Hitmaker of the Month: Benny Blanco on Working With Justin Bieber and Juice WRLD and His Own New Album

The writer-producer talks about his "Lonely" track with Justin Bieber and his own new collabs-filled "Friends Keep Secrets 2" album.

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Courtesy Benny Blanco

Before his “Friends Keep Secrets 2” album comes out next week — a collection that includes his platinum-plated “Lonely” collab with Justin Bieber (which also appears on Bieber’s own new album, out this weekend) — there are two key things to know about songwriter/producer Benny Blanco.

The first is that he loves working almost exclusively with his buddies. “I can’t even think of a song that I’ve done where the person wasn’t a friend, or even becoming a pal,” says Blanco from his Los Angeles home base.

It’s a dynamic, pricey list of comrades: Since 2007, Blanco has written and/or produced hight-charting hits for friends such as Katy Perry (“I Kissed a Girl”), Maroon 5 (“Moves Like Jagger”), Rihanna (“Diamonds”) and Juice WRLD (“Black & White”), as well as Ed Sheeran, Britney Spears, Sia, Halsey, The Weeknd, Avicii, Kanye West, J Balvin and more.

Bieber and Blanco became friends in 2009, immediately resulting in the reggae-fied “Eenie Meenie,” and “Somebody to Love (Remix)” with Usher before moving onto 2015’s “Love Yourself, and that same year’s Biebs collab with Major Lazer and MØ, “Cold Water.”

The second thing to know about Blanco is that nearly everything he does has his rakish sense of humor stamped onto it. It could be Instagram, where he revolutionized the boasting and toasting of his own streaming numbers with unique ways in which to eat cereal (“Don’t ask me what brand, man”), or Twitter where he celebrated March 5’s birthday in a dress. If it isn’t fun, Blanco isn’t having it. That applies to the catchy quirks in his hooks, his unobvious ways with melody, and the improvisations he works on with his charges that alchemically spin to gold every time Blanco steps into a studio.

Variety caught up with Blanco on the morning he put together the final track list for “Friends Keep Secrets 2,” including his next single and video for “Unlearn” with vocalist Gracie Abrams (film and television director-producer J.J. Abrams’ daughter) for March 24 release.

Looking at your Instagram, you are the king of the fanciful boast, finding new and interesting ways to celebrate your streaming success using unique vessels… and cereal.

The cereal one? Ha. That’s funny. I have no idea why anyone would follow or like anything I do. Then again, everyone now wants to put dildos on TikTok because I did it. I do stuff like that to make people laugh, and to make me happy. We live in such a fucked up time. Life is too short. Why take yourself so seriously?

You got a Hal David Starlight Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2013, and you have been a BMI Songwriter of the Year award winner five times over. If you don’t take things seriously, what do these industry totems mean to you?

Ah. Good question. You dream of this shit when you’re young. You work hard. When something like an award gets here…. I don’t know. Everyday that I am doing this is its own reward. I can’t believe that this is my life. I can’t believe that I wake up, get to do exactly what I want to everyday, that I like it, and that people around the world love it. That’s the craziest feeling.

Does cooking give you that same rush? You do “Matty and Benny Eat Out America” on your YouTube channel with chef Matty Matheson.

If I’m having a blast, I’m getting a rush. If not, I won’t do it. Cooking including.  I do live each day as it is is my dopest, and yes, even my last. I lost a lot of friends. Life is short. I want to be stoked.

As a writer and producer, what did you learn from being mentored by Dr. Luke at the start of your career that you brought into the present?

Luke and Max Martin – like Timbaland and a Pharrell – paved the way for me. Sitting in a room working with Max and Luke was like learning how to shoot hoops with Michael Jordan and LeBron James. I did not know about pop music. I was not a pop dude. Didn’t grow up with it. With those two, I learned how to make a song, how to build a song. There are little tricks that I learned from those guys, and I applied it to my style.

And that is?

Unconventional. I’m basing it all on feeling rather than, say, the science or the math. I’m hanging out with you, and we’ll find something that feels good to me, and to a few other people. But, to be honest, without Max and Luke, I would not be where I am today.

What was your interaction with Britney Spears like when you worked on her “Circus” album?

She was great. Awesome. I didn’t know her incredibly well. This was right at the beginning of my career and I was just the young guy in the room. She was incredibly sweet and nice to everybody. Exceedingly professional. I knew she was going through a lot at that time, but it never showed. She was never a dick or a diva. Total opposite. She brought coffee in for everyone all the time.

How did you get from your first work with Spank Rock — bold, but not crazy successful in terms of sales — to getting to create songs with Katy Perry and Britney?

Britney was big at that time, but, not Katy. She had just gotten dropped from a deal when we started working together. I was young. It was all just cool, being 18, staying in a fancy hotel, doing my thing. I wasn’t “the Dude,” at that point — nowhere near a Max or a Luke. So I had to make my mark. Katy was the first one where I was making music in a big-ass studio, the complete opposite of what I had wanted to do in the first place.

Is it possible that part of your aesthetic success came from making something intimate in such a large environment?

Yeah. I mean, I was so used to making music in my bedroom or a small studio that I would literally make them set up a little studio in the lounge to make the songs.

So if you’re shifting the physical environment that quickly, is the same true of the sound – that it was, or is, thoroughly off the cuff, and of the moment? Is that your ‘signature?’

Oh yeah. Always. I think there’s a few things that people want when they work with me. You’re going to get a great song, but done in a different way. I don’t produce “up” a lot. I’ve got songs on the new album without drums. I hear what everyone else is doing in the marketplace, and I run the opposite way. Within that, I am a producer who wants to do your vision all the way. You’re at the bench press bar and I’m just spotting you. You can lift it yourself.

Even when it is your song?

Yes. It’s our journey. We make a vibe together. We’ll hang out. I’m not even that good at making music, but I’m cool to hang with. I’ll make us some good food. I’ll take you someplace weird. We’ll go on a long walk, talk about life, get spiritual, smoke a little weed and laugh. A lot. We’re not in a recording session. Besides, I don’t even work with anyone unless we’ve hung out with them a bunch of times, or are friendly.

Talk about the trajectory between producing “Eenie Meenie” and co-writing and co-starring on “Lonely” with Bieber.

Dude. We’ve been working since 2009. I have seen this kid in every state. There have been times that were really good in the studio. There have been times that were not so good in the studio. We grow and learn in the best and worst times. He’s a good dude with a good heart. That’s essential to me. He’s also got one of the best pop voices, ever. He’s insane. And he’s got a lot of stuff he can talk about off the cuff.

Was “Lonely” a different process than, say, something in your recent past together such as “Love Yourself?”

I think we just got closer. When you make a song for someone, it’s like “Yeah, bro, let’s do it.” If you’re hanging with him on the regular, say backstage with him at “SNL,” and he’s telling you that he’s a little nervous,’ you’re seeing things up close. You’re part of his life. You’re right next to him. You’re rehearsing an acoustic performance and he’s crying. This is another level. He’s opening up to me. We’re having deep conversations together; I don’t think that many people get to have those with Justin Bieber. We were already boys together. This song is us being brothers and shit… When you’re both the artists, you’re exposing yourselves. You both have to be really open. You both have to be 100% yourself.

You were fortunate enough to work with Juice WRLD from early on to songs such as “Graduation” and “Real Shit” which appear on your new album. What should we know about him that we don’t?

He was the most talented person that I have ever worked with. It’s not just about the fact that we lost him; I’d say that if he was 60 and still around. I reached out to him when he had 9,000 Twitter followers. No deal. Nothing. We got in the studio. Most people you get into a studio, people pile into the room, you come up with ideas, write some down, get some melodies, come out of the room, fill the melodies in, put some lyrics on — it’s the process. He goes in the studio. Tells me to load the song. Does the song, front to back, beyond the melody — lyrics too, full song. Metaphors and deep shit are flying; it’s one long freestyle. Then he does it again. Then he does it one more time. You pretty much have three entire hit songs, if you just change out the beats. He could do 10 songs just like that in a day. He was so unbelievably prolific. He had thousands of songs just like that.

Unlike Bieber or Vance Joy, Gracie Abrams is a pretty raw talent for a track such as “Unlearned.” How do the two of you work together?

Check it out. I got an intern when he was 16, Blake (Slatkin), sweetest kid in the world. Many years later, he’s writing his own songs, I sign him, he’s coming up with stuff like “Mood” by 24kGoldn and “Without You” by the Kid Laroi, both successful. His girlfriend since high school is Gracie. So I was friends with her before I even knew she made music. We hooked up on this song, and it was just so natural sounding. Everybody’s got baggage, and this song is about just that — the stuff we don’t talk about. Music is therapy.

The new album is basically 2018’s “Friends Keep Secrets” with new tracks added on. Why put that album back out on the market in this way?

I just wanted to keep adding to it. I remember how Kayne kept changing the mixes and the songs on “Life of Pablo,” which I thought was awesome. I want my body of work to live together. Keep adding songs to that — it’ll be my one album. Maybe in a few more years, I can take off songs that don’t feel right to me anymore, and put on new ones. By the next time we speak, who knows what “Friends Keep Secrets” will be.