AJR Discuss How Using 'Unbeautiful, Realistic Lyrics' Made 'Weak' a Hot 100 Hit
“I should stay strong, but I’m weak.” Those aren’t exactly the words one would expect to be in a hit pop song, but that's exactly the sentiment that AJR wanted to convey with their latest single, “Weak.”
“We were thinking, what about if there was a song, kind of an anthem, where everybody could shout together something that was previously thought to be a little embarrassing and painful to admit?” AJR’s Ryan Met tells Billboard of the inspiration behind the song. “We’re really inspired by fun’s first album, a lot of Twenty One Pilots -- these kind of quirky, sometimes dark, insightful lyrics set to a really anthemic beat. Those are our favorite types of songs, so we wanted to kind of recreate that.”
Their unconventional anthem was apparently exactly what fans were looking for -- the song now has more than 200 million Spotify streams and is sitting at No. 73 on the Billboard Hot 100 (chart dated July 1). It’s the second time the AJR guys (also known as the Met brothers; Ryan, Adam, and Jack) have had a Hot 100 hit, following 2014’s “I’m Ready,” which hit No. 65. Whether or not “Weak” takes over as AJR’s best-performing hit yet, they’re just excited that fans seem to be connecting to their music – especially because they’re still creating it in their New York City living room.
Prior to their June 9 release of sophomore album The Click, Billboard chatted with Ryan (vocals/ukulele, most of the duo's production) and Adam (vocals/bass) about their recent Hot 100 success, the inspiration behind “Weak,” and why they still get nervous every time they release a new track.
When you did an interview on our Pop Shop Podcast, you said “Weak” was about insecurity -- why did you want to write a song about insecurity?
Ryan: A lot of the songs on the radio now are about staying strong and staying confident. We were listening to that and we were like, “That’s good to inspire people, but sometimes that can get to be a little bit of an unrealistic expectation to set for all of society to be constantly confident and strong.” And we thought, how cool would it be for everybody to shout together that they’re weak?
We were trying to push the idea of a party anthem forward a little bit. Everybody’s kind of sick of LMFAO-type party anthems, everyone’s moving past that because it’s a little dated. So we were thinking what’s kind of the next evolution of the party anthem. It’s a little bit more insightful than a normal party song, it’s a little bit deeper and more emotional.
Have you seen people react to the song’s meaning?
Ryan: It almost doesn’t matter what we wrote it about, it matters what people hear in the song -- people take it as their weakness for things from TV to more serious addictions. People have come to us and been like, “Wow, your song has given that thing a voice, when I haven’t really heard that on the radio before.”
One of you also mentioned in the podcast that writing is the hardest part of creating an album -- was "Weak" a difficult song to write?
Ryan: “Weak” was one of the easier songs on the album to write, it took a day. We knew we needed a pre-chorus that ended with ‘I should stay strong’ and then the chorus that goes, ‘But I’m weak’ with a huge drop where the punch line comes across to everybody. And as soon as we knew that that was the point of the song, everything else came pretty easy.
As soon as we wrote “Weak” and our other song “I’m Not Famous” that came out before “Weak,” I think that really set the tone for the rest of the album. Our sound, right now, is going to be the most blatant way of saying things -- the most unbeautiful, realistic lyrics. I think when we try and dress things up with a thousand metaphors and beautiful language, sometimes you can get in the way of the point of the song. With “Weak,” the goal was to have all the lyrics stay out of the way of that, and everything points -- in the most basic way -- to the “I should stay strong, but I’m weak” lyric.
Now that you have a second Hot 100 hit and your fan base is growing, are you guys getting used to the idea that you’re more than just a group of brothers who sing?
Ryan: Definitely not. We started out street performing about 12 years ago and we did that for many years in a row. And even after the street performing, we had years and years of absolutely zero success before “I’m Ready” took off. I think when you do that long enough, it engrains a certain mentality in you where you take nothing for granted. Every time we announce something new, we get just as nervous, and surprised when people show up. We haven’t really come to accept that people are going to come to our shows [Laughs].
Adam: One of the reasons we’re nervous every single time we release something is, our goal is to have that longevity and each of these individual pieces are just one small piece that’s contributing to us as an artist -- to be more than a song. To take something like “Weak”... if they hear those songs, maybe that will open the door to them finding out more about who AJR is.
Do you at least feel the most confident you’ve ever been when it comes to writing, performing, and just being a band?
Ryan: While we were working on this whole album, we had a good idea of what we wanted to say. And I think watching “Weak” grow while we were writing really helped reassure us that people do care what we’re talking about, and they do want to hear about weird topics. We tried to do exactly what we did with “Weak” in different ways -- because “Weak” is about something that hasn’t really been written about before in pop music, so we wanted every song on the album to reflect that idea.
As things continue to grow for you guys, do you think you’ll stick to creating songs in your living room?
Ryan: I think the living room and the confinement that we have there actually really helps to shape our sound. It’s really been responsible for any uniqueness that people say we have in our production and our lyrics. I think it comes from us being in the living room and not having this expensive studio that everyone else has and us feeling a little bit inferior. Like The Chainsmokers, who have this really cool, huge sound -- if I try and recreate that sound, it’s just going to sound like a worse Chainsmokers. When that’s the situation, we’re kind of forced to come up with our own thing that we can be the best at.
How do you think being brothers has impacted your creative process and/or your overall career? What would you say the pros and cons are with it?
Ryan: Chemistry is important. A lot of times if the chemistry isn’t right, it’s all about egos – and as soon as it becomes “my idea,” then the goal is not to write a good song anymore. So the coolest thing about being brothers is that egos are not involved at all. If someone is feeling really strong about something, the other two are just like, ‘Okay, if you feel this strongly, “we’re in.”
The AJR brothers are currently on their What Everyone’s Thinking Tour Part II, hitting several cities around North America before performing at Austin City Limits music festival in October. Check out the dates below.
WHAT EVERYONE’S THINKING PART II U.S. HEADLINE TOUR DATES
June 21 -- New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom – ALBUM RELEASE SHOW! (SOLD OUT)
July 7 -- Cleveland, OH @ Grog Shop
July 8 -- Covington, KY @ Madison Live
July 11 -- Indianapolis, IN @ Deluxe at Old National
July 13 -- Milwaukee, WI @ The Rave II
July 16 -- Omaha, NE @ Slowdown (SOLD OUT)
July 18 -- Oklahoma City @ Diamond Ballroom
July 19 -- Dallas, TX @ House of Blues (Cambridge Room) (SOLD OUT)
July 20 -- Houston, TX @ House of Blues (Bronze Peacock)
July 26 -- Phoenix, AZ @ Pub Rock
July 28 -- Anaheim, CA @ House of Blues (Parish) (SOLD OUT)
July 29 -- San Diego, CA @ House of Blues
July 30 -- Los Angeles, CA @ Troubadour
August 1 -- Fresno, CA @ Strummers
August 2 -- Berkeley, CA @ Cornerstone
August 4 -- Portland, OR @ Hawthorne Theater
August 6 -- Seattle, WA @ The Crocodile
A version of this article was published in the June 24 issue of Billboard.