MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the pop composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. This time, we talk to Ariel Rechtshaid who has written with/for Madonna, Vampire Weekend, Haim, Adele and Beyoncé, amongst many others. World’s Greatest Songwriters is supported by AMRA – the global digital music collection society which strives to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in the digital age.
The question ‘What would you be doing if you hadn’t made it in music?’ is a common and obvious one.
The answer ‘snake wrangler’ is not.
And, to be fair, in the case of Ariel Rechtshaid, it might not be entirely true.
But snakes certainly did form one slippery side of a sliding doors moment that eventually led to him being one of the most respected and requested songwriter/producers in the world today, having worked with, amongst others, Haim, Usher, Adele, Madonna, Beyoncé, Sky Ferreira and Vampire Weekend – whose new Billboard 200 No.1 album, Father Of The Bride, he co-produced.
Rechtshaid was born to working class, incredibly encouraging immigrant parents in Los Angeles. He remembers: “My mom, as a lot of mothers do, really pushed music on me, basically from birth. She got me piano lessons very early; that didn’t take. Then she tried violin; that didn’t work either.
“Then, weirdly, I had a teacher who had a bunch of snakes in her room, and of course I fell in love with them and wanted one at home. My mom was so horrified at that idea that she got me a guitar instead, basically to try and distract me from the snakes.”
Rechtshaid started learning, playing – and, crucially, listening. To everything. From the biggest riffers of the day, AC/DC and Guns N Roses, to singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens, to rap music, to punk and to what he recalls (accurately) as “subversive pop” from artists like The Pet Shop Boys and Madonna.
And, perhaps most of all, he listened to The Beastie Boys, who basically did all of the above.
Towards the end of his time at High School, two things happened that set him on the path to a career as a genre-agnostic musical polymath.
“By the time I was 18/19, I knew I wasn’t happy – and I quit.”
“I became really good friends with this guy who wanted to be a rapper [and who became, in fact, Murs]. We skated together, and at the weekend we would mess around with four-tracks and turntables and listen to who had sampled what, learning how to do that.
“Just after High School, he got a record deal with an independent hip-hop label; Nick came over to my house and we made this album together [F’real, 1997]. It was the blind leading the blind, but we made it.
“In the meantime, I’d been hanging out at this skateboard spot where 98% of people listened to rap music, just like I did. But I saw one guy who was wearing a punk T-shirt. We started talking, and it turned out he played bass, and he had a friend who played drums. So we decided to start jamming together. And that turned into this little band [The Hippos].
“Before long, we got a little independent record deal, while I was still in High School. I managed to graduate a year early at which point we started going on tour. I would have been about 16 or17.”
It wasn’t, however, a rock n roll dream come true.
“It snowballed”, Rechtshaid recalls, “I didn’t know what I was doing. By the time I was 18/19, I knew I wasn’t happy – and I quit.”
Part of the problem was benchmarking his efforts against his heroes – and the nagging knowledge that he wasn’t fulfilling his potential.
“I was so passionate about music, I had a crazy record collection and I had respect for records, but I had no idea how to make one. And all of a sudden I was like, Wait a minute, am I making one of these things? Am I making a record?
“But I don’t know what I’m doing, and it’s not good. I needed to stop and figure out what I was doing; put the brakes on. Subconsciously I was telling myself, ‘You need to either get better at this or do something else.’ I had too much respect for music to carry on.”
Thankfully, the dots continued to connect, and random relationships carried on turning up opportunities. “A friend of mine had a brother who had just graduated film school. He knew that I made music, and that I’d set up a little studio in my parents’ house, because I was basically trying to figure out how to write songs, and demo them, and learn the vocabulary of recording.
“He asked me to write some music for a commercial – and I ended up getting paid, the most money I’d ever been paid in my, life by a long shot, like $40,000. And I just kept going with it; I kept being asked to do more commercials, always different genres, composing in this style and that style. One day I’m doing something inspired by Vivaldi, the next day something inspired by hip-hop.
“One day I’m doing something inspired by Vivaldi, the next day something inspired by hip-hop.”
“And then at the same time… it’s funny, you have these little encounters that don’t seem to mean much at the time, but then they become significant. So, when I’d been touring with the band, we were sitting round having a conversation with this other band, and I had so much to say about music and recording; I hate the way this sounds, I don’t know why people do this, etc. And they were like, ‘Wow, you’re so opinionated.’ And I guess I was; I am!
“A couple of years later, this guy called me and said, ‘I’m not in that band any more, but I’ve started managing another band, and I remember you having a lot of opinions about songs and about recording; could you help them?’ I was like, sure.
“We started exchanging demos and I was making suggestions. I mean I didn’t go to engineering school, so everything’s coming from a song perspective – the songs and the aesthetic, general mood board stuff; a very non-technical approach.
“At the time, the one or two producers I’d met were sort of like technicians. They’d spend days trying to get a kick-drum sounds that’s as modern and robust as possible, but they weren’t really concerned with the song, [with questions like], ‘Are the lyrics good enough? Is the bridge good enough?’ Whereas they were literally the only things I cared about.”
The little band’s little record came out on a little label – to little fanfare. But then they got signed to Fearless Records and made a bigger, shinier record, without Rechtshaid.
“There was one song we had worked on, sitting there with acoustic guitars… I remember turning the record in to the label, and they thought that track in particular was pretty unprofessional, they said it sounded like a demo. I put it down as a bit of a fail.
“And then it became a fan favourite, maybe a local radio station started playing it or something, and the label got the idea, Why don’t we just slip this song onto the second album, even though the album’s already been released, just do another pressing and try to work this song, because nothing else is really catching fire at this point.”
The band was The Plain White T’s and the song was Hey There Delilah, a number one in 2007 and an enduring alt-rock anthem to this day.
Rechtshaid says: “It really blew up. Suddenly I’m getting calls to write with and produce any and all kind of acoustic guitar artists.
“I started getting approached by labels and managers, but I sort of walked away from it. I wanted to write songs to my own vision, and get close to music that represented me a little better. And that got me closer to other artists who also represented what I thought and felt about music. I got close with an artist named Cass McCombs, who I think is a completely brilliant songwriter.
“That was also the time I met Charli XCX and started writing with her. It clicked and the label [Atlantic] commissioned me to do more with her.”
Kobalt-signed Rechtshaid wrote more than half the track’s on Charli XCX’s debut album, True Romance, which emerged in 2013. That same year, he co-produced Vampire Weekend’s third record, Modern Vampires of the City.
“[Vampire Weekend is] very self-contained, they write their own songs. But I think they were having a bit of trouble on their third record, trying to find inspiration, trying to find a way to break through,” he says.
“They asked me if they could come to LA and work in my studio and would I be interested in helping in any way. I was, like, sure. They had a lot of stuff they’d written but couldn’t quite finish, and suddenly we were working together.
“So it was writing, but it was from a different place again, it was about helping them finish songs.”
Rechtshaid was also working and writing with Diplo, a relationship that veered into different genres and led to working with some very big names.
“I met Diplo before people really knew who he was. I mean people knew who he was, he’d worked on MIA’s stuff, but it was still more underground weirdo stuff.
“He was a DJ/producer guy, and I was more of a writer/producer guy. So we worked really well together, there was that yin and yang.
“He was getting a lot of attention, because people were really into how cutting edge Major Lazer was. So he got called in to go and work with Usher and he asked me if I’d like to go with him.
“So suddenly I’m in a room with Usher, who I’d listened to in High School, and who I had a huge amount of respect and admiration for, but, again, did not feel like my world at all. But we wrote Climax  together and it worked.”
This was an instance where Rechtshaid was commissioned and credited specifically as a songwriter – but there have clearly been occasions, when he is on production duties, where the lines are blurred and the definition of what’s been contributed is debatable.
He says: “All of these rules are very silly and antiquated, and I could go on forever about how unfortunate it is that if you sample a drum break from some artist’s record, the artist who didn’t write that drum part is getting credits and royalties, whereas the drummer who came up with it is getting nothing.
“I mean it’s all insane. Basically, what I’ve learned, and I’m not saying I’ve practiced it very well, because I’m quite fine with how I’ve done so far, but essentially, it is what you say it is; you get what you demand.
“Sometimes you’re given things, but most of the time the person with the most bravado gets things. It’s also different when you bounce between genres like I do; the work doesn’t really change, but the way it’s perceived and credited does.”
“I could go on forever about how unfortunate it is that if you sample a drum break from some artist’s record, the artist who didn’t write that drum part is getting credits and royalties, whereas the drummer who came up with it is getting nothing.”
Rechtshaid’s work with Usher, perhaps not entirely predictably, sparked into life one of the key relationships of his creative life to date. He explains: “Haim were big fans of the Usher record, and they also really liked the Cass McCoombs record – and they were intrigued that there was the same guy on both records.
“I was like, Yeah, I know, it’s weird, but it makes sense to me, because this is exactly my shit, I was inspired by music that melded punk and reggae and hip-hop. I always had a foot in all these different worlds. Why wouldn’t you want to know about, listen to and be involved with everything?”
Rechtshaid went on to co-write two tracks on Haim’s debut album, Days Are Gone [2013, No. 6 in the US, No. 1 in the UK] and every track on the follow-up, Something To Tell You [2017, No. 7 in the US, No. 2 in the UK].
It was an example, he believes, of working with artists and writers who share not just a passion for music, but a curiosity about it, a need to dig deeper and look further.
“It’s funny, I remember working with Madonna and being in the room with certain people who didn’t even know her catalog [Rechtshaid co-wrote three tracks on 2015’s Rebel Heart, including Bitch I’m Madonna]. That’s so crazy, right? To be in a room with this woman, who is such a legend, and you’re responsible for working on the legacy, and you don’t even know the catalog! This is not an obscure artist! But even if it was, you should still know what you’re doing.
“I don’t know, I’m not saying doing what I did is necessary, it just puts me in a position where I don’t feel completely confused and anxious about where I am. Because there is a thread, despite the fact that it’s all over the place: from singer-songwriter troubadour dudes, to major R&B artists, to big indie bands, to pop icons, to whatever.”
Apart from being the right thing to do, Rechtshaid believes that exploring every genre, every possible collaboration and every project is also just the smart thing to do – because, well, because you never know.
“The first record I ever did with Dev Hynes, which was the first Blood Orange record, nobody cared about it. Well, pretty much no one, but someone who did care about it was Solange, and suddenly we met Solange and worked together on her music, and Dev and I then had a very fruitful collaboration period working with Sky Ferreria [Rechtshaid co-wrote Ferreria’s 2013 album, Night Time, My Time].”
“there is a thread, despite the fact that it’s all over the place: from singer-songwriter troubadour dudes, to major R&B artists, to big indie bands, to pop icons, to whatever.”
Rechtshaid also believes in the power of collaborations to surprise, and to add up to more than the sum of their parts.
“You know when you hear a record that you’ve never heard before, and it inspires you, and you’re like, Oh my God, what is this? Well it’s hard to get that if you’re creating it, because it’s in your head, it’s not going to surprise you. You’re designing it and it’s pre-mediated on some level.
“But working with other people, there might be something you write, you don’t especially like, or you don’t really know what it is, and so you tuck it away, and then there’s someone else in a room and they say, ‘Wait, I love that, let’s do something with it.’ And you’re forced to see it through. And in the best cases, you’re suddenly, like, ‘Where did that come from? That’s not something I would do on my own.’ I love that.
“In the best cases 1+1=4. You reach a level together that neither of you could have even imagined on your own.
“Sometimes it’s not great. Sometimes, 1+1=0.5 and you think, ‘God, this would have been better if I’d done it on my own.’ But most times it’s really fun and it’s really interesting.”
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