“Sorry about that,” keyboardist, producer and label head Martin Kierszenbaum jokes, after numerous attempts to reach him by phone failed. “Believe it or not, I was recording sound effects for a new Sting song, and I lost track of time!”
Kierszenbaum has certainly made the most of his time in the music business, inhabiting myriad roles—from recording artist to industry executive and founder of the Cherrytree Music Company: an artist management, label and publishing firm that has sold more than 35 million records and launched artists such as Lady Gaga, Ellie Goulding, Robyn, Far East Movement, Feist, and LMFAO. These days, in addition to running Cherrytree, he’s busy managing Sting, writing and producing new music, and above all, staying musically curious.
I read that you grew up studying classical piano, yet you’ve worked across a wide array of genres and roles. To what do you attribute your musical flexibility?
I can answer that in two words, believe it or not—music theory. My mother’s a pianist, so she encouraged my sister and me at an early age to start taking piano lessons. We had a pretty nomadic lifestyle in my early childhood—we lived in South America and Europe. When we got to Connecticut, near New Haven, I was able to start taking regular piano lessons, and I studied things like scales and technique. Then we moved to Michigan, and I studied with a wonderful neighborhood teacher named Mrs. Green. She insisted that I study an hour of technique and performance every week, but also an hour of music theory as well. And that just lit-up my world because all of a sudden, I could deconstruct everything I was playing.
It wasn’t long before I started to believe that I could construct my own things as well. Soon I started writing for other people in ensembles, thinking “Well, they can play it better than I can!” I got obsessed with songwriting and composing, and because I moved around the world, I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music. What seemed to amalgamate all of them was pop music, and I wanted to learn how to do everything; not just write songs, but produce, record, engineer, and market them once they were done. So, my trajectory has been fueled by curiosity.
What accounted for your nomadic lifestyle?
Both my parents are research scientists. The way that works is that you apply for a grant at a university or laboratory, and if it’s approved, you “set up shop” at a place for a couple of years. Then you run your experiment and publish your results.
That went on until my dad was offered a job as a professor at Michigan State University. I ended up going to high school and college in Michigan, and that was great because I was able to start playing in bands—learning how to arrange, deal with club owners, and do press and promotion. That led to starting a little record label called Arb Recordings with my friend Will E.P. in Ann Arbor, where we formed a Hip-hop group called Maroon. We were praised by [famed New York critic] Robert Christgau from the Village Voice. It’s actually timely that we talk about this because it’s the 30th Anniversary of our debut album, and we’re reissuing it on April 27th.
How did you get involved in the business side of music?
I graduated from University of Michigan and then I drove to Los Angeles because I had gotten into the Master’s Program at the Annenberg School at USC. That gave me an anchor to move to where I thought the epicenter of the music business was. My classes were at night, and USC actually helped me get an internship at PolyGram Records during the day. From there I got a job at Warner Brothers Records doing international publicity, because I could type fast and I could speak Spanish! I worked there until 1991, when I was offered a job at A&M Records. And that was amazing. My record collection was probably one-third A&M, and I was always fascinated with [label co-founder and trumpeter] Herb Alpert. The first record I ever owned was by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass.
Is A&M where your relationship with Sting started?
Yeah. Literally, the second day I got hired, I was sent to the Fox Theatre in Atlanta to cover international press from Holland with Sting. This was back in ’91 for his record The Soul Cages. So that’s when our relationship started, and he’s been nothing but generous and gracious to me since. I’ve worked for him in various different capacities over the last 27 years, and he’s been a mentor, friend, big brother, a client, and a music teacher to me. I’m so grateful for that relationship because it’s changed my life. I’ve been managing him for the last two-and-a-half years. He was on my label Cherrytree from 2007 on, and the first record we put out was his lute album Songs from the Labyrinth. We also released The Police reunion album and DVD on Cherrytree.
At the time I was taking my label out of the Universal system, his longtime manager was retiring, so it was perfect timing. We jumped into the studio right away and we started collaborating. I ended up producing and playing a bunch of keyboards on his last album 57th & 9th. Then the idea for a Reggae/Caribbean record came up. I was friends with Shaggy. He sent me a song, we played it for Sting and he loved it. When they went to cut it, they realized that their voices sounded great together. And lo and behold, now there’s a new album with both of them on it. [44/876, out April 20 on Interscope Records] Everything with Sting is magical, because his compass is musical.
I notice you use an interesting mix of vintage keyboards and modern modules.
I want my palette to be as wide as possible when I’m painting musically, but I do a lot of my work in a mobile way, because I think that’s when you catch a moment. But when I’m in my studio at home, I love the comfort and robust sound of classic keyboards like the Yamaha CP-70. In fact, I signed a band called Keane whose sound was based around a CP-70. They used to keep theirs in my office. And it was my CP-70 that Lady Gaga played on the acoustic version of her song “Poker Face.” Kanye West later sampled it for a song called “I Poke Her Face” featuring Kid Cudi.
I also love my Roland JX-3P for analog synth work. I’ll go to that over the Juno-60 or 106. On this new album with Sting and Shaggy, I used a combination of old and new things—from a Roland XV-5080 module, to the Steinway grand piano and Hammond organ at Sear Sound in New York. I also like the plug-ins Keyscape and Nexus, and M-Audio’s semi-weighted Axiom 61 MIDI controller. When I’m on the road, I use the Korg microKey 61 for composing, as well as the Akai MPK mini which always lives in my bag.
You’re a great example of what it takes to succeed in the music business today.
Lou Dennis, the head of sales at Warner Brothers, came up to me on my first day of work in February of 1989 and said, “Hey kid, welcome to Warner Brothers. You missed the heyday of the record business!” [Laughs.] But despite that, for 29 years I’ve been very lucky. You have to hustle, you have to be nimble, but music is still a beautiful vocation. I’m living my dream.
For more information visit www.cherrytreemusiccompany.com