Benny Blanco is a 24-year-old Grammy-nominated songwriter and music producer with a baker’s dozen #1 singles that include Katy Perry’s "Teenage Dream" and "California Gurls," Britney Spears’ "Circus," Taio Cruz’s "Dynamite," Ke$ha’s "TiK ToK," Gym Class Heroes’ "Stereo Hearts" and Maroon 5’s "Moves Like Jagger" (which he co-wrote and co-produced) and "Payphone."
The Virginia native grew up making beats in his bedroom before learning the fine points of writing and producing music from Disco D, Spank Rock and famed writer/producer Dr. Luke and moving to New York City. He was one of this year’s Songwriter of the Year winners at the BMI Pop Awards. Blanco co-founded Get Well Soon, a children’s charity that brings pop stars to the hospital bedside and he is a sometime guest lecturer at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. He spoke to Co.Create from his home studio about the many creative threads that are woven together to create a hit song and how he negotiates his intertwining roles as a hit-making songwriter and producer.
My studio’s always in my house. I want to wake up and be like, "You know I’m gonna make music today in my underwear. You know what I’m gonna be in my pajamas. You know what, I’m actually just gonna stay inside for the next three days so I can make music."
When I’m in a big studio, I get anxious. I just like making music with my friends, telling dick and fart jokes. I don’t wanna be where it’s like $2,000 a day and if you don’t finish a song we’ll stick this pineapple in your ass.
Sometimes we start a song with a melody, sometimes we start it with a guitar part, sometimes we’re playing ping pong and the ball will fall in a certain way and we’re like "Oh my God we have to record that." There’s no rhyme or reason.
I might be eating something and the bag opens in a cool way and I’m like I wanna put that in the song. I’ll hit a pencil on a metal rod and be like that would be cool on a snare drum. Sometimes you’ll be out and you’ll hear something in a restaurant—maybe someone is doing a toast with a glass and it hits a note—and you’ll be like "Oh my God, that note"—little things that other people who don’t love music wouldn’t notice.
But just for me, the creativity, it always hits you at the most awkward times. Sometimes I’ll literally be in the bathroom taking a poop and I’ll be like "Oh my God I have the best idea" and I’ll have to run out to record it. You never know when it’s gonna hit you.
A friend of mine was in Las Vegas with a brand new girlfriend and it was 3 or 4 in the morning and he had an idea for a song so he did a voice memo on his phone but he didn’t want to wake up his girlfriend so he went into the closet.
The voice memo thing never works for me; when I play it back there’s always like a big horn I didn’t hear that will go off in the background or I’ll be whispering and have no idea what I actually meant to say.
Whenever I get an idea I write it down on my phone and then I go back later and half of them are awful. But every once in awhile you get a really good idea.
Basically any time you have a real life experience, that can be a song. Because no matter how crazy or weird you are, somebody’s had an experience just like you, somewhere.
Right now I’m sitting with a dog right between my legs, and I’m maybe gonna eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a few minutes, and that maybe could turn into a song. Or it could turn into me being lazy and sitting with and petting my dog. You can’t force it.
With music you have to self-edit a lot. You have to recognize like, okay, not everything I do is gonna be good. And you have to be like that’s not good, let me put that to the side. Right after you make a song you don’t have to be like "Someone has to do this song!" I have songs that are like 3, 4 years old that are just coming out now. Don’t force it, let it happen. Any time I’ve forced something you can hear it in the music.
Sometimes when I’m working with an artist I’ll be like "OK it’s not working, let’s go walk in the park, let’s all jump on one leg and do the Macarena backwards." It’s different things every time. I always have a ping-pong table in the studio. If you’re with an artist and you notice the situation is going south a little bit, it’s like "You wanna play ping-pong or foosball?" Or, "You wanna go grab somethin’ to eat?" And then you just like talk to them and relax them and get them comfortable and get yourself comfortable. And then when you’re least expecting it, it comes to you.
I’m not gonna be productive unless I’m chilin’, I’m with my friends. I also don’t want to make music with people unless I’m friends with them. I wanna have a comfortable, amazing experience when I make music every time.
Oh my God to this day my Dad is like "What do you do?"
A producer is someone who sees a piece of music, a song, from the beginning to the end. Whether it’s making some beats, writing some of the lyrics, mixing the song. You’re the guy who has to make sure no one fucks up. That’s it. Your only job is to make sure that the song gets done and that everyone doesn’t kill each other before the song’s done.
You’re like the guy who has to wear many different types of hats. Some producers don’t ever touch a piece of music equipment, and they’re some of the greatest producers in the world, but they just know how to put the right people together, how to pick the right song, they have great taste. And then there’s some producers who just make beats and they send it off and get a mix. And then there’s some producers who are really anal who have to be there the entire process and constantly fiddle with things and are very involved in the songwriting. But it doesn’t matter how you get there. The producer at the end of the day means making the song happen. I wish I wasn’t as anal as I am. But yeah I’m very in touch with a record from the beginning to the end.
When you’re a producer it’s probably 20, 30 percent musical talent. Besides that, you’re a therapist, that’s your job. I should have gone to medical school. You gotta massage the situation. The artist is like "I don’t feel like doing anything," or they’ll be like "I love this part," but you might think "Shit, that part’s no good." But you can’t tell them no 'cause it’s gonna throw them out of their vibe. So I get everything that they wanna do then circle back around to that part and then maybe by that time they’re like "Oh maybe that part’s not great, maybe you’re right."
You gotta pick your battles. Interacting with artists, you can’t be like a fucking fly on the wall. If you’re like shy then the music business isn’t a great spot for you as a producer. You have to be like "OK, go do this, go do that, I need more of this, I need more of that." Sometimes you have to be like "Yo, like, that sucks, that’s not good." And you have to know when to be like "Oh my God that’s amazing"—you have to know when to give praise. It’s like being a father sometimes. Like as a dad you’re like "Shit, do I reprimand them, do I do like tough love?" There’s definitely been some times where like everyone’s like stormed out or been angry with each other then at the end they love each other. When you’re doing anything creative there are definitely times when you butt heads.
I think the most important thing for people to remember is, don’t try to do everything. Like if I’m in the room with Max Martin and we’re writing a song, I’m gonna let him do the melody, he’s the best guy at making melody. If I’m in the studio with Jimi Hendrix, I’m not gonna be like "Hey Jimi, let me play this rhythm guitar part, let me play this solo." You gotta play people to their strengths. I think that’s the most important part. If I’m in with someone who’s a better songwriter than me, I’ll let them lead the way. If someone’s a better producer than me, I’ll let them lead the way. You never know, though, sometimes you’ll be with someone great but then some intern or assistant will say something that will just totally change the meaning of a song. So I’m open to hearing everyone’s ideas in every situation.
When we were making "Payphone" people were like "Do kids even know what a payphone is?" When we made "Stereo Hearts" it was like "Do kids even know what a stereo is? What about an iPod heart?" Even when we did "Dynamite," they were like "'Dynamite’ won’t work on the radio because it’s gonna remind people of 9-11." Why wouldn’t it remind them of fireworks, you know what I’m sayin’?
Some people once they make something they don’t wanna touch it or do different things to it but we slave over these records forever. Sometimes you think you’re done with a song and then we change the chorus at the last minute.
Sometimes you have to be able to step back. A lot of people are like too egotistical and stuck up to think, Okay that’s an amazing idea, I should have thought of that, I was wrong. You have to have an opinion, but you also have to sometimes be like you know I trust this person’s opinion. They’re right, I was wrong.
And it’s not even about being wrong. It’s like that’s better for the song. Sometimes you make an amazing part for the song and it just doesn’t fit in the song and you have to cut it out. Sometimes that one little part will become another song.
I’ll make stuff and think you know what, if I like it and my friends like it, at least a few more people will like it. When you’re making a song you gotta make stuff that’s simple and normal enough so people can stomach it, they’re like "Oaky, I can live with this, this is stuff I normally listen to." But I feel like you need to put like a weird melody or vocal or lyric in there so they’re like "I’ve never heard that before," I’ve never heard a tuba on a dance track or a girl like have a boy’s perspective in a song or something like that. It’s becoming easier with people like Adele and Lana Del Rey, they’re opening the door to challenge listeners and help them be more creative about what they like.
When you’re working with an artist, especially if it’s an established artist, you don’t wanna break with that artist and what their fan base is, because that’s why everyone likes them. But I want to put my own little spin on it. Like I want people to hear a record and say "Oh, that’s a Benny record, that’s something he would do."
But as a producer, you’re secondary. It’s the artist’s vision. They’re the one who’s gonna have to sing it for the rest of their lives. You don’t want an artist to feel uncomfortable, but it is very good to test an artist’s boundaries. I always like doing that. They’re like, "I normally don’t do songs at this tempo" or "I normally don’t sing notes that high" and you’re like "You can" and when they pull it off, it’s the best when an artist says "I didn’t even know I could sing like that."
The format of music is constantly changing, whether it’s records to CDs to tapes to vinyl to digital and who knows how long singles are gonna be around. When I give a lecture at NYU or do a beat making workshop I always tell kids you can’t be basing your opinion on something someone else wrote in a book 40 years ago—either like a washed up dude or some dude that never was in the music business to begin with.
There are always the few kids that are like, "What is the exact same sound you did because if you give it to me, then I can…" It’s not like that. You could give me every sound that Led Zeppelin used, I guarantee you it’s not gonna sound as good as Led Zeppelin. It’s how you use the sounds.
One kid said "I heard Dr. Luke has a hit machine, it’s like a machine that you press a button and it makes a hit." And I was like, "Oh my God can you get me one?"
The thing that makes me so frustrated is when someone says can you make me a song like this other one you just had? And I’m like no, I wanna make you a new song for you. I like to work from scratch with an artist. I wanna make a song that embodies what you feel and your emotions. I don’t wanna just make the same song 10 times in a row.