Even if you’ve never heard the name Benny Blanco before, there’s a chance you’ve belted your heart out to one of his hits. A ridiculously successful songwriter, the Virginian producer has credits on tracks ranging from Rihanna’s earth-shattering ballad ‘Diamonds’ to Justin Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself’.
A pop whizz with a nose that can smell a hit from a mile off, few other writers have such a consistent strike rate; Benny Blanco is up there with Max Martin (who has written with the likes of Taylor Swift, Britney Spears and Ariana Grande) when it comes to shaping the face of pop music. And yet, would you recognise Benny Blanco if he was queuing up next to you in Tesco? The chances are, probably not.
“People say I have a recognisable face…” muses Blanco, clad in a garish patterned shirt and speaking over Skype. As he talks, the producer tinkers around on his phone, posting snippets of his new song ‘Roses’ online. Clashing the classic showmanship of Panic! At The Disco with a new wave of emo-minded rappers, the track features both Brendan Urie and Juice WRLD. It’s indicative of Benny Blanco’s mission statement as he sets forth as a solo artist for the first time, and shortly after our conversation he releases the seven track mini-album ‘Friends Keep Secrets’. It’s a star-studded effort, featuring everyone from Calvin Harris and Halsey though to Ty Dolla $ign, Swae Lee, and Brockhampton associate Ryan Beatty.
We caught up with the producer to chat ‘Friends Keep Secrets’, stepping into the spotlight, and the shape of modern pop.
Up until now, you’ve had a fairly anonymous relationship with fame. People know you for your pop production, but they probably wouldn’t recognise you on the street. Is that something you’ve appreciated in the past?
“Yeah, this part sucks! I don’t like this part. I had the best of both worlds; I could get into any concert and hang out with cool people, but nobody knew who I was. Or if you did know who I was, you were crazy or weird, so I would probably be very scared. Now it’s definitely taking some getting used to. People say I have a recognisable face. I definitely don’t love it, but I do like expressing myself through the music, so there are some things you have to take in sacrifice. I hope I don’t get really famous.”
So why did you decide to get out there in the spotlight, then?
“I want to do something different. I always try to challenge myself. Whether it’s working with an alternative rapper, or working with a pop artist, it’s about trying to switch it up and do thing people said I couldn’t do. I was on the road with Ed Sheeran, and I was recording his last album, ‘÷’. We were watching that Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine documentary [‘The Defiant Ones’] and the next day before a show we watched three episodes in a row. He [Ed Sheeran] stood up – we were in his dressing room – and he was like, ‘Man, what the fuck are we doing with our lives? We’re not doing anything! Look at everything they did.’ Then he was like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna go play this show.’ He literally played for a stadium right after he said that. I was just like, yeah.. what are we doing with our lives? Sitting backstage alone. I sat there, thinking about how Dr Dre did all this stuff. I have all these artists signed to me, and I work with all these others, and I have all these songs that don’t get placed. So I thought: why don’t I just try it myself?”
Do you also think there’s an element of ticking off a lot of your bucket list?
“Yeah, what to do next. I can’t believe I have a song people care about, and it’s me! It’s strange, and it’s different, and I’m getting used to it. Nobody starts out their life like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna be the biggest producer in the world, man!’. When I was a kid I started out as an artist. I used to be an embarrassing rapper, but it is what gave me my first connections. Then I started writing and producing for other people.”
At the beginning of your career, you worked a lot with Dr Luke [an American producer who has been accused of sexual assault by the singer Ke$ha] What’s your relationship like now?
“Uh… unfortunately we don’t have a relationship anymore. No longer. I haven’t seen him in many many years. But, you know, I thank him… everything that he and Max Martin taught me in the beginning of my career, I don’t think I’d be where I am today. I never made any pop songs before. I didn’t know anything about pop music. I’d never even thought about making pop music. My parents put me onto Prince, The Beatles, and Van Morrison, and growing up, all I listened to was rap music. So when people started to ask me to make pop music, I just tried, and became addicted. I’m glad I make pop songs now. I love it.”
‘Friends Keep Secrets’ is a seven-track release, but you’ve mentioned the possibility of releasing three or four more albums – is the plan to keep altering and adding to it over time? Do you see it growing indefinitely?
“Yeah. It’s a new streaming world. You can do whatever you want, so why can’t I just keep adding onto an album? Basically I’m making four mini-albums, and every time I make a new song that’s good, I’ll throw it on. They will all be called the same thing, and live under the same thing. I just think, why would we follow suite with something people decided forty years ago? Fifty years ago. You know what I mean? It’s a new time.
It reminds me of Kanye West did with ‘The Life of Pablo’, too. Does that really excite you, as a development in music?
“Of course! As a listener, when I heard the Kanye stuff, I was like, ‘Whoa, what’s he going to do next?’ Sometimes I’d be like, ‘Why did he change that?’ And other times, I’d think, ‘This is so cool.’ You’re seeing into someone’s brain, and seeing how everything functions, live.”
A lot of artists who would traditionally expect to achieve huge sales numbers just aren’t doing that anymore. Why do you think that is?
“A lot of people are putting out albums, right now. There are so many ways to consume music, and I feel like each listener wants the discovery process. You used to have to go and dig in crates, wait and listen, you know what I mean? Now you just turn on Soundcloud, Spotify, Apple [Music], and press through. You start one place and end somewhere crazy. You can’t really shove a traditional album down people’s throats anymore. Kids aren’t buying it. So you see these big albums which don’t do very well. People are like, I don’t want to listen to that, I want to listen to Juice WRLD, or Joji. We have the freedom to pick whatever we want, and it’s showing in the charts. I don’t know what it’s like in the UK, but here (in the US), it’s really free for all.”
Do you think that levels the playing field?
“Yeah, if you’re a kid – 15 years old – you could be a huge artist, tomorrow. You don’t need the big machine of a record label anymore. You are your voice. You put it up, and if it’s great, somebody’s going to find it.”
You have a huge range of collaborators in the mix for ‘Friends Keep Secrets’. Ryan Beatty is on there – he’s a really exciting face to watch
“He’s one of my favourite artists. He goes in, and the song just falls out within seconds. He has the weirdest way of recording songs; he’ll do half speed, 12-down, and put it together. He’s like a scientist.”
Were you a fan of Brendan Urie growing up?
“Of course. Nobody has ever heard ‘I Write Sins Not Tragedies’ and not instantly sang every word. It’s impossible. Brendan’s really fucking talented, it’s crazy. Putting him and Juice WRLD on a record together, for me, was such an important moment. I was like… why has nobody taken the emo rapper and put him with the emo singer songwriter? It felt like a no-brainer to me.”
For your ‘Eastside’ video, you returned to your old High School in Virginia. You tracked down the first girl that you ever asked out. Was it weird, reconnecting with Ashley so many years later?
“I was trying to figure out my first memories of that type of stuff, yeah, and it was funny. We each barely remembered. I hit her up, and she said, ‘Yeah, of course.’ I don’t think she realised what I even did, or how big the video would get – I don’t even think I realised.”
Did you actually shit your pants when she said yes, way back then?
“Yes. But not when she said yes. You know when you’re sitting down and you drop a pen or something, and bend to pick it up, and maybe you bend a little too far, and a little fart sneaks out. It was like that, except a little more than a fart snuck out. It was very embarrassing.”
And so you thought you’d put it in a music video…
“Yeah, yeah, I shit my pants. It wasn’t the first time, and it definitely won’t be the last.”
And is that your mum in the video for ‘I Found You’?
“Yeah, she didn’t even know she would be in the video, I just pulled her in. That was all one shot with no planning. I just said, ok guys, come here and be in this video.”
Is that a good representation of how you tend to work a lot of the time?
Very much so. I think whenever you plan things – whenever you say, ok, I’m going to make a really big song today – it never works out that way. If i go in, have fun, I’m just myself and we hang out, I come out with something really fucking awesome. If I try to plan it, it never works out right.
‘Love Yourself’ – which you wrote for Justin Bieber – is a good example of one of those spontaneous moments, isn’t it?
“Me and Ed [Sheeran] were on the road, and it was right around when Drake and Future put out that album together. We were in Canada, maybe it was the morning after partying with him? We were really messed up from the whole night, and we were going from Canada to America. You want to stay awake, really, because two hours in they’re gonna check you at the border. Ed was bored, so we sat down and started writing, and started the idea in an hour or two. Somehow we teamed up with Justin, he put his spin on it, and it became a thing.”
“My momma don’t like you, and she likes everyone” is such a brilliantly cutting lyric…
“I know! The song, originally, was about falling in love with your next-door-neighbour’s mom! I said to Ed, ‘What’s going in your life, is there any girl stuff?’ He said, ‘Nah, I don’t want to write about any of that.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t we write a song about not wanting to write about that?’ And that’s how the whole thing started. It used to be called ‘Fuck Yourself’, but we changed it. I don’t like it when people curse in pop songs. I kind of think it cheapens them, but only in pop songs. I’ve done it before, but I don’t love it. I always cringe a little.”
Benny Blanco’s ‘Friends Keep Secrets’ is out now via Friends Keep Secrets/Interscope Records