An Interview With Music Producer Rayan Bailouni
Rayan Bailouni is a music producer, sound engineer and songwriter based in Dubai. When it comes to production, he says, "It’s easy for people to forget that music is not a perfect science. Songs are deciphered by their ability to make us ‘feel’ certain emotions, whilst genres represent various moods. If music is painting, production is providing the canvas.”
In a telephone interview, I talked to him about how he became a music producer, how he approaches music production, his views on working with artists and how he recharges his creative batteries.
Karl Magi: Tell me the story of how you arrived at this point in your musical career?
Rayan Bailouni: My father’s from Syria and my mum is from Newcastle in the U.K. I was born in Newcastle, in South Shields and it’s the place where my parents were studying at the time. Three months after I was born, my dad got a job offer in the UAE and I spent eighteen years back to back in Abu Dhabi in the ‘90s growing up. I was always into music. At that time, it was the MTV boom so there was a visual strength to the music at the time and it was quite global. I picked up the guitar and I was in different indie rock and metal bands.
At the time there was really only one studio in the UAE and they primarily did Arabic music, there wasn’t a lot of music in English going around at the time. I told my dad that I wanted to do an internship at the studio or work in audio. My dad didn’t think that was the best idea because in the Gulf region it’s not the most recommended career path. In the ‘90s, in the UAE, there wasn’t really a foreseeable path into making an income from music.
My dad suggested that I study something that I’d done well at in school. It just so happened to be biology and chemistry, so I decided to study biotechnology and stem cell research. I ended up traveling back to Newcastle and I studied there for five years and I got my BSc and my two MSc degrees. By that point, my dad had moved to Qatar so I moved back there to be with the family. I worked for a pharmaceutical company there. Three or four years into that job, I didn’t really know why I was waking up and going to work. The pay and the benefits were great, but it was super demotivating. In the back of my mind, I was still in a band and I was still writing music. I didn’t even know I was going to do it, but one morning I very rapidly found myself quitting my job. I came home and told my dad that I’d just quit my job. My dad is a very pragmatic and balanced individual, so he just asked me what I was going to do instead. I said, “I don’t know. I just know that I don’t want to do that!”
One of my best friends in the band that I was in told me that he thought I was getting pretty good at producing and that he thought I should produce the band’s albums. The album before that we’d worked with a producer who has since won a couple of Latin Grammy awards, but at the time he hadn’t really come up. I didn’t know how I was supposed to follow his work! It lead to me coming back to Dubai from Abu Dhabi. I decided that I was going to open up my own company. I had lots of friends who were still there and so I decided to try and be a music producer.
It was quite a late age to start a new career and it was a rocky road to begin with because there wasn’t a well-developed scene. Two years later, we have a thriving scene that’s on the up and I work with over 30 artists. I’ve worked with winners of the X-Factor in Arabia, and finalists from Germany and Australia. It’s been an amazing journey that came from passion, persistence and knowing what my purpose was.
KM: Who are the producers who have most influenced your approach to music production and why did they have that influence?
RB: There are three producers that have influenced me the most. The first one is Rick Rubin because of his ability to, from project to project, roll with any genre. People call him a multi-genre producer but I actually think it’s the other way around. At the end of the day, music is music and it’s all about emotions. If you find the right emotions in the music, you will do a great job. For me, it took the emphasis off of worrying about the technical stuff and made me think more about capturing human emotions.
The second producer would be Noah "40" Shebib. He created sounds out of technology, unlike Rick Rubin. He created that lo-fi, underwater, very chill hiphop sound which is entrenched in pop culture now. I really respect how he broke the norm of what people were doing and changed the sonic landscape in pop culture.
The third one would be Diego Farias (Yaygo) who produced, mixed and mastered one of my band’s albums before I got into production full time. We had hours and hours of discussion on the phone where he passed on his knowledge to me, even though he’s much younger than me, I look up to him. Now I’m super proud of knowing someone as humble as him, and watch him work people like Lil Yachty and win Latin Grammy awards.
KM: How do you approach the projects on which you work?
RB: The way I prepare myself for any project is to reset my emotions and use my emotional intelligence or my intution about who the person is. I find that a lot of the time if any two people want to make a song and it’s about something generic, you can make it up in twenty minutes but it won’t elicit behaviour. Normally when I sit down with an artist before I start something I ask myself why I’m doing this and what is it for? Emotionally I understand it if, for example, they say they feel like they’re sad because their world is falling apart. Some words have connotations, textures and sounds. I don’t try to dictate sounds or ideas to anybody else, I try to be more like a medium between them and the sound. I try to take on the role of a film director. I’m not telling actors how to act, but I’m telling them what the story is and where it’s going. I really try to get aligned with who they are.
KM: How did your involvement with producing music for X-Factor winners/contestants begin?
RB: That was a beautiful surprise for me because when I first came to Dubai, it was really hard to get people to work with me because I had no portfolio. I was very quickly finding out that people were not going to work with me if they didn’t see that I’d produced anything before. Rather than going to artists and showing them what I had, I decided to take completely undeveloped artists and help them do things that they never thought they could do. When that happened, a lot of those artists became better known and other artists became fans of those artists coming up. I’d go to open mics and those artists or their managers would come up to me and ask me to work with them because they liked the sound I’d created.
The first X Factor winner that I worked with was Hamza Hawsawi who won X Factor Arabia. He was the first person to sit down with me and say, “I’ve seen what you’ve done over the past 12 months and I can see where you’re going. I’d love to be a part of that!”
KM: What sorts of projects are you working on lately?
RB: At the moment, you could say that it’s like Marvel movies where they had a phase one and then moved into a phase two. The city is experiencing that now where a lot of the artists are becoming household names. Those household names have inspired a new generation of artists who are starting to appear. It'll be a balancing act between developed artists and newly starting ones. Out of 30 or so artists, close to 14 of those artists only have one song to their name or they’ve never put out music, so it’s an extremely exciting time because those new artists are coming through and creating fusions of the work I’ve done previously. It’s really cool!
There’s also a bunch of artists that I’m now working with that were contestants on X- Factor Australia who are producing incredible music. I’m also excited about the eclectic sounds that are coming from a city (Dubai) that is extremely eclectic culturally and ethnically. I really feel that we’re starting to reach a point in artistic expression where the sound of the city is getting represented more accurately.
KM: Where do you want to take your production career going forward?
RB: I’ve always felt like there’s a stigma in the region towards people who do music in that people here think it’s just a hobby or a pastime. They don’t think it can be a career. If you go anywhere in the world, any major city has a sound and they have artists that are very much a part of defining the sound of that city. That’s something I want to help achieve in Dubai. I want to be one of those producers or figures that helped put the city on the map musically. I want to be instrumental in making the sound of the city possible.
KM: How do you recharge your creative batteries?
RB: I get this question a lot when I’m in the studio. A lot of my friends say that I don’t have a studio, I have a clinic. Every time there’s someone walking in, someone else is walking out. In all of this, it’s the smallest things can make the biggest difference. For me to recharge my batteries, aside from the obvious things like taking time off and spending time with family and loved ones, I feel that it’s nothing that a half-hour or hour’s conversation over a cup of coffee can’t sort out.
After you sit down with someone, have a hot cup of coffee with them and talk to them human to human for a while, you’ve acclimatized to their emotions and they’ve acclimatized to your mood, so you sort of find a middle ground. It would be a lot more draining if it was a one-way relationship.