Genre divisions may never be the same. Camila Cabello and Kane Brown are both at the top of their games, in pop and country, respectively — and they’ve joined forces for a duet of her hit “Never Be the Same” that’s making the lines between formats and audiences even blurrier.
It’s part of a wave, as any recent chart watcher knows. “I was looking at iTunes a few days ago,” points out Sony Nashville chairman/CEO Randy Goodman, “and the top three songs were ‘The Middle’ by Zedd with Maren [Morris] singing, Florida Georgia Line with Bebe [Rexha, collaborating on ‘Meant to Be’], and Camila with Kane. I don’t know if that’s ever happened before, where the top three pop songs have country features on them.”
The other two smashes Goodman mentioned don’t exist as anything other than collaborations, but in the case of “Never Be the Same,” putting out a remix with an added duet part from a fellow star could be considered gilding what is already a serious lily. Cabello’s original solo version of the single — her follow-up to the world-beating “Havana” — is already No. 1 at pop radio. Brown might be seen as having more to gain from the matchup, but he’s no commercial slouch himself: His single “Heaven” is just a step away from going No. 1 in that format, and his platinum debut album just enjoyed its 11th week as the nation’s top-selling country album.
Brown isn’t ashamed to say he played the part of the pursuer in this musical relationship. “Camila’s killin’ it,” says the 24-year-old. “I followed Fifth Harmony, and I loved ‘Havana’ when it first came out,” which is about the point at which he started asking Goodman if there was any chance of an intra-Sony hookup with the Epic artist. “I did that song with Lauren (Alaina — the “American Idol” alumnus who joined Brown on “What Ifs,” his first No. 1 single), and I just felt like my and Camila’s voice would match that well, too.”
That dream was not destined to come true immediately, since Cabello was hardly in need of any assists as “Havana” took off. Says Goodman, “It was one of those things where it was aspirational for Kane, and by the time we got around to having the dialogue, Camila was getting so much global traction with ‘Havana’ that it was kind of like, “Well, I don’t know.’ But I was talking with Sylvia (Rhone, president of Epic Records) about it, and finally she called me and said, ‘Hey, Camila would like Kane to sing; let’s see if it works.’ ”
As it turned out, Cabello’s team was thinking along similar lines before they even knew about Brown and his wish list. “I kind of had the idea back in January to put somebody on ‘Never Be the Same,’” says Joey Arbagey, Epic’s executive VP of A&R. “Sam Hunt was being considered, because Camila was also a fan of Sam’s, but she loves Kane and it worked out perfectly. We were looking at his streaming, and it was so big for the country world. When Camila and Roger (Gold, her manager) looked at Kane a little bit more, it was like, yeah, let’s do it.” But, Arbagey admits, “I was nervous. I just felt like I would jump off a cliff if this didn’t work.”
It all started to come together less than a month before the track was released. Arbagey went into a Nashville studio with Brown just a couple of days after getting the go-ahead from Cabello and Gold. And it was close, but something was missing. “Kane is super laid back and chill, and this required a little bit of pain and emotion in the voice to pull it off. At first he was like, ‘This is awkward.’” The key, Arbagey says, was going back into the studio for a second shot with vocal producer Kuk Harrell, who works with superstars like Rihanna. “It’s an emotional song, so when we did get it out of him, it was magic.” Additionally, Frank Dukes, Cabello’s producer, came in and “re-produced” the track, adding guitars and percussion.
Arbagey wasn’t surprised Cabello wouldn’t sign off on the track until it was just so. “Camila’s obviously a perfectionist and wants everything the best it could possibly be, so she’ll listen to things in a lot of different ways, which can take up a lot of time, but at the end we get the best product. On the first version, Roger was like, ‘This sounds good, but…’ and he kept giving notes. I’ve never worked with anybody that’s as focused as Camila, and who will rehearse and recut until it sounds exactly how she wants it to,” says the A&R exec. “And then she might even go back to one of the early versions, but at least she heard it every single way that you could hear a record. I’ve never seen somebody that so intensely wants to make things the best they could possibly be.”
Part of Brown appeal is that he looks more like a Top 40 artist than a country at, with a sound that sits squarely in both camps. Says Sony’s Goodman, “One of the reasons why his social media was so strong [even before he was signed] is because it became kind of this viral thing: There’s this young biracial man who looks like he could be an Abercrombie & Fitch model, he’s all tatted up, and you think he’s going to be doing hip-hop, but he has this baritone country voice. I think that really drew a lot of people in.”
Goodman says Sony is interested in trying to expand Brown’s presence into the Latin music world. “Ideally you want to see how far you can go with your artist’s music, and so I think with Kane, we would be remiss if we didn’t try to push those boundaries a little bit.”
Brown, while trying to sound modest about his aspirations, says, “We’re just trying to branch out a little bit. Because we feel like I’m… I don’t know how to explain it. Like, I look like the world, kind of. We’re just trying to expand to places where the normal country artists don’t go. I want to try to go to South America and different places — just be unique and kind of in my own lane.”
In a telling detail about the modern world of duets and guest spots, Cabello and Brown have not yet met. That’ll probably happen at the Billboard Awards May 20, where both are nominees.
“The way we like and follow each other on Twitter and stuff, everybody thinks we’ve met,” says Brown. “And we haven’t even talked yet. It’s crazy, but that’s one of the things I want to do with promotion, actually, is get on FaceTime and get a screenshot to promote it.”
Arbagey thinks the collaboration reaching No. 1 on iTunes is victory enough, and says there won’t be a major promotional push for the duet remix at radio, since Cabello’s solo version has already topped the pop charts. “It was just something new to try — an experiment that turned out great,” he says. “I’m glad we could bring the two worlds together. We want it to go as far as it can, and I think that it adds fans for Kane in the pop world and Camila in the country world.”