Pop Hitmaker Benny Blanco Talks 'Payphone' Success, Ke$ha's New Sound

Fun. frontman Nate Ruess co-wrote 'old hippie rock' tune for 'Tik Tok' singer's next album, says producer

Benny Blanco
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Benny Blanco at the 60th annual BMI Pop Awards in Beverly Hills, California
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Benny Blanco knows how to make a hit. The 24-year-old producer-songwriter, who first cut his teeth with Dr. Luke, has helped architect some of the past half-decade's chart-toppers, including Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" and "California Gurls," Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" and "We R Who We R," and Britney Spears' "Circus." 

For his latest gig, the Reston, Virginia native piggybacked off last year's success in producing Maroon 5's chart-crashing single, "Moves Like Jagger," with "Payphone," a pattering earworm that features rapper Wiz Khalifa. After working with Khalifa on his latest single "Work Hard, Play Hard," Blanco wanted to throw a wrench into the Maroon 5 machine by adding some hip-hop flavor to the band's sound. "I love when things don't make sense, like, 'Holy fuck!'" explains Blanco. "You don't hear him on the song at all. I like when bands dip into a whole different genre."

Co-produced with Sweden's Shellback, "Payphone" is lodged at Number One on Top 40 radio and Number Two on Billboard's Hot 100, just one Carly Rae Jepsen phenomenon away from the top slot.  The falsetto-bolstered tune is the product of a collaborative session between Blanco and writers Ammar Malik and RoboPop (a.k.a. Daniel Omelio), who constructed a piano line and demo track that Blanco molded into a proper melody, then handed off to Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine for lyric treatment.  

Five minutes before Khalifa arrived at the studio, Blanco laid the sound beds for the finger snap-driven portion of the jam. But Max Martin, who executive produced Maroon 5's latest album Overexposed, wouldn't let the original hook stand. "He was like, 'Yo, this song is so awesome, but the chorus should be a little different,'" Blanco says. "We wound up making it more acoustic sounding and wanted it to have an up-tempo feel, but have it still feel natural."

Blanco is also lending that stripped aesthetic to longtime collaborator Ke$ha for her anticipated new album, due out later this year. Recently, Ke$ha and Blanco hit the studio with producers Dr. Luke and Cirkut to work on a song that he describes as "old hippie rock," co-written with fun. lead singer Nate Ruess. "It's stomps and claps, and the chorus doesn't really have any drums in it, basically. The feeling is so good," says Blanco in his surfer drawl. "And then the verse just pops in, and it's very unexpected and it pops into electronic. So it's rock, it's big electronic breaks and drums."

Though Blanco relishes his solo success, which recently includes winning Songwriter of the Year at the BMI Pop Awards, he'd rather keep his team of pop technicians close. "When you're making music, it's meant to be shared with people. Sometimes, even if I'm writing a song, someone else brings a vibe. There's something different about it," he says. "If someone can play a better bassline than me, I'll let them do it. I'm just here to fit in and see where it goes."