The Disney Channel series' top music exec and go-to songwriters recall working with Miley Cyrus at 12 years old, and why it was clear she would become a star.
Fifteen years ago, on March 24, 2006, Disney Channel premiered its newest TV series: Hannah Montana. Starring a then-little-known actress and singer, Miley Cyrus, and her famous father, Billy Ray Cyrus, the show opened to the highest ratings in the channel’s history, with 5.4 million viewers.
Cyrus, then 13, played a teenager named Miley Stewart who lived a double life in Malibu as a student by day and pop star by night. Her cute and quirky persona (her catchphrase was "sweet niblets") surely captivated tweens, but it was the show’s ability to churn out hits from a fictional pop star that turned Hannah Montana into a real-life sensation.
Since the show wrapped in January 2011 (all four seasons are now available on Disney+), Hannah Montana has raked up 20 Hot 100 hits, including one that entered the top 10 (“He Could Be The One”). She also scored three No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 (Hannah Montana, Hannah Montana 2 / Meet Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana: The Movie). Meanwhile, her 2007 Best of Both Worlds Tour earned Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus the breakthrough artist award at the 2008 Billboard Touring Awards, beating out the Jonas Brothers and Michael Bublé.
Now, over a decade later, Disney Channel’s vp of music and soundtracks, Steve Vincent, and Hannah Montana's key songwriters, Matthew Gerrard and Jeannie Lurie, recall how the series' biggest hits, from its theme song (“Best Of Both Worlds”) to “True Friend,” came together and why the show — and their early recording sessions with the pop star in the making — served as a crash course for the very real stardom that followed.
“If You Put All Of That Into a Blender, That’s Kind of Where We Ended Up”
Steve Vincent: I started working at Disney Channel in 2000 and started supervising their music in-house. Hannah Montana followed The Cheetah Girls [movies], which was kind of the first big music-driven property, and then Hannah Montana and High School Musical came around at the same time, so I was part of developing the sound of the music and what they wanted to do with these characters in the series and movies.
I think I met Miley when she was probably 12 years old, and I remember after she was cast she came in and sang at the staff meeting and even at that age, she just lit up the room. She's obviously grown up around music with her dad, but in terms of starting to figure out the music and who should Hannah Montana be as an artist — this character that had grown up with roots in the south but then moved to Malibu and was living this dual identity — that was one of the first big questions.
Matthew Gerrard: I moved to L.A. in 2000 and within a year of being there, I had a No. 1 hit with this Popstars TV show, which was sort of the first American Idol type thing, with a band called Eden's Crush. At the time, one of the writers I was working with, who I co-wrote [Kelly Clarkson’s] “Breakaway” with, said, “I think you're going to do a lot with Disney. I just have this feeling.” And then all of a sudden, I did Hilary Duff’s “I Can’t Wait” and “Why Not.”
I knew that Disney Channel had this new show called Hannah Montana and I heard it was on their books for a while, but they couldn't find the right person. Then when Miley came in, it was like, boom, this is it. Gary Marsh and Steve Vincent had told me that it was a very music-driven show and that they needed a sound for it. They had a lot of different directions in mind: There were a few executives that said “Britney Spears” and then there were a few people who were like, “Let's go rock,” and then someone said, “Well, the girl that we cast, Miley Cyrus, is from Nashville, so let's do some country.”
Vincent: Musically, for me, the artists we were looking to for inspiration at that time were a blend of country-ish, but coming at it from the pop side. There were artists like Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood who were on the pop side of country, and then artists like Pink and Kelly Clarkson and Madonna who were pop stars. So somewhere amidst all of that, if you put all of that into a blender, that’s kind of where we ended up.
Gerrard: I tried it on three different songs: “The Best of Both Worlds,” “The Other Side of Me” and "Who Said.” It's interesting because there's lots of guitars on those, it's very pop, but the underpinnings are sort of dance, if you listen to the drums. So it's a combo of everything that everyone wanted. It was a fun mixture, energetic pop that you can dance and sing along to. And then the concepts of the songs, those first three, I was trying to encompass what I thought the show was about from how they described it to me. They ended up loving “Best of Both Worlds” to really represent the whole thing.
Jeannie Lurie: I remember it super clearly because I had just come off of working on one of my very first Disney Channel projects, it was called The Muppets’ Wizard Of Oz, and I had my first meeting with Steve and we were talking about what’s coming out and he held up two scripts. He said, “I have two things that we're getting into, one is called High School Musical and one is Hannah Montana.” That memory is etched in my brain.
It was just a meeting at the time, but looking back, those were huge properties for Disney. Steve had listened through some of the songs I had and at the time we didn't really know much about the character [for Hannah Montana] except for what was in the pilot, but there was this running theme about knowing who you are on the inside, but maybe the rest of the world doesn't know it yet. And for whatever reason, I have that in my personality, and a lot of my songs had that message in them.
Gerrard: When you write for a TV show, sometimes you have a lot of parameters. For songs I did for High School Musical the director would say, “We want this to really be about this, and from beginning to end, this story has to be told.” With Hannah Montana, it wasn't so specific. We had freedom to write what we thought was a great song or a hit song and then they found an episode to put it in. They wanted real songs, like what a teenager would sing, whether it was [confronting this] duality or a life lesson.
Lurie: It got a little more competitive in the later seasons because the show was so well loved, right from the beginning. So you had to really write for the character, you had to really know her and her world. I was working with a team I've worked with for many years, Aris Archontis and Chen Neeman, and we did all the hits from season two on: “Rockstar,” “Been Here All Along,” “I’m Still Good,” “I Wanna Know You.” Knowing the character and knowing what she would say and her feelings inside out, that was a big deal on this show.
Vincent: I think they wanted a lot of separation between Hannah and Miley. You know, Hannah Montana was a fictional character, and then Miley developed her own music and her own brand separately through Hollywood Records. A lot of the songs, especially in that first season, were about the character and the pop star lifestyle and then the dual-life thing. The theme song obviously spoke directly to that. And then the pop star stuff was about the fantasy life, right? "If We Were a Movie” or “Pumping Up the Party,” those kinds of real fun songs drove season one.
And then season two, it started to mature a bit. The season two soundtrack was a dual album with Hannah Montana 2 and Meet Miley Cyrus, so she got a chance to really put her stamp on what she wanted Miley Cyrus music to sound like. It was a little different, a little edgier. And as she got a little older there started to be more relationship songs, mostly more in seasons three and four. They weren't just bouncy, fun songs, they had a little more depth as she started getting into storylines. The characters always drive the songs, right? Because you want them to reflect her as a person.
“The Kid Has Never Lacked Confidence”
Vincent: When it was time to record the first song for the pilot episode, we all met at the studio, and her mom and dad of course brought her. I figured Billy Ray, who obviously is a platinum artist, would want to be in there telling us how it was going to go and everything, but he was just like, “I'm just going to hang out here and you guys let me know when you have something hear.”
So we went inside and Miley went into the booth and after she got warmed up, she asked if her mom could come in, too. So we put a chair in the booth next to her and she started to sing and she would kind of look over at mom like, “Is that okay?” It was so sweet and showed how young she really was when we started this and that she felt she wanted to have mom literally sitting right next to her. And then dad came in and heard what we'd done and he was like, “Oh it’s going to be amazing,” but he really wanted it to be about her. He happened to end up in the show too, but this was Miley's show.
Gerrard: I had this little studio in Santa Monica, a tiny little cottage with no air conditioning. Miley came in super confident with her mom and she interpreted [my demos] exactly how I heard it, but with her own voice. I didn't have to really tweak anything. I was guiding her when she was singing, because at that time I don't think she had a lot of studio experience, but she was a natural and she was comfortable with herself. Before Miley would leave, I’d chop up all [the vocal takes] and put my favorite parts on one track and go, “This is how I hear it.” She sort of sat there in a studio chair beside me watching what was going on.
Lurie: I recorded her on “This Is The Life” and she was so young. She was like, 12. When I first met her, she just totally showed up for the ride. She was excited and not nervous at all. You could tell that she had a really special voice, this huge talent. There was no doubt she would keep going.
Vincent: For the marketing campaign leading up to season one, we filmed a concert with Miley at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and they put out the word on Radio Disney: “If you want to be on the next Disney Channel show, come down and see a new concert,” so people showed up and we gave them signs like, “Chicago loves Hannah Montana” and “Los Angeles loves Hannah Montana” so you could film the audience and make it look like they were in different venues as if she was on tour.
So we set her up as a real pop star through this marketing campaign: "Who is Hannah Montana?" We shot four or five songs that Miley had pre-recorded so we could cut footage into the first season that made it look like an outside shot of Staples Center and then you cut to the footage of her on stage and cut to the fans, screaming, “Hannah, Hannah!” She was living it. She rocked the house and everybody was like, “We cast the right girl, thank god.” She just grabbed the bull by the horns. The kid has never lacked confidence.
“Mom, Did You Write ‘True Friend?’”
Vincent: [The audience] got invested in her and in her music before they ever watched an episode of Hannah Montana. Once they met this character and got into the comedy of, “Oh my gosh, she's this girl who's living these two lives and wow she lives in this amazing place in Malibu but she gets to go to school and be a real girl,” there was this huge wish fulfillment. I think that's why it really blew up, because she was relatable not only as Hannah Montana, but also as Miley Stewart. And so she felt like the girl next door, but also a legitimate pop star.
Lurie: At some point, I did start to notice that my friends would sing the songs back to me, and that was really crazy and it kind of freaked me out and that's when I started to realize, “Okay, a lot of people are listening to this.” My boys were like, “Yeah, whatever mom, what’s for lunch?” but when they were older, they would start asking me questions like, “Mom, did you write ‘True Friend?’” and I was like, “Yes, why?” and one of them was like, “It was in Carly's Bat Mitzvah montage.” So they would start noticing it with their friends and that’s when they became aware of what their mom did.
Gerrard: I didn't have kids back then and now I do. So at my kid's school, a teacher just found out from my wife that I wrote this stuff and they do this thing called Wax Museum, where they talk about their icon, and someone had sung “Best of Both Worlds.” So I got a link of that two days ago. Every once in a while you hear it, and if I'm working with an artist people will bring it up, like, “Oh, you wrote that.”
Lurie: You never knew who was going to be a guest star on the show. You're writing the songs with the character in mind, but all of a sudden, David Archuleta is there. He and Miley sang a duet for “I Wanna Know You,” and there was an episode where Vicki Lawrence and Dolly Parton play her feuding relatives and at the end they all sing “True Friend” together. That was sort of like an out-of-body experience.
Vincent: I remember going camping years ago and hearing kids in the other sites singing the songs from Hannah Montana or High School Musical or whatever it is. You think about a song like “Nobody's Perfect,” which was one of the big hits from Hannah Montana, and it was a big hit because everyone singing along with it felt like, “Yeah, nobody's perfect and that's okay.”
Those kinds of songs from Hannah Montana really were relatable and I think that’s why it worked -- it wasn't just the flash and the noise. It was the meaning behind those songs: “I can have a great friend like Lilly [Miley Stewart's best friend] who I can share all of my deepest secrets with, and I can sing songs that express myself and tell the world what I'm going through.”
“She Made It Come True”
Vincent: The last recording session that I did with Miley she was probably 16 or 17 and rolled in with a driver and five black SUVs following them full of paparazzi who jumped out, raced to the front of the studio and snapped pictures as she walked in. She was gracious and turned around and posed and waved at everybody and when she came into the studio it was just like, “Oh my god." She was one of the biggest pop stars in the world by the time we got the end of the series. She had, in some ways, made it come true, from the fictional pop star to the real pop star.
Gerrard: I remember speaking to Hollywood Records at a Christmas party or something and I said, “Oh, I'll keep my ear out over at Disney Channel.” And when Miley came along, I told them, “Hey, this girl is something to watch out for it. She's got a show that's starting up and there's something about her that's going to do well.” It turned out I was right with that one.
Lurie: To see people go on and be really successful, it's just fun to watch. I try not to worry about it too much, but in the bigger picture it is very exciting to have been a part of the beginning of these people's careers. [Now] I would say Olivia Rodrigo, of course, it’s incredible to see her success with “Drivers License” and I worked with her a little bit on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series on a couple songs. I know a lot of these kids, they start so young and they go on and I just feel lucky to have worked with Miley at some point knowing that Hannah Montana was sort of the beginning of everything.
Vincent: Probably the one since Miley was Jordan Fisher. He's just so talented. Dove Cameron, also. I think Dove has got a real chance to become a movie star. I kind of hope she gets a shot at Wicked, she as Glinda would be perfect. But I hope that for all these kids that I work with. I haven't seen Miley in a long time, but of course I kind of look after the flock of her, Selena [Gomez], Demi [Lovato] and the Jonas Brothers.
Child actors, most people see the mess, sometimes, that happens as they're trying to live and be teenagers in public while working for a living. And yeah, if they make a mistake in public, it's really awkward and unfortunate, but they have a chance to recover and move forward. I think Miley is at the point where she can look back at Hannah Montana with a wink and say, “You know what, I was one of the biggest stars in the world when I was 13 years old.”
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