For “Studios Sessions,” we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.
The Weeknd’s music has grown from melancholic snapshots of a young man’s life to a panoramic view of a pop culture demigod, and engineer Carlo “Illangelo” Montagnese is one of the key architects of the famed recording artist’s sound.
“Back then, any studio we went to, the mic was set up and everything was ready to go because I knew Abel was going to come in and start singing some shit, and I knew I needed to capture that,” Illangelo tells REVOLT about working with him before the fame. “I remember recording him singing the vibe for [‘The Zone’ from Thursday] and I may have been playing the pad live to a click track. It was that spontaneous.”
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” The Weeknd’s Grammy award-winning engineer speaks about how House of Balloons was made, making “Crew Love” in their first session together, and the evolution of The Weeknd’s creative process. Read below.
The first time you worked in the studio with The Weeknd, you two made “Crew Love.” How can a first-time meeting turn into that?
I was doing two or three sessions a day from the morning to the mid-day to night time. It was December 2010 in Toronto and we shared with each other some music that we were doing. He pulled up and the second I heard his voice and what he was doing, I just knew inside myself, it was like, “Oh, fuck. We are about to fucking change shit.” And that’s exactly what happened… I just found the patch for the keys for that song and I remember just being like, “Yo, just hit this real quick.” I just played it. He started singing something. I was like, “Oh, shit.” …The studio we were in wasn’t a studio. It was a studio, yes, but the room was very, very, very small. It was drywall. There was a little mouse running around the back.
He probably sang for 10 or 15 minutes, and literally, when he got off and took off the headphones, we just looked at each other and I was like, “Dude, that was fucking crazy.” He also started kind of doing some really amazing vamping and singing towards the end after he kind of freestyled… I would say we probably closed that session and started a new one probably within 20 minutes to half an hour at most. And we ended up doing probably about two or three ideas that night.
You recorded multiple songs with The Weeknd the first time you two were in the studio?
Yeah. One of them was an OG version of “Glass Table Girls,” and then there was like two more. I think we did like the original version of “Gone,” which made it to the Thursday mixtape in that first session. Then we did the third one. I don’t know if it came out or not. But, yeah, it was fucking vibes though.
Are there other takes or more singing that you think came from that session?
I think the original version had two verses and both of them were just straight freestyles. It’s not like we punched in different takes. It was raw. It was sick.
How would you say his creative process has changed over the years?
How he’s changed now is, back then, things were maybe a little bit more experimental. I would say now, being in an incredible position, he is in and where he’s been able to elevate The Weeknd brand to, he’s still shooting off the hip but it’s more refined. We linked up for a session recently. He came in, and he laid down what he laid down and it’s done. No overthinking. When I went back and I worked on it, and I’m looking back to what he did, and what he’s saying, and I got him to do some crazy ad-libs, he was about to step out the studio. I was just like, “Bro, just please bless us with some ad-libs real quick.” All of those things, it’s so quick. When I was asked to edit all that shit, it’s just brilliant, man.
When did you know you two were making his breakout mixtape House of Balloons?
So, I left and went back home in December before Christmas to see my family, and thought I was gonna go back into construction. I wasn’t sure I was gonna be able to make a living doing music. After we did those songs and after we had those collaborations, and I knew the music was insane, I went back home and I’m telling my family, “Yeah, it’s crazy. This guy Abel was such a vibe and the project’s called The Weeknd.” Then they asked, “Could it be something?” I said, “I don’t know.” So I go back to Toronto, and I find out that he and Doc [McKinney] have been working a bunch together. So, I reached back out to Abel, and we got back in the studio in January 2011… At first, I’m just kind of helping dial in what Doc and he have done. These were some of the original songs of House of Balloons. Slowly, as the weeks progress, that ends up leading to more and more work. All of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, shit. What about this with this?” So, we end up making something just absolutely impossible because it surpassed anything that Abel, Doc, or I thought. And so it’s really like we combined our energies together to create this body of work and eventually bodies of work that are bigger than any one of us. As we started working, the songs start building and building, and then came out like that. We didn’t sit on anything, especially because those albums were really connected. All the songs started connecting and flowing. It was so fun.
It was such a fun time in 2011 when The Weeknd was releasing full projects every four or five months.
It was sick, and it was just flowing. We were purposefully being like, “Fuck the system.” We were full-on rebels of like, “Fuck everything. We’re doing this our way. We’re willing to sell it for free. We’re releasing this music.” Everyone was just not as experimental with music as what we were doing. I didn’t even think was experimental, but to other people it was. No one saw the vision. It was very dystopian at that time.
Once House of Balloons comes out, it is a massive success. How did its success affect the recording of Thursday?
A lot of the inspiration for House of Balloons is from Doc. A lot of those references and those reference points, that’s Doc’s shit. A lot of stuff from Thursday, the more experimental shit, that was more stuff that Abel and I had started together. When Abel and I started songs together, we ended up doing more experimental shit, whatever you wanna call it. We did more Thursday vibes. Songs that Abel and Doc started were a little bit more House of Balloons vibes. But then again, even saying it and framing it like that is hard to say because when we all come together, it ends up being a whole different thing. The only thing that’s truly an Abel and I was Echoes of Silence. Doing that at the speed that we did it was quite stressful.
You did that whole mixtape in a month, right?
Yeah, and the reason why I shaped it all is because when House of Balloons first came out, it was just such an impact…We had every fucking person around the world flying in to sit with us in our un-air-conditioned studio in the middle of summer Toronto sweating. We didn’t give a fuck. We didn’t care, we’re having fun. I think when Thursday came around, Abel was like, “Yo, I’m putting out three bodies of work this year.” And for me, I was like, “Let’s go, baby.” [When] the other mixtapes started coming out, it was as simple as we had a mission, we had three mixtapes to do, and that’s what we were doing. Each mixtape impacted the next because we were using feedback, and we were trying to learn and we were also kids trying our best.
Speaking of Thursday, “The Zone” was the first Drake/Weeknd collaboration on a Weeknd project. How did that come together?
“The Zone” was a fucking vibe… Doc, me, and Abel were all in the studio. It was late at night and Doc wanted to step out… That might have been one of the first times I and Abel had this moment of like, “Okay, we can make some shit.” So Doc just stepped out and I remember I just pulled up this pad with a really beautiful sound that I had saved, and I just remember holding one chord down… And I remember Abel started singing something. Back then, and still today, but back then especially, when the vibe was there, I knew it. He started singing within seconds of me playing this pad, and he was on his phone just pacing by the keyboard. He’s on his BlackBerry just scrolling. He had some lyrics written… I remember recording him singing the vibe for that song and I may have been playing the pad live to a click track. It was that spontaneous.
From there, we started working on the song. Doc starts laying down his beautiful guitars. The drums were inspired on some Massive Attack/Portishead vibes. Down the line, Abel wanted to have Drake be involved as the only feature on the mixtape. Then, Drake pulled up to the studio and we record his verse. At some point, someone’s phone was triggering that “boop, boop, boop” noise. I was like, “Yo, fuck! We recorded the cell phone noise. Someone’s cell phone started triggering the interface. I remember Abel was like, “Nah, fuck that. I like that.” I was like, “We can’t have a cell phone noise ringing.” He was like, “Nah, I like it.” I love that song.
The Weeknd just released the original mix of House of Balloons on streaming services a little over eight years after the mixtape was included in his three-part Trilogy project from 2012. How does the original mix differ from the Trilogy mix?
I did all the mixes on the mixtapes and Trilogy. I even mastered everything on the mixtapes… The real changes were we weren’t able to get clearances on a lot of those samples. On Thursday, there were some changes done on the mixing and mastering side that fucked it up. When Thursday first came out, a lot of the bass was really overwhelming. That was a last-minute fuck up. That was last-minute mastering stuff. We were all really excited and nervous. We had worked on this mixtape and everyone was waiting to hear the second. We pulled up to Guitar Works in Toronto because we wanted to change studios and listen to it somewhere else. Once we changed rooms and speakers, it’s very difficult to get it right. With the re-release of the original mixes from the mixtape, I spent all of 2012 remixing Trilogy. People wanted a grittier sound and that comes down to mastering. We tried a couple of different mastering engineers. In the end, I learned if people like a certain sound you can’t fuck it up. People liked a little bit of the distorted mastering I did. Trilogy was mastered by an incredible mastering engineer named Mark Santangelo who did an incredible mastering job.
What is the vibe of session with The Weeknd?
It’s really simple. I keep distractions really minimal. I like bringing essential oils, candles, and lighting into the mix. Our sense of smell is so important in triggering memories and producing feelings, so I’ll always have a diffuser with essential oils from Doterra, which are organically and ethically sourced.
To me, the song that changed The Weeknd’s career the most was “The Hills.” How’d you two work on that?
We turned a side room in Abel’s Toronto condo into a studio. We worked a lot of Beauty Behind The Madness there. We did an entire month on “The Hills” there. That was a really incredible demo DJ Mano sent to Abel. Abel heard that and felt a lot of energy from that. He started playing the demo and singing some melody over it. He was like, “Dude, this is a fucking hit.” From that moment onward, that was us in the studio every day for a month dialing in that song. We were getting it right, writing the intro, writing the bridge, dialing in the mix, trying to make the chorus hit precisely, driving the distortion, keeping everything lo-fi and aggressive. We were such in a creative rabbit hole working on that song, we sent it to a few people for mastering, and a few versions we got back that weren’t good at all. We pulled up to Austin for South By South West and Abel was like, “I want to play the song at the live show.” He performed it and everyone bugged out. The rest is history.
Have you had any huge celebrity-filled sessions with The Weeknd?
With Abel, everything I’ve done with him has been very, very minimal. For After Hours, it was him and I in the studio for a year. That’s it. We’d have the files sent and, after that, I’m off to the races. That’s it.
What’s your favorite session with him?
Abel and I didn’t work together for years. “The Hills” was one of the last songs we ever did before After Hours. I think the last song I did with Abel was “As You Are.” I remember we were trying to get that song done before handing that into mastering. I was up at the studio until six in the morning trying to get that song done… When we started linking back up, we did a bunch of songs that are fucking insane. One of those songs was “After Hours.” That was a song he started with Jason [Quenneville] and Mario [Winans]. When Abel showed me what it was, it was just a demo. When I heard it, I thought it was incredible. It was early on into the album. It’s three different movements in that song. There’s so much experimentation. I spent months on that song. That song was one of my favorite moments.