From Ghostface to Lana Del Rey to Heartbreak: Super-Producer Emile Haynie Goes SoloAlexandra Gavillet
Between the name and the hair and the chain-smoking, you’d be forgiven in assuming that Emile Haynie had come from, say, the 4th arrondissement to secretly colonize American pop music. Turns out, all Haynie had to do was take the Greyhound to Port Authority. At 34 years old, he’s one of the handful of power producers working at a particular, peculiar nexus of the music industry. He’s topped charts with Eminem and Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars. He’s slept on studio couches and made all-timers with Kanye West in Hawaii. Without him, Lizzy Grant doesn’t become Lana Del Rey. And before he pulled all of that off, he was a half-Jewish rap nerd from the frigid netherworld of Buffalo, New York.
Today, Haynie released We Fall, his first solo album. Recorded over six months in a jerry-rigged studio in a room in L.A.’s Chateau Marmont, it features a roster of friends both old (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Devonté Hynes, Romy from The xx) and new (Brian Wilson? Randy Newman?!) Inspired by a crumbling relationship, it’s appropriately somber and hushed. For the most part, though, it’s dour in an empowering kind of way. On “A Kiss Goodbye Reprise,”1 the singer Sampha repeats the phrase “Did it ever occur that you forgave yourself before I did / Did it ever occur that you forgave yourself before I could” over and over and over. Five minutes later, you can’t help but feel at least a little bit cleansed.
A few weeks back, I interviewed Haynie in his lovely East Village loft. It’s an airy, open space, with a certain all-white ’80s chic vibe.2 Big, potted plants dot the space, and a bright George Condo painting hangs above the piano. Haynie wore a gold watch, sharp brown velvet blazer, and Birkenstocks. As we talked, he pulled Marlboro Lights out of a pack reading “Il fumo uccide,” alternately relighting and stubbing them out into the kind of circular ashtray one might have seen at Biff Tannen’s Pleasure Paradise Casino and Hotel.
You grew up in Buffalo. Presumably, that means a lot of time spent indoors?
That’s exactly what it means. New York [City] gets the quote-unquote snowstorms, and it’s pretty funny because it’ll snow like three inches and the whole city shuts down. Buffalo in winter — you can’t drive. Your car will just spin out of control. You’re really forced to stay indoors. And if you make music, that’s what you do in the winter.
Was it easy to find fellow music geeks in the neighborhood?
One of my best friends was an older cat in the neighborhood. He lived two blocks away from me and he had a rap group that got a record deal with PayDay Records in 1993. And nobody from Buffalo had a record deal — it was probably like a development deal, but it was enough for him to get a little studio going at his place. So I’d go and hang out with him and learn how to work a sampler.
Oh wow. So hip-hop was big in Buffalo?
The guys I grew up around in the neighborhood were DJing and making beats and rapping. In the early ’90s in Buffalo, hip-hop was it.
You were 17 when you moved to New York.
I didn’t even [graduate] high school, let alone college. I kind of got the jobs I could get. Interning here, getting some sort of weird job there. I was working at a sneaker store called Raspberry Sports in Queens when I sold my first beat, and that was the last job I had. I quit, and that was that.
Who bought that beat?
There was an R&B producer named Rodney Jerkins,3, and he got ahold of a beat tape of mine. I didn’t know what to do, so I quoted him 2,500 bucks. The most outlandish price I could think of. And he gave me 2,500 bucks!
I was like, “I made it, this is it. I’m now a producer. This is all I’m going to do from now on.” I was like, rich. Are you kidding me? Twenty-five hundred bucks. I was surviving on five bucks a day. That was a lot of money. So I made it, for sure.
Then what happened?
I was living in Queens. I stayed there and kept grinding. That song never came out, so it wasn’t until I met Proof from Detroit that I really, really made it. Proof flew me to Detroit, introduced me to Eminem, sat me down with Obie Trice, who I ended up producing a couple of songs on his first album. At the time, Em was coming off The Marshall Mathers LP. And that was just a massive association for any musician.
How’d you get to Proof?
Being in New York, if you go out, you’re going to bump into rappers. I would just always try to have beats and maneuver to the backstage area and maybe bump into Talib Kweli and be like, “Hey man, I make beats and my number is on here.” That was always a hustle. Same thing with Proof. [But] I had some intel, because a buddy of mine was tour-managing D12, [so I knew] when they were pulling in. Proof came bopping out of the bus first and I had a beats CD and gave it to him and had my number on it. It was the same story. I said, “I’m a fan of yours, I make beats, my number is on the CD, thank you.”
Proof was the first one who actually called me. I got a weird 313 number on my beeper, which I knew was Detroit. I called it back. And it was like, “Hey man, it’s Proof. I listened to your beats the entire tour bus ride home. It’s 11 a.m. now, there’s a flight at 3 p.m. Can you get on it? I’ll pay for your ticket.” I was just like, “Yeah, OK.” “Mom I’m going to Detroit!”
So I went and stayed with Proof for a week or two, living at his house in Detroit. We’re rolling around Detroit, eating Mexican food and hanging. He made me comfortable really quick. And then maybe nine, ten o’clock, he’s like, “Hey, want to go to the studio and meet Marshall?” Yesterday I was listening to this dude’s album like, “This is so fucking good!” And then the next night I’m in the studio with him. Totally terrified. Maybe I said “Hi” and walked away.
It seems the impact that Proof’s death had on Eminem isn’t fully known. That seemed to really affect him.
[Proof] was kind of the unofficial mayor of Detroit hip-hop. Detroit [was] kind of broken up — you have the Slum Village/Dilla/Tribe Called Quest–inspired sound, and then you have the Trick-Trick/Goon Sqwad kind of more street sound, and then you had Eminem, D12, Obie Trice, which was their own crazy sense of humor mixed with battle rapping. Proof was in groups with all the people I just mentioned. He was just the gatekeeper of connecting people in Detroit and he loved to do it. No weird motives, just like, “You’re dope and you’re dope. You guys should meet each other. Go be friends.” That was that. If he did that and it worked out, that’s what made him happy.
Looking back, I was kind of spoiled meeting a character like that so early. After that, it was years and years of meeting people who weren’t as open-armed and friendly, or more concerned about themselves and their friends [than] people who they thought were good musicians. Very rare that you meet someone like that in the music business.
I can only speak on myself — my career would’ve never happened if it wasn’t for him. But I can only imagine there’s dozens of people who would say the same thing.
You’d go on to produce for a bunch of rap dudes, including one of the greatest of all time, Ghostface. But I’ve read that you were actually bummed about that. He used one of your beats on the great Pretty Toney Album, but for the intro.
That was one of my favorite beats, and I got this call from Ghost that he wanted that beat, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is going to be amazing. I’m gonna have my first Ghostface song!” You never expect that to be an album intro. [Laughs.] So heartbreaking because I’m such a big Ghostface fan. He can do whatever he wants, of course. But going into the studio and expecting to hear three 16-bar verses of just Ghostface going nuts … and it became the album intro.
On a happier note: You provided Kanye with the seed for “Runaway.”
I wasn’t there when Pusha did his verse. I was there when Kanye sort of wrote it to the original track I had, which happened really quick. I learned to capture the first-take freestyle thing from Kanye, because he heard this track I had for like 10 minutes, and then was just like, “I’m going in the booth.” And then he belted out “Runaway.”
I had never played him the track before. I don’t think he had the melody. I don’t know. But he just knocked it out. Kanye really produced it up and kept working on it and working on it. The chorus, he pretty much had — he freestyled it. The same way it is today was one of the first things he did when he got in the booth. [But] it went through loads of various stages of production and sounds. [Producer] Jeff Bhasker really went to town on the production on that tune, and that’s how I got to form this bond with Jeff, who coproduced so much stuff with me. That was the first time we had ever done anything together.
Bhasker’s kind of one of Kanye’s secret weapons, right?
Oh, absolutely. He’s now one of the most in-demand producers in the world. But he’s done so many beautiful songs. Me and him hang out all the time. We write together, and we’re just buddies. I love hip-hop and that’s my first love, but I really wanted to explore writing at piano and music theory and all that stuff. Jeff is a master at that but he’s got really into like, “How do I make drums cool?” So I got that covered.
Having watched Kanye up close, is there something people still don’t fully understand about how he operates?
I don’t think he gets credit for how hard he works. I’ve never seen anybody work that hard in the studio. Ever. I think people refuse to believe, or just don’t have a grasp, because he does so many different things. He surrounds himself with great creatives, and you’ll see coproducers on the album, and features, and this stuff. But it’s really just him getting the best out of people. He’s a master at it.
He would sleep in the studio every night when everyone else would go to their cushy bed. Dude’s asleep for three hours on the couch and waking up at 6 a.m. and working on a snare drum. He’s so big and he’s larger than life at this point, so it’s maybe hard to imagine him sitting there working hard on the texture of the snare drum. He’s fucking doing it!
With his new material, it seems like, for the first time, he really wants to make some universally accessible stuff. Songs even casual music fans won’t be able to ignore. What do you think?
I never bet against him. I learned really early — before he even did College Dropout — to never bet against Kanye. He sets the tone for music of the next couple years every time he makes a record. People are still trying to wrap their head around Yeezus and bite that sound, and he’s already moved on to a whole different thing. It’s always important to take note of what he’s doing. That will be what music sounds like.
Back to your own stuff: Did you take piano lessons as a kid?
No, not at all. Kind of self-taught. When you’re working with samples, the chord progression and the key is already set; you just find a sample that you like. But as much as I like Pete Rock and DJ Premier, I was also really into Dr. Dre and the production from Rap-A-Lot Records. Those guys would not only use a sample, but sometimes they would replay the entire thing, or figure out how to play your bass line underneath it or maybe add some stuff. So I did have a bit of knowledge. But when I really wanted to go for it, I started watching silly YouTube tutorials of how to play Beatles songs.
When you started working with Lana Del Rey, were you looking for a change away from hip-hop? Or did that just kind of happen?
I had been tinkering around a little. There was a few singers I had worked with here and there, but nothing that was really connecting. Lana, that first time we ever worked together, we made the song “Blue Jeans.”
There was so much debate around her when she first came out — a lot of arguments about her authenticity and all that. It hasn’t affected her in the long run: She’s extremely popular these days. But did you pay attention to that stuff back then? Did it bother you?
I paid attention, and I shouldn’t have, because it pissed me off. She would get accused of not writing her own songs and I’m like, “I’m in the studio with her!” Then there’s the funny one where it’s like, “Her dad financed her whole career.” That came out before she had a record deal. I’m like, “Wait, I’m producing her album, we’re in my studio, and there ain’t no budget, so what is this imaginary funding from her quote-unquote rich dad?” I also know plenty of artists with rich dads who try to buy their kid a record deal. It ain’t happenin’.
Now that’s all kind of gone away. It was weird, though. It was this weird sexist energy of, like, “How could this pretty woman possibly write all her own songs, style herself, direct her own videos?” People wouldn’t believe it.
I’ve seen it all in the studio. I’ve seen the very indie “Sit in a corner and write everything,” and I’ve seen, unfortunately, the more manufactured pop shit. She’s not that. I’ve witnessed her voice, I’ve witnessed her writing, I’ve witnessed her creating this stuff. So I was like, if it becomes successful, it’s a matter of time before people get over the conspiracy theories and just kind of decide whether they like her. I always said give it some time and the truth will come out. She’s pretty badass.
Some people seemed to take umbrage with her stage persona, which was surprising.
I mean, what’s Bob Dylan’s real name? I don’t think Master P was born Master P. I’m pretty sure! It’s insane. It’s completely insane.
So you’ve worked with some musicians you’d consider manufactured?
I’ve tried, but I’ve never been successful at it. I’ve wanted to go to a big writing camp and work with all the top pop writers and have some massive song. “Hey, I wrote this with 18 people and it’s this big hit!” — silver platter, presented to the artist. But I just can’t. I’m not good at it.
After the success of Lana’s things, [I got] a lot of those calls. I was a bit unsure exactly where I was at in life. And it’s more than just making music. I think your late twenties to early thirties, as a man, you’re still kind of figuring it out. Now I’m turning 35 and I think the coolest thing about that age is knowing what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, and sticking to the script. Being able to turn down a “massive” gig — just knowing it’s not your thing, and not feeling the guilt of turning it down — it’s a good feeling.
And at some point, you decided you were interested in making your own solo music?
I had zero plans on making an album, but I did know I was ready to do something new. I had no idea what, but I was losing sleep at night, like, doing the same thing. So then I was just writing songs, which I had never done. I’ve written with artists, I’ve sat at the piano and came up with songs about their own life. But I was writing my own songs about my own life for the first time.
It’s weird when they’re your own. Like, I could sit with Lana and do a song, and wake up the next morning and listen to it and right away know whether it’s good or bad. With these songs, I had no fucking idea. But I was playing them for a lot of my friends, who are like badass musicians. And they were really encouraging me to keep writing them.
The guest list on the album is exceptional. Kind of a dream list.
It is my dream list, but they’re my friends. With the exception of like — I got some of my heroes. I got Brian Wilson, I got Randy Newman. My mom was super into the music I’m into now, which inspired my album. At the time, I wasn’t into it at all when she would play Joni Mitchell … Crosby, Stills and Nash … Neil Young … more folky music. [But] when I was making my record, I was obsessing over it.
Brian Wilson, Randy Newman — how the hell did you get those guys?
It was severe hounding. I kind of had to stalk a little bit. It wasn’t easy.
[Newman] said no so many times, and I kept going. Finally, I got to actually meet him face to face. I had a five-minute meeting with Randy. He was just like, “What is this? I don’t sing other people’s songs.” But I finally got him and he loved the music. I think it’s the only song he’s ever sang that he hasn’t written, ever. Of course, Randy Newman changed a couple words and made the song a million times cooler.
What about Wilson?
I tracked down his wife’s email and emailed [her] this long letter of what he means to me. And then I attached the song. I poured my heart out on this letter, and whether or not he read it, who knows. But she called me, like, 30 minutes later and I heard the song in the background. She was like, “Brian wants to do this. I don’t know why, but he likes the song.”
What about the great modern legend, Father John Misty?
[He] was staying in the room next to me at the hotel where I had a studio set up. We became buddies and he played me his new album and I played him mine. I watched him catch melody, and next thing you know, he’s singing on the song. [Originally] I met him at the bar at the hotel.
Did you ever consider a stage name?
I thought about it. That’s a big thing where it’s kind of weird as a producer to make your own album — is this going to be some sort of vanity project where I call all my famous friends and get them to sing? I guess coming up with some goofy name would have separated me from that a little bit. But then it’s just like — this isn’t 12 songs that didn’t make the cut on people’s albums and I put it together and made it my own thing. This is me sitting down at the piano writing all the songs, and these people are my friends and they sang the songs that I wrote. The album is from a very sincere place. I just want to call it my name.
In the press material, you’ve been explicit about this album being inspired by a breakup. Is that something you still feel like you want to talk about?
Now, no. If you had asked me six months ago or four months ago …
You go a little nuts when you go through a breakup. Then you come out of it and move on and realize that you were just like going a little crazy all the time. I’m not really passionate about that anymore. But I am passionate about the music I made. It was kind of a cathartic thing at the time. I was really going through it. Then it’s over. But you’ve still got the music.