The Hit Man
An interview with Manhattan Beach songwriter and producer Harvey Mason, Jr.
- Edited byFabienne
Six-time Grammy award winner Harvey Mason, Jr.’ s triumphant combinations include the musical Dreamgirls, the documentary More than a Game, and Divas in the Desert, a hugely success-ful fundraiser for the American Cancer Society and a cause dear to his family’s heart. His client list alone has become a “Who’s Who” of top vocalists in the industry.
In the Manhattan Beach home he shares with his wife, Jeannie, and their teenage children, Trey and Mia, Harvey’s laid-back, soft-spoken manner conceals a fiercely competitive streak that began when the former Crescenta Valley High basketball star reached the 1988 Final Four with Arizona.
Are you still shooting hoops?
Harvey Mason, Jr.: My son’s a basketball player, so I shoot with him most days. He’s my toughest competition. He’s going to play basketball at University of Arizona and will wear my old #44.
What’s on your playlist?
HM: Pop radio keeps me in tune with what’s going on. It also motivates me, because I’m always trying to top things that I hear and every day I hear something that inspires me.
That’s for work …
HM: Yeah. So I also listen to Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Krupa, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra. For jazz, Stan Getz, Billie Holiday. Lots of Quincy Jones records. And good country/western like Rascal Flatts. For alternative/indie, Beach House and Bon Iver. Classical: Copland, Mozart and Vivaldi. I listen to a guy named Horowitz a lot, who’s a piano player.
HM: Yeah. He’s amazing.
You got your first royalty check when you were 10?
HM: I wrote “Love Makes it Better” for Grover Washington. I played it on the piano for my dad, and he took it to work. I bought a model airplane with the money. I made thousands of dollars, but my parents wouldn’t let me spend it all. I was so mad. They put it in an account, and later I bought a car.
What did you learn from your father, who is also a musician?
HM: My dad was a huge influence on me and worked with all the best musicians when he was a studio drummer. He taught me how to write music and make songs, but more than that he taught me how to work hard and focus, through music and basketball, because we’d work out every day. That’s how I got my work ethic. Lute Olson, my basketball coach at Arizona, was a lot like my dad. I learned perseverance, self-confidence and discipline from them.
What about competition?
HM: Music is a creative environment; it’s competitive too. I’m trying to beat everybody else and make the best music I can and work with the best artists before somebody else does. I’m pretty driven.
There have been massive changes in the music industry. What are the pros and cons?
HM: iTunes lets you pick any tune you want for $.99, so there’s been a move away from albums to single hits, which is unfortunate.
HM: Because artists try to create single songs instead of albums. I used to love listening to Michael Jackson and Prince albums—how the songs connected, how the stories evolved. So the technology has hurt people in one sense, but it has also allowed more people access to making music because you don’t need a multi-million dollar studio to come up with something innovative and creative. Now someone can come up with a song on Friday, and it’ll be out on Monday. And that’s great—direct access from creation to consumer.
You once ran around Los Angeles asking people to listen to your cassettes and got your start doing a remix for another artist’s song. What advice would you give someone starting now?
HM: I would advise anybody to perfect their craft so they’re as good as anybody they listen to on the radio. Your bar, your standard, is what’s on the radio. Listen to what people are buying. Listen to the radio.
If they want a commercial career?
HM: If they want a career, period.
Did you always know your career was going to involve music?
HM: It was always something I did. I wanted to play basketball until I got hurt and tore my ACL my senior year in college. That’s when I started writing jingles so I could get out to LA.
Stephen Sondheim talked about writing jingles as a discipline when he started out. You wrote jingles too.
HM: I used hundreds of jingles as a musical exercise and wanted them to sound cool. You have to tell a story in 30 or 60 seconds. I couldn’t do records, so the jingles were my albums after college. That’s how I earned the money to go to LA to pitch my demos and set up my studio.
You’ve said you like working with divas, and you’ve worked with a lot of them …
HM: I’ve worked with almost all of the divas.
What do you like about working with them?
HM: We get along really well. To me, a great singer is the same as a great doctor or a great schoolteacher or a great journalist. Divas want their records to sound great. I want their records to sound great. My job a producer is to make my singers sound better than they’ve sounded before. I push them pretty hard and tell them that what we’re recording now will be listened to for the next 100 years.
Musicians have crazy hours. How do you balance your work with parenthood?
HM: It’s a challenge, but I’ve always been really involved with my kids and coached basketball, soccer and baseball. We’re a tight-knit family, so I’m always going to a game, an event or a recital. I work out every morning, usually with my son, and go to lunch with my wife. So I get the mornings home when lots of parents have to leave at 8 a.m.
What’s your work schedule?
HM: I go to the studio around 2:00 in the afternoon for phone calls and budgets and meetings. At 5:00 or 6:00, we start making music and recording vocals, and I finish at 2 a.m.
Do you still write 70 songs a year?
HM: Probably. I write with artists in mind—so right now it’s Rihanna, Chris Brown, Usher, Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Hudson, Candice Glover and Beyoncé.
What are you working on now?
HM: A tribute record to Luther Vandross with duets mixed in. We’re approaching contemporary artists like Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Hudson, Usher, Carrie Underwood and Adele.
You love to develop vocal talent. Who would you kill to work with?
HM: One of my goals was to work with Michael Jackson. I grew up loving his music. In 2000, I worked with him for over a year on Invincible. It was a dream come true, along with working with Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston on the last two albums. And I met my wife doing a Luther Vandross album.
Michael Jackson is iconic, but what did you take away from working with him?
HM: I love people who are amazing at what they do. To watch him work and see how talented, successful, driven and wealthy he was—but to still be so hungry—was inspiring. His goal in life was to be great and create something special every day. He would say, “Everything that’s on this record has to be something that that no one had ever heard before.” He was also a generous and gracious person.
Where do you think his drive came from?
HM: Probably being insecure. He would say, “I hope people like my records,” but in the next breath he’d say, “I want to sell a hundred million albums.”
You’ve experienced a lot of loss among the voices that will last beyond their lifetimes: Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston …
HM: I worked on some of their last records. Along with Luther Vandross and Donna Summer. It’s horrible, but I’m honored that they included me in their body of work.
Closer to home and your heart, your daughter had a brain tumor, and you’ve been active in raising money for cancer research. What got you and your family through that?
HM: We got each other through it. You can never predict where brain cancer comes from, and there was no family history. My daughter had a headache and started throwing up one day. The doctor took a CT scan and said, “You’ve got to get to the hospital right away.” She had surgery the next day.
Given that she plays sports, even experts might have thought it was a concussion.
HM: We were very lucky to have our doctor in Manhattan Beach, who knew our kids since they were young. Something triggered in her a reason to investigate the symptoms.
How’s your daughter doing?
HM: Great. It took her about a year to recover. She had to learn how to walk, and her eyesight was messed up. She’s 16 and wants to play volleyball in college like her mother, who played for University of Arizona. She’s a superstar.