Producers: A Q&A with Oak Felder

Turkish-born pop producer discusses working with Alessia Cara, Demi Lovato, ZZ Ward and creating the ultimate studio vibe

Producer Oak Felder

It may not seem like a logical path to go from a computer network specialist to one of the hottest pop music producers in music today, but for Oak Felder it’s completely natural. Born in Turkey in 1980, Felder has crafted an impressive body of work in less than a decade, crafting the smash hits “Here” and “Scars To Your Beautiful” for breakout pop artist Alessia Cara and “Sorry Not Sorry” with Demi Lovato, as well as branching out into more roots and blues-based music with singer ZZ Ward. American Songwriter recently chatted with the always-positive Felder on the role a producer plays in working with an artist, and how a kitchen can often be more inspiring than a perfectly built recording studio.

You have a very welcoming and peaceful vibe.

I’ve been told that before. I guess it’s a by-product of working in computer security for so many years.

You moved to the US to pursue a computer degree, correct?

Yes I transferred from Istanbul Tech University in 2001 to attend Georgia Tech. I could have gone to Cal Tech and some others. I guess I chose Atlanta because my father was living there and I wanted to hang out with him.

Was Atlanta’s music scene part of the decision?

Oh no. The music scene absolutely 100% did not contribute in any way to that decision. I had no expectation of getting into the music industry at all.

Were you a musician at that time?

Yes. My oldest brother is a phenomenal saxophonist and piano player. That was always his passion. So I was the little brother trying to keep up. It was a competitive fight to see who was the better musician. I learned how to play piano fairly well but I’ve never caught up to him. Through the years of my combined love of playing music and understanding technology you have what I think is a music producer’s career. We’re supposed to be both technically and musically inclined. If you’re good at both you’re probably good at producing.

What music did you listen to growing up?

Oh man I listened to everything. I was most passionate about rock. I’m a ‘90s kid so I listened to grunge, metal, bands like Metallica, Nirvana, Silverchair, Modest Mouse, Pearl Jam. And then harder bands and some death metal like Sepultura and Cradle of Filth.

So Western Music was popular in Turkey?

Oh for sure, especially by the 1990s. We started getting MTV Europe and all that stuff so were exposed to the European versions, which is different than the American versions. Artists like Bjork, Tricky and Blur. I’ve always been enamored by everything I’ve been exposed to. I tend to find something in it that reflects me. Every style of music, if it’s done right and done well, serves to be a mirror to the people listening to it. If I’m listening to Rage Against The Machine I may not have the same political leanings they are singing but I’m listening to a funky ass bass line playing in step with the distorted guitar, that’s what hits me!

You can feel it coming from the heart of the artist.

Exactly! The heart of music has the same common denominator with the heart of people. When you do it right that’s exactly how it’s presented. The one style of music I wasn’t exposed to, actually, and didn’t really listen to all that much, was R&B and hip-hop because they didn’t have much of it in Turkey.

People talk about their big break coming from unexpected places. Where was yours and did you know it was happening?

I’m never able to able that question. I didn’t have one moment, per se. My career was wading in to the ocean, a very gradual process until I realized I wasn’t touching the ground! It was a series of steps that got me deeper into it. Getting my placement with Mario on his Go album or on Chris Brown’s “Ain’t No Way” were huge breaks as far as people knowing my name. I was attached early on to an artist named Sterling Simms who had gotten signed to huge, hyped-up deal with Def Jam by LA Reid. That led to placements and collaborations with Pop (of Pop and Oak). That led to Nikki Minaj. Everything kind of snowballed.

But you must have put your intentions out there to keep working in music?

Actually no! (laughs). I was content to keep working in the computer and networking industry. I was making decent money and I enjoyed the work. Even though obviously I wouldn’t take a corporate lifestyle versus what I’m doing now, back then I didn’t have anything to compare it to. It wasn’t an intention for me to get into the music industry. I was doing the side hustle. I had some equipment, I know how to play keys and make beats. Let me charge people a couple hundred bucks for a track and see what happens. Sterling Simms ended up being one of the first demos. Then he shopped it and he called me a couple months later and said he had a meeting with LA Reid. So I hopped on a plane to New York and met with LA. He said the tracks are amazing. Sitting in his office, I was impressed by the whole situation but I wasn’t thinking ‘this is my chance.’ I just thought it was a nice diversion from my life that I can tell my people about. It wasn’t until I found out how much money I was going to make from Def Jam that it sunk in. It was $10K or so for three or four tracks. And then I found out that was per track! Then it became something to consider.

Can you describe your studio?

In my mind I’m one of the pioneers of software-based production. Back in the day I scoured the web to find stuff that would stay in my computer. This was before the idea that software technology would be a mainstream thing. For me, it was a necessity because I didn’t have the money to buy all the gear. I had sounds samples for days on my laptop. So my current setup is an extension of that philosophy. Everything in my studio is virtual. I do have some outboard gear and instruments, including a Yamaha CP70 keyboard, the kind that was used on a lot of Doobie Brothers and Michael McDonald records. I have your standard Neve preamps, Telefunken LA2A, Neumann U87 mic, Telefunken 251, API Lunchbox. Having said all that, I don’t use any of it and haven’t in a year and a half! I’ve switched over to this system called the Virtual Mic System by a company called Slate Digital. They have a microphone simulator called the VMS 1 that lets you emulate any popular microphone and preamp that’s out there. When I first started using them I did a shootout to see how they stacked up against the real deal and you cannot tell the difference! And you have more versatility because if you wished you recorded a vocal with a U47, you can go in and change it. I recorded Demi Lovato and she prefers the Telefunken 251 for vocals. So I said let’s try the VMS and record with both and see which sounds better. So we did and lo and behold the VMS sounded better. We wound up recording “Sorry Not Sorry” on that system. That was proof enough for me.

You record with Logic.

Yes absolutely. And that came from working in my uncle’s studio in Turkey when I was 10 or 11. He taught me how to use his Atari desktop setup and gave me the job of transcribing songs to MIDI via this program called Notator. It was designed for you to play a keyboard and it would translate the notes. I used that for years. That program eventually expanded and in a roundabout way became Logic.

How important is the studio vibe in working with artists?

My studio is an exercise in vibe. You said it in the beginning of the interview, that I had a calm and relaxed demeanor. I wanted the studio to be an extension of that idea. Creativity comes from people that are at ease. That’s where vibe becomes important. So many people focus so much on the sonic sound of the room, so much so that they’ll take a cave and say ‘I’m going to put soundproof panels and design it so it sounds perfect.’ In doing that they neglect one of the most important aspects of music creation- to leave space for people to be inspired! When you walk into a perfectly designed recording studio, at the end of the day, you’re still in a cave. And we haven’t been making music in caves for, what, 40,000 years? (laughs).

So I decided to get a house here in the California hills and converted it into a recording studio. I named it Su Casa. I designed it to be an artists’ home away from home. I wanted anyone who set foot in that place to feel like they were at home: your house. I’m a Star Wars fan so there’s a Darth Vader painting made by David Flores and some nice furniture. The entire bottom floor is the A room with a big desk. I’m a big sci-fi nerd so the design looks like a cockpit. And we have hue lights that control the color and mood of the room. And there’s a B room. And artists can meet in the kitchen after they’re done with sessions. They can all sit together and talk back and forth. That’s one of my favorite times of the day. We actually had two major artists working on different projects who met at the table in our dining room. They had never met and hit it off when we were all eating together. And now they’re working on a collaboration that will be coming out soon. To me, that’s better than a modern facility where people are basically recording in a vacuum. Not to say that our way is better than anyone else’s. I just find that a more open approach makes the music better.

How do you build a track from scratch? Your songs have a lot going on but there’s also a lot of space.

Negative space and space in general is an instrument unto itself and I treat it that way when creating tracks. Just like a kick or snare. My job as a producer is to be transparent. I pride myself in knowing that I have songs on the radio that sound 100% different from each other. Some producers, like Timbaland and Pharrell, have a signature sound and I have a lot of respect for them. But at the same time I admire guys like Greg Kurstin. He is one of the most transparent producers and it’s his goal to serve the energy of the artist. I’ve never spoken to him about it or heard him do an interview about it but I don’t have to. You can hear it in the music he produces. Every producer’s job should be to hold a mirror up to the artist and say ‘this is what’s being reflected back. Now do what you do to make yourself look your best and I’ll take a snapshot of it and put it out there.’ Building the track, then, is based on what the artist is giving me at that moment. If I’m sitting with an artist who has a lot to say, then my job is to give you the tempo and the chord progression and get the hell out of the way!

Can you give an example of a song that started out with an acoustic guitar and morphed into something more involved?

There’s a song that ZZ Ward wrote and I produced called “Let It Burn” that was on her last album. We had a four-day session and I don’t think we did any recording the first day. All we did was listen to records and Spotify. One thing that kept coming up in the songs was that really jangly slide guitar sound. I don’t think she even knew it, she certainly didn’t say anything. I mentioned to the producer who was working with me, Downtown Trevor Brown, who’s also a seriously amazing guitar player, that he should bring his acoustic the next day and we’ll record him playing slide with a beer bottle. He killed it and ZZ was so excited. She’s a purist and what I like most about her is she is dedicated to her sound. She knows what she wants. If you try to give her anything extra or something trendy she will look you squarely in the eye and say ‘take that shit out of the track!’ And then I committed one of the biggest mortal sins in the world of ZZ Ward. I started playing an 808 (Roland drum machine), which is this big loud low-end sound that you would hear in urban hip-hop music. But she was so into the slide guitar sound she didn’t even notice! And that became “Let It Burn.” That song flew out of her in about 20 minutes. But honestly, I could strip away that whole production and have it just be her voice and the acoustic slide guitar and it would sound just as dope.

Most of the singers you work with, from Alessia Cara to ZZ Ward, have unique voices, a sound that grabs the listener. Is that a characteristic you look for when starting new projects?

For sure. Here’s the reason. A person’s voice is the tip of their iceberg. It’s an introduction to that artist in general. An interesting voice usually means an interesting story. It’s the reason they picked that voice to sing with. If a singer told you ‘well this is my natural voice, how I always sing’ then that singer doesn’t understand what it means to be an artist. The ones that do understand will tell you ‘I choose to sing in this voice. This is the character I’ve created for my vocal.’ They have to be interesting. That is one of the prerequisites I have for working with an artist. I’ll give you an example. I almost signed a singer who was an amazing vocalist. She would have been a pop singer in my opinion- super marketable, all that stuff. She came into the studio talking about her piano playing, singing in choir for fifteen years, how she could sight-read and knew how to sing Stevie Wonder and Led Zeppelin by heart. She was rattling off all her skills. And I asked her ‘okay, have you ever had your heart broken before?’ And she said, well no. I asked her why not? And she said ‘because music is my boyfriend. I don’t have time for relationships when I’m doing dance and vocal practice.’ So I said ‘well if you haven’t had your heart broken what are you going to sing about? You have all this talent and trained yourself to be the best but you don’t have anything to talk about.’ It was an epiphany for her at the moment. She said ‘wow, you’re right. I don’t have a personal story. I figured I could just write a song.’ I told her nobody just writes a song out of thin air. I guess you can but no artist is a true artist without a story to tell. As a producer I can’t take that picture and hold it up to the artist if there’s nothing there.