Stephen Lipson is an English record producer, sound engineer, guitarist and songwriter and one of the few people to have worked with both an ex-Spice Girl and a multi-billion dollar film.
As a film music producer, Lipson has worked on Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, The Lion King and the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick and Boss Baby 2 films.
Lipson has also worked extensively with Hans Zimmer, the leading producer in the film industry, with Lipson’s influence on films such as Rush, Superman – Man of Steel, Inferno and Freeheld.
But before entering the film industry, Grammy-nominated Lipson was an accomplished record producer for acts like Annie Lennox, Paul McCartney, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Whitney Houston, Grace Jones, Ronan Keating, Jeff Beck, and Geri Halliwell.
Since then, Lipson says it has had little to do with the music industry. That is, aside from co-producing the UK’s No. 1 Grammy-winning Billie Eilish title track from the upcoming Bond film No Time to Die.
“Worse things have happened,” says Lipson humbly of his time with Eilish and her producer brother FINNEAS.
We meet Lipson while he is relaxing in his Oxfordshire vacation home to chat about Billie Eilish, the differences between the music and film business and what he would change about the music industry …
We might be wrong, but we think you’re the only producer with credit from Billie Eilish who isn’t her brother. How did your work on the Bond Score and with Billie Eilish and FINNEAS come about?
I’ve worked a lot with Hans Zimmer so he contacted me and asked me a really weird question. I think he said, ‘do you like Aston Martins?’ I didn’t know what he was asking for, but I knew it wasn’t Aston Martins.
So I reply, ‘Okay, come on what’s the story?’ He says, ‘I was asked to do the Bond score and part of the score is the Bond song and I would love if you produced the song.’
I said, ‘Well, let me think about it … [affirmative] okay.’ It was direct, and then it was maybe a six month journey from concept to completion.
Since the film hasn’t been released yet, I guess you might be one of the first to see it?
I’ve seen the whole thing. This is one of those films that is pretty amazing to work on. A Bond movie really is always going to be good news.
During this process, as a producer with Billie Eilish and FINNEAS, how did you gain the trust of a very close-knit songwriting and production duo, who mostly do everything themselves?
Lots of musicians want the Bond song. I went to Hans who said: ‘There are a lot of songs, but I’m going to play this one for you because I think it might be good.’ He played me No Time to Die, which FINNEAS and Billie had done. I thought Billie Eilish was a brilliant artist to add to a Bond movie. At Billie, the majority of her audience probably doesn’t even know who Bond is, so opening the entire franchise was a great idea. Barbara Broccoli [producer on the James Bond series] felt the same, so we started this process.
When I heard the song, however, it didn’t have the great feeling a Bond song should have. It was very small, very isolated, and very long. But I realized pretty quickly that making it suitable for a Bond movie wasn’t a problem. I can figure out how to give it the “size”, I could figure out the length, and I could figure out how it works. But nobody in the Bond camp was 100% convinced that it was the “Bond song” because it didn’t sound like a Bond song.
“A key moment was when Billie sang the high note at the end of the second chorus.”
The process started with an edit that removed a third of the song. I did that and sent it to FINNEAS. He was fine. At this point, I suspect FINNEAS was of the opinion that he really wanted the song to be featured in the Bond film, and I contacted him as a representative of the Bond film. I suppose he must have been thinking, ‘Hell, if he sent me this edit, they must all think this is the way to go.’ That would have crossed my mind: ‘That guy, I don’t know who he is, sent me a cut, so let’s just play along and see where we go.’
There was another key moment when Billie sang the high note at the end of the second chorus. I asked FINNEAS for a few corrections and [I] said it has to climax. I didn’t mean to be very specific with him, but he sent this and … there was this Bond moment. Then I get a call that says: “Billie hates the high note” … but luckily that moment is over. I’m not sure why that moment passed, but she did [ended up] to like it.
Everyone was happy, but the key person was Daniel Craig. It’s his swan song, so he wanted to make sure the song delivered the Bond-like style that he thought was right. Until then he didn’t like it at all, but he hadn’t heard the high pitched note.
Barbara finally managed to get him to my studio at eight on a Sunday morning, and I fiddled with the mix to make it ballistic when it hit the high pitched tone. He loved it. No sooner had he given the okay than half an hour later it was all over on social media. It was remarkable how quickly it went from his favor to an everywhere. It was instant.
It’s interesting that Daniel Craig was involved in that too.
He is James Bond! If he wasn’t happy, it wasn’t good, but by this point it was pretty late to change something. If he hadn’t liked it, it would have really messed things up. But everything worked out. The only thing that didn’t work out is that we didn’t see the film.
Does one industry that had one foot in the music industry and another in the movie business allow you to do something that the other doesn’t? Whether creative, commercial or whatever.
In a way, they’re completely opposites. Songs are commercial. They have a structure, a format and an instrumentation. And when it comes to songs, the voice is king. With a score, dialogue is king, so what is required is very different.
A score has to be terribly subtle. You can’t overwhelm anything with your top line because the top line is dialogue. In a song, on the other hand, you have full control over the top line, be it the voice or a melody. You can be a lot braver in some ways.
Do you think that has changed over time? Specifically about music production and songs and the approach to creating a successful song. Has that changed since you worked with the likes of Annie Lennox in the 1990s?
It’s been a while since I had a chart hit. The reason it’s been a while is because I got immersed in the movie world. Right now I’m working with a Canadian artist named POESY who is absolutely amazing. It seems to me that what we do is in some ways no different from what I’ve always done.
She doesn’t rap, she ain’t R&B, I don’t know what she is, but she’s just really good. So nothing changes. But I’m not Fraser T. Smith. He has the ability to work with very different genres and I’ve never gone that route before.
How do you assess the current state of the music production industry in general?
In a way, what I do becomes redundant. There seem to be two areas. There are bands that all play together and then there are individuals.
I’ve worked with bands for years and honestly I would have a hard time working with a band again. With individuals, the writers are the people who make the records, but with bands it’s a different dynamic. I find it kind of frustrating. I have to accept what is given to me.
Is it more personal experience of working with a solo artist than with a band?
Exactly. In a band I sit there and listen and think, ‘I want to play bass here now. I have a great idea, but I can’t do it because they have a bass player. ‘ I can suggest what’s going on in my head, but the bass player won’t really understand the way I hear it. That’s it, and let’s go on. I just find it a little frustrating.
After working with SOMEONE like FINNEAS who famously started making music in their bedroom and seeing this trend increase over the past few decades, do you think this trend towards rich home production software for artists is positive or negative?
It’s a bit of both. It’s really good for people who are good and not so good for people who are not good. It’s a hell of a generalization, but because it’s so cheap to buy a laptop and sequencer, there are a lot of people who don’t know what they’re doing.
“It’s like throwing shit on the wall and I don’t know where this is going.”
It’s like throwing shit on the wall and I don’t know where this is going. How many songs are uploaded to Spotify per day?
It’s about 60,000 tracks a day. That is much.
[laughs] It’s crazy isn’t it.
In your opinion, does that make the music industry better or worse than it used to be? This huge wealth of new music …
I dont know. Most of the music that is out there seems to be out of harmony.
It’s like now you get a four bar loop, something happens over it and there you go. While I’m probably as much to blame for this behavior as anyone else, what really bothers is a lack of harmony.
But there’s the idea that this technology gives people a chance to play around and learn a craft before perfecting it later.
Now the instrument is the laptop.
Are you more of a production table purist?
God no whatever it takes. I can’t complain about technology. I use it all the time. It’s absolutely fine, but to me it feels like music fans are fans of the artist more than the music they produce.
It’s always been like that, I’m sure, but it’s just different [now].
If you could change one thing about the music industry today, what would you change and why?
From a personal point of view, I have noticed that people rarely get approval for their work. When something is bad you are told, when something is good it is seldom appreciated, so a little recognition might be good.
There’s also debate about what writers get from streaming. It’s not that I don’t think writers should get more. Of course they should, we all should. But when Spotify runs at a loss I wonder where all the money is going. Maybe it goes to the record companies, in which case they all try Spotify, but maybe they need to redirect their energies.
“I want people to have a little more trust in artists too.”
I want people to have a little more faith in artists too. If you turn the clock back a few decades, an artist could develop his whole “thing” over four albums, explode and then they would be huge.
There are exceptions, of course, but that could never happen now. That’s a shame.Music business worldwide