“Do you love Disney?”
Superproducer David Foster already knows the answer to the question he posed to Billboard in our recent interview: He’s spent the last year working on the just-released We Love Disney compilation album, and it wasn’t a hard sell to get Ariana Grande, Gwen Stefani, Ne-Yo and more superstars to put new spins on their favorite Mouse House music.
“There’s not a person on the planet that doesn’t smile when you say the word ‘Disney.’ … We came up with a wish list [of artists] and, honestly, for the most part, we were able to get our wish list,” Foster tells Billboard of the project, which has already been a massive hit around the world (in France and Australia, plus future versions planned in Italy and Indonesia), and it now sees its first U.S. incarnation.
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Below, Foster talks about why he wasn’t trying to appeal to radio when he made We Love Disney, whether Ariana is his new Celine, and how he plans to turn the former first lady of France into the next international pop star.
How did you end up getting involved with We Love Disney?
This project started in France, and it just blew up. It got sent to us, and I watched the videos and how the whole process went down, and it was just like, “God dang, we could do that here,” and it became a mandate from [Universal Music chairman and CEO] Lucian Grainge on down: “Let’s come up with a global version.” When you start those projects that seem like beyond — beyond, like you could never pull it off — what I learned was … there’s not a person on the planet that doesn’t smile when you say the word “Disney.” No matter who you are, you have a Disney story or a favorite Disney song. That’s what I found with every turn I took. Obviously, this caliber of artists has intense schedules that you’re trying to find a few hours here, a few hours there. And we wanted to do it right, so it took a lot of time from every artist, but they all participated and they all did amazing. It ended up being a great project.
How did you come up with this group of artists? Did you start with a wish list and just start asking?
We came up with a wish list and honestly, for the most part, we were able to get our wish list. And I paired specific songs to specific artists that I had in mind. And sometimes that changed; sometimes it stayed the way it was. With Jason Derulo, I gave him a few options and he zeroed right in on The Lion King. Well actually, he first picked one of the other ones that I suggested for him. We messed around with it a little bit and it didn’t feel right, then The Lion King just locked right in. Kacey Musgraves had actually wanted to do a Robin Hood song, but I suggested “A Spoonful of Sugar” to her, and she just ran with it. She just killed the version — it’s so much fun, what she did with it. … It’s just a gross understatement to say that these songs are great, because they’re more than great. Every one of them is a small piece of a bigger story. When you hear Jessie J singing “Part of Your World” from Little Mermaid … your brain goes to the movie and Ariel and all that goes with it. It’s just a great feeling.
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How did all the arrangements go? Did you wait to pair an artist with a song before thinking of an arrangement?
It was about half and half. I did a lot of the arranging before I got with the artist; they trusted me. Like with Ne-Yo, I pretty much had that arrangement done [for Aladdin’s “Friend Like Me”]. I brought in a producer named Jizzo from his camp who came in and tweaked it a little for me to make it a little more Ne-Yo-esque. But I always envisioned that song for Ne-Yo, and I always envisioned it being like a [Michael] Buble kind of big-band party song, and that’s exactly what we ended up with. Ne-Yo has that ability to go there. He obviously is a top 40 artist and is urban and has that edge to him, but he has the ability to go to the suit-and-tie-and-top-hat dancing big band. I learned that when I worked with him a few years ago for one of my Hit Man shows. He came out and did a Michael Jackson song, and it was at that moment that I went, “Holy shit, this guy.” You never know, because there are a lot of artists that you could present them with a certain genre of music and they just fail miserably at it; they can only do what they do. But I would say that most, if not all, of the artists on this record have the ability, they have serious roots in serious music. And that made the job a lot easier. Tori Kelly, this girl is — she’s become my new favorite singer. She’s just insanely great. Everybody got to see it on the VMAs, but I was in the studios three months before that and I got to see it in person and she can sing.
Disney, you still get a free pass. You can’t be too corny, [but] you get a free pass. You can do whatever you want, people love these songs so much. My goal also was to try and make it sound like it could have been made 30 years ago or 30 years from now. I didn’t want to be style-specific. I didn’t want to put a top 40 stamp on it or a ’50s stamp — I just wanted to try and honor the timelessness of the music itself.
So did you have radio in mind at all? A lot of these songs sound like they could be radio hits…
Absolutely zero. [Laughs] Absolutely zero thought for getting on the radio, because probably the last Disney hit was, I don’t know, Celine [Dion], “Beauty & The Beast”? Well Frozen [Idina Menzel‘s “Let It Go”]. Frozen wasn’t a top 40 hit though, was it?
It was, actually. [“Let It Go” peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.] I was asking because the new version of “Let It Go” [on We Love Disney] especially seems like it could be on country radio right now.
Yeah, I don’t disagree. I like the little mash-up with Lucy Hale and Rascal Flatts. It was exciting for all of us.
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How did those two come together?
Disney had recommended Lucy to us. I think Disney, who’ve been incredibly cooperative, the Disney machine is not something you mess with. They know how to do their shit better than anybody. It’s just a powerful, powerful weapon they have. It was their mash-up, their idea. They brought that to us, and we loved the idea.
What do you think it is about Disney that has this long-lasting effect on music fans and pop-culture fans?
If you want to be a purist about it, I guess you’d go back to Walt Disney, who I, as a kid, remember seeing on TV as an adult presenting his show on TV every week. It was so exciting for us as kids. Somehow they’ve managed to maintain that level of excellence through generation after generation, decade after decade. They haven’t really acquiesced to anything current; they just do what they do. They literally are timeless. Snow White hasn’t changed in 70 years, and generation after generation of kids still love to go to Disneyland and have their picture taken with Snow White. It’s just amazing. I feel it would be a little bit of a mistake for me as a producer to try and make those songs fit into this week’s radio chart. That would’ve been a big mistake, and I wouldn’t know how to do that anyway.
You mentioned that this series has been all over the world — are you hoping this can become its own series in America?
Well, you know, if this reaches the success that we hope it will, I would love to do a Vol. 2 and a Vol. 3. But I guess the public will speak on that one.
Are there artists that you would want to work with on those next volumes?
Well, I’d like to hear Sam Smith sing “Beauty & The Beast” or the other one, from Aladdin, “A Whole New World.” Yeah, there’ll be a wish list for the next round, and we’ll go after it.
You worked with Ariana Grande on this project and on her Andrea Bocelli duet [“E Più Ti Penso” from Cinema]. What is it about her that makes you want to keep teaming up?
I would say “Why is she working with me?” would be the question. [Laughs] And I think I know the reason why: There are certain artists that really know the history of music, and Ariana is a student of the history of music. She’s a real student of where music began and how it all came about. She knows songs from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. It makes sense that she would, at the very least, appreciate my journey with music. We bonded over my Whitney [Houston] songs. She’s an amazing singer. If you know me at all, you know that I love to work with great singers. I’m fortunate to do that a lot in my career. I have nothing against singers that are not belters and have great records. You could pick five singers to name that are not the classic Whitney or Celine, from Taylor Swift to Miley Cyrus to Britney [Spears] to J.Lo. I mean, these are singers that I love — they have a great tone, they have great song sense, great melodic sense, and they’re all great in their own way — but I’m drawn to the belters. And Ariana is a belter. So it was a dream come true for me to work with such a young person, so contemporary, having top 40 hits [and then] come into my world.
Do you think we could see a Celine-type relationship between you and her?
That would be up to her. I don’t know how you quite make those Celine songs popular in 2015, but if there’s a way, she probably would figure that out. What she did with Bocelli, we got her to sing in Italian, her Italian — she dove in. She’s really fearless. I think she’s just an amazing artist.
Speaking of Andrea…
Can I just back up one second on Ariana? I’ve just got to say: Certain managers, they like to think outside the box, and Scooter Braun [manager to Grande, Justin Bieber, Tori Kelly and others] is one of them. There are a lot of managers who are like, “No, my artist is not going to sing with Bocelli.” Scooter is like, “Hell yeah, bring it on. My artist can do that.” I got to hand it to him: He’s kind of fearless, and it works for the artist, really.
What was it like reuniting with Andrea on Cinema?
We’ve been working together for, gosh, almost 20 years now. He’s just my favorite. He just moves me in a way that no artist does. He’s such a renaissance man. People don’t know that he’s a multi-instrumentalist. He can play almost every instrument. I mean, really play every instrument. He’s a great piano player. He’s a great opera singer. He walks in both worlds: the pop world and the opera world. No one else really does that. So this is probably our fifth or sixth project together, but it’s always exciting and he always inspires me — always.
We reported last year that you have a project coming with Stevie Wonder. What’s the status of that?
It’s funny: He called me today, and he’s just so generous. He came and did my foundation event in Toronto about a month ago. And during the rehearsals, he said, “Man, we got to get back in the studio.” But Stevie has a lot of things going on, and it was a passion project with me, and I think the project will see the light of day in some incarnation at some point. He’s the boss. He’s Stevie Wonder, and there’s nobody like him on the planet. It all has to be in Stevie’s time. I think he had a lifelong plan when he was 12 that he’s still sticking to. Everything moves on his clock, and that’s just the way it is. It’s been a great experience to be in the studio with him, playing the piano while he sings. I mean, who gets a chance to do that?
What are you working on next?
I’m going into the studio with an artist named Carla Bruni [the Italian-French model and singer/songwriter is also the onetime first lady of France, as the wife of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy]. She has an amazing voice. It’s going to be a real challenge for me. I want to go to her world; I don’t want her to come to my world at all. I want to go to her world. Just a smattering of my world. She’s going to sing in English for the first time, which is exciting. I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be a real challenge for me to not f— it up, because I think she could appeal to a worldwide audience times 10 of what she’s already appealed to. People who love her really love her. I’d like to put a zero on the end of that, but I’d like to do it on her terms. My mantra always is: When the album is done, if the artist isn’t 100 percent thrilled, then I’ve failed. So I want to make sure she’s 100 percent happy. She’s a purist, she’s a minimalist, and that’s not exactly my style. I know how to be one, it’s just not where I go naturally. I’m going to be on my toes. It’s going to be hard work for me, but I think I can do it. I’m really excited about it. The label’s really excited about it.
We [also] have three new artists that are all coming out in the next six to 12 months. A group called Third Story from New York. A great artist named Charles Perry that just opened for Earth, Wind & Fire. And then a young lady named Brenna Whitaker, who’s an amazing, unique, super interesting artist who if I had to compare her to anybody, I would say like the female Michael Buble — but it’s not that, it’s different, but if you need a comparison, that would be it. We’re excited about our three new artists. Onwards and upwards.