The last eight months have been full of “first since” moments for the Backstreet Boys: “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” became their first Grammy-nominated song since 2002, their first single to crack pop radio’s Top 20 since 2005 and their first Hot 100 entry since 2007. On Sunday, the group’s new album, DNA, debuted at Number One, making it the ensemble’s first chart-topper since 2000.
Two factors helped boost the Backstreet Boys’ numbers. First, a bundle deal — which lumped copies of DNA in with tickets to the group’s summer tour — shrewdly capitalized on Nineties nostalgia. Second, the Backstreet Boys paid for top songwriters and producers: DNA‘s credits include Shawn Mendes, Ryan Tedder, the Stereotypes (Bruno Mars), Kuk Harrell (Rihanna), Ross Copperman (Nashville songwriting royalty) and Brett James (ditto).
If there’s a common thread on DNA, though, it’s actually the work of a lesser-known musician: Stuart Crichton co-wrote four songs on the album (including “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”), helped produced another, and has a sixth on the deluxe version, more than any other writer or producer. Crichton is quietly enjoying a late-career renaissance, with Grammy nominations in three different categories this year for collaborations with the Backstreet Boys, Toni Braxton and Kygo. “It’s quite a nice time: Hitting 50 [years old], most people say you’re getting on, but I feel like I’m actually beginning to hit proper speed in my career,” Crichton says. “I finally found out what to do.”
He spoke with Rolling Stone about the making of DNA. These are excerpts from the conversation.
How did you get pulled into the Backstreet Boys’ orbit?
I do quite a lot of work with RCA. I produced and wrote on Kesha’s last album. Conrad Sewell, Kygo — there’s a whole lot of artists there I’ve worked with. They said, we’re looking for [songs for] the Backstreet Boys. They actually picked a song of mine called “Prophecy” that they ended up recording. It was gonna go on the album, but for some reason it didn’t. This was probably a year ago. I was overseas at the time so I didn’t actually meet the group.
Later, one of my friends from Scotland was over and he said, I wanna go to Vegas. We drove there, and I was playing him some songs on the way, and one of them was “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” He said, you know who would really suit that? The Backstreet Boys. But I didn’t really think anything of it.
So we’re in Vegas, and I think we’re about to go for a debaucherous night out. We end up going for a nice Chinese meal. Then I said, why don’t we go and see the Backstreet Boys? So we ended up, two 50-year-old men, going to the Backstreet Boys show. My friend, when he was a kid, he was a punk rocker. Now he’s 54 or 55, but he stood up during the whole show and sang nearly every word to every song. The show is super-tight. I know they’re doing a world tour this year, and if those shows are anything like what the Vegas show is like, those shows are going to be amazing.
We said hello [to the Backstreet Boys] after, and I said I was going to send them a song. They fell in love with it, and I think recorded it like a week later. Not long after I did “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” which I wrote with [Stephen] Wrabel and Jamie Hartmann, Wrabel and I wrote a song called “Chateau.” I played it for the guys and they wanted to cut it straightaway. They kept on saying, send us songs, send us songs. And there were songs that I’d already written that I thought, this would be perfect for the Backstreet Boys. I think I recorded seven songs with them, and they used five or six on the album.
You’ve only recently started getting some of these big pop cuts Stateside. How did you get connected the L.A. songwriting machine?
I’ve been doing this 30 years this year. I started out as an artist in 1989. There was a lot of early dance music in Scotland and the U.K., so I started getting early success with that under different monikers. Eventually I started writing songs and that kept the roof over my head. I lived in London for 18 years, then Sydney for 8 years.
I moved to Los Angeles four years ago. I love it in Australia — my wife and I are Scottish, but we now travel with Australian passports — but I felt like I needed to give it one real shot at having major success. So we decided to move to America. Los Angeles is obviously the epicenter of everything music nowadays. Just in the last year, the move seems to be really paying off.
What are your thoughts on the classic Nineties Backstreet Boys singles?
I’ve always loved pop music, and Max Martin has been the top of the pop game for so long. You couldn’t fault any of the early Backstreet Boys stuff — it’s perfect pop. One of the things that really impressed me: 25 years on, they’ve all still got amazing voices. They know instinctively who does what part and who goes where.
And they’re really nice guys. When we had the big radio hit with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” they were all emailing me, thanking us for putting them back into the radio Top Ten [in the Adult Contemporary format] for the first time in a long time. Obviously they’ve had a lot of radio success, but in recent years, not so much. It was great to see their faces when they were Top Ten at radio again. They even added “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” to their show in Vegas.
As a writer, do you feel pressure to try to top the Backstreet Boys’ early stuff — like you have to make another “I Want It That Way?”
I just do my thing and don’t think about it. Max Martin is the Godfather of pop writers; you don’t get any better. Just even to be in the same line, working with a band that has worked with Max Martin, that’ll do it for me.
When you started looking back through songs you’d written recently, how did you decide what might be good to send to the Backstreet Boys?
Something written fairly recently so they’d be modern sounding. Songs that lend themselves for multiple harmonies in the chorus, because that’s obviously what they’d want. And they were very vocal about the fact that they wanted to make the album very eclectic. So I kept on sending them stuff, and every time we met up to record stuff, I would maybe play them some more. They were very receptive. All the Boys would come back with suggestions for what we could do to make the songs better. They’ve been doing this a long time, so they can tell you very specifically what they want. A lot of people are jaded 25 years into their career. These guys are still hungry.
“Chateau” was the next song you wrote that grabbed them?
We actually did “The Way It Was” next. Then another song that never made the record. Then a song called “Best Days” that’s on the deluxe album. Then “Chateau” and “OK.”
“The Way It Was” has the classic 6/8 ballad form.
Exactly. Their voices suit that style. That was a favorite of the label. Kevin [Richardson from the Backstreet Boys] said in an interview that the album was kind of 12 potential singles, and after hearing the whole thing, I kind of agree with him.
The “Chateau” chorus reminds me of Player’s “Baby Come Back.”
It’s possibly a similar narrative. That’s all Wrabel: He writes these choruses that are lyrically so catchy. He also wrote the song for the Ruth Bader Ginsburg film that Kesha sang. I thought that might’ve been up for an Oscar! But sadly it’s not. Wrabel is another genius, one of the most talented people that I’ve ever met. He’s so visual. His lyrics draws you into a scene, which is such a talent to have.
You mentioned the group wanted to make an eclectic album — did they succeed?
The fans have now grown up, so they can do different things as well as doing the classics. I’m sure that there are new young fans now too after “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” was big on the radio. Even my mom loves the album — she’s 78. Though she doesn’t love it as much as she likes The Greatest Showman album. That’s her go-to. She bought the DVD too. I think she watches that a few times a week, in between listening to the Backstreet Boys album.