Ali Tamposi has co-written some of the biggest pop hits in recent memory, from Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello’s “Senorita” to Dua Lipa’s “Break My Heart.” Her name is all over Ozzy Osbourne, Miley Cyrus, and 5 Seconds of Summer’s most-recent albums too.
In conversation, she’s remarkably cool and collected. That is, unless you ask her about the first time she heard Stevie Nicks sing on the remix of “Midnight Sky,” one of eight songs she co-wrote for Cyrus’ Plastic Hearts. Then, she’ll throw a bit of that composure out the window. “It didn’t feel real and still doesn’t feel real,” she tells Rolling Stone one spring afternoon. “Just to be able to be that close to someone who played such an influential role in my songwriting career was a holy-shit moment.”
Tamposi celebrated quite a few big moments in 2020 — even if they weren’t “Stevie Nicks cosign” big — but most of last year’s music was created pre-pandemic. While the 31-year-old now knows how to ride the waves of a music career, maintaining balance during the ups and downs, a work lull couldn’t have come at a better time. There’s a great surf break by her new Malibu home, which she bought almost exactly a year ago, and she’s been taking advantage of the healing power of those literal waves as much as she can.
She got engaged towards the end of 2019, and she’s been extra careful about how she directs her energy as she enters a new chapter of life. “We were able to find our own routine and balance, and get back to the core fundamentals of being a human without being so hyper-focused on career demands,” she says.
By the end of 2021’s first quarter, Tamposi had only celebrated one major release: She had three songs on Justin Bieber’s highly anticipated Justice — plus two more for deluxe versions. Those were actually pandemic creations, but they were anomalies as well. While Tamposi “can’t do Zoom sessions all the time” because she relies “heavily on the energy in a room,” the Bieber sessions were made up of familiar team members, namely Andrew Watt and Louis Bell, with whom she was already comfortable.
2021 marks the ten-year anniversary of Tamposi’s first big hit, Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger,” which is apt considering how much stronger she’s gotten since that release. When asked what her biggest achievement is, one might expect her to name some sort of esteemed award or dream collaboration, but instead she highlights her sobriety: The prioritization of her own humanity has been a decade in the making.
She moved to L.A. in 2010, but she spent that “really lonely year” scrambling to network and get her bearings. The music scene there was far more intense than that of Miami — where she studied audio engineering and met some future collaborators, including The Monsters & Strangerz, who also worked on Cyrus, Bieber, and Dua Lipa’s most-recent albums.
She arrived with the intent of being an artist. (At 14, she signed an artist deal with German producer Frank Farian, and recorded a whole album and music video, which she says “will never see the light of day.” When that fell through, she did another deal with Beyonce collaborator Jim Jonsin, who encouraged her to head west.) But she soon realized there were “way more opportunities to get in the studio as a songwriter than there were to get in the studio as an artist.”
“I just wanted to work,” she says. “At that time, there wasn’t much in the way of social media. It was all about the people that you know and your resources. I jumped on any opportunity that would come my way and get me out of the house.” She eventually met Swedish songwriter Jörgen Elofsson, who had risen through the ranks with Max Martin, and would go on to co-write “Stronger” with Tamposi and sign her to her first publishing deal.
What followed took a toll on Tamposi, who struggled with the industry’s glamorized dark side and feared becoming a one-hit wonder. Years passed without hits. Instead, she wrote “a lot of shitty drunk songs.” “It was really hard to learn how to write sober,” she says. “I was extremely dependent on alcohol to give me the liquid courage to turn down the mental chatter and free myself of inhibitions.”
So, she self-sabotaged. “It’s a slippery slope,” she says. “You’re having a good time. Then, all of a sudden, it backfires. You start to feel life and you don’t have the coping mechanisms to deal with being out here — the pressure that comes from performing every time you walk into a room with a new set of collaborators and feeling like your whole self-worth is dependent on how you’re perceived on that day in the studio.”
“It’s probably not normal to wake up and need a drink,” she says. “It’s probably not normal to need a drink to do a meeting or session… Within six months to a year of being sober, I finally started to regulate. I then realized there was an infinite well to draw from for inspiration within myself.”
The hitmaker will be six years sober this July. “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through. I didn’t know who I was. After I settled into sobriety, I felt like a child again, like I was relearning how to do the things that brought me joy, draw from experience, and not be stimulated all the time.” She stresses that there’s no cure to alcoholism, though. “It takes a big network and a lot of meetings to maintain the day-to-day and feel normal. Being able to wake up in the morning without a hangover is a great achievement. It transformed my life.”
She didn’t stop working altogether during that process, but she admits that going to rehab and allowing herself to take a real break probably would’ve been less painful. Instead, a sobriety coach lived with her for a month. At one point, she tried to responsibly reintroduce alcohol into her life, but she found herself back at square one in about six months. “I really started to take it seriously, but I was still doing sessions simultaneously. My career was so tied to my identity. I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to realize that getting better and stronger was the most important thing… But I couldn’t detach from the ‘one hit wonder’ title. The Kelly Clarkson song was haunting me, because there was so much hype around me during that time. It won a Grammy and was nominated for Song of the Year, so everyone was like, ‘Who’s this young female songwriter?’ And I just didn’t have the experience to jump from room to room. I was losing myself every session.”
Her first hit after getting sober was DJ Snake and Justin Bieber’s “Let Me Love You,” which came out in 2016. That’s where she met the likes of Brian Lee, Bell, and Watt.
“Let Me Love You” was Watt’s first-ever hit. At the time, he had no way of knowing he’d win Producer of the Year at the 2021 Grammys, but he said to Tamposi, “Let’s take this industry by storm.” “I’d already been out here for about five or six years,” she recalls. So, she had two options: “I could have been like, ‘It’s just not for me,’ or, ‘Let’s have another run at it.’ Fortunately, he gave me the space to just focus on the art, and I didn’t have to worry so much about networking.”
She describes songs that immediately followed — like Selena Gomez & Marshmello’s “Wolves” and Kygo & Gomez’s “It Ain’t Me,” both of which she created with Lee, Bell, and Watt — as “pieces of her journal from her first year of sobriety.” “They’re great reminders of the place that I came from,” she says. Lee, Bell, Watt, and Tamposi then went on to write Camila Cabello’s “Havana,” and Watt and Tamposi collaborated again on Shawn Mendes & Cabello’s “Senorita.”
Now, she’s worked with everyone from BTS to Blink-182 and James Blake. She’s in a good place — she even meditates now — and she’s focused on giving back.
She started Creative Waves Foundation with her mom, who’s a school principal, to provide musical equipment and after-school programs to kids in underserved communities. She also teamed up with Spotify and Tamar Kaprelian — founder of Nvak Foundation, an organization for guiding the careers of young musicians in countries struggling from social, political, and/or cultural challenges — to create a podcast and video series called Song Start. She expects that to launch this summer, with 10 episodes devoted to the ins and outs of songwriting, production, the music industry, and “music and mindset.”
Through it all, she’s still committed to a work-life balance. “I need to live, hopefully travel again, and feel connected to life outside of the industry.” She wants to “take a less anxious approach to writing” and aims to do it “because it’s something that I love to do, not because I need the cut.”