op quiz: what do Justin Bieber, Halsey, Ed Sheeran, Lana Del Rey, The Weeknd, Camila Cabello, Selena Gomez and Kanye West have in common? Answer: they’ve all sought the help of songwriter and producer Benny Blanco, the man behind some of the most indelible pop hits of the past decade.
Born Benjamin Levin, Blanco was, in his words, “a chubby Jewish kid from Virginia” who started out with dreams of making it as a rapper. After graduating from high school in 2006, he moved to Williamsburg, where he was soon swept up in its bacchanalian party scene. His Bangers & Cash EP, released with rapper Spank Rock, caught the attention of the now-controversial Dr Luke (currently embroiled in a long-running legal dispute with singer Kesha), who mentored Blanco for four years. With additional guidance from pop alchemist Max Martin, the 20-year-old Blanco helped hone Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and Kesha’s “Tik-Tok”. Cut to today and the 33-year-old has now contributed to an entire Wikipedia page’s worth of irresistible chart-toppers, including “Moves Like Jagger” (Maroon 5), “Diamonds” (Rihanna), and Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s Latin pop monolith, “Senorita”. This year, he’s called in the favours for his own album, Friends Keep Secrets 2, assembling enough pop and rap royalty to line a Grammys red carpet.
Blanco tends to downplay, even mock, his own talents as an artist. “I’m not even good at making music; I’m just good at having comfy chairs and good snacks,” he laughs. “I’m screwed when I can’t have people round my house.” We’re speaking over Zoom, of course; he’s lounging on a squashy sofa at his LA home, the day after the Grammys. He’s only just found out he won an award (Best Gospel Album) for his work on Kanye West’s record, Jesus is King. “I don’t follow the [industry] stuff that much,” he admits. “I was just like, ‘Oh wow! That’s cool.’”
He was introduced to West by his friend, synth-pop artist Francis and the Lights – who was recording with the rapper in Wyoming – and ended up working on the album Ye and West’s Kids See Ghosts project with Kid Cudi. These spontaneous collaborations happen a lot. Blanco, with his cloud of hair, colourful clothes and goofy demeanour, looks more like your younger brother’s best friend than the po-faced suits usually found lurking behind a radio-dominating pop jam. And whereas you might recognise tricks from someone like Mark Ronson or Jack Antonoff, Blanco doesn’t stamp his work with any kind of signature. He sees himself more as a therapist, or just a buddy to hang out with, than a producer; his skill is opening an artist up creatively.
That’s been tricky during lockdown. Blanco says he’s been extra cautious during the pandemic, which must be awkward given the number of other LA-based celebrities who continue to throw parties at their own homes. “Oh my god, dude, it’s insane,” Blanco says. “I’ve been very careful – I don’t go to restaurants or anything.” The day after our interview, he’s doing his first in-person recording session since March last year, with Billie Eilish’s older brother, producer and songwriting partner, Finneas O’Connell. They first worked together when Eilish was about 13 years old; Blanco and O’Connell ended up writing the bones of what would become “Lonely”, Justin Bieber’s reverb-y piano-based single.
Blanco became friends with Bieber in 2009, so has known him through the height of his headline-making controversies. The 28-year-old pop star was nervous about releasing “Lonely”, Blanco says, out of fear people would accuse him of throwing a pity party. “He was like, ‘Does anyone want to hear this from me?’” Blanco recalls. “But these guys have tough lives, man. It’s hard growing up in the public eye. If you do something stupid, your mum’s like, ‘I’m disappointed in you’, or your friends will tell you that you’re an asshole. If Justin does anything, it’s on the BBC and CNN.” For Blanco, real fame only transpired in his early thirties, so he was able to figure out the “dos and don’ts” of celebrity culture. “I try to keep as normal a life as I can,” he says. And indeed, he looks very comfortable on the sofa.
While he counts a number of megawatt pop stars as pals, his circle has grown smaller during the pandemic. “I cut off so many people,” he says. “It was like I was trimming the brisket, getting the fat off. I’d think, ‘Do I really want to make the effort to see you for a distanced walk and potentially risk Covid?’ Then it’s like, ‘Were you doing that much in my life anyway?’”. Other friendships have resurfaced, with people he’d previously fallen out of touch with. He’s lost friends, too: Atlanta rapper 6 Dogs died aged 21 in January this year, as did Scottish producer and musician SOPHIE, aged 34. And then there was the death, in December 2019, of 21-year-old Juice Wrld, on whom Blanco stumbled when the rapper was still releasing songs on Soundcloud.
“It’s just crazy,” Blanco says, looking downcast for the first time in our conversation. “And these aren’t just music relationships; everyone I make music with is my friend. I spent many nights with Sophie, hanging out ’til four in the morning, going out to dinner. Same thing with Juice Wrld; we’d play basketball, have fun.” He feels fortunate to have the music to remember them by; Juice Wrld, real name Jarad Higgins, features posthumously on the album track “Real S***”, while 6 Dogs is on “Lost”.
“It’s like they’re talking to you, and you can keep this relationship alive,” he says. “It’s a weird place to be.” There’s pain in his voice as he recalls the last conversation he had with the late rapper Mac Miller, who died of an accidental overdose in 2018. “I hit him up and I was like, ‘Oh my God man, your new album is so great!’ And then he Facetimed me a bunch of times, and I was in the middle of something so I was like, ‘I’ll hit you back.’” But Blanco didn’t get to speak to Miller again. “You never know what’s going to happen,” he says. “We lose so many people so early, who are so talented and have so much more to give. It’s the biggest shame.”
It also reminds Blanco to feel grateful for the life he has now. “I get to wake up and do what I love,” he says. “It’s like everything else – some parts suck, other parts are great. But [this album] is a cherry on top of living in a Fellini film.” At the same time, he’s intent on not taking himself too seriously: “Because if you do, you’re just a little f***ing asshole.” His social media posts are the opposite of so many carefully curated celebrity accounts: there are a lot of photos of food, and of Blanco posing with his friend’s babies. On his birthday two weeks ago, he shared a picture of himself wearing a bright pink dress with socks and sandals. He’ll do pretty much anything as long as it’s fun, which is how he ended up as a guest star in the sharp (and surprisingly moving) comedy series Dave, the semi-fictionalised story of an upper-middle-class Jewish comedian from Philadelphia trying to make it in hip-hop under the name of Lil Dicky.
“I just [finished filming series two] yesterday,” he says. He’d never considered acting before: “But then here I was, on set filming.” The other day, a friend called him and asked him to be on his cooking show: “So now I’m making a cooking show,” he says, laughing. “I try not to give myself any boundaries.” He believes he was put on earth to have a good time, and to encourage people to do the same. “I don’t want stress in my life,” he says. “I just want it to be fun and easy.”
‘Friends Keep Secrets 2’ is out now