Sam Barsh is a multi-Grammy-winning artist, producer and songwriter who recently nabbed his latest piece for his work on Kanye West’s seminal masterpiece, ‘Donda’. In this exclusive sit down, we go behind the scenes as to what it takes and the inner workings behind these amazing tracks. Enjoy!
Tell us a little bit about yourself? How long have you been playing music and when did you start producing/writing?
I was born in Chicago, Illinois, USA, and spent most of my childhood in the nearby town of Wilmette. I began taking piano lessons when I was 4 years old. I studied classical piano for a few years, then moved into ragtime and other types of pieces, but when I started jazz lessons around age 12 I got more serious about music. I became obsessed with jazz, and by the time I was a senior in high school, I was practising 5 to 6 hours a day.
I went to William Paterson University just outside of New York City and moved to Brooklyn at age 20. I began my career as a full-time jazz pianist, touring extensively throughout my early to mid-20s. During that time, I got turned on to pop, hip-hop and R&B and began my journey into producing and songwriting. I was really bad at first, and luckily I had friends and colleagues who were honest with me. Nobody told me I should quit, but many people said that my work wasn’t that good and I needed to keep developing my skills. Tens of thousands of hours in the studio and a number of years later, I made the move to Los Angeles, where I continued to develop my songwriting and production while making a living as a keyboardist. By that point, a number of tracks that I had produced and written had been released, but nothing had really caught fire. Things started coming together in late 2012 when I began working with the producer DJ Khalil, who brought me in on bigger projects as a writer/keyboardist. In terms of production, I still needed a few more years to really train my ear and develop my skills in that area before I was capable enough to be producing on a level in line with the industry standard. Only in the past 3 or 4 years have I come to feel truly confident in my abilities as a producer, and even now I am constantly striving to improve and attack my weaknesses.
Congratulations on your most recent Grammy! What an amazing achievement. I know that the story behind this track is absolutely incredible, could you tell us a little bit about it? How was the writing process with artists like Kanye and The Weekend?
Thank you! Yes, the story behind this track is quite interesting. A few years ago, Daniel Seeff, Josh Mease and I were doing one of the countless jam sessions we’ve done with DJ Khalil. We essentially improvise together and come up with different musical ideas (chord progressions, melodies, etc) and Khalil then goes through them, shapes the sound and cuts them into short instrumental compositions (or loops, as they’re commonly referred to) and either makes tracks out of them himself or sends them to other producers to create songs around. In the case of “Hurricane,” he sent a number of our loops to a producer named Nascent who then sent the Hurricane beat to Boogz da Beast, who works directly with Kanye. The original song that Kanye made with our instrumental was called “80 Degrees” and was leaked on the internet nearly 4 years ago. There have to be at least 10 versions of it on YouTube with different guest artists and verses.
When the “Donda” rollout began, Kanye did 3 live stream performances of the album, and after the first one, a couple of people messaged me that Kanye had performed our song, which was now called “Hurricane.” By the second live stream, The Weeknd had been added to the song singing the chorus. When the album got close to being released, we learned that “Hurricane” was going to be the lead single. From an idea born of a jam session 4 years earlier to a song that I figured would exist only as an unfinished leak, to becoming a GRAMMY-winning #1 single, it was quite the journey indeed.
In terms of the writing process on this particular track, Kanye’s concept over the past few years has been to have many different people come and try ideas on songs, kind of a writing-by-committee approach. So there are a number of other individuals who worked on the production and lyric melody side of things, but I wasn’t around for that. That is one of the amazing things about the intersection of modern technology with musical creativity; you can create a piece of music, send it to someone, and by the time it’s finished it could have been passed around to many different people over the course of months or years.
How does a day in the studio play out? Are there any days in particular that you remember fondly? I know you are a ‘triple threat’ (Producer, Performer and Songwriter), Is there a particular area you enjoy or prefer?
There are a number of different ways that studio sessions go. A lot of people in today’s music scene will come to the studio with finished tracks and play them until an artist or songwriter chooses one to write to, but since I am an experienced musician who is well-versed in many styles of music, I generally like to start ideas from scratch.
If it’s just me and an artist, I’ll usually start playing some chord progression ideas until we both like something, then build the track from there while the lyrics and melody are written. If it’s just 2 of us in the room, I’ll usually help with the lyric and melody writing as well. If there are more people in the room, I adapt to whatever role makes sense based on the situation. I like to make meaningful contributions while also letting other people do their thing because sometimes people try to do too much and it can suffocate the creativity of their collaborators. I always try to be sensitive to the people I’m working with, both so we can all enjoy ourselves and so we can create the best song possible.
As far as having a preference between writing, producing or performing, it’s more about the project than my specific role. My goal is to serve the music and to do things that are both creatively satisfying and worth my time.
In terms of memorable sessions, I’ve done so many that they tend to become a blur, but I can recall a couple that was especially interesting. On 3 of the days I worked with Kendrick Lamar it was a holiday weekend in the dead of summer, and my apartment at the time had basically non-functional air conditioning. We were working until 5 or 6 AM, and we’re on standby for our arrival time each day. It was so hot in my apartment once the sun came up that on one of the days I actually went to a Spa in the Koreatown area of Los Angeles just so I could catch some sleep in the air-conditioned relaxation room they had. You had to wear a robe in there, so I covertly had my cell phone in the robe pocket in case I got a sudden call that we had to get to the studio. Needless to say, that was against the spa rules. Thankfully I didn’t sleep through the call and I made it to the session on time. Also, doing “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance” with Anderson .Paak was special, both because the song came together immediately once we all started playing together, and because I later found out that it was the first song Anderson ever wrote while playing the drums.
Your work in film composing has been incredible, with brooding compositions on the Godfather of Harlem to the end-title theme on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse. How does that thought process differ from your work on full-length albums?
It’s good that you brought up these 2 examples because they illustrate the different ways that songs can end up in TV or film. In the case of “The Godfather of Harlem,” the song “Rise” was written in a session with the artist Samm Henshaw, for no specific purpose other than that Samm was in the process of working on new material. When they were selecting songs for “The Godfather of Harlem,” Swizz Beats (who was putting together the soundtrack) heard the song and loved it for the show. We then learned that “Rise” was going to be a central song to the plot of the show, being the single of one of the show’s main characters who was a singer/songwriter. Once that was established, the show’s creators requested additional versions of the song to fit with the plotline. There were a few of us that worked on the song, so we rallied as a team to get the new versions done. Daniel Seeff did an acoustic guitar version to fit the scene where the character is playing the song by himself with a guitar, and we did a “live band” version to fit the scene where he’s performing it at the Apollo, where I recorded Gene Coye on V drums and we replayed the parts to give it more of a live feel. Khalil put everything together and was the one who produced and submitted the versions for final approval. Thankfully it all worked out, but it was definitely a multi-tiered process with short deadlines.
In the case of “Elevate” from “Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse,” DJ Khalil had been contracted to do a song for the film and created “Elevate” specifically for that purpose. He worked on it for months and was constantly in touch with the film’s creators to make adjustments, new sections, etc. So Khalil would call me in periodically to add parts, play different keyboard sounds, 808 bass, etc, as he worked to accommodate the requests from the filmmakers and music supervisor. So whereas “Rise” was a previously finished track that got chosen for a TV show, “Elevate” was a commissioned piece specifically for a film, which definitely illustrates the difference in the process.
I also co-wrote “Collide” for the film “Queen and Slim,” which was nominated for a GRAMMY last year. That process was pretty smooth because some of the people who were in charge of selecting the music for the film were present while we were writing. Benny Cassette produced the sessions, and he was the one who dealt with the powers-that-be on the movie side, but it was a fairly quick turnaround from writing the song to it being completed and placed in the film.
Though my focus is definitely on individual songs, I have also done a bit of film scoring, which is another thing entirely. You need to be in constant communication with the filmmakers about what they want, and often their opinions change throughout the process. It definitely takes a special type of person to be able to not only compose and arrange film music but to accommodate the requests of filmmakers, who typically aren’t fluent in musical terminology. There’s a lot of interpretation, patience and psychology that goes into being a film composer, and I really admire the people that do it well.
Obviously, all of your works are something to be proud of. Were there any that come to mind that really shaped your writing or producing style?
To borrow from Bruce Lee, the martial arts method that he developed is called Jeet Kune Do, which means “the style of no style.” It takes elements from a number of martial arts and combines them in a way that is adaptable to any situation, and that encourages each individual to find their own path based on their life experience and personal preferences.
I look at my writing and production style as musical Jeet Kune Do, if you will. I’ve done a lot of work to master many different musical styles and production techniques, which is a quest that will continue for the remainder of my career. So when I’m creating music, whether it be writing, producing or performing, I like to cater my contributions to fit the artist or group of musicians I am working with at that moment. The end goal is always to create the most natural-sounding product possible utilizing the strengths and skillsets of everyone involved. That being said, every record I’ve listened to or worked on has helped shape my creative process in some way.
In terms of songs that stick out as highlights of my discography, I’d say “Amerikkkan Idol” by Joey Bada$$, “Institutionalized” by Kendrick Lamar, and “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance” by Anderson .Paak, “If I Was White” by Cameron Forbes, “Time” by Jervsalem, and “The Man” by Aloe Blacc. I’m also extremely proud of the jazz recordings I did with the Avishai Cohen Trio in the early-mid 2000s.
So we know you have the incredible AND exclusive CA07 so I have to ask….. Of the three Ghost models about to drop (Driver, Mono II, Explorer) Which is your favourite?
Well, that’s an extremely tough call because they are all works of art in my opinion. If I had to pick a favourite I would say the Mono II, because the bezel is so striking and unique, and it fits my personal style of wanting to be a bit different from the pack.
What’s next from here? Any passion projects or dream jobs/collaborations in the future
I have some things in the works with well-known names, but I generally don’t talk about that stuff before it comes out since I like to respect the artists’ processes, and things are always subject to change. There are some up-and-coming artists that I’m really excited about who I’ve been working with: Jervsalem, $tarborn, Zyah Belle and Nana. In the jazz realm, I’m gearing up to produce trumpeter Nabate Isles’ second album which has an amazing lineup of top jazz players and guest features, and I just started writing some classic large-ensemble songs for Brenna Whitaker, an outstanding vocalist with whom I do a weekly residency in Hollywood.
In terms of dream collaborations, I go back and forth on pushing for those, both because I get asked to do so many sessions and performances that I like the surprise and challenge of taking what comes and because when I am a huge fan of an artist, I feel like they already know what they’re doing and are probably going to make great music whether I’m involved or not. However, I have been getting more intentional about setting up collaborations with artists I really admire. We’ll see what the future holds. For now, I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing and stay grateful that I get to make music every day.
Thanks so much Sam for your amazing insights and a big congratulations on behalf of the CA team. You can check out his other works below: