Moving Past Addiction, Billy Walsh Is Co-Writing Smash Hits & Styling Stars
A recent Post Malone show at Boston's Xfinity Center turned into a full-circle evening for Billy Walsh. "I think that was the craziest moment I've had so far," says Walsh, who co-wrote the ubiquitous Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 "Sunflower" by Post Malone and Swae Lee (currently sitting at No. 6), as well as Malone staples "Better Now," "Wow." and "I Fall Apart." "I brought my parents to the show, and here we are at this place that I used to go to when I was a kid. Thousands of fans in my hometown singing lyrics that I helped write, with an artist that big, and after everything I had been through. We watched from the audience and my mom was full tears. There was a time when people didn't know what was going to happen to me. "
For Walsh, the night became a reflective one and the latest on his incongruous path which led him from his Boston roots to not only co-writing a string of aforementioned radio hits, but a litany of other impressive hats: a popular Los Angeles-area party promoter, an acclaimed shoe designer (his Fenty Puma Creepers for Rihanna won shoe of the year in 2016), a personal stylist for artists ranging from James Blake to The Weeknd, and a partner in the clothing company Mr. Completely. "I feel like for me, if I was only doing one thing I'd be too stressed out being dependent on it," says Walsh of the thinking behind his multi-hyphenated life. "I like keeping busy and keeping a lot of irons in different fires. Even though songwriting is going well, I still enjoy branching out. It also helps the creative process; I feel like I'd burn out if I only wrote songs every day. But the real story of my life is one of recovery."
Walsh is referring to the stark fact that at one point in his life, he was deep in the throes of addiction. Now sober going on nine years, he first had issues with alcohol when he was younger and later became addicted to opioids. "I was fucked at 29," he states. "After I got off them, I didn't have a pot to piss in." Once Walsh got clean (he credits getting a sponsor and completing the 12 Step program), his life went from black and white to full color. "Once I got the inside right and healed my internal life, everything on the outside, if I focused on it, would manifest into the craziest thing possible."
On this particular Friday afternoon, Walsh is characteristically participating in a juggling act. Not only is he in and out of songwriting sessions with a top act, he's also styling his longtime client, the London singer-songwriter James Blake, for an upcoming shoot. "I'm fading out of styling to a certain degree, but there are clients who I've had for a while who only trust me," says Walsh of the delicate dance between careers, which he likens to a puzzle. "I have great relationships with my style clients, so I try to make myself available." Walsh fell into the profession after Abel Tesfaye (yes, that's the artist known as The Weeknd) asked Walsh to style him. It was a connection among others he developed during his early days in Los Angeles.
Leaving behind the confines of Boston, Walsh originally moved westward to pursue dance where he attended Loyola Marymount University and obtained a BA, only to be turned off by the industry upon graduation. At a crossroads in a new city and needing to make ends meet, he moonlighted with gigs ranging from party promoter (where he made his earliest show business contacts) to, with his brother, behavioral therapist for autistic children. (It's a profession they took to considering their parents, who are teachers, ran a group home during his childhood.) Upon achieving sobriety, Walsh soon parlayed his penchant for fashion into a full-blown career. He later became a partner in the company Mr. Completely with designer Keith Richardson and fell in with Puma, which is how his acclaimed Fenty shoe came to fruition. "I actually just got back from the Puma headquarters in Germany to work on samples," Walsh says of his ongoing collaboration with the company (Puma recently launched a collaborative program dubbed Co-Creative that Walsh was chosen to be a part of). "The fashion stuff and the music stuff have always been my passions since I was a kid," he says, musing at the fact that he excels at the two disparate fields because they were the "paths of least resistance. Those are the things I thought about naturally and was drawn to which manifested into a career."
Of the aforementioned "music stuff," Walsh works with a fluid crew, frequently including producer Louis Bell. Walsh's latest calling card is helping write "Sunflower," a collaboration between him, Bell, Malone, Scott Lang and the featured rapper Swae Lee. The song, built on a beat they dubbed "80s Instrumental," was released as part of the soundtrack for last year's animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and became Malone's third No. 1 Hot 100 hit in January and has found a home in the top 10 since. It's not the only Walsh/Bell/Malone collaboration there: with "Sunflower" currently No. 6, stuck in the top 10 after an impressive 32 weeks on the charts, the success-pondering "Wow." is currently lodged just behind it at No. 7 after peaking at No. 2.
So how does Walsh account for his recent status as a hitmaker? "Music is meant to come from a place of openness, if you're stressed while you're making it, that makes it more difficult," he says, pointing to a fraternal relationship he has with Bell, another Boston native. "He's the most talented person I know. He has both sides of the brain: he can come up with melodies, he can produce, he's an amazing engineer and an amazing vocal producer. It's like being in the room with a phenom."
Commercial success notwithstanding, Walsh is more taken with moments of hearing his songs in the wild; whether back in Boston with his parents and an arena full of fans, or during a recent jaunt to Europe with Malone. "It's hard to understand the impact with charts and numbers, but when I see Post perform in another country and everyone is singing along.... That's when it hits home."
Then again, show business success is only a small part of Walsh's puzzle. "Once you come close to losing it all, everything is just a bonus."