Musician's Friend Exclusive Interview with
ILONA! and Jonathan Todd
All the right moves
Recording artist ILONA! and producer Jonathan Todd talk about harnessing creativity both to write and to sell music.
Pop/Dance vocalist ILONA! has been making waves on both sides of the ocean with over 100 songs on the radio in her native Poland and a strong following in the Miami and Las Vegas club scenes. Backed by Sabre Entertainment's aggressive and unconventional marketing, ILONA! has signed publishing deals with VU Music, is promoted via all the major digital download sources and is reaching millions with corporate sponsored downloads and CD's. Her original compositions run the gamut from movie-score-style pop to pop dance electronica, arranged with a team of remixers—all driven by ILONA!'s tremendous vocal range and subtlety. Musician's Friend spoke with ILONA! and her manager/producer Jonathan Todd (president of Sabre Entertainment) about what it takes to make an impact on the modern music scene.
MF: Tell us about the ILONA! sound and vibe.
ILONA!: That's a difficult question. When you listen to my music you can't miss the Euro vibe, that's what it is first. Second, I think you hear the big sound of my voice. I was fortunate enough to have been selected as the only entrant in my class in the "pop" category at the Academy of Music in Katowice, where I earned my masters degree. I spent many years touring and also training my voice with a lot of teachers in many different styles from classical training to pop to jazz. And of course right now I'm moving a little more into pop dance electronica. But I'd have to say my vibe or my style varies a lot with my mood. I think that, like me, most artists don't want to be put into one package and have people say "this is it—this is your style." I don't ever want to be pigeonholed. Almost every CD I've recorded has a different vibe.
The first one, Wonderful Feeling, was big on the voice. I was focusing on writing ballads and sincere and personally meaningful lyrics. We also put a lot of attention on arranging the songs. They have a sound that's almost like movie scores. You can hear cuts at iTunes and cdbaby.com/cd/ilonasongs.
The second CD, Anticipation, took me in a different direction. I was working with people I met on Sony's Acid Planet—which is a place online where remixers can come and share samples with thousands of other remixers. I chose a few of them to work with and loved them so much they really took me into a more pop and electronica direction from my Euro roots. I love the Euro sound from the '80s and '90s—like Abba and dozens of other great Euro acts—but I needed somebody who would take my compositions and turn them into a sound more appropriate to 2004 and beyond. And I think only electronica can bring that to the table. Samples of this type of music is also at iTunes and at cdbaby.com/cd/ilona.
I really got lucky with Anticipation. It has an amazing electronica pop dance vibe which I could never have done without the remixers—four of them I work with: Jerry Jones, Arkadiusz Tadla (DJ Sonar), Dubravko, and Dan Solovitz. Now we're moving into more radio-friendly pop dance tunes—more into the mainstream—but trying to bring some originality to it, so it doesn't sound just like everything else out there. You can hear a lot of their work at the "Hear the Music" page at my site, www.ILONAsoundsDIFFERENT.com
Jonathan Todd: From a producer's point of view, it's always about what the artist wants first. But often a single artist cannot manifest what is in their mind without the right set of tools. And this is the incredible value of places like Musician's Friend—supplying the critical gear—coupled with companies like Sony—providing a forum where tens of thousands of remixers can come and communicate with each other. Acid Planet runs numerous contests in which they put complete new pop songs on the site and let remixers around the world engage in competition to see who can do the most creative remix.
After her first album, ILONA! worked with Sony to create ILONA!: Universal Female Vocal Toolkit. This toolkit is two CDs full of vocal samples for remixers. There are individual notes sung in various styles and held for various lengths. And there are lots of carefully chosen words sung in various languages for people to work with. The toolkit was really successful so Sony decided to put a complete original ILONA! song up on Acid Planet and run a contest on it. They actually had to extend the contest because they got so many entries.
When ILONA! was picked to be put up on Acid Planet for a contest, she was the only non-signed recording artist they'd ever put up. And there are some very big artists on there—Madonna, Lenny Kravitz, Foo Fighters, Tommy Lee—big, big names. The record companies put the songs up there and people remix them. Because the remixers are often DJ's by night, they become carrier pigeons showing off their remixes. That leads other people to a new awareness of the music and the original tunes.
ILONA!'s first got such a great response that Sony asked for another one and put her up for a second contest. The only other artist that was asked for a second contest was Madonna. The four remixers that ILONA! mentioned before were all picked by us from the contest entrants. We looked for people who had different approaches but whose ideas worked well with ILONA!'s soul and voice. We hired them on work-for-hire contracts. Now they take the home-studio version that ILONA! records of her song, plus the producer notes of what we want to get out of the song. We go back and forth with MP3's, phone calls and email honing the songs, and we wind up getting each remixer's flavor based on their equipment and their skills.
That's the direction of tomorrow, for bigger and smaller groups. People are reaching out through the Internet and through the availability of gear. In fact, we just went to Musician's Friend and bought product and sent it to the remixers because we wanted them all to have similar equipment. We've done that with Acid products and mixers too.
We use the Mackie 1604VLZ Pro. It's a 16-channel mixer that was originally designed as a band mixer for a club. But it has a very wide frequency range— it goes really low and really high. Perfect for a recording artist because you can plug in almost any gear that's out there and run from there straight into your computer or in our preferred model, a Roland BR1180 CD with 20 gig hard drive recorder. The Mackie mixer is exquisite, and it's under a thousand bucks. If I have the board and a remixer has the same board, we know we've got the same sound on both ends.
From the executive producer's side I'm looking for return on investment. In ILONA!'s case, she doesn't fit a specific, pure genre. She's not rock. She's not pure pop, her voice is too good to be labeled electronica, yet she's some of all of these. What do I call it to get on radio? In this case what we've had to do is alter some of the deep European sound and make it more of an Americana-pleasing sound, which mostly means that those Eastern-sounding diminished sevenths have to be replaced with majors and minors. Then you throw in a pinch of these diminished sounds to capture the original Euro feel.
But you're finding a whole lot more pop/electronica working its way into pop music these days. Listen to Cher, Kylie Minogue, Dannii Minogue, Cold Play, Dido—they've all got electronica added. It all has the processed, stuttered sounds that can only be achieved through things like ProTools, Cakewalk, and Acid Pro and reprocessing at the mixing and mastering levels.
MF: Can we talk about your creative process in the studio? How do you two work together in the studio?
JT: How do we work together? She sings, I pick at stuff. She picks at the stuff I picked on. [Laughter all around.] We argue about everything because we all have really deep feeling about the directions of each song, sometimes even a single note - and in the end, we get cool music.
I: It's sometimes like that. The creative part is the easiest part. What happens after the creative part is a subject that no artist even wants to touch. We always need to have somebody to help us. And Jonathan is a lifesaver for me at that point. But the most critical thing for my creative process is to have a home studio so I can simply go in my room any time I like, lock the door, and do what I feel is right for me at that moment. When I write my songs, I almost never spend long hours trying to create a melody. Other artists tell me it sometimes takes them months to write a song. With me, if I don't write what I hear in two or three hours I usually won't finish it or even touch it again.
So by having a very well-equipped studio ready at every moment I know I can capture the muse when it's working. I have a few great microphones, I have a very good Korg piano, I have a good board.
JT: The basic components of this studio could be the ultimate studio for under 10 grand for almost anybody. We got the Röde NT 1000 mic large internal capsule with ultra-low noise and a shockmount. It handles a very wide range. ILONA!'s pushing three-and-a-half octaves. That mic's been heaven for us. We've gone to some major L.A. studios and used some really expensive vintage mics and ended up coming back to the Röde.
MF: ILONA!, when you go by yourself to work on your ideas, are you working on a keyboard or guitar or . . .
I: Exclusively on a keyboard. I'm not a great keyboard player but I like composing first to the beats on my Korg PA80 keyboard. That gets me off to a fast start without having to record bass and fills. I choose a beat that fits my mood. Usually the hook comes as words in my head. Then I start getting into trouble because my English is good but when I'm being poetic I still think in Polish sometimes, so I need help cleaning up my grammar and stuff. It drives me crazy, but I have to do it.
JT: And sometimes the very special nature of the poetry ILONA! creates is the fact that she feels the English language differently and makes you think about the song her way. We refer to it as "inverted lyrics."
MF: So you start with a beat, you said.
I: Yes, I'll find a beat that goes with my mood for the song. Then all of the arrangers I'm working with will take it different directions as well.
MF: What kind of keyboard is it that you work with in your studio?
JT: A Korg PA80, Professional Arranger. It's got the Triton sound generator in it. And truth be told, there's a $399.99 Casio—a PX100—she's got that's worth about ten grand to us. It's just awesome. We got it just for tooling around, but it's got so many good beats in it, she uses it for writing all the time. We also have the CTK-491 portable that's got auto-chord accompaniment. And that's what you need for the artist to be free to do the bass line first and then ILONA! will move it on to a remixer/arranger after that. But if ILONA!'s doing her own piano work the whole thing's done on the Korg.
MF: I understand ILONA! is appearing in Las Vegas in August & September.
JT: The gigs in Vegas are part of a rollout for the DanceFame.com product ILONA!-The Best of Dance Volume 1. 20,000 units of the DanceFame CD were purchased by an online gaming company. If you're trying to make music and you think you're going to make a demo and a record company is going to buy it, stand in line. Because it ain't going to happen very often. The very few times that happens the advances are usually so low it's not worth getting a record deal— that's except for a few rare occurrences.
There is a market for music, but it's shifting. The place that wants the music is corporate America. Artists who can figure out how to place their music with corporate America in order to evoke the emotions that the corporation wants their customers to identify with their brand is the winner. I went to the gaming companies and said, "You guys are looking for people to download your games, people who are computer savvy, over 21, love good sound, and enjoy a totally engaging experience, that's what gaming is about. I have an artist that we can put into clubs for you. You give the CD away by purchasing it from us and giving it away to your customers and including in there that this is courtesy of your company, go check you out." The result is that, if charted, the CD did better than most major label new-artist releases. You can see the campaign at www.DanceFame.com.
The clubs where we were going to do the releases for the gaming company wanted to hear the music beforehand. And we got DJs coming back saying, "This stuff is wonderful. We love it. Who is it?" "It's ILONA!, you haven't heard her because she's playing the Miami clubs." "We want her, give us all the stuff!" Then a promoter in Vegas put us into the Flamingo Hilton on the strip with a record release party there, the club in Caesar's Palace, then Sunset Station—a 2,000-seat arena—in September.
The same DanceFame cuts were licensed to International Male—probably the foremost club clothing company in the world. They have millions of customers and subscribers. They licensed 6 months of downloads from our label. Together with my firm, Sabre Entertainment, and our marketing company SabreMark, Inc., we have crafted viral marketing campaigns where International Male is going to their own customers and giving them three songs and telling them to forward the songs to friends. That creates the potential for new customers for International Male and also gets ILONA!'s music out in a paid, rather than giveaway, fashion. Just because they're giving it to the customer doesn't mean they're not paying us. And as part of the deal, International Male asked to carry the ILONA! BEST OF DANCE album in their catalog. That reaches more people with the ILONA! message and music than a nationally televised commercial would.
I: All of these great marketing efforts on Jonathan's part leads to distribution, promotion, record sales, and also live shows. And that's the best thing that can happen for an artist. Having real contact with your audience is fantastic. I'm so excited. I won't have a band behind me. I'll have my great prerecorded backup and arrangements and I'll be singing live. I can't wait. And of course I'm scared. Because I don't have the full national radio presence to make people familiar with my songs before I play for them. I will be breaking new music to most of these people. But I take courage from the fact that people have liked my music before.
MF: What's your actual stage setup going to be like in terms of gear?
JT: Most of it will be predetermined by the house she's in. But she's backed by live DJs supplied by the promoters. Those people are using the Stanton STR8-150 high-torque turntables. They're very reliable. We will bring four Bose L1 Cylindrical Radiators for the vocals. We order the mix from our arrangers and they do .WAV file final mixes after we're done going back and forth for three months ironing out all the bugs. Then we get a second version of the mix with no vocal in it. Then a third mix has the vocal pulled down so it's just like a guiding track. So during the performance it will come out as live doubling, basically.
MF: Thank you both very much for your time.
JT: You're welcome, thank you.
I: Thank you. It was easy. I like that! Bye bye.
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