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Grammy-winning producer Jim Jonsin is among a handful of big-name industry players handpicked by music mogul Jimmy Iovine to join this season of American Idol. Along with other accomplished producers such as Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, Christopher “Tricky” Stewart and Rock Mafia, Jonsin has only one goal: to transform this year’s batch of contestants from talented amateur singers into polished studio stars.
Despite being an Idol newcomer (Jonsin didn’t start watching the show until recently), the Brooklyn native is familiar with the business of packaging rising stars. In addition to collaborating with established artists such as Beyonce, Eminem and Jamie Foxx, Jonsin has the distinction of discovering and launching rapper B.o.B on his own record label, Rebel Rock Entertainment.
The Hollywood Reporter recently caught up with Jonsin to hear more about his recording sessions with the Idol contestants and get his take on the chances of post-Idol success in today’s music industry.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did you get involved in American Idol?
Jim Jonsin: I had this idea with my manager to be a judge on one of these shows or do something more significant than just producing records. I wanted to be a part of the future of music, to become a little more popular as a producer. So that turned into reaching out to Jimmy [Iovine], who was doing this Idol thing where he was going to be a mentor, and I thought, “Wow, I’d love to be one of those guys.”
THR: So you campaigned for this?
Jonsin: Yeah, I kinda did. But it was like those things you pray for and somehow they happen but not exactly like you wanted them to. I had a meeting with the people from X-Factor to talk about the artists we’d work with, and I joked, “Hey, I want to be one of the judges on your show.” And they were like, “Oh, that’d be a great idea!” But nothing ever came out of it, we never followed up. I always thought that the judging thing would be cool, but maybe a little bit too exposed. This is, I guess, God’s answer to my prayers. I’m not all on the camera because I like privacy, but it’s just enough for people to see your face.
THR: How did Jimmy describe this gig to you?
Jonsin: I didn’t know it was going to be 3 or 4 songs a week. I didn’t know it was going to be covers, I thought there were going to be some originals. He kind of explained it like, “Hey Jim, we’re going to do these records, they’re going to be announced on the air, and they’re going to be immediately on iTunes, and it’ll give you a chance to have songs out every week, and you can experiment with the artist and make these covers that are going to be amazing.” He also told us there would be some copyright involved, and we’d be writing our own records with them eventually. It wasn’t a hard sell — you’re talking about being on American Idol, an amazing show that has some of the biggest future artists.
THR: It’s kind of a genius way that Jimmy has done it…
Jonsin: I don’t know if it’s the actual season, but these kids are super pro. They’ve never been in the studio, but for some reason it’s working. I’ve been with a lot of artists in the studio and some of them have you pulling your hair out. I think the crunch time — we have 3 hours to do these records — makes it more exciting. Jimmy’s concept is great. Having us work with these contestants from the ground up…Everything works out for everyone. The artists get to work with the best producers, the producers get to work with these new and fresh artists.
THR: There’s a way to make it up in the future.
Jonsin: The carrots in this are the TV time, the experience. It’s school for all of us, because it takes us back to when you had to knock records out soon in the studio because you didn’t have the money or time to be in there. So my chops are getting much better, and we’re getting tighter and faster.
THR: Outside of the time crunch, what’s challenging about working with these Idol contestants?
Jonsin: They’re young and new and don’t understand the concept of creating a full song for record release. For example, background vocals take a lot of time to do properly. We do have some great background singers here helping us out. The first song I did with James [“Maybe I’m Amazed”], we didn’t have time to do his backgrounds at all. That’s actually Leroy, an artist I signed from Spain. I don’t want to take away from the artist by saying that they don’t do their backgrounds. Just in lieu of time, they haven’t had the time to do it. Imagine us doing backgrounds, then leads, then having to go sing on stage — their voice would be gone.
THR: Do you have a concept of what songs have been done on Idol?
Jonsin: No, I just produce it the way I’m going to do it. I don’t know what songs they’ve done in the past, and I think that’s the best thing. It’s kind of funny because I’ve been bumping heads with certain people over doing my thing, but now I understand that there’s a performance at the end of it all. So I have to adjust the way I produce records, and I have to make the second and last chorus this whole big show.
THR: You’re right, there’s the music part of the show and the TV part of the show, and the TV show is as important as the songs, in a way. Is that something you have to adjust to?
Jonsin: I do when producing their vocals. We are doing an arrangement for a long version and then we also have to arrange a minute and forty second version. It’s a completely different energy in the latter part of that version. In the studio we’ll make artists do certain things, but when they go on stage they can never hit that note. So now I’m having to hit melodies that fit.
THR: What about reinterpreting these classic songs? Is that challenging?
Jonsin: It’s like remixing, but it depends on how much I like the song. I’m a real picky guy. If I don’t like the song I’m going to try and fight not to do it, because my emotion is not going to be in it as much.
THR: Is it good that you have a couple weeks to prepare mentally to get in with these kids?
Jonsin: We don’t. We don’t know until the day before that we are actually working with them, and we don’t know until the night before what song we have to do. I have a rule with my managers that unless it’s someone big time, just tell me where I’m going and I’ll see who it is at the studio at the time. I don’t like thinking about it, it gives me anxiety. I like to keep a clear mind; its music, just music.
THR: Tell me about some of these people you’re working with. Paul [McDonald] — what kind of artist do you see him as?
Jonsin: Paul is like Rod Stewart. We actually took this R&B record and created a kind of Tom Petty vibe for it. His song is really good — it’s the standup song for this week, guaranteed.
THR: You were saying earlier how all these Idol contestants are like superstars. But when it comes to Idol, maybe only one or two will actually have a substantial career.
Jonsin: I didn’t say superstars, I said they were super good. I think they have a lot of learning. I would say that the machine makes it that way. How much space is on radio? How much time do these kids get dedicated to them? If all the labels put ample time into each of these artists, they would all have hit records and they’d all be big. But it’s impossible for one company to give all that attention to one artist. There’s a saying I always say, “A hit dog will holler.” That means a hit record will take you wherever you want to go. I don’t care if you’re overweight, underweight, ugly, pretty — if you can sing an amazing song I’ll sign you.
THR: What do you think about Rebecca Black?
Jonsin: The Internet allows the youth to now dictate what they like. You can’t tell them not to pick that song on YouTube. You can’t tell them not to play that at 7 o’clock at night if that’s what they’re going to play. The other day we found Leroy on YouTube with like 1,000 hits. He’s from the Basque Country in Spain, and he lived with his sister, mother and father in a house that was the size of this room. They’re from nowhere, and he was able to have a computer and sing with his guitar. This kid is a superstar. So we found him and I signed him, and I flew him and his family here. The Internet allowed that to happen.
THR: There are no gatekeepers.
Jonsin: Right. If you have a smash hit record or something that’s quirky or funny or cool, people are going to go after it.
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