Nate Mercereau on the Harmony of Solo and Session Work
The seasoned musician—who’s worked with everyone from Jay Z to Lizzo—explains how writing and producing for others doesn’t take away from his own creative solo vision: it actually enhances it.
Even if you don’t know Nate Mercereau's name, you’re certainly familiar with his sonic touch—the Los Angeles-based multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer has had a hand in records by JAY Z, Lizzo, Alessia Cara, Logic, Kesha, Mike Posner, and many others. He cowrote Shawn Mendes' platinum “Lost in Japan,” and coproduced a chunk of Leon Bridges' Grammy-nominated Good Thing with hitmaker Ricky Reed. But on Mercereau's debut solo album, Joy Techniques, you can hear him in an entirely different context—his own. Released on his How So Records, "a record label for seekers," this nine-song set serves up an experimental combination of jazz wilding, funky grooves, ace production, and noisy live performance. From the outside, it could seem worlds apart from Mercereau's other work, but he doesn't see it that way. We met up to talk to him about how working on others' visions can benefit your own—and how it doesn't mean giving up on your passion.
Spotify for Artists: From the outside, it could be easy to assume that joining the world of pop songwriting, and studio sessions for others' records, could mean giving up on one's own dreams.
Nate Mercereau: Even when I talk to some other musicians, if I mention the pop stuff, there's this squint in their eyes, like, "So, you're doing that so you can make the money and take it back to the real thing." But I'm not getting my soul sucked. I get so much from working with all of these different people. I'm wary about coming across like, "I work for these pop nerds but I do my own thing." It's not like that. Having my own project is an expansion of this world of music I'm part of.
But isn't time spent on someone else's vision time not spent on your own?
That's true. There's a lot of stuff I do with other people's visions in mind, and my whole goal is to figure out who they are and who they want to be, and to make music that helps them achieve that. But a lot of the pop stuff comes also from me making music without asking anybody what to do [and pitching whole song ideas]. That variety is my favorite thing about music. Going between the worlds of pop music and the experimental, and everything in between, is where I thrive.
What about the fear of using up one's best ideas on another person's project?
When you think of your ideas as scarce, you're stopping yourself from having more ideas because you're so attached to the one. And if you're holding back your best idea in a session, you're making that session worse. You have to believe you're going to have another best idea. Because you will. Especially if you continue to make new music with new people who get you outside your box. Then you're always moving forward, creating and learning new things.
Are there cases where flexing ideas in a session sparks something for your solo work?
That happens consistently. I'll be working with whomever and we'll do something that will open a whole new door musically or conceptually for me. It's not always a concrete thing. It could be an energy thing, the way someone made something, or a topic. But I always take something back into my own world, experiment, and see how far I can take it until the next idea comes along.
Did that happen specifically on Joy Techniques?
Working with pop writers and artists did inspire me to get straight to the point with my melodies, making sure they're concise and hook-oriented. But I also wanted to pull in something more familiar to me, which is full-blown exploration and messy live takes. I wanted those two worlds to exist at the same time—each means more as a result of the other being in the same song.
Terrace Martin is on the title song. Was that a result of working on Leon Bridges' LP?
Actually, yeah. We had him over to work on an instrumental for "Bad Bad News," but we also had a jam session—just plugged in some keyboards, a drum machine, my guitar synthesizer, and played for like an hour. We'd just met, and were there making something else, but I ended up superimposing this chord progression we came up with over the groove in "Joy Techniques."
A lot of music lovers might not realize that the people who are in these sessions are exactly the sort of musicians you’d want to jam with—smart, talented, super creative.
I always come back to Teddy Geiger. She's one of the most inspiring musicians I've ever met, and she works pretty exclusively in a really pop context. There are so many musicians in that world who are virtuoso multi-instrumentalists and the most exciting people to be in the studio with. There's no dumbing-down happening. It's all high-level stuff, trying to make the best thing possible and, within that context, making something that relates to the most people possible.
We've been talking about how sessions benefit solo, but does it work the other way too?
Absolutely. It benefits me mentally and even spiritually, for lack of a better term, because I know I'll always have a place for any idea I have. I don't have to throw it away because it didn't make sense for so-and-so. You don't feel like you're being shut down, so it allows you to work even more in service of that session instead of just trying to weasel in your cool chord progression.