You were an X Factor judge when world first met Fifth Harmony. What was your first impression of the group?
Fifth Harmony auditioned as individuals with no idea that they’d be a girl band. My first memory was that I gave each of them a yes. I loved each and every one of them from the very beginning. Then I remember backstage, Simon Cowell and myself and we’re sitting at the table with Rob Wade, one of the producers of the show, and we have photo cards of all of the contestants who might make it through to the next segment — we were getting through the first process of elimination. And Simon at that point had great success with One Direction and he had this vision to have a global girl band. So we assembled the cards on the table, moved them around, changing them in and changing them out. It’s funny how fate is, isn’t it? It’s like the hand or the card that you’re dealt, literally. [Laughs] And so we put the five girls together, might have made one or two changes, and that was the birth of Fifth Harmony. Now, once we were on the live show, they were a part of Simon’s crew. He had the groups. So everything I said on television was almost, not nasty, but I was competing with them. So their fans think I don’t like them [laughs] and I’ve been busting my ass for four years to help get them there and their fans still think I don’t like them, so can you help me?
When you think about who these young women are now, how are they different from the teens you met back then?
When I met them they were the sweetest girls in the world with pure desire and true talent. And now they’re the sweetest girls in the world with pure desire, true talent, and a lot to say. [Laughs] People grow as people, as artists, as talent. In the beginning they were a product of X Factor and while they always had a point of view, they were often sort of told what to do. They’ve taken their career into their own hands. So now what you’re experiencing, with the success that they’re having, is their vision. It’s no longer the television show or the record company’s vision. Now Fifth Harmony is Fifth Harmony’s vision.
What’s at stake with the group’s sophomore album, and why release 7/27 so soon after their debut LP?
This is one of the best pop albums I’ve heard in years. Like I love the Justin Bieber album as a full-on proper pop album. I think it’s incredible. And I think this one is close — it’s that caliber of album. The only thing that matters to me is they do their best, and put their best musical foot forward. They’re already a global phenomenon. They’ve become the biggest girl band in the world. People haven’t quite accepted that, but they will. They have to maintain that and continue to grow that. You don’t want to slide backwards here, that’s really the point of it, but I’m proud of the album that they’ve made. I love every song. And by the way, there’s more. We didn’t even have to stop. We might not. We may go back and cut a couple more songs because they keep coming up with more great stuff.
What were your goals for 7/27?
Okay, this sounds a little contradictory and I don’t mean it that way. As an overseer, what I really wanted to accomplish was something that felt global, that felt modern. Like, I love Kygo and DJ Snake. That’s what I love in music. I love the Chainsmokers. I love EDM-influenced pop music. I love Calvin Harris. I just love the EDM influence — not EDM itself, I love that too, but as far as hit records and radio’s concerned, I love the EDM-influenced pop music. That what I was hoping we could accomplish because there’s something very hip about it, and when you’re that young — Camila is 19 — it’s really important in this setup that you make music that kids your age listen to. So I didn’t want them to make an album that was too adolescent or too mature, and I think they just threaded the needle.
Is it important to you that they are women of color?
I think that’s a beautiful thing that they are five young women from different ethnic backgrounds, but I don’t know if that matters to me. What I care about is their voices and their songs are incredible. I don’t see music that way. Pop culture’s ethnicity is popularity, you know? [laughs] And that’s how I see it. I’m really proud of them, but we’re not the poster children for ethnicity.
I know they were very proud to have Barbies, of various skin tones and body shapes, made in their images.
I think it’s great too. But it’s great as a byproduct of who they are, not a means to an end.
When you consider that they didn’t put this band together, you know, in a garage or something, what surprises you about Fifth Harmony?
The sisterhood. The closeness is surprising. Because by design it shouldn’t work, but it does. That’s surprising. I was in a band once. We all went to high school together. But they met each other at the X Factor auditions, and then they found out in front of a live audience that they were going to be a band one day, and now you’re challenged to make it work, enjoy it, be creative, be competitive, and keep a good sense of humor about it! That’s a lot to ask. What am I surprised about? That they haven’t quacked up! [laughs] They should be nuts by now. I would be.
We’ve all seen groups come and go, and it’s widely accepted that this sort of thing doesn’t last forever. What’s your prediction for the future of Fifth Harmony?
What I predict in the immediate future is they will become the most successful girl group or band of the right now. And that they’ll continue to grow musically. I don’t know if I can make a prediction beyond that. I’ll go out on a limb and say they’re going to be the big one of the last several years. For sure.
Simon told us that whatever he’d predict, the opposite would happen.
Here’s what I love though. In the last several years in the U.S., of all of the TV talent game shows, Fifth Harmony is the most successful act off of any of these shows in recent years, whether it was The Voice, American Idol, or any of the others that resemble those.
By what metric, exactly?
Just a global success, real hit records. There are others, from the U.K., but from the U.S, they’re a global success. These girls are famous and they’re selling records. They’re on their second worldwide hit right now. I think they’re phenomenal. And the show was, like, over three years ago and they didn’t go away? Most of the time, the talent goes when the show goes, right? They’re still here, man. So I’m going to go out on a further limb and say that Simon and I had the most successful act in the U.S. from a TV talent show since, hell, Carrie Underwood?
A version of this article originally appeared in the May 14 issue of Billboard.