Much like the rest of us, the producer Ian Kirkpatrick is having trouble concentrating. “As the weeks have been progressing, everything has been weighing on me more and more,” he says from his home studio in Los Angeles of the global crisis spurred by the spread of the novel coronavirus. “It’s all just terrifying.”
It’s an especially bizarre time for Kirkpatrick whose career has recently reached an apex. In March, he achieved his second Billboard Hot 100 top 10 single with Dua Lipa in the form of the brash earworm “Don’t Start Now,” which he co-wrote and produced. Marking the biggest hit of Lipa’s career when it peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100, the track climbed up the charts after it dropped a mere week after the release of Selena Gomez’s “Look at Her Now,” another pop hit Kirkpatrick produced and shares writing duties on.
“It’s a very strange duality,” says Kirkpatrick of his recent successes on the charts. “I constantly forget ‘Don’t Start Now’ is No. 1 on radio and No. 2 on the Hot 100 because of what’s going on around me.” For the producer, it’s bittersweet: professional success in the midst of global strife, coupled with the thought that his handiwork comes as a moment of levity for stressed-out listeners. “I was talking to (the producer and podcast host) Ross Golan who said, ‘Isn’t it funny that when everything is bad outside, people want to hear happy songs. But when everything is good outside, everyone wants to indulge in the sad songs.’ It’s just crazy to think about.”
While “Don’t Start Now” could be seen as an anthem for social distancing (see lyrics: “Don’t show up, don’t come out”), the roots of the track date back to the fall of 2018. That was when Joe Kentish, the head of A&R for Warner Music UK, rang up Kirkpatrick in an attempt to duplicate his past success with the singer’s “New Rules.” The critically acclaimed 2017 track, bolstered by both a viral music video and the burgeoning #MeToo movement, eventually peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100 and cemented Lipa as a pop force to be reckoned with. “I think there was a little of, ‘How cool would it be to have another hit with Dua’ so ‘New Rules’ wasn’t a one-off,” says Kirkpatrick of the challenge he gave himself. “I love working with her because of the way she sings and the way she writes and I love working with Selena because she’s always down to try crazy, crazy productions. These relationships I have are great, but all that matters are the songs.”
With a singular goal in mind, Kirkpartick got in touch with a variety of his favorite writers, including his fellow “New Rules” collaborators: the songwriters Emily Warren and Caroline Ailin. In addition, he hit the studio with the producer J Kash. “Him and I also invited a bunch of writers to try to focus on what we thought Dua wanted to do sonically, which went back and forth between ’80s and disco.” It didn’t hurt that Kirkpatrick was well-versed in Lipa’s unique musical voice. “You know when you hear Dua on the radio. Her baritone voice is immediately identifiable and her style is a confident, but not menacing, I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude. It’s a very quiet, unbreakable confidence and that’s how she carries herself. She has an authority in her voice. As soon as she starts talking, the whole room shuts up.”
Written with Warren and Ailin in January 2019 alongside Lipa herself, Kirkpartick’s production on “Don’t Start Now” is full of sharp, shiny contrasts. Kicking off with bare piano chords, the track then jumps into a funky bassline before zig-zagging between the two musical elements, with plenty of ear candy (including the fuzz of a spinning record and handclaps) along the way. “We knew the drums and bass were so fun,” says Kirkpatrick noting that the creative team wrote it with a dance-around-the-room attitude. “Going from the verse into the drop, I thought the best way to follow that was to do what (The Weeknd’s 2015 hit) ‘Can’t Feel My Face’ does. It breaks into this beautifully lush chord thing before it changes. Since you’re away from that fat beat for a while, coming back into it feels so good.”
Also pulling inspiration from groups like the Bee Gees, Daft Punk and general Eurohouse, it was the Irish rock band Two Door Cinema Club that provided inspiration for the song’s quick-succession cowbell that hits listeners over the head smack in the middle of the song’s chorus. It’s a distinctive moment that was in place from the initial demo. “I remember it occurred to me that there should be something there, just based on the phrasing of the chorus,” explains Kirkpatrick. “It didn’t seem bold at all, but then everyone’s reactions were like, ‘Oh, that’s so random.’ I’m like, is it random? But it is. I think it’s a cool, identifiable thing. Who uses cowbell anymore?”
For Kirkpatrick, the one-two punch of back-to-back high-profile tracks with some of the biggest names in pop came after a relatively quiet period in the music maker’s career. (A choice made by him, he’s largely focused his time on exclusively mining for tracks for Gomez and Lipa.) “It was two years since ‘New Rules’ happened and I was thinking who knows if I’m gonna have another one,” he says. “After all, I’m getting old and maybe that was it.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Kirkpatrick was living with his mother when he had what he considers a game changer for him: the 2011 Breathe Carolina track “Blackout” which peaked at No. 32 on the Hot 100. The synth-pop cut opened professional doors and led to a steady output of respectable pop hits (among them: “Levels” for Nick Jonas, Jason Derulo’s “Want to Want Me” and Sage the Gemini’s “Now and Later”). 2017 wound up becoming an auspicious year. Not only did he begin working with Lipa, but he also kicked off his creative partnership Gomez, first with “Bad Liar” followed by the singer’s “Back to You” in 2018 (both top 20 Hot 100 hits).
When it comes to “Look at Her Now,” a songwriting collaboration between Kirkpartick, Julia Michaels, Justin Tranter and Gomez herself, the song is anything but cookie cutter. “We were writing something sad and then Selena was like, ‘This is cool, but let’s try and do something uptempo,'” recalls Kirkpatrick of the session that birthed the track. “I pulled up a (instrumental demo) and Julia and Justin just flipped out. If Selena had not changed direction mid-session, ‘Look at Her Now’ wouldn’t have existed.” Their excitement stemmed from the chopped-and-screwed style vocal moments that make up the basis of its production. “That voice you hear is from a Splice pack of someone rapping in Spanish,” he says of the sample and loop resource. “I love that they have these random New York rappers and random live shit. So it was some loop that I applied to every key. You just start hitting keys and eventually find cool patterns. The whole track started with that vocal thing.”
With “Don’t Start Now” holding steady in the upper reaches of the Hot 100 and Lipa’s Future Nostalgia out now (he’s also a contributor to “Pretty Please”), Kirkpatrick’s only plan right now is to tie up some professional loose ends as he waits out quarantine.
“I’m going to finish a couple records that I started before all this craziness went down and just stay as busy as I can,” he says, noting he also plans to fittingly work on a Splice pack of his own. “I also think my way of dealing with the trauma is to go micro and start doing stuff like streaming to Instagram.” Under the handle @Cloudology, he’s been going live and making tracks from scratch. “It’s something I started doing to distract myself from all of the anxiety going on outside.”