Revealed: The secret of Lily Allen's Ivor Novello success

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The Independent Culture

When Lily Allen stepped up to collect her third Ivor Novello award of the night earlier this week, few would have recognised the chiselled features of her Californian collaborator, who stood beside her at the podium. While the famously feisty songstress from Hammersmith is a household name, Greg Kurstin is the pop industry's best kept secret.

The Los Angeles-based producer has a "day job" as one half of highly-rated alternative jazz duo The Bird and the Bee. But when he is not pushing back the boundaries of musical convention, Kurstin is co-writing songs and producing hits for a Who's Who of pop acts that has included Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, Yusuf Islam (also known as Cat Stevens), Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck and Sophie Ellis-Bextor.

The name of Lily Allen was added to that illustrious list of collaborators as early as 2006, when Kurstin worked on three tracks on the singer's debut album and then entirely produced her second album, It's Not Me, It's You. That professional relationship blossomed at London's Grosvenor House Hotel on Thursday night, when their co-written meditation on consumerism, "The Fear", picked up two Ivor Novello awards and the pair were jointly named songwriters of the year.

Kurstin told The Independent yesterday: "I'm extremely grateful for the recognition that these awards bring. But I've always liked to be behind the scenes a little. I'd find being really famous quite a difficult thing.

"I kind of prefer to keep it very simple and focus on the music. Producers are becoming more famous these days, but I'm happy to let Lily be at the forefront. Working with her was great."

It is estimated that Kurstin, who started playing the piano at the age of five and whose earliest memory is of his grandmother playing the same instrument to him as a baby, has worked as a producer, writer or musician on songs and albums that have racked up sales of £500m in the global music industry.

One senior industry figure said: "He's one of that class of musical polymath without whom pop would not survive. He's kind of there in the wings, pulling the levers and making stuff work.

"Greg has that natural touch which allows him to pick out a sound and rhythm and turn it into something that's both a little bit different and a hit. He's kind of sought after, to say the least."

Such is the success of Kurstin, who once played for Marlon Brando during his lunch breaks while filming a documentary, that he this month signed a renewed music publishing deal for an undisclosed sum with EMI. His current list of collaborators includes KT Tunstall, Gabriella Cilmi and James Blunt. Jon Platt, head of EMI music publishing in North America, said: "Greg has an amazing ear for what makes a hit record. He's able to create music that connects with fans everywhere."

Kurstin's work with Allen, 24, on her second album is one of his most successful efforts. They collaborated on the record three years ago, renting a cottage in the Cotswolds to write songs before later setting up a recording studio in a Gloucestershire stately home.

The experience seems to have been mutually beneficial. Allen said: "I wanted to work with one person from start to finish, to make it one body of work. I wanted it to feel like it had some sort of integrity. We decided to try and make bigger-sounding, more ethereal, real songs. I think I've grown up a bit as a person and I hope it reflects that."

Greg Kurstin's Greatest Hits

*Kylie Minogue, X album (2007): writing/ co-production on "Wow", "No More Rain".

*Britney Spears, Circus (2008): writing/co-production.

*All Saints, Studio One (2006): writing/co-production on "Rocksteady", "On and On", "Not Eazy", "One Me and U", "Headlock", "In It To Win It".

*Natasha Bedingfield, Pocketful of Sunshine (2008): writing/co-production on "Backyard".

*The Flaming Lips, At War with the Mystics (2006): writing/co-production on "Haven't Got a Clue".

*Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Trip The Light Fantastic (2007): writing/co-production on "Catch You".

*Little Boots, Hands (2009): musician.

*Red Hot Chili Peppers, Californication (1999): musician.