PRODUCER STEPHEN LIPSON ON JAMES BOND, BILLIE EILISH, AND WHY THE MUSIC BIZ SHOULD HAVE ‘A LITTLE BIT MORE FAITH IN ARTISTS’
JUNE 8, 2021
BY JACK NEEDHAM
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Stephen Lipson is an English record producer, audio engineer, guitarist and songwriter, and is one of the few people to have worked with both an ex-Spice Girl and on a billion-dollar grossing movie.
As a producer of movie scores, Lipson has worked on Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, The Lion King and the forthcoming movies Top Gun: Maverick and Boss Baby 2.
Lipson has also worked extensively with the movie industry’s go-to producer Hans Zimmer, with Lipson’s influence being heard on films like Rush, Superman – Man of Steel, Inferno and Freeheld.
But before breaking into the movie industry, Grammy-nominated Lipson was an accomplished record producer for acts like Annie Lennox, Paul McCartney, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Whitney Houston, Grace Jones, Ronan Keating, Jeff Beck and Geri Halliwell.
Since then, by his own admission, Lipson has had little to do with the music industry. That is, aside from co-producing the UK No.1, Grammy-winning Billie Eilish title track from the upcoming Bond movie, No Time to Die.
“There are worse things that have happened,” says Lipson, humbly, on his time working with Eilish and her producer brother FINNEAS.
We catch up with Lipson as he’s relaxing in his Oxfordshire holiday home to chat about ‘Bonding up’ Billie Eilish, the differences between the music and movie businesses and what one thing he’d change about the music industry…
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I’ve worked a lot with Hans Zimmer, so he contacted me and asked me a really weird question. I think he said, ‘do you like Aston Martins?’ I didn’t know what he was asking about but I knew it wasn’t about Aston Martins.
So I reply, ‘Okay, come on, what’s the story?’ He goes, ‘I’ve been asked to do the Bond score, and part of the score is the Bond song, and I would love it if you produced the song.’
I said, ‘Well let me think about it… [affirmative] okay.’ It was straight off, and then there was maybe a six month journey from conception to completion.
AS THE MOVIE’S NOT BEEN ABLE TO BE RELEASED YET, I’M GUESSING YOU ARE ONE OF THE FIRST PEOPLE TO HAVE SEEN IT?
I’ve seen the whole thing. This is one of those movies that’s pretty amazing to work on. A Bond movie is always going to be good news, really.
DURING THAT PROCESS AS A PRODUCER, WITH BILLIE EILISH AND FINNEAS, HOW DID YOU GAIN THE TRUST OF A VERY TIGHT KNIT SONGWRITING AND PRODUCTION DUO WHO MOSTLY DO EVERYTHING THEMSELVES?
A lot of musicians want to get the Bond song. I went to see Hans, who said, ‘There are loads of songs but I’ll play you this one, because I think this could be good.’ He played me No Time to Die, which FINNEAS and Billie had done. I thought that Billie Eilish was a brilliant artist to attach to a Bond movie. With Billie, the majority of her audience probably don’t even know who Bond is, so it was such a great idea to open up the whole franchise. Barbara Broccoli [producer on the James Bond series] felt the same, so we embarked on this process.
However, when I heard the song, it didn’t have that grandiose feel that a Bond song should have. It was very small, very insular and very long. But I realized pretty quickly that making it appropriate for a Bond movie wasn’t really a problem. I can figure out how to give it the ‘size’, I could figure out the length and I could figure out how to make it work. But nobody in the Bond camp was 100% sold on this being ‘the Bond song’, because it didn’t sound like a Bond song.
“A KEY MOMENT WAS WHEN BILLIE SANG THE HIGH NOTE AT THE END OF THE SECOND CHORUS.”
The process started with an edit, and the edit was removing a third of the song. I did that and sent it to FINNEAS. He was okay about it. At this point, I suspect, FINNEAS’s angle was that he really wanted the song to get into the Bond movie, and I was contacting him as a representative of the Bond movie. I assume he must have thought, ‘Blimey, if he’s sent me this edit, they must all think this is the way to go.’ That’s what would have gone through my head: ‘This guy, I don’t know who he is, has sent me an edit, so let’s just play along with it and see where we get to.’
There was another key moment, which was when Billie sang the high note at the end of the second chorus. I asked FINNEAS for a couple of fixes and [I] said it needs to climax. I didn’t want to be very specific with him, but he sent this in and… there was that Bond moment. Then, I get a phone call saying, ‘Billie hates the high note’… but thankfully that moment passed. I’m not sure why that moment passed, but she [ended up] liking it.
Everyone was happy, but the key person was Daniel Craig. It’s his swan song, so he wanted to make sure that the song would deliver in the Bond-like fashion he felt it ought to. Up to then, he didn’t like it at all, but he hadn’t heard the high note.
Finally, Barbara managed to get him to my studio at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning, and I fiddled with the mix so that when it hit the high note the whole thing went ballistic. He loved it. As soon as he gave it the okay, around half an hour later it was all over social media. It was remarkable how quickly it went from him liking it to it being everywhere. It was instantaneous.
IT’S INTERESTING THAT DANIEL CRAIG WOULD HAVE A HAND IN IT AS WELL.
He’s James Bond! If he wasn’t happy it was no good, but by that time it was quite late in the day to change anything. If he didn’t like it that would have really shaken things up. But it all worked out. The only thing that hasn’t worked out is that we haven’t seen the film.
FOR YOU, AS SOMEONE WHO’S HAD ONE FOOT IN MUSIC INDUSTRY AND ANOTHER IN THE MOVIE BUSINESS, DOES ONE INDUSTRY ALLOW YOU TO DO SOMETHING THAT THE OTHER DOESN’T? WHETHER THAT’S CREATIVELY, COMMERCIALLY OR ANYTHING ELSE.
In a way, they’re complete opposites. Songs are commercial. They have a structure, a format and instrumentation. And with songs, the voice is king. With a score, the dialogue is king, so what’s required is completely different.
A score has to be terribly subtle. You can’t overpower anything with your top line because the top line is dialogue. Whereas, in a song, you are completely in control of the top line, whether it be the voice, or a melody. You can be much bolder, in a way.
DO YOU THINK THAT’S CHANGED OVER TIME? SPECIFICALLY ABOUT MUSIC PRODUCTION AND SONGS, AND THE APPROACH TO CREATING A SUCCESSFUL SONG. HAS THAT CHANGED SINCE YOU WERE WORKING WITH PEOPLE LIKE ANNIE LENNOX IN THE 1990S?
It’s been a while since I had a chart hit. The reason it’s been a while is because I became submerged into movie world. I’m working with a Canadian artists at the moment called POESY, who is absolutely amazing. It seems to me that what we’re doing is no different to what I’ve always done, in a way.
She doesn’t rap, she’s not R&B, I don’t know what she is but she’s just really good. In that respect, there’s no change. But I’m not Fraser T Smith. He’s got the capability of working with very different genres, and I’ve never gone down that road.
WHAT ARE YOUR GENERAL VIEWS ON THE STATE OF THE MUSIC PRODUCTION INDUSTRY AT THE MOMENT?
In a way, what I do is becoming redundant. There seem to be two areas. There are bands who all play together, and then there are individuals.
I’ve worked with bands for years and, quite honestly, I’d be hard pushed to work with a band again. With individuals, the writers are the people who make the records, but with bands it’s a different dynamic. I find it a bit frustrating, in a way. I have to accept what I’m given.
IS IT MORE OF PERSONAL EXPERIENCE, WORKING WITH A SOLO ARTIST RATHER THAN A BAND?
I agree. With a band, I’m sitting listening and thinking, ‘I want to play the bass on this now. I’ve got a great idea, but I can’t do it because they’ve got a bass player.’ I can suggest what’s in my head, but the bass player won’t really get it how I’m hearing it. So that’s that, and on we go. I just find it a little bit frustrating.
HAVING WORKED WITH SOMEONE LIKE FINNEAS, WHO FAMOUSLY BEGAN PRODUCING MUSIC IN HIS BEDROOM, AND HAVING SEEN THIS TREND RISE OVER THE PAST FEW DECADES, DO YOU THINK THIS TREND OF RICH, AT HOME PRODUCTION SOFTWARE FOR ARTISTS IS A POSITIVE OR NEGATIVE?
It’s a bit of both. It’s really good for people who are good, and not so good for people who aren’t good. It’s a hell of a generalization, but because it’s so cheap to buy a laptop and a sequencer there are a lot of people who don’t know what they’re doing.
“IT’S LIKE THROWING SHIT AGAINST THE WALL, AND I DON’T KNOW WHERE THAT LEADS US.”
It’s like throwing shit against the wall, and I don’t know where that leads us. How many songs are uploaded to Spotify a day?
IT’S AROUND 60,000 TRACKS PER DAY. IT’S A LOT.
[laughs] It’s insane, isn’t it.
DOES THIS MAKE THE MUSIC INDUSTRY BETTER OR WORSE THAN IT USED TO BE IN YOUR VIEW? THIS HUGE WEALTH OF NEW MUSIC…
I don’t know. Most of the music that’s out there seems devoid of harmony.
It’s as if now, you get a four-bar loop, something happens over the top and there you go. Even though I’m probably just as guilty as anyone else of that behaviour, a lack of harmony is the thing that really upsets.
BUT THERE IS THE IDEA THAT THIS TECHNOLOGY GIVES PEOPLE THE ABILITY TO PLAY AROUND AND LEARN A CRAFT BEFORE THEY PERFECT IT LATER ON.
Now the instrument is the laptop.
ARE YOU MORE OF A PRODUCTION DESK PURIST?
God no, whatever it takes. I couldn’t possibly complain about technology. I use it all the time. It’s absolutely fine, but it feels to me like music fans seem to be fans of the artist more than the music they produce.
It was always like that I’m sure, but it’s just different [now].
IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE THING ABOUT THE MUSIC INDUSTRY TODAY IN AN INSTANT, WHAT WOULD YOU CHANGE AND WHY?
From a personal point of view, I’ve noticed that people rarely get affirmation for their work. If something’s bad, you’re told, if something’s good it rarely gets appreciated, so maybe a bit of appreciation would be good.
There’s also the debate about what writers get from streaming. It’s not that I don’t think writers should get more. Of course they should, we all should. But if Spotify is running at a loss, I wonder where all the money’s going. Possibly it’s going to the record companies, in which case everyone’s having a go at Spotify, but maybe they need to redirect their energies.
“I’D LIKE PEOPLE TO HAVE A LITTLE BIT MORE FAITH IN ARTISTS, TOO.”
I’d like people to have a little bit more faith in artists, too. If you wind the clock back a few decades, an artist could develop their whole ‘thing’ over four albums, explode and then they’d be huge.
There are obviously exceptions, but that could never happen now. That’s a real shame.