The Continuous Work Ethic Of Benny Blanco

Dec 8, 2018

You may not recognize the name Benny Blanco, or his voice, but that's by design. Blanco is one of the producers behind Top 40 hits like Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream," Rihanna's "Diamonds" and Halsey and Khalid's "Eastside." Now, he's released his new album, Friends Keep Secrets, with a twist. Blanco says he will continue to add songs to Friends Keep Secrets, as he continues to write more songs with more artists.

"The way that streaming is right now, and the way that technology has progressed, you can do things a little bit differently," Blanco says. "So, I came up with the idea to not only put out one body of work, or two bodies of work ... but have them all live as one continuous album."

From the time he was 4 years old, Blanco's life was overtaken by music. His brother would bring him to a record store in their hometown of Reston, Va., where Blanco became obsessed with singles and tapes. His parents got him a keyboard, and Blanco began making music. At 9, Blanco won a songwriting contest, landing him with his first recording, and, by 13, multiple record deals. To his parents chagrin, Blanco opted for music instead of college.

"I just went for it, and eventually I realized no one wanted to hear a chubby Jewish kid rap," Blanco says. "So, I was like, 'Oh, I' guess I'll make all my own music, and I'll write songs for other people."

But along the way, he's seen the bad side of the music industry, too. The budding producer worked alongside Dr. Luke, who has been in the spotlight in recent years due to his legal battle with Kesha. In 2014, the singer filed a civil suit against Dr. Luke and accused him of sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally abusing her throughout the course of their working relationship. Since then, Dr. Luke and Kesha have been involved in this ongoing legal battle.

"I don't have any relationship to him any more," Blanco says. "I haven't had a relationship in many, many years. It's a bad situation, and I feel terrible for what happened."

Despite these difficulties, Blanco has continued to write songs, a task which he describes as a "24-hour thing." He even creates music in his sleep. "Sometimes I literally write songs in my dreams and have to wake up and try to write 'em down," Blanco says. The result of his continuous work, is a fittingly ever-evolving album.

"I get this like weird feeling that's like a rush in my heart," Blanco says. "And I think what makes a song good is, for a listener, there always has to be something new happening. ... Usually the song's done once I hate the song, or hate myself so much that I have to get it to mix."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Behind every great song, there's a great producer - behind every host, too. Producers like Benny Blanco - he's been the creator and producer behind some of pop's biggest hits by Katy Perry, Maroon 5, Rihanna and many, many more. Benny Blanco, who was born with the name Benjamin Levin, touches a song, and it becomes a hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEENAGE DREAM")

KATY PERRY: (Singing) You make me feel like I'm living a teenage dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVES LIKE JAGGER")

MAROON 5: (Singing) The moves like Jagger. I've got the moves like Jagger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIAMONDS")

RIHANNA: (Singing) We're beautiful like diamonds in the sky. Shine bright like a diamond.

SIMON: Now Mr. Blanco has released a new album called "Friends Keep Secrets." He doesn't sing, but the songs are his creation from the sound to the lyrics. Benny Blanco joins us now from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

BENNY BLANCO: Hello.

SIMON: This is an album in progress in many ways, isn't it?

BLANCO: Yeah. The way that streaming is right now, and the way that technology has progressed, you can do things a little bit differently, you know? We're not bound to this, like, 40-year-old, 50-year-old method that we've been living by.

So I came up with the idea to not only put out one body of work or two bodies work or three bodies work but have them all live as one continuous album. And this also allows for me to just really - you're really getting it directly after its inception.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EASTSIDE")

KHALID: (Singing) When I was young, I fell in love. We used to hold hands. Man, that was enough. Yeah. Then we grew up, started to touch. Used to kiss underneath the light on the back of the bus. Oh, no, your daddy didn't like me much.

SIMON: Could you tell us about your early days?

BLANCO: As long as I can remember, I've been making music. I - when I was 4, I think my brother started bringing me to this record shop really close to our house. And we'd go every single day. And I became obsessed with...

SIMON: Now, where was this?

BLANCO: This was in Virginia.

SIMON: Yeah.

BLANCO: You know, back then, you were buying singles. So I was obsessed with all the singles. I'd buy all the tapes. I'd bring them back. I didn't really have equipment. And then my parents got me a keyboard, and I started making songs. I won a contest when I was 9 to go into a real studio and record it and blah, blah, blah. And then by the time I was 13, I had multiple record deal offers and didn't know what to do. And...

SIMON: By the time you were 13?

BLANCO: Yeah, 13 - 14. I was...

SIMON: That blah, blah, blah covers...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...A lot that doesn't happen to most of us.

BLANCO: I never saw any other option for anything else. You know, my mom always used to be like, well, what's your plan B? And I'd go, Mom, there's no plan B. I'm going to be the biggest in the world. And she would laugh nervously and hope I got a job.

I was the only one in my entire, like, bloodline never to go to college. And I don't know. I just went for it. And, eventually, I realized no one wanted to hear a chubby Jewish kid rap. So I was like, oh, well. I guess I'll make all my own music, and I'll write songs for other people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EASTSIDE")

HALSEY: (Singing) He used to meet me on the east side in the city where the sun don't set. And every day, you know, where we ride through the backstreets in a blue Corvette. And, baby, you know I just want to leave tonight. We can go anywhere we want. Drive down to the coast. Jump in the seat. Just take my hand, and come with me.

SIMON: What makes a good song?

BLANCO: Usually, when I get a feeling. I get this, like, feeling in my chest. It's like when someone really scares you or, like, you're going to get, like, hit by a car. I get this, like, weird feeling that's like a rush in my heart. And I think what makes a song good is - for a listener, there always has to be something, like, new happening. And there has to be little things that you might not necessarily notice that help move the song along.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FOUND YOU")

CALVIN HARRIS: (Singing) I cannot say what I'm feeling if I don't know how to move. I cannot say what I believe in - finally believe in you.

BLANCO: I use, you know, the no-stone-left-unturned method. So I'll sit there, and I'll kill myself over and over again. And usually, the song's done once I hate the song and hate myself so much that I have to get it to mix.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FOUND YOU")

HARRIS: (Singing) 'Cause I found you. I found you.

SIMON: I have to ask you about Dr. Luke. You've been close. I gather he - the producer, Dr. Luke, was kind of your mentor. Serious charges by the artist Kesha of rape. You've also worked with Kesha. Do you have any reaction to that?

BLANCO: I don't have any relationship to him anymore. I haven't had a relationship in many, many years. I think it's just a bad - it's a bad situation. And I feel terrible for what happened. And, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENNY BLANCO SONG, "BREAK MY HEART")

SIMON: How much does music take over your everyday life?

BLANCO: I'd say, if I'm not making music, I'm writing it. If I'm not writing it, I'm thinking about it. If I'm not thinking about it, somehow it - when I'm walking, I'm tapping. I'm doing this. I'd say it's pretty much a 24-hour thing. Sometimes I literally write songs in my dreams and have to wake up and try to write them down.

SIMON: So you keep pencil, pen and pad by the bed?

BLANCO: I do a voice memo. And half the time, you know, when I record a voice memo anywhere, for some reason, there's, like, a car driving by, or something's happening. And it's like - I'm like, so the song should go - and then it's like (imitating car horn honking). It's like a whole - they never turn out the right way. But every once in a while, I get one or two back.

SIMON: Gosh knows how many hit songs might've been lost to a blare of a car horn or something.

BLANCO: I know. I can't think about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAK MY HEART")

RYAN BEATTY: (Singing) I'm still figuring out how you're trying to come across. I don't got time for that.

SIMON: Benny Blanco - his new album, "Friends Keep Secrets." Thanks so much for being with us.

BLANCO: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAK MY HEART")

BEATTY: (Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.