A Conversation with Producer John Nathaniel
As an award-winning producer, songwriter, and mixer, John Nathaniel is a master of blending acoustic, electronic, and orchestral elements into his productions to create seamless cohesion. Hailing from Montreal, Canada, John has worked with an impressive list of artists, including Kygo, OneRepublic, Gwen Stefani, and Switchfoot, to name a few. John’s work with OneRepublic was recently featured on Disney+’s Clouds and the major motion picture Top Gun: Maverick. BMI had the opportunity to chat with John about his production process and take a look inside his studio.
You’re something of a studio gear enthusiast. What are some of your favorite synths or VSTs, and how do you like to incorporate them into your productions?
I get excited with “new toys” and I get inspired by certain pieces of gear. An instrument you want to play, digital or hardware is something that channels creativity.
I’m a big fan of synths, even in more organic records, I’ll have some subtle synth work going on because they add such richness and depth.
I have a Prophet 6 that just sounds incredible and it’s so versatile and easy to operate. I can use it seamlessly in different styles. My Moog SUB 37 is also a go-to whenever I need a deep sub bass! I have tons of VSTs and after all these years, I’m still in love with Omnisphere! Serum is also great, because it’s so intuitive.
Arturia has got some sick synths, as well. I often find myself loading the Jun-6 V for that classic tone. Their Mellotron is also incredible!
I often do pads and add some movement to them, so they have a rhythmic role on top of occupying space.
When it comes to creating sequences, I can do it analog or digital, depending on the tone I want. I often find myself programming more complex sequences in logic, then sending it to my Prophet 6.
What is one piece of equipment in your studio that you think every producer should have? What’s one that you think isn’t necessarily needed but the most enjoyable?
Everyone is so different, but for me, I’d say that having a larger keyboard (more than 2 octaves), ideally 4 or more, allows you to write and think in a larger scale when you’re composing and coming up with ideas. I have this tiny keyboard that I carry with me whenever I’m on the road and I now realize how it can get in the way of getting ideas down quicker. In my setup, I’ve got a 88 keys to my left, to play piano parts, my Prophet, my SUB 37 (both also on my left), but right in front of me, on my desk, I have a 4 octave keyboard to play soft synths or pads.
As far as something not necessary, but pretty cool is a macro controller. My wife recently gifted me a Monogram and I’ve programmed shortcuts in it. I’ve programmed it to work in orchestral sessions, but also in synth sessions where I can control the ADSR/filters of synths with it. It allows me to shape tones much faster and makes my VSTs feel like I’m on my Prophet 6 fiddling around.
Also, having an expression controller changed the game for me. I automate as I play and inject more life into the parts in real time. I now have a few!
When entering a session with another artist or writer, do you like to use productions that are already partially built out as a starting point, or do you like to start completely from scratch?
I sometimes have intros and instrumental starts that I’ve started prior to a session, but more often I start from scratch, as I love to tailor something for and with the artist. I love to dig in with artists and I’m not afraid to spend more time chasing something that’s more X factor. I’m also always looking for new collaborators and excited to work with new talent.
What’s your favorite part of the songwriting/production process? The concept, building out the sounds, mixing, the release rollout? Has your outlook changed over time?
My favorite part is when the song is starting to come to life and starts feeling like a record. There’s something magical about that moment when you play that chorus and you “get the feels”! Whether I’m in a mix or arrangement session, it’s always about contrast and controlling energy. Over time, I try to simplify things. As I get older as a producer and mixer, I tend to want to subtract instead of adding and layering so much. Taking a bit more time to craft some intriguing tones, thinking of voicing things in a complementary way, having the right space for elements to co-exist, etc.
You seem to do everything in the studio – Songwriter, Producer, Mix Engineer, etc. Is the any one role that you seem to enjoy more than the others? If so, why?
I enjoy and cherish every step. I don’t think I could pick one above the others. It’s all different and similar, in a way that you’re trying to build a record that sounds and feels great. Funny thing is I always lean on my songwriter/composer skill to understand what the record is trying to achieve, in terms of energy, arrangement or lyrically, even if I’m only mixing. The lyric and vocal performance will often dictate the energy of a mix for me.
How do you know when a song or mix is done? Do you have a system you’ve developed for knowing when something is locked, or is it a unique judgement call every time?
It’s always a matter of feel. I get it to a point where it feels amazing to me, then the artist/label and I go through revisions. Once we have addressed everyone’s notes, I’ll do a last scope on my end, where I usually polish the edges and then we’re done! As a producer or/and mixer, I go deep in nuances and I get very detailed, but I’m also good at letting go. You can go in a million different ways and start fine tuning elements for a while, but the big picture is what matters most. One thing you learn as an artist, producer, mixer or engineer, and I’ll quote a great YouTube artist here called Venus Theory, is that: “Finished is always better than perfect, because perfect is never finished.”
Listening through your productions, it’s hard not to notice your versatility. Musically, does the writing/production process stay the same whether working with a Dance artist like Kygo or a rop/rock band like OneRepublic, or is it necessary to approach each genre and artist differently?
Thank you! Things are always similar yet different with everyone. I always try to adapt to the artist I’m working with, but I’m still me, regardless of the genre. I have a certain taste for melodies, lyrics, chord progressions, types of voicings… It’s why collaborating with different people is amazing, you get to expand your colors by blending them with someone else’s.
One of the questions we often receive from songwriters/producers is “How do I get in the room with bigger artists?” Given you’ve worked with some incredible artists over the years, how did you manage to cultivate and maintain these relationships?
I have to credit my manager, Mariane, for getting me in rooms with the right people at the right time. As for sustaining relationships, you have to show up and give your love, passion and dedication to projects you choose to do. People will notice if you’re motivated and if you’re really present. Word of mouth is really powerful!
Also, surrounding yourself with people with good values, that respect and cherish their collaborators is very important.
It’s always interesting to look at music documentaries from back in the day and see how producers used to work in the studio. Do you ever wish you were around in a different musical era, or are you happy to exist in the present, with all the amazing studio technology at our fingertips?
I wouldn’t drive a DeLorean at 88 mph! I like the era we’re in for creation and simplicity of the process. However, I’m a sucker for old music. There’s so much richness and bad ass musicians on old records and the sonics were iconic too! I constantly listen to older records, whether it’s Jazz, Motown, RNB or Pop! I’m also a massive fan of Classical music, hence why I often lean on string arrangements when I need to add emotion to records.
We noticed your recent release with OneRepublic, “I Ain’t Worried,” was added to the soundtrack of the new movie Top Gun: Maverick. Congratulations! Did you make it out to theaters to see the movie live? If so, how did it feel to hear your music in the film?
Thank you so much! I’m very excited about that record doing so well! I’ve seen the film recently and it’s glorious! It’s action packed and epic and the story is great! I am also very proud of OneRepublic for this achievement, this movie is iconic! Grateful to be a part of it.
You recently worked on the upcoming musical Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile with Shawn Mendes. How was this experience different from your other projects?
I was happy to have the opportunity to work on a musical as it’s very different from what I usually work on. There were a lot of pop elements in the songs, but the tempo variations (there’s a wild tempo map in both songs) and certain chord voicings made things a bit more theatrical than pop. Having a classical background, I was familiar with that. I also got to work with really wonderful and talented people and got to see the songs come to life with a real orchestra!
If you were to look at your theoretical music-career bucket list, what are some items at the bottom that aren’t crossed off just yet?
Funny you ask! I’ve started a project called Son Symphony, and I’m working on orchestral/ classical based compositions. I’m a huge fan of the thriller, mystery and horror genre and having a composition be the theme of a show that I love would definitely be bucket list material!
What’s one piece of wisdom you would give to the upcoming songwriters, producers and mixers?
I’d say be kind to others and be respectful. Value professionalism, loyalty and protect your mental health. Your mental state matters and will affect everything and everyone around you.
Also, find the right entourage; it’s so important to let the right people in your life and learn to stay away from the toxic ones!
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