Interview: Gwen Bunn on Professional Songwriting Today

Photography by: Shervin Lainez.

If you're a burgeoning producer in any hip-hop or hip-hop-adjacent scene, hoping to land a Kendrick Lamar placement is about as reasonable as hoping to land on the moon. Sure, it's possible, but is it likely? Of course not.

Gwen Bunn, not long after dropping out of the Berklee School of Music, made a grimy, drum-heavy beat with co-producer THC. It turned out to be the type of hypnotic, airy loop that all but commands a rapper to try his best over top. So when Schoolboy Q decided to use it in 2013 for "Collard Greens," that was big enough. When Kendrick decided to feature on the track, it launched it into the stratosphere. Top 100 on Billboard, critical praise from AllMusic and Pitchfork, almost 200 million streams to date, and, for Gwen, an auspicious beginning to a career as a professional songwriter and producer.

Gwen is probably tired of this origin story, as it's old news to her, but it certainly opened doors. After that initial success, she landed a production deal with BMG, which was detailed in this 2017 Vice documentary. The terms are, by her account, fair and straightforward. She turns in a certain number of productions, songs, or ideas per month, and then gets a regular check.

Of course, to many aspiring songwriters and producers, Gwen included, this is a dream come true. It's also an example of a kind of itinerant Tin Pan Alley. Instead of clocking in at the Brill Building, modern pop's professional songwriters create on their own, dipping in and out of genres, all while picking up placements when the stars align. Sometimes they work in various professional studios, sometimes they collaborate in the recording rooms of friends or colleagues, but often they work at home.

Gwen has worked alongside—or received credits for her work with—artists like Sean Paul, Rapsody, and Childish Gambino. She's also released a fantastic solo album of Voodoo-like R&B named Safe Travels, while working on a mysterious "Melody Dungeon" album, which, having been complete for some time, she is still holding for the right moment to release to the world.

I wanted to know more about the day-to-day of her career, how much of her time is spent on other artists vs. her own music, and what gear she uses to craft what she submits to BMG. Spoiler alert: Her rig is as modest as a bedroom producer's rig can be.

To hear more of Gwen's work, find her Bandcamp page here.

Gwen Bunn - "All Your Secrets"

Let's start at the very beginning. I know you grew up playing piano and singing at Ebenezer Baptist. What was the next instrument you picked up? How many instruments did you end up learning as a child?

As a kid, I kind of just stumbled upon piano naturally around church and seasoned musicians, like world-class musicians, just being in that environment. That led me to tap into some other things. But drums are the instrument that I was tapping into at an early age—and I didn't even realize really. It's one of my biggest passions for sure.

There were drum sets in our church, but in particular, I grew up with my Uncle Sonny [Sonny Emory]—a close friend of the family—he's a professional drummer. His wife and my mother grew up together, so their kids and me, we grew up pretty much under the same umbrella. Uncle Sonny's played drums for Earth, Wind & Fire, Bette Midler, Steely Dan... He's sponsored by Yamaha, so, his drum collection is out of control. It would just be drums everywhere downstairs in the basement. All over the crib. So, that's where I got my access. Either at church or we'd try to sneak after choir rehearsal or something with Uncle Sonny's kids.

What about the production side of it? What was your first DAW?

First DAW ever, in the beginning, was probably FL Studio on my Windows computer. I got it when I was like 12 or something like that. That's like the very first thing. Then Apple GarageBand from there, and then Logic.

Gwen Bunn. Photo by: Shervin Lainez.

For FL, that would have been an earlier version, like, FL3 or 4? So, you were basically making little eight-bar beats?

I was making beats on FL. I actually have some of those. A couple of those things were actually tight [laughs]. For real, for real. What I would do was, because it was FL Demo [a free version that lets you create but not save your tracks], I would make a quick demo with every beat and then I would put it in Audacity and stretch it out, and try to get the whole song with it. That was my vibe.

How different is your process today from that? What kind of programs are you using?

Depends on the vibe, but lately, I've definitely been on my iPad and just exploring that world. And I've done that for the past four years. I've been really getting more into it and kind of making it the basis of how I'm creating now. It's really fun. It's quick. It's interesting.

I've been using FL on there a little bit. Not as much, because it's definitely not the same as the desktop, but GarageBand is very interesting. I think they got some cool aspects on there. And then, I've been using Cubasis 2 [an app-based DAW made by Steinberg with some functions of its larger DAW Cubase]. It's actually very, very, very cool.

What are you able to do with that?

Just cook up, really. It's just another DAW. All your plugin apps will pull up. So, basically, I'm downloading plugin apps versus a plugin. And then, it's just pretty much all run through Cubasis—whatever you need really, from amps to drum machines to synthesizers to all of that. It's real interesting.

Do you have a keyboard MIDI controller that you're using or do you use a pad controller?

Yeah, I do. I'm using an iRig right now. I'm about to get this Korg. Korg has a cool MIDI for iPads and stuff like that, or phones or whatever.

I really like how that feels. The Korg one is definitely, definitely a cool, sleek vibe. I'm loving this iRig too. All of it pretty much gets the job done. Enough keys, like 37 keys. I got space. My hands aren't that big, so the tinier the keyboard, the better [laughs].

Are you looking at the Korg MicroKey?

Yeah, exactly. Definitely. This next one I get—I really love that vibe.

When you're working on songs for other artists, how much of it is done at your home studio vs. in other people's spots or professional studios?

I would say most of it is really just home vibe. It just depends on the day too. I don't discriminate as far as where I'm creating, not really. It's not a huge preference. I feel like moving around can help your creativity stay fluid. Just kind of not getting stuck in one area. I think balance is cool with that.

But most of the time, my personal stuff, it's more so geared towards me being in the crib, production-wise. It's fun to record vocals at a studio, because sometimes you don't feel like recording yourself. They might have access to some crazy preamps. You know what I mean? All kinds of different equipment.

That's always fun as far as vocals go, but production-wise, definitely comfortable being in my own space or going to the homie's crib, cooking up. We have big studios too, but I'd say it's half and half.

What's your home setup like?

So, home setup is pretty low-key right now. So, I have two cribs. Right now, I'm in the one in LA and then I have a spot in Atlanta where it's a little bit more in-depth. I'm kind of rebuilding out here.

In Atlanta, the studio is like keyboards, vintage keyboards—but like, the toy ones too, not necessarily in-depth synthesizers. Old Casios, little toy keyboards, and things like that. Those beginner keyboards sometimes have some really interesting sounds, like Yamahas or Casios. I have my bass, two guitars. So, it's definitely sound-driven. You know what I'm saying?

You want to get your hands on an instrument and see what you can make with it.

Yeah, exactly. It's definitely that vibe. So, out here [in LA], it's pretty much the same thing, but it's just a little bit more compact and more straight to the point. So, this iPad has definitely been crazy, because it's so small, but the sounds are so big.

You download an app or preset or plugin app and it's like 500 sounds. And you get lost in this world. Like, what in the world? It seems like you've got synthesizers in here coming out of this iPad. So, that's the setup here. Just the iPad, the iRig. I got my [Novation] MiniNova too. And then my guitar. I plug in my Fender a little bit every now and then and cook up.

We've got the iRig [interface] bussing. We've got some Yamaha monitors. It's really all you need for this iPad operation. Computers are a whole different... sometimes, it's a whole different ball game.

When learning and reading about instruments and recording equipment, it's easy to start thinking you need $10,000 dollars worth of stuff to make music.

Yeah, you absolutely do not [laughs].

Can you talk a little more about the plugin apps you're using?

I could run off some names just to give you an idea, just some different stuff that I'm tapping into.

There's an app called the iM1 by Korg. That's been pretty fun. And then, what is this? It's something called TF7 [an FM synth by Tenacious Frog]. That shit is really cool. It's trippy. Let me see. Auto-Tune actually has an app as well—Antares has an app for Auto Tune.

Are you doing that just on vocals, or do you ever use it on instruments?

You can, actually. It's actually weird. You can definitely freak it and do all kinds of things with it. And then another one by Sugar Bytes is called Cyclop. Super interesting. So, those are a couple, where it's just like, crazy world, crazy vibes. You can just get sucked in.

Vice's short documentary on Gwen Bunn.

So, I watched that little Vice documentary that they made on you about the publishing deal. Is that same deal going on, or do you still have something similar?

Yeah. That deal is about to be up, but I'm definitely still working with BMG. That's family.

Gwen Bunn. Photo by: Shervin Lainez.

I'm interested to know more about that arrangement. What's the process like for making those songs and shipping them off?

Well, it all depends. First it starts out just, "Where are you?," "Where are you located?," "What's your network?," "Who are you going to collab with?" Out here in LA, BMG sets me up with sessions with different producers or different songwriters. They have this thing called a Looking List, where it's people who are actually artists who are signed to these labels who tell you what they need on a list.

It's like, "This artist needs two pop records or two R&B..." They'll give you details of what these artists are looking for on this Looking List. Then they set you up in sessions and you just cook up, pretty much according to what you're trying to vibe to. Whatever you feel like you want to tap into.

But that's one way to go about it—there's more than one way to skin a cat. You can just do your own thing. Literally, like, just make music. Don't think about anything. Just create and just turn in music. Just send in, "This is what I got for the month." This is what it is. Like, that's it [laughs].

When it comes to the Looking List, how specific do those requests get?

It's kind of broad. It's more so like, "Needs pop records," or like, Pharrell was on the Looking List looking for "unique production," you know what I mean? Just kind of broad.

They'll give you like one word to kind of classify direction and then everything else is left to the imagination of yours. You kind of just have to do your own thing and guess. It's just one of those things. It depends on where you are in your career as well. It's a lot of different factors. You could be put in certain rooms when you're at a certain place in your life. You know what I mean? It's a different type of ball game.

Schoolboy Q feat. Kendrick Lamar - "Collard Greens," co-produced by Gwen Bunn

What's the big next step? What's the next thing on your horizon?

On the horizon now, it's just prepping for the rest of this year. Prepping for this summer, really. So, I released a project, Safe Travels, last year. We're about to kind of just reunite this type of thing. Give it a bit more life. I have no visuals for it, so I'm about to shoot some videos for a couple of songs, get them released. And then, from there, get the ball rolling with this new project I've got coming called Mood Swings that I'm producing. I'm excited about this.

With the productions you make for other people, is that more on the hip-hop side of things? Do you get to flex your R&B muscle a little bit more on your own stuff?

I wouldn't say it's more so on the hip-hop stuff. It's a good combination. Right now, I feel like it's super hip-hop driven, but I'm tapping into some pop stuff. Like last night, I did a whole different type of vibe that I never really do.

I will say it's a chance to really focus focus on this R&B thing, because I'm not necessarily making that all day, every day for people. It's definitely harder-sounding stuff.

You talked about how the producer Knxwledge sampled a track from an unreleased album of yours for Anderson .Paak. What's going on with that album? Is that Mood Swings or something else?

It's another whole operation. That's an album called Melody Dungeon that I've been talking about for a few years now. It's actually been done for a few years. I've kind of just been saving it. Just keeping it in the back.

Isn't that the name of your own production company too?

Yeah, exactly. Melody Dungeon's a label and a studio and an album. It's a whole vibe to it.

So when do we get to hear it?

I want to kind of put a couple more things out there. Just get my feet wet a little bit more and get my name out there some more too. And just get people more aware, so I can get the recognition that I know that album deserves, because it's a next level album, for sure.

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