Sir Nolan Shares His “No Brainer” Tips for Songwriting Success
The award-winning writer and producer just may be laying the blueprint for the modern musician.
When Sir Nolan starts talking about his life and career these days, one word tends to come up again and again: evolution. That makes sense, considering that in the two years since MusicWorld last checked in with the U.K.-bred Nolan Lambroza, he’s continued to grow not only as an acclaimed songwriter and producer, but also as a leader shaping the future of the music industry.
Recent wins include “No Brainer” from Justin Bieber/DJ Khaled/Quavo/Chance and “Drew Barrymore” by Bryce Vine—both landing on Top 10 lists around the world. And while Sir Nolan was already celebrated for mega successful tracks like “Feel This Moment” for Pitbull and Christina Aguilera (No. 1 across several global charts and multiplatinum in several countries) and Selena Gomez’s No. 1 banger “Good For You,” part of his metamorphosis has included deepening his ability to connect with artists. Proof? Bryce Vine, the friend and artist Sir Nolan has been developing, who was signed to Sire/WBR last year and released his first Top 40 radio single with “Drew Barrymore.” And now that he’s built a home studio – an LA pad dubbed Home Away From Home—where he and his writer/producers can let their creativity flourish freely, Sir Nolan just may be literally laying the blueprint for the modern musician. BMI caught up with him before he headed into the studio.
Your songs with Bryce Vine feel so fresh and vibrant with a lot of nuance and craft. Can you talk about recording “La La Land” and “Drew Barrymore”? What inspired them? What was recording them like?
Each song comes together differently with each artist. With Bryce, every song evaluation starts at one place. It’s going to be a certain record. As we build it, and spend time with it, it evolves. That vibrance, energy and freshness—it takes a while. Bryce and I have known each other since college; we went to Berklee. When we work on a song we take our time, make sure it’s as good as possible. Both “Drew Barrymore” and “La La Land” had pretty significant progressions. For “Drew Barrymore,” Bryce had written one of the verses to another song by himself. I think he put a beat down one day and I came with the chorus. It was a very simmering, slow burning song. We both really liked it and we tried to find a way to combine the energy of the verses he had written with the slow burning chorus. We Frankensteined them a bit. We built up the track to get a clear picture of what was going on. We tweaked the lyrics and verses…then wrote a second verse and bridge…Once we had that whole package, we started making important decisions. The chorus. What does the bridge need to accomplish? We make sure from start to finish it’s a record that holds up, that you want to hear time and time again. “Drew Barrymore” was one of those songs that we had a lot of time to work on. He wasn’t even signed. We knew going forward we would have time and flexibility to craft. “La La Land” we had to do a little differently. “Drew Barrymore” had already been a hit, he had done a ton of promotion. We did have time to do some in-depth [work]. “La La Land” started as electric guitar and vocal. I said, “You should throw it on SoundCloud.” We started to add production to it, we liked where that was going. In New York, we worked on it a bunch more. It went from being a raw vocal song to something with more energy, feeling and ambiance. We thought it needed a feature from someone who represents California from the rhythmic side, someone who would bring good energy, and there was really only one choice: YG. We reached out…I went to meet with him and Bryce got him on the record and there you go. There’s something special to that, when you form those relationships and then something sounds off the bat like a hit.
You’re developing Bryce—what does that entail? What’s the process for writing for new artists you’re working with like?
It’s funny you bring it up. Every now and then, I get nostalgic for moments of how far we’ve come and I notice areas of artist development I hadn’t clocked before in the development process. I’ve been doing this five or six years now. There’s a lot of elements. With Bryce, it’s not just about the writing like it is with other artists. I don’t just get a snapshot of time with Bryce—I’m in it for the long haul. Development is a lot of things. One of the most important things is how to properly use the voice to record the best way and evolve it. With really great artists, they start their first albums a certain way and they evolve. Look at Drake. He was a singer, now he’s a hard rapper; he learned how to work with his voice really well and worked to get it consistent. With Bryce, it’s, where does his voice sound best? What type of lyrical content? Every time we cut a record, we know this key won’t work, this one will. It comes from being smart when recording—looking at successes and failures. You kind of pick out little moments that seem relevant from earlier days and try to lean into them. We took stock. We heard what fans were saying and leaned into those positives and mitigated negatives to figure out the sweet spot. You want people to listen to the songs, otherwise why are you making them? If you can figure out how to get people to pay attention from start to finish, mission accomplished. Another part is getting the right team. Every person in the industry goes through peaks and valleys. If you are at a peak, everyone wants to work with you. When you’re in a valley, you want people to believe in you so much they’re willing to stick it out with you. So, identifying your brand—who you really are, how your fans connect to you. With Bryce that process involved doing a ton of touring, meeting fans, going on Instagram, playing songs to get a reaction. From all that information, you can put a picture together of who you think you are, what you can accomplish and set goal posts. Another key thing all artists should have is an identity one way or another.
How do you stay open and nimble while also sticking true to what you know works?
In order to have success in music you can’t be risk averse. You have to keep moving, keep pushing. You see people do the same thing over and over and a lot of times they fail. People get tired of seeing the same thing over and over, and you have to be willing to adapt. As I’ve become more successful, I’ve learned you can’t do the same thing. You pull out logic and reason for why things work and then move forward into unknown territory but with a toolkit. Sometimes I do records that sound like nothing I’ve ever done, but you have to take the risk. There are so many artists. How many people are writing and producing now? Hundreds of thousands. You watch other people and try to learn lessons from landscape.
What do you look for when looking for undiscovered talents?
I look for an indefinable tone of voice. Because if you have a tone it captures your ear. A good example is Alec Benjamin. He was an artist, not signed to any label. When we wrote “Let Me Down Slowly,” my manager had brought me a demo… Alec had a great songwriting style and persona. It really allows fans to have a strong connection. And his tone of voice, it’s so amazing and ear-catching songwriting. And of course, talent. Talent is obviously the most important thing. I write songs with artists who truly have something to offer.
How do you select which established artists you want to work with?
With established artists, I like to think about, ‘What do I do best?’ Then OK, ‘Artists out there right now, what does their evolution look like and how can I be a part of that?’ I think we can find a different perspective to share and I know I’m the guy to help with that. I try to reach out, or if an artist reached out unexpectedly, I take the same approach. If we’re going to work together, what should we work towards? It’s not to do the same record you already have. I’m here to create something different and new—something that hasn’t been done. It’s about how can I aid the process for that artist?
Congratulations on your cool home, which I hear has a lovely studio in it. Can you talk about the importance of having a space for recording you’ve designed yourself? What are the most important or cherished tools in it and why?
I always felt like [designing my own space] would be a lot of work and that I could accomplish what I wanted in whatever space I was in. [I’ve recorded] with a laptop in an apartment, in a closet with comforters on the walls. But as I started to develop, I noticed I needed space to grow. I like [artists] to know me and you know them. With a house, it takes the pressure off and it’s relaxed. You can have lunch in the kitchen, go in the backyard…we’re very lucky that way, we have the flexibility to be the best creatives we can be. The result is always the goal. And when you’re spending hours working, it’s nice to work in an environment you feel at home, comfortable. You can lie down if you need. When you spend hours and hours working it helps to have a space you don’t mind working long hours in. As for tools, there’s the keyboard, a Juno-106 and Juno-60, a Mellotron. I like a hands-on approach; I am a player, I like to engage. There’s a Waterloo guitar—I had never heard of it before I walked into a guitar store—and an electric guitar, a Stratocaster. There’s an Olympic preamplifier; it’s amazing, the emulations to choose from.
Your career has been marked by crafting some really big booming songs like “Feel This Moment” for Pitbull to these very soft, intimate tracks like Alec Benjamin and Alessia Cara’s “Let Me Down Slowly.” How do you go about accessing those very different moods?
I try it live. Like, the more you allow yourself to experience life—relationships, travel, family—your mind is open to different perspectives. You’ve got to try to be aware of all the capacity of human empathy and the more you understand human empathy, the more you’re able to connect and tap into people. That’s what we’re doing to connect with people—we talk. We dive into what’s going on. It may be something great, nostalgic or interesting, and chase after it.
You worked on one of the biggest hits of last summer, “No Brainer.” What’s it like working on a track with so many collaborators - what’s most enjoyable and what’s most challenging? How does the process of creating a clear summer anthem differ from other types of songs?
It had a specific process. You never know if you’re going to come across a hit of the summer! I’d worked with Nic Nac (Nicholas Balding) and David Park, who had provided “I’m The One” for DJ Khaled and Justin Bieber. They had the beat, we collaborated, and turned it into something that felt good – it had a good vibe. Khaled heard it and loved it; Khaled proclaimed it would be a hit. I was like, ‘Wow.’ But DJs know: they spin records all the time, they see how audiences react. He did what he did best—curated great artists to be on the song very gracefully. It would have been hard for me to figure out how to get Justin Bieber and Chance the Rapper and Quavo on a record. It’s just fun to be part of it. We could go crazy figuring out publishing—who gets what here or there—but it’s more about giving people what they want: great records. That’s all that matters.
You’re working with Selena Gomez again. How do you determine what you do next to create the magic you two have had—are you looking to work in the same vein or start with an entirely new slate?
The way I think is to spend time with the artist. Selena is a truthful person, she’s very honest. And that allows me to get insight into her and to her life. To have an artist give insight—that’s all you really need. I’m constantly able to kind of channel that emotion of what she’s given me and turn it into something real. Everything we do is going to be new.
What’s next for you that you’re excited about?
Bryce Vine’s album is out the 27th of July. I’m in the mixing stage right now. We’ll have another single coming out I’m excited for people to see—it’s a true evolution of Bryce. Fans will see that and relate to that. He and I get back in the studio at the end of July—an early session to start figuring out what’s next for the evolution and process. I’m not sure, but it starts with us getting in a room. I’m creating some new music with a couple artists I’ve never worked with before, including Dermot Kennedy. And I’m really excited about where my company is. I’ve got two really great producers; people are seeing how talented they are. The development of my company and what that looks like—I’m excited to see the evolution of it.
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