Meet the Swedish producer who helped take Childish Gambino to the Grammys
You’ve heard the song: a slow and luscious number called “Redbone,” in which a high-voiced singer warns the listener to “stay woke” over a creeping soul groove that recalls early Prince.
And you might be aware that that voice belongs to Donald Glover, the multi-talented actor and director behind the acclaimed FX series “Atlanta.”
But what you probably don’t know is that the person who helped realize “Redbone,” a top 20 pop hit nominated for record of the year at Sunday’s Grammy Awards, is a soft-spoken Swedish composer whose day job is scoring Fox’s quirky “New Girl.”
Meet Ludwig Goransson, perhaps the least likely funkmeister in Los Angeles.
Tall and rangy, with a wispy beard that gives him the air of a backpacker or hacky-sack champ, Goransson, 33, is Glover’s primary creative partner in the musical project known as Childish Gambino. In late 2016, the act released its third full-length album, “Awaken, My Love!,” which earned several additional Grammy nominations, including album of the year (for which it’s up against blockbusters such as Kendrick Lamar’s “Damn” and Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic”).
The music proudly echoes the psychedelic ’70s-era R&B of the Isley Brothers, Parliament-Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone — stuff Glover has said he grew up hearing at home but which Goransson wasn’t exposed to as a kid in Sweden, where he studied classical music and jazz.
Yet Goransson’s clever production on the album, which blends live instrumentation and digital programming, is crucial to its believability; his arrangements ground the music in a familiar vibe even as Glover’s songs forgo easy nostalgia to address racism, police violence and his anxieties about modern-day fatherhood.
“Why did Donald want to work with me?” Goransson repeated thoughtfully when asked that question on a recent afternoon. “I think he just saw that I could get into his vision.”
Glover isn’t the only black artist who has enlisted Goransson to help communicate a distinctly African American perspective. Next month, the composer’s work will be heard in “Black Panther,” director Ryan Coogler’s big-screen Marvel Comics adaptation about a superhero from the imagined African nation of Wakanda.
It’s the latest collaboration between the two men, who met as grad students at USC’s film school, following Coogler’s earlier films “Fruitvale Station” (about a police killing in Coogler’s hometown of Oakland) and the “Rocky” spin-off “Creed.”
For “Black Panther,” Goransson traveled to Senegal to collaborate with local musicians led by Baaba Maal, the esteemed singer and guitarist.
“I really tried to immerse myself,” he said at his studio in Glendale, which was filled with instruments, including a log drum and mbira (or thumb piano) that he brought back from his trip. “Music in Africa is perceived so differently than Western classical music — it’s language and storytelling. I wanted to get that right.”
Daniel Glass, whose Glassnote Records released “Awaken, My Love!,” compared Goransson to earlier pop seekers such as Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, who found huge success in the ’80s with similar ideas about immersion in different traditions. Today, in an era more sensitive to the risks of cultural appropriation, that example can be seen as problematic.
Yet Coogler said his friend’s curiosity is genuine. He recalled a trip last summer to New York, where Goransson conducted an orchestra providing live accompaniment to a screening of “Creed” in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. After the show, Goransson and his fiancée went to Smalls, which the director described as “the type of club they only have in New York, with these young jazz dudes that play until the wee hours of the morning.
“We’d been surrounded by music all day,” Coogler added, “and he still wanted to hear more.”
In high school in Sweden, Goransson dabbled in production; he even sent a demo CD to Max Martin, the Swedish pop whiz known for his genre-defining work with Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys.
“My stuff was pretty wack,” he recalled with a laugh. “I got back the envelope and it was just stamped, like, ‘We don’t take demos.’”
Later, Goransson got the opportunity to compose a five-minute instrumental suite and hear it performed by an orchestra — a “divine” experience, as he put it, that shifted his focus to orchestral music. He moved to L.A. after college to concentrate on film scoring and eventually landed a gig composing for TV’s “Community.” That’s where he met Glover, who starred on the off-kilter comedy series and asked Goransson if he could help him finish some songs he was recording on the side.
The two put out their first Childish Gambino album, “Camp,” in 2011, then followed it two years later with “Because the Internet.” Both presented Glover as a rapper, but “Awaken, My Love!” showcases his singing; “Redbone,” which received a bump when director Jordan Peele used it to soundtrack the opening sequence of “Get Out,” is also nominated at the Grammys for traditional R&B performance.
Goransson said he and Glover began the album by convening their live band for a two-week jam session at Conway Recording Studios on Melrose Avenue. And though the producer went on to shape the recorded results using software, he’s hopeful that the album’s success signals a renewed interest among young music fans in playing instruments.
One thing that success has definitely done is boost the demand for Goransson’s production skills.
“I never used to get calls from artists or labels,” he said, “but once you have a top 20 hit, you start getting them.”
Going forward, he’s not interested in making a sequel to “Redbone” for anyone; instead, he wants to work with artists who enter the studio, as he said Glover does, with a strong point of view. (Dream gig No. 1: producing a record for the veteran jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel.)
His goal, he said, is always to expand his understanding, not only of music, but of people.
“I love learning new things,” he said with an earnest shrug. “Someone who comes in and just sits on the couch while they wait for me to make a beat?” He shook his head.
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