Sam Barsh is a songwriter, producer and keyboardist whose work has been awarded 3 GRAMMY awards out of 9 nominations, and 16 Gold and Platinum certifications. He has written and/or produced over 200 commercially released songs, including 4 #1 albums on the Billboard 200. He co-wrote the Kanye West feat. The Weeknd and Lil Baby single “Hurricane” which reached #1 on multiple charts, including the Rolling Stone singles chart and the Billboard streaming and R&B/Hip-Hop singles charts. Barsh also co-wrote the smash Aloe Blacc song “The Man,” which sold 4 million singles worldwide and reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart and #8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
His work as a songwriter and keyboardist on Kendrick Lamar’s Platinum-certified album “To Pimp A Butterfly” won 3 GRAMMY Awards and a nomination for Album of the Year. Barsh was nominated for the 2021 GRAMMY Award for Best R&B song as a co-writer on Tiana Major9 and EarthGang’s single “Collide.” His work on Anderson .Paak’s groundbreaking album “Malibu,” BJ the Chicago Kid’s “In My Mind,” Ledisi’s “Let Love Rule” and on the “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” soundtrack has garnered an additional 4 GRAMMY Nominations. Other notable studio credits include songs with A$AP Rocky, Logic, Norah Jones, Eminem and Macy Gray.
Heavily steeped in the jazz scene as well as the production/songwriting world, Barsh toured with the iconic bassist and composer Avishai Cohen’s trio for 3 years, recording 3 albums and a live DVD at New York’s famed Blue Note jazz club. He has worked with many renowned jazz artists, including Cassandra Wilson, Gregory Porter, Jane Monheit, Roy Hargrove, Robin Eubanks and Lonnie Plaxico.
Barsh has released a number solo projects: the “Sam Barsh and the Deli” Spotify Sessions which has amassed over 19 million streams; “The Nine,” an album commissioned by the Skirball Center for their “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” exhibit; and a series of instrumental beat compilations.
We got a chance to sit down with Sam to chat about his career, and tips for up and coming producers and song-writers!
First off, I just saw your song with Kanye on his latest album just hit number 1! How does that feel? Are you doing anything to celebrate?
It feels good; the song was originally supposed to come out 3 years ago, and many different versions of the song have been leaked on YouTube since then, so its a combination of relief that the song finally came out and gratitude that it has become such a major record.
In terms of celebrating, not yet, really. However it has created some new opportunities for me, and I love working on music, so in essence each musical door that opens is a celebration in and of itself.
What’s your process when finding artists/singers to produce?
Most of the time, my publisher, management or other producers/writers that I work with will set up a session, and I meet the artists that way. Other times, its people that I connect with through mutual friends or colleagues. And then there are artists I know personally through the live music scene that I have ended up producing and/or writing with.
We’d love to hear how things change after a first smash. After you co-wrote Aloe Blacc song The Man – which sold 4 million singles worldwide and reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart and #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 – did your career or co-writing with people take a turn?
A few things came together at the same time. In 2013, I had started working a lot with the team that I co-wrote “The Man” with, Daniel Seeff and DJ Khalil (who produced the song). Khalil had recently built a studio in downtown LA, and around the time “The Man” first came out, Daniel and I both began renting rooms at the new studio. Once it became a certified hit, we started getting a ton of sessions coming through the studio. So the combination of having a smash along with all being based in the same studio made it possible for us to go full steam ahead and be available for the opportunities that were coming in.
What’s the first thing you do when you open a session?
I usually load a few different sounds into the session, from the hundreds of presets I’ve made over the years. Often I’ll start with a piano or electric piano sound, but I make sure that whomever I’m collaborating with and I are on the same page about the sound direction. Then I’ll go thru sounds and start ideas until we come up with something everyone likes, and develop it from there.
Do you have any tips for upcoming producers and engineers?
BE A FINISHER! Finish records you start. Send them to the artists and co-writers when they ask for them within a reasonable time frame. The same goes for artists and topline songwriters. So many people just never send you their finished vocals, or parts, or whatever they were supposed to do after the session was done. In a business that’s so competitive and difficult to break into, being accountable will immediately set you apart. It’s ludicrous how simple of a concept this is, yet many people don’t abide by it. In short, be a rock, not a flake.
What are your 5 most used plugins or current favorite plugins?
Ableton Echo, Valhalla Vintage Reverb, Native Instruments Transient Master, Izotope Ozone, XLN Audio RC-20
We are big fans of Anderson .Paak’s “Malibu,” probably still our favorite of his records, how did working on that come about?
Those were some of the many sessions we had at our old studio that came about last minute. One day Khalil said something to the effect of, “I think Anderson .Paak’s gonna come by.” I had heard of him only because he had been featured on Dr. Dre’s “Compton” which had just come out. Anderson came, Khalil set up his V Drums (electronic drum kit) for Anderson to play, and we jammed for a while; by the end of the session, “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance” was finished. I found out later that it’s the first song he ever wrote from the drums.
“Your Prime” was similar. We had an evening session, and when Anderson arrived I only had 45 minutes before I had to leave for a gig. We started jamming and came up with 4 different musical sections. I went to my gig, and when i returned around 1am, the song was written and all the vocals were recorded. I added a couple of keyboard parts and that was that.
Do you prefer to engineer your own sessions when you are producing?
Usually yes, because I always mix and edit as I produce, so it’s a more seamless process. However if I’m in a big studio with a lot of outboard gear and a large console, I am happy to let the engineer do their thing.
What’s your process for finalizing songs/demos?
Here is an example of how I make records from start to finish; it goes like this most of the time:
Get a basic track going with a chord progression, song form and a few core keys sounds, bass and drums. Write the lyric and melody. Continue working on the track as lyric/melody is being written. Record a lead vocal. Comp the lead vocal. Record background vocals, harmonies, and adlibs. Comp/tune/edit all the vocals. Once the vocals are done, then the finishing starts. I’ll add additional instrumental parts, create drum fills/transitions/drop outs, manipulate certain vocal parts with effects/pitching etc, fine-tweak drums for optimal feel, add mixing effects (delay, eq, compression, saturation, overdrive, etc), automate volume/panning/effects, etc. Once all parts are added and edited, my final mixing begins. I always get the best possible mix I can of any song I produce, and I am constantly trying to learn and improve. I encourage clients to get my work mixed by an outside mixer, but fairly often people are happy with my mixes, so it’s just a case by case basis.
Any stories from working on “Institutionalized and I” with Kendrick Lamar?
The sessions themselves weren’t anything out of the ordinary; we worked on a bunch of ideas in one room while Kendrick was in the other room recording, and he’d come in from time to time to check out what we were doing.
However, the first sessions I did with him were over July 4th weekend, and we were working until 5 or 6am. It was extremely hot outside, and my apartment didn’t have A/C in my bedroom, so I was having trouble sleeping once the sun came out. So one of the days I went to a Korean spa where they had an air conditioned rest room. We didn’t have set start times for the sessions, so we had to be on standby for when to show up to the studio. So I was in this Korean spa (where everyone has to undress and wear only a robe) in a pitch black room laying on a recliner, with my cell phone in the pocket of my robe waiting on a text or call about the session. That was definitely against the rules there, and I couldn’t really sleep for too long since I didn’t wanna miss the call. Needless to say, I was working on caffeine and adrenaline for 3 days.
Tell us about a time when you needed to change your production style to accommodate an artist.
Every session I do! I’m not a one-style producer; I have a broad palette of musical experience and sounds that help me go wherever the artist wants to go. I also enjoy when an artist wants to do a style I haven’t done much, because it pushes me to go in new directions and become a better musician.
How do you feel about the current state of music?
Theres are constantly great records being made. It’s not always easy to find them, but they’re there.
How do you stay focused and productive?
I exercise regularly and eat well for the most part. Also, having collaborators and specific timelines for projects is very helpful for me personally. I’m not as productive when I don’t have deadlines and/or other people to be accountable to.
How do you deal with writers-block?
Thankfully I don’t really get true writer’s block. Sometimes if I feel stuck with a particular idea I don’t like, I’ll switch up the sounds and tempo I’m using, or listen to some different music for inspiration. Worst case, I pack it in for the night and by the next day I’m good. I think you gotta just keep writing stuff, even if it’s bad. Eventually quality material will come.
What’s a crazy experience you’ve had in the industry or a writing session?
I think a better question would be what’s a non-crazy experience I’ve had in the industry lol. Every day is an adventure in the music business.
What are you listening to right now?
A lot of different stuff, but what comes to mind off top is Dominic Fike, Pet Shop Boys, DUCKWRTH, Verité, Ahmad Jamal, Kanye; the list is vast. Like a lot of people these days I’m pretty ADD when I’m listening to music so I switch around between tracks alot. I also make sure to listen to the radio to hear what’s going on there; both commercial pop and hip-hop/R&B stations and KCRW in LA.
Who are some of your biggest influences and why?
Again, a question with an extremely long answer. I am really inspired by producers that have a high level of musicianship and have done a large range of styles, since I come from a musician’s background and have worked in many genres of music. People like Greg Kurstin, Ricky Reed, D’Mile, The Neptunes, Greg Wells, and more.
What do you do for fun when you aren’t working on music?
I like to spend time with my wife. I’d like to say I hike, but I don’t do it often, though I always enjoy it when I do. When I’m traveling I always do super long walks to get a feel for the places I’m visiting. I also still play a good amount of jazz gigs around LA, which I consider a fun break from the studio and a chance to hang out with friends I might not otherwise see often. Other simple pleasures include going in the hot tub and watching the Sopranos (not at the same time).
Is there any artist you want to work with that you haven’t had an opportunity to yet?
For most of my career, I’ve just answered the phone and put in work on the opportunities that have come my way, and that’s led me down a rewarding path. But I’m working on being more intentional about people I’d really want to collaborate with. I’m all about constantly self-evaluating and looking for areas in which to improve, so that’s on the list for this year and beyond.