Shayne Ward And Mike Stock Talk Pop, PledgeMusic And The Making Of New Album ‘Closer’: Idolator Interview
This Sunday (April 12), Shayne Ward’s fourth album, an excellent pop-and-soul ride called Closer, will be released globally (grab it on iTunes). Not only will it be the Manchester, UK singer’s first record to see the light of day here in the States, it’s his first to be released outside of a major label. After three albums done jointly through Sony Music and Simon Cowell’s Syco Entertainment following Ward’s 2005 UK X Factor win, Shayne, now 30, had quite frankly been there and done that.
“What normally would happen with Shayne, he’d be in a record deal with a major label, they’d pay him an advance and he’d work the rest of his life paying it back,” producer Mike Stock, who steered the Closer ship, explained to Idolator. “That was the normal way it worked. I’m not a fan of that way of doing things, so we had to do things differently here.”
Once Stock initially met up with Ward and became aware of just how eager the singer’s fans were for new material, the pair took their project to funding platform PledgeMusic late last summer in the hopes of hitting a certain target. But not only were their expectations realized when Closer hit 100 percent before December, the original PledgeMusic target was ultimately blown out of the water: Three days before the release of Shayne’s new LP, it now stands at a whopping 220 percent.
But, okay — enough of the business chit chat; let’s talk the pop pedigree of these two. Shayne Ward is a Brit with an unparalleled vocal talent as far as his male peers go. (Sorry, Sam Smith, but real talk here.) He’s got six UK Top 10 hits to his credit (yes, we’re counting double A-side “No U Hang Up” and “If That’s OK With You” separately!), and his upbeat, sultry sophomore LP Breathless still sounds flawless eight years later.
And as thrown around as the term “music legend” is these days, we gladly give Mike Stock a pass, because those two words were originally paired up for musicians of his caliber. This is the Ivor Novello- and BRIT Award-winning songwriter-producer who shaped the sound of Kylie Minogue’s first four albums, starting with a little number called “I Should Be So Lucky.” Rick Astley used to serve him tea until Stock threw the poor kid a bone with “Never Gonna Give You Up” and “Together Forever,” two songs that hit #1 in America. He gave the late, great Donna Summer an incredible comeback with “This Time I Know It’s For Real.” For the love of God, he was even able to transform drag icon Divine into a legit pop star thanks to “You Think You’re A Man”!
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, to say the least, but you get the point. Once these two began collaborating last year, we knew we had to get the full story on the making of Closer. So cut to this past March, when Shayne and Mike sat down in a room for a long talk with Idolator about the making of Closer, following a day spent playing the LP for a gathering of fans in London.
What follows is our lengthy (be sure to click through all the pages!), quite unfiltered and rather fascinating conversation with Shayne Ward and Mike Stock about their time spent recording an album made entirely on their own terms.
Hello, gentlemen! How did the album playback go?
SHAYNE WARD: It’s going good! It’s nice to have the album and play it back-to-back for the fans who showed up just to hear it.
Let’s discuss you two pairing up together in the first place. How did this collaboration begin?
MIKE STOCK: We kind of got slung together through a girl who was a keen fan of Shayne’s and liked what I did. Her name is Laura [Walton, co-writer of “My Heart Would Take You Back”]. She made the connection. I had a meeting …and we kind of hatched a plan. It’s not just as simple as saying we’re gonna sit in a room and write an album, because you’ve got to look at the business side of it. And the industry went through so many changes in the last 10 years, as you know. It’s not like it used to be. What normally would happen with Shayne, he’d be in a record deal with a major label, they’d pay him an advance and he’d work the rest of his life paying it back. That was the normal way it worked. I’m not a fan of that way of doing things, so we had to do things differently here. And so we went through PledgeMusic. I was a fan of Shayne anyway, from X Factor. I was told by [Laura] that Shayne had fans — and, boy, does he have fans. I mean, they are fanatic. It was then that convinced me that this is the way music should be — you’re making songs and records for people. Not for anyone else, really, but people who want to buy it. Fans of music. As I knew there was a market for Shayne — real people, not virtual people, actually wanting to buy the record — that’s what started it for me.
So, Shayne, you meet up with this guy, Mike Stock, who happens to be one of the most successful British songwriters in pop history. What’s going through your head during that first introduction?
SHAYNE WARD: I didn’t like Mike! [All laugh] No, it was pretty cool. It literally was like the way he said, through Laura. As soon as Mike’s name got mentioned, it was like a complete light over my head. I spoke to my management and said, “Listen, I have to go down and at least show my face and see where it goes from there.” Before we knew it, six, seven months down the line, we’d finished an album. It’s just crazy to be at this point right now. I’m just completely in awe, because I’m an ’84 child and the ’80s played a massive part in my childhood. So I knew everything that Mike did. Actually, I didn’t realize how much Mike did until I got a bit older.
Shayne Ward in the studio recording Closer with Mike Stock, September 2014.
How did PledgeMusic come into play as a means for funding the album?
MIKE STOCK: Well, it was my idea to go to Pledge. Why I proposed that we do this with Shayne and his management was because a man called Julian Wall was at the BPI, and BMG years before that — he took over chairmanship at [PledgeMusic]. Up until then, it was the right avenue for indie rock bands and people with a small fan base who only want to sell a couple thousand records. But when Julian came in, I realized it was probably the right moment for us to go in there and sort of raise the level of everything that they were doing. They responded brilliantly, and I just love people who mean what they say. So I said to Laura, “Go talk to Shayne,” and she did. I said to the Pledge boys, “We need to set a target and the fans need to respond.” The fans said, “We’ll respond” — and, boy, did they respond! We’re over 200% of the target. So it was the right decision, I think.
Mike, you’re kind of an old pro at going the indie route at this point.
MIKE STOCK: It’s not just about being independent, for me. Back in the day when we did Kylie Minogue, the industry turned her down. Nobody wanted to release it. Even though she was on a soap opera and all the rest of it, there was no place for her. She wasn’t rock and roll enough. So we formed a label just to put her out, because we knew the public loved her. We knew she had an audience. I think too many record labels and radio stations, etc., are in their ivory tower. So that’s what I like doing: Breaking down the walls of the ivory tower. Sorry — too many metaphors in there!
Shayne, it’s been awhile since your last album was released. How did you feel when you saw you’d not only met your PledgeMusic target, but that the percentage subsequently kept going up?
SHAYNE WARD: For me, I don’t like to look too far ahead, but it really just surprised me how much the fans got behind it. When it was going to like 50 percent, then it was 65, then 70, I thought, Wow, this is incredible, because I’ve not had any material out in the last four-and-a-half years. So to still have that dedicated fan base in the background who are, like Mike said, still willing to actually buy the record, was really uplifting for me. Before we knew it, we hit 100 percent. I remember a tweet Mike put out that was literally just saying, “Record labels take note.” It’s about the fans, and that’s exactly what it was. Then before we knew it we were at 125, then 175 and it just kept on going from there. I think if I had any expectations [at the onset], it’s past all that now.
What did the two of you discuss when you initially sorted out what the sound of this album, Closer, would be?
SHAYNE WARD: I think, if the moment that we sat down I would have said, “Okay, Mike, I want to do a dance album,” he would have told me to eff off, basically! It’s just something I wouldn’t want to do. We had to be natural around each other. Mike had a great way of getting the best out of me, especially when it came to the songwriting. He has a great method, which I’m not gonna say. It’s his method. [Laughs] Everything just felt natural. Of course you’ve got the classic sound from Mike, but also, with me, I’m kind of known for using my falsetto for big notes and things. We didn’t move too far away from what I was known for. But, the first album was pop; the second album we wanted to make a more R&B, American Justin Timberlake/Usher type thing; and the third album, we wanted to turn it into more indie, more guitar-led and atmospheric. So with me and Mike, we just went back to basics and said, “Listen, I’m a pop singer and I kind of sing with soul.” We just stuck to that. It just flowed really easily.
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.
Shayne, another standout on the album is “Fake.” Lyrically, it sounds like someone did you very, very wrong. Is this one about anyone, specifically?
SHAYNE WARD: “Fake” is just a fun, tongue-in-cheek song. The lyrics are a bit catty on paper, but it is not meant to be taken literally. It’s not aimed at anyone in particular. But haven’t we all come across people like that?
True that. And it’s time for a brief detour: I can’t let you off the hook without touching on this news that you’ve recently auditioned for a role on long-running UK series Coronation Street.
SHAYNE WARD: I’m a huge fan of Coronation Street and I have a few friends who star in the show, so I think it would be lots of fun to do! I’d love to play a bad boy character. I’ve already got the shaved head and tattoos, so it won’t be a stretch for the casting director.
I have to haul out a total pop nerd question. Mike, prominent backing vocals are usually a hallmark of your productions. Did you get some usual suspects in for Shayne’s album?
MIKE STOCK: Well, one was. But as you know, back in the day, I used Mae McKenna and Miriam Stockley and a few others — Coral Gordon and Dee Lewis, they’re on “Never Gonna Give You Up,” for example. That is a big area of mine, background support for the singers. Shayne didn’t need it as much as some of the artists I’ve worked with. I was desperate for great singers on a lot of the records. [All laugh] On this one, actually, are two girls who were finalists on The Voice, Emily Adams and Kirsten Joy, and also Aletia Adams, who used to be called Aletia Bourne, who I did some recording with in the past. So, three girls, but not necessarily all three all the time. I think actually it’s only Emily on “Moving Target,” and Kirsten didn’t do the second session.
Let’s wind down by discussing this gorgeous cover of Sugababes’ “About You Now,” which is a track on the deluxe version of Closer. Whose idea to remake this song?
SHAYNE WARD: It was Mike. We were looking at maybe doing a cover, and we could have chosen either a really old song or something that was out in the last couple of years. Mike just approached me and said, “Ever thought maybe about ‘About You Now’?” He asked me to listen to the lyrics with everything slowed down, and it just takes a whole new life form. So I had a listen, and Mike said, “Let’s not do anything drastic with it — no strings, just you and a piano, keep it really simple.” As soon as I started singing it, because it had been slowed down, the lyrics just meant so much more. It shows that a good song is a good song, fast or slow. The funny story about “About You Now” is I had a chart battle with Sugababes — they got #1 and I got #2 [with “No U Hang Up,” in 2007]. And what beat me to #1 was “About You Now.” We had a good chart battle, but I’m still trying to convince my mom — typical mom: “Didn’t that beat you to #1?”
MIKE STOCK: I loved the song when it came out, and it’s got provenance, of course, because [of] Dr. Luke and Cathy Dennis. Back in the studio, when they made it with Sugababes — the backing track has a sort of aggressive nature to it; it’s very spiky as a sound — I could hear this great tune through all of that. And I also knew the lyrics had, you know, “Oh, if we could turn it back. I know what I think now. I didn’t know it then.” It’s a great idea, so that’s what got me. I said to James, one of the musicians who works with us and played the piano, “Sort this out. Make it very simple. Pull out the chords and make it tug your heart.” He did a great job on that, but in common with lots of the songs, you just open the mic, then put Shayne on it — one or two takes, it’s done. That’s brilliant.
Shayne Ward’s album Closer, produced by Mike Stock, will be released worldwide this Sunday. Pre-order it on iTunes here.