British musician Lewis Thompson broke through as one half of the DJ and production duo Just Kiddin, alongside Laurie Revell. The pair made a name for themselves with tracks like the deep house-influenced Thinking About It and remixes of artists including Usher and Becky Hill.
In the decade since the first Just Kiddin releases, Thompson has branched out as a solo artist and prolific collaborator. The past few years have seen him work with David Guetta on the crossover hit Take Me Back, as well as chalking up writing and production credits for artists including MNEK, Paul Woolford, Joel Corry, Becky Hill, Ella Henderson and Mae Muller, whose official UK Eurovision entry comes to us complete with Thompson’s production.
We met up with Thompson in his London studio to discuss the art of songcraft, his approach to writing with vocalists and why collaboration is key. Read through the interview below or watch the embedded videos to see Lewis Thompson talk through his process in the studio.
Tell us about your background in music making…
“At uni, I met a club promoter on a night out. He said he was looking for a DJ, and I told him a big fat lie and that I could DJ, having never even touched a pair of decks before. I woke up the next morning to a message saying, ‘Cool, you got a set at 9pm’. I kind of panicked quite a lot. But rather than run away, I went to Morrison’s, bought a load of blank CDs, burned off a load of my favourite tracks from iTunes. I watched a load of YouTube videos, then turned up at 9pm. I probably did a stinking, really bad set, but that was my first introduction to DJing and I really enjoyed it.”
Did making your own tracks naturally follow on from that?
“I was DJing at uni three or four nights a week, which was paying for me to live up there. After doing that for a couple of years, I realised that if I wanted to DJ in front of bigger crowds, yeah, I would have to learn to make my own songs. I’ve always been in bands and dabbled in a few musical things in the past, when I was really young. My brother actually had Ableton downloaded – we had no real idea about it, but the day I downloaded it I was like, ‘oh my god, this is like the best computer game I’ve ever played’.
Was that your first experience with music software?
“I’d done a few bits in the past making songs on the guitar, but with loop pedals and very basic computer programmes. When me and my brother were really young we had Dance eJay, which came from a cereal packet. That dominated one summer for us. But I’d never used a proper tool like Ableton. Downloading that was the start of my first considering I properly wanted a career in music.”
What kind of tracks were you making at first?
“Originally I was sampling a lot of stuff. I was very into the French house sound. That’s kind of what I grew up listening to, so I was sampling old disco records and things. From there, I got a MIDI keyboard and actually started playing random things myself.
“At that time, I got a ‘man in a suit’ job, which I hated. But I used that discomfort to really channel into making music. I would go home and spend five hours making tunes every evening. Then the company I was working for made most of my team redundant. They gave me and three other people the opportunity to stay on, but I’d just got one record signed to a sub-label of Ministry of Sound. So I went into the office the next day, said, ‘thanks, but no thanks’.
“I started a project with my best friend from school, Laurie, called Just Kiddin. Within six months, we had a major record deal with Parlophone. We signed [off of] the song Thinking About It, which is still one of our biggest tunes that we’ve done. And then within probably six or seven months of that coming out we were touring America.”
You quite quickly started producing for and writing with other artists, what were your first experiences of that like?
“I remember back then I was very headstrong. My management at the time were like ‘you need to work with songwriters, you need to have a mix engineer, you need to have mastering engineers.’ I thought I could do all that myself, which was a massive mistake. I thought I could write all the lyrics, mix the songs, master the songs; I thought I could sing, which is stupid! You learn from these things. One thing I’d say is that you’ve got to be collaborative and learn to collaborate with people.
“From that point on we were getting thrown into sessions – three or four sessions a week – and it can be really daunting. You can produce a song, but you don’t know how to write songs or what the fundamentals of songwriting are. The only way that I learned that was through trial and error and making loads of mistakes. Writing really bad songs; hundreds of really bad songs.
“I guess gradually after years of doing it you learn how to guide the sessions and get an idea of where the song should go. You understand what sort of sounds you should use to get the best out of people. It took a while, though.”
Has your approach to writing sessions changed significantly over the years?
“For about the first seven years I was taking fully-produced three- or four-minute songs into sessions. It took me all that time to realise that, for me at least, that didn’t work. It’s very restrictive. You’ve got set start points and end points, but that doesn’t really work. To get the best out of creative people you need to give them a degree of freedom. If you’ve got something with drums in, FX swooshes, all those details, it can be a bit too much. Now I strip it back to the raw elements.
“One thing I’ve learnt is that the production is there to support the song. Always try to put the song first. Previously what I was doing was the wrong way round; it was getting a good production and then trying to write a song on top of it.
“I’ve worked out now that I just need to take something inspiring into a session. Something that someone can quickly start writing to. We might not even use that original idea in the final record. Often it will evolve into something completely different. I guess all of that has been part of the process of me turning from a producer into a writer.”
How did you learn those songwriting skills, were they just something you picked up as you went?
“I moved up to Leeds for five years, which is where I learned how to write songs. I built a bit of a team of writers up there. A really close friend of mine, Rob Harvey, lives up there. We kind of helped each other massively. I learned so much from him and I think he would say he learned a lot from me, too.
“One thing that I realised during that time, which is probably quite a key thing to talk about is that, if you look around all the people having success, they’re all people that are in teams. It’s so important to collaborate with people regularly that you know and trust.
"You need people who will actually say whether something’s good or not good, and who you can do the same back to and know it’s not gonna offend them. I built this team up in Leeds and learned how to write songs from some very traditional songwriters. I was really lucky to do that.”
Finally, tell us about one of your favourite pieces of gear?
“One of my favourite pieces of gear in the studio right now is the UDO Super 6. Someone described it to me as like a Juno on steroids, which I’d kind of agree with. The layout of it is really similar to a Juno, which is one of my favourite designs – it’s really simple. It’s got this amazing Super mode, which basically, you can really push and make it really wide and give it that kind of big unison sound.”