As they crammed into a closet lined with mattresses at the home of their manager Johnny Wright to put their spin on Christopher Cross’ Yacht Rock classic “Sailing,” little did the members of *NSYNC realize how the casual recording might impact music 25 years later.
Chris Kirkpatrick, Joey Fatone, JC Chasez, Lance Bass and Justin Timberlake were in the early days of putting together their debut album when Wright suggested they record the 1980 song, which Drake has now sampled in “TSU” on his just-released new album, “Certified Lover Boy.”
“It’s flattering when things like this happen and with us, it doesn’t happen that often,” Kirkpatrick tells Variety. “It’s neat that I can tell friends who don’t know I was ever in a band, ‘Hey, I’m in this new record. Check it out!’”
“It’s like when Eminem wrote a [lyric] about me and at first I was like, ‘Wait, I have beef?’ Then I thought, ‘I’m in an Eminem song. That’s amazing,’” Kirkpatrick continues referring to Eminem’s “Without Me.” “And Ariana [Grande] did it [sampling *NSYNC’s ‘It Makes Me Ill’ in ‘Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.’] It makes you feel old, but also makes you go, ‘At least we affected music today.’ It’s cool we had a little hand in the landscape of music today.”
“Sailing” was written by Cross and released in 1980; that year, Cross cleaned up at the Grammys. Kirkpatrick says Wright always loved the song and thought it would be a good fit for *NSYNC as they got to work on their 1997 self-titled debut album.
“He threw out the idea and Robin Wiley, our vocal coach, did a ridiculously good arrangement on it and we replaced a lot of the synths, violins and sounds with our voices,” Kirkpatrick, 49, recalls. “At first, I was worried because I didn’t want to ruin the song, but we put enough of our own spin on it to make it different and likable.”
“The arrangement Robin came up with complimented the band so well,” he continues. “She knew our limitations and what we could do, so she pushed the boundaries, vocally. I was in there for a couple of days just doing layers and layers of backgrounds. It was in Johnny’s closet with mattresses pushed up against the wall for better sound – you do anything when you start out!”
It was Kirkpatrick who initially sang lead vocals on the track. And given how much he loved the song, he was disappointed when Chasez was asked to take over.
“Obviously, they listened to it and said, ‘We don’t want it to sound like a little girl’s singing it, so we’ll have JC do it,’” laughs Kirkpatrick, who along with his bandmates performed “Sailing” with Cross at the Blockbuster Entertainment Awards in 1999. “I was a little heartbroken, but got over it.”
While the “*NSYNC” album spawned some of the group’s biggest hits, including “Tearin’ Up My Heart” and “I Want You Back,” hearing Drake had used one of the record’s lesser-known tracks came as a surprise to Kirkpatrick.
“At first, it didn’t make sense because ‘Sailing’ was a cover,” he says. “It’s Christopher Cross’ song. So, when I heard he sampled our version, I was like, ‘I’m gonna go home and listen to it on some real speakers tonight and get excited.’ I love it.”
“If I could guess why Drake does what he does, I could be Drake,” Kirkpatrick adds about why he thinks the rapper featured the composition. “I guess he had an idea, went with it and it worked perfectly.”
*NSYNC isn’t the only male vocal group that Drake, 34, pays homage to with his new music. In the video for “Way 2 Sexy,” featuring Future and Young Thug, the trio are joined by Los Angeles Clippers player Kawhi Leonard while dancing against a snowy landscape in scenes reminiscent of Boyz II Men’s “Water Runs Dry” video.
Their all-white outfits could also be a nod to the “I Want It That Way” video by the Backstreet Boys (who previously took to Twitter, jokingly pointing out the similarities between Drake’s “Hotline Bling” and their own phone-related smash, “The Call.”)
Drake’s apparent nods to such groups come amid heightened interest and increasing collaborations between the bands in recent months. Fatone and Bass teamed up with Backstreet Boys’ Nick Carter and AJ McLean for fundraiser “Bingo Under the Stars” at The Grove in Los Angeles in June. Fatone, Carter and McLean then formed a group with Boyz II Men’s Wanya Morris for recent Las Vegas engagement “The After Party,” where the musicians sang each other’s hits, performed covers and were joined by surprise guests like Coolio and Bobby Brown.
And while speaking with Variety on Saturday, Kirkpatrick was heading home from Kentucky following another project – his latest gig with ATCK (All the Cool Kids), a side group McLean formed with producer Brandon Mashburn, aka DJ Lux. Its rotating members include Kirkpatrick, 98 Degrees’ Jeff Timmons and Canadian drummer Ryan Stevenson.
So, could Drake’s references to *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and Boyz II Men mean the ultimate cool kid is up for a further collab?
“He’s on another level,” says Kirkpatrick. “I would just sit back and go, ‘Tell us what you need us to do and we’ll figure it out.’”
Until then, Kirkpatrick – who’s yet to discuss “TSU” with his bandmates – says the idea of hearing snippets of “Sailing” in grocery stores and gas stations today is one of the “best parts” of *NSYNC’s legacy. He adds that “TSU” is also a reminder of how ‘90s fun became something bigger than he ever imagined. (It should be noted that “TSU” also samples an R. Kelly song, which has drawn sharp criticism.)
“It’s things like this song that really puts it in perspective,” Kirkpatrick says. “We were five guys having fun and things just happened to go crazy and we got to do all these amazing things without really understanding what was happening. It’s now – looking back, going to all these places, getting accolades and people knowing me in strange worlds I’ve never even visited – that it really hits and you’re like, ‘It wasn’t just five guys goofing around. It was very meaningful.’”