Summer read: American music maker Malay has never spoken about his behind-the-scenes work with two major Aotearoa artists – until now.
First published October 8, 2022.
“Hang on a second … I’ll just flip this around,” says James Ho. The American super-producer’s Zoom screen suddenly spins to show off his California lounge. Autumn sun streams through his blinds, landing on a collection of off-white leather couches, pot plants and a large glass coffee table. “We had a microphone set up right here in the middle,” he says, pointing at the ceiling. “We did all the vocals in the living room … They all stood in a circle. We did the whole album like that.”
Ho, more commonly known by his production moniker Malay, could be talking about any of the superstar artists he’s helped craft supremely intimate records. Musicians like John Legend, Frank Ocean and Zayn Malik seek him out when they want to record their most vulnerable, personal songs, and Ho’s production credits are full of stripped-back fan favourites. Lorde knows this: Ho helped craft her second album Melodrama, and he also worked on her hushed third record, Solar Power.
But the living room set-up Ho’s describing for The Spinoff was for Six60, Dunedin’s reggae-roots gigantosaurs who have scaled peaks no other local artists have managed to climb. He’d first heard of the group while spending time in Auckland collaborating with Lorde back in 2018 and kept seeing their name around town. “It was unavoidable to not see Six60 on billboards, Six60 on buses,” says Ho. “I asked [Lorde], ‘Do you know these guys? What is this?’ I thought it was a boy band, just because of the name.”
He discovered he was on a Six60 collaboration wishlist, and soon several members of the group arrived in his Los Angeles studio as part of a match-making songwriting session. Singer Matiu Walters couldn’t believe his luck and tried not to let his nerves get the better of him. “The first time we met I was intimidated,” he admits. “Sometimes I pinched myself … like, why is he working with us?” He calms down by telling himself: “Maybe we’ve got something that is worth him believing in.”
They combo clicked and after writing the song ‘The Greatest’ together, Six60 invited Ho to help them finish work on their third self-titled record, the one that sent them soaring into the stratosphere. Soon, songs like ‘Please Don’t Go’ and ‘The Greatest’ – all co-written and produced by Ho – would ring around Western Springs Stadium, then Eden Park, as Six60 became the first band to headline both venues. “That became ‘the people’s album'” says Ho, who quickly became firm friends with the band.
For Castle St, Six60’s fourth record and first not to be self-titled, the band found themselves sitting around Ho’s Los Angeles home, swimming in his pool, drinking his collection of pinot noir, feasting on his home-cooked banquets, and recording songs on studio equipment balanced on boxes and paint tins around the lounge. The results, say Walters, are some of the band’s best songs yet. “You can’t make [an album like] this on a laptop in your bedroom,” he says. “It takes relationships, it takes people, it takes history … this is the most important album I’ve ever made.”
How Six60 ended up recording an album in Ho’s lounge is a classic Covid story. In mid-2021, Six60 travelled to America to perform at two festivals, but thanks to Aotearoa’s strict August lockdown, they found themselves in the same situation as many overseas New Zealanders: stranded, trying to score a ticket from a tense MIQ lottery system and a two-week mandatory hotel quarantine. “We were bouncing between AirBnBs, trying to make it work, trying to survive,” says Walters. His wife and four-month-old daughter Boh had joined him on tour. “We were kind of stuck.”
Ho was busy converting his upstairs guest house into his dream home studio when he heard about Six60’s situation. Despite the construction mess, he quickly invited them to move in. There, they set up bits and pieces of studio equipment and began crafting music together. “I don’t like big flash studios,” says Walters, who admits it wasn’t how Six60 had planned on making their new album, but the laidback style suited them. “His generosity is unbelievable … It made the process so much more effortless.”
Ho knew they wanted songs that could continue to echo around the stadiums Six60 were used to playing in back home. So he told them to start daily jam sessions, and he began recording the results. “Each day we would create a whole bed of music that would end up being what you hear on the album,” says Ho, who invited Canadian songwriter Simon Wilcox to help in songwriting sessions. Mistakes weren’t just allowed, they were encouraged. “The last album we spent a lot of time trying to iron out creases,” says Walters. “This time we’re shining a light on imperfections.”
The stripped-back results, which fans heard for the first time yesterday, are a capsule of this time. Yes, fourth album Castle St is a mellow affair that’s covered in Ho’s fingerprints, with light touches and a prominent less-means-more attitude. But it’s full of sudden outbursts, joyous melodies and chantable choruses, all of which were recorded together in Ho’s lounge. ‘Good Wine’ is a song named after the bottles of pinot noir that fuelled these sessions. After The Spinoff’s interview with Malay, Six60’s record label sends footage of the group swaying under a microphone in his lounge, clutching wine glasses while recording backing vocals together.
It’s that kind of magic, of a group performing together in a room, that Ho says he’s always looking for when he hits record. He says his job is to help capture it, but it’s impossible to manufacture. “I’m not trying to boss them around and tell them what to do. I’m listening and seeing what feels the most exciting, energy-wise,” he says. He describes his job as, “How can we take the best of each guy and make it still make sense?” Spending so much time as friends with Six60 has helped. “I know their personalities and those personalities come through their instruments.”
Despite all their success at home and across Australia, Six60 are yet to make that giant leap into America like Lorde has done. Could Castle St be the album that does it? “It’s such a strange time,” says Ho, cautious of making predictions. “Some of the biggest artists release music and it doesn’t connect.” If it happens, he believes Six60 have the songs, and the experience, to catapult quickly. “They have the ability to take it over the top within a second because they’re so ready. They’re basically undiscovered on this side but when people hear it and see it, they become fans.”
Ho remains one of the group’s biggest fans and spends much of our chat, his first interview talking about his work with Aotearoa acts, happily talking Six60 up. “Matiu has an insane voice, he’s one of my favourite singers I’ve ever worked with,” says the man who produced Frank Ocean’s breakthrough album, Channel Orange. He also points out drummer Eli Paewai’s work on this record. “It’s like Radiohead-level,” he says. “He’s an incredible drummer.”
Now, because of his work with Lorde and Six60, Ho’s career is intimately tied to two of the New Zealand’s biggest artists. As a result, he travels to Aotearoa regularly, and it’s not always just for work. As well as visiting several times to make music with Lorde, Ho’s holidayed here, visited Queenstown and stayed at Walters’ family bach in Mangawhai where he cooked one of his infamous banquets. He even lists Depot among his favourite restaurants. And he’ll be back here soon, early next year, to attend Six60 bandmate Marlon Gerbes’ wedding on Waiheke Island.
Their relationship looks set to run the distance. “He helped us tap into a primal feeling,” says Walters. He talks to The Spinoff on a break from rehearsals, where they’re carefully working out how to slot their new album in among their old songs. After their warts-and-all movie, which exposed some of the group’s darkest moments, Walters says Ho has helped spark new life into the band. “Malay’s got it, he believes in us, it’s such an awesome thing when you’re in a studio setting like that,” he says. “We’re a match made in heaven.”