Amid the high-gloss mix of teen-pop Cyranos, R&B blue-chippers and top 40 auteurs on Billboard’s Top 10 Songwriters list (see page 14), only one name prompted sheepish shrugs and subsequent Googling in the Billboard offices. Lady Gaga‘s most devoted “little monsters” may know 41-year-old Rob Fusari as one of the executive producers of the 2.8 million-selling album “The Fame,” or as the co-writer of three published Gaga songs, including the No. 6 Billboard Hot 100 hit “Paparazzi.” Perhaps they’ve stumbled across the tale of how Fusari, a fan of the Queen song “Radio Gaga,” helped formulate Stefani Germanotta’s royal moniker.
But even the most avid Gagaphiles may not know the full extent of Fusari’s sway and impact on her career. The classically trained Livingston, N.J., native broke into the business at the not-so-young age of 29, with a co-writing credit on Destiny’s Child‘s 1998 debut, “No, No, No,” and went on to enjoy intermittent success as a producer and writer for, among others, Jessica Simpson, Will Smith, Kelly Rowland, Whitney Houston and, most notably, with Destiny’s Child again, on 2001’s “Bootylicious.”
When a friend phoned him from a New York club late one evening in January 2006 with a tip on an undiscovered, then-raven-haired rock singer/songwriter, Fusari was dubious, but his career had stalled and he was in no position for snobbery. A few days later, the two met, and Germanotta performed a couple of her songs for him on piano. “In 20 seconds,” Fusari says, “I knew this girl would change my life.”
During the next year, absent only Sundays and holidays, Germanotta rode the bus daily from New York to Fusari’s Jersey studio, where the two worked shoulder to shoulder building the songs, sound and even persona of the artist soon to be known ubiquitously as Lady Gaga. Fusari escorted Germanotta to sushi dinners with Columbia, conference-room try-outs at Island Def Jam and to her eventual label home at Interscope.
As she struggled to pinpoint her musical identity and suffered bruising business setbacks, Germanotta’s ambition, Fusari says, never wavered. “It’s beyond scary,” he adds admiringly. “It’s actually messed me up, because now, with everyone else I work with, if I don’t see that drive, I’m thrown off.”
And yet, despite the acclaim and handsome royalty checks, Fusari seems genuinely conflicted about his experience as a Dr. Frankenstein to Gaga’s Fame Monster. “It’s made me harder,” he says, his tone more sad than bitter. When Gaga took off, “I saw the vultures come out.”
Naturally, Fusari has been deluged by bottle-blondes claiming to be “the next Gaga”: “I get an e-mail, call or text every day. People find my phone number and sing to me on the phone.” As for the original, though, Fusari says that he has not been invited to work on her next album.
How did a nice Italian boy from Jersey become so interested in R&B and dance music?
I grew up listening to my older brothers’ 8-tracks-Boston, Toto, especially Journey‘s “Escape”-but in my teens I gravitated to soul and R&B. And when I was first trying to break into the business, in ’98 and ’99, I saw that R&B was taking over. I loved the music: Babyface, R. Kelly, Usher, girl groups like 702.
How many songs had you tried to get published prior to Destiny’s Child’s “No, No, No”?
Oh yeah. Back then, I was still living at home with my mom in Livingston, working a day job doing IT. The IT job had a future, but the music was just screaming fierce. I would leave my job at eight and travel into the depths of Newark, N.J., where my friend had a studio. Sometimes I’d head back to work the next morning wearing the same suit.
When did you decide to pursue music full time?
The decision was kind of made for me-they fired me. It seemed devastating, but it was like a weight had been lifted. I woke up the next morning and said to my mom, “I’m going to give music one year.” So I worked down in my mom’s basement in a studio the size of a closet. And sure enough, it didn’t happen in a year. I was doing co-writes, calling people, sitting by the phone . . . Barry White‘s son was supposed to call for something, another guy was going to give one of my songs to Elton John. Nothing ever happened.
How did you finally break through?
A buddy of mine knew this guy, Vince Herbert. Vince is a producer and an entrepreneur. A hustler with a capital H. Back then he was producing on Destiny’s Child’s first album. One day he came to my mom’s basement and I was working on the hook to “No, No, No.” When I played it for him, he said, “You’ve got to give me a copy of that. I’m working with this group who might be able to do that.” I gave him a cassette, and he calls me that night and says, “We’re cutting the record. And I’ve got a guarantee it will be their first single.”
How did five people end up sharing credit on that song?
You write songs, that’s how it is. I didn’t know that then. I felt like it was my baby. And it is. I don’t care if there are 70 people on it.
Did “Bootylicious” come together in a similar fashion?
I came up with the idea to build a track using the guitar riff from Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen.” I really wanted to play the riff from “Eye of the Tiger,” but I was flipping through my CDs in the studio and I couldn’t find it. But I saw the Stevie Nicks CD and I remembered that the riff was similar.
I figured I’d put the guitar loop on there temporarily, and later go into the studio with a guitar and replay it, because I’d learned, after sampling Stevie Wonder‘s “I Wish” for Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West,” that I didn’t want to lose 50% of the publishing. I vividly remember telling Mathew Knowles, “Mathew, you got to book me into your studio and let me replay that riff.” It was Guitar 101! One note!
But Mathew didn’t want to do it?
He didn’t want to do it. So 50% got cut for one note. That whole experience was bittersweet for me.
I remember watching Barbara Walters interview Beyoncé about “Bootylicious,” and she told Barbara about how she came up with the idea for the track. And I was just like, “What?” I called Mathew-which was a big mistake; I got emotional, and I apologized after-but I called Mathew and said, “Mathew, like, why?”
And he explained to me, in a nice way, he said, “People don’t want to hear about Rob Fusari, producer from Livingston, N.J. No offense, but that’s not what sells records. What sells records is people believing that the artist is everything.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I know, Mathew. I understand the game. But come on, I’m trying too. I’m a squirrel trying to get a nut, too.”
How did you come to work with Lady Gaga?
In 2006, I got a call late one evening from a songwriter named Wendy Starland. I was into the Strokes at that time, and I’d told Wendy I was looking for a female artist to make a Strokes-type record. I answered the phone, and Wendy said, “I may have found your girl.” She was at a club in New York, where this girl, Stefani Germanotta, had just performed a showcase. Stefani gets on the phone with her mousey little voice-“Hiiii,” real bubbly-and it sounded like she was starting to get buzzed. So I said, “I heard you rocked it . . . can you come up to Jersey on Monday and meet me at my studio?”
Next week comes and I figure there’s no way this girl is going to show up. She was supposedly taking a bus from New York that would put her in Livingston at 8:40. Eighty-thirty rolls around, and I drive down to the pizzeria near the bus stop to grab a slice, and sure enough, I see this girl who does not belong in this pizzeria or in this town, and she’s asking for directions. I’m thinking to myself, “Please tell me this is not her,” because this is not the Strokes girl I’d envisioned.
What did she look like?
Like a guidette. Totally “Jersey Shore.” [laughs] Anyway, we ride back to the studio, and I’m plotting how to cut this short. I can’t picture going to a label with this girl. We arrive, and she sits down at the piano and starts playing a song about Hollywood she’d written. And I tell you, in 20 seconds, I’m like, “Oh, my God. If I can handle my business, this girl is going to change my life.” I said, “You’ve got to come up here next week, and we have to start working.” And she did. She took the bus to my studio every day for a year straight, no exaggeration.
What kind of deal did you and Stefani strike?
We started a company together called Team Love Child. It’s not a production deal. She was never signed to me. It’s me, her and her dad in this company. Everyone was on the same plane. And I’m all for that.
How would you describe her musical identity at this point?
No club beats, no disco performance art?
No. She was anti all that. She would go to festivals like Bonnaroo. We started to make a very heavy rock record. Hard and grungy. But after three or four songs it seemed we were going down the wrong road.
Then, one day, I read an article in the New York Times about Nelly Furtado and how she’d abandoned her folk-rock thing and made a dance record with Timbaland. My antenna went up. I said, “Stef, take a look at this. I’m really an R&B guy. I never produced a rock record in my life. I don’t know, you think maybe we should shift gears?”
She kicked and screamed: “No! No! I love what we’re doing. We’re not changing it.” I’m like, “Stef, just try this. Let’s at least abandon the live drums and some of the guitars.” I finally got her to agree, and that day we did “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” which was me sitting at an MPC drum machine and Stef playing her piano riff.
When did labels get interested?
“Dirty, Rich” opened the floodgates. At the time I was managed by New Heights Entertainment. I gave them a copy of the new tracks we’d done, and soon everybody wanted to meet her. Everybody. We did the Nobu thing with Charlie Walk. Josh Sarubin at Def Jam invited her in. They had an upright piano there, and there’s maybe five or six people in the meeting. Karen Kwak, Josh . . . But not L.A. Reid. Stef sits down and starts to play “Wonderful,” the first song we wrote together, and I guess they have some system that when somebody’s really good, L.A. gets a secret Bat signal to come in. So he enters as she’s playing and by the end he’s enamored. He looks at her and says, “Before you leave the building, you have to stop down in legal and sign my contract.”
That’s a pretty high-pressure sales job.
Totally. After he left, she and I looked at each other like, “What does he mean, ‘stop down in legal’? Is he going to give us souvenirs?” She didn’t sign that day, but after she saw the rest of the labels, she signed with him. And three or four months after he got her, he wouldn’t give her the time of day. She’d want to sit in a room with him and talk about her music, and he just wouldn’t do it. We still don’t know why.
In January 2008, I landed in San Francisco and there were 27 messages on my cell. I’m like, “Ooh. That’s either really good or really bad.” And of course it’s Stefani calling and she’s hysterical: “You’ve got to fly back. L.A.’s dropping me.” My heart fell out of my body.
What was next?
Well, at this point, I wanted her to spread her wings. My manager at New Heights was now managing Stef, and they also represented [producer] RedOne, so it seemed like a good idea to have her work with other people.
And you felt good about that? You didn’t feel protective?
Well, of course I did. It was my baby. But I knew if I tried to hold her back, she’d run for the hills. She and RedOne did some amazing stuff together: “Boys Boys Boys,” then “Just Dance.”
Meanwhile, she and New Heights were trying to shop another deal. And everybody’s turning them down. Everybody, including the people that wanted her before. She’s damaged goods. At that point, I decide to step in and help. So I make a call, to Vince Herbert. I didn’t even know that he had a label deal with Interscope. So Vince checks out Gaga’s MySpace page and calls me back that night: “I’m sending two tickets for you and her to come out to meet Jimmy Iovine. I want to sign her.”
We get on the plane, go to L.A., go into Interscope. First meeting, Jimmy doesn’t show up. Come back the next day. Jimmy doesn’t show again. They send us home. Stef is very disappointed. I’m like, “This business is going to kill me.” First she got dropped, now Jimmy doesn’t show.
Finally, a week or two later, we get a call to come back out. Jimmy’s there. It’s me, Vince, Jimmy and Stef. Very casual meeting. Jimmy has John Lennon‘s Mellotron in his office. He’s on the phone with Mick Jagger, trying to find some lost tapes of Mick and John or some shit. It’s very impressive, obviously. Anyway, he listens to a little bit of “Dirty, Rich” and to another record Stef and I did called “Sexy Ugly.” He stands up, looks at Vince and says, “Let’s give it a try.” And that was it. She got a deal.
Had you and Stefani written “Paparazzi” yet?
No. “Paparazzi” was one of the last songs we did together. I told Stef that to this day that when I hear “Paparazzi,” there’s something very sad about it, even though it’s not a sad melody or a sad lyric. Maybe it’s just me being sentimental.
Are you and Stefani still friends?
I don’t know. I feel like I may have been demoted to . . . what would be one level beneath friend?
Yeah, there you go. That’s it.
What do you think happened?
I don’t know. I can’t figure it out and I won’t ask. I don’t know if I said something or did something. I don’t know.
Will you be involved in her next record?
I don’t believe so.
Well, either way, you must be glad to be out of your mom’s house.
Definitely. I feel a huge sense of accomplishment that we built something together, and I’m extremely happy for her. We spoke briefly after the Grammys, and I congratulated her and she congratulated me.
Who are you working with now?
Without saying too much, because I’m still doing the paperwork, he’s a 14-year-old kid from the coast. Writes, plays guitar, produces. Oh, God, he’s good.
It’s interesting. So many doors have opened for you because of your work with Gaga, but you’re essentially going back to square one.
It’s funny you say that. Just the other day I said to my girlfriend, “Why the hell do I feel like I’m starting over?” I guess it’s the nature of the beast.