Interview with John Ehmann, Vice President of A&R at Interscope Records
John Ehmann, a young A&R executive who works at Interscope Records in Los Angeles, has already achieved major success in the music business. He is known for signing (with former Interscope A&R exec Larry Jackson) renowned artists Lana Del Rey and Aloe Blacc to Interscope, and handling A&R duties for them. He has also signed several other artists & bands, and currently handles A&R duties for Canadian pop star Carly Rae Jepsen.
Ehmann has worked with Del Rey for the past four years, overseeing A&R for her best-selling albums Born to Die and Ultraviolence, and her hit singles “Summertime Sadness,” “Video Games,” “West Coast,” and “Young and Beautiful” (from The Great Gatsby soundtrack). He has also worked for the past three years with Blacc, who has broken through with two worldwide hits, “Wake Me Up” (as a featured artist with Avicii) and “The Man,” from his album Lift Your Spirit.
During the past two years, Ehmann has also signed the alternative/pop band Young Rising Sons (from New Jersey), French artist/DJ/producer Cedric Gervais, and Pia Mia, an 18-year-old pop artist (from Guam).
Originally from Albany, NY, Ehmann began working fulltime at J Records (owned by Sony Music) in 2005, after working at J as an intern while attending Hofstra University in Long Island. He worked closely with A&R execs Larry Jackson and Trevor Jerideau, and had the opportunity to work under legendary CEO Clive Davis. Ehmann handled A&R coordination for such hit artists as Leona Lewis, Monica, Jasmine Sullivan, and rapper Cassidy.
Ehmann was then promoted to A&R Manager in 2009, and he & Jackson signed singer/songwriter BC Jean (who co-wrote the hit “If I Were A Boy” for Beyonce) to a label deal at J Records.
Then in early 2011, Jimmy Iovine (then CEO at Interscope Records) offered top A&R positions to both Jackson and Ehmann, so they moved to Los Angeles to work at Interscope.
We are pleased to present this Q&A interview with John Ehmann. He tells how he got started, how he landed his first A&R job, and about signing and working with Lana Del Rey, Aloe Blacc and other artists.
DK: Where are you from, and how did you get started in the music business?
Ehmann: I came from a small town, Albany (NY). I was an avid music fan, and I fell in love with hip-hop–I would write rhymes in my notebooks. During high school, I would DJ at house parties. For college, I went to Hofstra University in Long Island.
The summer before my senior year of college (in 2004), I got a chance to intern at J Records. That whole summer I moved to Brooklyn, and I would take the train to work at J Records in Manhattan. I really enjoying interning at J Records–I felt it was a home for me. When my senior year started I kept interning; I bunched up my classes so I could work as much as possible at the label. I would stay at friends’ places in Manhattan so I could work more at J. So I ended up interning at J throughout my senior year.
DK: Was it after you graduated from Hofstra, that you landed a fulltime position at J Records?
Ehmann: Yes. It was in 2005 that I got a fulltime job as an A&R assistant, working for Larry Jackson and Trevor Jerideau. It was a great experience doing A&R and working at J. It was a gateway point for me, to establish new contacts. I got the opportunity to learn the A&R craft. I’d see what Larry and Trevor were doing, and I grasped it all like a sponge. I spent the next two years learning the ropes and working late at the office. I was able to find a song called “Can’t Breathe” which Leona Lewis recorded for her album, Echo.
Then in my third year (doing A&R), I discovered an artist named BC Jean, who had just written the monster hit, “If I Were A Boy” (for Beyonce). We did a showcase in L.A. with BC Jean. She was great, and she signed with us. That was my first signing.
DK: Was it at that time that you became an A&R exec?
Ehmann: Yes. (In 2009) I moved up to become an A&R manager. I also got the chance to work directly with (legendary CEO) Clive Davis. That was another great experience, working with Clive Davis and watching how he operates. I worked on BC Jean’s album with Larry (Jackson) and Clive.
DK: When did you decide to work at Interscope and move to Los Angeles?
Ehmann: It was in February 2011 that Larry Jackson and I left J Records, and we moved out west to Interscope. Jimmy Iovine (then Interscope CEO) called Larry and offered him a great new job there. Larry asked me if I wanted to move to L.A. and work with him at Interscope, and I said yes.
DK: You are known for your A&R work with Lana Del Rey. How did you sign her?
Ehmann: I’d found out about Lana when I was searching for new artists on YouTube. I saw a video of her song “Diet Mountain Dew,” and I was blown away by this song. The video was very artistically done, and it was a great song. She had this haunting vocal which really drew me in. It was clear she had her own style and sound, which was different and unique.
We flew her out to Los Angeles in March (2011), and we decided to pursue a deal with her. Lana was looking for a producer, so I introduced her to Emile (Haynie), who had produced Kanye West’s “Runaway” and discovered Kid Cudi. Emile and Lana had a great meeting, and they started working together. The first song they wrote was “Blue Jean,” which we were blown away by–there was a magic there.
Then in May (2011) she posted her “Video Games” video, and things started taking off for her. At that point, other labels started calling her and she got many offers. But ultimately she decided to sign with us last July (2011). I then A&R’d her Born to Die album with Larry (Jackson), and with Ferdy Unger-Hamilton of Polydor; Lana was a joint signing between Interscope and Polydor in the U.K.
DK: During the past two years, Lana has become even more successful as an artist worldwide.
Ehmann: Yes, in the last two years Lana has transformed into a global superstar. It’s been terrific to see that growth. Her albums continue to sell as a body of work, and not just singles. Ultraviolence was a critically acclaimed album which helped convince people about her artistry. She has inspired many other artists, both sonically and visually. She was also recently nominated for a Golden Globe award (for co-writing the title song from the Tim Burton movie, Big Eyes). And she’s been busy writing songs for her next album.
DK: Aloe Blacc has had a breakthrough year with two worldwide hits. How did you sign Blacc to Interscope?
Ehmann: It started when Aloe’s attorney, Damien Granderson, played me his (indie) album Good Things, which had the (overseas hit) “I Need a Dollar.” I then booked an overnight flight to see Aloe perform in New York, and he was amazing live. I shared the music with Larry (Jackson). Little did we know we had to chase him overseas to sign with us, because he was touring in Europe.
After we signed him (in November 2011), Aloe did a lot of writing sessions and started recording his album.
DK: How did Aloe hook up with Avicii for their hit “Wake Me Up”?
Ehmann: I was in (Interscope A&R exec) Neil Jacobson’s office—Neil was working with Avicii on the True album. I met with Avicii and he said that he’d love to work with Aloe. I stepped out of the room and called Aloe. Aloe liked the idea and they got together.
Their success with “Wake Me Up” was perfect and helped set up Aloe’s Lift Your Spirit album. It became a talking point for us to promote Aloe’s album. We first rolled out Aloe’s EP (called Wake Me Up) which also included “The Man.” Then we got an amazing sync use for “The Man” in a Beats By Dre commercial which was played a lot during the NFL playoffs. “The Man” has become a big sports song of the year. Aloe was also nominated for a Grammy award for Best R&B Album. We’re very excited about Aloe’s success, and he’s started to write songs this month for his next album.
DK: Who are the other artists & bands that you’ve signed in the past couple years?
Ehmann: I signed this terrific band out of New Jersey called Young Rising Sons—they’re an alternative/pop band. We released their single “High” and their EP last summer. “High” was featured in a Pepsi campaign. The band has been opening for (English band) The 1975 on a sellout tour, and they’re writing songs for their first full album which will be released later this year.
I also signed (artist/DJ/producer) Cedric Gervais, who did Lana’s hit remix of “Summertime Sadness,” which I loved. His first single is called at “Love Again” (featuring Ali Tamposi). He’ll be performing at the Coachella festival in April, and he has a residency in Las Vegas (at the Marquee nightclub).
Another new signing is Pia Mia, an 18-year-old pop artist from Guam. She’s a terrific artist who has a huge online presence. She’s now based here in Los Angeles. She has a video where she sings Drake’s song “Hold On, We’re Coming Home” which went viral.
DK: Do you also handle A&R for Carly Rae Jepsen?
Ehmann: Yes. Carly has a new single out called “I Really Like You,” and she’s been busy writing & recording songs for her new album. Carly is a talented artist who has also performed on Broadway as the lead role in the musical, Cinderella.
DK: When you are discovering new talent, what qualities do you look for?
Ehmann: I enjoy working with artists that push the envelope in music. I don’t like to chase trends—I want to sign artists that I believe will have longevity and a strong impact.
DK: With the current industry trend towards streaming, has that affected your A&R strategy and what type of artists you want to sign?
Ehmann: What streaming has done, is that it emphasizes how important the single is rather than the depth of an album. We’re cognizant of this moving forward. But it’s still important for us to sign and nurture album artists who can create a good body of work. Hit singles will help propel album sales, but it’s still important for an artist to create the body of work with a strong album.
DK: In closing, what are your current thoughts about doing A&R in this ever-changing music business?
Ehmann: My A&R role hasn’t really changed too much, which is to keep discovering and nurturing new talent. It’s a blessing to wake up every day and do something you love. It’s an honor to work with such great artists, where we get to create incredible music that not only inspires us, but inspires people all over the world. And to have that opportunity is a gift.
Dale Kawashima is on Google+