An Interview with Richard Russell of XL Recordings
by Bianca Valentino
Last year when Gil Scott-Heron’s record I’m New Here was released by UK record label XL Recordings – home of artists such as M.I.A., The Horrors, Adele, Friendly Fires and most recently Tyler the Creator – I spoke with label founder, owner and sometimes producer Richard Russell. Until now the interview has never been published. I thought I’d lost the tape in a move but came across it recently while going through a decade plus worth of interview tapes. Richard and I spoke about recording with Gil, working with Jack White of The White Stripes fame and of the importance of creativity and nurturing it.
You reached out to Gil when he was serving time in Rikers Island [New York City’s main jail complex] about making an album. Tell me about your relationship with Gil.
The fact that he was in a prison I felt that it was secondary as to how we got on as people.
What’s your favourite thing about his album I’m New Here?
I love his voice. I don’t think there is another voice like it. You’re hearing so much depth and so much experience in his voice. His voice is like an instrument, there’s so many bass frequencies in it. That voice to me — it’s an endless voice.
How do you see your role as a producer?
As creating a platform. In some ways it’s very similar to how I’ve always seen what we do with the label: create a platform for brilliant people to shine and do something original, to be resourceful and come up with what is needed to create a great platform for people to do their thing.
Do you feel that’s a big part of your label’s success?
The label is about working with people’s whose music we believe in and everything else is secondary to that.
What do you do to nurture your own creativity?
That is a good question. I’ve never been asked that. That’s a great question to ask because people never discuss creativity enough. It’s very important. To nurture your creativity you have to create a space for yourself to think. That’s a very, very important thing and a very challenging thing especially when you do something like running a label.
Recording the Gil record in itself, for me, was a great experience in terms of nurturing my own creativity because it created a lot of space for me really, the doing of it, and the fact that it required patience as it took quite a long time to do it. It brought me to learn things. Nurturing your creativity is on the one hand giving yourself space to think and then on the other hand pushing yourself to learn new things and be in new places and be brave about that.
In a previous interview you commented that when you worked with Jack White of the White Stripes you found it very educational and interesting; what did you learn from him?
Jack is one of those inspirational characters that is incredibly multi-talented. He’s never shyed away from doing things himself. He’s got such an incredible set of diverse skills; he’s a terrific singer and guitar player, and also a producer and can mix records. He’s a great drummer and can play guitar; he’s a real renaissance man. Someone like that has a ‘can do’ attitude where they are always doing things and are always active and always moving on to the next project, doesn’t get too hung up on records too much. He makes the quality really high and just keeps moving and that’s a very inspirational way of doing things.
Out of all the projects you’ve worked on over the years is there one that stands out as being the greatest challenge?
Everything that you do that is good should be a big challenge really. The whole idea of a record label is challenging, it’s a complex set of things that go into it. It’s not an easy thing otherwise everyone would be doing it, or everyone would be doing it successfully. Every different artist you work with that brings an original way of looking at things can be challenging but in a positive way.
Can you tell me about the challenges of working on the Gil album?
I was always wanting to put ideas to him and he was very good at working out which ones were the right ones to go with. I was always having to be willing to come up with things and put them out there for him to decide on but be open to if we did or didn’t use things. Any sort of collaborative project like that there is an openness. It can be tricky at times. It always felt like a privilege to be doing that with him.
Do you have favourite memories of those sessions?
The conversations that we’d have between takes. The moments when he flowed performance-wise, the hairs on the back of your neck would just stand up and he’d be really stunning. Just recording in New York, the environment. There were a lot of great experiences throughout the whole thing.
What’s one of your first music memories?
The two things that have really lodged themselves in my brain is, as a teenager The Beatles – who I was a massive, massive fan of – I really loved The Beatles and hip-hop on the other hand. Looking back between The Beatles and hip-hop you’ve got a tremendous source of education really. Those two things were fundamental building blocks in my musical education.
What are your other interests outside of music?
There’s nothing for me which occupies the same place. Music is what I believe in, in the way that some people have religion. There’s lots of other things that interest me, I love playing table tennis and I love reading but those things are not things I believe in, in a passionate way like music. People are fundamentally creative. Children tend to be good at expressing their creativity and then people lose it as they get older, you have to nurture it.