You might not know his name, but you know these songs: “We Are Young,” “All of the Lights,” “Locked Out of Heaven,” “Run This Town,” “Holy Ground,” “Girl on Fire,” “Find Your Love,” “Party” … And that’s the short list.
Unlike other marquee producers — Dr. Luke, Timbaland, Max Martin, The Dream — the Kansas born, New Mexico-bred producer Jeff Bhasker doesn’t have a signature sound or an outsize media profile. Instead, he’s just a guy who delivers hit after hit, a studio chameleon as at ease with Taylor Swift’s hand-strummed confessionals as he is with Kanye’s Hawaiin-compound agit-rap anthems.
Read on for a few of Bhasker’s studio tales — and tune into the Grammys on Sunday night, when he’ll be up for three prizes, including Album of the Year (for Swift’s Red), Record of the Year (for Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven”), and Song of the Year (for Pink an Nate Ruess’ “Just Give Me a Reason.”)
On Kanye West
“I started out as his keyboard player in his band. He was already a star, but he became a superstar the year that I worked with him, and riding that wave and being a part of that momentum — seeing how hard you have to work to be at that level and what it takes, especially with all the personal stuff that he went through, [was intense].
People don’t realize how calm he is. He may be passionate and have these great rants that everybody loves, but behind the rants is just a steady train that gets up every morning and works. When we were in Hawaii for months at a time, we’d just be there and work. Like the basketball thing, that’s just part of our routine: Wake up, get some exercise, move your body, go to the studio, work. Get up the next day and do it all over again.
So it’s not like the life of a superstar eating caviar, rolling out of bed whenever you want. He’s up at 6 a.m. sending emails, he’s getting ready to go play basketball, stay in shape, go get in the right frame of mind and in a positive attitude about accomplishing his goals. He’s the biggest example of — set a goal, and accomplish it. No one does it better than himA lot of people know how to make an album. But he’s like, ‘How do I make the best album I’ve ever made again?’ Especially after you’ve done it, like, five times.”
Key tracks: “Monster,” “All of the Lights,” “Love Lockdown” “Paranoid” “Runaway”
On Taylor Swift
“She reached out — she’s very hands-on and in control of what she’s doing. So she came to my little studio in Venice [Calif.], showed up by herself, with no entourage. She brought her guitar and sat down and said, ‘Hey, thanks for meeting with me – I’ve got this song I’d love you to produce. Here it is.’ And she played this song all the way through on her guitar on my couch, and said, ‘What do you think?’ And I’m like, ‘That’s amazing.’ Here’s a complete thought, a complete thing. She did the homework, she laid all the groundwork beforehand. There’s no smoke and mirrors or fluke or trendiness going on with her – this is music she writes from her experiences. That’s a real artist.
I’ll tell you one other little tidbit about Taylor’s sessions, to give you an idea of how tough this girl is. It was a summer day, and in my vocal booth, sometimes I turn the air conditioning off so it won’t make noise while we’re recording. I had kind of forgotten about that, and she’d been in there for a long time. And she was like, ‘Can I come out? It’s kind of hot in here.’ And she came out, and she’s all sweating – it was hotboxed in there. I’m about to kill this poor girl! I almost sent Taylor Swift to the hospital for dehydration! And she did not complain, she did not diva out – she came to work. I was just mortified. [laughs]
But that was one of the big things where I realized Man, she’s a really hard worker. Talent is important, but the common denominator with all these people we’re talking about is that they’re the hardest working people out there. And that’s all you can ask for, as a producer – to ride with them. You need a buddy. You [the artist] need someone there where, like, if you’re tired, you keep going, you pick each other up, you encourage each other, you challenge each other. You always want to be around people who are smarter and better than you.” Key tracks: “Holy Ground,” “The Lucky One”
On Bruno Mars
“That’s one where there’s the luxury of having such a great relationship. We can say anything to each other. We can say the most horrible, horrible things to each other without the slightest – as a matter of fact, it’s kind of turned into a game: How can we say something in the rudest, harshest, coldest way? We almost take pleasure in who can just say it the most bluntly. But we appreciate it because we’re really quite close, and we’ve up come up in the game together. We were both nobodies together.
And to his credit, he has not changed one bit. He is always challenging himself – and really encourages me to be hard on him. And that’s one of the things, to keep people around like that that are gonna tell you straight. Not just replacing them with a Yes man. And he’s talented and confident and strong enough to make the final call himself.
An example? Having me and [producers] Mark [Ronson] and Emile [Haynie] involved with his albums, because the Smeezingtons and his crew, who are amazing, did the first album [2010’s platinum Doo-Wops & Hooligans]. They were amazingly successful, a monster album with monster singles, sales. And I’m kind of doing my Kanye West stuff on the other side of the scale. So to bring us in and be like, ‘I want some of that in my music, and I want to grow,’ instead of being like, ‘Well, we killed this first album, we can do it again.’
So he brought me and Mark and Emile to bring different points of view, and I think it shows. ‘Locked Out of Heaven’ is a vastly different record from ‘Just the Way You Are.’ And that’s kind of it, right there – the Jedi mind trick of a producer is to get them to want it. Because ultimately, it’s their music. They’re the ones up there in front of everybody and they have to perform these songs and convince everyone. As a producer, you can just go home and listen to it on the radio.” [laughs]
Key tracks: “Locked Out of Heaven,” “Gorilla” “Young Girls”
“I was working with Beyonce, and I was like, ‘ what am I going to do with this rock band?’ But Nate [Ruess] and the band specifically wanted me. They’d been listening to a lot of urban music and noticed that my name kept popping up in the credits, so they’d already decided that they were open to what I did, and gave me pretty much full rein to explore new territory. I didn’t have to cajole them or convince them of anything – every time I’d do something where I thought, ‘Well, maybe this is too out of their comfort zone,’ they’d be like, ‘No, give us more! Go further!’
That album [Some Nights] was kind of a reverse-Kanye – Kanye would bring elements from unsuspecting places into the rap world. They kind of did the opposite: an indie/alternative band wanting to bring this tough hip-hop element into what they do. So it felt like we were very much doing something that no one else was doing.”
Key tracks: “We Are Young,” “Some Nights,” “Carry On”
“That’s a different thing where I don’t have this great friendship or bond like I do with Kanye or Bruno. But she made it really easy to work with her. And just her choosing to work with me and so some of my songs was kind of our connection point. [4‘s] “I Care” and “Rather Die Young” are very almost obscure kind of vibes for her to be going after, especially at that time period.
And you know, she’s just a force of nature. I love how when she performs those songs live, it’s like you’re watching Aretha Franklin or one of the greats. I don’t think there’s anyone to even compare her to. But to be honest, that was a little harder, because we didn’t really spend as much time together as I’m used to spending with other artists. Sometimes it’s a matter of not being overwhelemed by the magnitude of an artist, and putting your honest opinion out there. I think in the end, they always appreciate that more. Sometimes it might not go over as well in the moment, because it’s uncomfortable.
But my job isn’t just to record – an engineer can record them and be like, ‘Okay! That sounds pretty good.’ You’re the producer, you have to think about the end result. So that was kind of the case with Beyonce, looking at it at angles that maybe the artist isn’t seeing right now, and be brave about telling them. Do it in a respectful way, but be strong. And it took me a while to figure that out. But it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m pretty f—ing good at this!'”
Key tracks: “I Care,” “Party,” “Rather Die Young” “Lift Off” (from Watch the Throne)
On Alicia Keys
“Alicia said, ‘Let’s go have dinner and sit down and talk and meet,’ because we had that song “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart.” The common thread [in producing] is getting to know each other and find out what makes them tick. Music is a form of communication, and making records is a mass form of communication.
Alicia I got to know over a long period of time, but in short doses. A [big] thing for her is not sacrificing your vision to follow trends because it’s gonna keep your career alive. She’s just like, ‘Stick to being you.’ She’s Alicia Keys – only one person has that voice. It’s hers, and she knows that it’s really valuable, and she believes herself.
So I wrote “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart” for her. She heard the song and loved it and was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ We developed a really awesome friendship and mutual respect over that time, and it was really hard to be like, ‘oh, Alicia, I think you should sing that again,’ because you’re looking at one of your idols, someone you really, really respect. Like, you can take advice from your parents because you know they love you. But with a stranger, you’re not quite sure how to take that advice. They’ve gotta feel like you have their best interests at heart, and you wouldn’t be critical of something against their best interests.
That’s why I work with artists whose music I genuinely love – and they start to feel that, they sense that. I’m a fan too, but I want to push them to be as brave as they can and as good as they can: ‘Let’s take some chances, and I’m here to help you pull it off.'”
Key tracks: “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart,” Girl on Fire” “Wait Til You See My Smile”