The FADER's monthly column Pop Factory interviews the songwriters, producers, and other visionaries behind pop's biggest songs.
Ian Kirkpatrick knows that if you want to create a memorable pop song, it needs to be weird. “That's the shit I love,” he says. “I strive for that.” Kirkpatrick is one of those pop music unicorns — he knows how to craft a Top 40 hit that stands up to being played to death by radio but that also subtly pushes pop’s boundaries. His songs are palatable to the masses while giving pop-heads a reason to get their lives.
Hailing from Los Angeles, the 35-year-old started small, producing Warped Tour groups like Breathe Carolina, Neon Trees, Young the Giant, and even the Plain White T’s, before ultimately signing a publishing deal with Warner Chappell and entering the pop game. Getting his first major hit in 2015 with Jason Derulo’s “Want To Want Me” he’s since worked with an impressive collection of pop royalty, including Britney Spears, Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, Nick Jonas, Katy Perry, Pitbull, and Dua Lipa. In fact, he’s currently enjoying a trip up the Billboard Hot 100 with the latter thanks to a little song called “New Rules”.
Over the phone from Los Angeles, The Fader spoke to Kirkpatrick about how things change once you’ve had a hit, the joys of weird pop, the pitfalls of songwriting camps, and what it’s like working with Britney Spears.
What were your musical influences growing up?
I've played the drums since I was five and I was always in little bands and stuff. Then I heard a song by Aphex Twin in 1997 called "Girl/Boy Song," which is this amazing strings and programmed drums track. It was the most insane thing I've ever heard. I was like, "Oh I need a computer to do this." I started making music on a PC, but it was mainly electronic music [inspired by] early Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Autechre — all the weird electronic guys. Intelligent dance music stuff. So it's a little strange to go from that to pop music, but if you really dig deep there's a lot of traces of all the little cuts in my stuff that comes from that.
How did you go from working with local bands and the Warped Tour groups to writing and producing Top 40 commercial pop?
Pretty slowly and painfully. I guess it started because I was doing a lot of records for bands and working with every band took about two or three months per project. It was very exhausting and you had to be a psychologist to deal with all the egos. After I got a publishing deal I did a couple years of sessions writing for pop and I don't think I got a single cut, but it was two years of learning just how difficult it is to actually write a pop song. When I realized just how difficult and interesting the genre of pop is and how it can be so many things — how elusive a successful song can be — it energized me and made me wanna crack the code, which has only happened a couple of times.
When "Want To Want Me" by Jason Derulo went top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, what impact did that have on you?
It was nice to have a song that lots of people liked because it made me realise that I was actually capable, even if it was slightly accidental. You know, you write 100 songs and maybe one of them does well. There was a comfort in knowing that I should keep doing what I was doing. Obviously there's pressure and people do look at you differently; they trust your ideas more, which is nice but also terrifying. I don't know, it gives you a nice surge of confidence. Being a songwriter or producer is difficult because you're losing more than you're winning.
Did you have people asking you to write basically another version of that same song for other artists?
Oh yeah, we did. Mike Caren of APG had a writer on the song, Sam Martin — and Mike Caren, mind you, is a big reason why that song is a hit. He helped us craft it to the ending. And after that he thought, "Let's get you guys back together and give me two or three more “Want To Want Me’s."" We tried and tried but we didn't really get anywhere. Every session we would get put together and someone would say, "We need another 'Want To Want Me' for this artist or this artist." It was definitely hard to recreate it. I'm not sure we ever really did. But that happens whenever there's a song on the radio; everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon.
Where does your need for pop weirdness come from?
I take pride in people not being able to identify the source of a sound. I get a lot of messages asking, 'What preset is that?' I'm like, 'It's not a preset. It's the bottom of trash can in a hotel in Vegas.' In "New Rules," the part right before the drop — the 'I got new rules I count 'em' — comes because I tracked [Dua] at half the tempo. So she sang it slower and then I digitally made it twice as fast and it sounds so weird because her vibrato was double time and all of a sudden it gives a character to the vocals that is so strange and alien. Also a lot of that comes from the electronic music that I used to listen to where, as a producer, you're left wondering, 'Where does that sound even begin?' I want to push pop music forward so that people try more interesting things rather than just going to a pre-set. You can use pre-sets, that's fine and I use them too, but pop music is such an opportunity to put on display to the whole world some new shit. So why not try and do the coolest-fucking-craziest sounds?
What was it like working on Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar”?
Julia Michaels deserves so much credit for that song. I actually have a 45-minute file of the room recording of when we wrote that song, and Julia and Justin coming up with the lyrics. It's a lot of sounds of people eating Cheetos and stuff, but it's amazing to listen to them. The lyrics were so special, weird, and cool that me and Aaron Bay-Schuck, the head of Interscope, sat down with it afterwards and we just could not figure out what to do with it afterwards because the song just didn't want anything else on it. It stayed very minimal, which I love to do because I'm so scared of overproducing.
When you're working on a song, how much of the producing and songwriting happens at the same time?
It varies per song. If you listen to the recording of the session for "Bad Liar" it's mostly Justin and Julia talking. The track is starting and stopping and I'm building it when they're working on the song. I love to get the input on the songwriters [I'm working with] on the drums and the hook. Other times, it can just be the chords. For "New Rules" it was about 80% there. "New Rules," without mentioning any names, was passed up before Dua cut it because the artist didn't really think it had a substantial hook. Granted, the demo sounds much different because Dua's voice changed that entire song from average to amazing, in my opinion.
When you say the song got passed up before landing with Dua, is that how these things happen?
Sometimes there are songs that aren't right for an artist and they'll sit around for a year and there'll be a project where you'll be like, 'Oh remember that one song?' and we'll send it to the A&R. And obviously "New Rules" would have never happened if Dua hadn't heard the song and had loved it. She had her input on it and everything. In the end, it's really up to the artists and their team to choose the right work. But a lot of songs get set around like that and it's so funny how accidental and happenstance a pitch will be that ends up becoming a number 1. For "Want To Want Me," for instance, CeeLo was interested, Carly Rae Jepsen was interested, Chris Brown was interested — Chris Brown even cut the song, I believe.
“I take pride in people not being able to identify the source of a sound.”
Recently Madonna spoke out against songwriting camps on Instagram, saying that people can't stay focused for more than 15 minutes. How do these things affect the songwriting process?
I don't know how often I get good songs out of camps. Songwriting camps, which I don't do too often, serve a different purpose for me. I think a lot of publishing companies will throw these camps because it's a good way to introduce their older, more experienced writers with their newer writers. So for me, I do camps because I'm interested in the new writers. But it is a little hard to stay focused. Sometimes there can be two sessions a day. It's a little difficult to get in a groove. Madonna has a point. The most ideal situation if I was working with Madonna, and I should be so lucky, would be to work with her for a couple of months and actually get to know her. I wouldn't want to work with Madonna for six hours and try and write a song with her. To have a legend in front of you and to only have six hours and to try and do her entire career justice in that amount of time would be so hard.
You've been pictured in the studio with Katy Perry. Is that a thing that's happening?
Oh yeah, Katy Perry and I had a session. We did a couple of days and she is fucking amazing. Before any of her artistry, Katy Perry as a person is the funniest human being I've ever met in my life. I was so surprised. I was very nervous to meet her because she's fucking Katy Perry, someone I've wanted to work with my whole fucking life, and she was literally the most normal, no-ego person. And she's a fucking great writer, too. I should have known that, I guess, but that was so much fun. We wrote a fucking awesome song.
Finally, what was it like working with Britney Spears?
Oh my god. Even thinking about it makes me crazy. The track for "If I'm Dancing" was actually made three years before a song was written on it. It just sat on a hard drive forever and then I played it for [co-writers] Simon Wilcox and Chantal Kreviazuk. I did get to go into the studio for Britney to do the vocals and I took an anti-anxiety medication before because I was absolutely freaking the fuck out. It was crazy when she was on the mic, and to hear her voice in the studio and all her little nuances and all the little rasps in her voice, you know? That shit is insane. I tried to use everything. I tried to get her laughing so I could have little samples of that. She was like an artist that just got signed. She was so happy and so fucking cute.
She doesn't go in for long, right?
She comes in. She knows what she wants to do. The thing is, she doesn't have to stay long because she's a pro when it comes to being vocal produced. You'll say, "Try it like this," and she'll just do it. There's no ego, she just fucking delivers. She's a real one.