'He did something audacious': How Kygo, Primary Wave and Sony made Whitney Houston a No.1 contender

'He did something audacious': How Kygo, Primary Wave and Sony made Whitney Houston a No.1 contender

Can Whitney Houston achieve a No.1 single in 2019?

In the latest issue of Music Week, we report on how the late singer has her biggest hit in 20 years. Kygo’s EDM reinvention of Houston’s 1990 cover of Steve Winwood’s Higher Love is pushing for the top spot. It’s already been a UK airplay No.1.

The Columbia-released single was behind Stormzy and Ed Sheeran last week, and is looking to maintain its No.2 position this week ahead of Aitch. Higher Love has sales to date of 286,806, according to the Official Charts Company.

The track is the first release since the partnership between Primary Wave and the estate of Whitney Houston. Here, Seth Faber, Primary Wave’s SVP of marketing, reveals the inside story of how they introduced Whitney Houston’s voice to a new audience…

What’s the story behind the new version of Higher Love, which is now a huge hit?

“The UK has definitely been leading the way for us. Primary Wave acquired an interest in Whitney’s estate in March and our partner on the estate is Whitney’s sister-in-law, Pat Houston, who’s the executor. She’s fantastic. They played us about eight records that had been sitting in the vaults – they hadn’t seen the light of day or had been released in limited capacities. And one of the things they played was this cover of Higher Love, which Whitney recorded in 1990, but was only released as a Japanese B-side at the time. Frankly, I thought it was just an incredible vocal performance, it’s Whitney at the peak of her power in 1990 – she sounds incredible – and then on top of that it’s obviously a fantastic song.”

How did Kygo get involved?

“It occurred to me that this could be flipped by an EDM artist. The one that immediately came to mind for me was Kygo, because he’s got the history of doing production around or remixing classic soulful vocals – he launched onto the scene with a remix of Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing. Just the tempo of the [Higher Love] record felt like it was right for a tropical house style production.

“So I went to RCA to see [CEO] Peter Edge and [A&R president] Keith Naftaly and explained the concept to them. What’s particularly interesting is those are two guys who worked with Whitney when she was recording on Arista. They both worked for Clive Davis as senior A&R executives. I think both of them probably had a little bit of post-traumatic stress disorder from the experience of just everything that had unfolded in the latter part of Whitney’s life. They were probably a little bit apprehensive to listen to the idea. Nonetheless, I played them the record, they sort of looked at each other and immediately said, ‘OK, you have something – this is outstanding’. So the next phase was obviously to pitch it to Kygo.” 

He obviously liked the idea, was he keen to work on the track?

“I later learned that Kygo had been a fan of Whitney’s and felt as deeply inspired by the vocal as the rest of us. So he gave it a whack, and it was absolutely outstanding. It’s not an easy thing to do because you can’t really over-produce it – it’s Whitney’s vocal and you have to let it shine. But then he did something a bit audacious, which is he chopped up the vocal to create the drop on the record, and it was brilliant, frankly. So that’s how it came about. And the minute we heard it, I think we all realised it had to see the light of day as soon as possible. It’s a special record.

“The last phase of it was for Peter and Keith to take it to Clive Davis, who rightfully feels a sense of ownership over Whitney’s recorded music career. He took a listen and blessed it and was very excited about it as well.”

Are you hopeful for a UK No.1 and global success?

“We’re incredibly excited that Columbia has led the way over there. [President] Ferdy Unger-Hamilton and his team have been incredible, and they were really were able to drive this thing to a Top 5 record and a No.1 radio airplay record without many assets other than the song. The video has just been released last week. We haven’t any done any official remixes on the record either. So they have done a really great job at driving it, and fingers crossed that we can get it over the top and maybe see a No.1. But Ed Sheeran is just relentless! 

“As for the US, now that we’ve got our video we’re gaining a lot of momentum. We feel good about it. I think radio programmers have been asking themselves, in 2019 where does Whitney Houston sit among Post Malone and Halsey? But we believe that the song and the vocal is just so undeniable, eventually everyone’s going to come along for the ride. And obviously Spotify’s been great, we’ve been in Today’s Top Hits when the song came out. Apple’s been incredibly supportive, so it feels good, I think we’re really encouraged.”

What’s driving the popularity in the UK?

“I would say it’s a mix, but the radio picture has been particularly great – Radio 1 and Radio 2. The streaming has clearly been great as well. Maybe it’s Steve Winwood, there’s just something about it that is totally resonating with the English audience. Maybe there’s a little bit of that familiarity there.” 

To read the interview with Seth Faber about future plans with the estate, pick up the latest issue – or subscribers can click here.

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