It was about a year ago when the producer Stuart Crichton was driving from his home in Los Angeles to Las Vegas with a friend from his native Scotland. “The ride was four hours long and as I was driving I was playing him some new songs I’ve been involved it,” remembers Crichton of the journey. “When I played him the demo for ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,’ he said I should send it to the Backstreet Boys.”
It turned out to be fruitful advice, with the group later cutting the demo produced by Crichton and Jamie Hartman, and co-written and sung by the singer-songwriter Stephen Wrabel. It quickly became the biggest Backstreet Boys song in over a decade, with the piano-driven pop ballad premiering at No. 32 in June on the Pop Songs airplay chart, their first such entry since 2007. It’s also the latest hit for the duo, who worked separately before forming a loose partnership in recent years. “After chipping away for a long period of time, having a song with the Backstreet Boys is a fucking privilege as far as I’m concerned,” explains Hartman. “To work with guys as long as they’ve been around, with their level of success. It’s a wonderful, lovely thing and it just came together.”
The seeds of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” were planted only two weeks before Crichton’s jaunt to Vegas. “I remember Stuart playing those chords in that exact tempo,” says Hartman of the session. “Literally as soon as he started doing that, it sparked melodies very quickly for me and Wrabel. One thing I can promise you from working with Stu is that he gets a vibe going very quickly. It was ridiculously funky.”
From there, the trio rapidly constructed the demo, some elements of which came together by pure happenstance. “I never quantize anything, but there was something up with my computer that day,” says Crichton of what’s essentially the automated process of the tightening of a track in production software. “For some reason, it quantized and it was too perfect to change back.” Another key to the demo was Wrabel’s vocal delivery and construction of the harmony and melody on the song’s infectious chorus. “We started out with a lower version and then we tried a third above it and it was slightly different and beautiful,” says Hartman. The entire song took about five hours to complete and marked the first collaboration as a trio for Crichton, Hartman and Wrabel.
The result was perfect fodder for the veteran boy band who were looking for a fresh sound while also wanting to stay true to their musical roots. After all, it’s been a full 23 years since their first entry on the Billboard Hot 100 (in 1995, their early track “We’ve Got It Goin’ On” peaked at No. 35), and a full 19 years since their third album Millenium (featuring the ubiquitous singles “I Want It That Way” and “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely”) became one of the biggest albums in music history, selling over 13 million copies in the U.S. and helping cement the late ’90s pop heyday.
After a long break since their last chart entry, the Boys were hungry for a comeback. Simultaneously, Crichton knew he had something special. “I knew they wanted to do something fresh and contemporary, so I sent them the song and they flipped for it. The next day all five guys emailed me and their manager Jen saying, ‘We want this song and we want to cut it.’”
The success of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” also marks the latest coup for Crichton and Hartman both as solo producers and as a duo. For Crichton, his career stretches back to the early ’90s as part of sultry-named Scottish electronic duo Narcotic Thrust; he later moved toward producing for acts such as Kylie Minogue and the Pet Shop Boys, and more recently earned production and writing credits on Kesha’s Grammy-nominated Rainbow (“Learn to Love” and “Let ‘em Talk”). Hartman, meanwhile, has had his hand in cuts for artists ranging from Christina Aguilera to Jennifer Hudson, and co-wrote the smash Rag’n’Bone Man track “Human.” When the two were first paired randomly for a session Hartman had to bail on, he made an impression on Crichton by canceling in person. “He came into just say, ‘Hey, lovely to meet you. I’m sorry but I can’t do this session.’ And I thought, ‘That’s pretty cool.’”
It’s that thread of humanity that also endeared the duo to the Backstreet Boys. “The one thing that really made me impressed with them is that boys are so verbally appreciative of us,” Crichton says. “They’ve had a lot of success, which more often than not makes artists aloof with you; the ego takes over. But in any interview, we all get mentioned. I can’t tell you how many times they’ve told us how grateful they are. Even the last time I saw Kevin (Richardson), he turned to me and was like, ‘I can’t tell you enough, but thanks so much for ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. It’s just so great for us.’ It makes me want to work ten times harder for them.”
After three decades in the trenches, Crichton knows how rare that is. “I remember someone asking me how I define success,” he says. “It’s very hard to maintain an income in this business, so if you get to do something you passionately love for almost 30 years… that, to me, is success. I still get the same excitement going into sessions. Longevity in the business is hard, but it’s slightly easier if you love what you do through the ups and downs.”