With U2 enjoying a resurgence thanks to their latest album, iSing spoke to U2 producer Andy Barlow about career longevity, working with U2 and Bono, and what every singer should know before stepping foot in the studio.
A music industry veteran with an impossibly cool CV, Andy Barlow is one half of cult electronic duo Lamb and an in-demand producer who’s worked with Willie Nelson, Dave Gray, Placebo, Elbow and Snow Patrol. It’s his recent role as producer for U2, however, that makes him gush with schoolboy excitement.
He has produced five tracks on U2’s return-to-form album Songs of Experience: Love Is All We Have Left, Book Of Your Heart, Red Flag Day, Little Things That Give You Away and Landlady.
The call from U2
Barlow, a long-time U2 fan, was touring with Lamb in Russia when his manager called to say the band wanted to work with him. It felt strangely fortuitous.
“A few days earlier I’d said to my best friend that I would like to do a U2 album, as I felt maybe they had lost a little of their magic on recent albums. When I was asked to work with them I couldn’t quite believe it.”
Barlow spent two years working with the Irish rockers. As U2 were touring for much of this time, he spent hours recording with Bono in hotel rooms and dressing rooms. The idea was to keep the creative process fresh: “There’s a certain amount of pressure to perform in the studio,” Barlow says. “They call it ‘red light syndrome’, and Bono didn’t think that was a good pressure for him.”
The U2 frontman’s songwriting process was unlike anything Barlow had seen before. “He’s remarkable, he’s really channelling, more than any other artist I’ve worked with.
“The people around him call it Bongolese. He might hum some lines or repeat a word or phrase. In some ways it’s gobbledegook. But then he’ll come back to it and re-work it and find the shape of the lyrics.
“Some artists are the complete opposite, they come to the studio with lyrics they’ve worked on for months or years. If you suggest a change, there’s a very long pause. With Bono there’s no preciousness.”
When Bono, Adam, Larry and the Edge did eventually get together in the studio, Barlow says it was “pretty much like working with any other band. I’ve been producing records for more than 20 years; you just put all the other stuff to one side and go into creative mode. There’s no room for self-doubt.”
Barlow’s own creative confidence comes from decades of industry experience. He got his start in the industry in Manchester in the mid-‘90s. After spending his teenage years messing about with samplers and kit, he started a music technology degree at Salford University. but soon ditched his studies for a job as in-house engineer and producer at a music studio.
Around the same time, he met singer Lou Rhodes and forged a formative creative partnership called Lamb. They immersed themselves in Manchester’s thriving music scene, hanging out with New Order and Sub Sub (who later became Doves) and signing a five-album deal with Mercury.
More than 21 later, Lamb is still going strong. They enjoyed a world tour last year and released the single Illumina in September.
The duo spent January in Barlow’s Goa studio working on their upcoming album. Barlow, a champion of Ableton Live music production software, also has a state-of-the-art studio just outside Brighton.
What’s the secret of Lamb’s longevity? “It still feels fresh. If we’d had a huge hit with album one maybe things might have been different; being in the limelight can be quite destructive. We were only ever a cult band in the UK, we’ve always been more of a slow burn.”
Here are Barlow’s studio tips for singers
- Find the right key – The right key makes or breaks the song but often vocalists don’t sing in a key that is right for their voice. I demo it in four or five keys before I start. If it feels too comfortable take it up half a semitone – to just on the edge of their range.
- Find the right gear – I think of first or second gear as very quiet and fourth or fifth as really belting it out. Rather than belt it out in fifth gear, it’s better if they bring it down a bit. I ask them to sing it in a lower gear and turn up the mix.
- Play with speed – Tempo changes can make a song more interesting. So many songs in the top 40 have the same tempo the whole way through, it’s boring. I like to experiment, and speed it up a couple BPM. It gives a song punch and energy.
- Prepare the space for the singer – Make sure you have a glass of water to hand and ambient lighting. If you’re really nervous, take off your shoes and wiggle your toes, sending energy to your feet grounds you.
- Headphones and mic – Take the time to get the headphone mix right, not just okay. Think about mic technique. If you’re going to hit a high note, pull back.