"Justin kidnapped me," says Poo Bear, before adding with a chuckle: "It's cool, he's a great kidnapper. We traveled the world and recorded records around the world."
Poo Bear, real name Jason Boyd, is a veteran songwriter who has penned hits for the likes of 112, P!nk, Usher, and Kelly Rowland over the course of his two decades in the business. In recent years, Poo Bear has found a ride-or-die fan in Justin Bieber. With Poo Bear's help, Bieber has created the most autonomous and mature music of his career.
The two men were first introduced by Bieber's then-roommate Lil Twist, who had worked with Poo Bear in the past. "Twist would take my music and he would play it for Justin, and Justin would be like, 'Yo, what is that? I want that," Poo Bear recalls. "Twist would be like, 'That's Poo Bear, you gotta talk to Poo Bear about that.' Justin’s ear is incredible."
Together Poo Bear and Bieber put together Journals, a collection of digital signals released in 2013 that caught the ear of an older audience and, as Poo Bear tells it, was like "a breath of fresh air" for Justin. But because it veered from Justin Bieber's pre-determined career arc, it was under-promoted; when it was done, Poo Bear thought he was done for too.
When it came time to begin work on Bieber's new album, mega-producers were called on for their hookiest material and writing camps were called into session. But Justin was determined to keep Poo Bear on, and Poo Bear ended up with writing credits on about 85 percent of the songs on Purpose. "We stuck with each other, no matter how many people tried to separate us in different various ways. We were able to stick it out and prove the world wrong," he says.
Ahead of this week's release of Purpose, The FADER caught up with Poo Bear for a long phone call to discuss Journals, Bieber's growth, and what's to come next. Read our conversation, edited and condensed, below.
If you had to guess, how many songs have you written?
From 15 years old to now—I'm 36—I've probably written over 5,000 songs.
And and among all those songs, "What Do You Mean?" was your first No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart?
That was my first Hot 100 No. 1. I’ve had multiple other No. 1’s on different Billboard charts, but that one meant the most to me because it was my first Hot 100 No. 1 and that is the highest validation on the charts because it's the hardest. "Where Are U Now" was No. 1 on Dance and Electronic, but it only peaked at No. 8 on the Hot 100. In the first week it came out, "What Do You Mean?" debuted at No. 1. It's still No. 1 on airplay, most played on the radio in the world.
Why do you think you were able to connect so deeply?
We share so much of the same feelings. Our lives are so parallel—we grew up in really religious, single-parent homes, not having a lot. We have been able to relate on so many other levels outside of music. That turns into us being brothers instead of friends. So even when I'm not around him, I'm still able to go in and make music that he lives. Nobody else in his whole career, he says, is able to really make the music that he believed in. Not just a song that he was told to sing, music that he literally enjoys singing. It was a breath of fresh air for him.
When you and Justin are working together, are you working side-by-side?
Yeah, we're just creating. We'll be in the booth and we're just throwing out lines. We're not big on writing stuff down. If we're gonna record it, why are we adding an extra step by writing it down when we could just literally go in the booth and record what we're creating? A lot of people are like "wow," but when you're riding in the car and listening to the song, you don't write it down. You just start singing along with it! There's no difference. We just don't exercise that part of our brain, me and Justin.
"Nobody else in his whole career, he says, is able to really make the music that he believed in. Not just a song that he was told to sing, music that he literally enjoys singing. It was a breath of fresh air for him."
The first project you worked closely with Justin on was Journals, what was that process like?
I remember him calling me like, "Yo, we should flip those Craig David chords and we should create something." I went in that night and flipped the chords, and came up with the song "Recovery." He ended up flying me to Boston and we finished cutting it at Cherry Beach Sound in Toronto. That was one of the processes.
The other process was him hearing my songs and saying, "I want that song." I go through these phases where I want to sing and I want to challenge myself. So I'll do an one-idea album, which is hard—it's hard to stick to one concept without saying the same thing. So that's what drove me to go in the studio and make Beats to Break Up To, which was a one-idea album about breaking up. Then I made Beats to Make Love To. A lot of those songs turned into songs off Journals. He just felt them so much, so strongly. It was just a matter of me letting go of the fact that I don't care about me being a singer more so than I care about putting great music out into the universe. Then I was able to do it.The songs that I felt like were too mature, we changed them up to fit him like a custom suit. I was like, "Let's change these words around. This jacket is a little too big, let's make it a little more tailor-fitted for you."
We were able to pull it off, and I feel like Journals was one of the greatest R&B albums of all time. It wasn't on the radio, but it was really great songs.
Was there a reason it was not pushed to radio?
We were told that it was going be pushed. But in my heart, I felt like they were just saying that because they know that's what Justin wanted to hear—once you get to a certain level, people don't say no to you anymore. I knew they weren't going to push it because that wasn't the direction they wanted him to go in. It was like, "Let's let Justin get this out of his system." But we were finally going in the direction that Justin for once in his life wanted to go in. We were recording songs that he wanted to record, not thinking about making everybody happy. It was bittersweet.
Would you say then that Journals is representative of the type of music Justin prefers to perform?
Justin grew up listening to R&B. Journals was trying because it was going against the grain [of what he had been doing sonically], but it served so much of a purpose in him growing up. And, now he's able to sing "Where are you now that I need you?" and people take him seriously.
Was it intended to help grow him up?
Of course it crossed my mind that that we might [win over a new demographic with Journals], but it wasn't why we were doing it—it was more about making music that we loved. But we were blessed enough for it to grab a whole new audience, so when "Where Are U Now" came out, he already had an adult audience who had heard Journals attention. I would catch people listening to "All That Matters" and they were embarrassed because it was Justin Bieber, but they loved it so much already that once they found out who it was it was too late—Justin had one of their ears. Then "Where Are U Now" came, and I wasn't sure about it, but once Skrillex and Diplo made it into what it was production-wise, we got their second ear. Which set up a great platform for Purpose and "What Do You Mean?"
Coming off Journals, what did you think was going to happen next?
I honestly thought that they were gonna find a way to get me out of the picture completely.
Because it didn't sell well?
In reality, people get dropped nowadays for selling 100,000 units. We did 1,500,000. We did good, but it wasn't the success that his other albums had. They respected his creativity as an artist, so we were able to do the record. But they didn't want to call it an album—they called it Journals. They didn't allow it to chart on Billboard. It wasn't the direction that they wanted him to go in, so they didn't support it. In the day, I was like, "Justin's not going to work with me anymore." Being that Justin is the biggest pop star in the world, I know that he could have anybody write for him. He could get Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, whoever to write him a song. They would get reached out to, and he would have a song in 48 hours. The fact that he stuck with me means everything.
"I honestly thought that they were gonna find a way to get me out of the picture completely."
How did "Where Are U Now" come together?
We worked on ["The Most," the song that became the basis for "Where Are U Now,"] together—I never like to leave him out because without him, who would have sang it? When Justin heard that record first in Colorado, and he was like, "This is so special!" It was just piano and me singing. I put those chords together with a guy named Karl Rubin. (I like to give them credit because I remember being young and being part of hit records and not getting that credit.) I just thought it was an okay song, to be honest with you. [laughs] I thought "What Do You Mean?" was just an okay song too! And Scooter's like, "No, this is a smash."
I'm so deep in it that it's hard for me to see from the outside. It wasn't a standout to me, but to the world it was the biggest song of his career and "Where Are U Now" is right behind it. I'm embarrassed a little bit! [laughs] It's great to have Scooter Braun who can hear that. He has outside ears, that's what he calls it, and I have inside ears. He has outside ears because he still hears music from the outside, he's not part of the creative process. He's able to look at it and say, "Wow, this makes me feel how I felt when I heard this other hit record." He's able to relate that feeling to another hit feeling.
How much say does Scooter have in the song writing process?
During the creative process Scooter had no say because at that time we were just creating. When it comes time to pick the songs on the album is when Scooter has his say. He wasn't hating on what we were doing. At the time, we didn't know the album was gonna be called Purpose, but we were making these songs. Journals was out and we were back in the studio. In January 2013, we were in Toronto heavy recording this album. We both believed in what we were recording and what we were making. No matter what anybody said, we both believed in what we were doing.
How did the success of "Where Are U Now" impact that work you two were doing?
Justin was in a place with Journals where he just wanted to do and sing what he grew up listening to. Even me trying to sneak in pop records, asking him if we could do R&B over this EDM record, he would say nah, that he really wanted to make music that he wanted to sing. I think that "Where Are U Now," the success of it, showed that you can have a song and sing it that still pleases you, but also produced so it could reach the world. Once Scooter and everybody saw how big the record evolved into on radio and the research came back on the highest points, it was like, "This is incredible." Numbers don't lie. It proved that what Justin believes in is right.
So even while these writing camps were going on, you guys were still working together? That was not gonna change?
The label had a bunch of writing camps with 30, 40, 50 songwriters, and they're all trying to write these songs for Justin Bieber but none of them ever connected with him. I knew that they were gonna do it. I'm not cocky, you know? I'm like, "I want him to win." Ultimately the goal in making music for artists is to get the best music. There's nothing more than that. I understood that process, it was just so he could have the best chance at winning as possible. For me, to see it happening was frustrating because I knew how much I had put into it, but I understood. If they come up with something that's more potent than what I'm writing, then that's what was meant to happen. But they didn't.
What are some of the themes on this album?
Keeping in mind and in tune with what's going on with Justin. Just being honest. We really set up for this project to be inspirational. If we talked about a girl, it was something that just happened. Overall, we touch on his personal life like his relationship issues, but at the same time, it's a healthy balance of inspirational music. We're just thinking about making sure that it's not negative, but uplifting. Even the music that talks about his relationships, it's feel-good music. It's nothing that will make you depressed. "Sorry" still feels good, yet it's apologetic. We're so in tune with each other, that it's easy to know what we're both gonna love, what he would love to sing. We worked really hard on this project. We really honest with ourselves.
Are there any songs on this album that you're especially excited about?
Man. I can't say it about just one song. There's "Company," there's "Life Is Worth Living," which is gonna save so many lives. There's "Purpose," the title song. There's "No Sense," which was done two years ago, which is timeless. "Life Is Worth Living" is just a record that is a really really strong, positive record that says life is worth living, we're supposed to live. We're supposed to be here. Strangely enough, it was done before the song "Purpose," or even the concept of Purpose. It fit naturally in the groove of Purpose. People making mistakes, learning from them, and not letting that be it, but say, "You know what? I'm not gonna do that again. Life is worth living, I'm not just gonna give up just because I fell. I'm gonna try harder because my life is worth it." It just has such a positive meaning, I feel like it's gonna save a lot of lives. A lot of kids who are being bullied or picked on, I think it's gonna touch them. Our hope and goal is to save lives and to inspire people to be great, to be the best version of themselves.
What do you think your lasting impact will be on Justin?
Believing in his ear and trusting his ear, and believing that the main purpose of making music is not just singing notes and words, it's to move peoples' emotions. I think that I had some type of an effect on him in explaining that ability of creating music that doesn't just sound good, but makes you feel different than your actual state of feeling. I can see that in interviews, he expresses that.