“I reminded her of when we had a conversation and I said, ‘This is going to be your biggest album,'” Tommy Brown recalls of a text to Ariana Grande that spawned two weeks of musical therapy sessions last October. TB Hits would go on to produce five of the 12 tracks on the record-breaking thank u, next album, including the chart-smashing Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles “thank u, next” and “7 rings.”
The Pittsburgh native has seen Ari grow from teen sensation to global superstar, as Brown began working with Grande even prior to her acclaimed Yours Truly debut in 2013. With the pop star emotionally ree?ling from the loss of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller and a highly publicized breakup with then-fiancé Pete Davidson, Grande boldly decided to break the typical pop cycle and return with her Sweetener follow-up less than six months later (Feb. 8). Her bold move proved to be successful, as she occupied the top three spots on the Hot 100 the following week — a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since The Beatles.
“The whole plan was just to get out of sitting in the house and throw some paint around, and then see what happens,” Brown detailed. “We were all going through some things at the time.” TB emphasizes that he’s very collaborative as a beatmaker, teaming with fellow Pittsburgh-bred duo Social House (Mikey & Scootie) on the production side, while joining forces with Grande’s talented group of writers that includes artists (and Grande besties) Tayla Parx and Victoria Monét.
Below, find the rest of our interview with Tommy Brown, where he breaks down each thank u, next song he had a hand in creating, having worlds collide in the studio with Ariana and 2 Chainz, and a private DM that he received from Travis Scott when “SICKO MODE” was attempting to unseat “thank u, next” for the Hot 100 No. 1 spot last November.
What was Ariana’s mind-set in moving so quickly from Sweetener to thank u, next?
We were talking and it was a tough time with everything that was going on, especially with Mac Miller’s death, and everything else. We had been in New York, and I texted her, “I think your next album is going to be your biggest album.” She goes, “What makes you say that?” Then I said, “I just have a feeling.” She answers, “OK, you want to start working in October?”
I came up with a few friends and I think it was more us getting in the studio and having fun and doing therapy verses, rather than being like, “Hey, you want to get in here and actually do an album?” We were just writing songs about everyday life and things that were going on. I thought, “These songs are actually kind of good.” We had a solid foundation of what we wanted to do.
What differences do you notice in Ariana’s creative process from working with her at the start of her career through now?
I like how involved she is. I like how she tells her story. She comes in and writes. A lot of artists just go and have the song already prepared for them. With her, she comes in with concepts, ideas and lyrics.
Do you take a different approach when working with a pop star rather than a rapper?
My process is the same. I keep a solid team around me. A lot of the time, my thing is really based on already having a relationship with the artist. I’m friends with them first. I think working with every artist is different in their own right, because everyone has their own creative process. I like to keep the energy up and fun.
Let’s get into some of the tracks you produced on thank u, next. Walk me through the creative process for how “needy” came together.
“Needy” is from a chord progression I had came up with awhile ago. A lot of times, I sit at my piano and come up with chord progressions. When I came up with that one, I knew it was very special. I’ll then kind of tuck it in the back of my mind. I’ll start rewriting and rearranging it in my mind. We were in the studio and hanging out, having some champagne, when I started playing the chord progression, and [Tayla Parx], Victoria Monet and [Ariana Grande] started to come up with lyrics. They came and mashed that song. I feel like that was one of the quickest songs of the whole process. We did most of the records in two weeks.
How about “NASA”?
“NASA” was a track that Scootie of Social House was working on. He had the idea of a playful trap song, but it’s also hitting. I thought it was incredible. He played Ariana the record, and [Ariana], Tayla and Victoria attacked it. Sometimes, people need space. There’s different dynamics of a relationship. Sometimes, I might want to kick back and spend some time alone. I think that’s the core message, because a lot of times, in this era, people don’t take space too good.
Would you say the sessions were therapeutic for Ariana following the breakup with Pete Davidson?
I won’t necessarily say “NASA” was, but I think every song we did was therapeutic. That’s what the whole plan was, just to get out of sitting in the house and throw some paint around and see what happens. We were all going through some things at the time.
Let’s move into “make up.”
I did that with another one of the producers [Brian Baptiste] I have. He was actually in Texas at the time. I was like, “Hey, do you have any ideas?” He sent me this idea over and I was like, “This is incredible. Let’s build on this.” I played it and they went straight into the booth and did it again. At this point, I was like, “They’re just going to keep writing incredible songs like this?” Some of the songs came from beats, some came from scratch with a sound. “7 rings” and “thank u, next” came from a sound. These amazing records were being built from minimal production.
“7 rings” has had quite the run topping the charts.
It’s crazy that we’ve been No. 1 for about the whole season between “7 rings” and “thank u, next.” “7 rings” started with Scootie once again. He usually doesn’t produce in front of people. After that first thing he played on the keyboard, I was like, “Uh-oh, we’re on the stage.” Ariana was like, “That’s it, let’s write to that.” Mikey from Social House went in and added drums. I made sure we had a change for the breakdown. It was such a collaborative effort putting these records together. Ariana is such a genius. She’s like, “Why don’t we just put the ‘7 rings’ sound at the beginning of the ‘thank u, next’ video?”
Ariana was like, “Why don’t we have breakfast at Tiffany’s?” I had no idea there was a spot called Tiffany’s. Everyone laughed when I asked what food they have. She bought all of the girls rings, and Njomza said we should make a song about this. The idea was up and they all went crazy. Ariana bought the guys rings after the trip too.
That’s got to be one of her most hip-hop-leaning songs.
Yeah, I would say so. It was so crazy when she came on there and rode the beat. I was like, “We got a whole new person here.”
Then, she got 2 Chainz for the remix.
The funny thing is, 2 Chainz was one of the first artists I ever worked with. With him being one of the first to her being the most successful I’ve ever worked with, it’s insane to have them both in the same room, because I know of their different backgrounds. At first, Chainz wanted me to send him the song, but I was like, “No, we all have to get in the studio together.” This was in Los Angeles, and it was really cultures meeting. I’ve gotten to see both sides of those worlds.
“Thank u, next” had to be special with that being Ariana’s first No. 1 hit and debuting on top of the Hot 100. Did this record start the forming of an album?
I don’t really remember the order. All I know is we were in there with a white board. We were in the studio, and they needed something to write to. I’m a really collaborative producer within my camp. Mikey of Social House played me this chord progression, and I told him to speed it up. I took it and played it for the girls. As soon as I did that, they start going crazy and said, “We should do a song called ‘thank u, next’ since [Ariana] always says it.” [Ariana] didn’t want anyone to hear the song yet, with the guys in the other room next door.
The song is the first one I was nervous to marry the track to. The vocals had been done for a day or so, then Ariana asked, “So, when are you going to finish ‘thank u, next?'” I was like, “Today’s the day.” We went in and arranged the whole song. We played it for her, but there was one note that was wrong before the chorus. None of us could hear it but her. We had to open up the beat session and find the one missing note and replace it. There were multiple versions of the song. [Ariana] was like, “Should we put the names in or should we not?” I told her to do the different versions, but I always felt like we were gonna end up with the first.
What did you think of the massive, immediate commercial success of the record? It really connected with her fanbase.
It was like, “OK, we did it.” I reminded her of when we had a conversation and I said, “This was going to be your biggest album.” I sent it to [Ariana] and she was like, “Wow, you were absolutely right.” I’m just excited to be a part of it with good people. There was no heckling. [It was] let’s just come together and create music. Everyone working on this was friends outside of doing music together. It was friends going in to throw paint.
I know you’ve worked with Travis Scott since the “Sin City” days in 2012. It’s ironic he went on to snatch No. 1 from Ariana for a week with “SICKO MODE.”
When “thank u, next” came out, being as massive as it was, I got a DM from Travis Scott saying, “Call me!” We get on the phone and it’s like 7 a.m. and he’s like, “Man, I’m at No. 2 and I’m looking at who did this Ariana song, and I see your name on there!” We laughed about that. “SICKO MODE” was the only song that interrupted our whole run. It’s funny seeing these artists you believed in from the very beginning become the biggest artists in the world in a short period of time. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. The one thing to dethrone “thank u, next” was my guy.