There aren't many people who clearly demonstrate that they were born to do something. However, if you examine Grammy-nominated producer, mixer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Greg Wells' life, you can hardly come to any other conclusion. He has written and produced for Katy Perry ever since her first major label release; he regularly produces, mixes and plays all the guitar, bass, keys and drums for entire releases by the likes of Adam Lambert, Mayer Hawthorne, Mika and others; he is a prolific songwriter who's written for artists from Aerosmith and Adele to Keith Urban and Weezer; his songs appear on more than 85 million units sold.
While it didn't happen overnight—or anywhere close—Wells seemed to be fated for a life of music from the very beginning. He says he's still obsessed with drums to this day, and he practically came out of the womb playing rhythms. As just a baby in rural Ontario, Canada, Wells took little sticks and played on any furniture in sight. "I knew the tone of every armrest and every pillow and every chair or couch in the house, and would just drum on everything," he said.
Like any good hero's journey, Greg's story is tinged with a bit of mystery. His first babysitter, who was playing percussion in her high school band and went on to be a conductor, often tells a story about Wells as an infant that he can't actually confirm because he was too young to remember. "She says I was drumming actual rhythms on the side of my crib, and she said it was the freakiest thing she's ever seen," Wells said. "It wasn't just randomly hitting, there were actual beats, like a groove. That might be an exaggerated story, I don't know, but she has told that story many times, way before I had any kind of notoriety in the music business. But I was absolutely a very, very functional drummer by age three."
Wells can confirm another example of his extremely precocious musical talent because he's heard it on tape. "Before I could really talk I was singing melodically correct," he said. "It was in tune. I sounded hilarious, but there was something in my brain that was processing the melodies, and I could do it. I could sing it. I really was like a torpedo toward music. I think my parents were just kind of watching it happen."
While his parents neither discouraged nor encouraged Greg's musical bent, they didn't really like the noise of drums. However, his "naturally musical" grandmother would cover her kitchen floor with pots and pans for young Greg to bang on with wooden spoons. She also played piano by ear, and helped foster his early experience with piano. "She would put me in her lap as a baby, and she'd play piano and put my hands on the keys," he said. "There's so many photos of me sitting beside her at various ages jamming with her."
Still a young child, Wells started proper piano lessons with what he calls an amazing teacher. "She recognized that I really wanted to be taking drum lessons, so she did half the lesson as classical music, and the other half was boogie-woogie, a very rhythmic kind of jazz. That was so exciting for me. Boogie-woogie kind of turns the piano into a drum set. I was hooked. It got me going onto classical studies as well."
Even a tragic, rare bone disease that struck at age 11 only served to further Greg's musical training. Like Carl Jung's "wounded healer" archetype, Wells used the affliction to become more of whom he was. "I had a bad hip, and I was actually in a wheelchair for most of a two-year period in my early teens," he said. "That really, really focused me on music, because I couldn't really do anything else. Out of complete frustration and love for music, I wound up as a teenager becoming a multi-instrumentalist."
With a bass borrowed from his school's music room or a '60s Telecaster borrowed from a parishioner at his minister father's church, Wells worked on his playing at the same time that he developed his analytical ear for many musical styles.
"I was very sensitive to every detail and aspect of the sounds I was hearing from different records," he said. "Even when there were things I didn't like, I would still voraciously study and listen to it and throw that into the gumbo of my own ideas for the fantasy world in which I got to make a record: what I would like to try, and what I do and don't I like."
Wells was also playing in different ensembles and playing organ in church. By the time he got to studying music in college in Toronto, he was quickly a hot commodity. "I fully expected my butt to be kicked mercilessly around the block by monster musicians who were way more advanced than me," he said. "There was an element of that, but I didn't realize that I was actually quite up and running as a musician at that point. I thought, 'That's weird. Why am I being asked to play in all the graduate-level ensembles? Why are all the older students asking me to play in their bands?' By the end of the first year I sort of realized, I was surrounded by people who don't know anything about music!"
By the time he was 21, Wells had toured Canada several times as a keyboardist in the Kim Mitchell Band and won a Toronto Music Award for best keyboardist but was also playing a lot of drums, bass and guitar. But then he split to LA and had to start over without really knowing anyone. He would get recommended for studio musician gigs, but then people would only know him as a pianist, a drummer, a guitarist, etc., according to what they hired him for. "It's just human nature to pigeonhole people," Wells said. "I catch myself doing it as well."
This was the mid-'90s, and by '97, Wells had scored his first songwriting gigs in addition to studio playing. That year, he co-wrote the Celine Dion single "The Reason," produced by George Martin, off the 31-million selling album, Let's Talk About Love.
Multiplying opportunities like that put Wells in the mix with many producers and recording engineers, and when he really liked what they were doing, he would "pummel" them with questions. It was like he was back at home as a boy wondering how all his records were produced, except now he a way to find out. "I could not understand how it worked, and I love a good mystery," he said. "So once I finally started meeting people involved in making records that I had heard of, and some that I really loved, it became just ridiculously exciting for me. I really got the bug in a big, big way."
Wells was also accumulating songs for his own solo material, and he was using his growing production knowledge to build a home studio and record demos. "For most of my career I've made absolutely zero money," he said. "It's a struggle to scrape by, but whenever a little bit extra would come in, I would buy whatever I could afford. I filled up my little crappy apartment with these instruments."
"It started with a Fostex 4-Track cassette machine, an Alesis MicroVerb, a Mac Plus, a couple of keyboards, a little Roland drum machine, and an okay AKG microphone—I had that for years and used that for everything. I bought a compressor at some point. Then I bought a slightly better compressor, then an 8-track cassette machine, then an 8-track digital machine, a second 8-track digital machines, then a little Mackie console, and it just kept growing from there."
As he continued to work studio gigs, he'd pick the brains of the most talented people he came across. He mentioned mix engineer Steve MacMillan who worked with producer Trevor Horn and Mutt Lange, among many others. "This guy was very generous with his knowledge," Well said. "That was really inspiring, and I met a few other guys like that, and asked them a million questions, and then took all that info home to experiment on my crappy little home studio. I'm just so naturally curious about how to expand and better what I do. I'm still very much wired that way."
Greg's knowledge continued to grow, as he learned about more professional-level production, such as learning what Pultec and API EQs do, what an 1176 compressor does for a vocal, what different microphones and consoles do for singers, and the coloration of tape as opposed to not using tape. He was getting to the point where he could start producing on his own, however, no producer ever gave him a production job. In fact, he found out that one producer he worked was actively trying to keep Wells "a secret."
"Some established record producers actually viewed me as a threat, even though I'd never ever produced a record," Wells said. "Even huge record producers, whose careers were clearly not in trouble, were not generous with throwing a bone to someone like me. My first production gig came from being a songwriter and trying to make my demos sound great. If your tracks are really good, at some point, someone is going to say, 'Who did that track?' That's how the ball started rolling for me."
Wells had been working with Brad Roberts of Crash Test Dummies on co-writing all the songs for the band's 1999 fourth album, Give Yourself a Hand. After doing some demos, Roberts said he really liked how it was sounding and didn't want to recreate it. So Wells soon had his first major label hiring as a record producer. "It's this crazy, funky weird little album that I'm still really proud of. I have to give the singer Brad a lot of credit because he really steered me production-wise. I don't think he would think of himself as a producer, but he helped give the album a real set of parameters. We really should have shared the production credit on the record. I was very much learning at that point, but having a great time."
That first production break opened doors for Wells that he's sure wouldn't have opened otherwise, because music executives only want to hire someone who's had a hit. "Every once in a while you'll find someone who doesn't care about that, and they actually have ears and can hear," he said. "The music business really doesn't have a clue when the music is good or not. It's creative people who drive that train. The people who hold the purse string are the people in the music business. It's like trying to dance with someone who a) has absolutely no sense of rhythm and b) mentally, they're probably listening to a different song than what you are hearing, you know?"
After years of toil, Greg finally had major production credit and a minor radio hit to hang his hat on, and he would go on to produce and write many more hits. One of his calling cards became producing and playing many of the instruments for an entire album, which he did for Rufus Wainwright in 2001, Michelle Branch in 2003 and Pink in 2006, among dozens of other credits. 2007 was his huge breakout year, when he co-wrote "One and Only" with Adele for the 30-million selling 21 album, produced the monster worldwide hit "Apologize" by OneRepublic and took the master-of-all-trades approach for Mika's debut 6-million-selling album, Life in Cartoon Motion.
He's continued to write and/or produce hits since then for pop royalty like Katy Perry, Selena Gomez, Adam Lambert, Jamie Cullum, Carly Rae Jespen, and many others. And even though he nails the music industry purse-string-tighteners for not having ears for good music, he also explains that nobody can tell what will be a hit before it actually becomes a hit. "Nobody knows," he said. "There are too many variables. The wind changes. The public's taste changes all the time."
Rather, Wells insists on connecting with his artistic collaborators, so that they all have a visceral feeling about the music that can connect to an audience, whether it becomes a big hit or not. He cannot predict hits, but he knows when something he's working on has an air of greatness to it, and when it does not.
"It's this huge feeling," he said. "You can tell. You can kind of take the temperature of the control room in the studio. If people are just flipping out loving it, you know something is right. I learned that if I don't have that feeling, and it leaves the studio in that state—which I never let happen anymore—it doesn't connect with anything. It never finds an audience. I definitely run it through my own filters, and the people I'm collaborating with. Do we love this? If we get to that point, then I know we have something, and then the fickle finger of fate will decide whether that becomes an audience of ten people or ten million people."
Fate's been good to Greg so far.
In our next article with Greg Wells, we will get deep into his mixing methods of working in the box but not all the way in the box, dissect some of his more recent projects, and talk about how he uses some of his favorite plugins.