So, the multi-talented singer/producer/songwriter bailed on a promising straight career to pursue his musical muse, landing an unbelievable break when he went from valet parking to working as an apprentice to Grammy-winning producer/songwriter Jeff Bhasker. "At 22 I moved to L.A. and worked as a valet and three years later I got a job as a personal assistant to Jeff Bhasker and I couldn't have found a more perfect music teacher," he tells Billboard.
"The first day I showed up he was working on [.fun's] 'We are Young,' and I said, 'this is what I've been looking for my whole life! People having fun and working on music and not being afraid to have it sound new.'" The gig with Bhasker came just as the producer was about to rocket to prominence with his Grammy-winning work with .fun, Mark Ronson, JAY-Z and Kanye West and it taught Johnson the most important lesson he's learned so far from his mentor: be proud of everything you work on.
"I do want to be somewhat familiar with an artist [before working with them], but for the most part with great artists like Harry or Sam or Cam, they really bring the elements needed that make it sound like them," Johnson says about his ability to pull greatness from the wide variety of acts he's worked with. "I am there to help extract that or give a tiny twist to something they’ve already done... I try to avoid sounding like what they've already done."
As Johnson prepares to self-release his soulful singer/songwriter solo debut project in December, which he describes as "a tad dark and brooding," Billboard asked him to break down his favorite studio moments so far.
You co-produced and co-wrote two songs on Sam's album (one with Jimmy Napes and the other with Cam) and you've hopscotched around a lot lately -- working with male and female artists in different genres -- but with someone like Sam, who has such a specific sound, how do you find the right groove with him?
We ended up writing a handful of songs, and the two that made it on the album weren't written until he came to Nashville after I'd gone to London to work with him. The ones written in London were really great songs that didn't really fit with this record. It was really just showing up and giving him the best version of myself... coming up with chords, drum beats and working through lyrics and melodies to help inspire him. It just comes down to me to take him into a zone where he feels like all the lyrics are in sight and he knows what he wants to create or tell him when it's not quite there.
I've noticed with all these top-level artists, especially Sam, they're gonna be so hard on themselves and push it... My main thing is to try and make sure they have something creative to dig into, to lean into. That when they hear some music that I'm starting to create that brings out in them an emotion that they can then write to.
Do you have a certain way you approach writing with every artist, or is it different for everyone? Do you go out to dinner, do you ask for their notes?
I think it is always good to go to dinner and hang out with people, but normally that's only after you build up a rapport. These artists will not just go to dinner with everyone who comes to the door. You kind of have to nail a couple songs, so they're like, "Okay, let's develop a friendship or relationship, so when we do more there's something between us." The main thing for me, if I'm not feeling like a lot of ideas are coming to mind that day, is that I already have something that I've worked out that I can show, a couple ideas I can pull up musically or melodically. I've been fortunate, coming up under Bhasker, that I've always been able to get right in with the artists.
With Sam, we clicked right away, and he's one of those artists that everything that comes out of his mouth has been inspiring me. That's when you know things are going well, when you inspire them with something you do and then they inspire you. Then you know you're climbing this mountain together, where you're each giving each other a new bump to keep going higher and higher.
What surprised you the most about Sam?
Just being in a room when he starts to sing. Just like, "Oh my god, you're so good!" Just the vocal level and his proficiency at lyrics and melody. It didn't surprise me knowing his music, but being in the room and witnessing him developing a song.
Harry's album was so bold, and he asserts his personality on it so much, but that seems on paper to be one of those steep mountains to climb. What was it like going into those sessions with so much expectation...
The first day was just myself and [fellow producer] Alex Salibian, who worked with me on the album underneath Jeff Bhasker. It was like a normal day for us -- show him some starts and musical ideas and write over them. I could tell he thought that we were really talented, and was intrigued, but wasn't like, "This is the answer to my question of what I'm going to do next."
Then we brought in our engineer at the time's bandmate [Mitch Rowland] -- who we'd seen live and knew played guitar and drums, and were really impressed by. And so I made a note to file it away, "Don't forget this kid." He plays a kind of '70s rock guitar really well, and plays drums phenomenally and writes songs. So I brought it up to Bhasker and Alex and he came in on the next day... and he sits down and Harry says, "Yes, great, start writing a song." And then he sits behind the drums and Harry says, "Wait, you can drum too?"
Those are things you can't predict, you can't write, you can't plan for. Once that happened we said, "Okay, Mitch is going to help write and drum and play guitar on all these songs, and Ryan's going to engineer it, and we're going to be like a band writing an album."
That serendipity of [making a mental] note that you're able to put together with this need... that feels like the definition of a great producer or arranger who can take those disparate things and find the connections...
Well, yeah, Mitch is in the touring band and plays guitar and he sounds phenomenal live. It was the start of something bigger than what it was. It wasn't just connecting the dots and then moving on to the next project. It was the creation of a team. It was very fun to see it come together. We were able in the first few days to write a ton of songs and finish them, and every single song was a team effort.
A funny story that's been told is that it was a Tuesday or a Wednesday, and we'd gotten a lot done, and on Thursday Mitch couldn't come in because he had to work at his other job at a pizza shop. And I think for Harry, that really resonated in a way, like, "This is what I needed, for not everything to be perfect and thought out and precise." It's odd to have this guy who is really the answer to my questions to be a part-time pizza shop guy. I think that hit Harry correctly that this is going to work out, and to see how quickly he was like, "Well, you might not need to do that anymore..."
You have developed a real sweet spot with Cam, who you worked so closely with on her first album and on her new one. What's been the glue holding that working relationship together?
Our relationship is much more of a started from the bottom. I met her through an old roommate who was her boyfriend at the time, and at that time both of us knew we wanted to do music, but didn’t know what that would look like. She had gone to school for psychology and had opportunities in that direction, and I had gone to school for law and had opportunities, but we'd both been doing music since we were very young and thought we had what it took. Her and my relationship is much more answering those questions together, sitting in a room writing songs.
She was one of the first people I ever wrote a song with [that I bonded with]. It was called "Down This Road" and it was one of the first songs she ever released, and the first song we ever wrote together... It sounded like a song that had already been written in a good way and once I saw how effortless that was, I was like, "I'm gonna lock her down as someone I can figure this out with." And I did. We worked and worked on writing, and would go into studios and we have her new album coming out, the Sam song, we did a song on Miley Cyrus' Bangerz album ("Maybe You're Right"), so her and I have a lot of history together. If it hadn't been for her I wouldn't have had that person to grind it out with.
Given how simpatico you are, what was it like working on her upcoming second album?
We learned a lot from the first record, which was done with a Kickstarter and brought the album to the labels, but was really done with Cam and I and help from Bhakser on "Burning House" and other songs. We learned a lot from the last two years of her touring, and people's responses to "Burning House." This next album is meant to be all about her vocals, and everyone we play it for without us saying that says that. "Her voice sounds great." Really keeping the production out of the way and making sure her lyrics and vocals are it.
The first single, "Diane," has the feel of a really classic country ballad. I've seen it described as a response to Dolly Parton's "Jolene."
The idea is Cam is taking on the role of this woman who slept with another woman’s man, but not knowing. So the lyric is: "Diane, I promise I didn’t know he was your man/ I would have noticed a gold wedding band/ Diane, I'd rather you hate me than not understand.” Cam really wanted to write a song that instead of a cat fight or woman blaming a woman she is setting up this environment of "I am going to tell you this thing." It's kind of like she's Jolene, but she wanted to come at it from the other side, and focus on idea that this is an apology that a lot of people deserved that they never got.
Was Jeff involved at all?
Yeah, we said, "Let's just make a vocal album with just melodies to blow people's minds," and Jeff goes, "Kind of like a melody like..." and he just sings the melody of the chorus like it is to this day. I still have the voicemail where he goes, "Kind of like this" and sang it, and Cam and I were like, "Oh my god." He's a total... there's not a lot of Jeff Bhaskers.
It's fascinating that you can jump from that to Meghan, who also has such a strong voice and speaks her mind in such a powerful, but totally different way.
She is so freakin' talented it's scary. She comes up with the bass lines, drum beats, lyrics, melodies, she'll mix something... she is an absolute monster! Being around her is really inspiring. I've grown so much working with her. At the end of the day you just need to write good songs in a new way of telling old stories, and that's what I'm helping her do, putting together something that sounds fresh.
You spend so much time crafting music for other people's voices, how did you find the thread for your solo project?
I've had a couple of these songs for a while, over a year and a half for some of them. The first two songs I co-wrote and produced with my friend Jon Castelli, who mixed the Kesha record... it's definitely pop alternative music. I just can't wait for people to hear it. I wrote the songs and sing on it and co-produced it.
I see myself very much at the beginning part of my career. I'm 31 but I spent a lot of years building up and I just signed my first publishing deal two and a half years ago. The Harry album was the second album that I'd ever really done. I feel like this is a good time for people who are interested in what I'm bringing to the table to say, "Oh, now I see what it is that he does."
Is it Kesha pop alternative? Is it Miley? How would you describe the sound?
Something that I'm really excited about is that to me it's very under-produced and it's a tad dark and brooding. I just did what felt right and the whole idea is I want to keep on releasing music that I think is special but doesn't necessarily connect with an artist or what they're trying to say. This is my avenue to release music that connects with me when I'm in between artists and I have something to say. This is how I got started on all this, when I was 11 and I was sitting at a piano and writing songs. I'm releasing it on my own label and whatever happens happens.
I love being a producer and a songwriter. This is me living my dream, so this artist thing is more like part of me being a producer and songwriter. If anything happens it will happen organically.
What have you learned working with Jeff all these years?
Besides the fact that he's a total musical savant? There's no real settling, and sometimes that means the first take is what you go with because the flaws are correct, or you re-do it 45 times, and knowing the difference between the two. When to let the artist make the final decision and when to step in and say, "I think this has to change." Watching him navigate with these different people, because he can do everything -- program the drums, write the song, write the lyrics -- but doesn't always do everything, which was a big part of it. Even the first time I watched him program a beat on the MPC and it ended up being [fun.'s] "Some Nights." Just sit down and make the beat, don't think about it!
A big thing too is everyone doesn’t always know what to do. That's a big part of it. Being comfortable with an absolute uncertainty of knowing what to do is a big thing I learned from him, and being alright with that, because it will come. I couldn't have had a better person be my mentor, and I'm still learning and growing to this day.