Benny Blanco is an absurdly successful writer-producer for pop stars: Britney Spears’ “Circus,” Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger,” Ed Sheeran’s “Don’t” … the list goes on. When it comes to anticipating the whims of pop radio in the last decade, perhaps only Max Martin has a better track record.
Blanco’s stream of hits for other musicians has earned him plenty of famous friends but also allowed him to maintain a degree of anonymity. That may change with Friends Keep Secrets, a new seven-track collection released under his own name. It’s packed with guest stars — Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee, Ty Dolla $ign, Juice WRLD and more — who handle the singing, but Blanco is credited for the first time as the lead artist. His knack for hits remains intact: Lead single “Eastside,” with Khalid and Halsey, has north of 400 million Spotify streams, and it has climbed into the Top 10 at pop radio, where it reached over 40 million listeners last week. The follow-up “I Found You,” featuring Calvin Harris, also recently breached the Top 40 radio chart.
Rolling Stone spoke with Blanco about his decision to step into the spotlight and why he likes to finish everything at the last minute. These are excerpts from the conversation.
When did you first start thinking you want to be known as a solo artist in addition to a behind-the-scenes songwriter?
I was on tour with Ed Sheeran, and we were working on the last album. We decided to watch, what was that documentary called — the one with Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre [The Defiant Ones]? And Ed stood up after it and was like, “Man, these guys have done so much in their life, what are we even doing with ourselves?”
He was like, “Alright, I’m gonna go play this show.” And he literally was playing a stadium and asking, “What are we doing with our lives?” And then I was left alone in the backstage, and I just started thinking. The hardest part as a songwriter is convincing an artist: “I want you to do this thing, and it’s gonna be so good.” Or watching an artist put out a song and you’re like, “Oh, man, I don’t love that video choice.” Or, “Oh my God, why did they use that as the cover?” And just not having that control of doing it yourself.
The way that the business is now, I don’t have to tour. I don’t have to do all that stuff. Why don’t I just try to put out my own songs and see what happens? I remember asking all my friends and my peers: “Hey, should I do this? Kind of hoping they’d be like, “Dude, shut the fuck up and just do what you’re supposed to do and produce the songs!” But every single person was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you haven’t done it yet!”
I have all these songs or ideas that never get picked up. An artist will be like, “I just finished my album. This doesn’t fit in with the cycle.” What’s the risk for me? If it doesn’t work, I go back to producing songs.
On top of that, I’ve always been the type of person where I like to make things a little bit more difficult. I’ll be making a song and I’ll be like, okay, you can’t use a snare drum in this whole song. Or you can’t use any words that are like this. That keeps it interesting. I was just tired of going in with songwriters, going in with artists all the time, just doing the same thing every single day. It’s like man, this is like an office job, what can I do to spice it up?
Other songwriters like Andrew Watt and BloodPop are also stepping out as lead artists recently.
Right now, I think we’re in this interesting area. It used to be so cut and dry, you go in, you make an album, you go on tour. It was very rigid, it was so old-school. Now with all the advances in technology and how things are growing, we can just experiment so much more.
Kids want to listen to music. Why wouldn’t they want to listen to mine? I don’t have to promote it the same way as other artists; I don’t have to go out and do a tour and do this and do that. The way you used to be able to play a song a million times on radio or play a song here or shove it down our throat, that mentality doesn’t work anymore. Kids seek out the music they want to listen to. A kid isn’t gonna go, “Oh my God, this keeps popping up in my thing over and over again, I guess I have to listen to it.” They’ll be like, “No, get that shit out of here.”
Kids like the discovery factor, now it’s just easier to discover than it ever has been. You don’t have to go and dig through crates for six weeks, you can just go online and just keep on surfing and then six hours later, you’re somewhere where you have no idea where you started.
I always wonder with writers, did you go into these sessions, like, I’m working for me now, or were you just working with some artists, wrote something, and decided, I’m gonna take this one?
A day before I turned the record in, I made a song. Everything was just so last-minute. Four of the songs that used to be on the album aren’t even on the album. I switched them out within the last three days of working on them. I basically finished the album in a week.
I had all these ideas floating around. None of them were ideas I loved for myself. Some of them were things I wrote for myself, some of them were things I wrote that didn’t get used and should have been used, some of them were ones that I never even showed an artist yet. And the rest of it, I just sat down with a few of my friends and put it together in that last four or five days.
Is that a way you are used to working? Or after working with Kanye West on Ye, which came together famously fast, is that the way you work now?
I think it’s a little bit of both. I definitely like being under the gun. I like creating the ideas with no time constraints, but I like finishing the ideas under massive amounts of pressure. It just makes me do it. Otherwise, I’ll just sit there, and I’ll keep goofing around with a song for months. I just keep changing it. This way, I’m like, fuck, we only have one more day.
It’s very much getting what I’m thinking at that very moment. It’s very close to when the record comes out. Sometimes artists make these songs and they come out a year or two after — you don’t even feel the same way anymore. Having a vehicle to live in a state so close to when they were created is really cool to me and that’s also the luxury you get from streaming and with the new way of digitally releasing albums. I’m not even making a physical package to sell.
So which songs did you switch-in last-minute?
One song literally was the last second: That was the Ty Dolla $ign and 6lack song. That song literally didn’t exist until the last day and the last night. It was one of these songs I mixed myself, so I was part of directing it and mastering.
I had this idea, I had this seed, and I was like, “Man, I gotta get Ty Dolla $ign on it.” And I was like, “Fuck, how can I get him on it?” He was in the studio, so I went and pulled up on him. He was working with Babyface, and I was, like, “I gotta get you to do this thing.” He did that and then I was like, “Oh fuck, I only have one verse. Who else am I gonna get on this other verse?” And then I was like, “Oh my god, I have this really cool 6lack idea that I did when when we were working on this album. Why don’t I just cut the song off and then put the other one right after? Because I just didn’t have enough.
For “Roses” we had done that so long ago. Me and Juice WRLD started that idea the first day we ever met, way before he was signed or anything. We had started a million songs. Then I had the idea, oh my god, I gotta get Brendan Urie on a song on my album and it has to be with a rapper. I have to do it with Juice WRLD, he’s the emo rapper and Brendan is the king of emo Pop so I have to put them together.
What do you like about the contrasts you get out of those duets?
I’m not a performer. I want to be the center of attention with my friends, not in a big group. When people sing “Happy Birthday” to me on my birthday, I get so embarrassed that I want to die. Do I want to be on a big stage in front of a bunch of people? No.
I really want people to feel artists for who they are, and at the same time, I want to get them out of their comfort zone. A lot of these artists have to be larger than life. I’m trying to humanize all the artists I work with and have it be that they can just be themselves. It’s very rare you get to see them in that world. And I’m trying to do weird combinations that don’t make sense but that do make sense at the time.
You did a bunch of work in hip-hop early, but then you broke out more on the Top 40-side. Was there a point at which you started getting hip-hop and R&B calls again? Now it seems like you’re equally in both worlds.
I started out in hip-hop, and then my first album I rapped on, and that’s how I got discovered. Then I started making pop songs and people were like, he’s cheesy. But then I think I became so uncool that I shot out the other side and became cool. I’m such a loser that I’m not a loser anymore. I don’t know when it happened but it definitely happened: I started signing more rappers and R&B singers. But it’s always been a part of what I do.
How did “Better to Lie” come together?
I’ve always had some friends that I liked working with. Jesse from the Neighbourhood, I think he is the sickest artist. He has one of my favorite voices. He just looks cool. I just want to be his friend. Even before I was his friend, I had always wanted to put him on my project. We started doing this song, and I’d already been talking to Swae about something too.
One day, I filmed my video for “I Found You,” and I was sick. I had a fever. I was in the worst place. I was so overworked, and I had to film the video anyway and then Swae hit me up. It was my last day for recording. My masters were due the next day. I think they were overdue. I think I had mastered everything else already except this song because I was like, “I’m gonna get Swae on it,” and it just never happened. And then he was like, “Yo, pull up to the studio.”
I pulled up so sick and chilled with him for hours, and we wound up having the best time and chilling until three, four in the morning. The next day I died, but it was so worth it in the actual moment. When I do this, I’m doing so many fucking other things, too. I’m not just an artist, I’m still making other people’s albums and signing people. It doesn’t ever stop, even it you get sick.
You are often hired to make hits. Do you want these songs to be hits?
I thought “Eastside” was gonna be — I just thought it was gonna be part of the journey. I thought I was gonna have to build up to it, put out a few songs, make people care. It was crazy to me how big it got so quickly. I almost wasn’t prepared for it. I was like, “Fuck! I gotta do an album now.”