From 1984 single Careless Whisper to 2004’s Patience LP, the late George Michael frequently called on the services of Tony Cousins. David Davies spoke to the renowned mastering engineer about the late singer/songwriter’s “extraordinary attention to detail”
Despite the passing of numerous musical icons, esteemed songwriters and much-loved session players during the previous 12 months, the death of George Michael on Christmas Day still seemed especially cruel. Aged only 53, here was a musician who – after years of relative silence – was apparently on the verge of a major comeback and who still seemed to have so much more to give.
Whilst the affection for his work as part of Wham! with Andrew Ridgeley is obvious and undeniable, it is likely to be his solo music – from 1984’s debut solo single, Careless Whisper, through to 2012’s orchestrally-enhanced Symphonica – on which his long-term reputation resides. Although he engaged the help of many different collaborators during those years, one of the stalwarts was Tony Cousins. Subsequently a founding and enduring member of the Metropolis Mastering team, Cousins was employed by The Town House when he first encountered Michael on the session for Careless Whisper.
“He was extremely polite – as he always was – and shy,” remembers Cousins. “And there was a very evident interest in the process of mastering and getting the best possible result.”
After the disbandment of Wham! in 1986, Michael began his career as a fully-fledged solo artist, with his “extraordinary attention to detail” becoming increasingly acute. This was certainly evident on 1987’s Faith album; self-produced by a multi-instrumentalising Michael, the LP spawned six top five singles and went on to sell 25 million copies worldwide.
Most of the early Michael mastering sessions were attended by the artist, says Cousins (pictured), who notes that there was no doubt that the singer was “a perfectionist in the recording studio, which meant that there was rarely a great deal to do when it came to mastering. He had a deep understanding of production and studio processes. And he was fascinated by it all.”
After a spectacular opening chapter, the first half of the 1990s proved challenging for Michael. Whilst second solo album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 wowed critics, it was less successful commercially, and was followed by an extended stand-off with his label Sony (a process that – although unfruitful in court for Michael – arguably paved the way for artists from Prince to XTC to object to what they regarded as unfair deals).
Fortunately, the late ‘90s were more productive, and after working in a non-mastering capacity on ’96’s Older, Cousins undertook the extensive task of mastering new, old and previously unreleased material for 1998’s double-disc compilation, Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael.
“That was a big project, as there were a lot of different sources drawn from across a long time period,” says Cousins. But he “was given the time by George and his management to really do a great job on it and make sure that there was a consistency sound-wise across the material. I was really pleased with the end-result and a lot of the masters went on to be used again on [subsequent best-of] Twenty-Five.”
The association between musician and mastering engineer continued through to 2004’s Patience, which proved to be Michael’s final full album release (notwithstanding a set of orchestral reinterpretations, Symphonica, in 2012). “Once again, the tapes that arrived were meticulous and really required very little work. That’s not to say that I wasn’t making changes here and there, but they were relatively minor – and that’s a testament to his fastidiousness [in the recording studio].”
The extent to which Michael had been recording prior to his death is still yet to become fully clear, as is the amount of archive material that may or may not be left in the vaults (or, indeed, deemed worthy of release). But like the rest of us, Cousins – whose recent projects have run a particularly diverse gamut from a boxed set based around The Verve’s Urban Hymns, to a 100th birthday album by Vera Lynn that re-sets her original vocals in fresh orchestrations – already has the chance to reflect anew on what was a substantial catalogue.
“George did create a major body of work, and [although there were extended hiatuses in his career] that should be remembered,” says Cousins. “He was a great singer/songwriter who used fine musicians to get brilliant results, and it was a delight to have had the chance to work with him on so many occasions.”
Picture: Top: Photo Credit: Caroline True