Production magic sometimes happens by fluke, rarely by accident. It’s the task of the producer to conjure spells in the studio. The best in the game prepare like pros, bringing to the room vision, ideas, a competitive streak and a knack for wrangling. Always wrangling.
Malay is at the top of the tree, a Grammy Award-winning hit machine who has shaped recordings with the likes of Zayn, Lorde, Sam Smith, Frank Ocean and many more. It could have panned out so different.
There was a time when the U.S. producer brought his a-game to the wrestling mats.
A teenage Malay (real name James Ryan Ho) was one of the hottest prospects in the sport heading into college, an Olympic medal the stuff of his dreams. Music won.
These days, Malay is energised by the rough and tumble of music making, and he’s thrown himself into the challenge of the label business through Britannia Row Recordings, which he launched in 2016 with longtime manager Randy Cohen.
Things stepped up a notch last year when BMG partnered with Britannia Row, and Grammy-winning engineer Manny Marroquin came on board as a partner.
Its first signing was New Jersey indie rock outfit The Parlor Mob, followed by JOHNNYSWIM, the husband and wife duo of Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano, daughter of Hall of Famer Donna Summer.
Today sees the release of JOHNNYSWIM’s “Bridges,” lifted from their third album (and first for Britannia Row) Moonlight, due out April 19.
Malay is excited about the next round.
It’s late afternoon on a Sunday when TIO catches the music man in his Los Angles studio for a chat about his passions, his busy schedule and his Aussie connection. There’s still a lot of wrestler in him. Read on.
It’s late in the weekend for you. Which reminds me, for a record producer, it’s no party. What’s a week like for you?
It depends, sometimes when I’m writing songs with other artists it can go anywhere from six to eight hours.
I’ve been doing it for so long, I realise if you’re trying to write a new idea and you hit the eight-hour mark and you’re still fumbling around and you haven’t found the vibe, it probably isn’t going to work that day.
It’s better to start fresh and make a day of it. You have to find a balance and know when you’re on a creative hop and when it’s time to move into the work aspect of it, finishing songs.
I’ve done four days straight in a studio, you know. It depends on the artist. some want to live in the studio, some don’t want to be in there more than four hours.
L.A. is the epicentre of pop. The industry comes to you these days.
Definitely in the last five years there’s been a shift and everyone’s come out here. I was living in New York from 2015-2017 and was working out there at the time, but a lot of the major studios had closed and there weren’t many options. You got a sense in 2017, it’s all changed, (the) studios (landscape) had changed even more so.
Looking at the list of artists you’ve worked with, mind boggling. Many are big stars right now. Any favourites you’ve worked on?
I guess at the time I put all my energy into whatever project I’m doing, so fortunately I’ve developed close relationships with many of the artists I’ve worked with through the years.
I still stay in touch with a lot of them, even if I’m not working with them on their project, the conversation is always still going. It’s hard to say, It’s like someone asking what’s your favourite food.
How do you get into that creative zone. Do you binge on old tunes? Do you have a switch?
Growing up, chasing a career I spent so much time practicing instruments by myself or trying to write songs by myself. And a big part of that was just listening to all the classics, from the old soul music from Marvin Gaye to Al Green, my favourite stuff was Pink Floyd and the classic rock, learning how to play them with buddies in a cover band and whatnot.
I feel like after so many years of that, to this day it’s like riding a bike. I might reach out to a song I haven’t heard in five years, something I crave. It’s like a repetition built into my subconscious somewhere.
When it comes to the studio for me, I like to find my creative inspiration from the artist themselves. It’s hard being inspired to be creative just on my side. If I try to create an idea ahead of time and try to put it on somebody, it’s just never panned out for me.
I know people who prefer to work alone and craft tracks by themselves, and it works for them. I’m 100% the opposite. I don’t even like to touch an instrument, unless the artist is around.
I guess I’ve found myself in the category of the ‘transparent’ producer where I don’t want to work in the studio and say, ‘this is what you should be doing.’ This is the sound you need.
The conversation I usually have is, ‘what path are you looking to, what direction are you looking to go in?’
I’m also like a co-pilot, trying to help the artists see what’s going on in their brain and help them get it out.
That’s a good analogy, being a co-pilot. But with your new label, you’re the pilot.
Growing up as a highly competitive wrestler – not pro wresting, but Olympic-style wrestling – it’s still a team thing. I grew up working with a whole team, training and playing together.
I love the vibe of collaborating with people. The reason I started the label with BMG wasn’t anything other than I love the feeling that it’s a new situation.
If you look at some of the other major labels who were interested in partnering up as well, this is nothing against them, I just love the idea of a new group of people, starting a new venture.
BMG was primarily a publishing company at the time, for them to leap into label stuff and for me to get in early with that, it felt like right to me. It’s a team environment.
There’s a million things I can’t do. Part of being successful is realising what your strengths and weaknesses are. If I’m terrible at marketing or whatever it is, it’s filling in those gaps and re-focusing on what I’m great at, which is making records and helping artists make great projects.
The label is just another step into that world. There’s a little more sharing of heart and soul beyond just the studio.
Are you getting out the studio and scouting acts?
It hasn’t got to that level yet. The first two signings kind of landed in our lap. Parlor Mob; my wife grew up with the band’s manager and I developed a relationship with him.
They had a couple of record deals in the past and were considering what to do next. I went and spent some time with the guys and we ended up making a record super quick. They’re just an incredible live act.
It was fun because I was able to help them score something brand new sonically, everything happened organically, everything just made sense. I’m really excited about that.
We’re talking about bringing the band down to Australia in May. The other band I have, JOHNNYSWIM, my manager Randy Cohen used to help Donna Summer before she passed; Amanda is the daughter of Donna Summer. Randy has known her since she was a little girl. I took a meeting with them. Same thing, it felt right.
Their situation is a lot different, musically they’re completely different, Americana-folk vibe. They’ve done three or four EPs and-or albums, independently and self-released. And they’ve just toured, forever. They’re at the point now where in some markets they can sellout 5,000 tickets. They’re really a live act.
We did a couple things in the studio, it felt really natural. For them, they’ve worked with producers in the past but it never worked out. People tried to change them or put them in a lane that didn’t’ feel real to them.
We had a great synergy and we became really close in the process. We made an incredible album we’re really really proud of.
How important is it that your bands deliver live?
Maybe it’s because I grew up in bands and wanted to play live music, subconsciously this is something I’m attracted to.
We’re in an environment now where a kid can have a billion streams but can’t perform live. It’s a little thing for me, I’m realising more and more how important it is for an artist to really pull it off live and how much I love that.
It feels like it’s getting lost a little bit, especially in mainstream pop culture. I’m hoping that maybe with some influence from some of these acts we’ll kick arse with them and open up some ears and eyes for the younger generation and they’ll think, ‘hey, I wanna do that’.
I understand you have an interest in Aussie music.
I’ve done some work with Australian artists in the past. I was working with The Temper Trap at one point. We went to Byron Bay for a writing retreat. That was my only trip to Australia.
I might have seen the best possible way to do it. Byron Bay is incredible. I’ve been dying to go back. We’re trying to line something up so we come out, get some traction going with some of the acts that I have and also work with some Australian artists while I’m out there.
Maybe somewhere in April, May or June (BMG will open a studio around this time). We’re trying to find a window that would make sense.
Funnily enough, some of the best music that I’ve heard in the last 10 years, at least the freshest stuff, is either from New Zealand or Australian artists. I don’t know what’s in the water down there.
Well, we’re surrounded by it. We’re bred in isolation. Australia and NZ have always had interesting acts. I guess with digital services, it’s given some of these acts a chance to spread their wings globally and be heard. It’s definitely a great time for Aussie acts. It’s fun to watch.
It’s exciting. I’ve worked with Jarryd James in the past. He’s super talented. I did a new single for Six60 from New Zealand. I only spent a few days with them, but they’re super talented. They’re doing a show in February in New Zealand and it sold out something like 50,000 tickets. They’re like the biggest group in New Zealand. Such sweet guys.
Why did you ditch wrestling?
I stopped when I graduated high school. I had scholarship offers for NCAA colleges. I started wresting at eight years old. I was wrestling during the school year for the school teams, during the off season I was wrestling for the Washington state teams.
I grew up in north west, by Seattle. I was wrestling for the national team all year round, traveling. After a decade of that I was done.
In the meantime I started playing music, Going into high school, quietly in my mind that was my new passion. My family were really supportive, obviously, but everyone figured it was a hobby.
When I was getting closer to graduation, people were going, ‘you seem pretty serious about this music thing. Are you not going to wrestle?’ Why? What’s the future in that? Become a coach?
Neil Degrasse Tyson was a wrestler at college.
I did not know that. I still have great friendships from it. One of my best friends in the music business, he’s a songwriter out here in L.A., he grew up as a wrestler and ended up being a coach as well. It’s an unspoken bond.
It’s one of those intense sports where you try to cut weight, make weight, the challenges and the unique things you have to do to compete in the sport. if you survive it, I don’t’ want to compare the sacrifice but it’s like when a military personnel meets another, they have the same understanding.
You spent time in Atlanta. It’s such a hotbed of talent.
It’s always been. I lived in Atlanta from 2007 to 2010. And that’s kinda where things started happening for me. The first bigger song I had was with John Legend and Andre 3000, “Green Light,” we did that in Atlanta.
Watch the video for “Green Light” below:
That’s where I first met John Legend. We worked on a ton of songs and was pretty heavily involved in that project. For me, at the time I had barely anything going on. John has been so supportive.
He’s always been a good friend; I was at his 40th birthday party last night. Even if I haven’t done any work with him in the last few years, he’s been really supportive of what I’m doing. It shows what kind of guy he is, what kind of artist he is.
Your dad is Malaysian. Do you have a strong connection with the place?
Yeah, I’ve only been a couple times when I was younger. It’s definitely on the list to take the family, I have a couple of kids and a wife going on eight years now.
We want to do a trip with the uncles and my dad and mom and everybody. Sooner than later. We even have family from Malaysia who live in Melbourne.
We’ll do a reunion type thing, where the Australian family can come to Malaysia. it’s on the list of things we really want to do in the next two or three years.