic Monkeys – obviously, Alex Turner is the driving force, but he’s got three guys in the band where he can turn around and ask, ‘Do we like this?’ As a solo artist you never have that – the people around you are usually label people and publishers. They’re all wonderful people and usually well-intentioned, but you can’t necessarily count on them to be someone that will make you take a risk. Well, with some of them you can, but everyone’s anxious about getting it right.
“I always used to get jealous of the Arctic Monkeys – obviously, Alex Turner is the driving force, but he’s got three guys in the band where he can turn around and ask, ‘Do we like this?’ As a solo artist you never have that.”
With Harry, the three of us will be like – ‘Is this cool? I don’t think this is cool.’ So you have this filter you go through before it gets to anyone else. Whereas sometimes, when you’re thinking commercially, your brain is going, ‘This could be big!’ You’re thinking about what it could be, as opposed to how you feel about it, which is dangerous.
In making those mistakes [in my solo career], I learned to spot what other people are doing when I’m working with them. It’s a hard job creating something out of nothing that everyone has to love, so being able to understand that definitely helps.
Don’t people sometimes just want you to go into the studio and write a hit?
The problem is, if you’re just aiming for singles all the time, you can end up with an album of eight failed singles and maybe three that have actually gone. Like, what was the point?
“The problem is, if you’re just aiming for singles all the time, you can end up with an album of eight failed singles and maybe three that have actually gone.”
Whereas if you go in and you’re creatively free, you just have to have the confidence that those will come. And it’s not our job as creatives to decide what the singles will be – that’s up to the marketing teams who need to sell the album.
Success is either going to happen or it isn’t. So albums is the way to go, because you’re focusing on the craft, concentrating on getting better and the rest will come.
If you could change one thing about today’s music industry, right here and now, what would it be and why?
This job – whether you’re an artist, producer, engineer or whatever – is such a personal, emotional, driven journey, it takes a lot to get through. Every producer and artist is full of anxiety and, what I’ve realised as I’ve got more experienced is, it’s not just the artists; the A&Rs are all full of anxiety, they’re on certain deals and contracts where they’re like, ‘My artist has to be a success.’
“In the music industry it’s like, Here’s a bunch of money, let’s just gamble it and see what happens!”
You look at sport – football clubs put so much more money into the players – they have psychologists, therapists, masseurs, the whole thing. But in the music industry it’s like, ‘Here’s a bunch of money, let’s just gamble it and see what happens!’ Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t.
But in football, you don’t play someone when their head’s not right, you put them on the bench for a bit, take them out of the limelight and manage them a bit more. And that’s where this industry can improve, on people management. Not so much with producers because, weirdly, producers can help everyone in that situation. [When] I’m working, the A&R and the artist can put all their anxieties on me and it’s my job to make sure that these two people, who I believe in, get what they want.
Do you think you’ll always work with Harry Styles?
I love to work with everyone I work with. I’ve worked with Jessie Ware across a number of albums; we’ve had some that have worked and some that haven’t, and I still work with her. I really enjoyed working with Lizzo (pictured) , she’s incredible. I love Florence, I’ve been part of three records now and I’ll always be here for her, I love her to bits. Florence as much as Harry changed my life; it was her who gave me the shot to go in and write a song with her and I had my first big cut with her.
I like to think I’ll always be around Harry, working with him, but it’s important for him – and me – to know that we might not. I always think it’s like with my wife – it’s important to know that she might leave me at any moment! So I need to treat her well and make sure she’s happy and we’re good in our relationship.
It’s the same with Harry. I don’t ever want to turn up with less than my ‘A’ game for him, especially because I love him so much as a person. That’s important. And who knows – people evolve musically and maybe there’s a sound that I have that isn’t right for him one day. I wouldn’t want him to feel he couldn’t try something he wanted to do. But I’ll always be there for him and whatever he needs, and it’s the same for anyone I work with.
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