meet the collaborators behind beyonce’s lemonade and solange's seat at the table
2016 was a good year for the Knowles sisters. Both Lemonade and A Seat At The Table broke the boundaries of where music and visuals could go so we met with four of the albums collaborators about how they came to work on two of the records of the year...
2016 saw the Knowles sisters, Beyoncé and Solange (obviously), dominate in ways Matthew and Tina probably never imagined. With 2016's Lemonade and A Seat At The Table, they became the first sisters to achieve number one albums on the Billboard 200 in the same calendar year, both creating era-defining visual and aural masterpieces that expertly merged the political (Beyoncé sinking into the water on top of a police car in the Formation video has to be one of 2016's strongest images) and the unflinchingly personal.
To celebrate the Knowles sister's achievements we spoke to four of their collaborators - MNEK, MeLo-X, Olugbenga Adelekan and Patrick Wimberly - about crafting 2016's two defining albums.
Singer/Songwriter/Producer. Co-wrote Hold Up on Beyoncé's Lemonade.
When did you first meet Beyoncé?I met her in 2015 in LA. So I kept it a secret for a year! Though Clara Amfo and Nick Grimshaw tried to out me on the radio. I went over to her house, to her studio, and she played me the chorus of Hold Up and asked if I wanted to try something on it. I went back to London and I literally wrote a song and then sent it to her. Then, like a jigsaw puzzle, she took the bit she thought was dope and decided that was the middle eight.
Had she heard your stuff already at that point?
Basically it was Big Jon [Platt, CEO of Warner/Chappell Music], who's my publisher now, he met up with me because he was a fan of my stuff and he played my stuff for her and she loved it. So then we met and she was really lovely.
When she played you Hold Up, how finished was the song?
It was literally just a chorus. I went away and wrote a whole song off that but the way she works is she pieces these things together, so she took out the ten seconds that she really enjoyed of what I did. It's the 'it's such a shameto let this good love go to waste' bit.
Why did she think you'd work best on Hold Up?
I think it was just the song she was working on and I guess she likes melodies and what I'd put forward. I just did what I always do, and wrote.
Do you remember the first time you heard her sing it?
Yeah, it was the day I signed my publishing deal and Big Jon played me a rough version of it, which actually had another section of mine in it, but obviously that changed. It was great that she thought anything floating around in my head was even remotely cool.
How different were your working styles? Do you enjoy working the way she does?
There are so many different ways of working and everyone has their own methods and I've taken onboard various ways of doing things over the years. It wasn't too dissimilar to the way Brian Higgins [of Xenomania] works, where it's a case of hearing a hook you like and then piecing it together to make something that is truly you.
You told Pitchfork that there were other songs you did together, so I'm going to need to know more about those please!I went back and did some more stuff, and there was a writing camp as well, but I don't know what's happening with that. There is another song we did that she really liked, but I don't know what's happened to it. Who knows. I would love to work with Beyoncé again. We all love Beyoncé.
Songwriter/DJ/Remixer/Producer/Bass player with Metronomy. Co-wrote and co-produced Don't You Wait on Solange's A Seat At The Table.
First of all, how did you come to know Solange?
The last time we had a long break from Metronomy stuff I did a little bit of my own music and it got covered on this website called OkayAfrica, which was set up by Questlove who Solange knows pretty well. Solange saw my stuff, liked it and basically her manager emailed my manager to see if I wanted to come out and work with this group of UK-based producers in New Orleans. I didn't actually meet her until we got there.
Were you nervous? Had you ever been in that situation before?
No I hadn't. It was interesting because the four of us - Sampha, Adam Bainbridge, aka Kindness, and Kwes - had never worked together either. I knew all of them, but we hadn't worked together, so it was us going out there, meeting Solange and then the day after we got into the studio and started jamming ideas. We'd all bought little bits of things, so we weren't going in really cold.
That would have been awkward if on that first night it was like 'yeah, it's not going to work, see ya'.
Yeah, for us UK people, there were funny little things we bonded over. Initially when we got there we were all staying in the same hotel and Solange's people had rented a car for us so there was an email chain with them telling us to meet them at a certain time and place. Unfortunately we had to reply and be like 'erm, none of us can actually drive'. So this guy called Blue, who is the engineer on the album, had to pick up the rental car and collect us all.
You mentioned jam sessions - is that just how Solange works?
I don't think any of the stuff we bought ended up being on the album, but there was a really good chemistry between us in the room, and we all had a good spread of instruments too. Sampha and Kwes are really good piano players, I was playing bass, Adam can also play bass and guitar too. We all had electronic stuff set up, and Kwes played the drums. So sometimes Sampha would start a keyboard idea, or I'd set up a beat from one of our computers, and then people would build up ideas from that. The first jam session we were in with Solange and she'd start singing things from the start and we'd go like that for a while. Everything was recorded the whole time, and then we'd stop when it felt like things were repeating too much. We'd listen back to what we'd played and then Solange would pick out bits she liked and then we'd develop that.
Was that quite a new way of working for you?
It was new, yeah. I've never worked like that before - in Metronomy, Joe [Mount] writes all the music, so even if he brings a song to us it's a much more structured approach. So with Solange it meant that after those initial jam sessions - of which there were quite a few - we went out and had some dinner and drinks, watched a brass band play, and then we went back to the studio and worked on some of the stuff we'd jammed on. Within two or three days, we'd built up a lot of material.
You're credited as co-songwriter and co-producer on Don't You Wait - what did that entail exactly?
On that song the drum programming started from something I did and there's a vocal loop of me in the background, which is from something I sang while we were jamming. I guess because I produced those bits that went in I'm credited as a co-producer. With electronic stuff the line between songwriting and production is so blurry. I also played bass on it too.
Did Solange discuss with you what the lyrics were about?
No. It's interesting because we did these sessions and then I went back home and didn't hear much about what was happening with the album for a really really long time. I'd forgotten a lot of stuff about the tracks we'd worked on, so when I got the final version of Don't You Wait, I had no recollection of the vocal parts. Then when I was watching that making of video she put out, it showed us jamming Don't You Wait and her singing that lyric right from the beginning. I don't know if it came to her while we were working on it, but yeah that lyric was right in there from the start even though we didn't really discuss lyrics at all. From the beginning she was very precise about wanting this mix of organic instrumentation and an electronic element, but with a feeling of it being played by humans.
Given everything that's happened this year, especially in America, it feels like a pretty definitive album - are you proud to be a part of that?
Very very very much so. I had heard some of the other songs that ended up making it onto the album, but one of the things that wasn't discussed with us, I guess because she was still coming up with it, was the theme of the album as a whole. It felt so timely when it was released, and it made sense in terms of the patchwork way the album was made because it's about the various sides of the black experience. I'm not sure if any of this made it onto the album, but after she worked with us in New Orleans, the next thing she was going to do was work on some music in Ghana. I think it was important to her to have these black musicians from outside of America and to plug into a wider black experience.
Producer/Songwriter/visual artist. Co-wrote Hold Up and co-wrote and co-produced Sorry on Beyoncé's Lemonade album.
So Beyoncé first got in touch with you after she heard your Yoncé-X mixtape, right?
How casual were you about it?
My thing is that I don't get hyped until what's done is done. I really wasn't hyped until I worked on the On The Run tour, and then once that was finished that's when I got to be really hyped.
What did she say she liked about the mixtape?
It was more the visual that I made for Drunk In Love. I made a performance art piece at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, and that's kind of what inspired her and she could see how I interacted with her voice visually.
How did it go from that to working on Lemonade?
I stayed in contact with her after the tour and I did a lot of different projects for Parkwood, and some work with some of the artists that they have. I did a lot of the sound design and scores for different projects for her throughout the year, leading up to the album. Then there was a period of time I didn't hear anything and then she contacted me about working on the album.
You worked on Hold Up, which has quite a few other songwriters and producers involved - did you get to hear the whole song or did you work on a specific part of the track?
When I first heard it it was just the track and the chorus, and I added some background vocal ideas to the chorus and I wrote a lot of the second verse. It was pretty skeletal when I first heard it and I kind of just wrote what I felt and brought out my Jamaican side and shit.
So is that you doing the lower "slow down" bits on the chorus?
Yeah, that's me. I'm surprised she kept it because basically what I did is just a whole bunch of wild shit and she just keep what she wanted.
How did Sorry come about?
Me and Wynter [Gordon] were brought into the process about midway through the album and we made that track at Westlake, which is where Michael Jackson recorded his albums. Beyoncé heard it and liked it and we just kept adding to it.
One of the keys things on Yoncé-X was the way you chopped up the vocals to create layers and that's used a lot on Sorry - is that something you naturally bring to songs you work on?
Yeah, that's some of the weird shit that I guess she gravitated towards. She did tell me once specifically that she liked how I constructed her voice and pitched it down or chopped it up whenever I wanted to. I guess when it came to make something original I kept that same approach.
That song seems to represent the album's lack of respect to genre in a way - it's unclassifiable isn't it?
It's basically just a vibe track. When I work with different artists I like to approach the direction from a place of trying to find something new, so from the music I'd heard on the album already I hadn't heard anything like that in terms of feel and energy. It's contemporary, it has a dancehall beat but it's also trappy in a way, and it's a cool tempo to dance to. It just came naturally.
What was Hit-Boy's role with that song?
Midway through we had the song pretty much there already and then it was more him adding some parts here and there and adding in the end part. If you listen there are a whole bunch of sounds that only appear once, so sounds that only happen on the left side or the right side as you listen.
Do you remember who came up with the "Becky with the good hair" line?
I'm not quite sure with that.
What did you make of all the speculation as to who it was about?
I think anything B does falls into the meme territory and so the first time I heard that line I knew it would be something people latched onto.
With both Hold Up and Sorry are there parts that you're most proud of when you hear them back?
With Hold Up I just remember waking up early in the hotel and listening to old Bob Marley live recordings and then writing a verse idea and doing some harmonies. It was done from a very innocent place - it wasn't like I tried to prepare myself to write this big record, it was more about writing some cool shit and doing some harmonies. I think that's what drew her to what I'd done, because it had a flow to it that made sense.
What was the general vibe in the studio like?
It's cool man, she's Beyoncé. The fact that she listens to my direction is cool. She definitely gave me directions but she's down to take direction when it comes to certain ideas I had.
Are there any other songs you worked on that haven't been released yet?
With every artist album there are also a bunch of tracks that don't make the album. There's definitely b-sides and rough cuts and unreleased stuff, so maybe you'll hear that, maybe you won't.
If you could email them over that would be great
(Laughs) I'll email you some blank audio files with the bee emoji.
Songwriter/Producer/one half of Chairlift. Co-wrote and co-produced Don't Touch My Hair, Where Do We Go and Scales on Solange's A Seat At The Table.
How did you first meet Solange?
We met at SXSW in 2008. She introduced herself after one of the Chairlift shows that weekend. We've been friends ever since.
How did the idea of collaborating on A Seat At The Table come about?
I wanted to work with her ever since we first met. We have so much in common when it comes to music and values. I'd learn a lot from her every time we'd hang out. She turned me onto some of my favourite records. The first time I worked with her was right after her album True came out. I played drums and did some programming for her live show. We got closer during that period and developed a lot of mutual trust and respect for each other. It seemed natural that we would come together for her next record.
Given that your good friends were you nervous at all about working together? Or is that how you prefer to work - with mates?
I always do much better work with someone once I've established some sort of friendship with them. In this case, we had years behind us as friends, so once we started working on this, things started coming together really fast. I've been in many situations where I'm going into the studio with someone I barely just met and it always takes time to find the common ties that make the collaboration important to do. Solange and I already knew what those things were.
Where did you go to record?
The first sessions I did on this album were out in Long Island. I forget what town it was but there was an alpaca farm right behind us! She rented a house, some gear and turned the screened-in porch area into a studio. I brought a bunch of my gear up there, too. About a year later we did a similar thing in New Orleans. But, there was no alpaca farm...
Did the songs you worked on come out of jam sessions, or were they more fully formed songs?
The first sessions in Long Island songs were coming from impromptu moments. I'm avoiding the term jam sessions because they weren't like traditional jam sessions. It was more like producers jamming. And there was no rhyme or reason to who could do what on what instrument. I'm really thinking of Don't Touch My Hair and how it came together. That was when Sampha, Solange, Bryndon (Starchild) and I were working together. We'd talk for a bit and Solange would start describing a mood. And then we'd all dive into some ideas for the production. Solange would get melodies in there very early which would really guide the direction. Sometimes she'd come up with chords and beats too. All of the songs came together in different ways, but yes, there's was usually some element of jamming in the beginning.
Were there any songs you worked on that didn't make the album?
We made some really great stuff that didn't quite work on the album in the end. That's always a sign that you're making a truly great album - even the outtakes are amazing.
What was your role on Don't Touch My Hair, specifically?
This was maybe the first thing we did together for the album and it was when I learned what kind of record she wanted make. I started with some 808 programming on the MPC and Sampha started playing those amazing chords. Then everybody started getting ideas really fast. I added some more MPC drums and a bass line. Bryndon and Sampha wrote two more bass parts that overlapped on top of the part I wrote. So there was as many as three basses playing at a time, which I love. Who needs guitar anyway? There's this siren sounding synth part that I played that night and that sound ended making it on a bunch of other tracks on the album, too. Solange wrote pretty much all the melodies right then and came up with the words 'don't touch my hair.' I was the only white dude in the room that night. I didn't even know that that was a thing. They all told me stories of being young and having to deal with that question, "can I touch your hair?" I learned that night that no matter how sensitive I am, I can always be more sensitive. Being trustworthy is important because it allows you to be part of the conversation. Then, just listening is even more important.
You're part of a small group of people that have worked with both Knowles sisters - in what way are they similar in terms of how they work?
Ha! I hadn't really thought about that. Tough question, too. I had very different experiences working with them. Without saying too much, they're both just really fucking good. They're as good as their albums would lead you to believe.