Emile Haynie is in a great mood. Speaking to The FADER over Skype, the producer to the stars is back in the L.A. hotel room where, last year, he finally sat down and wrote his own debut album, We Fall. It's much easier to get work done out here than it is in his native New York, he enthuses: "Here I wake up, and the sunlight is beaming in, and I wanna go do something."
Today, he's got a meeting with Adele, who's sitting in another room while this interview happens ("Take three hours if you need!" she tells him, incredibly). It's the first time they've met, but having produced for the likes of Kanye West and Lana Del Rey, you'd think it wouldn't phase him. Yet the noticeable buzz he gets from meeting her makes it instantly apparent why great artists warm to him; "She's super cool!" he tells me, coming back on the call after their brief hellos. "You can tell the second somebody walks in, no matter how massive of a star they are, if they're just chill and cool you get that energy right away. And I just got it."
Though he's all smiles today, Haynie's We Fall is the embittered story of a long-term relationship told after its breakdown, soaked in traditional songwriting, and packed with guest features that run the spectrum from Brian Wilson to Lykke Li, and Lana Del Rey to Rufus Wainwright. It's a singular achievement for a debut, and one that could only have been pulled off by Haynie, who over the last 15 years has gradually become the go-to producer for pop's biggest names. It's also a world away from where he started, growing up in Buffalo in the 1980s on a strict diet of New York hip-hop.
As a child, Haynie obsessively curated proto-mixtapes of his favorite tracks, but didn't even think of making music himself until he dropped out of school at 15. Balancing "shitty jobs" with a burgeoning DJ career, he started getting into production and daydreaming about becoming the next DJ Premier, eventually making the ambitious move to New York proper—or at least, his mom's basement in Queens—at the tender age of 17. "My quote unquote 'hustle' would be to sit in my house making beats all day, and then make a tape or a CD," Haynie recalls. "I would go to record stores and bump into a producer I was a fan of, or sometimes on the street there'd be a famous artist, and you'd just give them your beats." Unlikely as it sounds, that's how Haynie's first big break came in 2000, when he was 20 and working in a sneaker store. "A friend of mine got a job as the assistant to the assistant tour manager for D-12," he says. "I was a huge Eminem fan at the time, and I got the intel on when D-12's tour bus was going to pull up to Madison Square Garden for a big show. So I just sat there on the corner—I was waiting on 9th Avenue and 33rd Street—and sure enough the bus rolls up. Proof came bopping off the bus, so I gave him a CD."
"The next day, my pager starts blowing up," Haynie continues. "It was Proof, saying 'I listened to your CD the entire way back to Detroit. It's 11am now, there's a 4pm flight—can I buy you a ticket to come out to work with us?' That was it, I got on the flight and spent like a week with them."
"My quote unquote 'hustle' would be to sit in my house making beats all day, and then make a tape or a CD." Emile Haynie
Within 24 hours, Haynie was meeting Eminem, and despite being "completely overwhelmed," found an immediate brotherly connection with Proof; "He had this skill of making everybody happy." The first thing Proof put Haynie onto was producing on Obie Trice's debut album, alongside Eminem. "I was like a fly on the wall," says Haynie. "I learned a lot watching [Eminem]. It took years to warm up and really feel comfortable working in that situation; I was always sort of along the sidelines."
Over the following five years, Haynie went on to make beats for Raekwon, Ghostface, Ice Cube, Remy Ma and others, but it was observing D-12 at work that instilled in him grander ideas. "It was interesting watching my beat—which would be a sample and some basic drums—turn into this big thing with strings and different sounds," he reflects. "I come from New York-era hip-hop, where you just make a beat and nothing really changes. But Em, coming from that school of Dr Dre, had musicians and made songs." Around 2007, Haynie began a prolific collaboration with Kid Cudi that would see him really stretch his songwriting skills: "Cudi was more melody-driven." So Haynie taught himself how to play piano, bashing out Beatles songs late at night after studio sessions working on A Kid Named Cudi and Man On The Moon.
Later, while recording Cudi's Man On The Moon II with the G.O.O.D. Music crew in Hawaii, Kanye asked him to play him some beats. During the listening session, Haynie tried skipping through an unfinished track, only for Kanye to insist he go back and let him hear it. That rough draft went on to become the ultimate toast to break-ups and breakdowns: Kanye's "Runaway."
"The next day, my pager starts blowing up. It was Proof, saying 'I listened to your CD the entire way back to Detroit. Can I buy you a ticket to come out to work with us?'" Emile Haynie
Perhaps that was a turning point, for there's been a melancholic streak running through Haynie's catalogue ever since. He began working with artists like Lana Del Rey (who he describes as "like my sister") and FKA Twigs, honing a warped take on traditional pop music at its sexiest and its bleakest—and often somewhere uncomfortably in the middle. Lending production to Twigs' "Give Up" and "Two Weeks," as well as pretty much all of Lana's major tearjerkers, including "Born To Die" and "Summertime Sadness," Haynie earned a reputation for helping major stars turn heartache into hits.
Then, in late 2013, he got his own heart broken. Feeling "fucked over" by the end of a long-term relationship, Haynie suddenly found himself writing songs of his own in studio parking lots during breaks from sessions for The Weeknd and Mark Ronson. When Lana came to Haynie's studio in New York for an Ultraviolence session one afternoon, the two got talking about relationships instead, and spontaneously recorded a demo. That session later became the We Fall track "Wait For Life," a song about impossible romance that's pinned around Lana's soft teasing out of the phrase, I'm lonely.
Though it was never in Haynie's plan, these outbursts would eventually become his debut album. In early 2014, he travelled to L.A. for the Grammys as he was nominated along with the band fun. for his work on their sophomore album; it was while there that the band's lead singer Nate Ruess and Interscope's John Janick finally persuaded him to take his writing seriously: "That's when it really hit me—why go back to New York?" Instead, he had a piano and several bunches of flowers moved into his hotel room at the Chateau Marmont and, for the first time, began focusing solely on fleshing out his own musical world.
Haynie's world, it turned out, wasn't too far from the one he'd inhabited in his mom's basement in Queens, stacked with the rock and soul records he used to mine for samples. Except now, he's in the driving seat: "What I've learned over the years is how to make that sound on my own, rather than digging through records and getting it from others." It's the sound of shimmering orchestration, unshakeable hooks, and tragicomic lyricism; of great songwriters like Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, and the Beach Boys. In particular, Haynie became obsessed with the latter's Pet Sounds during his transformative L.A. stay, to the point that he made it his mission to get Brian Wilson on the album. While most of the features on We Fall came about through jamming sessions, this one called for a straight-up Haynie hustle: he cold-emailed the track to Wilson's wife, and "lucked out" when she came back to say the Beach Boys singer had listened to it 30 times—he was in.
Yet, for all of the illustrious guest vocals, some of the album's most searing cuts bear Haynie's own voice, on record for the first time. The singing, like everything else, was unplanned: the extra-bitter "Dirty World" was born from a wallowing late night session, and was never intended to make it to the album. "I barely remember recording it," he says. "I was completely drunk when I did it. It was at four in the morning, just blurting out this sad drunk thing." Emboldened, he also sang on the album's closer "The Other Side," another twilight track which hinges on the words, I was never quite enough for you. "It was a pretty bad vibe," Haynie says now of the session. He's deflective when speaking about those nights, bouncing off the topic into sunnier details and says it feels "stupid" to dwell on the past now. But there's a lot to be gleaned from his final word on the matter: "It was dark."
While on paper it sounds like a monumental bummer, "The Other Side" is actually a bombastic march forwards, full of glorious strings that offset his crackly vocal that insists optimistically on the chorus, you don't even matter no more. "It kind of morphed into a closure tune," reflect Haynie. "It turned into a happy thing, almost a triumphant thing." The same could be said of the whole of We Fall; "I might have gone crazy if I didn't [make this album]," he continues, referring simultaneously to his need to process his heartbreak and his desire to steer his career in a new direction. That 20-year-old perched on a street corner waiting to hand his beat CD to a rapper is the same 34-year-old now sitting at a piano trying to articulate his sadness; every step of Haynie's story is one of a man always striving for the next challenge rather than stagnating where he is. It's all there on the record sleeve: a room stuffed full of flowers, the waiting piano, and the L.A. sunshine streaming in through the windows.
Interscope will release Emilie Haynie's debut album We Fall on February 23rd. Photo credit: Ignacio Alegre Garcia.