Benny Blanco doesn’t want fame. Hates the idea of it. He’s the type of guy who gets embarrassed when his friends sing “Happy Birthday” to him. Sure, he writes hit songs for some of the biggest musicians in the world, from Justin Bieber to Ed Sheeran and Halsey, “but if I ever was as famous as Justin that’d be a nightmare,” the songwriter-producer says (the pair recently performed their mournful new single “Lonely” together on Saturday Night Live). Sure, he’s gregarious--when we talk on Zoom he’s splayed out on a red velvet sofa, decked out in a seventies disco-era pink button-down shirt open to the navel--but that doesn’t mean he’s extroverted. Blanco pauses then adds: “It takes a strange person to love being famous or want to be famous. I don’t understand it. I would never do it.”
Avoiding such scrutiny is a big reason why staying behind the scenes suits Blanco best. Born Benjamin Levin, a pudgy suburban Virginia Jewish kid with early dreams of being a rapper, he graduated from high school in 2006, moved to Brooklyn and, thanks to a raunchy EP with the rapper Spank Rock, got enough buzz to grab the attention of super-producer Dr. Luke. Almost immediately, first with Luke and then pop savant Max Martin, Blanco created hits for artists including Britney Spears (“Circus”), Katy Perry (“I Kissed A Girl”) and Kesha (“Tik-Tok”). Throughout it all, he proudly maintained his anonymity.
So even now, it’s hard for him to explain why, starting in 2018 with his debut solo album, Friends Keep Secrets, Blanco began releasing music under his own name. To hear him tell it, Blanco viewed becoming a recording artist as an exercise in learning another craft. He compares his decision to become an artist to a line cook who’s exclusively made caesar salads for years and one day decides he’d love to try his hand at pizza. Because damn if that pizza chef he’s worked next to for years doesn’t seem intriguing.
“I wanted to do something different,” Blanco notes bluntly. “I wanted to challenge myself. And when you give a song away as a producer or a songwriter, the song’s done. You’re done. You don’t have any control. I wanted to say ‘This is how I want the video to be. This is how I want the marketing to be. This is when I want the song to come out.’”
Frankly, Blanco adds, he didn’t have lofty expectations for his solo project. It was something of a surprise when its debut single, “Eastside” featuring Halsey and Khalid, hit Number One on Billboard’s Pop Songs radio airplay chart. “I was like, ‘Fuck. My plan went too quickly!’” he recalls with a laugh.
But Blanco would still rather be the guy behind the guy or girl. “People always ask me, ‘What do you do?” the 32-year old laughs, “and I’ll tell them, ‘Honestly I’m not even that good at music.”. “I mean, fine, I’m OK at it. But I think the thing I’m good at is basically being a therapist.” Get him in a room with one of his artist-friends— and only those he considers his friends —and, as he explains, Blanco can expertly chip away at the bullshit. But he won’t stand for phony chit-chat. Not when there’s a song to write. “When I sit down with someone like a Justin [Bieber] or an Ed Sheeran or any artist I work with and say, “Hey, how are you feeling?” They’re like “Well, you know I’ve been on tour. Blah blah blah” And I’m like, “Dude, shut up. How are you actually feeling? What’s going on?” And then we write about that.”
This approach has led to stellar Blanco collaborations with s the likes of Kanye West, Cardi B, Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello, and the late Juice WRLD, in addition to less-headline-grabbing but equally impressive work with more outré artists including FKA Twigs, Francis and the Lights, Jessie Ware, and Cashmere Cat.
Blanco’s therapeutic touch helped make Bieber comfortable on the raw “Lonely,” in which the pop star sings, “Maybe that’s the price you pay/For the money and fame at an early age/ And everybody saw me sick/And it felt like no one gave a shit/They criticized the things I did as an idiot kid.”
Of “Lonely,” which Blanco penned with Billie Eilish’s brother, Finneas, he says, “I think the song was important because it’s a reminder that it’s OK to not be OK all the time. We all try to play this character of, ‘You gotta be strong for this person or that person.’ Sometimes you wanna have a little cry. If Justin does something stupid, he wakes up the next day and CNN wrote about it. His whole life has been like that since he was 13. Fuck, give him a second to grow. I feel like this is the first time where he’s in the spotlight where he’s like, ‘I’m an adult. I’m married. I’m writing songs that are truly everything I wanna say and put out in the world.’ It’s the first time where he’s halfway comfortable.”
For such a social guy, quarantine then has been a bit of a tough proposition, if not still a productive one. Blanco refuses to do virtual songwriting sessions (“I tried to do it, but nah”) and he says his SNL gig with Bieber was “essentially my first time doing anything since March.” Still, he’s been constantly creating new music, tweaking previously recorded songs and just basking in the fact that he can pretty much do as he pleases. “It’s so cheesy,” he says, “but I often can’t believe this is my life. I get up to wake up and do what I wanna do and get paid for it.”
Originally Appeared on GQ