It all started with a phone call, and an initial pitch, from Ariana Grande’s team.
On the receiving end of the call was Matt Squire, a songwriter who specializes in identity crafting and helping artists develop — or redevelop — their sound, and he was presented the opportunity to work with the budding 18-year-old pop star in early-to-mid 2011. Universal Republic Records, now simply Republic Records, even sent him a few “demo”-sounding tracks — but Squire, who had already worked with One Direction on their debut album Up All Night earlier in the year on top of his many years of sound-searching, couldn’t really tell the full extent of Grande’s musical talent just through what he was presented with. And truthfully, he hadn’t heard of her before those conversations began.
By this point, Grande was finding her footing as a teen idol poised to write her first commercial hit, drawing a fanbase on Nickelodeon’s Victorious as Cat Valentine after a childhood of musical theater, YouTube covers, and singing in every setting imaginable. But unlike the children’s TV stars before her, Ari had something unique at her fingertips – along with her golden voice, Grande had 24/7 access to millions of followers on Twitter, a social media platform then in its infancy which Grande was one of the first young stars to really take advantage of.
Spending studio time with a vocalist backed by Nickelodeon was sort of a gamble for songwriters around that time, according to fellow frequent collaborator Pebe Sebert, who said songwriters would “always rather get someone who hasn’t been on a kid’s TV show.” Squire still decided to see what Grande’s legion of soon-to-be Arianators — then called the Ariana Army, or just Tiny Elephants — were capable of.
“The first time we worked together, we wrote a song called ‘Pink Champagne,’” Squire tells Billboard a decade after those early sessions. “And in the studio, it was like, immediately, ‘Oh my God, how could we go wrong?’ Like, not just the physical, amazing, athletic nature of her voice, but she’s full of emotion. And it’s palpable, and it’s relatable. And it comes across right away. And that was clear from minute one.”
So Squire (who also contributed to the early work of Panic! At the Disco, Cute is What We Aim For, Big Time Rush, and 3OH!3) and Grande teamed up on those first sessions, some of which were officially released as part of Grande’s breakthrough 2013 debut album Yours Truly. Squire proudly worked on album standouts “Honeymoon Avenue,” which opened Grande’s debut, and “Tattooed Heart.”
“I feel like it’s like being a sculptor when you’re writing for a brand new artist, because you’re developing more than just a sound — you’re developing, like, an attitude,” Sebert said. “You gotta paint the personality, that’s the thing.”
But before Grande’s Billboard 200-topping debut or her breakout Mac Miller collab “The Way” came to be, Squire and Grande, along with writer Martin Johnson and with interpolation clearance from Linda Perry, landed on “Put Your Hearts Up”: a bubblegummy, 4 Non Blondes-lifting pop statement that Squire surely didn’t expect Grande to gravitate toward. It may not have fit the mold of the Motown- or doo-wop-focused material Ari was already working on, but at the time, Squire says she dug it. So it became her first single.
While Grande herself came to call the song “geared toward kids” and “inauthentic,” she would later reiterate that it just was more of a “transitional” period for her, before she pursued the sound of more adult pop-n-B of recent Grammy-recognized efforts Sweetener, Thank U, Next, or Positions. She’s obviously had much bigger and more personal hits since, but “PYHU” forever owns the title of Grande’s first-ever single — and it’s even been certified Gold by the RIAA.
“Each album cycle, most artists sort of recreate their image a little bit – had ‘Put Your Hearts Up’ been an album cycle, then [non-commercially released tracks] ‘Voodoo Love’ and ‘Pink Champagne’ would have gone on it,” Sebert, who penned a few of those early cuts with Grande and her daughter Kesha, shares. “[When] her first album was released, she was a little too old for that. She’s definitely developed her identity and become the woman she is today. But she was still a girl [at the time], and that’s part of growing up.”
With six Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles and five Billboard 200 No. 1 albums now under her belt, Grande has grown into a superstar like no other. To commemorate the historic career she’s since carved for herself in the decade since releasing “Put Your Hearts Up,” we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of the song that predated her chart-topping debut by catching up with Matt Squire, the writer/producer behind the track — and a man who now lives in a household full of Ari stans.
Let’s talk about the studio session. How much of it do you remember?
So we had a session earlier, where I played Ari a bunch of new demos. And she said to me, “I’ll probably surprise you with which ones I like and which ones I don’t.” And this was one that I expected her not to gravitate towards, that she fell in love with right away. And so I set up a session with her and the other writers on it — so that she could, you know, come right into it, tweak it, personalize it, and then sing a demo with her voice on it. And so that’s exactly what we did.
So that was a really fun session. But the listening where she picked it was cool and exciting for me – because she was right, I did not expect her to pick that tune. And then the session where we do the actual work was fun as well. And slightly funny.
So was this track done around the same time as “Tattooed Heart,” “Honeymoon Avenue,” all else you did for the Yours Truly sessions? What about the song surprised you that she gravitated toward it?
The song is an interpolation [of 4 Non Blondes]. So that was my first thought – that you wouldn’t gravitate toward it, because we had been doing quite a few interpolations and we were kind of trying to focus on more original stuff.
So that was the first approach And then just from a tonality perspective, and from a vibe perspective, it’s not where we had been focused. We were focused on “Tattooed Heart” and a song called “Pink Champagne,” which had a Motown influence. But “PYHU” is a little bit more alternative. And so it was just a little bit different than the things that we’ve been working on.
I think she killed it. So it’s really, it was a pleasant change. And I think she was absolutely correct to pick it. But it wasn’t what I expected.
Do you recall the interpolation being greenlit?
I remember we were really excited. You know, the process at that time was largely exploratory. We were trying to find Ariana’s sound. And that’s what I was tasked with. And that’s what I get tasked with on a lot of projects, we’re really trying to hone in on like, what is her unique sound going to be. And “Put Your Hearts Up” was just one of the pieces of that puzzle.
But we were all really excited about the song, we felt like the song had a deeper impact as well – just because it is about the world and about making things better. And it was a connection piece to her fandom, because they were making this hand gesture with the hearts at her performances. And so it all sort of connected on a lot of levels.
How would you describe that feeling of helping a new artist hone in on their sound like that, especially given that she had this history with Victorious?
My specialty is in identity-crafting. So if you look at the artists that I’ve had the opportunity to work with – and I’ve been so blessed in my career – the common thread is brand-new artists that you never heard before first records, and then it’s bands or artists that came to me to redefine or change their sound. It’s absolutely my No. 1 most exciting thing for all artists that I work with, and it was no exception with Ari.
The fun part about that, that time period with an artist, is that you do get to experiment a lot musically. It’s always an exciting time for me and it’s a time where artists will take more risks. And there was a lot of camaraderie, you know, it was a blast the whole time. And that’s something that you can’t always anticipate.
Is helping find the sound for an artist with as much of an existing fanbase as Ari common?
It’s really abnormal, actually. That was the exact phone call that I got from [the label], which is, “She’s this huge star who has 3 million followers on Twitter.” Twitter was the dominant platform at that time. And she was a big leader in breaking that platform. So you know, the exact call I got was, “She’s already a star. And the identity that she is known for won’t work for what we do here, in the way that we’re accustomed to do it. And can we find musically, a solution, where we can bridge the gap? We don’t want to lose her amazing fan base…” And that was exactly the call I got.
Had you heard of her before that call?
My kids at that time were too young for Victorious. I did not know of her and I did not know the show, or her persona on the show. I obviously researched it after but… The first time that I heard a couple of songs was when they sent me a couple of songs, that I didn’t really judge since they sounded kind of like demos. I could tell she could sing.
Do you remember the song being removed from her Vevo channel? And were you surprised that it didn’t make the cut on her debut?
I didn’t notice, no. Artists feel that they outgrow their own material all the time. So that’s a conscious decision. I could see it being that. I can only speculate, I don’t know exactly.
[As for Yours Truly], I was not surprised. As the first record evolved, it became clear that the dominant influences would be those more Motown/R&B influences. And from the get go, I was surprised that she had picked this track early on for those reasons, because it didn’t match. As we collected so much material for that one, it became clear that it didn’t line up.
And I don’t personalize any of that stuff. You know, I really put a lot of faith in her and her vision, and then the label’s ability to do what they do. And I really put a lot of faith in that. I try and support those pieces without overstepping my boundary in any way.
Did the success of Yours Truly make it clear that she had moved on from the sound you guys created in “Put Your Hearts Up?”
It didn’t surprise me at all. It also wouldn’t surprise me if she was like, “Hey, guess what, I just rewrote my whole entire direction. I’m trying something new.” She’s commanded the respect of the world and commanded, you know, that freedom to try whatever artistically she wants.
How do you feel about what she’s been able to accomplish since those early sessions?
It’s 100% what I expected. I take a lot of pride in it. I take a lot of pride in playing the role that I play, which is this sort of, “What is going on with this artist, who are they?” My degree’s in psychology, so it’s like, “Who are they? What are they trying to achieve? And what might be holding them back?”
And the fascinating thing is, if you can tackle the third piece – which is the piece that everybody likes to avoid, “What might be wrong here…” – if you can fix or identify the speed bumps or the blocks that are going to hold these artists back and eliminate those blocks, there they go to the moon. And that’s what happened with Ari.
[I remember] her “Tattooed Heart” AMA performance. That was the moment, and I wrote that song with her. And it was such a special moment for me – because for me, that performance was the indication that I had filled my role. I think her confidence and her ability to articulate her vision was really what I wanted to help her with. And that performance brought the house down.
What do you think of the song today?
This song stood the test of time for me – in that it became a family favorite of ours for a while. I have three daughters. There was a phase where they were really into that song for whatever reason, and had just chosen it as one of our like, songs that we listened to in the car.
My kids are now 11, 10, and 7. And they’re obviously big Ari fans. I don’t push my own music on them on purpose, just to see what they’ll gravitate towards. They’ve always loved that song. So personal, personal victory for me, and Ari factors pretty big in our house. My youngest daughter [went] as her for Halloween.
How would you describe its legacy?
I think for her fans, what was really cool looking back was that we were actually very transparent about the process of her moving her sonic direction from the Nickelodeon identity, to the identity that became her as a pop star. We released that song during the journey. And the fact that we were transparent with that, it feels normal. Now artists are on Facebook, Instagram, whatever, they have this direct relationship with their fans – we’re used to that 10 years later. But back then it was actually really rare.
I worked on One Direction’s first album, too. And that’s the first time I was aware that a band or artists could connect with their fandom in a way that was more powerful than their label could provide, or that any other force could provide, simply through social media, and with no charge. Ariana’s just a master at that, and really, really taught me a lot about how to interact with a fandom and how to direct-market.
So looking back, I think it’s cool that her fans went along for the ride with us, and that it wasn’t behind some magic curtain. It really was a process that she shared with them. That’s very unique.