At just 23 years old, songwriter and producer Blake Slatkin is defining the next decade of pop music — and he already has the No. 1 songs to prove it.
Slatkin, an L.A. native, rose to prominence in 2020 as a writer and producer on 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s pop-rap banger “Mood,” which spent eight non-consecutive weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. The song’s catchy hook and guitar backbone made it one of the most unescapable ear worms of the summer — and almost exactly one year later, Slatkin has done it again with the Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber’s “Stay.”
The synth-based, fast-paced track debuted at No. 3 on the Hot 100 and rose to No. 1 on Aug. 14, holding the position for four consecutive weeks. According to Alpha Data, the song earned the title of this year’s song of the summer with 1.5 million units. For Slatkin, the secret to the song’s success is simple: “It’s the ultimate example of work with your friends; work with people who you love.”
And Slatkin isn’t slowing down. He also had a hand in Lil Nas X’s debut album “Montero” as a writer and producer on “That’s What I Want,” which entered the Hot 100 this week at No. 10. If one thing’s clear, it’s that Slatkin — and his anthemic, infectious melodies — are in high demand.
Before speaking at his alma mater, New York University’s Clive Davis Institute, Slatkin talked to Variety about his songwriting process, working with girlfriend Gracie Abrams (daughter of J.J. Abrams) and his dream collaboration.
How did you first get into songwriting and producing?
My dad introduced me to a lot of music when I was young, and I started playing guitar when I was 10 to get girls. It didn’t work, but I still did it. I played in a bunch of cover bands, I use to busk on the streets and play at farmers’ markets. I wanted to be a rock star, of course, and then got into high school and discovered what a producer was and got a crazy love for the art of production. I just got so fascinated with people who could be behind the scenes, but a part of so much music and so many different genres. The idea of a person who could do that as a job changed my life, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Who were some of your influences growing up?
Brian Eno, Rick Rubin, Max Martin, Benny Blanco, Pharrell, Timbaland, the Neptunes.
I first heard your name in association with Omar Apollo back in 2018. You worked with him while at NYU, right? What did you learn from that process?
We made all that music in my apartment. Omar really made me learn that I love finding someone that I’m passionate about, and doing as much as I can with them and being involved from a bigger standpoint, [rather] than just seeing them for one day and making a song. He made me love the community part of it, the people aspect of it. Omar was really the first time that I got to work with someone who I really admired and really loved, and work with someone from the beginning. Like both of us, we hadn’t really done too much before we put those EPs out, and it was so amazing for me to see Omar rise to where he is now.
You’ve definitely exploded since then, with “Mood,” “Stay” and now “That’s What I Want” with Lil Nas X. What do you think is the common theme or sound between all of these songs that has made them so successful?
I wouldn’t say there’s even a common sound, and I think that’s what I love about all three of those songs: they really don’t sound similar to me at all. Those three songs are all songs where you can’t even really describe it; it just gives you a feeling. You just have a feeling in your chest, your gut and your heart — it just makes you want to jump out and run around screaming telling everyone what you have. It’s like you found buried treasure. That’s the one common denominator with all of those songs; every single one just made me so excited and I felt so proud to be apart of the team that made it. There’s no more gratifying feeling than having these songs on my computer, getting to listen to them whenever I want and I have a feeling about them, and then getting to see them come out into the world and having so many other people have that same feeling. It’s the best feeling ever.
You and fellow writer-producer Omer Fedi are like the dream team right now, having worked together on “Mood,” “Stay,” “Without You” and “That’s What I Want.” What makes you such great collaborators?
Omer’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met, plain and simple. Seriously, watching him in the studio is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It’s literally like magic every single time. When I met Omer, it was the first time I had ever met someone my age who felt the same way as me. So getting to meet someone who is as passionate as you is just, first of all, an insane gift, and getting to meet someone as passionate as you who complements your skillset [is even better]. We met in a 24kGoldn session. The first time we ever met, we made “3,2,1.”
What’s your songwriting and production process like?
I would say it’s really never by myself, but other than that, the reason why it’s so exciting and so fun is because it’s different every single time. All of those songs that we just mentioned happened in different ways, and they’re going to continue to happen in different ways. And I love that, because I never want to feel like I know how to do it. Every time I sit down to make a song, I freak out a little bit because I’m like, “I forget how to do this.” And from there, it’s just a journey to make it the best that it possibly can be. But there’s no rhyme or reason at all, and I love that about it.
Pretty much everything I do is incredibly rooted in real instruments, if not completely all real instruments. Minus the drums, but all the instrumentation is real. It matters to me to have old things in the studio — old guitars, old synthesizers, stuff that’s had a life before I had it. I feel like there’s an energy in it, and it means a lot to me to not have a sound that anyone else can pull up.
Do you have a signature piece of gear?
I have a few guitars that I’ve had for a while that I love more than anything. I have a Roland Juno 60 that was the first piece of gear I ever bought. It’s a piece of gear that a lot of my heroes used; it’s my favorite synthesizer and that’s what we made “Stay” on. So that’s definitely one that I’m going to keep forever. That goes on everything I’ve ever done, that Roland Juno.
Let’s break down “That’s What I Want.” What was it like working with Lil Nas X and how did that song come to be?
Nas is a different human – he’s not a human. You can’t even imagine how hard it is to do what he does. No one is more dedicated. On that one, when I got involved they had an initial demo of the song, and from there we just worked to just make it sound as good as possible. Honestly, that was a time when I didn’t forget how to produce music. Omer, me, KB [Keegan Bach aka KBeAzy] and Ryan Tedder, we all knew how it had to sound, and we just worked really, really hard to get it there.
Normally, Nas — as he should — is really particular about all of his production, all of his sounds. I remember before we played him the final production, we were all so ready to just rip up the entire thing and redo everything. He came over to my house and we played it, and I was so nervous because I really just had no idea how I was going to change everything if we had to. And it finished and he just smiled at us and was like, “Amazing.” And that was pretty much it. Honestly, I couldn’t believe it. It was the craziest sigh of relief ever.
What about “Stay”? There’s a pretty stacked production lineup on that one — you, Fedi, Charlie Puth and Cashmere Cat.
It was never a planned session at all. Me, Charlie and Omer were at my house on a Sunday afternoon just chilling, talking about music. Laroi called us and said he was five minutes away and came over. Charlie and Laroi had never met, so we were all just sitting and talking and Charlie said, “Turn the Juno on.” That was the first thing he played, that riff, and Laroi’s like, “Wow, I think I hear something with that.” We didn’t even plan to record, I definitely would never have thought that we were going to make a song that day. Watching Laroi and Charlie do that initial idea was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen, it was insane. It just came out of Laroi. He played that, and Laroi’s melody and lyrics came out, first take.
And honestly, that’s when all of my best stuff has happened. Not at like a planned “1 p.m., let’s all be at the studio.” I think the best stuff happens when you’re feeling comfortable, and that’s why I love to work with my friends. We all know what each other are going through; we all know what’s happening in each other’s lives. It’s such a vulnerable thing that we do — being comfortable with everyone is such an easier way to do it.
You also do a lot of writing and production for your girlfriend, Gracie Abrams. What’s your dynamic like in the studio?
With Gracie it can be amazing, and it can also be really hard. We put out a lot of songs that are about really not easy times that we went through together. Gracie, over anything, is the best at wearing her heart on her sleeve and writing her feelings in music and melody and singing in the way that will just break your heart, every single time. I’ve had to work on songs when we’re not in the best place; I’ve had to work on songs when we were broken up. We’ve had to write songs about stuff that we had never talked about together and we talked about it through lyrics, writing it together. It’s both the most cathartic and really difficult but really rewarding thing ever… I’ve been in love with this girl since I was 18 years old, you know what I mean?
What’s the most exciting thing about being a songwriter and producer right now?
I think songwriting and producing and music now is more open than it ever has been, in the way that there’s a lot less gatekeepers. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few hits, but I’m about to go do a talk at my old college at Clive Davis in an hour, and I don’t feel like I have any more chance at making a hit song than they do. With TikTok, we both have an equal chance. You make something amazing, it’s going to do great. I’m a firm believer in that, no matter what. It keeps me on my toes more than ever, because you gotta just keep making amazing stuff. It doesn’t matter who you are, there’s no getting by anymore.
What’s your dream collaboration?
Larry David. I don’t know what that collaboration looks like, but Larry David.