Ryan Hadlock

“Ho. Hey.” That two-word hook, endlessly catchy and life affirming, catapulted Denver folk-rockers the Lumineers to the top of Billboard this year, where the trio lingers alongside pop icons Bruno Mars and Justin Bieber (and, might we add, Seattle’s own Macklemore and Ryan Lewis). It’s enough to earn the band two Grammy nominations—they’re up for best new artist and best Americana album this Sunday. But a large part of their success stems from producer Ryan Hadlock, who recorded the Lumineers’ debut album at his family’s Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville. Within a converted turn-of-the-century barn, nestled in a secluded corner of a 10-acre horse farm, Hadlock has engineered Foo Fighters tracks, mixed songs for the Strokes, and produced local singer-songwriters such as Brandi Carlile. Even with a wealth of top talent coming through the door, Hadlock heard something special with the Lumineers.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, Hadlock chats about the urban folk movement, trying to avoid the family business, and wearing a suit.

Grammy's Best New Artist category is often pretty pop or hip-hop heavy, but this year we also have folk, country, and blues-rock. Plus there's the success of Mumford and Sons. What is it about folk or roots music nowadays? Are we in a moment?

I think it’s a bit of a moment, an urban folk movement. [Though] this instrumentation has been weaving in and out of pop since the beginning of pop.  … I went back and listened to Rod Stewart's "Maggie" the other day, which is total folk life: mandolins and classic instrumentation. The kids nowadays have access to pretty much anything ever recorded and I think they’re finding out some of the best songs are written by people like Dylan and Crosby, Stills and Nash. … As far as the simple arrangements go, it’s a really good way to tell a story. I also think there’s so much technology out there, there’s a comfort that’s there with this type or arrangement versus the really hard electronic or street production of hip-hop music in the past.

Also, the demographic is very, very broad for this type of pop music. …The 10-year-olds think it’s cool because it’s new to them. It’s not Bieber, like their brothers listen to, or hip-hop, which their dads probably listen to. At the same time, it’s comforting and brings people back that are in their sixties who grew up with the hippie movement. I think the Fleet Foxes were one of the first groups that tapped into that really broad demographic and I think that’s part of what makes it work financially, in the pop sense.

Did working with the Lumineers feel different, special?

They’re great people with very honest songwriting. They’re telling stories just straight from their heart; it was a lot of fun to be with them. I felt waves of emotion when I was working on the songs and hearing them come together and thought, “Wow, this is really something special.”

I've been working with what I would call folk instrumentation on indie bands for a really long time too, so it wasn’t like their instrumentation was unique.  …  I have to admit I was a bit surprised that it’s been in the top 10 for a month now? Or two? But Wes, he’s got an amazing voice and he’s a great songwriter. I felt myself really drawn into the stories that he was telling and I think that’s what other people are feeling, too.

You’ve worked with pretty diverse clients—Foo Fighters, Ra Ra Riot. How do you beging to choose?

I like unique and great singers and personalities. In the studio you sit around with these people day in and day out, sometimes for 16 hours a day. You want to be around people that are really fun to be around, that are engaging. I think Wes is like that and Beth Ditto from the Gossip—she’s another artist I’ve worked with who’s absolutely amazing. She is fun to be around, she’s humble. I like to work with people that are great singers but also have something that sets them apart from the rest of the crowd.

And they all make the trek to your studio in Woodinville…

It’s amazing. I worked with people from all over. … I’ve thought about some of these bands—when it first started happening—how many recording studios they must be flying over on their way from London or Paris to Woodinville. It kind of blew me away in the beginning. It’s a family-run studio. We built it ourselves; my father and my mother started it in the ’70s. They were producers in the music industry. It’s special in that way; I don’t think that there are a lot of places like this, if any. 

At what point did you realize you wanted to be in the family business?

I played in bands in high school and I grew up assisting on sessions. I worked as an assistant on Heart’s records and I got to work with a bunch of other prominent people in the ’80s. Then when I went to college I kind of rebelled against the family business. I wanted to wear a suit. That’s about as far from the music world at that time as you could get. After spending a year or two with other people who wanted to be international business majors, I realized that these people aren’t like me. At the same time, I had a little recording studio set up, which in 1992 was pretty hard to do, so I was writing songs and working on music. After two years of going to business school, I just wasn’t into it at all and I talked with my dad about it and he said, “Hey, maybe you want to get back into music again? You’ve got two more years of school left.”

So I went to London and I did sound for film. I thought that might be an interesting way to use all of the knowledge I’d gained without going right into working with bands. I did sound for film for a year and really enjoyed that, and then advertising. I realized I don’t like advertising that much—it was the business thing again— so after I went to school in London, I went to Evergreen. It has an amazing recording program that a lot of people in the Northwest have gone through and it was there that I started working on production and music again. I was like, this is effortless and fun and there’s nothing I’d rather be doing. It just snowballed from there.

The 55th Grammys
Feb 10 at 8pm, CBS