Shayne Ward And Mike Stock Talk Pop, PledgeMusic And The Making Of New Album ‘Closer’: Idolator Interview
Shayne, each of your previous albums had multiple producers involved. What was it like this time around to just have one person in charge, so to speak? SHAYNE WARD: It was frustrating! I wasn’t able to get creative because he only had the one way to go. [All laugh] No, it was nice because I wasn’t pulled from pillar to post. When you’re dealing with a label who throw you to different producers, each producer has their own sound. And then when you send it all back to the label, the label is confused, ’cause they’re like, “Well, actually, which way are we going?” Whereas with Mike, we knew exactly where we were going with it straight away. Like I said, everything came nice and easy for us — it was always going to be pop and it wasn’t going to be anything else, so I was really happy with that. Just working with Mike alone had to be one of the easiest, most laid back experiences.
MIKE STOCK: I’ll just jump in there, Robbie. Having made loads of albums with different artists, this was actually, honestly — not simple, but the easiest one I’ve ever done. There was no tension. There were no moments of anger or bitterness or any of the things I’ve often experienced. We sat in a room, a darkened room, the coffee kept going and the ideas rolled out. I’ll say this for Shayne, and I mean this completely: Not only do we know of his talent, but his range of musical perception and his ideas and his personal thoughts and his eclectic nature… We discussed, in writing the songs, stuff ranging from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. There was nothing that Shayne didn’t know something about. I was born in 1951, and that’s when, more or less, the modern era started. So I have in my head the history of chart music. I was surprised, with Shayne being so much younger, that he had that also. When we talked about “My Heart Would Take You Back,” we looked at The Stylistics and The Chi-Lites and other things. When I suggested it, he said, “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.” So, for me, the process was easy. I just want to pull up one thing; I don’t want it to sound wrong, but I think it was Brian Epstein who once said the next big thing [after The Beatles] is always a good tune. And I always try, whomever I’m working with, to make sure there’s a melody going on. Shayne sparks off that — sparks off the lyrics. When you’re working with somebody who sparks, you add your spark and then there’s a fire. We were on fire for about seven or eight days in that room. We wrote 10 songs off the bat. That’s never happened before [to me], and that’s partially because Shayne has the history of music in his mind like I have. Together we were drawing on all sorts of influences. But at the end of it all, the thought was we were going to write a cohesive pop song.
Writing a cohesive pop song being something you personally have 30-plus years experience doing. MIKE STOCK: I’ll tell you something that’s funny, because people were saying to me, “Well, how much of the edit do you want iTunes to play — a 30-second preview? A minute-and-a-half preview?” I said, “A minute-and-a-half? Our songs don’t waste time!” Our songs start off and you’re into the song in the first 10 seconds. You don’t have any long-winded introductions! You look at the time and they’re 3 minutes and 20 seconds, these songs, top to bottom, because we honed our thoughts, we honed our tunes and we delivered it in that time. To me, that’s pop!
Mike Stock (left), Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman in 1988, the year the British production trio topped the Billboard Hot 100 twice, with Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” and “Together Forever,” and Kylie Minogue’s debut LP became the best-selling album in the UK. (Photo: Terry O’Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Mike, I’m going to put you on the spot, given that you’re sitting right next to Shayne. In your autobiography The Hit Factory: The Stock, Aitken And Waterman Story, you talk about Donna Summer having the best voice of anyone you’ve ever worked with — and, by the way, I think Another Place And Time is the greatest album you’ve ever produced. That said, what was it like having Shayne’s vocal talent in your hands in the studio? MIKE STOCK: It’s a bit awkward because Shayne is sitting right here, but I really can’t think of a better vocalist from the UK in the last 20 years. Funny that you mention Donna Summer, because Donna was similar for me. She was obviously, when I worked with her, quite a bit older than Shayne is now. She had a wealth of experience behind her. And, yes — you’d suggest a tune to Donna Summer and she sang it back to you with bells on, and flashing lights. I got the same feeling about Shayne. That’s what was happening — that’s what I mean about the spark. I mean, I’m not gonna name names — you wouldn’t expect me to — but sometimes, some of the artists I’ve worked with were great pop stars but not brilliant vocalists. It’s really rare to get the combination. Very, very rare. And Shayne is that combination. That’s why I feel as privileged to work with him as anybody I’ve ever worked with.
The campaign for Closer started off with “My Heart Would Take You Back.” Describe the day in the studio that song came together. SHAYNE WARD: Mike said before that I’ve got a very vast range of genres that I love, and Motown is definitely one of them. I’m all about voices and harmonies that gel well, from the Bee Gees and The Chi-Lites to The Stylistics, Temptations. Lyrically and melodically, Mike is great. [Snaps fingers] He just popped like that, and it was very easy for me to bounce off it. The lyrics actually came about, without going too much into it — the words “my heart would take you back” is a conversation that I’d had with my ex-missus. We’ve been broken up for a year, but at the time, one of the things she said to me was, “My heart would take you back, but my head just says something different.” And in my head I said, “What great fucking lyrics!” [Laughs] I met up with her recently and we both laughed about it, but I remember saying it in just passing conversation with Mike — that’s how we got to know each other, just by having conversation. And then Mike picked up on it later on. He said, “You said something that was great,” and he wrote it down and tweaked it a little bit. Straight from that, it just flowed. When Mike came up with the melody idea for it, it just felt so old-school. Before we knew it we had a great, old-school-sounding soul song.
MIKE STOCK: It goes to show, be careful what you say — it could turn up in a song!
My favorite track on Closer is “The Way You Were.” I think you’ve got an absolute smash on your hands with that one. MIKE STOCK: As is quite often the case with Shayne, when we were in the studio, he’d be thinking in terms of the video. We’ve already got the video in our heads for [‘The Way You Were”]. We know exactly what we want to do with it. Shayne even drew it on paper as we were working out lyrics — he was doodling the shots to camera and the idea for the video! I do like to think that the lyrics I’ve written — not just with Shayne, but generally — it’s my thing that they do have to make sense; they do have to tell a story; they do have to give you a slice of life somehow. And so they do lend themselves to video treatment. But on that one, as the song was developing, Shayne was getting very excited about the video! [Laughs] That drove us through to the end, actually. The style of the song, I think we were looking at taking some influences from what’s going around at the moment — some sort of clubbier records that are there. There’s OneRepublic, there’s Calvin Harris and there are a few other things. You know, we didn’t want to make an album that was irrelevant to the modern world, but I think most of these artists to do with modernity are short on content and high on style. So, I’ve always [felt] if I’m going to go for style in a song, it ought to have some content as well.
My two cents: “The Way You Were” would make a great single. MIKE STOCK: Along that line, we don’t call “My Heart Would Take You Back” the single; we call it the lead track. There’s a difference! [Laughs] It sort of leads the promotion. Back in the day, of course, you’d pick a single and there was no messing about. You’d just call it the single. I think “The Way You Were” could eventually turn out to be one, as well.