Interview: Grammy Award winning producer Dom Morley

We took a trip down the M40 to chat to Dom about his work with Amy Winehouse, Mark Ronson and more…

[PHOTO: Lucy Morley]

Russ Cook [R]: So Dom, tell Stylus readers why you do what you do…

Dom Morley [DM]: As a teenager, being in bands, I quite quickly found out I preferred the bit where I was in my bedroom, tinkering with things. I preferred it to being on stage. From there, one thing led to another and I thought I’d try to get a job in a studio. So I knocked a lot of doors around London and said: “I’ll work for nothing and I make good tea.” Everyone said “No” [Laughs].

R: Oh dear. How did you land your first job then?

DM: I went to Birmingham, knocked doors again and found a place they wanted me. After a while there, learning the ropes, making lots of tea, a job came up at DEP Studios. From there, I went on to Metropolis in London and worked as an assistant. During my first week I had two 24-hour sessions and one 42-hour session, before being asked, after an all-nighter, to do another. It was trial by fire.

R: So how did you end up here, with your own studio?

DM: Well, I started working with Mark Ronson, and things were starting to pick up. So I decided to go freelance. I handed in my notice and almost immediately picked up a job working with The Police. They were getting back together and doing some rehearsals out in Tuscany. I was like “Ah, this is perfect timing.” I had just handed in my resignation with no work lined-up at all [laughs]!

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R: What was it like working with Mark [Ronson] and Amy Winehouse on the Back To Black album then?

DM: I was Mark’s “guy” in London and, at the time, we were working on both Amy’s record and his own, Version – they were released not too far apart, see. We were also doing some other projects, including a track for Adele called ‘Cold Shoulder’. We were busy. I mostly worked on the tricky stuff, like strings, brass and orchestral percussion, as well as recording overdubs for guitar and bass. I also did work on a track with Amy’s vocal too, ‘He Can Only Hold Her’. Actually, did you hear the “leopard print bed” bit in the song [laughs]?

R: Um. No…

DM: [Laughs] Well, that morning, Amy had just had a leopard print duvet set delivered. She was very excited about it. So, between the verse and chorus, in the instrumental bit, she did this little adlib about having a – well – leopard print bed. Once you hear it, you can’t unhear it…

R: Did you have any sense, while working on that album that it was going to be such a success?

DM: You never know at the time. Although, the first day I worked on it, we were putting strings down on the tracks ‘Back To Black’ and ‘Rehab’, and I thought this is really good. But the tragic thing is, having worked in this business for some time, you can work on great stuff that gets nowhere – and that happens a lot. You know, the four best singers I’ve ever worked with are Mick Jagger, Amy Winehouse, Richard Ashcroft and Si Connelly. And you’ve never heard of Si Connelly. Get my point? He’s amazing. You never know what’s going to be a hit.

R: Do you think Amy sensed it was going to be a success, though?

DM: Not really. She was always very normal, grounded and down to earth. There were certainly no airs and graces.

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R: For me, Back To Black adopts a retro Motown sound without becoming a pastiche. Would you agree?

DM: Yeah, absolutely. And there are two reasons for that. One: Mark was doing the hip-hop drums kind of idea, underneath the classic [Phil] Spector-sounding stuff, which worked really well. And secondly, Amy’s lyrics brought it right up to the present.

R: So, did Mark and Amy work well together?

DM: Yeah. It was a good collaboration. They had written a track together for the album, I believe, and they seemed to really understand each other. That’s important.

R: They also worked together on ‘Valerie’, didn’t they?

DM: Yeah. Mark was in New York with Amy at the time. He’d nearly finished his record, Version – which was a collection of covers – and asked her if she wanted to sing one. She’d actually just been listening to The Zutons’ version of ‘Valerie’ a lot that week, and it just happened to be in her head at the time – so they did it. It was a great move, because it’s one of those songs that follows you everywhere you go.

R: Seeing as you’ve worked with him, what do you think it is about Mark [Ronson] that makes him so sought after as a producer?

DM: I tell you what it is: he’s an absolute record geek, with encyclopaedic knowledge of records. He started out playing parties as a DJ. He just loves, and knows, so much music. Style doesn’t matter to him. Music is all as one. It just gets thrown into the mix. And that’s why I think he works so well with so many types of artists.

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R: What impressed you most about Amy Winehouse then?

DM: The quality of her performance. I’m not a believer in talent. I think it’s another word for practice. People don’t realise how much of it is involved in being really great. Like Einstein said: “it’s 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” It’s the same with music. There are people I’ve worked with that could sing as well as Amy – Mick Jagger, Roger Daltry, Rod Stewart – but they’d been doing it 30 years longer than she had. I couldn’t work out how she could do it at 26…

R: That must’ve been incredible to work with?

DM: Yeah. I was blown away. You know, normally, when you’re recording a singer, they have three or four goes to get warmed-up, before hitting their speed. Everybody’s the same. But it’s only when you’ve been doing it nightly for five decades that you get to a stage where you don’t take so long to get into the mindset of a song. You just emotionally deliver. She could do that. She’d give you three versions, one after the other, each with slight variations, and be like “There you go. Done.” I remember looking at Mark [Ronson] and thinking: “Jesus, I pity you. Which of those takes are you going to choose from?” They were all brilliant! That’s where Amy was completely unique, being that young and that good.

R: So, how do you feel about the resurgence of vinyl?

DM: Well, people are stopping to listen to albums again. They’re concerning themselves with the sound of a record, which is obviously what I’ve spent 20-odd years doing [laughs]. So, I really like the fact people care! The fact they’re hearing whole albums again is important, as a lot of work goes into how a record flows.

R: Last but not least, tell us an artist/band that you’d like to have worked with, past or present…

DM: From the past, Jeff Buckley. He was so good. I get the feeling you could just sit him down with a guitar and he would just do it. As for present day, there are two bands I’d love to work with: Bombay Bicycle Club and The Maccabees. Despite each having intricate parts and productions, the song is always the winner with them. And I love that.

For more information on Dom, visit his website

Also, aspiring producers and engineers can take advantage of Dom’s expertise by utilising his new service, The Mix Consultancy

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