After taking over Joel Little’s Auckland recording studio, Josh Fountain has become one of the most in-demand producers in New Zealand pop music. Hussein Moses goes behind the scenes to find out how he got here and where he’s going next.
Peek inside Golden Age Studios, just down the road from St Lukes mall in the Auckland suburb of Morningside, and you’ll find it barely resembles a recording studio at all. There’s no huge mixing desks or a cave-like atmosphere. Just an old couch, a few instruments, some computer gear, and a handful of houseplants that soak up the sunlight beaming in through the windows. It’s not flashy. If anything, it feels more like you’ve walked into someone’s living room.
That is, apart from the music awards – which are everywhere.
All of them belong to Joel Little. After all, this is the studio where he co-wrote and recorded Pure Heroine, the album that propelled Lorde to pop music superstardom so quickly it still seems surreal. The plaques that aren’t already on show lean against the walls of the hallway, waiting to be hung up. Even more are stored away in a back room opposite the recording booth. One even had to be sent back after mistakenly being made out to “Joe Little”.
Those awards might still be here, but Little is not. In his seat now is Josh Fountain, who stepped in as Golden Age’s resident writer and producer at Little’s request when he packed up and left for Los Angeles off the momentum of Pure Heroine four years ago. “I didn’t actually have any back-up plan for who would take over at Golden Age if he said no,” says Little. “He was my first and only choice.”
Fountain is everywhere right now, but you probably wouldn’t know it. He’s become one of the most in-demand producers in New Zealand pop music, working behind the scenes with a slew of fast-rising young artists who are looking to build on the sort of success that barely seemed achievable until Lorde and Little blew open the door to possibility.
Two of those artists, MAALA and Theia, were finalists in the Single of the Year category at the New Zealand Music Awards last November for songs that were co-produced by Fountain. He was also up for Album of the Year and Best Group with his sun-drenched side project LEISURE and has twice been named as a finalist for Best Producer – although he’s yet to take out the honour.
“I had a funny moment at these last music awards,” he says one simmering January morning at the studio. “You go in real cynical like ‘OK, another night of music bullshit blah blah blah, have some beers, have a laugh.’” Then his pal and LEISURE bandmate Jaden Parkes came up to him after the show with some words of encouragement. “He was like ‘man, I’m so proud of you. Look at everything you’ve achieved. Imagine if 10 years ago you said that’s where you’d be.’”
In this era of poptimism, which has seen critics and listeners embrace mainstream pop music, producers have become more visible than ever. Artists like Diplo, Calvin Harris and David Guetta have all stepped out from behind the scenes and put themselves front and centre, while Swedish songwriter Max Martin has made a name for himself writing chart-topping hits for Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Britney Spears (and riffing on the wrong way to write a Lorde song). Jack Antonoff, another Lorde collaborator whose band Bleachers opened for Paramore in Auckland recently, was treated by some local media like he was the headlining act.
That level of popularity doesn’t quite feel like it would gel with Fountain’s relaxed, casual manner. “I’m not really cut out to be a frontman,” he admits. He’s found it kind of cool that people are beginning to see just how much work it takes and how many people are involved in the process of writing pop songs, but he’s comfortable with not being that sort of “dynamic personality,” as he puts it.
Even so, seeing everything that happened with Little in the wake of Pure Heroine was a game-changer for Fountain and proof that there was no longer any need to be treading water when it comes to making music in Aotearoa. “It was like, the goal now isn’t the New Zealand top 40 charts. We don’t have to worry just about New Zealand anymore. You can think globally.
“All the Lorde stuff shone a light on New Zealand as well, and people have started to see what else is down here. That definitely was a kick up the ass for everyone. For me, it made me realise this is a guy I know and last week he was doing a NZ on Air funding job and now he’s got a number one in America. Joel is a next level talent, but being able to see that it’s not that out of reach – having the right song with the right artist at the right time – and there’s nothing that Joel is doing that the rest of us can’t do. It was absolutely inspiring.”
It needs to be said that Josh Fountain has the best Twitter account in New Zealand music, whether he’s wryly tweeting about the VNZMAs (“I heard Lorde chucks her awards in the bin”), the Taite Music Prize (“My gf was on the taite prize panel and even then we couldn’t win smdh”) or the Silver Scrolls (“Hey @APRAAMCOSNZ is that all the nominees or are there still 1 or 2 more 2 be announced? Can’t see my name on there anywhere which seems odd”). It started off because he was trying to impress a girl he liked named Savina Kim. “And now I’m married to her,” he laughs.
Turns out that same sense of humour helps in the studio too. MAALA, who’s behind some of the country’s most compelling pop anthems, has collaborated with Fountain for over three years now and says that his humour helps to ease any tension in the studio. “With my tendency to overthink pretty much everything, he’s always found a way to get me out of my own head and translate ideas with his attention, patience and willingness to listen. He knows how to read when we need to just talk some shit or go up the road for a couple of Kingfisher Strongs.”
Possum Plows, lead vocalist for Auckland band Openside, feels much the same way. “One of the best things a producer can do is give you the space and energy and opportunity to go to a vulnerable place together. Over the past few years, I have developed a sincere trust for him and I feel like that’s where all our best songwriting has come from.”
‘I Feel Nothing’, a slick, self-assured song with a monster hook, was written in-part with LEISURE’s Djeisan Suskov, but like most of Openside’s songs, it eventually came back to Fountain “for polish and cohesion”, says Plows. “I’m obsessed with collaborating now because you get to open yourself up to new ways of thinking and creating, and I feel that Josh and I have really hit our stride in terms of writing chemistry.”
Those dynamic shifts, stacked vocals and huge choruses you hear in ‘I Feel Nothing’, or songs like ‘Roam’ (Theia), ‘Collect’ (Matthew Young) and ‘Won’t Bother Me’ (Mitch James) are the hallmarks of a Josh Fountain production. “He knows how to incorporate all the great things about pop music into songs while still keeping them cool, which is a really fine line to walk,” says Little. “And he has a great ear for what a song needs and makes really interesting, tasteful choices.” Fountain thinks his default setting is half-time songs in a minor key. “I find it really hard to do upbeat, major key songs. It’s so hard to do that stuff without sounding cheesy or over the top.”
He leans back in his chair and thinks on it some more. “I have to keep reminding myself, especially in pop music, that the vocal is the most important thing. No one cares about the thing you spent 45 minutes on in the beat trying to get real good.”
Fountain’s first foray into the world of production came when he was 14 or 15 and started messing around on Music 2000, an old Playstation game where the aim was to piece together sounds to make your own beats. The problem was he only had a demo of it that came on one of those CD-ROMs you used to get with gaming magazines back in the day, so he couldn’t even save any of the songs he’d crafted. His workaround was to memorise every single little step he had made so that when the time came to keep working on something, he could sit down and put it all back together from scratch.
He figured that eventually he would become a DJ. He was obsessed with A-Trak, the Canadian turntablist and producer behind Fools Gold Records, and soon started messing around on the popular music production software Fruity Loops.
An alternative career path hadn’t really presented itself anyway. “It’s just that classic musician thing,” he shrugs. “I wasn’t great at school, or didn’t really find anything exciting at school.” Once college was over, he enrolled in a programme at the Music and Audio Institute of New Zealand (MAINZ). “I didn’t have an idea of where it would lead or what I could actually do with it because it’s not like you just apply for a job as a music producer. It’s more like, I’ll just keep doing it because I like the people and I like being around people that are as passionate about music as I am.”
There was no back-up plan if things didn’t work out. “It must’ve driven my parents crazy,” he says. “After MAINZ I was still living at home. I was playing PokerStars, like online poker, all day. But I was playing the free PokerStars. It wasn’t even for money! I wasn’t making any money. I was working at Warehouse Stationery. Then I got a call one day from Angus McNaughton, who’s one of the tutors at MAINZ, and he said there was a job going that he thought I’d be good for. It was doing jingles and ads for a company called Woodcut Productions.”
Fountain spent the next eight years at Woodcut and it was where he met Ashley Hughes (Ethical) and Matt Neshat (Neesh), who together went onto form late-2000s pop-rap outfit Kidz In Space – basically a New Zealand version of N.E.R.D. When the boys came through the office, Fountain would turn up some of the beats he’d been making in his own time to try and get their attention. Sure enough, it actually worked. Kidz In Space hit the top 20 and went gold with ‘Downtime’, a song that was also featured on the soundtrack to NBA 2K11. “We got pretty much no money,” he says laughing. “I think it was $5000, or something like that.”
Without another real hit, things began to dwindle. “It just got to a point where we would do the tours and Friday or Saturday go down to Dunedin, or Whakatane, or Invercargill and play gigs down at the bars and stuff. It didn’t really feel like it was going anywhere,” he says.
“When Kidz In Space broke up was when I really realised that what I enjoyed was working with people to help make their music. I felt like I was getting away with something because I get to do the fun part and come up with the music and I don’t have to sing the song 1000 times night after night and do all the interviews and the press and stuff.”
He still had no idea whether this could even be a sustainable career and at one point questioned whether he should just give up. “All my friends had proper jobs and were earning money and I wasn’t. I just felt like I had hit a wall and had just completely plateaued.” More opportunities came: he put in work with Smashproof, Randa, Thomston and Annah Mac, whose song ‘Girl In Stilettos’ hit number two on the charts and went double platinum. (Fountain was paid a miserly $300 for his work on it and received no production points or royalties.)
“Then luckily Joel smashed it out of the park with Lorde. That lit the fire beneath me again.”
The pop music that’s coming out of New Zealand right now is as good as it’s ever been, says Fountain. There’s a coolness to it that’s unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere. It’s not cheesy, it’s understated. The type of music that was born out of reality shows like New Zealand Idol or X Factor NZ is now just a distant memory.
Lorde changed the entire landscape of local pop, but there is another side to what’s happened too. “Lorde’s been great,” says Fountain, “but it’s also been a curse in the sense that now all artists feel like if their stuff doesn’t pop off like her, which it hasn’t really, then it’s kind of considered a failure. In that post-Lorde landscape I think that’s tough for artists, where that’s ‘success’ in the New Zealand pop music industry and anything below that is not considered a success.”
Fountain often finds himself teaming up with artists that are still trying to find their sound. He works closely with record labels in New Zealand and young musicians signed to development deals, much like Lorde once was. Right now he’s working with an up-and-coming singer called Bene, whose first single ‘Tough Guy’ is a woozy, downtempo slow jam that you could easily imagine becoming a bulletproof hit.
Whether it actually does or not, isn’t something he lets get to him. There are dozens of reasons an artist might not break through, whether it’s a promo fail or just a matter of bad timing, and it’s something Fountain’s familiar with from his days in Kidz In Space.
“I think I’d feel more pressure working with an artist that has had proven success and has done well. There’s that imposter syndrome thing. Most of the time I’m like, what the hell am I doing? I don’t know what I’m doing. Just sitting in front of a computer hoping things sound good.”
He thinks back to when he first started at Golden Age and found the backup drive with all the Pro Tool sessions for Pure Heroine. “I was messaging Joel saying ‘hey man, do you mind if I opened it up to have a look through the session for ‘Royals’?’ He was like, ‘yeah man, go for it’. So I open it up and I don’t know what I was expecting, but there are no secret tricks that Joel’s using that we don’t use or we don’t know. It’s just a great song and a great arrangement and a great vocal. Just knowing that it comes down to a good song has been a big thing.”
Later this year, Fountain plans on seeing how far he can really take things. “It feels like you kind of hit this point in the New Zealand industry where you hit this ceiling. There’s only a handful of artists to work with full stop and the industry’s so small. It would be kind of nice to try somewhere else.” He knows he’s got the skills for it, so he’s keen to do a trip or two to the States to see if he can break some ground over there.
There’s also one other thing he needs to knock off his list.
“I really want to win the Producer of the Year Tui. I really want that Tui because I remember sitting in MAINZ when Angus McNaughton had won for the SJD album [Southern Lights]. I remember thinking I want that Tui. I’m torn because I know it’s the industry voting on the awards. It’s not necessarily a true reflection of how good someone is, but at the same time, I want to get that recognition. I’d love to win that award, even though it’s so dumb.
“Maybe in the next couple of years I can get my own Tui instead of having to look at those ones when I come in.”
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