It takes a rare personality to satisfy the creative urges of strong-minded pop artists as well as the commercial requirements of their record labels, but few have managed it more successfully than Greg Kurstin. A 2010 Grammy Award nominee for “Producer of the Year,” as well as a three-time Ivor Novello Award recipient, the Los Angeles-born and bred Kurstin has become one of the industry’s most sought-after songwriters and producers, thanks to his artistic versatility, multi-instrumentalist ability, and personal affability. Over the last few years, Kurstin has written, produced, and played on hits by pop’s biggest stars, including Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Ke$ha, and Lily Allen, as well as alternative-leaning acts The Shins, Santigold, Foster the People, Sia, Tegan & Sara, and the Flaming Lips.
Perhaps the greatest testament to Kurstin’s appeal comes from the very people he’s helped to achieve their creative vision, such as Lily Allen, who turned to Kurstin as a producer, writer, musician, and engineer for both her Grammy-nominated gold album Alright, Still and its Top 5 follow-up It’s Not Me, It’s You. “There’s something uniquely special about Greg that I’ve rarely found with other collaborators,” says Allen. “He is incredibly multi-talented as a musician and as a songwriter, and when he and I work together, something magical happens. It’s like Greg becomes a muse to an idea I’m having in that particular moment, and he just seems to understand what I’m trying to say. He’s quite incredible, really.”
“Greg is awesome to work with because he’s open to trying new things,” says Kelly Clarkson. “He’s not a formulaic producer who just wants to make a buck. He’s a talented and creative musician who caters to the artists he’s working with. Instead of pushing a sound he thinks will sound great for the artist, he helps the artist find their own sound and style. We need more producers like him.”
Kurstin’s artist-whisperer abilities stem from the trust his clients place in him when they discover he’s one of them. A musician since the age of five when he began studying piano, Kurstin also played guitar and joined his first band at age 11. He co-wrote the B-side to KROQ staple “My Mother Is A Space Cadet” with his classmate Dweezil Zappa at age 12. In junior high, Kurstin discovered the New Wave sounds of The B-52s and Devo (whose comeback album, Something For Everybody, he’d go on to produce tracks for decades later), as well as British bands The Clash, The Specials, and The Jam, which strongly influenced his aesthetic.
But it was discovering jazz in high school that altered Kurstin’s life in the most significant way and which he credits with his agility in the studio today. He became obsessed with artists like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus, even seeking out Mingus’ pianist Jaki Byard and moving to New York to study with Byard at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. Kurstin performed with such greats as George Coleman, Charles McPherson, and Bobby Hutcherson, the latter two for ten years.
Throughout his musical education, Kurstin wrote songs and recorded them on his own, indulging his love for arranging and engineering wherever possible. Temperamentally unsuited for the competitiveness and rigidity of the New York jazz scene, Kurstin moved back to Los Angeles to attend Cal Arts and eventually hooked up with singer-songwriter Tommy Jordan, with whom he formed the alternative group Geggy Tah. The duo signed to David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label and released three albums, including 1996’s Sacred Cow, which spawned a Billboard Top 20 hit single “Whoever You Are.”
In the years following Geggy Tah’s split, Kurstin began to accept work as a side man, performing with The Flaming Lips, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Beck, for whom he eventually became musical director. The urge to write and record his own music, however, persisted, so when Beck’s touring cycle ended, Kurstin formed a new band with Inara George, a local singer he had met when he played on her debut solo album. Kurstin and George called themselves the bird and the bee and made several ’60s and ’70s-inspired pop albums together, including the well-received Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future, which was released by EMI’s Blue Note Records. Kurstin also signed a publishing deal with EMI and began placing songs with overseas artists like All Saints, Kylie Minogue, and Sia, and was eventually introduced to then up-and-comer Lily Allen. His success with her led to work with a variety of artists that spanned genres, everyone from global superstar Britney Spears to racy electro-provocateur Peaches.
In the past year alone, Kurstin has played on, written, and produced tracks on albums by Kelly Clarkson (Stronger), The Shins (Port of Morrow), Tegan and Sara (Heartthrob), Ke$ha (Warrior), Santigold (Master Of My Make-Believe), and Pink (The Truth About Love, which debuted at No. 1).
“Greg became an instant friend,” Pink says. “He’s got this energy in the studio that’s giving and present and humble and easy. Then he slaps you across the face with pure genius-ness and musicality. He comes up with these ideas and melodies and is such an incredibly supportive sounding board. He’s like the perfect songwriting volleyball partner — he catches what you throw at him and then throws it right back. And if it’s shit, he has a really nice way of telling you that. I absolutely love working with him.”