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Steven J. Horowitz
Producer TBHits and Ariana Grande go back to the beginning. "Since even before the first album came out," he tells Billboard, just days after her fourth album, Sweetener, dropped on Aug. 17. "She’s one of my best friends."
Their evident chemistry is what makes for some of the most compelling cuts on the project, which also features production from Max Martin, Pharrell Williams, Hit-Boy, Savan Kotecha and a tight crew of others. Los Angeles-based TBHits, also known as Tommy Brown, supplied his friend with three tracks on the set: the charming interlude "Pete Davidson," dedicated to her fiance; the Imogen Heap-sampling "Goodnight n Go"; and the dreamy "Better Off." "She comes over, we sit down, 'Hey what’s going on in your life? How are you feeling? What have you been doing?' and it turns into, 'We should do a song about this!'" he explains. "And it just kinda happens. It’s a very simple process with her."
For TBHits, who has worked with Grande since her 2013 debut, Yours Truly, as well as on all of her 2015 Christmas and Chill EP and the majority of songs on her previous release, 2016's Dangerous Woman, collaborating with her is like returning home. But beyond his work with the pop princess, he's been building his portfolio elsewhere, with his signees Social House (Meghan Trainor, DJ Khaled) and as a producer, contributing to recent tracks from Macy Gray and Jennifer Lopez.
In the wake of the release of Sweetener, TBHits explains his key contributions to the project.
You’ve got a potential No. 1 album in the country next week. How does that feel?
That’s a great day. I wouldn’t complain about it. If I did, nobody would listen anyway, right?
You worked on three songs together for Sweetener. What was Ariana looking for when you guys connected?
Me and Ariana have worked together since the beginning. We’ve done various projects — we’ve even done the Christmas project — so, it really wasn’t a thing of connecting because we’re really close. But, it’s just the creative process: I like getting in with her, we talk through things and that’s sort of how we create the songs. She’s very organic, she’s very heavily involved, and she knows what she wants.
The “Pete Davidson” interlude is a standout on Sweetener, the type of song that fans wish had a full version.
That has actually happened with us before, but this “Pete” song was just something that she was like, “I want to come ahead, I want to talk about this specific subject. This is what I’m feeling at the moment.’” And I went and started playing the chords — it was me, her and [singer] Victoria Monét — that’s usually the combo kit. We just started putting the record together. I didn’t know the record was going to be called “Pete Davidson.” But I told her, “I’m happy that [you’re] happy.” I want to see everybody happy. If he makes her happy, then it makes me happy, too.
So that title came after you guys had finished the song?
Yes. Actually, I think that she had the title in her mind before we did the song.
Does that mean you could tell that she had the title in mind because of how she sang it? How could you tell?
She was just so happy, and I knew what the song was about. I knew the song was about him. I didn’t know she would title the song that, but that’s incredible.
“Goodnight n Go” samples Imogen Heap.
Yeah, it’s funny because a long time ago we spoke about Imogen Heap, and that’s one of my favorite artists, and she was like, “Yo, I love Imogen Heap.” And then they did the glove together. And she was performing with [it] on tour, and she was like, “I really love this song, I wish we could flip this.” I got together with my team. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Social House. We produced the song, and her and Victoria came in and wrote the rest of the lyrics. That’s one of my favorite productions that I’ve done.
Why is that?
I just love the dynamic of the song. You have a pop breakdown, but you still have an urban undertone. It was fun putting that together.
Did you get Imogen Heap’s blessing to re-work her song?
Imogen’s a really good friend of Ariana, so I’m sure that they spoke about it. I don’t know Imogen, I can’t wait to meet her though.
“Better Off” had a lot of hands in it. How did it come together?
Ariana had [done] a song with Hit-Boy. It was together a little bit ago. And then [she] was like, “Hey Tommy, I love the vibe of this song, and I want to get this song done. Can you put your ear to it?” And we sent it over, and made a few productions changes. A few things — we minimalized it a lot. I think it sounds a lot cooler minimal and actually just hearing her on the song. Because people listen to it to hear the artist, they don’t listen to it to hear a beat, necessarily. So, we minimalized it, and everybody collaborated on it, and it came together.
The critical and fan discourse around the album is that this is an experimental step for her. Where do you think it positions Ariana at this point in her career?
I think it puts her in an incredible place because, to me, I feel like every album should be different. I feel like [you should] experiment, get it out there. That’s what the greats did. Every Michael Jackson album wasn’t Thriller. There’s different parts of your life and different situations you go through. I feel like she was very transparent with how she feels about different things. She’s like that with every album.
On Sweetener, she doesn’t have the mega-pop bangers that populated her previous albums to the same extent. She’s willing to tone her volume down. I consider that taking a big chance for someone of such consistency.
Yeah, I agree with that. But at the same time, I feel like if that’s how she feels at this time, maybe that’s just how she feels for this record. I don’t think she’s going to stray away from the big pop songs, but this time around, I think she wanted to say, “Hey, I want to do me. I want to pull my sleeves up and dive into what I want to do.”
Outside of Ariana, what’s going on with Social House?
I’ve worked with Social House for quite a while now. They’re from my hometown — we didn’t meet in my hometown, though. I think they’re incredible songwriters, producers, artists. One of them got really excited because last night J. Lo won the VMA for a song [“Dinero”] we produced and wrote. That was pretty good, and then they got to present for Ariana because us being so close to her, they were like, “Hey, why don’t y’all just bring her out?” They also dropped “Magic in the Hamptons.” First two months, I think it’s at 13 million streams now, which is huge for a new artist. This partnership that me and Scooter Braun did together with Interscope Records is also awesome because me and [Grande's manager] Scooter [Braun] work together with Ariana, but this is the first thing that we’re doing together.
With your own production crew, what have you been working on? Where are we going to see you pop up a little bit?
I’ve really been developing my own acts now. Of course, I’m going to work with T.I.’s, like I always do, the J. Lo’s, Ariana — especially, but I’ve just been kind of developing my own in-house act that I’m going to start rolling out into the world. Social House is just the first step of what we have brewing.
Do you find it difficult for producers to stick to their guns in that capacity the more they find success?
It depends on what you do it for, honestly. I don’t do music for money, so I think, I do it from a different place. I do it to be creative and to have fun, and I think that’s why the music that we do sounds the way it does. Instead of like, "Let’s do the math and think about this and think about that." But I do have someone on my team who 100 percent thinks about the math every time.
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