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Since lockdown we’ve been going through the ebb & flow that many of us are experiencing in this ‘new normal’.
2020 has been an unusual year, so much so that the ‘new normal’ becomes an everyday phrase, and in awaiting for the ‘old normal’ to return, we wonder if it will come back in a different guise – the ‘new old normal’? The ‘new normal 2.0’?.. Many of us have been weathering the storm of this pandemic and its impact on our music business has been dramatic, but invention is at the core of the Arts and the capacity to create and evolve within chaos is in a creator’s very being..
We’ve really wanted to hear from people in the music industry about their experiences of what’s been happening – then, now, and where to. Next in our series, we caught up with Kojo.
With an extraordinary musical heritage, Kojo was raised on music; his mother being legendary soul singer PP Arnold & father being a bassist for Crosby Stills & Nash.
He soon began playing keyboards and took a keen interest in music production: “Growing up around so many amazing musicians and artists, I tried to learn as much as I could from whoever would teach me”. Having gained extensive musical knowledge throughout his childhood, at 18 he began working as a freelance producer and within a few years was working with numerous major label artists.
After 10 years of producing, songwriting and re-mixing, Kojo (originally from the US) briefly returned to pursue various production opportunities, including working on music for TV and Film. Upon returning to the UK, he toured with UK pop icons Sugababes, ultimately becoming their Music Director. His passion, discipline and artistic ability in this new role were quickly recognized as offers to work with other artists increased exponentially.
Over the past decade Kojo has consistently worked with chart-topping artists, creating dynamic shows and performances world-wide. Whether it’s MD’ing Stormzy’s remarkable Glastonbury 2019 show, multiple sold out tours with Jess Glynne or developing exciting shows for new artists, Kojo Samuel is without a doubt one of the most sought after, reputable and talented MDs in the UK.
You grew up in an incredibly musical household – did music seem a way of life, and what was your first introduction into the world of your own professional work? Did you train in music college, on the job, how did you begin?
Music was always in my household and definitely just seemed like a normal way of life for me. I don’t remember a massive amount from my childhood years but I remember travelling a lot and always being around music and musicians. I remember being in studios, rehearsal rooms and there always being instruments around the house. Although it was always around I remember starting to take a proper interest in music somewhere between 7-9 and I would kinda try and play whatever was around. When I was a young teenager (maybe 13/14) my mother who is a singer called PP Arnold got some home studio equipment for writing purposes and that’s where I really began to take a solid interest in making music. If I recall we had a Tascam 244 Portastudio, a Boss Dr110 Drum Machine and a DX7. Between my mom and myself we just started trying to learn how to use it all and I just took to it so those tools just kinda became mine and before I knew it I was making music. For my mother, for my friends, for myself but always experimenting with writing, recording, producing and things of that nature. This was all pre-sequencers as well so I naturally took to keyboards/synthesisers and started having piano lessons and playing by ear.
After a few years of doing this, I’d gotten pretty good with it all and by 16/17 was producing demos and things of that nature for my mother but also had various personal projects I was working on. The studio had grown somewhat exponentially and I invested whatever I had into gear so by 18 I was essentially producing. I’d learnt production, engineering, programming sequencing etc all from just having the equipment, learning how to use it and studying the craft. I did a music at A-Level studying composition but didn’t go to music college because at that time you essentially had to pick classical or jazz as there were no contemporary music/production courses like there are now and being unable to find a path that seemed to make sense for me, I just decided to leave school at 18 and start pursuing a career in music.
After a couple years of knocking around I was making pretty hi-quality demos for different things and also doing some live gigs as a keyboard player. I was getting noticed as a good keys player and people started booking me for professional studio sessions and that’s really how things started for me in terms of really deciding to put myself forward as a professional producer. I realised in these sessions that some of the guys I’d be working with were like 10 years older than me and didn’t have a clue what they were doing and fully knowing my way around a studio I thought, if they can do it, so can I.
Around that time, I’d produced a 6-10 song demo package for my mother that was pretty good and although the production wasn’t the best in the world there was a lot of quality there and one of my mothers friends had just started managing a young boy band called Damage who were around my age and lived locally so we started writing together in my home studio. That eventually led to me signing a management deal with Damages label at the time who were called Big Life and I began writing and producing for all of the artists on their roster as well as other artists around at the time. From then I was “in the industry” so to speak and all followed on from there really.
Many of us in the music world see musical directing as the unsung hero of major live productions – how did you start out in this area?
So after around 10/15 years as a producer/writer, I’d kind of lost my way a bit and when one of the artists I was working with at the time asked if I wanted to do some gigs with them on keys, I thought why not? Gigging around town I started meeting other musicians around town and realised there was a somewhat buoyant live scene where people were actually making quite a bit of money sessioning. After spending many years essentially doing 100’s of writing sessions for free I again thought why not? Having been a producer for so long my playing and programming skills were noticed by people I’d work with and after a few months of doing gigs I’d heard that the Sugababes (who were a big group at the time) were looking for a new keyboard player so I ended up auditioning and getting the job. I thought I’d do it for a few months to clear up some credit card debts and before I knew it, I’d been on the project for 3/4 years and when the MD of that band was busy doing another project I was put forward for the MD role. Having been around that project for a while it was easy for me to take on that responsibility and from there my MD career essentially took off exponentially.
How did you find making the transition from producing a track to producing a performance? Are there many similarities?
From the minute I saw what an MD did, it just kinda made sense to me and I very much viewed it as producing a band. I personally found the transition very easy because I was able to marry my production experience with a good few years of solid work in the live world. They’re both very different but I was fortunate to have experienced them both at a very high level so the transition was kind seamless and felt very natural for me. There are definitely lots of similarities between producing and MD’ing but there are also a lot of differences so I wouldn’t say they’re always that interchangeable. It really depends on the circumstances.
What is your favourite part of bringing a performance to life?
I love the whole process of starting with an empty rehearsal room somewhere and eventually standing at FOH in an arena full of people watching a massive performance/production that you were a part of from a really early stage when there was just you and an empty room trying to figure out how to make it all happen. I also really enjoy taking someone else’s work and seeing what you can do to make it work in a live setting. Metaphorically speaking it’s like you have to take if from 2D to 3D and when you can do that effectively, it can be amazing to watch.
How would you describe your experience of working on live performances and tours? A day in the (pre-covid) life of Kojo Samuel…
Very busy..lol. You’re having to manage all of the creative expectations of a project but also the technical, logistical, organisational, personnel issues etc etc. On a typical rehearsal day, outside of actually being creative, having ideas and executing them, you need to be across all band issues, artist issues, label issues, management issues, crew issues, lighting issues, visual issues and so much more. Despite what it may seem sometimes, it’s still the music business so very little happens without the music. You’re like a hub between a multitude of departments that all have to work together to make a great show. It’s all encompassing.
Things have been greatly affected for us all this year, but invention is at the core of creatives – how has your working life changed since Covid?
For me personally it’s been a great time to get my production chops back to what feels normal. In the live world I’ve been going 100mph without a break for about 10 years straight so the time to consolidate and work on some other things has been great for me. As mentioned earlier, I’ve been locked away working in rooms since I was a teenager so whilst my working life has been different it hasn’t felt strange for me at all. Although there hasn’t been as much live work, there has still been lots of other things going on for artists and usually some form of musical direction/production/editing/mixing/arranging/recording is always needed. I’m fortunate that over time, I’ve done lots of different things and can do lots of things so although things have been different, I’ve still been able to keep busy.
How have you found the last 8 months musically? Have you been able to continue to create?
I know it’s been a tough time for a lot of people but for me musically it’s been great. When MD’ing full time, you really don’t get much time to create outside of the context of the project you’re working . Having time to be creative in the studio ‘just because’ has been great for me. If anything I’d have loved to have had more time. For a while now, I’ve wanted to have time to really strategise and think about what I want to do in the future and this extra bit of time and space has been great for that.
Have you had to MD any livestream or socially distanced live performances?
I’ve MD’d a few socially distanced performances and they’ve been fine. Although I think it’s almost impossible. Everyone does their best but after about 10mins it seemingly all goes out the window. Communicating ideas is the trickiest part but it’s the way it is for now and you just have to do the best you can.
We’re big fans of your podcast, About The Players. What was the motive behind starting this? Was lockdown a big factor?
Oh wow. Thanks for listening! It actually wasn’t a lockdown thing at all. I listen to a lot of podcasts and had the idea in the Summer of 2019 but as I was always busy I’d only managed to record 3/4 episodes. Lockdown gave me the time to actually complete it and finally get it released. The motivation behind it was just wanting to share some of the interesting stories and journeys of musicians. I thought it was something that could be informative, educational and also entertaining.
What really goes on in the industry tends to operates under a weird veil of silence so therefore no-one really know how things actually run until they get into it and I felt that hearing directly from people working at the sharp end of the business would be of value to all but in particular to young musicians looking to get into the industry. Another motivation was that there is often a feeling of under appreciation amongst musicians who feel as if labels, managers and sometimes artists don’t really value their contributions.
There are many occurrences where the band members may be the lowest paid individuals in the team often making less than most other members of a touring party. A lot of business people have come through the industry in a time where session musicians aren’t too involved in the recording process and there’s also a lack of understanding of what a good musician actually is. Musicians are often seen as interchangeable/expendable or just there to enhance the look or vibe on stage and in the actual music industry that just doesn’t make sense to me. Up until the 90’s really you could look in the cover notes of your favourite record and find out who played what on a song but with the prevalence of sequencing that became a rarity so I think that lack of visibility partially contributed to the lack of understanding/appreciation there can be at times now. So rather than sitting around in rehearsal rooms moaning, I thought why not record these conversations that are often entertaining but more importantly try and educate people about everyone’s backgrounds and educate on how time and hard work really goes into being a top session musician. It’s also been really interesting for me to learn more about everyone’s journeys and about all of the other things they do and can bring to the industry.
What are your plans for the near future?
In the near future I hope to continue working in an MD’ing capacity on projects with talented artists who I believe in. That’s really important to me and I’m hoping to be able to focus on quality over quantity. In whatever capacity we’re doing things, the artistic side of things is the part I value the most and I’d just like to be working with talented people doing creative things. Or in simpler terms I just wanna be doing dope shit with dope people…lol.
How do you feel about the future of live music in 2021, 2022?
I hate to be that guy but I’ve never been one to look back and I don’t think things will be ‘back to normal” for lack of a better term until late 2021 at best and probably more like 2022. Live music will always be important but I think in the coming years we’re gonna be seeing more and more developments in the way of live streaming and things of that nature. It’s actually surprising that we haven’t seen more of that up to this point but once everyone really grasps that they can sell tens of thousands of tickets of one performance and make X amount of money without travelling around the world there’ll be no turning back. Touring can be very hard and every artist doesn’t enjoy it so I think some people will tour less and others won’t tour again. I think monetised streaming performances in addition to touring will become a regular part of artists businesses in the same way as branding deals, corporate shows and sync deals are now.
Do you think there will be a need for extra creativity in your role as MD as we approach a new way audiences receive live performance?
Definitely, because a lot of what we do now is done with the aim of ‘wowing’ a crowd. Without a crowd, I think different things will need to be done to create drama, anticipation, excitement and impact. I think a lot can be done in the future to make these types of shows special and unique.
Has this experience influenced your perspective of what you would like to do next within your career in music?
Absolutely. In the next few years I’d like to transition into more of an executive production type of role where I’d be involved with finding talent, developing talent and bringing talent to market. In this capacity, I’m hoping to be able to utilise and implement all my experience in the industry and that will of course involve live performance and how best to present artists. I believe there’s lots of room for creativity, innovation and excellence in this area and I’d love to play a part in exploring that in a forward thinking way.
voices of the industry
Featuring what and who’s out there! Articles, Sounds, Top Tips – words & wisdom from leading Voices Of The Industry