Producer and writer Jacknife Lee has created alongside many of the industry giants: Taylor Swift, Weezer and U2, to namecheck a few. Like many in the business, he’s entirely self-taught and got his start as a teenager when “I convinced people that I could make records when I couldn’t,” he jokes. Originally from Ireland, Lee now works on a range of projects in LA in addition to production such as writing, remixes and music for TV.
Lee’s approach to each project is unique, he says, because he has a memory problem, which actually works in his favor. “I take what happens at the moment and deal with it,” the producer observes. “Songs and melodies don’t exist in isolation. There’s generally some kind of sonic aesthetic that’s required. That’s where the production comes in. Usually you can tell if you’re pleasing somebody. If you want to please them, you’ll do more of that. I get into what I think somebody wants and then try to push them way beyond it to see what’s too far.”
Anyone that works in a creative field has his or her own strategy to coax the best from themselves and from the artists with which they work. In Lee’s case, he optimizes artists’ potential when he presumes quality output from each of them. “I just expect it,” he explains. “If you go into a boxing ring, you don’t slouch about. You behave like you have a job to do. You show up and work.”
When tapped to produce for a band as well-established as U2, there are a number of challenges that simply aren’t in the genetic makeup of less-seasoned acts. What Lee finds most effective is to focus on the band’s strengths and to disregard any external pressures. “Fan expectations don’t matter when you’re working,” he insists. “[U2] knows how to be good, which is unusual. To be good consistently, it’s very difficult. It requires being aware of who you are. Ego can’t have anything to do with the writing or recording process. It’s counter to what’s required. U2 is very aware that the best ideas should win; they should come to the fore. So in that respect, working with them is kind of easy. It’s like a lot of younger bands have a super power but they don’t know how to harness it.”
While Lee crafted Songs of Experience with U2, he was also immersed in the production of records for both Silversun Pickups and The Killers. He admits to being slightly obsessive, so 18-hour days were common. “That was intense,” he recalls. “The actual music part I just like; I find it exciting. [It’s like a] puzzle that needs fixing. The difficult part was trying to get it finished.”
One last nugget of wisdom he offers is to invest in music. “Go to a record shop,” he suggests. “Not for research but for pleasure. Spend money on records. It makes a huge difference. Many producers don’t know what it’s like to drop thirty dollars on an album.”
When Music Connection spoke with Lee, he’d just completed work on records for Catfish and the Bottlemen and Two Door Cinema Club. He was also in the midst of a project with Irish singer David C Clements. Lastly, a record with Jack Garratt and various writing sessions hover on his horizon. His preference is to work on multiple projects simultaneously, which keeps him busier than a thrift store at Halloween time.
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