Nick Fradiani Talks New Album 'Hurricane' & Writing His Own Music
Nick Fradiani, winner of season 14 of American Idol, began work on his debut album over a year ago. Hurricane arrived on Friday (Aug. 5), and Fradiani sat down with Billboard this week over dinner at The Grill on Hollywood, just steps away from the Dolby Theatre were he claimed victory in May 2015, to talk about the album and dissect it track by track.
You’ve been a musician for many years, so you’ve waited a long time to hold your first album in your hands. What does that feel like?
The first time I’ve held my album was just now when you handed me your copy. It’s awesome. So you’ve got a cool story: “I showed Nick his first album.” I had two EPs out prior to being on American Idol and I always loved when one would come out. We did make physical copies. We sold quite a bit of them after we did America’s Got Talent [with his band Beach Avenue]. People were going on our website and ordering them. But this is the first time my name is on an album. So it’s pretty cool to say I have a record out and I can go to the store and buy it.
When you started working on this project, what was your vision for the album?
When I first started writing for it, I was going off of what [the coronation song] “Beautiful Life” was, because that was a song that was given to me. I guessed that’s what my label wanted, but then I went into the studio with some people, including friends in Nashville, and I recorded demos and some of them were not like “Beautiful Life” at all. [Big Machine President and CEO] Scott Borchetta heard those songs and said, “That’s what I want you to do.” The label was looking for a pop record and I had to find the sound that would work for me and be authentic. I wrote some songs in the process and I thought, “That’s not going to work.” I’d send them to my father and he’s brutally honest with me. Sometimes I actually get aggravated with him. But when he says on first listen, “That’s a good song,” then I usually think it’s a good song. When I listen to the album all the way through now, I’m really happy with it. It wasn’t an easy process at all, because I was doing a lot of traveling. I was doing a radio tour for “Beautiful Life” and I went on [the summer Idol] tour for two months.
With the exception of “Beautiful Life,” you are a co-writer on every song. Were you surprised that they let you write your own songs?
I watched an interview with Scott right after I won the show and he said, “We’re going to find the best songs.” I thought they were not going to let me write on it but they let me write the whole thing. I think what happened was a lot of the co-writers talked to my A&R people and said, “This kid should have a publishing deal. He’s a really good writer.” I think enough people told them that they said, “Let’s let him write it.” We had a couple outside songs come in that were good, but I’m not good at taking other people’s material. “Beautiful Life” worked out perfectly and I still like that song, but I feel more comfortable when I’m involved. I got a lot better as a writer, for sure. People perceive when you win American Idol, you’re going to be told every little thing to do, but they definitely gave me a lot of creative control to find a sound that I’m comfortable with. Scott has been really good to me in the year I’ve worked for him. He didn’t have to let me write on it.
When did you write your very first song?
I was 17 and a senior in high school. It was called “We Fell in Love With Before.” You have to hear it. It’s really bad. But then the second song I wrote was called “In the End” and it’s actually pretty good.
When did you start recording the new album?
It was the summer after I won Idol. I was in Nashville for the Country Music Awards and I became friends with the Florida Georgia Line guys. We first met on Idol when they were mentors. They said, “You’ve got to meet our boy, Jordan.” Jordan Schmidt had seven songs on their album. We met at a party and became friends and went right to work on a song called “My Song” [which did not make the album]. Now Jordan is one of my closest friends and he ended up with three songs on my album, including “Nobody.” He got to produce it and it’s his first major label production. It’s one of my favorite produced songs.
There are 11 songs on the album written by you, plus “Beautiful Life.” How many songs did you actually write for Hurricane?
There are over 50 songs on my phone. Sometimes I get bummed out when I listen to them because I like a lot of them. I already have [enough for] another album.
Who determined the running order of the songs?
I sent the order in like that. My guitarist Nick Abraham helped me with that. He had “In The Long Run” first and I switched it to “Every Day.” If you look at the record, the first six songs are all uptempo and then they chill out for the end. I wasn’t sure if that was smart or not. I didn’t really research how it’s done.
In the old days, you would be talking about “side one” being uptempo and “side two” being chill.
Right. That’s how I thought of it. I wanted to break it up into the uptempo section of the album and then the more low key songs.
Did you experiment by shuffling the songs around before settling on the final order?
No, I knew the songs so well that I wrote them out and thought, “Yeah, that looks good.” I sent it to Jason Morey [president of worldwide music at 19 Entertainment] and he must have talked to Scott Borchetta and that was it.
Let’s talk about specific songs, starting with track one, which happens to be my favorite song on the album.
“Every Day” was produced by Päro [Pär Westerlund] from Sweden. We went to a studio in Calabasas and hit it off. It was me and him and this girl named LP [Laura Pergolizzi] walks in and she’s a character. She wears these big hats and looks like Bob Dylan. She came up with, “Every day, every day” and the melody and then we wrote that song. It was basically me singing “Every day” and Päro screwed with the tuning and made it this cool thing. It sounded sick and I sent it to my managers. They liked it and that was it.
Pär also produced track two, “Nothing to Lose.”
I came up with the first line, “Waking up inside my head, dreaming about what could have been,” so right then we said we should write about screwing up. I think everybody has screwed up in relationships. I certainly have a lot of experience doing that, and the song is about realizing you can’t lose that one person. I wanted that to be the first single after “Beautiful Life,.” because we played it live a couple times and you could see people singing along even though they didn’t know it. They were singing it after hearing one chorus. That’s why I personally wanted that one to be a single. I always love playing that song.
Then we have the song Nick Abraham wanted to be track one, “In the Long Run.”
That was written by me, Nolan Sipe and Jerrod Bettis. Nolan wrote “Honey, I’m Good.” with Andy Grammer and I loved that song and I told my managers, “We should try to write with that guy,” so they hooked me up with Nolan and he was awesome. Nolan came in with the title “In the Long Run” and that ending part. I asked him, “What does that mean, ‘In The Long Run’?” He replied, “You might be able to fake that everything’s okay and go out and have fun but in the long run, it’s not working out for you.” Jerrod is a great producer. He was in OneRepublic early on, so he worked with Ryan Tedder, who is one of my idols. We wrote the song in Jerrod’s house and it was like a hundred degrees. I remember because we recorded the demo in a closet, which was his working space. I was drenched. I was trying to sing as quickly as I could. He didn’t want the air conditioning on. We ended up going to a nice studio to cut the final vocal.
The title of track four reads like a Prince song: “Forget2ForgetU.”
I came back to my apartment in Nashville from the bar one night and I was singing a very slow, depressing song. “How could I forget, how could I forget, forget to forget?” It sounded nothing like what the song ended up being. This was about two months ago and the album was done. Jordan and I were writing just for fun with a couple other dudes [Joe Ragosta, Mitchell Tenpenny] and we were trying to write one song. It just wasn’t happening and then I said, “Oh, I have this idea.” And I don’t know if it was because I was in front of people, but I played it faster than before and it was that hook, “How could I forget?” Jordan said, “Yeah, let’s write to that.” First we played the guitar. We put an acoustic track down and then he put a reggae-type vibe to it. I didn’t think it was ever going to be an actual song, so we were just saying ridiculous stuff. Jordan actually came up with the “strip club” line and the “big butt” and I told him, “Dude, I can’t say that!” He said the lyrics weren’t serious. I didn’t think anybody was going to want it on the record. Because the album was already done, I did a thing on Facebook where I played the demo and asked, “What do you guys think of this song? Is it too ridiculous for my record?” And everybody loved it. I was surprised, because I didn’t think that that song would go over very well with American Idol fans. It’s another song we play live all the time. It’s a lot of fun, especially when we play it with the full band.
Next up is “Get You Home,” the track that was the follow-up single to “Beautiful Life.”
That was a long process. Jaden Michaels, Rykeyz [Ryan Williamson] and I got together. Rykeyz was playing the chord progression for “Get You Home” and I thought it sounded too R&B so I said, “Let me play it on the acoustic. I think that would make it more like me.” We wrote the verse and the chorus and we sent it to the label. Rob Stevenson, in A&R over at Republic, heard it and said, “Something’s not right with this. It’s losing me.” But he liked that we sampled “Bust a Move” by Young MC. He said we should rewrite the song. Nolan Sipe, who wrote on “In The Long Run,” came on and we changed all the lyrics to the verse. We changed the whole first part of the chorus to another different chorus and then I brought it back to New York for Rob and he flipped and he loved it. He and Jason Morey at 19 were really pumped about the song and that was when they decided to release it as a single.
Tell me about track six, “Howl at the Moon” – that’s a song you’ve been playing live for a long time.
Out of all the songs that made the album, it was the first one written. It was written before the Idol tour started. I wrote it with Kevin Kadish, who wrote “All About That Bass” and “Lips Are Movin’” with Meghan Trainor. Kevin had listened to “Beautiful Life” and he told me, “We need to make it a little more pop than that,” but we still wanted to keep that kind of anthemic idea. We wrote the song quickly. It’s very short, just 2:39. Everybody I played it for really liked it, including my guitar player, Nick, who is a very tough critic. It reminds me of the stuff I was doing with [my band] Beach Avenue.
Is there a story behind “Nobody”?
Jordan Schmidt wrote a song called “Needed That.” He wanted to pitch it and asked me to do him a favor and sing it and I told him I would. The guy he wrote it with, Calynn Green, was in the studio, just to hear me do the vocals. I think Jordan wanted me to cut the song. I thought it was a really cool song but it didn’t feel like me. I finished and I don’t know what Jordan did but somehow he had the vocals muted and was screwing with a track for another song he had written and he must have put it on half time. Literally two seconds later, I started singing the melody to the chorus of “Nobody” and then we wrote the whole song that night. I sang the demo and the demo vocal ended up being the actual vocal. I did some ad-libs later on when we decided to put it on the record. That’s one of my favorite songs on the album. Jordan crushed the production on it.
Let’s move on to “Love Is Blind.”
That’s also one of my favorite songs. It’s straightforward. The way we wrote it is the way we recorded it, with just an acoustic guitar. I went in that day with Dave Hodges and Jaden Michaels and I wanted to write a love song that people would want to play at their weddings. Dave wrote “A Thousand Years” with Christina Perri and that was a huge wedding song and he’s written a lot of great songs for Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood and a lot of different people. I knew he was good with ballads, and Jaden, even though she wrote “Get You Home,” her strong point is ballads. It isn’t really a ballad. It’s mellow but it’s mid-tempo. It’s similar to a song I wrote a long time ago called “Billboard.”
Aww, you wrote a song about us?
[Laughing] “Put it on a billboard.” I wrote “Love Is Blind” on Nov. 16. It was the day after my birthday and I was wicked hung over. Dave likes to drink and we were drinking a little bit of whiskey and I was sweating. We wrote that song very quickly. It’s the only song I didn’t sing background vocals on. Dave is a great singer and he’s sung background vocals on Backstreet Boys songs. His vocals sounded so good. And everybody thinks it’s me. My dad, who knows my voice, had no idea it wasn’t me, because I sang backgrounds on every other track. “Love Is Blind” goes over very well live and I have a feeling that it’s going to do something on its own. I’m calling it now. I don’t know how, but it’s going to.
That brings us to track nine, “All on You.”
The single, “All On You,” is the second-to-last song I wrote on the record. This one was also written with Jordan, who wrote “Nobody” and “Forget2Forget U.” Also with Andy Albert, who wrote the new single for Blake Shelton, “She’s Got a Way With Words.” Mitchell Tenpenny, another writer on the song, came in and started playing this guitar part and when I heard it, I said, “Let’s write over that.” We wanted to write a breakup song. I was singing, “You, you, you,” so we came up with, “It’s all on you.” That’s another one that came about really quickly. We used the vocal from the demo, which ended up being the final vocal.
When did you know “All on You” would be a single?
I have the email from when I sent it to Jason Morey. We were thinking the album was done and I wrote, “This song needs to be added on the record.” He wrote back, “It sounds singlely,” like it could be a single. So apparently he thought so from the beginning. A lot of radio program directors heard the whole album and quite a lot of them came back with “All On You.” My sister told me it was her favorite song. It’s definitely catchy. We’ve been having fun the last few days learning it again and playing it. I think it’s going to do better than “Get You Home.”
Now we’re up to the title track, “Hurricane.” And I noticed a very interesting name among the writing credits.
I sang a Jason Mraz song on the American Idol finale, and two of the writers, Michael Natter and Nancy Natter, wrote it with Jason and they were at the show. They wanted to meet me because I sang their song and they said, “You never know, maybe one day we can try to write with Jason.” I thought, “Yeah, sure.” And then one day I got a call that he was really going to do it. I had to go to a hotel in San Diego. I was super-nervous. Nick Abraham and I went into a Starbucks in the hotel. We get coffee and we walk out and there’s Jason Mraz, in sandals with a nylon string guitar in his hand, not even in a case, and he says, “What’s up, man?” He was the most low-key chill guy ever.
What was the writing process like?
Michael and Nancy were there, too. We had guitars and Nick and I started playing the chord progression. There was some talk about what to write about and I think he was talking about how he had a fight with his wife. He said, “It was better after we had that awful fight. But at the time it was like, ‘This fight is really bad.’” I had an ex where we had a couple of really bad fights but for some reason we got through it and then it was kind of better and stronger. Nick and I sang some melody ideas and Jason was sitting there. He is very, very artistic. A very good musician and Nick is a freak musician. Nick was coming up with some really interesting chord changes and I think Jason was excited. So it was cool to watch those two together. And then we took a little break. We had been writing for five or six hours. We didn’t think it was done, but Jason played it and when I listened to it all the way through, it had come together. We made a demo and I loved it. 19 asked Jason Mraz who he thought should produce it. He gave us a couple names. We did a track with Mikal Blue but I didn’t quite like it. I told Jason Mraz I wanted Nick Abraham to have a shot with the production. Mikal was cool with it. Nick took it back to Connecticut and my buddy Nick Bellmore ended up mixing it. At one point, I was frustrated with the song and I wasn’t going to have it on the record, but then we named the album after it. Now it’s one of my favorites.
Tell me about choosing “Hurricane” as the title track.
At first I was thinking the title was going to be “Nothing To Lose,” but that sounds like I’m desperate. Like, “I have nothing to lose. This is it. Here you go.” When I put all of the songs in front of me, “Hurricane” stood out. American Idol was the best thing that ever happened to me but there have also been some frustrations. I didn’t realize the stress of it all. It’s been a crazy year, but at the end, I’m going to come out on top, which is what the song is about. Even though we had this bad fight, we’re going to be stronger and that’s how I feel about what’s going on in my career.
“If I Didn’t Know You” sounds very personal. Is it about someone you know?
I was thinking of my mother. There are definitely lines in there where it seems like it’s based on a relationship in the second verse, but we did that so it would be more relatable. It’s about somebody who makes you a better person. The line is, “If I didn’t know you, I’d probably be wasted.” I was thinking I’d be a drunken idiot if I didn’t have my mother. I was also thinking of certain people in my life. It was the second or third time I wrote with Paul Doucette from Matchbox Twenty. He wrote a lot of songs with Rob Thomas. They liked that I played some of their songs, so that’s how we linked up.
Does your mother know the song is about her?
No, I never said anything to her. I’ve only played it live twice. Once in Connecticut and then me and Nick played it in Napa and I just say that everybody has that one person that makes you a better person and if you didn’t know that person, you’d probably be a wreck. When I was writing it, I was thinking of my mom, because I’m very close with her.
Then there’s the final track, your coronation song. You’ve lived with “Beautiful Life” for over a year now. How do you feel about it after all this time?
I still really like it. When I sing it live, that’s the song everybody knows. If I don’t like to play a song, even if it was a single, I don’t play it a lot. I just explain I don’t enjoy playing it right now. “Get You Home” is a song I have a tough time doing live and we really don’t do it that much anymore. But for some reason, I still enjoy playing “Beautiful Life.”
With the album finally released, is the rest of 2016 mapped out for you?
We have seven or eight band shows that are planned and some other ones in the works. We’re looking preferably for some type of an opening act we’ve been trying to get on and if not, we were talking about doing a college tour, where I’d go out with Nick Abraham on guitar. I would like to go out as a full band, because I think people would be pleasantly surprised with the show. So we’ll see. I need to get out there because Scott Borchetta told me when you go and meet people and play, you win. That’s what I need to do.