AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES SANGER, MASTERMIND BEHIND SIOBHAN DONAGHY’S ‘GHOSTS’

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James Sanger is possibly the Greatest Producer of Modern Music you haven’t heard of, whose worked with all the greats of British pop you have heard of. It would be easier to list the artists he hasn’t worked with, such is the extensity of his list of eye-wateringly successful clients, but we’ll tell you who he has worked with just in case. It goes something like this: U2, Madonna, Dido, Phil Collins, Manic Street Preachers, Kylie Minogue, Mel C, Brian Eno, Keane, Sinead O’Connor, The Cardigans, Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry, Pet Shop Boys, Joe Satriani, Bryan Adams, Siobhan Donaghy, Annie Lennox and The Cure. Caught your breath yet? We love approximately 100% of those artists.

Sanger kindly allowed us an insight into his world and answered some of our questions about his life and his process. We’ll start at the beginning; how he started in the music business, his inspirations, and his influences. Ever since he was a child he has always had a passion for music, saying ‘I attribute my love of music down to the fact that as a child I had really bad asthma. When I woke up unable to breathe, my mother would sing to me and calm me down’. He cites the likes of Jona Lewie, Adam and the Ants, Pink Floyd and New Order as his greatest influences. Furthermore, he claims ‘I really liked Phil Collins, The Pet Shop Boys and U2… I ended up working for all of them at different times, which was a great personal achievement’.

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Sanger has clearly always been a creative being, saying ‘I started by writing poems. Very soon after that I got into writing songs at school. When I left school I went busking around Australia and then on my return, I started my own little studio teaching people how to use computers to make their own music. Basically, I had an Atari computer running a very early version of Cubase and an Ensoniq EPS sampler and people would come around to the studio and pay £10 an hour and I’d make records with them. Some of these artists ended up being quite successful, and my clients were DJ’s, songwriters, musicians and artists… very much like the same group of people I still work with.’

Indeed, his career doesn’t seem all that dissimilar today to how it was then, just on a much larger and more prolific scale – he continues to programme and produce music with other artists and musicians to this day. Sanger is clearly an artist who thrives on collaboration, and he recalls how his career developed following his studio sessions as a young music enthusiast. ‘A few years later I got signed to a small label called Triumph records. I released a single as ‘SkyArk’, and after that I got signed to IndoChina Records as ‘Arc In The Sky’ and released a few more EP’s and singles’. Eventually, he signed a much bigger deal with Echo Records / Chrysalis Publishing as ‘Arc Angel’, releasing an EP which was playlisted by Radio 1.

Sanger’s career properly took off when he received a call from Bryan Ferry, enquiring about whether Sanger could come to his studio to programme for him for a day. ‘One day became a few days, then a week, then a month, and in the end, I worked with Bryan Ferry for many months.’ The pair collaborated on Ferry’s eleventh studio album, Frantic, which was released in 2002. Sanger’s networking and rapidly increasing quality of programming and productions paid off, as soon Brian Eno entered the equation. ‘I met Brian Eno at Bryan Ferry’s studio and then worked with him setting up his studio, his synths and programming for him in his studio for another eighteen months.’ Sanger soon acquired an even deeper understanding of sounds and synths, and before long his works became esteemed in reputation and he became more and more in demand.

Sanger has worked with a wide array of contrasting and differing artists, and he says ‘artist development is a process that is unique to each separate collaboration. For example, Keane had no real experience with synthesisers before I signed them up to my Vibey development deal. Their music was heavy guitar rock, and I helped them find out about synths and sound design, and created a sound that fitted the idea that I had for a band already. You see, I had just been working on Dido’s album called No Angel, and I wanted to create the same kind of sound but with a proper four part band, like Coldplay, but with a Dido-y sonic fingerprint. Keane were the band I picked out for that project.’ Sanger is essentially a mastermind of sound who creates aural adventures for his artists to embark upon.

He elaborates on his process; ‘I work on songs on my own, and then sometimes work on them with artists. I’ve got too many songs that have not been released yet because I have not found the artist to develop the song with. Often I end up writing a whole lot of new songs from scratch with a new artist, which only compounds the issue. For example, on a band development gig we might write 40 songs, and only use 12.’

Across his career as a programmer and producer, his works have amassed over sixty million record sales, three Brit Awards, eighteen Grammys, and two Ivor Novellos – that felt a bit like the introduction to the guest performer on The X Factor, but nonetheless Sanger is a mastermind of music who commands the attention and respect of any devout pop fan. Sanger himself analyses his music in the following way, saying that the ‘psycho-acoustic potential of music has always fascinated me. You will find that my own private ambient music is very trippy and moody…I like to think that my productions create enharmonic binaural entrainment with sub-harmonic beating to create altered states, alpha and theta states of consciousness – all wrapped up as pop music.’ Couldn’t put it better myself! Indeed, his productions are completely exceptional and inimitable, and this is reflected perhaps most profoundly in his collaboration with Siobhan Donaghy for her 2007 album Ghosts which is, at least in my eyes, the greatest achievement in his illustrious career.

Ghosts is indescribably unique, possessing a sound unlike any other album in existence. The soundscape is ethereal and fantastical, and it sounds like the sort of music that exists in an other-worldly magical land. In fact, it was created in such a place, although some people just describe that place as ‘France’. Indeed, it transports its listeners away from this planet, and into the mind-set and deepest emotions of its vocalist. The production is naturalistic and yet synthy, with delicious violins and guitars existing alongside mythical whirls and beeps, all the while retaining hooks, melodies, harmonies and choruses to rival any mainstream pop album. Lyrically, it explores the darkest secrets of Donaghy’s mind-set, but the tone is consistently euphoric and jubilatory, primarily down to Sanger’s uplifting and exceptionally beautiful production. Sanger is immensely proud of the album, saying ‘I love the music, and am listening to the album now’, although he does admit ‘I only really wanted a slightly different order of the songs on the album, but it was decided to go ahead with the order you have by the record company’.

Sanger and Donaghy during the 'Ghosts' recording sessions.

Sanger and Donaghy during the ‘Ghosts’ recording sessions.

Ghosts sounds like nothing that was released at the time, has been released since, or will be released in the future. It’s very pop, but very alternative pop and not necessarily the type of music to be played on the radio, with Siobhan herself describing the sound of her work as ‘difficult’. Sanger muses that ‘the record sounds fresh now because there is nothing in it to date the record – nothing faddy, or gimmicky, or ‘cool’ in it. I don’t believe in using the latest drum sound or the latest auto-tune effect or genre, because if it is the latest thing one minute it will be the oldest thing the next minute. I stay out of cool new genres because if you get into them you’re just engineering your own planned obsolescence into the music.’ This idea makes a whole lot of sense, and the music industry would be in a much healthier position today if artists stopped trying to chase sounds, and instead tried to make them – something which Sanger and Donaghy absolutely achieved. Sanger even says ‘it does sound like it was made yesterday – it should be re-released! Perhaps a ten year anniversary re-release?’ Sounds good to us!

So, how did Donaghy and Sanger arrive upon the incredibly distinctive and unique soundscape? Sanger says that ‘Siobhan and I spent hours and hours and hours experimenting with sounds and vibes and ethereal sonic texture’s, varying degrees of consonance and dissonance. [Siobhan] is really adventurous and brave – we were fifty / fifty equal partners in all artistic decisions. I think there is a temptation to think of female artists as just the front end of some kind of cynical corporate song factory. That might be true of other groups, I don’t know, but it definitely is not true of Siobhan Donaghy. Siobhan is a hugely talented songwriter and vibe-mistress. She really IS Ghosts. My job was really finding the sound of her artistic vibe. Ghosts was an attempt to distil her etheric vibe into sound waves.’ It’s clear that the process was conscientious and detailed, and such intricate creativity resulted in an album that is incredibly dense and layered.

Siobhan’s vocals work so meticulously with the production that her voice almost sounds like another instrument or element of the music. As a result, Ghosts sounds like an album that only Siobhan Donaghy could make. Sanger agrees, commenting ‘Siobhan’s voice is the instrument. We had such fun recording vocals many, many times and getting the sound just right.’

The albums lyrics appear to be incredibly personal to Siobhan the person, but most were co-written by Sanger. He says ‘some lyrics are mostly Siobhan’s words and some lyrics are mostly mine, but we both had an ‘un-quibbling right of veto’ which means that if she felt uncomfortable about using a particular lyric we re-write and vice versa. Sometimes the music would be written first and it would suggest a type of theme or feeling that we would write to and cut and paste lines between us.’

Ghosts is such a fantastic body of well-crafted songs, that I wondered if Sanger ever listened to it despite the fact that he worked on it, or indeed how often he listens to any of his own works. ‘When I’m working on new music, which is most of the time, I only listen to what I’m working on, apart from when I’m listening to something forensically, or to work out how I did something before. Actually, if I’m out and I hear music I’ve made on the radio or sound system, I find that I tend to go quiet and blank everyone and everything else out, just to listen…’ But still, he says ‘I don’t really enjoy it. I like to listen to my music properly rather than just have it on in the background’.

As for Sanger’s favourite piece of music that he’s ever worked on or produced, he names ‘Medevac’ and ‘Ghosts’ by Donaghy, as well as Dido’s ‘Here With Me’, and ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Walnut Tree’ by Keane, saying ‘they all share a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’. In terms of his career highlights, he recounts that ‘Dido was a really interesting gig. Phil Collins is a truly fantastic great bloke. Also, BBC Radio 2 listeners voted 3 of my records into the Top 5 records of all time. That was quite a buzz! I suppose my records winning three Brit Awards was quite cool…’ Yeah, that’s alright.

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And what of the future? What are his plans? ‘I’d like to do another record with Siobhan Donaghy. But I am also working with some great new acts. My heart is with developing new artists, helping those that are unknown become well known. Anyone, (well not everyone!) can take an established artist and continue their success. The challenging thing is finding and developing new fresh talent and then breaking it. That is where my heart lies. I’ve got a gig starting with a new artist development later this month which I’m super stoked about. It is a three month full album development, and I am really excited about this artist.’ To be honest, if Sanger is excited about this artist, and if he has any input creatively, it is sure to be nothing short of a triumph. Ultimately however, Sanger aspires to heavily involve himself in video and film production, saying ‘We have just set up a film studio here at Vibey Studios and have started making green screen animations’. If you’d like to read more about the facilities and opportunities which are offered at Sanger’s great castle of music, head over to their website. 

If I thought the man was a genius before, I certainly do after hearing his thoughts and processes. His words are as intelligent and insightful as his lyrics, and it’s utterly fascinating to hear the secrets behind the making of one of the world’s greatest and most underrated albums. Whatever he gets up to next, it is sure to be magnificent, and if it involves Siobhan Donaghy in some capacity – even better.

Thank you once again to James Sanger himself for answering my questions! I will forever be indebted to you.

Follow @JamesSanger on Twitter here.

Follow @711Nation on Twitter here.

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