For the past few years, fans have spent more time keeping up with John Legend’s wife-to-be (he and Chrissy Teigen tie the knot this fall) than queuing up new wedding song material, Legend’s vocal specialty. As lovebirds eagerly take in Love in the Future, his first solo album in five years, executive producer Dave Tozer is taking a step back to marvel at the fruits of his labor. For almost two years, he and Kanye West have served as the dream team responsible for making Legend’s amorous visions a reality.
“I pretty much touched all the songs on the album,” says Tozer. By “touched,” he means producing songs from scratch, working with incoming demos, mixing most of the album, recording live instrumentation and serving as a songwriter on half of the project. That’s some touch. Consider Tozer and Kanye the hand and chisel to Legend’s clay. Tozer—who’s also worked with Jay-Z, Kanye West, Jazmine Sullivan and Musiq Soulchild to name a few—has been making quality music with John before the Grammy Award-winning artist took on his legendary surname. If you crack the CD cases for Get Lifted, Once Again, and Evolver, you’ll find his name there in the credits. Thanks to Tozer, Love in the Future is some of John’s most progressive work to date, and the skilled producer didn’t take his role in it lightly.
“A producer’s role is different from [just] making a beat,” says Tozer. “That’s part of it. But the real job of a producer is pulling the best out of an artist. You have to be able to inspire the artist to do their best work.” VIBE spoke with Tozer about shaping the sonic vision of Future with Yeezus, trying to get Adele’s voice on the project and how artists can be used as instruments. —Stacy-Ann Ellis (@stassi_x)
VIBE: On first listen, Love in the Future is quite the charmer. What’s been the feedback so far?
Dave Tozer: It does seem in general that it’s very, very positive so far. I think we anticipated that it would be. We all felt like it was really good. John was really proud of it. In general, we were feeling really positive coming into the release of it, and so far people are eating it up.
Both you and Kanye served as executive producers on the album. Can you break down the specific roles each of you played?
In a lot of ways, my function as executive producer came down to shaping the sonics of the album into a cohesive piece, whether it was material John and I worked on from scratch or material that he’d worked on with other collaborators. My role is to unify everything in terms of the arrangements and the production on the records. Kanye was also involved in the overall sonic vision. Kanye functioned as a coach in a lot of ways. He’s a busy guy and wasn’t always around, so we’d sit with him, play him stuff and he’d give his feedback on it. For example, it was Kanye’s idea to do the cover of “Open Your Eyes.” He thought people would really love hearing John sing that song. It would just make people feel good. I did more of the hands on arrangements and things like that, but he’d certainly chime in on it and give direction on certain things he might like or not like.
Sonically and contextually, what are the key differences between Love in the Future and John’s previous albums?
John and I have been writing great songs from the start when we were writing demos before a record deal. For my part, I’ve just gotten better as a producer and arranger over the years. There’s some stuff now that is musically more adventurous. Take something like “Asylum.” That’s a real standout in terms of sound painting. That’s new territory for John and something that I was pushing along the way. “Made to Love” is also one of the more progressive songs on the album. Those things I don’t think I would have gotten on earlier John Legend stuff because I think I’ve gotten better at those things. We also wanted to make something that had that flavor of a classic, soul, hip-hop combination like Get Lifted, but was still pushing it forward and doing something new and fresh. Because you can’t go back. An artist doesn’t go back. And I think because of John’s personal life, thematically the album is very hopeful and it has themes of dedication. It’s love, you know? You’ll hear that in “All of Me” and “You And I.” The songs we chose were shaped around that. The previous albums didn’t have that specific narrative.
You mentioned that “Asylum” was an album standout. Would you say it’s one of your favorites?
“Asylum” is my favorite song on the album. When you strip away all of the window dressing on it, you can still just sit down at the piano. It’s a beautiful melody with beautiful lyrics. As a matter of fact, I’m thinking of even doing an acoustic version with John. It’s new ground for him. It’s intense in a very beautiful way and I think the bridge of “Asylum” is one of the musical high points of the record where it uplifts you and takes you to a space. “Hold on Longer,” too, because it’s very Stevie Wonder-influenced. I was really happy with the vocal sound I got out of John for that and the arrangement of it with analog synthesizers doing the melody like on a Stevie record. I’m looking for mood and character. I want to feel something when I listen to music. Those songs really bring you into a world and that’s the whole thing we’re trying to do. Keep you inside the world without breaking the spell.
When Ye was physically there, what was the work atmosphere and chemistry like?
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Photo Credit: Dave Tozer