Jon Bellion is content with his professional reality: doing what he loves with his best buds, scoring hit upon hit and calling it work.
The songwriter-producer is not an official member of the Monsters & Strangerz, a group of studio veterans made up of five longtime friends (brothers Jordan and Stefan Johnson, Alexander “Eskeerdo” Izquierdo, Marcus “Marc Lo” Lomax and Clarence Coffee Jr.). Those members, who grew up together in Miami, are now based in Los Angeles, while Bellion calls New York City home; still, he and the group are constantly in communication, traveling back-and-forth across the country to write and produce hit songs for Selena Gomez, Maroon 5 and Halsey, among others.
The six writers have known each other for about five years, but it wasn’t until last year that Bellion and the Johnson brothers really started to gain traction. Meanwhile, Bellion is balancing his own career as an artist — his song “All Time Low” was a top 20 hit in 2016, when his debut album, The Human Condition, scored a No. 5 debut on the Billboard 200 albums chart.
“The great thing about Jon being such an amazing, progressive artist is that when we’re with an artist, they have someone to connect with on a deeper level,” Stefan says. “When he’s sitting with a Camila [Cabello] or a Selena, there’s this extra level of connection between them. He can relate to them on a different level that only artists-to-artists can do. I think that’s part of the reason it’s been so fun and awesome to have Jon in the room with all of these artists.”
In a conversation with Billboard, Bellion and members of the Monsters & Strangerz gave a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how their recent hits came to fruition.
Maroon 5, “Memories”
One of the latest efforts from his collaboration with the group, the wistful “Memories,” has peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100 chart. “It was me, Stefan, Jordan and a mind-blowingly incredible writer named Michael Pollack,” Bellion recalls. “We just put together a skeleton of mumbles. The song was unfinished and basically just an idea.” That idea would soon make its way to another producer, J. Kash (Charlie Puth, Kesha), who then showed it to Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine. The timing couldn’t have felt more appropriate for the “Sugar” singer, whose manager, Jordan Feldstein, had passed away in 2017. “The idea we had related to that, so then [Levine] came in, added his lyrics and finished it,” Bellion says.
“The way it was coming out while he was singing it, you can tell it was coming from such a real place,” Jordan adds. “I remember just looking at J. Kash and feeling this overwhelming feeling. It’s very honest and vulnerable for Adam. That day when he was recording it, it really felt like something special.”
Selena Gomez, “Vulnerable”
“Truthfully, it was a long day — it was me, Jordan, Stefan, Amy Allen and Selena in the room, and it was just failed attempt at song after failed attempt,” Bellion says of crafting “Vulnerable,” one of the ethereal highlights on Gomez’s new album, Rare. The idea eventually came when Gomez opened up one of her notebooks and revealed a poem with a line that read, “I’ll stay vulnerable.” “From that little snippet that she read, we kind of just took it from there and it all fell into place,” Bellion says.
“She’s one of those artists that are super involved in the process, even the production process, so it’s really just following her lead.” Stefan adds, “Amy is really good with imagery and Jon is really good at painting a picture, so it was just back-and-forth, and slowly but surely it felt like the canvas was just getting more defined while Selena solidified the picture she wanted us to help her paint.”
Camila Cabello, “Shameless” & Liar”
“One of the most successful producers right now, Andrew Watt, asked us to come in, and it [ended up being] a collaborative process with Alli Tamposi as well,” Bellion says. “Camila is another one of those artists, she goes in the booth and lets her genius loose and we just tie some things together. Really, it was her song. We were just there to help her vision and happy to be in the room.” It was with these singles that Cabello proved she wanted to move forward and take risks as an artist, according to Bellion, and the writers in the room backed her up with that vision. “She’s so artistically inclined,” he says.
Another recent top 40 single that the group worked on was “Graveyard,” a Halsey song that felt like a hybrid of electronic and acoustic instruments. When working on “Graveyard,” Halsey came in and completely made the track her own. “You really do understand why she’s at where she’s at,” Bellion says. “She actually is that talented and that prolific of an artist.”
Halsey’s latest album, Manic, found the artist experimenting with genre, and the group believes that there will only be more in the years to come for mainstream acts. “If you listen to Post Malone’s ‘Circles,’ there’s a lot of guitars and a lot of live instruments. ‘Memories’ is completely live instrumentation with maybe one synth in there. The Lewis Capaldi record [Divinely Uninspired To A Hellist Extent] is all piano and vocals,” Stefan points out.
Bellion, who cites Death Cab For Cutie and the Postal Service as some of his favorite acts, adds, “We always want what’s been in the past. The iPhone comes out with three cameras and all you see is an old film filter on celebrities’ photos… Anything that’s older is always going to be looked at as a lot cooler.”
Bellion is set to play this year’s Governors Ball festival on June 7, and expects to be working closely with The Monsters & Strangerz in the coming months, and years. Stefan Johnson says, “We’ve been friends for five or six years, and last year was the first year we really locked in together and had such a great year. It was so fun, now we’re like, ‘Let’s do this for five or 10 years together. Let’s just have fun.’ Sharing the wins with each other is such a high, we all sat down and said we all want to do this together for a long time.”