Benny Blanco, the 22-year-old songwriter and producer with the string of hits to his credit, is driving through Los Angeles talking about how he has always loved music. Since he was a kid growing up in suburban Virginia—you know, pulling out the stereo in the middle of his parents’ dinner parties to lip synch Prince songs, bugging his big brother to buy him the CDs with the Parental Advisory stickers, scribbling rhymes inspired by Eminem and Nas and dreaming up beats instead of paying attention in class, skipping school to—“wait, I don’t want to say too much,” he says, cutting himself off. “My mom is actually sitting right next to me. I’m taking her to the Video Music Awards.”
Now, if this were a Benny Blanco song, that would be the breakdown, where the song locks on a lyric and stops for a second, just long enough to make you say, wait, what? before kicking back in with a huge sticky synth candy hook that sounds like a bubblegum 747 running on Red Bull taking off into your skull.
You can hear Blanco’s touch—from additional production to co-production to co-writing—on Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and “California Gurls” and “Hot n Cold,” Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” and “Blah, Blah, Blah” and “Your Love is My Drug,” Britney Spears’ “Circus,” and 3OH!3’s “Don’t Trust Me.” To name a few. But despite the string of hits, Blanco prefers talking about the artists he works with more than himself.
“When I go in to the studio with an artist who is just so good and so talented, all I do is just fill in the blanks and try to learn from everybody. Like, Ke$ha always does these really cool things with her voice, these little melodies that I try to do even when I’m not with her. And Katy Perry is such an incredible singer and such a good lyricist. They’re all so talented in such different ways. They teach you so much. I definitely don’t get into a room thinking I am better than anybody else. I just really like being with an artist and making music together.”
Half hustling, half self-effacing, Blanco started at just 13, pounding the social media pavement—MySpacing anybody he thought might give him a shot.
“I was hitting up everyone!” Blanco laughs. “I was e-mailing Polow Da Don. I was e-mailing Jimmy Iovine. I would write the dumbest e-mails. Nobody would ever reply. Except Disco D—he wrote back. I pretended I needed studio time. Then I got up there to meet with him and I was like, ‘I don’t really need studio time. I just want to work with you.’ So he listened to my stuff and he liked it. He said I could be his intern under one condition. He was going out of town and he said if I could book his studio for the whole three days, I was in. So I did.”
It was a big break, but not an easy one.
“It was horrible!” Blanco says, laughing. “He would take my CDs and break them! He would take my hard drive and erase everything on it and say ‘this is my hard drive now.’ One time, he threw my hard drive out the window and said start again. He definitely taught me a lot.”
Blanco stayed at the studio, running errands and doing scheduling, which eventually led to collaborations with Spank Rock and a deal with Downtown Records when he was just 18.
“It seemed to happen overnight,” Blanco says. “And I was totally happy and satisfied doing that. I was like, ‘I can do this for the rest of my life! Live on people’s couches! This is awesome!’ Then I had one publisher offer me a deal. My manager and I were both so new to the game. We didn’t know what a publishing deal was. All these people wanted to sign me, but I only had like two beats. I had two beats and one song and this album I did with Spank Rock. But I guess the stars just aligned. I didn’t know what was going on. I don’t even know what’s going on now! It’s just unexplainable.”
Well, maybe not totally unexplainable.
“I just want my stuff to sound like nobody else’s,” Blanco says. “Like you know those wine openers that look like a man doing jumping jacks? I was in the studio the other day and I used one of those, making it go woosh-woosh-woosh-woosh-woosh and it turned out to be a great part of the song. Or I’ll use one of those ‘Hava Nagilah’ keyboards, like the ones you got when you were a kid. I’ll use a VCR turning on, the kind that goes boop, you know? I’ll use anything. I hear music everywhere. There’s no stopping it.”