Andrew Watt Talks Writing Hits for Justin Bieber & Selena Gomez While Taking Inspiration From Pearl Jam

Neil Lupin/Redferns via Getty Images
Andrew Watt performs at Wembley Arena on Dec. 2, 2014 in London. 

The Bowery Hotel, located on New York’s Lower East Side, is at the epicenter of what was once the city’s Skid Row: a part of Manhattan where crime, bed bugs, and flophouses reigned supreme. Today, due to renovations and gentrification, the Bowery is known as a hideout for music’s elite thanks to its secluded rooms, chic bar, and a general aura of cool that wafts around its famous clientele. On this particular Saturday afternoon, it’s also where 26 year-old Andrew Watt is munching on a pizza, hoping it will cure his hangover, and explaining the origin of Kygo x Selena Gomez's "It Ain’t Me," currently at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. 

“I wrote that with Ali (Tamposi) and Brian (Lee),” says Watt, who boasts the textbook look of a young rocker, long hair and all. “A lot of times you’re not friends with the people you work with, but we know what’s going on each other’s lives, whether it’s heartbreak, struggle, friendships or the best sex ever.” Kygo had called on Watt to concoct a track for him, a demo of which the trio collaborated on and played for star’s manager. “He hears it and goes, ‘Come on guys, this is not why I brought you in here.’ I’m like, ‘What did you just say?’ Who says that to someone? It put a fire in us, so we started messing around with different chords and ‘It Ain’t Me’ was written in 20 minutes.”

According to Watt, the song “is about a girl’s perspective looking at my life; she’s not going to put up with my shit anymore.” It also all kicks off with Gomez crooning about this very hotel: “I had a dream we were sipping whiskey neat, highest floor of the Bowery,” a reference that’s repeated and distorted multiple times throughout the 3:41 track. It's fitting that Watt’s latest pop smash is filled with references to a hotel, and a neighborhood, that has gone through numerous reinventions -- much like Watt himself.

How the Long Island native went from broke college dropout to a rising player in music has its own origins not far from the Bowery. An unabashed fan of rock, Watt was accepted into New York University's Clive Davis School of Music but was more focused on becoming a guitarist than completing his degree. “Around 2009, I was playing around New York and The Roots were having these jams. I spoke to Questlove’s assistant to ask if I could join and I never got a reply. So I showed up anyway with my guitar and snuck into soundcheck.” Watt, then only a freshman, didn’t play that particular night, but parlayed his interest into a gig as an intern. “I did stuff like get them drinks, and brought my guitar every week even though they never let me play.” That is, until there was an illness in Roots guitarist Kirk Douglas’ family. “Questlove was like, ‘Alright, you’re up.’” Earning their respect thanks to his talent on the instrument, Watt began jamming with the group and widened his net of industry contacts. 

“From there, I met so many people,” he explains, soon scoring a gig touring with the singer-songwriter Jared Evan. “He was going to go to Greece. NYU said if I left for the tour I’d fail and I knew my parents would say no.” So, Watt went anyway without telling either of his plans. “The school wound up calling home and told my parents I was missing class. My dad called me asking where I was and told me to come back. I said, ‘Dad, I’m going to pay this tour.’ I come from a middle class family and he worked his ass off to pay for my college, so he said, ‘If you’re not coming back now, I’m cutting you off.’” A defiant Watt stayed in Europe and when he finally returned, found himself a broke college dropout, mostly surviving only on Subway sandwiches. “That was the moment my life changed,” Watt notes. “It went from me going ‘I really want to do this’ to ‘If I don’t figure this out, I don’t know what’ll happen.’ The hustle started.”

Watt has essentially been hustling ever since. First he’d take random gigs like playing in the John Varvatos store, the former home of CBGBs. (Varvatos would later sign him to his imprint with Republic.) Then there was playing guitar on tour with Cody Simpson, a pop departure from his rock dreams that took Watt to the nation’s storied venues. (“I’d see the stops and think, ‘Wow, that’s where Neil Young and Eddie Vedder met. I have to go just so I can walk around backstage.'")

Then, Simpson and his band landed a plum gig opening for Justin Bieber’s blockbuster Purpose Tour, a seemingly endless run of dates around the world made up of arenas and stadiums -- and an opportunity Watt relished. “After soundcheck I’d step out and play something like ‘Alive’ by Pearl Jam; just me alone in an empty stadium,” explains Watt. “One night when we were in Dublin, I’m jamming and all of the sudden I hear drums and it’s Bieber.” The two immediately bonded over their unbridled passion for music. “He’s one of the best musicians intimately, to the core.” Watt says of his superstar friend. “I remember being in the studio one day and I heard the most beautiful piano playing ever. It was Justin, I was like, ‘Dude, you play piano too? Are you kidding me?’”

In fact, it was his friendship with Bieber that pushed Watt further into the pop realm and later resulted in his first hit: the 2016 smash “Let Me Love You,” which he created with Tamposi and Lee the morning after a chance meeting with Tamposi at the bar at Los Angeles’ Chateau Marmont. “Everyone was hungover and we started jamming. I’ll never forget listening back to that song. It was like, ‘Holy shit, we got one.’” Encouraged, he texted Bieber the demo. “He loved it, then DJ Snake got a hold of the topline and took the guitar out. I resent it to Justin and the thing just kind of materialized. Justin believed in me and my songwriting.” (Watt won’t elaborate on the fact he's concocted love songs for Bieber and his famous ex Gomez, which on surface level sounds like they’re singing about each other.)

In fact, Watt’s apparently effortless navigation between both pop and rock has been buoyed by the fact that a number of superstars have believed in the young talent throughout the years. After a chance meeting at a photography event for his friend Julian Lennon, he befriended Deep Purple’s Glenn Hughes, impressing the rock legend and later forming the band California Breed with Hughes and Jason Bonham. (They split after an album and world tour.) There’s also his connection to Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, which stemmed from a time he was at a crossroads. While Watt is currently prepping his solo rock debut buoyed by the single “Burning Man” with Post Malone, at one point Watt was afraid he’d get stuck in the pop world forever. “I was on tour with Bieber and we were about to play at the Shoreline Ampitheater,” he says of the famed Northern California home of Neil Young’s annual Bridge School Benefit that regularly features Vedder. “I was there four months before that year’s show which was going to take place on my birthday, and bought a guitar that I wanted to give to Vedder since I knew he’d be at the benefit. So I found this woman who worked at the venue and gave her the guitar to give to Eddie with a note that said, ‘The reason why I do music is Pearl Jam. I’m on tour playing for another artist, but I feel your vibes and wanted to give you a guitar as a thank you.’”

Four months later on Watt’s birthday, the night of the benefit, he missed a call from a Seattle number. When he heard the voicemail, it was Vedder wishing him a happy birthday and thanking him for the guitar. “I texted him and said, ‘Thanks for the birthday wish’ and he texted me back with the most meaningful message at a time when I needed it, encouraging me to continue,” says Watt, now finished with his pizza and ready to depart the Bowery’s chic lobby for another night out in New York. 

“Eddie said, ‘Music is communication on the grandest scale. When you’re on stage, what you put out there as one person, the audience takes it and pushes it back to you.’”

THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.