A Conversation With .. Rob Wells
The multi-platinum, award-winning music producer and songwriter has worked with Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Adam Lambert, Serena Ryder, Backstreet Boys, Nelly Furtado, and many more. Here he discusses the evolution of his career, his approach to production, a love of teaching, and his diverse musical tastes.
By Bill King
Conversations as such don’t always flow easily. Linking up with songwriter/producer/arranger Rob Wells was one of those gifted moments I’ll always remember for the openness and depth of responses. This is a man with an enviable track record that crosses multiple genres and stays true to each. How one does this is explained in our recent conversation. But first, a bit of background.
“Rob Wells is a multi-platinum, award-winning music producer and songwriter based in Canada.
Wells has worked with Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Adam Lambert, Serena Ryder, Nick Lachey, Mika, Katharine McPhee, Backstreet Boys, Paloma Faith, Nelly Furtado, Mindless Behavior, Cyndi Lauper, Corey Hart, Olivia Newton-John, Boyzone, Ria Mae, USS, Frank Walker, Bobby Bazini, Victoria Duffield, Keshia Chante, Matt Dusk, Marie-Mai, Marc Dupre, Shiloh, RyanDan, and many others.
His work has been featured in numerous films, television shows, commercials and video games worldwide.
Rob has appeared as a music producer on Canadian Idol, The House Of Carters and The Next Star.
He has a star on the Mississauga Music Walk of Fame. His awards include first place in numerous songwriting competitions, and SOCAN #1 awards with gold, platinum & multi-platinum certifications." More info here
Bill King: Are you still living in Mississauga?
Rob Wells: No, Pickering. A couple of changes in life. Mississauga, while a great city, I found it very busy. I’m originally from Peterborough and like the east end a lot and Pickering – I’m still close to Toronto and within two seconds I can be on hiking trails and the access to nature is fantastic. If you like living in the country and close to the city, it is the best of both worlds. I teach at Harris Institute once a week and do the Don Valley drive and it’s one of the best drives in the world. You may laugh at that, but I compare it to the drive from Jasper to Banff especially the fall colours.
B.K: Harris Institute?
R.W: I teach songwriting there.
B.K: Are you in the classroom or virtual?
R.W: I’m there and I love it. My mom says I should have always been a teacher. She’s quite happy with what I’m doing right now too. I’ve truly enjoyed leading songwriting workshops. I just started a record label up at Lakefield College too. We have 400 hundred students and are teaching them the entire music industry and they are taking on different roles. We have artists, managers, label people, people dealing with publicity, promotion, and marketing. To be in there teaching them, seeing the spark in someone’s eyes, I absolutely love that part. It’s when a person realizes they can have a role in the music industry and not necessarily being on stage singing every night.
B.K: Did you attend Lakefield?
R.W: I wish. My dad was a United Church minister, so we didn’t have a lot of money growing up. I think it’s like $60,000 a year to go there.
B.K: Are you set up with a home studio?
R.W: I’ve been working out of home since the very beginning. I’ve always embraced technology. My studio isn’t like walking into Revolution or something like that. I don’t have a mixing board or anything like that. It’s literally a glorified writing room with a computer and keyboard set-up and recording booth. It’s simple and in a walkout basement where I live. I wouldn’t have it any other way. My morning commute is fantastic.
B.K: I imagine the pandemic lockdown hasn’t really affected working from home.
R.W: I’ve already been doing records long distance. I worked on a Boyzone record way back in the day over Skype where nobody left home. We called it a “gaunch gig” where everyone could just sit in their underwear and work all day. I worked on another gig with a band from England on Warner - Clement Marshall & the Frontline. We did their whole record remotely. It’s totally fine, possible, easy to do. There’s the meme that went out at the beginning of the quarantine that said, “Producers have been quarantined the last fifty years.”
B.K: Do you consider yourself a songwriter first then producer?
R.W: It changes from year to year. Sometimes I’m songwriting more or producing more. I started out as a songwriter writing songs from the age of eight. All through high school, I was in bands. We played dances and I’d try to throw an original song in there. It was really my dream to be in a band when I was a teenager. My older brother was in a band that was quite popular – Kim Mitchell - and I thought that was so cool to do that kind of thing. It quickly turned when I moved to Toronto for grade thirteen. I went to the Etobicoke School of the Arts for one year. In there they had a production studio that had a MAC, a sampler, a keyboard - all cutting edge at the time and a four-track to record vocals. I saw that nobody was using it. I went in with six OCA credits and dropped everything for music and just stayed in that studio all of the time. Anytime anyone needed anything, let’s say the drama club needed a soundtrack, I said, “I’ll do it.”
Over time I was writing songs and they would go to different producers and I was not very happy with the way it came back and thinking if only I could have been in there to steer the ship a little bit – a big deciding factor for me taking the reigns on production. My own personal quality control.
B.K: What was it that was most disappointing about these productions?
R.W: To me, music is so emotional. Writing a song is all about communicating whatever that emotion is you are trying to spread out there to the world. You can achieve that with songwriting and you can achieve that with production. What I found coming back from other producers felt like their heart wasn’t in it. I felt like it was painted by numbers a little bit. I wanted to make sure the emotional temperature was up there with the songwriting. Taking the reigns, I was able to learn about production. My first production gig was for BMG for the first Canadian Idol. They gave me one song to produce on the winner’s album and I went to town on it and learned as much as I could. They gave me a budget of $6,000 and I hired a string section and spent $12,000 on that production. I was able to use that as a calling card and say I could produce other things for other people and that’s when the ball started rolling.
B.K: What was your first hit?
R.W: It was a song called, What Went On for Craig Smart out of Vancouver. I was invited to a writing camp in 2001 before I quit my day job and took a week’s vacation at this writing camp at Metalworks Studios run by Justin Gray and wrote probably around twelve songs during the week and nothing landed at all. Two years later, one of those songs I co-wrote at the camp got selected for this artist Craig Smart. Got released to radio, CHUM FM picked it up, and it went Top 40 on radio in Canada. That was my first big moment and I quit my day job shortly after that.
B.K: Did that get people asking, “What else do you have?”
R.W: It was kind of like that. That came out in the spring of 2003 and Canadian Idol was the summer of 2003. I was able to use that, got to BMG and said, I got this song, and I would like to be part of what you’re doing then got invited to Idol writing camp. It was a weeklong thing at Phase One Studios. Forty writers and I ended up getting two songs on that record and one I got to produce.
B.K: You had a song played on So You Think You Can Dance. I loved that show.
R.W: It was Nicholas Shay (Lachey), the leader singer of 98 Degrees, who went on to sing the song we co-wrote together that I got to produce. It was a ballad, a romantic dance. It’s always a blast hearing your music in a variety of settings. I’ll be playing a video game and my song will pop up. That’s crazy fun. I could be in a grocery store and hear a song being played or a drama thing on TV. The excitement never goes away.
The first song I got to play with was with Craig Smart. I used to be a computer animator, working for Alliance Atlantis at the time and now Corus. They took us out for this team-building exercise, a fun day for the whole creative group - took us to a place that had Go-carts. We’re driving around having a blast and my song comes on. I stopped it in the middle of the track and stood up and said, “That’s my song!”
B.K: I remember the LCBO for that when they played a cross-section of Canadian recordings and you’d hear something you produced, played on or wrote.
R.W: I have moments when I’m listening in and recognize something and wonder why I recognize it.
B.K: I’m thinking about the range of artists you’ve worked with – Matt Dusk, Corey Hart, Divine Brown, Justin Bieber, Maxi Priest, Ariana Grande. Every artist is so different. How do you find your sweet spot in this?
R.W: I’ve been so lucky. I love all music. I remember a time in my teens when I was quite picky with my music and had a music teacher who sat me down and told not to be so picky. I want you to run this exercise. Every time you listen to something, I want you to pick one good thing from it. Whether it’s the sound of the kick drum or the way the guitar is being played. I started doing that. I took on that challenge and began to appreciate everything. There’s crappy music out there for sure but I really do find the beauty and joy in all music. In doing so, I can switch gears at any point and work with this artist or that in all different styles. Also, if I’m working with an artist who has a certain style, I can bring in an element of something from a different style in order to create something new and fresh.
B.K: How do you approach working with an artist?
R.W: A lot gets decided in the discussion before we start working. I don’t believe in meeting someone and saying ' let’s get going.' I like having a nice hour-long conversation or maybe hang out for a day and listen to things that inspire us. I’ll play some stuff that I like, and they will play some stuff they like and within that, I’ll get a feeling for what they love. For example, I worked with this big Soca artist down in the Caribbean and in the discussion, he says, “I love singing Disney ballads.” It was so off the wall. He says, because he’s from the Caribbean, he’s expected to sing Soca but if he had his way he’d be singing A Whole New World from Aladdin. Everybody’s different. You’ve got to feel and read the room and break down the walls a little bit. When you’re writing a song, producing a song and recording someone’s vocal it’s a really personal thing.
B.K: What about pushing an artist for their best performance?
R.W: It’s my job to keep everyone comfortable and happy and giving the best possible vocal they can give. If I find there’s a moment when things are getting frustrating for the artist I’ll take a break and we’ll do something else. There’s a great David Foster story where he’s pushing Celine Dion in All By Myself to get that great vocal where she hits that really high note and apparently she wasn’t getting it and they could have kept going and going but it could have resulted in tears and heartbreak and bad feelings so they broke and went for dinner and had a couple of bottles of wine and came back into the studio and Foster says, “let’s try it one more time” and Dion went in and nailed it on the very first try and Foster said, “that’s great, let’s do another take” and she said, 'no, that’s it. That’s the one.'"
B.K: Your take on songwriting vs production?
R.W: I have a different take on this. I really don’t want to think about production until the song is done. Until it really works at its most stripped-down format. Whether it’s just piano and vocal, guitar and vocal, a drum and spoken word. I just really want to know the “campfire” test is bringing me nearly to tears – reaching and ripping my heart out. I don’t want to waste time thinking about the sound of the kick drum at that point. I just want to write the song and feel it in the room just like you would play in a “round” concert. When everyone looks around and says, “What have we done,” that’s the point you dive into production. It happens so much smoother when you have the bones of the song rocking in its most stripped down form. Whatever you do on top is going to be great.