CC#22: Calvin Harris & Emil Nava: Ideation, Collaboration & NFTs

The two artists share stories about the process involved in making some of their big hits as well as the NFT they are dropping together

Calvin Harris recalled how he met Emil Nava, on Sunday night’s GOOD TIME show on clubhouse:

”We were shooting the video for ‘I Need Your Love’ with Ellie Goulding. We had a friend who was a director that we’d previously worked with and we really wanted to work with him again, but he wasn’t available. He connected us with a friend of his and it ended up being a disaster. We received the video 2 weeks after the deadline and it was so bad. We scrambled to find someone else to produce a new video. So Emil came in and it seemed like it was gonna work. He said he was gonna do amazing work and finish on time. When I met him, I remember his energy was so extraordinary. I’m more reserved, so I need someone to drag me out of my shell and he did. Since then we’ve done 22 videos together.

Emil Nava is an award-winning video director that has produced videos for Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud, Post Malone’s Rockstar and other tracks by notable artists like JLO, Selena Gomez, Khalid and more. Emil added that it has been such an incredible build up, working with Calvin, up to this moment of dropping an NFT together.

”Me and Cal always had an amazing process. Whenever he tells me he’s got a song ready, I always get mad hyped! I start booming the song in my car super loud trying to think of visuals.”

Calvin: “For me, I can imagine a sound or picture in my head, but articulating it has always been an issue. Emil knows me so well thatI don’t have to fully articulate it.”

Emil: “I always joke—I know straight away if Calvin is not going to like something. From almost 10 years of working together, I know what he likes and that makes things easy.”

The co-host Sriram added “We’ve had some interesting guests on the show recently talking about NFTs—Blau, Beeple, and many others. People are really interested in this topic right now. Can you tell us a bit more about your NFT that is dropping tomorrow?

Emil responded “On the visual side, I think me and Calvin have a big shared love for nature. No matter how “high tech” something feels, we always try to be rooted in nature. We started by thinking of what feelings we wanted to evoke. We came to the idea of these amazing fish that we fell in love with. My father was a fisherman in Mexico and then he became a painter. He would take me fishing all the time, and then he would paint and draw fish all the time. Fish have always been a part of my life. Theres been a lot of fish in a lot of things that me and Calvin have done together.”

Calvin: “I believe the past few music videos we did together have been all about nature. [NFTs] It’s a whole new avenue of creativity that is not policed by anyone and we can take it in any direction we want. Artists should just make what they want, not what other people want. I’ve been following 3Lau and these other artists, and it got me thinking that we need to be a part of this. I think it can completely revolutionize the music industry and it’s already started doing it.”

Sriram: “I would love to dig deeper here. We’re in the early stages of NFTs, where do you see this going?”

Emil: “I really don’t know. I think it seems limitless right now. I think ultimately from the visual side, it’s amazing to be able to have some ownership over the visuals that I put out for Calvin. Typically it feels like we’re just making videos for the platforms (spotify, YouTube, etc.) With NFTs it feels like you’re making it directly for the world and its really your perspective. It’s a moment where you really get to be yourself and don’t have to fit in.”

Sriram: “What does this mean for people who are just trying to break into music?”

Calvin: “I feel like music at the moment is very policed by a small amount of people. I think that although there’s been great things coming from streaming, it’s put everyone into a box. Nowadays, you hear a Calvin Harris record and you expect it to sound like a previous record. It’s hard to move away from what people expect of you. Most people in music fall into that trap. If you want to be successful you need to move away from that. NFTs allows the artist to do whatever their heart desires. It makes me feel like I did when I was 16. I’m super excited about every aspect of it.”

Sriram: “How do you balance making what people know you for vs. trying to create something completely different?”

Calvin: “When you’re making music it’s easy to be egotistical. You think “I don’t want to be put in a box.” But for listeners, it’s easy to put you in a box. For me, how I’ve always approached dance music, is to put ideas from other music genres and put them into the box. Even if my listeners don’t notice it’s there, it makes me more satisfied.”

Sriram: “The same exact thing happens in tech. PMF (product-market-fit) is the equivalent of the box you’re referring to. You come out with an amazing product, people love it and you start growing fast. However, if you do the same thing you stagnate. But if you want to do something different you run a risk of doing something worse. It’s fascinating to see the parallels.” 

Aarthi: “Emil, what goes into the creation of a really good music video?”

Emil: “I’ve been blessed to work with some amazing people but keeping the train on the tracks is always a challenge. When we did Feels video with Katy Perry, Pharrell, and Big Sean, it was a big moment for me. We built this massive set and we got all these superstars in the room at the same time. I remember I went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror and said “don’t fuck this up”. We were shooting on film and suddenly the film started getting jammed. Pharrell would start singing and then immediately after, the film started making a “chk, chk, chk” sound. Often times when you’re making these videos, you’ve got one shot and then you’ve gotta send it to the world.”

Sriram: “I just watched the Feels music video. When you build a set that big, does that raise the stakes for you?”

Emil: “The hardest part about it is trying to understand in my head what its gonna be like then trying to explain to Calvin what its gonna be like. I remember when I was working on the Feels set, the water was not deep enough, there weren’t enough trees. You’ve gotta get out of your head and explain to people how to build it. But then once you see it all come together it feels amazing.”

Sriram: “How do you get from idea in your head to the finished product.”

Calvin: “When I first started I used to do everything myself. Out of necessity I’m from a small town in Scotland and I had to sing the song, produce it and record it. When I wrote the song We Found Love with Rihanna, I did that whole thing myself. At first, it was me singing the song in a girly falsetto. It just comes from different places. With We Found Love, I just wanted to make a song with an organ in it. I pulled out an organ that I liked the sound of. Pretty much any song starts with a surreal, basic idea—like you can put the whole idea on the back of a cigarette packet. And then you kinda figure It out from there.”

Sriram: “How does the collaborator influence the song?”

Calvin: “It’s different every time. For example, One Kiss with Dua Lipa was already done and I could just hear her voice in it, so I DMed her. Jesse Reyes wrote most of the song with me. I wanted to get more back into dance music and Jesse is a really heartfelt, lyrical artist. I thought t would be cool to make a dance song with real depth and emotion. That’s been my mission since I started making the comedy songs in 2008. My main objective is always about making sure the lyrics are not corny. The vocal is always the hardest part, because that’s the part that’s communicating. The music is telling you things that you don’t even know you’re being told. The vocals are vitally important to what I do. If you ask the wrong person to sing the song, the meaning is lost, the emotion is lost and the song is lost. That’s part of the fun though.” 

Aarthi: “I heard in an interview that you tend to work with female vocalists because it has a better frequency for dancing. Why is that?”

Calvin: “I don’t really do interviews often because I end up talking absolute shit. Sarcasm doesn’t travel well with my tone. I remember that interview - but I wasn’t being totally serious. For example, one of my biggest songs, Feel So Close is just me talking like I am now. EDM has gotten popular and unpopular many times during my music career. When I started dabbling it was extremely popular. I was using the MIGA500+ computer.”

For the first time in the interview, Steven Sinofsky chimes in. The former Microsoft exec said “That gets you super street cred boy!

Calvin: “My brother cowrote a program on it. You could only have 8-channels. It was so restricted so you really had to pick your favorite elements.”

Steven: “This is what made it what it was.”

Calvin: “For the time, the graphics and audio were way more advanced than anything on the market.” 

Steven: “You are just establishing yourself with this tech audience.” 

Sriram: “You’re speaking our love language Calvin.”

Calvin: “That was my tech knowledge and I used that for a long time. It all started because one day when I was 14, I got the flu and I didn’t recover for like 18 months. I dropped out of school for almost 2 years. People couldn’t discover what was wrong with me. This music was the only thing that got me out of that dark place. Making music would let me enter a new world. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about putting in 10,000 hours, well I put in 20,000 hours on that thing. When I finally got a job in music at 22, I was ready. I hit the ground running and just made hundreds and hundreds of songs.”

Sriram: “I noticed we have the CEO of Spotify in the audience. Do you think about where people can listen to your song?”

Calvin: “I more think about texture and how it might affect somebody’s mood. Really Why I make music was born out of a miserable place, which is why everything I make has depth and feels uplifting. When I started I was in desperate need of being uplifted. I wanted to give people an emotion and elevate their mood and improve their day in any way. I make music to improve my day, so to complete the circle you’ve got to pass it on. For me there’s no better gift in the world. I’m sure its the same for Emil.”

Aarthi: “When it comes to video, how do you think about how it impacts the mood?”

Emil: “I left school when I was 16 and got into videos at 17. I’ve never been trained in the theory of film so I can only operate on how the visual makes me feel. And I try to make myself feel a certain way to make the audience feel a certain way. I want to make them feel euphoric. When I listen to music its partially to escape and that’s what we try to do on the video side.”

Aarthi: “Do you see things going back to “normal” soon?”

Calvin: “That’s an impossible question. I hope that people can be happy and not scared of each other. I don’t see normal happening anytime soon, but I hope people aren’t scared to show physical love to each other and these other things that are so important to humanity. I feel so much for the people who have lost income and family. So many people in music haven’t been working, similar for the video community. I hope when we get back, we can remember what it means to be human and what it means to love each other.”

Sriram: “Has the pandemic impacted your music?”

Calvin: “If anything it just reinforces my approach to music. It makes me want to have absolutely no darkness in the music.” 

Aarthi: “You Emil?”

Emil: “That’s a tough one, we’ve been having a lot of conversations about what its gonna look like. Nothings gonna compare to standing with your friends and watching a live show. Being at a festival sounds distant right now, but I hope we can learn some things from it and come out better people. Hard to see where things will go. It seems like there’s some light out there.”

Sriram: “Calvin - last question, what do you have to say to any young listeners dreaming of a career in music?”

Calvin: “Dreaming is the first step. I believe we can fully create our own reality and its always when you’re at your lowest point and you have no idea where the root of inspiration is gonna come from, that’s when it comes. You just gotta keep going and believe in yourself. I was just good enough to get a record deal when I did. It was about being less focused on the end goal and more about trying to enjoy the process of doing something.” 

Sriram: “That’s a perfect note to end on.”