Brian Sheil is a 29-year old music producer & mixer from Carlow, Ireland. He looks pensive at his desk at Brytestar HQ, where he practices the art of record making, pondering all of life questions, but more so in particular the birth of new artists, their future, and the difficulties and opportunities both have created with technology, but most importantly, the future of the music and entertainment business and where he sees his place in it.
A little background first….
Brian Sheil began making his mark on the music industry at sixteen years old when he set up Ireland’s first exclusive internet radio streaming service, Klubb FM. Additionally, he assisted Lady Gaga during the recording of her 2011 album, Born This Way. Brian went on to receive a gold disc for his mixing and mastering work on country star Derek Ryan’s fifth album, “The Simple Things”, which went to #1 in the Official Irish Album Chart. He is currently the in-house sound/recording engineer and Senior Theatre Technician at VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art & The George Bernard Shaw Theatre in Carlow.
Brian finished at the top of his graduating class at the University of Central Lancashire and holds a First Class BA Honours degree in Music Production, as well as a Diploma in Strategic Business Management & Leadership from the Institute of Business & Technology, Dublin.
Lisa : What first got you into music?
I’ve always thought about this. I think it was listening to the radio in the car as a kid going to school or basketball practice. Many of the records my parents used to play influenced me in what I do today as a producer. They played everything from Celine Dion to Frank Sinatra to Kenny Rogers to Michael Jackson. As a side note, a song by Celine Dion recently came on my Spotify called ‘I Remember L.A’. I haven’t heard that song since I was like maybe 8 or 9 years old, but when I heard it a few weeks ago I immediately could smell the basketball I held as I travelled to basketball training, what the court smelled like, and all of the ‘men’ shouting in the training session that was on before ours. My Mam would have that album on in the car every time she brought my brother and I to and from training practice. Jim Connolly was our coach, a well-known figure in Irish Basketball circles. Music is crazy like that. And I found out recently the guy who produced ‘I Remember L.A.’ live 15mins from my house in Ireland. More craziness. It’s weird even listening to it now, the lyrics, the mentioning of LA, and thinking of little old me in the back of a car actively being influenced. Anyway, I digress.
I grew up in the 90s, so everything on pop radio back then, particularly in Ireland was that whole boyband or girlband slick production sound, and super catchy melodies. You could argue not many were talented, but that’s exactly what drew me in to listening to these records – how the hell did they sound so good on record, but ridiculously bad say on programmes back then such as Live N Kickn’ or whatever. I always could figure out as a child whether they were singing live or not for instance on Top of the Pops – something I look back on now and say ‘Jeez it was always in me, wasn’t it?’
I always remember the first song I properly ‘analyzed’ as a kid was a song called ‘One Sweet Day’ by Boyz II Men feat. Mariah Carey. I distinctly remember the verse snare drum being panned to the left speaker and wondering how that was achieved. I just thought the other speaker was broken.
My parents probably saw this curiosity or talent (whatever you call it) more than anything else and afforded me the chance to learn how to play Keyboards with my cousin and musical mentor, Dale Hennessy. Dale wasn’t just a great teacher, but he was also fun to be around and taught through feel and experience. It wasn’t ‘teachery’ if you get me, and that’s how music should be taught. It’s kinda funny looking back that it was ‘Keyboards’ and not ‘Piano’, you know? Keyboards or Synths were all about sounds if you get me, whereas piano is just one sound and a different style of playing. I just loved it. That’s probably what kick started my focus on sounds in general and the birth of having a good ear. Dale was there at an early age showing me this trick or did you hear this on the radio and what chord they used here etc. I still remember flipping with excited when he showed me minor 7th chords for instance.
That general ear and listening talent develops over time I think, and absolutely transferred into my production work. It’s never ending. So I have Dale to thank partly for my ears. Around a similar time, my parents also enrolled me into a local stage-school, maybe a year earlier, which I left after a few hours, not even a day – hated it. Hated everything about it. Looking back, I wasn’t ready for that level of ‘letting go’ and to me that over the top fake confidence thing wasn’t appealing. I was more interested I think in sounds than being a performer. So, I think I always knew what I wanted *laughs*
Lisa : How would you describe the music that you typically create?
I like to think it’s all about the vocal with me, whatever genre that is. But typically I’ve been relatively successful in Country music in Ireland with a Number 1 record. I also recently produced a piano-trance chill album for Paul Skelton that did very well in the iTunes chart in Ireland and UK, going to Number 1 and Number 2 respectively. Since 2018, I have been producing pop/Top 40 records, which is a completely different skill-set and ear to be honest. It’s probably the hardest genre to produce because ‘the sound’ is changing so often, the competition in terms of sound is unbelievable, and everything is produced to within an inch of it’s life. The sound is something I tend not chase, but more so be influenced by it. Take Billie Eilish for instance. She was signed 4 years before anything happened. And what a unique sound she has.
Lisa : What is your creative process like?
Jeez, it really depends on how I feel. The end. If I feel like absolute crap, tired or something is weighing on my mind, I’m not as good whether I’m producing or a mixing. Sometimes I’ve often been writing an e-mail, and I’ll stop and roll over to the control area and just pick up where I left off. When mixing a record, it’s a very psychological process with me. I need to feel excited by what another producer has done, but you’re also always fighting yourself and chasing the flame as they say. It doesn’t have to be much, could even be a little transition or build and I’m away. I’m in the zone. It’s totally about feel with me. When producing a record it’s kinda similar actually; I’m looking to create or have that ‘moment’ in the song that portrays what the artist wants to communicate sonically.
Also, I hear slightly differently in the morning than I do at night. Weird, I know. It takes me a while to get into the day if you get me. I’m not a morning person. I’m a total night owl. My thought process is much clearer from 10pm onwards than say at 11am when everything just seems noisy in the world. My actual creative process I don’t think I can define. Well not yet anyway. There is nothing like a deadline though to focus the mind (laughs).
Lisa : Can you tell us a bit more about your favorite song?
Brian : I’m not sure I have just one favorite song. I have many go-to songs just to listen to. Some for how I felt when I first heard it, some in terms of production, or some just because they make me feel something, happy or sad. Here’s a list:
Westlife – Flying Without Wings (I wish I wrote and produced this. Steve Mac was the first producer I really looked up to and still do. He does this and then also can do Shape of You by Ed Sheeran. Amazing)
Donald Fagen – I.G.Y (what a recording, the engineering is phenomenal! Talk about getting it right from the ‘source’ Class. A huge produce in LA told me they never used any EQ on some of these records – move the mic instead)
Frank Sinatra – One for the Road (Feel. Just feel is all. Amazing. I remember my best friend Nathan showing me this one Summer holiday. That Clarinet is also just stunning. Reminds of Acker Bilk – Stranger on the Shore)
ABBA – Lay All Your Love On Me (Just class. ABBA are pop gold)
Lady Gaga – Bad Romance (RedOne and Gaga to me are still the best combination for melody. When I heard this first, I felt ‘Wow, proper pop music is back!’ I had the opportunity to assist Gaga in the studio as a runner once and her talent is just incredible to see. You are there handing in some food or whatever and just looking at how she works- the real deal. It really thought me about ‘kinda talented’ vs ‘proper, unbelievable talent’.
Bette Midler – Wind Beneath My Wings (Those keyboards, listen to those keyboards glisten. Listen to how many of them there are, and how they’re blended. Listen at 2:00, 2:06 and 2:09. In and out. Class. Arif Mardin smashed this production)
The Weeknd – I Feel It Coming (how two or even three worlds come together and work so well)
Backstreet Boys – I Want It That Way (Going back to my 90s thing of perfect pop production. Max Martin – need I say more? Probably the greatest pop producer. Ever)
Vince Gill – Whenever You Come Around (Simplicity)
Ariana Grande – God Is A Woman/7 Rings (The mixes! Serban Ghenea – he has golden ears. Always influencing me in how I mix. Also Ariana’s vocals are amazing. The end line ‘God Is A Woman is just a choral goddess sound)
Rosalia – Malamente (The mix. Jaycen Joshua is a genius)
Adele – When We Were Young (Delivery. You just can’t teach that.)
Bryan Adams – Everything I Do, I Do It For You (To me, a sonically perfect record. Mutt Lange is one of the Kings of Perfect and Precision. Someone once told me he took 2 weeks to just get the vocals right. At 0:58 when Bryan says ‘You know it’s true’ – that is heaven. 3:18 onwards, what’s happening with the automating reverbs and the call and answer with the keys and guitars. Class. Even listen to those Shania Twain records. Perfect.)
Bonnie Raitt – I Can’t Make You Love Me (Can I write a song like this, ever? Lol)
Celine Dion – Because You Loved Me (I believe this is David Foster’s greatest record. I blast this every few weeks. Listen to Celine’s vocals, but also very cleverly listen to that gospel feel behind her just fits so well. I think it was 3 different background vocalists blending. Stuff like that I just f*cking love. All the tricks. Humberto Gatica’s mix is also just phenomenal. I’ve always believed that David and Humberto had one of the greatest production partnerships in history. Period. Hopefully this will be repeated in years to come.
Dermot Kennedy – Dancing Under Red Skies (Passion. Emotion. I just believe everything Dermot sings. The poetry. Amazing)
Michael Jackson – every god damn record. The Way You Make Me Feel though. Listen to that in 2020. Fresh as hell. Genius work.
U2 – I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (I listen to this about once every few months when thoughts or feelings of quitting come upon me. Bono has a delivery that is just unique.
Coldplay – Because I love everything they do. Viva La Vida though. I want a record like that in my career. Just one is all. Just one *laughs*
Whitney Houston – Any of her best songs to be honest, but in particular I Have Nothing (Listen. Like properly listen to her vocal and control. I think it’s her greatest performance. No messing around with studio tricks. Where are these singers these days?
Rihanna & Drake – What’s My Name? (I remember hearing this in a nightclub in Carlow when it came out and I never seen a crowd react in such a cool way. Not that I’m an expert in nightclubs or socialising, two things I’m not good at, but you just had a feeling this is a smash hit! And this was a lesson for me in how records work, not just on radio, but live etc. Kuk Harrell can get vocals from Rihanna like no other. He’s the same with Justin Bieber. Stargate also have this unique way of producing hits throughout the decades. Both genius.
Lisa : Which famous musicians do you admire?
I wasn’t really into musicians growing up. I was more into production and mixing and how stuff sounded, and how you got it to sound like what was on the radio. If I was pushed though, I think David Foster has been an influence on me, more so as a producer but also how he has navigated the business for so many years. How a producer can go from working with Earth Wind and Fire to Andrea Bocelli to Michael Buble – I pay attention to that kind of stuff. Of course, he has won so many Grammys and has had so many hits etc, we all want that, but it’s the other stuff I really like to know about too.
I met David on a couple of occasions and you’re sitting there in the studio or even just talking to him and you’re just overwhelmed by the level of talent that they have and their surrounding team – It was the same meeting Humberto Gatica – it makes you better though – one of the failings of being from a small town – it’s hard to benchmark what it actually takes and what talent actually looks and feels like essentially. You come back from LA having a different view on your hometown laughs Sure, its their experience too, but you know when you know, it’s just undeniable.
Also, I really like how U2 or say Coldplay for instance have stayed together for all these years and have remained a band. I admire that kind of stuff. Great management and governance of a band speak volumes sometimes. No pun intended.
Been listening a lot to Mark Knopfler lately – what a talent!
Lisa : What is the most trouble you’ve ever gotten into?
A fight in school. I actually forget what the fight was about, actually a soccer game I think, but anyway I just had enough of someone’s smart remarks that went on for weeks and weeks. I just went for it one day in the form of a ‘tackle’. There was blood on his shirt, not mine., and he got into trouble more so than me eventually, but it was fairly intense at the time as a young lad. Will I be suspended etc. Anyone that knows me would say I actually am extremely chill person, which is true, but you know when it just gets too much, you just have enough, and you know what they say about still waters running deep. I think that’s what was surprising by it all; a quiet student going for it. I was actually a pretty good student too, but hated school; particularly secondary school because most teachers I felt were pretty poor, but I also knew what I wanted to do, so there was that too. The only way you knew this however was by having great teachers in your life of which I had a few actually. A few that come to mind were Mr. John Farrell in my primary school days for the influence of technology he had on me, and our principal Mrs. Patricia Wall – a fantastic leader. The same goes for Mr. Paddy McGovern and Mrs. Laura Walshe in my secondary school days. They were great leaders and influencers on my time in school – and influencers in the most real sense of the word – not what that means in today’s social media world.
Music wise I remember being legally threatened by a major label in the UK over releasing a song on my Soundcloud account. Technically and legally, I was entitled to do so as I owned the actual master recording copyright and no payment was received. Here’s what happened: I saw a band that I genuinely believed were going to be big. Their talent was amazing and they could write really well. I was training at University and I had a spare day’s studio time a world-renowned recording studio. So, I asked two of my classmates would they mind helping me out for the session. I told them that I know this band; I think they’re going to be big, and we can record a demo of one of their songs. I reached out to their producer who I knew had a great relationship with the band, because I just wanted to be clear with what was happening and you know just being courteous etc. He was extremely kind and nice and was like ‘yeah sure fire away –will be great for them etc’. I think it was there first time in this particularly studio. Anyway, we recorded two songs but finished one. I spent ages mixing this one song and I published it on my Soundcloud. The band started to gain traction, and were signed I think a few weeks or months later. I was proud that I recorded a demo of theirs – that’s what it was – me trying to get ahead and just promote myself in this business. I tweeted it out. That was it.
I believe the only thing I did wrong though was that I attached a copyrighted image in the artwork section of the band. I deleted it immediately. You think nowadays of how everyone is sharing copyright images all over the place. Anyway, this was my first experience of the heat a major corporation can put on you when you’re attached to some product that is potentially worth money, and you’re just a kid starting out.
What followed after me was just unbelievable; from the legal letters from the label to what some band members were texting to me. The threats were just incredible. I do remember the lead singer though being pretty sound about it and everytime I look at them on stage to thousands of people I always think of him and say ‘you were sound, and I’m glad it’s working out for you’ because they deserved to be huge. Of course, the label and band will have their own story, which is cool too. I’ve heard back through different people what it actually is. I was 19/20 years old and being legally threatened by a major label – that changes you somewhat and your view on ‘the business’. So what happened? Well, I ended up just deleting it from my Soundcloud because I didn’t have any money to fight legally even though I owned the master copyright etc, and starting out in a business people talk. You’d think eventually they’d want someone like that on their team, even at a junior level, or a label saying ‘Hey you liked these, go find us this, and we’ll make you part of the project’ – Something like what Scooter Braun promised Usher when trying to get Justin Bieber signed. Anyway, I really loved the band. In the end, I think the band wanted to re-record the song in its entirety and having it online gave away, or ‘leaked’ the song essentially – something like that. I think that’s really where the anger came from. It so simple looking back now on it and how just immature it all was. Their producer/engineer remains super successful and also one of the nicest human beings you’ll meet in this business.
I remember the whole incident destroying me though for some time.
Lisa : What is the best advice you’ve been given?
‘Don’t look for it, and everyone has an opinion regardless’. That’s what a top producer in LA once told me. I kinda see what he meant the older I get. ‘Do what you love’ is another pretty good one. I’ve recently come up against the problem though of when what you love turns into something you absolutely hate more frequently because of the business, it’s hard to differentiate the two. They don’t tell you how to navigate that. Is it the business? Is my talent? Do I need to be better? Is it any of those at all? Sure, we all need to become better, but you know what I mean? I think doing what feels right and trusting your gut is probably the most universally accepted piece of advice.
My Dad always told me if you’re happy in what you do, it’s half the wages. I do laugh at him sometimes and say back ‘what wages, Da?’ lol. I get what he means though.
My brother also tells me ‘No matter what someone tells you B, there is usually an exact opposite to be proven to be true’. Kinda goes back to that advice of not looking for it.
Simon Cowell has a good one about always knowing when to leave the party. I like that one in both the literal sense, and also metaphorical.
Lisa : What’s next for you?
When I’ve been interviewed before for different stuff, I used to know the answer to this. Now I’m not so sure anymore. It’s partly influenced by what I see in today’s world, mixed with the business of music – how it’s changing, mixed with changing trends in business and politics in general. I’m turning 30 in August. I absolutely hate it – I hate not having achieved one-quarter of what I’d hoped or wanted to. Is that a modern way of thinking and something my generation go through?
Yeah, possibly. I’m not sure I really understand it to be honest. By ‘it’ I mean my ambition.
However, I want still want to win Grammys. I want to be a CEO of a big company, music or otherwise. I have a thing about being the first Irish person to run a major company. It’s get even more wild the more I speak like that, but it’s the truth. Those things and level of ambition tend not to change. I think what I’m really talking about in those last few sentences is, (and I’ve only recently learned this from a fantastic mentor), that I’m incredibly curious about a lot things in the world. A CEO position, by in large, is one massive headache you could also say, so why do I want that?
I’m obsessed with how someone ‘makes it’ in their field, like being at the top of it. When I do find out how they did it, I look at the music business and it just isn’t as easily translatable or transferrable. For instance, a young kid on Tik Tok created the beat for ‘Old Town Road’. That song was mega. He’s 18. No college, no experience etc, and he hit’s the jackpot of ‘having a hit’. The randomness of this business is sometimes hard to grasp.
Take for example someone who recently greatly influences me in my work and who isn’t in the music business is Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan. I really admire him in terms of his leadership, his confidence, his professionalism, the knowledge, his reasonable assertions, how he handles questions from the media and his ability to defend a certain position taken. You get the sense he thinks about things very thoroughly, and funnily enough actually thinks about things and takes his time to do so. I like when a leader can say ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out’.
What has this got to do with the music business, I hear you ask?
Well there’s a bit of those characteristics could translate in terms of maybe how I deal with artists or creative people as a producer or executive in general for instance.
But a better example is probably Lucian Grainge, Chairman & CEO of Universal Music Group, I’d imagine has very similar traits, and this is something I want to learn, be apart of, become really good at, understand, and most importantly work in. With me it’s not just about being a ‘creative’ all of the time. Creatives could be the worst people to run a company, hence why I’m interested in that fine balance. How many of those Producer imprints on major labels actually make money, you know? This is something I’ve always struggled with in my head to be honest – balancing my talent with the ‘business business’ if you get me? I don’t mean marketing yourself as a business, I mean the shareholder side – how the eco system of music relates to say the Board & Shareholders of Sony or Universal for instance. Any artist reading this right are probably dying inside, but to me I love all that stuff too, it’s fascinating to me. It’s why I’m addicted to watching interviews with Jimmy Iovine, Doug Morris, Lucian Grainge or some legend in their respective field til 4am some nights. Jimmy Iovine is someone I look to who has had that balance very well from producing Bruce Springsteen, U2 to head being the Head of Interscope to creating Apple Music. That’s only one example I know, but I only need one example is what I keep telling my parents and friends, lol.
That was a very long-winded way to say that what’s next for me is that I hope to have hits, particularly in the US – the holy-grail of marketplaces. I am working on a few ideas too with LA based producer Olivier Bassil – we collaborate all the time producing pop and hip-hop music too. Olivier has been great to me in terms of introducing me to the LA way of things, the business and how Americans hear pop music as opposed to Europeans. It’s starting to merge though I think. Also, I will always be fascinated with the art of perfecting the absolute best, pristine mix. So that’s always a what’s next answer – becoming better.
I often think about management too, it’s another avenue that’s appealing somewhat in terms of talent management in all of the creative fields. I’ve seen so many bad managers in operation I think I could give it go and be great at it. My Dad is an incredible manager and businessman. I always say I’d like to have even half his intellect and acumen when I’m in a room negotiating, simply having a conversation with someone or trying to sell yourself in some capacity. A few years back, I’ve was through a very simple issue relating to another part of my business that was just let fester and ignored which grew legs and became a pretty big issue. It was simply a case of completely bad management and communication on their behalf. You learn from those things though, and in this case other people’s mistakes, and how not to do things, where you end up etc….And you know what? I think that’s better; learning for yourself through your own experience rather than relying on someone else’s view who has 40 years experience of dealing with people and conflict. You have to taste it yourself to really get it. Genius move, Pops.
Alex Flood, aka Town Is Dead, a producer/DJ who I also collaborate with in Ireland always calls me Mr. Manager. ‘Alex, try that there and this there’. Ok ‘Mr. Manager’ he replies with. Lol. We went to college together so we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses really well. His ears, like Olivier’s, are beyond golden particularly when it comes to EDM and more Poppy EDM stuff. I think he is my first management client, kinda. So Alex says anyway.
Remaining content in this business is another big thing for me. I want to have a certain level of happiness that will keep you going through the many lows of this business. Lucian Grainge who I mentioned earlier, (Chairman & CEO of Universal Music Group) advice was to ‘Marry well….’, so that’s something to consider, particularly if I end up living in Los Angeles *laughs heartily*
Will I be happy then once all this ‘success’ has been achieved or partly achieved, or what if it’s not? Probably not, but I’m not happy now either so what’s the difference? Everyone tells me that I won’t be happy once I get ‘there’ either, wherever that place is. But remember that piece of advice I received about the thing itself?
I mentioned about turning 30 in a couple of months. That is just absolutely frightening to me because I feel like I am running out of time, and have achieved nothing. Am I too harsh on myself? Not harsh enough I’d say if you’d asked me on one of my ‘down days’. But in general yes, people say I would be extremely harsh on myself. I have been single for more than 3 years now because I don’t believe any woman would put up this, nor would I want to drag her through the range of emotions I’d typically go through. Subconsciously I’m probably thinking about the distraction of it too, and how brutal the business is on relationships and marriages – the hurt that it involves – all of which I’m beginning to second guess now to be honest. I think I have a skewed view perhaps. I hope it changes though, what good is doing all this on your own essentially? It’s a modern problem though, maybe a 30s thing and a new way of thinking – this idea of ‘achievement’ or ‘career first’ but I’m more hopeful than ever I can do something worthwhile with my life in the next 10 years.
What do you mean, we ask? He wryly smiles and says: ‘It just means I better f**ing make it or something for all these sacrifices *laughs* That’s it! I’m scared of living a life that isn’t truly me, or just settling for the sake of comfort’.
Here are Brian’s latest records that he has Produced & Mixed
(Maybe Lisa if you wanted to spread these throughout the text instead either?)
1) Norman Alexander – No Goodbyes
Spotify link: https://open.spotify.com/track/1IIekEUnZrMFJ19cvHm3aI?si=ntnS_x3-R3iJUcAwQoqMPw
2) Paul Skelton – Concrete Angel (feat. Brian Sheil on vocals)
3) BELLA – FGirl (Produced by Bella Romero, Olivier Bassil & Brian Sheil)
Spotify Link: https://open.spotify.com/track/7iwgJ75TOmeTiGF3Zhm2XX?si=IGj2BavfTaSM2yDJQCqN9A