It’s not uncommon for people to live multiple lives in the music industry. Patti Smith was a critic before becoming rock royalty as the “High Priestess of Punk.” Jon Landau was also a famed critic before becoming Bruce Springsteen’s longtime manager. So, artists who’ve worked in the industry are not uncommon.
But few have ever done so with the remarkable diversity and success Martin Kierszenbaum currently navigates the music industry. Kierszenbaum is the CEO and founder of Cherrytree Records; he manages Sting, Shaggy and more; as a producer/songwriter he has worked with Lady Gaga, Madonna and more, and he just released his own artist album, the very enjoyable Martin Kierszenbaum. So, at this point, if you see Kierszenbaum in the lobby selling shirts at a Sting concert no one would be surprised. Talk about a one-man show.
I spoke, at length, with Kierszenbaum about his journey in the industry, from moving from Michigan to L.A. while knowing no one; his long working relationship with Sting; the sound he wanted on his self-titled album, starting out working with Ice-T and much more.
Steve Baltin: How is it in New York today?
Martin Kierszenbaum: It’s a gorgeous day. Shaggy, whom I manage, launched his own Sirius channel on Sirius Radio called Shaggy’s Boombastic Radio, channel 332 today. That was exciting and even more exciting, he was able to share it with a bunch of people there. Smokey Robinson was there and Conan O’Brien
Baltin: How’d Sting and Shaggy’s Philadelphia festival go by the way?
Kierszenbaum: We were over the moon with it. It was 10,000 people. Now, the weather was a little spotty, but my wife walked around filming in between shows. She wanted to show me a vibe. But she captured a lot of people talking. And what we heard was this incredible joy and euphoria and people going along with the weather. We had to move some time slots. We had to cut a couple songs, but everybody seemed so happy. And of course, Sting and Shaggy set the tone because they were introducing every band, walking from stage to stage through the crowd. It was a blast. It was a dream of mine to throw a festival. And luckily those guys were into it, but I think it’ll happen again because it was really successful.
Baltin: Where do you see it happening next time?
Kierszenbaum: Philadelphia, baby. Philadelphia all the way. I got a chance to visit it a lot because my son went to school there and I fell in love with it. And so maybe that led to meeting people there. There’s a guy named Jeff Gordon who runs the Live Nation office there, who’s very creative, very out-of-the-box thinker, a guy named John Hampton who works with him. And they just got the concept right away. I think we’ve had agreat history, both artists in Philadelphia. So we felt it was a friendly place to launch it. And then they’ve been so supportive, both the media and the audience that, for now, I can’t imagine doing it anywhere else. Who knows, that might change, but right now we just we’re in love with Philadelphia. It was a great day.
Baltin: Where did your son go to school?
Kierszenbaum: My son went to Penn. He’s a film composer. His name’s Andrew Kierszenbaum. He writes for a show called Arcane on Netflix. My son has been living and breathing first the piano, played piano forever. And then arranging, composing, voracious listener to things. He’s got this iPad with every score in the world. It’s almost like Fantasia. You don’t have to touch the iPad when you’re playing in the piano. So, he was a guy that immersed himself in what he loved early on. And I think that’s a blessing. That happened to me. I was very young and I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in music, around music, living inside music. And I think it probably kept me out of trouble and it also gave me a head start on what I was going to be doing.
Baltin: You’re very fortunate to have been around so many great artists, and you’re in the unique perspective of having been from the industry side and the artist side.
Kierszenbaum: Yeah, you’re right about that. Except that there’s a long time in my life, especially when I was developing my skills in music, where I had zero access. I literally threw myself [laughter] and threw away everything, really. I left where I grew up, my family, my friends and everything, and I drove to Los Angeles and I slept on someone’s floor until I got a job in the mail room at PolyGram and I just thrust myself into proximity of the music business because I don’t know why. I think about it a lot to this day. I wonder if I’d do it again. I was compelled. I was living in Michigan at the time, and everybody acted like I was going to fall off the edge of the earth. California was especially far from Michigan at that time. This was before the internet and everything. New York seemed a little bit closer. You could drive to it in a day. So, I literally thrust myself into the music. And then as I started, I worked nonstop. As you say, I got opportunities to be around amazing musicians and artists and executives. But I don’t know if that would’ve happened if I hadn’t been probably delusional and just moved there without any map or anything, just some sort of internal compass. Weird.
Baltin: I think you have to be a bit delusional to be successful.
Kierszenbaum: Good, because I’m still delusional (laughter).
Baltin: Are there artists that you particularly have enjoyed working with or learned a lot from their process?
Kierszenbaum: So many, there were so many talented musicians. Even before L.A. in Michigan, so many talented musicians. Before that, my sister, we played Four Hands piano. My sister, a really great violin player, went to conservatory Eastman. And I would always get her to play crazy stuff on my pop songs and she would oblige. I was in a hip-hop group before that, so we’d go to New York a lot. I was in a group called Maroon and we would throw ourselves into these adventures where it was like new music seminar, CMJ or whatever. We’d be in the same room with the Zulu Nation or Ice-T or something. It was incredible. In fact, Ice-T was one of the first artists I ever worked with, and I got a job at Warner as an international publicist. He was very kind and he let me come to the video shoots and observe how he worked. And what I noticed right away is that Ice-T had a work ethic. He had a direction and a vision that he was completely committed to and would not yield until he achieved it. Ice-T was like, “This is what we’re doing, this is when we’re doing it. This is who we’re using for musicians.” Then we did Body Count, and I got to see all that. He was the one who gave me my first ever gold record in music for Freedom Speech, Watch What You Say, which I still have proudly displayed. And then of course, getting to work with Sting. I started working with Sting in ’91. Not in the capacity I work with him now. I was his international publicist at first, and then was his marketing partner. I think I did every job. He was on my label for 10 years, Cherrytree, when I was part of Universal. And then I became his manager seven years ago. And then we’ve sort of off and on collaborated, writing together, even on the last record producing. He’s amazing. It’s interesting working with him because in many ways his music informed my approach. I love the fact that he’s not afraid of an amalgamation of genres or he is going to be a little bit more ambitious in terms of key movements and things like that. In a way, I got some training from Sting through his records, so aesthetically maybe I’ve been shaped by that. So, it’s very comfortable to work with him. But there have been so many people. I got to work with Trevor Horn on tATu. He was so kind and inviting and was like, “Hey, you play the keyboard.” I remember I ran out of money and he produced three songs from the album, and I’m like, “Will you do the rest?” He goes, “No, you’re done.” I said, “Who’s going to do the rest?” He goes, “You are.” I went home and I talked to my wife and I said, “I’m out of money. I can’t hire Trevor. And he told me I should do it.” And Heather goes, “Well, if you think Trevor’s great… ” I said, “He’s one of the best producers ever.” She said, “And if he thinks you can do it, do it.” That’s what we ended up doing. And we sold five million albums. So, you’re right. I’ve been around some amazing high-level musicians. Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis. Terry Lewis would come over to my office when I was at Interscope and give me advice. Very lucky. But it didn’t start that way. I’d say I was pretty developed as a musician before I got those opportunities, which made me ready to accept the wisdom they were going to share. I’d gone to school for music in Michigan, so I was already playing a lot, writing a lot. I was already in my hip-hop group. And probably it was a convergence of being ready and then having the opportunity to learn from some incredible people.
Baltin: What was the sound you envisioned for this album?
Kierszenbaum: I had an idea on this album to create a band in my mind. I played most everything, but I thought, “I’m only going to use these instruments. And that’s going to be the thread across the songs other than my voice.” I sort of purposely put myself in a box. I do that a lot when I produce records too, with other artists. We have a talk and say, “What’s the palette going to be? What is our choice of colors? And let’s have some continuity across the opus.” And I did that to myself even more. I was like, “Okay, we’re going to have a guitar. It’s going to be relatively clean sound or maybe use a hollow body. Maybe we’re going to use a Gibson 335, then we’re going to use this Rickenbacker bass. I love the tone because it’s not too dirty and it’s not too clean. And then this snare sounds going to be across the whole album, maybe with an exception here.” And then I indulged myself and I said, “We’re going to have some sort of marimba, because marimba always felt they’re goth.” And I thought, “Okay, that’s still in the ensemble.” And I seriously laid that out. So, if you listen across the record, I’m using the same instrumentation on purpose.
Baltin: What do you take from this record as a whole body of work?
Kierszenbaum: I like to think about continuity. I like to think about presentation of a complete work. I guess I’m tied to those concepts. I’ve been inspired by so many people who’ve been able to do that, a complete thought, and even though I recorded these songs across a lot of time, I had that in the back of my head. I had, “Well, maybe they’ll live together at one point.” That was my goal. I do feel proud that they belong together, that was a goal.
Baltin: What are a few of those albums that when you were growing up had that continuity?
Kierszenbaum: There are so many records that I loved. Probably [The Police] Synchronicity, there are a couple songs on there that are a little bit off the wall. But probably save two songs that record’s almost a perfect arc of an album. And then [Sting] Ten Summoner’s Tales, another one. I was already working with him when he did that. I love The Knack, Get The Knack. What a great record. It’s very L.A. too, very power pop. That’s a big influence on my albums, power pop. I love The Raspberries, I like the Romantics, who are from Michigan where I did a lot of my growing up. I love Graham Parker. I think Graham Parker’s got a couple albums that are a whole fully composed idea. I love The Real Macaw. I love Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love. Some people might think that’s not his best album. The songs, the melodies and the lyrics and the sentiment, that’s a perfect album to me. We put one out on Cherrytree, we put out a few perfect records. Obviously, I’m biased, cause it’s my label. But, Leslie Feist The Reminder, that’s a perfect record. Keane, Hopes and Fears. Perfect record.