Hitmaker of the Month: With ‘Cold Heart,’ Australia’s Pnau Reach Career Peak Reimagining Elton John Classics

Australian electronic music purveyors Pnau are no strangers to hits in their native country. But the trio still remains lesser-known in the rest of the world — a fact which has started to change this winter, thanks to the now global smash “Cold Heart (Pnau Remix),” a re-working of several Elton John songs, which also features vocals from Dua Lipa. The remix hit No. 1 on radio in the U.K. and many other countries last year, and it just cracked the Top 10 in the United States earlier this month.

“It’s a massive moment for us at this stage in our career…. we’ve been doing this for a while now, and it’s so nice to be recognized,” says the act’s co-founder Peter Mayes from Sydney, where he is riding out the pandemic temporarily before planning a return this spring to Los Angeles, where he now lives.

So how did Pnau, a long-established group down under with its own following among electronic music fans, get the opportunity to work with Elton John and update his classic songs “Rocket Man,” “Kiss the Bride,” and “Sacrifice” via a remix (which also uses elements of another more obscure John tune) to turn it into an entirely new composition?

Says Mayes: “We’ve been working with Elton for about 15 years now,” says Mayes, 43. “He first discovered us in Australia around 2007, and we even moved to London and then took up with his management company at the time. … We did an album with Elton that came out in 2012 [Elton John vs Pnau “Good Morning to the Night”] and it went No. 1 in the U.K., which was a great moment for us. Then Elton was like, ‘do you wanna do some more’ and we [still] had a lot of his vocals that we hadn’t really touched upon, and a lot of the vocal tracks we had were huge iconic Elton John hits and we’d sort of stayed away from them on the previous album intentionally, as we wanted to unearth a lot of lesser known Elton records and vocals then.”

The trio decided that this time around, they would grab vocals from one of John’s best-known songs, “Rocket Man,” and re-imagine it mashed up with “Kiss the Bride,” plus “Sacrifice.”

“Streaming has changed the game, so we really wanted to have a big single, so I guess we tried harder to use the big Elton vocals this time around,” explains Mayes.

His bandmate, Nick Littlemore, says producing the deceptively simple disco-tinged medley of John jams was a challenge to get just right.

“Weaving the vocals together, making both the melodies and lyrics gel as one was the most challenging part of making ‘Cold Heart,’” says Littlemore, who is also one half of Australian act Empire of the Sun, which scored an alt-rock/electronic crossover hit back in 2008 with “Walking on a Dream.”

“Often, I leave the song on loop, walk out of the room, and when I come back in, I instantly know if it’s ‘right’ if that emotion is driving the music deep into me…. it’s always keeping the emotions ripe, that’s the intention,” Littlemore (his brother Sam is the third member of Pnau) further explains of his producing process.

The producer said working with Dua Lipa’s vocals for “Cold Heart” was a special treat that helped inspire the trio, and which also helped the remix feel fresh.

“Dua has an extraordinary voice,” he says. “It inhabits its own space, much like that of Sir Elton.”

The pair, who have been friends since they were teenagers, worked together to finish “Cold Heart.”

Says Mayes: “Nick initially sent me a cut-up he had done of ‘Sacrifice’ which at that time was just bits and pieces of the chorus and stuff, and I thought that was interesting because I always loved the melodies in ‘Sacrifice’ and the initial idea was just the ‘Sacrifice’ verses. We thought we could make some chords around that, and then, it was just a matter of finding other Elton tracks that would work with that [such as “Rocket Man”].”

Then, the trio fine-polished the tune via adding elements of two other Elton John tracks, including directly sampling a choir’s chant from John’s “Where’s the Shoorah?”

Chants embedded within songs have become sort of a de-facto calling card for Pnau, as singles such as their “Changes” (which became a No. 1 smash in Germany in 2013), “Chameleon,” and “Go Bang” (both Top 10 hits in Australia around five years ago) feature layered vocals and hypnotic, primal-yet-futuristic repetitive chanting refrains, set to house music inspired beats.

“That is something Nick and I are always trying to achieve in the studio — we’re always thinking that we need chant-style moments,” says Mayes. “That sound of a lot of layered vocals and a lot of people singing at once has always been a big inspiration for us. Especially because, for us, we play a lot of festivals, and when you have that kind of chant-style vocal that the crowd can repeat and sing back to you, it feels like the right kind of thing.”

And while chant-heavy EDM hits such as “Changes” (derived from Pnau’s 2008 release “Baby”) may have put them on the global electronic festival circuit, “Cold Heart” has suddenly placed Pnau atop the pile of pop producers most in demand for remixes (even though the guys say they’re not really keen on them) and collaborations with some of the world’s biggest artists at the moment.

“Yeah there is a bunch of stuff coming through and we are really excited to have access to artists we’ve never had access to before,” demurs Mayes, without revealing who the trio may be working with this year.

What the members of Pnau are most excited about as 2022 rolls out is new band material.

“We are working on many new Pnau records and very simply we are trying to keep this global momentum going on now that a few more people know who we are,” says Mayes. “We feel like we have an opportunity now to really bring our music to a wider audience and that’s the dream for any artist.”

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