Producer Oak Felder Talks Lizzo, Demi Lovato and Need for More Female Producers: ‘Music Can’t Be One-Dimensional’


After nearly three years of commuting between his home in Atlanta and work in Los Angeles, songwriter/producer Warren “Oak” Felder has been calling Los Angeles home now for almost six months.

“All the work is here,” he says during an interview over brunch in West Hollywood. And his production slate seems to bear that out.

Fresh off the top 40 and dance/electronic hit “Who Do You Love” by the Chainsmokers featuring 5 Seconds of Summer, Felder remixed a pop version of the Dan + Shay country chart-topper “Speechless.” He also produced three tracks on Lizzo’s acclaimed breakthrough album Cuz I Love You: “Like a Girl,” “Better in Color and “Soul Mate.” Currently in the studio with Kehlani and Demi Lovato (for whom he produced the smash “Sorry Not Sorry”), Felder is set to go back in the studio with Alessia Cara after she wraps her fall tour, The Pains of Growing. Cara fans will recall that her No. 1 singles “Here” and “Scars to Your Beautiful” were co-written and co-produced by Felder and his occasional production partner Andrew “Pop” Wansel.

Managed by Lucas Keller of Milk & Honey, Felder is just as busy working to protect music creators’ livelihoods. He is one of the four self-published songwriters comprising the inaugural 14-member board of directors governing the Music Licensing Collective (MLC). “In layman’s terms,” explains Felder, “our job is to figure out how to get money from the streaming companies to the writers.”

Also very supportive of increasing the ranks of female songwriters and producers (“Music can’t be one-dimensional”), Felder talks about that issue as well as Lizzo’s explosive breakthrough and his current collaborations with Lovato and Kehlani.

Why is the MLC’s work so vital?

My royalty check from streaming for Demi Lovato’s "Sorry Not Sorry" – at over 600 million spins on Spotify — was shockingly low. You would be surprised at what it doesn’t add up to.  I don’t wat to just hope for top 10’s at FM radio. There’s no question that 600 million streams on a digital service provider is the equivalent of a hit song in 2019. But the music industry is not aligned. So I have to keep thinking about radio hits, which I shouldn’t be.

Now there's a collective of people, the Music Modernization Act, trying to figure out the logistics of who is owed what, how to get the streaming companies to account for what they stream and how to get that money to the writers. My initial thought was, "Man, this is going to be a traffic jam of ideas. It’s going to take forever to get anything done.” But it’s going a lot more efficiently in making sure that everybody's voice is heard so that everybody's interest is served. 

Were you surprised by Lizzo’s explosive breakthrough?

No. I remember working with Lizzo like four years ago. She was always what I call an underground commercial artist: people would sync her music for commercials. And she just has one of those voices. She’s also one of the sweetest and most entertaining people I know. When we sit in a room together, oh my god, she's got me dying for hours. to let me know that most of those records had made her project.

What is your perspective on more females joining the writer/producer ranks?

There has started to be more of a movement for the female creative community to kick the door open. But it’s changing too damn slowly. I’ve been married now for nine years, and I can honestly say that a lot of the decisions that I've made as a person wouldn't have been decisions made if I wasn't for my wife. She has a perspective that would never occur to me. And I think the same is true from a creative standpoint. Music needs as many different perspectives as possible; it can’t be one-dimensional. 

My biggest problem right now is that there aren't enough female producers. There’s an attention to different kinds of details that female producers bring to the table. I recently asked female producers to send me some of their material Instagram. And the intricacy of the productions blew my mind. The attention to detail brings a different energy. It makes music fresher. 

Why has it been so difficult for female producers to knock down that door?

A lot of people fall victim to assumption: “Ah, this isn’t going to be good. Let’s go back to old faithful [men].”  I’m not going to name names, but I was having this very conversation with a guy and his response was point-blank, "I don't think they [women] are as good. Any tracks I’ve heard from women producers just aren’t aggressive.” I said, "What the hell does that mean? Even if that were true, do you have to gauge how good a production is by its aggression? Is that the standard now?”

Do you feel you have a better rapport with female versus male artists?

I honestly don't know why it's shaking out that way [laughs]. I've worked with male artists before – Chris Brown, Miguel, Usher, The Chainsmokers. I'd love to be able to sit here and say "Oh, I have a perspective that's unique and I can understand a woman's thoughts and feelings." Any guy who says that is probably lying. However, I will say this: part of a producer's job is to have empathy. And part of a producer's job is to understand a separate perspective. I honestly believe that women are more capable at that than men are. Women tend to be more empathic, in my opinion, and understand other people's perspectives; it's easier for them to see themselves in other people's shoes. So maybe I connect better with women from that perspective. I don’t know. I do know that every time I've collaborated with a male artist, we've knocked the record out of the park, too.

Any hints you can share about Lovato’s new project?

I get very excited when I work with an artist that has a story to tell beyond us getting in the studio and just writing random songs/ I get excited when an artist walks in the room and says, "This just happened to me. Let's tell this story in musical form." I feel that way about Demi right now. There's one song in particular that we did. I can’t mention any title or say what it's about. To be truthful, I don't even know if it's going to see the light of day. But I know she's excited about it because we went back and forth text message about it, sending exclamation points and all that. That made me feel good because it means that I've been successful in taking what it is she wants to say and making it into a piece of music that she can be proud to share.  That’s every producer's job.

And Kehlani?

Kehlani's my sweetheart, man. She couldn't get rid of me if she tried. I think her new project is going to be very game-changing. I've said before that she’s one of the people that represents an evolution of where music is going next. And I think her next project is going to be one of the keystones to that. She's a mom now too, and there’s definitely a lot more depth to her writing, more of an intent and focus. I can't really say more than that. But from a musical standpoint, that’s the kind of energy she's putting out creatively.