Interview with Martin Kierszenbaum, Chairman of Cherrytree Records, President of A&R Pop/Rock at Interscope Records and Head of International Operations for Interscope-Geffen-A&M

Martin Kierszenbaum with Lady Gaga.
Martin Kierszenbaum with Lady Gaga.

In his two decades in the music business, Martin Kierszenbaum has become one of the top A&R execs in the industry, while also being a successful record producer and songwriter. As an executive, Kierszenbaum (who is based in Los Angeles) currently holds three top positions: Chairman of Cherrytree Records (distributed by Interscope Records), President of A&R, Pop/Rock at Interscope, and Head of International for Interscope-Geffen-A&M.

Kierszenbaum has been involved in an A&R or marketing capacity with a wide array of hit artists. He handled A&R for Lady Gaga’s breakthrough album, The Fame, which has sold 16 million albums worldwide. He has signed and/or A&R’d many hit artists to his Cherrytree label, including the red-hot LMFAO (the hits “Party Rock Anthem” and “Sexy And I Know It’), Far East Movement (“Like a G6”), rock band Keane, dance/pop star Robyn, multi-platinum German band Tokio Hotel, and acclaimed singer/songwriter Feist.

Kierszenbaum has also worked closely with rock legend Sting for the past 20 years. First starting out doing marketing & publicity, he has gone on to A&R several of Sting’s hit albums including All This Time, Sacred Love, Songs from the Labyrinth, If on a Winter’s Night, and Symphonicities.

There are many other hit album projects which Kierszenbaum has A&R’d, such as Enrique Inglesias (Insomniac), Russian group t.A.T.u., Shaggy (Clothes Drop), Sheryl Crow (Wildflower), New Kids On The Block (The Block), Marilyn Manson (High End Of Low), Timbaland (Shock Value II), N.E.R.D., Lloyd (King of Hearts), Natalia Kills (Perfectionist), and Blink-182 (Neighborhoods).

In addition to his A&R projects, Kierszenbaum has also contributed as a producer, songwriter and musician to many albums. He co-wrote with Lady Gaga, and produced four songs on her album The Fame, including the title cut. He has also collaborated on songs with Far East Movement, Robyn, Natalia Kills, t.A.T.u., Tokio Hotel, Colette Carr, Alexandra Burke, Colby O’Donis, and Smash Mouth.

We are pleased to present this special interview with Martin Kierszenbaum. He tells how he got started doing international marketing for labels, his love of songwriting, and he discusses several of his success stories.

DK: How did you get started in the music business?

Kierszenbaum: I started out as a musician and songwriter. My mom is a piano player and my sister is a professional violinist. We always had a piano in the house, and when I was eight, I began taking classical piano lessons. Later on, I learned to play guitar and bass. I also learned about music theory and started to write songs. During high school I had a rock band and our rehearsals were in our living room. Eventually, I learned about programming, multi-tracking and producing, but songwriting was what I loved most. Then for college, I went to the University of Michigan (in Ann Arbor). I had a band there and we played a lot of clubs.

Kev Nish, Martin Kierszenbaum, RedFoo, and Prohgress
Pictured (l-r): Kev Nish (of Far East Movement), Martin Kierszenbaum, RedFoo (of LMFAO), and Prohgress (of Far East Movement).

DK: Did you move to Los Angeles after college?

Kierszenbaum: Yes. After I graduated from Michigan, I decided to move to L.A. I drove to L.A. in my Chevy, and I didn’t know anybody in L.A. except for one friend.  I went to USC (University of  Southern California) to get my Master’s Degree in Communications Management and my classes were at night. This worked out well, because I was able to get an internship (working during the day) at Wing/PolyGram Records.

DK: When did you get your first record label job?

Kierszenbaum: I met a music exec named Bob Skoro, and he recommended me for an internship at Wing Records (which was distributed by PolyGram). I then got a call from Ed Eckstine’s (Head of Wing Records) assistant who hired me. I started out as an intern and then I worked in the mailroom. During this period I worked in the PolyGram mailroom during the day and attended USC classes at night, and I also played in a band.

Later on, I got an opportunity (in 1989) to work at Warner Bros. Records in their international department, to do publicity; Tom Ruffino hired me. It was great working at Warner Bros. Records during this time, when legendary execs like Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker and Bob Merlis worked there. The artists they had were incredible–I was doing international press for great artists like Madonna, Jane’s Addiction, Devo, the B-52s and many others. I was their international publicist.

DK: What was your next job position?

Kierszenbaum: I received an offer to work at A&M Records which had been bought by Polygram. So I left Warner Bros. to work at A&M Records in their international department for the next eight years. I did a lot of traveling, publicizing artists and bands around the world, such as Bryan Adams, Sting, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow and Extreme.

Sting and Martin Kierszenbaum
Sting (left) and Martin Kierszenbaum.

Then in 1998, Seagrams, which owned Universal Music, bought PolyGram. So when PolyGram merged with Universal, I began working for (Chairman) Jimmy Iovine and (President) Tom Whalley at the new Interscope-Geffen-A&M Records as Head of International. Throughout this period, I continued to play music and write songs.

The following years was an intense period because we grew Interscope into a powerful label with a worldwide reach. I spent a lot of time on the road, doing marketing and publicity, and managing our staff. It was fun–I worked with a lot artists such as Eminem, 50 Cent, Limp Bizkit, Black Eyed Peas and Vanessa Carlton.

DK:  So was it at Interscope-Geffen-A&M that you started doing A&R?

Kierszenbaum: Yes. Jimmy Iovine, who is very forward-thinking, told me to start looking for overseas artists that we could release in the U.S. He said, “Why don’t you do A&R as well as International for us?” So I started signing artists. My first signing was a tenor from Italy named Alessandro Safina.

DK: Why did you decide to sign an opera singer?

Kierszenbaum: Well, I knew Interscope was already strong at signing rock and hip-hop acts, so I wanted to bring a different type of artist to the label. I believed in Safina, so I took my marketing budget and filmed a PBS-TV special of his concert in Sicily. Unfortunately, the TV special aired just one month after the 9/11 tragedy (in 2001), so the show didn’t appear to have a strong impact. However, Jimmy (Iovine) was impressed that Safina sold 250,000 records in Holland. He said, “I don’t care where you sell records–just sell them.” Then he said to go ahead and do more.

So I signed a group called t.A.T.u., which was a female duo from Russia. My friend at Universal Records Russia sent me their music, which was like ABBA. I then played Jimmy (Iovine) t.A.T.u’s music and told him that I thought they had something special. Jimmy introduced me to the renowned producer Trevor Horn (Yes, Seal, Pet Shop Boys) and we started to record their album in London. I helped with coaching the group to sing in English, and we co-wrote their single “All The Things She Said” (which became a worldwide hit). Trevor produced the first three cuts we did, but then Trevor suggested I produce the rest of the album, and so I did with my friend Robert Orton, who is now one of the pre-eminent mixers in the word. Following the success of this album, I started to write and produce more regularly again.

From that point, I signed a rock band from the U.K. called Keane. [The members of the band] are wonderful writers; their first album, Hopes And Fears, was released in 2004 and sold five million copies. I’ve worked with Keane on each of their four albums. Their excellent new release, Strangeland, is due out May 8.

DK: When did you start your own record label, Cherrytree?

Martin Kierszenbaum
Martin Kierszenbaum

Kierszenbaum: Around 2004, I thought I’d like to create my own record company, Cherrytree. (The name Kierszenbaum means “cherry tree” in German). The first artist signed to Cherrytree was Feist, who is from Calgary, Canada. I went to see her when she was performing a concert in Holland–she was playing solo in Rotterdam and the place was jammed. The first album ever issued on Cherrytree was Feist’s Let It Die. Her album The Reminder had the big breakthrough hit, “1234.”

After Feist, I signed (dance/pop star) Robyn from Sweden. Then came (German rock band) Tokio Hotel, and (later on) Far East Movement. With Far East Movement, I co-wrote a song (with the group and their producers, The Stereotypes) called “White Flag.” LMFAO is also on Cherrytree (in a joint venture with will i am Records)–their second album Sorry for Party Rocking has been a big hit. We also have LaRoux and Ellie Goulding in America.

DK: You are also known for your work (co-writing, producing, A&R) with Lady Gaga. How did you hook up with her?

Kierszenbaum: Vincent Herbert (Streamline Records) who signed Lady Gaga, brought her into my office and she and I hit if off. We talked about Prince (and creating tracks in this style). She said “let’s write some songs together,” so we wrote four songs for The Fame album including the title cut.

DK: You’ve also worked for many years with Sting.

Kierszenbaum: I started working with Sting in 1991 as his international publicist. Then later on (in 2001) we started working in a creative way; the first project I A&R’d was All This Time (which was a live album and concert film). We also produced a documentary which won an Emmy. Since then, I’ve worked with Sting on all of his albums. And we’ve just put together a comprehensive box set, 25 Years (which contains 3 CDs, a DVD and a hardcover book).

DK: You’ve had such a successful music career. What advice would you give to people who are trying to break into the music business?

Kierszenbaum: For me, moving up in the music business was a gradual and steady process; I had time to develop a skill set. I’ve always loved music, since I was a kid. You have to love it and do it fulltime. You have to practice and work to get better and never give up. Success is a combination of honing your skills and persevering. If you hang around long enough, luck goes around and you will catch a break. You’ve got to be ready when luck does come. Then you’ll get an opportunity.

For me, the most sacred thing is the songwriting. Songwriting is such a great source of joy. Besides being with my family, I’m happiest when I’m writing songs.

Dale Kawashima is on Google+

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima