It was Interscope Geffen A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine who first played matchmaker between Lady Gaga and producer Fernando Garibay four years ago. “Jimmy was, like, ‘Just meet with her and see what happens,’” recalls the Mexico-raised Garibay, now Gaga’s official musical director on her albums and beyond. Then 21, she arrived at what he describes as “the ghetto of Hollywood” in a two-piece and fishnets, they hit it off, a friendship flourished and the rest is history.
On Wednesday, Gaga is expected to have the biggest debut of 2011 with Born This Way, which is on track to sell over a million copies, almost sure to best Taylor Swift’s 2010 bow Speak Now, which moved 1,047,000 in its first week. It’s a triumph for her label Interscope, the Gaga team, which includes manager Troy Carter, A&R executive Vincent Herbert, creative director Laurieann Gibson and, of course, Iovine, who envisioned her place in pop culture long before “little monsters,” the meat dress or egg vessel entered the public consciousness.
But perhaps it’s most gratifying for Garibay, who pieced together the record practically in motion, while accompanying Gaga on her massive worldwide tour. How did they do it? Garibay provided an intimate look at the Gaga process days after Born This Way’s May 23 release.
The Hollywood Reporter: A lot has been written of the mobile recording units you used while Gaga was on the road, how many set-ups did you have and how did you maintain consistency?
Fernando Garibay: Basically, she’s constantly working, so we have to keep up. If she has an idea, we need to be there to capture those moments, so we had every setup possible — we had laptops where we could go backstage and record something on the spot and we had a bigger set up in the studio bus. When we needed to isolate vocals, we’d record in there, it felt more quiet. Then eventually when we actually made a stop somewhere for several days, we’d go into a real studio and flesh out these ideas. It reminded me of those documentaries with mega bands from the ’70s like Pink Floyd, who would record in these big studio sessions. It felt like that. It felt like we were creating something really special.
THR: Vocals in echo-prone rooms backstage hardly seems like an ideal recording situation…
Garibay: Her voice is so powerful, you can pretty much capture it with anything, whether a laptop or a mic. It’s funny, even vocals recorded off her laptop with the GarageBand mic we ended up using on the album. Sometimes we sacrifice quality for performance because there’s a magic moment where the vocal sounds just right. We worked very hard at repairing anything that needed to be repaired sonically.
THR: What does Gaga wear in the studio?
Garibay: Pretty much the same thing you see her on stage in. It depends — I’ve known her for four years now and I’ve never seen her out of her character. It’s like she’s one and the same. She’ll be in a bikini, lingerie outfit or a full costume.
THR: But she’s not in Juicy sweatpants with her hair up in a scrunchie…
Garibay: No, I’ve never seen that. What’s crazy is I really believe she sleeps [in costume]. She’s a machine; she’s always working.
Garibay and Gaga in the studio
THR: What was the process of editing all these disparate parts together?
Garibay: For every song, we averaged about 50 versions on the high side, because she was that much of a perfectionist. She wanted to give the best product possible to her fans. I would compare it to working on five albums at once. It was so much work, I didn’t sleep for a month, I would just take naps. And when she wasn’t happy with any of the versions and she wanted to start over, I had to be the one to do it. It happened quite a few times — it had to go through all those versions to evolve into the final product. Because in her head, it’s like, “I want to hear the full rock version, I want to hear the full dance version, I want to hear the full techno version, I want to hear the full New Wave version.” And once she hears and sees all the colors that she’s working with, she can finally help paint that final picture. That’s how it works. You can’t get to the final point in her head without sketching each individual painting or trying each individual color. That way you know what the possibilities are.
THR: What kind of steps were taken to avoid a leak of the record as it was in progress?
Garibay: Extreme steps. We were on the road for a year and two months, so there were so many hack attempts to our email accounts, our Twitter accounts, our Facebook accounts, everything around us. We were targets. So what we did was make sure all our computers were offline all the time — none of our work computers were online at any time. And we were very careful about where we left our hard drives and storage devices. They pretty much never left our sight.
It’s unfair for one of your sketches to be released when it’s just a sketch. To do it justice is to release a complete piece of art. So under those guidelines, we were really cautious about how we created this album, like how we couldn’t sacrifice creativity, and we wouldn’t sacrifice security, either … It’s funny because now being off the tour, I should feel lighter because I’m used to carrying all my stuff with me. It’s like carrying a wallet, it became such a part of us.
THR: The album is on track to sell a million copies, how do you wrap your head around that?
Garibay: Imagine if this was 1998 through 2004, we’re probably looking at maybe five to six million copies. It’s where we’re at with the economy and the state of the music business, so if we could even get to a million, it’s like, “Wow, what a place to be.”
THR: Nearly half the copies, over 440,000, sold on amazon for a price of 99 cents. What does that tell you about the state of the music economy?
Garibay: That’s unbelievable. The thing is, you can easily find a way to get something for free, that’s just the way the market is right now. Everything is so accessible. But the fact that people are willing to pay a penny for something, or anything, it’s great. I think it has to do a lot with her fans, who really respect each other, the Gaga community and what she’s doing. So there’s more to this than getting an album for 99 cents, you’re buying into something — you’re buying into a future. We’re proud.
THR: As Gaga legend goes, she was dropped by Island Def Jam before ending up at Interscope, what was it the IDJ A&R executives didn’t get?
Garibay: I’m still in contact with many A&Rs that passed on her project, and for the most part, I would say those people couldn’t see it. And they’re humbled by it. It’s not so much that they didn’t believe it, as much as they didn’t see it. But It was really obvious to me when she came in because of the caliber of songs. And being in the industry, you know that great songwriters are hard to come by — people that can really write genuine songs in any context, and she was able to do that. So I knew when I met her that it was going to be great. I was just trying to write as much as I could with her before she left on tour to promote her first album.
THR: She’s credited as a co-writer on most songs from Born This Way, what percentage of the songwriting would you say she’s responsible for?
Garibay: She doesn’t need anyone to write a hit song. A lot of times, it’s 100% her. She’s generous enough to give the producers who worked on this album a percentage of the songwriting for the production and whatever contributions we gave in arrangement or a few lyrical suggestions here and there.
THR: On the other hand, she’s pushing a lot of buttons, particularly when it comes to religious themes. Having been raised in Mexico where the Catholic church has such a powerful presence, did you ever think or worry that she’s gone too far?
Garibay: I would be conscious of it, but my job was to keep her artistry intact for the album. So if she felt strongly about saying something, I was going to support it 100%. I was raised Catholic, but I always believed that religion and your relationship with a higher being is based on personal interpretation — if she interpreted it one way, I was going to support the way she interpreted it.
THR: Sonically speaking, what do you make of the Madonna comparisons?
Garibay: Every time I hear it, I’m just flattered. What an honor to be compared to her, honestly. My all-time favorite song is “La Isla Bonita,” I’m a huge fan. There was even talk about us working together at one point. I think she’s great, and for us to be compared to that is great. I don’t agree with suggestions of copyright infringement, I don’t see the comparison, but I do see the energy and presence that Gaga — people have no one else to compare it to.
THR: To be fair, much of the record sounds like its of that era, from the Clarence Clemons sax solo to the drum sample of “We Will Rock You.” Is Gaga obsessed with the 80s?
Garibay: I am completely obsessed with the ’80s. I grew up in South Central, southeast LA on a few things: Dr. Dre, NWA and Eazy-E, because that was right up our street, and Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, and British techno music. Even in the ’90s, it still was cool to listen to New Wave music like ABC, Soft Cell and Erasure. The Latin community was always more interested in international music and European music. We were hungry for it. So that definitely had an impact on the music I make today.
THR: So editing Clarence Clemons must have been a dream come true…
Garibay: Yeah, I produced that with Gaga. She and her family are massive Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band fans. She wanted sax on “Edge of Glory” and asked, “Do you think we can get Clarence Clemons?” I was like, “Dude, you’re Lady Gaga, you can get anybody you want. So we set it up, and it was amazing, because this was right after her grandpa passed away and it was truly moving. Clarence came into the small studio in a wheelchair, we played him this musical break in the song, he found his pocket and just started soloing in that section. We kept the first take.
THR: Can you tell us a bit about how Mutt Lange got involved in the ballad “You and I?”
Garibay: It was near the end of the album and we were on such a time deadline. But she was so busy starting to promote the album, the concerts, still being on tour, doing press, it was insane, so she literally had to record the vocal with a piano live backstage. We sent whatever parts we had to Mutt Lange and there was no time for her to fly out or anything like that. I remember Mutt writing us back and saying, “The vocal’s perfect.” Considering Mutt Lange is one of the best vocal producers on the planet…
THR: Understood. It’s a favorite …
Garibay: It’s a lot of peoples’ favorite — it’s so out of context it fits.
THR: Are there other songs you think should be released as singles?
Garibay: I’m really proud of “Marry the Night,” and I hope that gets its single time.
THR: You hold a staff position at Interscope, how does that work and are you producing other artists?
Garibay: I am in-house at Interscope and she’s my priority. It’s like this: once you work with someone like Lady Gaga, it’s hard to come off that. First of all, I love her so much, but also, what else could I do that would fulfill me as much as working with her? Not much right now. So I want to focus on the DJ aspect of things, and working on some music that I always wanted to do.
THR: And how did you come to take on the title of Gaga’s musical director?
Garibay: She needed someone that could oversee, who was kind of like an A&R but more about implementing exactly what needs to happen — whether it involved writing a song with her, to produce a record with her, or just to make sure the vocals are done right. She just came up with the whole musical director thing, and I was, like, “Cool, you want to make me responsible for the biggest artist on the planet and turn this record in, right? That’s what you’re asking me to do?” What an honor. We made it work. We finished.