When Kanye West released Jesus Is King at the end of October, there was only one musician credited on ten different tracks other than West himself: The Argentine-born, jazz-trained pianist Federico Vindver. Roughly a month later, Coldplay put out a new double album, Everyday Life, and there was Vindver again, producing and writing on four more tracks.
Back-to-back appearances on two commercial blockbusters — West’s album debuted at Number One in the U.S.; Coldplay’s at Number One in the U.K. — marked a breakout moment for the writer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. Vindver has spent most of his career in more anonymous settings, anchoring touring bands for acts like Lauryn Hill and Marc Anthony. Now he’s proving remarkably malleable in the studio, moving easily from slow-drip flirtation (Mariah Carey) to holy hip-hop (West), from barbershop quartet ballads (Missy Elliott) to driving Eighties throwbacks (Zayn), from universal-balm pop (Coldplay) to pummeling, pugnacious rap (Tee Grizzley).
This flexibility was baked into Vindver’s musical education from the minute he arrived at the University of Miami in 2004, following stints as a backing musician in Spain and Mexico. Vindver was armed with a scholarship to study jazz performance, but he almost immediately found himself playing other styles of music to make some spending money. “I was really broke,” he remembers. “School was paid for, but everything else I had to cover, and my family didn’t have enough money to send me any. So I had to play as many gigs as I could. The first one I got in the U.S. was playing in a black church.”
This was the start of an exhaustive education process — on multiple levels. Vindver learned most of his English on the fly. (He wasn’t initially familiar with the term “R&B,” but accepted an offer to play in an R&B band anyway.) And while Vindver had listened to plenty of tango, rock, and jazz, he had little knowledge of contemporary gospel, R&B, and hip-hop. Vindver vacuumed up as much information as he could by playing as many as ten shows a week around town. “It was just a process of intensive learning,” he says.
One of Vindver’s regular gig-mates eventually brought the pianist into Hill’s band. The job consisted of “a lot of creating new versions of her recorded material [for shows],” Vindver says. “She would sometimes call up like, ‘hey, can you sample new drums from this record and put them over that one? Let’s add strings to the ‘To Zion’ record or play it faster.’ I would arrange those.”
The gig backing Hill served as a ticket into touring bands for other stars — a group that included Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, and Jennifer Lopez. The varied styles of these arena-filling act ensured that Vindver’s furious learning process continued. To back Anthony, for example, he had to pick up salsa “from scratch.” “Argentina is more of a rock and roll place — salsa is not big down there,” Vindver says. “It’s a whole different language.”
While Vindver wasn’t necessarily born to the styles of music he was now playing nightly, he used his versatility to turn what might have been a weakness into a strength. “Maybe I’m not the best salsa player, but I can put some flavors in that a salsa player won’t,” Vindver explains. “I’ll be doing some Ricky Martin music, but at some break I can put some R&B chords in, and people love it.”
Vindver also worked on writing and production whenever he could. But grueling tour-life demanded most of his time. So after years on the road, Vindver changed course, moved to Los Angeles, and announced his intention to focus on production full-time. Ricky Martin’s former manager initially helped connect Vindver to artists. One auspicious session involved New City, a Canadian band. Timbaland was excited by the group, so he came to the studio to work with them. New City is now defunct; Vindver is now signed to Timbaland.
After a relentless hit-making streak that lasted more than a decade and included global hits for Missy Elliott, Justin Timberlake, and Jay-Z, Timbaland is now at a different stage in his career. “He takes more pleasure in making you a better producer than in himself making amazing tracks,” Vindver says. “He’s still the best one in the room, but he’s striving to make us as good as he is.”
In December 2018, Timbaland and Vindver were deep into a series of sessions in Miami with rising rap artists like Saweetie and Lil Mosey. West showed up with less than 24 hours notice. “He starts playing tracks for the Yandhi project, and we’re blown away,” Vindver recalls. “Timbaland would freestyle with him in the studio — Tim on the drum machine, Kanye singing in real time. He wanted to make more healing music at that time. But he was still finding what it was.”
When Vindver reconnected with West in the studio the following summer, the star had cemented his vision for Jesus Is King. “He was a Christian before, but he really adopted Christianity to a level where he’s not gonna sin anymore, not gonna curse anymore,” Vindver says. “His faith went past a point of no return.”
That meant that Vindver’s early experience playing gospel in Miami churches became unexpectedly useful. “Kanye was the person who brought faith back into my life,” Vindver says. Still, sessions with West were wildly intense. “He might do 20 freestyles, listen back and say, ‘on this one, I hear a full choir. On this one, I want to hear a hundred horn players,’” Vindver explains. “So you’re calling musicians, trying to set up sessions. You can’t say, ‘Kanye, I’m sorry, there are not enough horn players in town to do this.’ You make it happen.”
That’s more or less what took place when creating “Hands On.” “That was a moment where he seemed to really catch the spirit,” Vindver recalls. “He gave us 12 to 15 songs a capella. He would do three minutes, sitting on a bench, then stop, take a five or ten second break, and start the next song. Everything was being recorded on a little recorder.”
West left the studio two hours later, and his producers scrambled to chop up the recordings and start embellishing them. The seed of “Hands On” was just 18 seconds long, according to Vindver. “When I heard the melody, I heard chords in my head to go with it, and put in a crazy sound effect on his vocal,” the producer explains. “It was lo-fi, but Kanye heard it, and he loved it.”
To many listeners, shepherding music from Kanye West and Coldplay seems likely to induce whiplash; these are different-sounding groups in very different places in their careers. But Vindver, who worked with Coldplay last year as well, says the band’s approach to completing Everyday Life had plenty in common with the way West tackled Jesus Is King.
“Kanye is relentless in terms of working on something until it’s perfect — songs will go through hundreds of versions — and Coldplay is the same way,” Vindver says. “What they do, which a lot of artists don’t do enough, is really work hard. I’ll do a song with an artist, the next day we add something to it, and the artist is like, ‘OK, it’s done.’ That would never happen with Kanye or Coldplay.”
And that fits Vindver’s style as well. “From the first time I played the piano in a little room, my life hasn’t changed,” he says. “I woke up this morning, turned my computer on, started playing with sounds, trying to get better.”