If you saw Paul Blair’s resume, he might look like a cross between a musician, a businessman and a confidant to the stars. As well as his back catalogue of EPs and his DJ career, he’s scored numerous corporate gigs and has spearheaded the process of installing dedicated production studios into hotels around the world. Oh, and there’s also the small matter of his work as a key producer and songwriter for Lady Gaga, under the title of Executive Producer… or should that be ‘Sort Of Executive Producer’?
“We don’t really put labels on stuff,” says Blair, aka DJ White Shadow, aka DJWS. “For some projects I end up as an Executive Producer, sure, but sometimes you don’t even know what you were until two years after the record’s over!”
It’s clear that business is booming for DJ White Shadow, but the music is what drives everything. Case in point: at this exact moment, Paul’s mind may seem like it’s on sushi-nomics, but it’s really on music production…
“You’re not gonna want to eat sushi from a sushi bar that’s not busy all the time, because the fish sits around forever. But when your sushi’s good and you’re used to that sushi all the time, you don’t want to stop and re-evaluate. As a producer, to fully grasp a new tool takes time – but you don’t want to spend that time if you’re doing great with the tools you’ve got already.”
“I know producers that have won double-digit numbers of Grammys who still use Acid Pro. I’ll walk into a session and somebody pulls out Cool Edit Pro – something that disappeared 20 years ago! If you’re doing well, you tend to keep doing what you’re doing.”
Well you seem to be doing pretty well yourself right now, most notably as a trusted member of the Lady Gaga team.
We’ve done a couple of really good records together; we like each other. She does stuff with different people at different times, too. When she calls, I show up… and if she doesn’t, I don’t.
It must be quite a tight circle – how did you get the gig in the first place?
We met about 2009. I was playing in a club in LA, and her creative director showed up. I didn’t know who he was, but we discussed music and he liked what I was playing. They were working out the program for the interludes between sets, and he was asking me to give him music for that purpose, only I didn’t know that at the time. I created a couple of things, and they ended up as the musical interludes for her first major stadium tour.
At that time, I was submitting records to everybody – Estelle, Pitbull, whoever I could get to the A&R for. I was still working on stuff, still DJing, and everything was good. When Lady Gaga started working on her next album, I got a call, gave them some records, and she sent them back to me as songs. We ended up meeting and writing a couple of more songs the first day we met, and then I went on tour… in fact I’ve rarely gotten off tour since then.
You were also involved in the Star Is Born project this year. Knowing that this was going to be, technically, a soundtrack, did you change your approach to songwriting?
Not really. After you’ve been writing songs for a while, you learn to have a context. You might want to say, “Today I’m writing music for a horror movie” – one that may or may not exist – or “I want to write music that sounds like it could be in a commercial for Target.” You call for stuff in your brain all the time as you’re going along.
It’s the same when you write music for people. If I’m writing a song for Rihanna, it’s different to writing a song for Big Sean. When you boil it down, you’re writing a good song for a character – and frankly, every performing artist is a character, so it’s not super out-of-bounds.
Whatever you’re doing at any given time, what are the tools in your studio that help you get it done?
I use the whole KOMPLETE package in the studio, but for all intents and purposes, I probably use KONTAKT more than I use anything else. I want to think that I’m good at MASCHINE, but I know I have a lot of work to do.
KONTAKT can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Is it the sampling you’re into, the sound packs, or using it to process your own sounds?
As much as I hate to admit it, I’m kind of a bandwagon jumper when it comes to new sounds. Whenever something new comes up, I dive into all the sounds, and that’s what I like about KONTAKT. There’s always new things, you move around, you try new stuff… not that I don’t use the strings and the in-built sounds quite often.
It can provide plenty of inspiration for getting a track started…
Actually, for me, a lot of songs start out with playing some chords on the guitar – even if the song’s not going to be guitar-driven. Rather than going through a bazillion synth sounds, it’s a lot easier to just pull up GUITAR RIG. It’s a really awesome way to get an initial concept going quickly – an instant feeling generator.
Let’s say you want to get the feeling of anger, or the feeling of something dreamy – you can run your stuff through GUITAR RIG, through an amp that’s got a lot of distortion, and it immediately creates an angry vibe, or you put something through a rad wah wah situation with a dope delay and a dope reverb, to kind of get you into a moody vibe. And it’s not just guitar – I use it a lot for vocals as well.
Do you have any advice or wisdom for using GUITAR RIG or KONTAKT? Anything that you’ve found really helps you work?
Not exactly. You know, I wish I had a sweet tip to disseminate to the world, but it’s not like that. Sometimes you sit in front of a room full of people that you don’t really know, or you’re writing with new people. When you go in and you pull up your stuff, you see that everybody uses everything differently. It’s kinda rad – just like every painting in the world comes from three primary colours plus black and white, everybody comes up with their own way of doing things.
That’s what I find exciting about the whole KOMPLETE package: you start using something that’s designed for a certain use by the creators of the program, but when you start manipulating it in a different way, that’s when you come up with magic.
Your work on the W Sound Suites for W Hotels is… an unusual move for most DJs, I guess.
We’ve got one in Seattle, one in LA, building one in Austin, we have one in Barcelona, one in Bali, and a couple more sprouting up all over the world.
If I’m in a city, whether I’m DJing, visiting my kids, having a business meeting – in Texas, Seattle, or staying in New York. If I’m staying at the W and inspiration strikes me, I can go to a soundproof room, there’s a vocal chain there, there’s a industry-standard equipment and a rad place to create.
The word is that this was something you came up with and championed for them…
I wrote up this 40-page proposal, and I literally flew to every one of the hotels that was potentially interested, measured the rooms, wrote a proposal on each space, how much it would cost, I drew the schematics and did everything from top to bottom, for each hotel individually – the whole enchilada.
The idea came out of touring and travelling, and the W’s love for music as a brand. The W brand as a whole was birthed from music – a hotel that turned the lights down, turned the music up and got it going. The idea was, how do we get closer to not just the curation of music but the creation of music?
What the W has to offer is space. When you’re starting off as a musician, that’s something you think about a lot – the importance of space, comfort, and how that relates to the end-product. Sure there’s a lot of mobile stuff that you can pull out of your backpack, but it’s so much better to be in a room where you can eat together, drink together, look each other in the eye and listen to stuff over speakers. Sharing is part of what music’s about.
You’re probably like the first person who said there should be a pool in every hotel.
If one day I can walk to any hotel and they all have a place for me to record, I’ll be the happiest dude in history!
photo credits: Ethan Gulley