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'Sing': Harvey Mason, Jr.'s long list of tunes for a musical 'toon

Harvey Mason Jr. at the premiere of Universal Pictures'
Harvey Mason Jr. at the premiere of Universal Pictures' "Sing."
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

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How do you teach an actor to sing like an egotistical mouse? Or an overworked pig? Or a shy elephant?

This was Harvey Mason Jr.’s task when he signed on as executive music producer for the new animated film, “Sing." 

Mason has been in the industry for a long time, having grown up watching Quincy Jones in the studio, and later working with musical heavyweights including Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson. That was all valuable experience because working on “Sing” required him to pull out all the arrows in his producing quiver.

The story revolves around human-like animals who come together over a musical talent show reminiscent of "The Voice" or "American Idol." To match the diverse cast includes actors Scarlett Johansson, Tori Kelly, Reese Witherspoon and Seth MacFarlane. To match them with particular tunes, Mason had to produce more than 60 songs for the film across a wide variety of styles and genres.

When the musician spoke with The Frame's John Horn, they discussed the making of the soundtrack.

Interview Highlights:

On how he first got involved with the film:

It was packaged as an animated musical. Anything with the word musical in it, I'm immediately interested in. It was brought to the table by a guy I work a lot with — Mike Knobloch. He's the head of music at Universal. We had just finished a film that I did the music for, "Straight Outta Compton." And so, he's like, Harvey, you're not gonna believe this, but this is the total opposite end of the spectrum from where we just left. So I was doing hardcore gangster rap [then] straight into "Sing." Nonetheless, it was a movie full of great music, great titles, and songs that I loved — some of them that I grew up on, some of them current hits. So I told them I would love to be involved. That was two-and-a-half years ago. So after producing and recording almost a hundred songs, the movie is ready to come out.

On what the music needed to convey for "Sing":

First of all, it was telling story beats. The characters had to convey things that were happening in their lives through their songs. Also, the music had to deliver emotionally. It really had to move the viewer or the listener. There were parts in the film where we needed them to be uplifted or to be introspective. So the music really played a key role in that.

The cast of the new animated musical,
The cast of the new animated musical, "Sing.".
Illumination Entertainment

On keeping a thread going between musical numbers:

That's a tough task because we did do 80-piece big band orchestras all the way down to a three-piece punk band. So my job as a music executive producer was to try and make it sound like one show. I'm not sure if we did it or not, but I gave it a heck of a shot. I think when you're sitting in the audience, it just comes off as all really good music, great arrangements, a lot of fun, a lot of emotion. That's what I tried to do to every song — infuse it with as much passion and feeling and emotion as possible. So I think, if anything, that's the common theme.

On getting Stevie Wonder to write a song for the movie:

We have absolutely no leverage with Stevie whatsoever. The conversation involved a lot of begging and getting down on knees. We did cover one of his songs in the movie, "Don't You Worry About A Thing," which he was really happy about. You have to get these things approved by the author and sometimes the performer. So once he heard that maybe he knew we were serious and jumped in.

On how his version of "Hallelujah" was changed for the movie:

You're not even going to understand how hard this is for me to say, but in the movie, that song ends up being just a cappella. We had done this great arrangement with the strings and the piano and Tori [Kelly] recorded it and we all were amazed by how great it sounded. I was so excited and ran and played it for Garth [Jennings], the director, and he said, I love it! Then when he [put] it in the film, he deleted all the music and it was just her singing. I was so bummed. But then when I saw the scene and I saw how amazing it worked, I was a huge fan. As the music producer, you would say, Harvey, you're nuts. But I think it was a great decision. 

On the necessary traits of an executive producer:

Number one is probably patience, focus and sacrifice ... to be able to work with artists. Artists are crazy. They just are nuts. I've made a career out of working with divas all the way back to Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin. But my job is [to be] a coach. I'm trying to get the best performance out of somebody that I can. So sometimes you're being a psychiatrist — you're patting them on the back, but you're figuring out what makes them tick. Sometimes you have to make them angry, sometimes you have to make them sad, sometimes you have to kick them out of the booth, sometimes you have to send them flowers. The goal is to get that great performance.

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