Meet Kid Harpoon — Harry Styles’ Go-To Collaborator and Pop’s New Secret Weapon
Harry Styles’ 2020 tour, in support of his late-2019 second solo album, Fine Line, was a month from launch when COVID-19 shutdowns began. But even the world going on pause could not keep Styles grounded for long. “He doesn’t sit still well,” says his producer, co-writer and close friend Tom Hull, aka Kid Harpoon. “So he was just like, ‘Guys, I’m not going on tour. Should we go into the studio?’ ”
Styles booked time at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La in Malibu, Calif., and invited Hull and writer-producer Tyler Johnson to the sessions. “I was like, ‘Is he insane? We can’t leave our houses!’ ” recalls the affable Hull one late afternoon in New York. Still, the trio showed up and immediately got to work. “Day one, we’re writing a song, and [Harry] came up with this piano part. And then I was like, ‘Oh, that could be faster. And you could do this chord, and we could do this.’ ” That evolved into “Late Night Talking,” the first song written for what would become 2022’s Harry’s House, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in June with 521,500 equivalent album units earned in the United States, according to Luminate — still the biggest debut week for any album this year.
Harry’s House and Maggie Rogers’ 2022 album, Surrender (the much-awaited follow-up to her 2019 debut, Heard It in a Past Life), both co-written and co-produced by Hull, have turned the chilled-out, 40-year-old Chatham, England, native into one of the most quietly omnipresent forces on the popular music scene in the past year. One of his guiding principles, and perhaps the key to his success, is to let the artist’s opinions steer the process.
“I’m not the guy that is going to tell you all the answers even though I’m not quite sure of them myself. I’m the ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ guy.” That approach has made Styles’ and Rogers’ releases, and therefore Hull himself, strong contenders for Grammy nominations in the song, album and, most importantly to Hull, producer, non-classical, categories. “That would be the dream,” he says.
Hull started out as a singer-songwriter, an indie troubadour who gravitated more toward aggressive folk and the garage rock of hometown hero Billy Childish than to simpering coffeehouse ballads. He started going by Kid Harpoon in his early 20s, taking the name from a short story he wrote about a young man who launches a harpoon at a comet and changes its path — a metaphor for controlling his own destiny. Around that time, he moved to London and fell in with the rising indie scene at a pub called Nambucca, where he met fellow artists like Marcus Mumford, Laura Marling and his now longtime friend Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine.
“I ended up being like, ‘Oh, my God. I’m obsessed with her,’ ” he says sheepishly. “I just remember us sitting in a park, and we’d write lyrics together. Now I look back and I’m like, ‘This is so embarrassing.’ I mean, you’re going through it!”
Between 2007 and 2009, Hull released two EPs and signed to seminal independent label and then-XL Recordings imprint Young Turks (now Turks), home of the xx. He also released his debut album, Once, produced by Trevor Horn, former member of The Buggles and Yes. Horn is also co-founder of publishing company Perfect Songs, with whom Hull signed a publishing deal. He toured incessantly, opening for The Kooks and playing showcases with XL labelmates Jack Peñate and Adele — who, he recalls with a laugh, once told him and Peñate, “ ‘You do know I’m going to sell more records than both of you put together?’ And she did.”
Despite his successful live show, Hull could not find a way to translate his energy onstage into his records and amicably parted ways with Young Turks before satisfying his two-album deal. “I had made a record that hadn’t taken my career to the next level, and I was like, ‘I need to go back to ground.’ ” He set up a home studio in Highbury with his publicist-turned-girlfriend (and now wife), Jenny Myles, and started working on fresh music. “People liked what I was doing, and then I signed a deal to do this new project as a publishing deal” with Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) A&R executive Frank Tope in 2010.
“Frank was like, ‘I like this, we’ll sign you,’ ” Hull recalls, but he was having a change of heart about pursuing a career as an artist and thought he might want to focus on songwriting instead. “I started to realize that I almost enjoy other stuff too much,” he says. “As an artist, it was making it a bit difficult.”
He reached out to his good friend Welch, who was working on her second album, Ceremonials, and agreed to a writing session, which resulted in “Never Let Me Go,” the 2011 album’s third single. Welch also used some lyrics from the session for its lead single, “Shake It Out,” which led to another credit for Hull. “And then I was like, ‘Oh, I can do this!’ ” he says. Another vote of confidence came from Ceremonials producer Paul Epworth (who’d go on to win the producer of the year Grammy in 2012), who told Hull, “ ‘You’re really good at this. You should do this.’ ”
Collaborating with Welch opened the floodgates for Hull, leading to writing sessions with Skrillex, Lily Allen, Jessie Ware and even Styles during his One Direction years. Upon their first meeting through mutual friends, Hull says, “I just remember thinking, ‘Man, when he does his album, I want to be there because this guy is special.’ ”
Seven years later, he got his wish. After moving to Los Angeles with his family, Hull reunited with Styles, by then working on his self-titled debut with producer Jeff Bhasker. Hull and Styles spent a week writing the song “Sweet Creature,” “but I felt like that week finished and it was like, ‘Oh, we’re best friends. I love this guy.’ ” Once the album was nearly completed with Bhasker, Styles and Hull snuck in one more writing collaboration, “Carolina,” which stoked Hull’s desire to be not just a songwriter but “a full-on, I-can-finish-records producer.”
Hull wanted to produce differently from some of the alphas he had met during his time as an artist. “Knowing it can go really wrong, I realized that the best thing is for [the artist] to be heard,” he says. “I feel like I had all the answers to my artist career in me, and I spent too much time looking for them elsewhere. My thing is like, ‘Who does Harry want to be? What does he want to do?’ The best people are the best not because anyone else did it for them. They made all those decisions, and my style as a producer in helping someone do their thing is trying to create an environment where they can make decisions.”
Along with Johnson, a Bhasker protégé, Hull started working on Styles’ Fine Line in January 2017 and ended up producing the majority of the album, which marked his transition from “wanting to be a producer to me actually feeling like Thanos with the different gems. I was like, ‘Whoa, I have these powers now! This is crazy!’ ”
Shawn Mendes approached him soon after, and Hull signed on as a producer-writer for 2020’s Wonder before turning his attention to Harry’s House and answering a call from Rogers, who had begun working on her second album. Rogers and Hull had tried a writing session before for Heard It in a Past Life, a new thing for her at the time, “and she freaked out and was like, ‘I don’t know if I can write with other people. This is weird to me,’ and I was like, ‘Cool. No problem,’ ” Hull says. “So we hung out and really got on.” They tabled the session, but Rogers reached back out 18 months later to revisit the ideas. “We got back in, and as our engineer was loading up the session, I just started playing guitar and she was like, ‘That’s cool,’ ” Hull recalls. “And then we wrote ‘Light On’ instead of finishing this other song.”
When Rogers tapped Hull to co-write and co-produce Surrender, he knew she wanted to get away from the singer-songwriter vibe of her debut. “It’s funny, because she has the Joni Mitchell [Ladies of the] Canyon vibe, or she did on her first album, but she’s like a little New York punk,” Hull says. “I always feel like I have to word it in the right way because I don’t want it to come off wrong, but she can be so strong-minded in a really difficult way that I really respect.”
In mid-2020, they recorded some of the songs at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios outside of Bath, England. But to capture the real New York energy, Rogers insisted on spending time at Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village. “Me and Maggie were really in sync on that record,” Hull says. “I was like, ‘You really want to be the rock star onstage, and you love being onstage. And these are the songs for it.’ ”
“Tom is easily my favorite collaborator and one of my dearest and longest,” Rogers says. “He has the uncanny ability to identify the thing that an artist is best at and help draw it out of them. He helps artists play to their strengths. And more than anything, I can personally tell you how he makes me feel: He makes me feel like the biggest version of myself. All the vulnerability, no holding back. Like I can do anything I want, just with the power of being myself.”
By the time of the Harry’s House sessions, Hull and Johnson were the sole producers, with Sammy Witte joining them on “Cinema.” After their early pandemic visit to Shangri-La, they recorded at Real World and set up a studio in the nearby country house where Styles was staying. “With this album in particular, because of COVID-19, there wasn’t a lot of other people around. Like, there wasn’t a lot of assistance,” Hull says. “We had our engineer, Jeremy [Hatcher]. That was it. So it’s basically four of us in a room, every time we did everything.”
Styles soon took the songs straight to Sony Music Entertainment CEO Rob Stringer. “I was like, ‘Why the f-ck’s he playing it for Rob?’ ” says Hull. “Because we played Fine Line to Rob really early, and he was like, ‘Yeah, you need a few more.’ And [Harry’s House] was quite raw, but he went in and Rob literally went, ‘You’ve got the record. Just finish it, and don’t f-ck it up.’ ”
The team put the finishing touches on the album, and when it came time to pick a lead single, Styles lobbied hard for “As It Was.” “It was Harry that pushed that through,” remembers Hull. “He was like, ‘This is the one. I’m telling you.’ But everyone was like, ‘It should be this other one.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ ” Styles won in the end, and the song has logged 15 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 since its April release. Only three songs have ruled the chart for longer.
“It goes back to that thing about listening. He has the answers,” Hull says. “People get this thing like, ‘I’m a producer, and I have to have all the answers,’ and I’m like, ‘I feel like a plumber. I have a certain skill set.’ You go to someone’s house, and you’re an electrician, and they want their lights like this, and you go, ‘Oh, we can do it. Here’s how we’re going to do it.’ And I feel like that’s my job.”
“To be a very successful collaborator, you have to recognize who the most important person is in the room,” says UMPG chairman/CEO Jody Gerson. “The most important person in the room is the artist. And I think Harpoon has the ability to support talent and to bring the best out of them. He develops relationships with talent. He helps an artist evolve. He plays such an integral role in the creation of a body of work.” And, she adds, “He’s so understated. My goodness.”
Hull may see himself as a utilitarian fixture in the music-making process — but the Grammys could be the place where the self-described “plumber” gets his shine. Gaining recognition isn’t his top motivator, but Hull says he would attend the ceremony if nominated, despite his general skepticism of music awards.
“I’ve always said awards for music is a bit like trophies for dogs,” he says. “I love my dogs, but they’re never going to win. And it’s a bit like that because there’s no way any album I’ve done is quantifiably better than any other.” That said, he notes with a shrug, “It’s great when you get one.”
This story will appear in the Oct. 8, 2022, issue of Billboard.