In early 2020, Grammy Award-winning producer Mike Elizondo received a “nonchalant” call from Lin-Manuel Miranda asking him to co-produce original music for an upcoming Disney movie. “I didn’t even know the [film’s] name,” recalls Elizondo. “But anytime Lin calls, I’m going to say yes.”
That film ended up being Disney’s latest animated blockbuster, Encanto — and trusting his instincts has paid off for Elizondo. The Encanto soundtrack climbed to the top of the Billboard 200 in its sixth week on the chart and rebounded to No. 1 this week; meanwhile, breakout song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” entered the Billboard Hot 100 top five, currently peaking at No. 2, and also became the first Disney title to top the Streaming Songs chart.
Encanto, which centers on the magical Madrigal family in Colombia, incorporates authentic musical stylings from salsa and reggaetón to hip-hop and pop. “Lin encouraged me to not think in terms of Disney,” says Elizondo, who has previously worked with 50 Cent, Eminem and Fiona Apple and is up for producer of the year at the 2022 Grammys for his work with Turnstile and the Jonas Brothers, among others. He adds that “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” allowed him to draw from contemporary drums while also blending in traditional Colombian rhythms. (Colombian musician Edmar Castañeda consulted and performed on the soundtrack, recruiting fellow New York-based Colombian musicians.) But perhaps the biggest reason the ensemble number about a mysterious uncle stands out is because of what it’s not: a power ballad.
“Traditionally, a lot of the bigger Disney songs that cross over tend to be from the main character in a very emotional scenario,” says Elizondo. “For this to have become the song that people have gravitated toward predominantly, that’s the biggest shocker of all.” He credits the song’s success to its “ear candy moments” — like the whooshing sound of falling sand — and various sonic chapters for each character. And, of course, its “perfect tempo” for TikTok, on which the hashtag #wedonttalkaboutbruno has been tagged to 1.7 billion videos. But, above all else, since the track wasn’t expected to be “cookie cutter from top to bottom,” Elizondo says, he could take more liberties, from its eeriness to the rapid-fire delivery of its second verse, concluding: “It’s changing the rules.”
Below, the superstar producer reveals how he worked on the chart-topping soundtrack through the pandemic and why landing a Disney film earned him bonus points with his kids.
You were tapped to co-produce the original music for Encanto months before the ongoing pandemic hit the U.S. How did you make that timing work?
I had just moved from Los Angeles to just outside of Nashville, Tennessee, in January of 2020. I had just gotten my studio set up and everything ready to go and made a couple of records and worked on this “Checks and Balances” song that Lin had done [for Netflix series We The People] and then right when they needed me to start working on arrangement demos for the first couple of songs — the first two songs I got were “Surface Pressure” and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” — that would have been right as the mandatory shutdown [started]. We were being asked to stay home for two weeks and, you know, everything was so brand-new. Fortunately, I had my studio and could work on my own. This project single-handedly kind of kept me feeling like I was still working, even though it was all by myself, but this project ended up being big therapy for me to just sort of always have something to look forward to doing.
“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is a No. 2 Hot 100 hit, just under Adele, and became the first Disney song to top Billboard’s Streaming Songs chart. Did you anticipate this kind of success for the song?
I mean, not at all. To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t even imagine… I had certain expectations in knowing what Disney puts out, and then also knowing what Lin is capable of, so when you hear a song like “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” it starts off with this hook of all hooks, and you’re instantly like, “Who’s Bruno?” But I couldn’t imagine it becoming the phenomenon that is starting to look like it is. I just had hoped that these songs would live up to the legacy of past Disney movies with the music and the productions. My first instincts were to go listen to all the past Disney productions and try and draw from a bit, but Lin was very encouraging in just wanting these to feel different and sort of unique to themselves without necessarily feeling like they need to live as part of the Disney legacy. And so I went with that mission in mind and it didn’t really cross my mind that this would become a mainstream crossover hit.
Why do you think it’s connecting in such a major way?
I knew it was a catchy song and I knew it’d be a fun part of the movie, but traditionally a lot of the bigger Disney songs that crossed over tend to be [performed by] the main character in a very big, emotional scenario — this is not [sung by] the primary character and it’s not a classic ballad. There’s a little eeriness to it, it’s not bright and cheery. The beat is pretty solid and emphatic, but the music behind it is kind of like this darker chord progression and there’s a lot of words. … There’s just a lot of unique components to it that don’t usually translate as the animated crossover hit.
What was your research process like when trying to dive into traditional Colombian rhythms?
My first instincts were to just trust my gut and work with what I knew, [which was] this more general Latin field that I leaned on. I started there, and worked my way through the arrangement. Once I was given the green light like, “Yeah, this song is for sure going in the movie,” I could take it to full production, and at that point, I had been on a quest to find a musician that I could lean on from Colombia and I ended up finding this incredible musician named Edmar Castañeda. I originally called him to play harp — I was referred to him through Germaine Franco, who did the score for the movie — and in talking to Edmar I started to realize, “Oh man, this guy will be a goldmine.” He helped me put percussion groups together that were all living in New York of Colombian musicians, and a couple of times I flew into New York [under the strict COVID Disney guidelines] and had a couple of in-person sessions. We would take some of the rhythms that I had done and they really kind of schooled me: “No, here’s what we can do. People from Colombia will recognize this rhythm.” And so we went song by song and really got their insight and input, and then replaced all of my programming percussion with their live percussion and then kept some of my drum programming for the kicks and snares and other things. Once we got the live percussion, that’s when everything really started to take shape and we built from there.
Now that you do have this experience under your belt, both working with Disney and learning these Colombian rhythms, what doors are now opened for you?
For me, every day I wake up and someone’s asking me to work on something. There’s some people that I’ve known for years, but there’s always something like, “Whoa, I never thought that this would pop up on my desk.” There’s definitely some more calls coming in in terms of movies, producing songs for movies and being a part of soundtracks. A big dream of mine would be to do something similar to the way T Bone Burnett worked on movies like O Brother, Where Art Thou? He’s done a number of these where he’s the producer of all of the music and helps curate and pulls in artists and different things like that. That, to me, is a dream scenario. But working with Disney definitely earned me some major brownie points with my kids; just getting to have my name up there on a Disney project definitely impressed them, which takes a lot to do. So if there’s more Disney stuff in the pipeline, I’ll be ready to go, for sure.
A version of this article will appear in the Jan. 29, 2022, issue of Billboard.