Pop: Benny Blanco, Hit Maker for Rihanna and Maroon 5

January 6th, 2013

Chad Batka for The New York Times

The songwriter and producer Benny Blanco at home with his French bulldog, Disco, who has contributed to his owner’s string of pop hits.

ONE of the first things you notice about Benny Blanco, besides the impish brown eyes and the curly hair piled up in a Prince-like coif, are the many curios adorning his hands and wrists.

He started collecting them a few years ago to mark the hits he has helped write and produce. The old Rolex on his right wrist he bought when Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” topped Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in 2011. The fat silver ring on his left hand was added last summer when “Payphone,” by the same band, reached No. 2. And a Buddha ring on his left thumb marks the rise of Trey Songz’s “Heart Attack” to No. 3 on the R&B chart last June.

At 24 Mr. Blanco is already running out of fingers. Since 2008, when the pop hit maker Dr. Luke first recruited him into his stable of songwriters, he has had a hand in six No. 1 hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 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. It is hard to listen to pop radio for 10 minutes without hearing a song on which Mr. Blanco has played a pivotal role. Last month two songs he helped compose and produce — Rihanna’s “Diamonds” and Kesha’s “Die Young” — were lodged in the top two spots on Hot 100 chart. 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.”

Lounging among giant pillows on the bed he keeps in his home studio in Chelsea — he says he likes putting a bed in every studio he uses — Mr. Blanco 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,’ ” he said, grinning lazily. “Back to your shift at Walmart.”

Songwriting for pop radio is a team sport these days, and Mr. Blanco is by all accounts like a utility infielder in baseball, someone good at all positions who makes everyone better at their jobs. He 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 and profane 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.”

Mikkel S. Eriksen, part of the songwriting team Stargate, said that Mr. Blanco, as a producer, always reaches for unexpected sounds. On “Diamonds,” the Rihanna hit he wrote with Stargate, he took a snippet of Mr. Eriksen’s singing, altered the sound electronically to make it dirtier, then used that timbre, manipulated with audio software, to create ghostly accompaniment lines. “His technique is somewhat unorthodox,” Mr. Eriksen said, “as he almost never plays the keyboards but throws in weird samples and alters them to the right pitch to go with the song.”

Mr. Blanco is a scavenger of peculiar sounds, including those made by his body; his French bulldog, Disco; the lock on his door; and the clatter of bowls on a table — all of which he has incorporated into Top 10 pop songs.

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, toy pianos and accordions.

One of his favorites is a small Yamaha keyboard that he used to record parts of “Tik Tok” and Ms. Perry’s “California Gurls.” He bought it for $ 25 at a yard sale. The keys are yellowed and uneven, and he had to install a jack so it could be connected to a soundboard.

“I just want to sound different than everyone else,” he said. “I don’t care if it sounds bad. I just want people to be like, ‘Yo, that dude Benny was different.’ Even if it sounds awful, at least they can’t say, ‘Oh well, I’ve heard that before.’ ”

Yet his collaborators say Mr. Blanco’s biggest asset lies not in his hard-to-duplicate catalog of sounds but 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, one that I didn’t know how to do on my own.”

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