It's been nearly 17 years since Greg Kurstin scored his first Billboard hit with "Whoever You Are," the breakout single from '90s alt-rock band Geggy Tah, for whom he was a guitarist/keyboardist for more than seven years. But it wasn't until 2012 that Kurstin, a songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist, really hit his stride.
"Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)," one of three songs he contributed to Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger," spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became the singer's biggest hit (and the top-selling single of any "American Idol" alum). P!nk's "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)," one of five songs he contributed to her sixth studio album, "The Truth About Love," was a top five hit last fall, and follow-up single "Try" (produced by Kurstin) hit the top 10 in February. A longtime go-to guy for quirky indie pop, Kurstin was also tapped for recent albums by Marina & the Diamonds, Kimbra, Ke$ha and Tegan & Sara.
The sudden flurry of top 40 success has been a long time coming for Kurstin, who'd released three albums with Geggy Tah, three with electro-lounge project the Bird & the Bee and an experimental jazz solo project for Verve during the past 17 years before scoring his first big pop hit. His embrace by the pop world also comes at the same time as longtime collaborator Sia enjoys a similar breakthrough, contributing vocals to top 10 hits for David Guetta ("Titanium") and Flo Rida ("Wild Ones") as well as co-penning smashes for Rihanna ("Diamonds") and Ne-Yo ("Let Me Love You"). In fact, the pair were in the studio cutting two tracks for Sia's next Kurstin-helmed album when Billboard shared the news that they'd both made the top 10 of the latest Publishers Quarterly.
"It's just crazy because we've been writing together forever, and to have this all happen at once has been really cool," Kurstin says from his home in Los Angeles. In addition to Sia, Kurstin recently completed work on upcoming projects for Dido, Lykke Li and Clarkson's follow-up to "Stronger," and was also one of a select group of writers and producers tapped to contribute songs to Beyonce's much-anticipated fifth studio album. "I was super thrilled because I'm such a huge fan. It was one of the coolest things I've ever done," Kurstin says of writing for the superstar, declining to share further details.
The Truth About Love was your first proper collaboration with P!nk. How would you describe your writing dynamic with her in the studio?
It was really fast. ["Blow Me"] was the first song we did together on the first day, and we finished it by the end of the day. It started from one of the tracks I had prepared but not finished, and she came up with everything but the tag line. That tag line was the very last thing. I remember when we were doing the "I've had a shit day" part, we were going back and forth, and she just clicked. There's a whole lot of free flow out of her, not a lot of second-guessing.
How did producing "Try" for P!nk differ from a co-write?
"Try" was a song I didn't write but it was presented to me as a demo. It was great but it used a different register for most of the song. I eliminated that and changed the key so she would sing in her comfortable range and then go into a high key at the end. That was the one bit of taking a risk, because I just wanted to have that first chorus immediately give you the goods. Every time I do songs with her I always want her to be bursting out of the speakers.
You're also known for playing a lot of different instruments on the tracks you write and produce. What do you play, and why not hire a band?
I usually play everything--guitar, bass, keyboard, drums and definitely drum programming. It's just easier for me to do it instead of explaining it to somebody. With "Blow Me" and "Stronger," everything was me.
You've been pretty prolific these past two years. Who or what inspires you?
Sia, for starters--she's always amazing to work with. But as far as making tracks, I'm always listening to everything I can, whether it's more obscure or pop, picking out all the things I like about songs. Sometimes it's a pop song where maybe there's one little thing or an old guitar riff I'll put in my brain for later. So constantly listening to new and old music is always a good inspiration, or picking up different instruments I wouldn't normally play.
You had nearly 20 years of hard work as a pop songwriter and producer before making it big. What advice do you have for young songwriters?
There's a lot of songs and songwriters out there--you have to make something stand out to pitch songs. Sometimes you have to be bold and just try something different. And just stick with it--don't give up if nothing happens. Nothing really happened to me when I first started doing what I'm doing now. I left my band on my own, and it took me a long time to find major success again--almost a decade. And everything that didn't happen during that time just motivated me to do better.