Greg Kurstin is one of pop music's most in-demand songwriter-producers, a proven hit maker who works closely with A-list singers like Pink and Kelly Clarkson. But he wasn't always so comfortable around celebrity.
The year was 1982, and Kurstin — an L.A. native who grew up near the Getty Center — had formed a middle-school band with Frank Zappa's son Dweezil. Interacting with Frank was no problem; the late rock experimentalist walked around the Zappa home like a normal guy, Kurstin says. The trouble arose with the person the group chose to oversee its debut single: Eddie Van Halen.
"I didn't even know what to say to him," Kurstin said with a laugh on a recent morning at his Silver Lake studio. "He was a superstar, and it was so intimidating. I was just scared of him."
Two decades later, the scared young rocker is now the one behind the mixing desk. Though he's perhaps best known to L.A. club audiences as half of the brainy indie-pop duo the Bird and the Bee, Kurstin, 43, has established a presence (if not quite a name) on Top 40 radio with songs such as Pink's "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)" and Clarkson's "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)," which topped the Hot 100 in February. In 2010 he was nominated for the Grammy Awards' producer prize. And he has a track on Kesha's new album, "Warrior," due out Tuesday.
The Kurstin sound is as shiny and hook-oriented as much of the music with which it shares chart space. But listen deeper to his work — to the chewy electro-reggae grooves on Lily Allen's 2009 disc "It's Not Me, It's You," for instance — and you'll hear an eccentric streak that distinguishes it from that of other first-call song doctors like Max Martin and Stargate; the music brandishes off-kilter tones and follows unexpected detours. That's what's attracted more left-field artists such as Santigold, the Shins and Tegan and Sara, the Canadian twin sisters who hired Kurstin for their upcoming album, "Heartthrob."
"I could've told you five minutes into our first meeting that this was someone I wanted to work with," says Sara Quin. "We thought he could help us make a kind of record we'd never made before. And he did."
Kurstin's path to his current position was as circuitous as one of his songs. The son of an educational administrator and a steel-products distributor, he spent his adolescence studying piano and obsessing over the Clash and the Specials. ("My Mother Is a Space Cadet," his early '80s single with Dweezil Zappa, bears out that influence.)
In high school Kurstin's tastes veered toward jazz, so much so that he eventually left for New York to study with the famed pianist Jaki Byard at the New School. But soon he found the atmosphere too intense.
"Every time you played in a jam session you had to be great or they'd just write you off," Kurstin said of his classmates. "It almost pushed me away from jazz."
Seeking a less "rigid" creative environment, he returned to L.A. and finished his degree at the California Institute of the Arts. Playing jazz was still Kurstin's plan, at least until his friend Tommy Jordan told him that David Byrne had heard a tape they'd made under the name Geggy Tah and wanted to put out a record on his label.
"We were like, 'Oh my God — how could we pass this up?'" Kurstin recalled. They didn't: Luaka Bop released three Geggy Tah albums, one of which included the 1996 quirk-rock hit "Whoever You Are."
After Geggy Tah burned out, Kurstin worked as a session player and touring musician for Beck and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others. "But eventually I realized I didn't want to dedicate all my time to someone else's music," he said, adding that as a father of two young children he'd lost his enthusiasm for the road. "I thought I still had something creative to say."
He began saying it again with singer Inara George, who in the Bird and the Bee complements Kurstin's '60s-inspired textures with deadpan vocals and handsome post-Bacharach melodies. And when a friend introduced him to a music-publishing executive — a meeting that turned quickly into a deal — he started writing with other artists, as well. Success came first in England, until Lily Allen's global breakthrough raised his profile here — though not, says Sony/ATV Co-President Jody Gerson, to the degree of some of his peers.
"A lot of producers right now, they think they're the big name, which artists hate," the publisher says. "Greg knows his place in the room."
George thinks singers can further relate to Kurstin because he's an "incredible player" and a full-on music nerd. "It also helps," the singer says, "that he's not crazy."
That appears to be the case: Plastic kids' toys far outnumber empty beer cans at Kurstin's studio. And his ambition seems to run less deeply than his desire to be home for dinner.
"A lot of this stuff kind of fell into my lap," he said. "I'm kind of just going with it."