Inside the Grammy-winning producer’s multi-million dollar construction project in the Auckland suburb of Kingsland that has, until now, been kept under wraps.
In a brick room full of construction equipment, with wires dangling from the ceiling and power drills drowning out his words, Joel Little is promising big things. “It started out as a pretty simple idea,” he says. “It’s become a massive thing.” His arm swings around the unfinished room to point out spaces that will soon house a bar, toilets, a small raised stage and, once alert levels permit, 200 sweaty bodies.
It doesn’t look like much, but it will soon. “We’re putting in a super high-end PA system,” says Joel. “Young bands can come and put on their first show without losing all their money and having a terrible experience.” He pauses to think back to his early days fronting Auckland pop-punk outfit Goodnight Nurse. “This would have been the dream.”
Joel Little is a bit more than a teen emo pin-up these days. Thanks to his hit song-crafting wizardry, first with Lorde, then with Taylor Swift, Khalid, Imagine Dragons, and many other chart-toppers, the 39-year-old has become a super-producer to the stars. His Grammy trophy, for Song of the Year won in 2014 for Lorde’s ‘Royals’, sits on a shelf in his Los Angeles home to prove it.
Today, in this large brick building that’s definitely still under construction, there’s far less glamour. Joel is wearing drop-crotch pants and scuffed Vans, with a fluorescent yellow vest and white hard hat, as required of anyone entering the site. Co-founder Gemma Little, is next to him in the same protective gear. They definitely look like they’re up to something.
Rumours about what the pair, who first met at a Goodnight Nurse house party in West Auckland, are doing here have been spreading for months. Commuters, local business owners and neighbouring apartment dwellers are all wondering what the heck’s going on. Industry experts have also been talking, raising an eyebrow. They want to know.
Until now, Joel and Gemma have remained quiet. But on this December morning, when it was first revealed to The Spinoff, they’re finally ready to unveil what they’re up to. We’re standing in Big Fan, a two-year construction project that will turn this former box factory into a multi-purpose musical empire, one that is hoped to provide foundational support for New Zealand’s music industry.
Upstairs will house four fully furnished soundproofed studios, all of which will be kitted out with Joel’s favourite gear. There are kitchen facilities, an outdoor deck, and private quarters for visiting – possibly big name – artists. Downstairs, a 200-capacity venue will give smaller artists the chance to gain experience on a stage, or potentially, allow bigger artists to play intimate showcases.
Big Fan is a passion project, for sure. Yet none of this is being built to make money. Instead, the pair are building it to give back to the New Zealand’s music industry, the one that helped support Joel and a young unknown singer called Ella Yelich-O’Connor when they wrote ‘Royals’ together at Golden Age, his far more humble studio just around the corner.
“I’ve had people help me all the way through my career,” says Joel. “It feels nice to hopefully be that person for someone else.”
To do this, Big Fan will be run as a community-led project, with no profit ambitions tied to it. “We just want it to be used as much as possible, by as many people as possible,” Joel says. How will they measure its success? “The ultimate would be people who come through here, play their first gigs here, go onto bigger and better things, then come back to mentor the next generation.”
It’s a huge dream, one that could only be made possible thanks to Joel’s producing prowess. His success is tied to many of those big names, also including Tove Lo, Amy Shark, Alessia Cara, Jonas Brothers and Broods. So, along with all those rumours about what he’s up to, comes gossip about which of his famous friends might appear in the studio, and at nearby cafes or bars around Kingsland.
Theoretically, that could mean that Taylor Swift, who Joel has produced regularly – he can be seen working with her in the 2020 Netflix documentary Miss Americana – could be a regular visitor. Could she one day play to 200 Swifties in Big Fan’s small downstairs venue?
“Yes,” says Dave, the site’s construction manager. He just happens to be walking past during this part of the tour, and wants to have his say. The burly builder would welcome an intimate performance by Swift, but she would have to agree to one condition: “As long as she doesn’t hang from the ceiling.”
When Dave departs, Joel offers a clarification. “Dave’s promised that,” he laughs. “I can’t promise that.”
Joel and Gemma didn’t think they’d be doing this so soon. When the pair returned to New Zealand in 2018, setting up a local music hub was a distant dream, something Joel thought he’d consider “when I’m washed up and old and no one wants to make songs with me any more”. It felt ages away.
When he met with music industry representatives and asked what was missing, they told him they needed a hub, something to grow and nurture young talent. Young artists needed studio experience, exposure to other songwriters, encouraged to grow to bigger and better things. “There’s more than enough talent out there,” says Joel. “They don’t have access to things like this to explore it.”
Late one night, Gemma, a Trade Me addict, found a warehouse for sale in Kingsland that fitted their dream perfectly. “I’m just a nosy parker,” she says. When the pair paid a visit, they didn’t think it needed much work at all. “We went, ‘Fuck it, let’s buy this building, let’s do it,” says Joel. Gemma now mocks their naivité, when they thought, “We don’t even need to do anything to it.”
Spoiler alert: it’s needed more done to it than they ever imagined. What they thought was a simple renovation project has turned into a two-year construction process blighted by Covid-19 restrictions. “We pretty much had to rip the whole thing apart and rebuild it all again,” says Joel. All upstairs studios have been fully soundproofed to shield neighbouring apartments from noise, requiring the steel beams and multiple layers of cladding. A small downstairs toilet became a misadventure, requiring a digger and 36 cubic metres of concrete.
“It’s a whole thing, man,” says Joel, shaking his head. “It’s definitely a bigger job than we thought it would be.” Over this time, Gemma’s been scouring TradeMe and stockpiling secondhand furniture, like comfy couches and vintage chairs. They want their studios to have a relaxed, lived-in vibe, like their set-up in Los Angeles, where artists come to Joel and Gemma’s house and work in a converted garage.
All of this costs money. A two-year construction project involving dozens of builders is not cheap. Neither is keeping the lights on. How much money will it cost to keep Big Fan running? “The goal is that we would love it to be self sufficient,” says Joel. That will take time. “We know we will have to top up the coffers for the first couple of years.”
They hope all this money and work is going to be worth it. It’s hard to see how it wouldn’t. Avenues are severely limited for budding local artists. Right now, their options include writing a hit song and getting major label interest, working independently and engaging in NZ on Air funding lotteries, or applying for the next season of X Factor or Popstars.
Big Fan, says Joel, offers another option, one open to artists at every level. “We want it to be available for people from the ground up.” He imagines it working like this: he might be working with a major artist who’s flown in from overseas. While they’re here, that star could hold writing camps with younger artists working in nearby studios, share their knowledge, or collaborate. Even that’s not set in stone. “We want to get started and see what the need is and be that for people.”
Keeping those celebrity visitors quiet in a small country like New Zealand could be difficult. Joel and Gemma’s two older children are starting to recognise some of the famous faces their dad works with. If someone like Swift did visit, how would they keep that secret? “We have to be careful about that,” says Joel. “There are ways into the building that are private.”
As Joel and Gemma contemplate this scenario, builder Dave decides he has thoughts on this too. “I don’t think you need to be too concerned,” he says. “Jacinda (Ardern) was getting a coffee down the street the other week. No one gave two shits.”
This past Wednesday, just three days before Big Fan’s launch, Joel Zooms into focus. He’s on day four of an MIQ stay, having just returned from a two-week stint of music-making in Los Angeles. With a daughter less than a year old at home, and two others aged 11 and 13, he’s ready to get back to his family. “I miss them,” he says.
For now, he’s making the most of his isolation. With guitars on loan from the Rock Shop, a coffee sitting on top of a sample pad, and a screen covered in music files, Joel’s in full producer mode. He’s happy to say what he’s doing. Yes, he’s making music. Yes, it involves another big name star. “I went over to work with Niall Horan,” he confirms. It’s bizarre to think that he’s spending seven days tweaking pop songs for the former One Direction member in this bland hotel room.
But there’s something else on Joel’s mind. Today, Big Fan’s website goes live, its social media pages launch, and staff take up permanent positions. Construction is set to be finished on February 28, the complex is opening in April, and the calendar is already filling up with slots. It’s finally happening. The dream is being realised. “It’s getting to the fun side now,” says Joel. “We want to start telling people about it.”
Had the borders been open, and the studio ready, would Niall Horan have been the first big name booked to use it? Joel nods. “Everyone I’m talking to in Los Angeles, they’re excited about it,” he says. “They want to get down here and do writing camps and use the space.” That’s another perk of Big Fan: it will save Joel from having to leave his family for work so often.
But there’s another reason for getting major artists into Big Fan. It gives the place legitimacy. “I like the idea of people going into these rooms knowing big artists have come down and used them as well, that it’s a place in-demand from people around the world,” he says. “That will add to the magic of the place.”
For more information, visit bigfan.co.nz.