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Writer of megahits relies on instincts

Updated: 2013-01-14 13:46
By James C. McKinley Jr. (China Daily/The New York Times)
Writer of megahits relies on instincts

Writers who work with Benny Blanco say he pushes artists to play until he hears the beginnings of a song. Mr. Blanco at home in the Chelsea section of New York City. Chad Batka for The New York Times

At just 24, Benny Blanco has made it very big in the music business. Since 2008, when the pop hit maker Dr. Luke first recruited him into his stable of songwriters, he has had a hand in six number-one hits on Billboard's Hot 100 in the United States as a writer and producer, working with artists like Rihanna, Kesha, Katy Perry and Maroon 5. He's been a writer for another seven songs that have cracked the Top 10.

Writer of megahits relies on instincts

It is hard to listen to pop radio for 10 minutes without hearing a song on which Mr. Blanco has played a pivotal role. Over the past three years he has been behind ubiquitous radio hits like Gym Class Heroes' "Stereo Hearts," Taio Cruz's "Dynamite" and Kesha's "Tik Tok."

Mr. Blanco, whose real surname is Levin, acknowledged that luck has played a role in his winning streak. "I am still waiting for the day that they say, 'Time's up, Blanco, back to your shift at Walmart,' " he said.

Songwriting for pop radio is a team sport these days, and Mr. Blanco is talented at making electronic beats and drum tracks from bizarre samples. But he also has a gift for sunny hooks and catchy chord progressions, and if the need arises, he can turn out competent lyrics, often with a crisp edge.

"I just try to fit in where it makes sense," he said. "I'm not particularly good at anything. I'm not an incredible guitarist or piano player or songwriter. I think what I do is, when I notice someone is really good at something, I try to get that out of them."

Mr. Blanco is a scavenger of peculiar sounds, including those made by his body; his French bulldog, Disco; the lock on his door; the clatter of bowls on a table.

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He shuns building music from scratch with computer-generated timbres. He instead seeks out traditional instruments and low-end keyboards, records them and then builds melodies and chords from the tones they yield. His studio is littered with peculiar instruments: rare guitars, ukuleles, a pump organ from Egypt, a Roland analog synthesizer from the 1970s, stacks of cheap Yamaha and Casio keyboards and assorted percussion instruments.

"I just want to sound different than everyone else," he said. "I don't care if it sounds bad."

Yet his collaborators say Mr. Blanco's biggest asset lies in his ears and instincts. Much of what Mr. Blanco does during songwriting sessions, they say, is direct the creative flow of other musicians, pulling them in directions they would normally avoid.

"I think Benny's greatest strength is his taste and his ability to know when something is amazing," said Ammar Malik, who wrote "Stereo Hearts" and "Payphone" with Mr. Blanco. "When I'm in the room with him, he inspires me to find a different sound."

Adam Levine, the lead singer and songwriter for Maroon 5, said: "It's almost as if he has the Midas touch in putting the right people together at the right time to create a musical moment. He's about the collaboration. And he's so good at nailing down who does everything best."

Mr. Blanco starts songwriting sessions at his studio in New York by playing a mixtape of tunes he finds inspiring, tracks he has harvested from the Internet to evoke the sound he wants. He then pushes the artists to play along those lines until he hears the beginnings of a song.

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"When you are writing in the studio, it's like the people who are in the studio with you are a dysfunctional family," he said. "You are basically like a therapist. It's psychology."

His colleagues say one of his studio tools is a wicked, self-deprecating sense of humor, which he uses to break tension. "He's so funny, it's crazy," the rapper Spank Rock said.

Working with Dr. Luke taught Mr. Blanco about song structure and dynamics, about creating rising drama and moments of respite from that drama.

Over the last two years, he has started collaborating more with the Swedish songwriters Shellback and Max Martin and, more recently, with Bruno Mars. He relishes the role of newcomer.

Mr. Blanco said: "I want to be that new guy that no one wants to work with."