Record producers use various metaphors to explain what they do. Some compare the job to being an interpreter, others to directing traffic. Malay, who was closely involved with the creation of two of 2016’s most talked-about albums, thinks of himself as a babysitter.
“When I’m making a record with someone, the record is basically their child,” he said recently. “So how do you get them to trust someone they just met?
“It’s like, ‘Hey, I don’t really know you — but want me to take care of your baby?’”
For Frank Ocean and Zayn, that prospect was a reassuring one.
The two singers, among pop’s most guarded and skeptical, called separately on Malay this year for help realizing complicated ideas: Ocean with his album “Blonde,” the R&B star’s long-awaited follow-up to his Grammy-winning 2012 debut, “Channel Orange,” which Malay also co-produced; and Zayn with “Mind of Mine,” the first solo effort by the former member of the British boy band One Direction.
Both projects debuted at No. 1, with “Blonde” earning the year’s fourth-biggest sales week. And “Mind of Mine” is likely to turn up when nominations for the 59th Grammy Awards are announced Tuesday. (“Blonde” would as well if Ocean hadn’t declined to submit his album for consideration in what he’s described as a protest of the Grammys’ “dated” awarding system.)
But more important to Malay, who also stands a chance at being nominated as producer of the year, is that the albums reflect the sense of freedom and security each artist felt while writing and recording with him.
You can hear it in “Flower,” a gentle acoustic ballad from Zayn’s record with lyrics in his father’s language of Urdu. It’s there too in “Nikes,” a haunted electro-soul track in which Ocean sings about identifying with the late Trayvon Martin because he “look just like me.”
Yet those are isolated examples of what distinguishes Malay’s approach. At a moment when many high-level record makers promise a signature sound or access to a network of established stars (for buzzy guest appearances), this soft-spoken 38-year-old seems to offer his clients a kind of psychic safe space to experiment.
“He’s extremely even-keeled — it’s never about the Malay show,” said Zach Katz, who heads up U.S. operations for the music publishing company BMG. “When you get into a room with a creative leader, you have to have a real collaborator like Malay who understands their vision and can bring it to the world.
“Some people don’t pick up on those nuances. But Malay always understands who he’s in the room with.”
If Malay has become one of pop’s key nurturers, perhaps that’s because he’s spent half his life in the role. Born James Ho, he grew up in Bellingham, Wash., where his Malaysian father exposed him to classic rock by Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd.
“I’ll never forget hearing the beginning of ‘Purple Haze,’” he said in an interview at a recording studio in North Hollywood. His dad, a collector of hi-fi stereo equipment, had set Malay up with a pair of nice headphones and pressed play.
“And right away I pulled them off and was like, ‘What is that sound?’ It just blew my mind.”
Though he’d shown potential as a wrestler in school, Malay eventually quit the sport to concentrate on music. He’d taught himself guitar and piano and was making money playing with a local reggae band. Then he had a son at age 19.
“That was becoming an adult overnight,” he said. “Suddenly you’re not the most important person in the world.”
To support his young family, he ran an espresso cart at a medical plaza in Bellingham. Work started early every morning, but he’d finish in time to spend the afternoons and evenings learning to use digital recording equipment.
His skills quickly developed to the point that a friend from Seattle, hip-hop producer Jake One, hired Malay in the mid-2000s to help with production he was doing for rapper 50 Cent’s G-Unit crew. That led to a move to New York, where he scraped up gigs producing acts from Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs’ MTV reality show “Making the Band.”
Having separated from his son’s mother (they have a younger daughter as well), Malay then moved to Atlanta, where he collaborated with artists including John Legend and Outkast’s Big Boi, before settling in Los Angeles in 2010.
Asked why L.A., Malay said he saw a clear westward migration of talent. But he also pointed out that Allegiant Air had just begun direct service from Los Angeles International Airport to the Bellingham airport — a crucial advantage in his frequent trips to see his kids.
It was here that Malay reconnected with Ocean, whom he’d known as a struggling songwriter in Atlanta, and got to work on what became “Channel Orange.” Crafty but deeply personal, the album made an instant star of the singer.
RCA Records Chairman Peter Edge, who put the producer together with Zayn, said he’s been a fan of Malay’s music for years. But “Channel Orange” was what convinced him that Malay was the man to help Zayn make “a record people might not expect” after his years in a boy band.
And Edge gave the two free rein to discover what that was, he said, even when it meant they packed up a mobile recording rig in order to lay down vocals in the Angeles National Forest.
“You’re talking about a kid who’d had this very militant experience,” Malay said of Zayn’s tightly managed One Direction days. “So doing his solo project, he was like” — and here the producer used some unprintable language that basically translates to “forget the rules.”
“One day he said, ‘Man, do you think we could take this out to the woods?’ I was like, ‘I don’t see why not.’”
Looking ahead, Malay said he wants to preserve that spirit of spontaneity in future projects, which include writing with Sam Smith, another artist facing the pressure of following up a smash debut.
But he’s also exerting more control over his career: Last month BMG announced it had formed a new label with Malay and his manager. And the producer is hoping next year to release an album of his own songs, a move that contrasts with his insistence that he’s most comfortable behind the scenes.
Conscious of his reputation as a musician whisperer, Malay said with a laugh, “I definitely don’t plan on becoming the superstar DJ guy, because that would change the dynamic I have with the artists I work with.” Then he thought for a second, allowing himself some wiggle room.
“Even if I do some festival shows, it’ll be about the production.”