Catching Up With The Chainsmokers: Their Hopes For Another "Golden Age" Of Dance Music, A Latin Collab And Yes, Going To Space
This year saw the Chainsmokers make a return with their most mature album yet, 'So Far So Good.' The dance duo reflect on another wild year, which included planning a trip to perform in space in 2024.
From the moment the Chainsmokers took off in 2016 with "Roses," they never slowed down. The duo of Drew Taggart and Alex Pall delivered three albums between 2017 and 2019, in addition to a rigorous global touring schedule that included a three-year Las Vegas residency. They had the career artists dream of, but they were burnt out. So what did they do? Well, slow down.
Even before the world shut down in March 2020, the Chainsmokers planned to take the year off — for their own sakes, but mostly for the band's sake. Shortly after their 2019 tour ended, they took a two-week trip to Hawaii in hopes of a reset.
"What we were making before was great, but we felt like it didn't have a thesis, [and it] kind of lost its soul a little bit," Taggart admits. "We wanted to rediscover what made us most excited about being in this band."
That trip ignited the process for their fourth studio album, So Far So Good, a 16-track display of a rejuvenated, mature Chainsmokers. Its wide array of production techniques showed the duo's growth as well as their true talent — something that they're highly aware has been mocked. They even made that clear in their album announcement, a video titled, "Sorry, the Chainsmokers are back."
Though the album wasn't their most commercially successful, So Far So Good received glowing reviews from fans upon its May 2022 release. ("I saw comments that were like, 'This is my favorite album' and 'This is the most complete album you guys have put out,'" Pall recalls.) But after hearing them talk about the album for even just a few minutes, it's clear that the Chainsmokers didn't really care about how their music was received — they're just happy to still be making it.
The Chainsmokers sat down with GRAMMY.com to reflect on what their return meant to them, their place in today's dance scene, and that crazy announcement about performing in space.
Earlier this year, you did a cover story for Billboard, which touched on the fact that you guys had an unfair reputation in the beginning of your career. Regardless of what has been said, how do you two feel about your place in the dance world?
Pall: I think we've done a lot of growing up. It's such a wild ride. No one can truly prepare you for what we went through. We definitely made some mistakes and missteps and things, but I'd like to think we owned the moments and made ourselves better afterwards.
And as far as the dance music community, this is what brought us together. There's nothing more important to us than staying connected to the electronic scene. And there's a lot of great artists like that right now, like Fred again.. and other people that are doing some really awesome, inspiring things. We hope we continue to be a big part of that world and find ways to bring the pieces of it that made us so excited about it back [in the beginning] — reinventing and innovating and creating new sounds and styles of music that people are fond of.
That's the challenge right now for us — finding that balance of making things that we want to keep coming back to that sound fresh and exciting, but also unique to what makes the Chainsmokers' music special.
I think every artist kind of endures this moment where you become successful for a sound or style, and then you try to prove to yourself that you're more than that sound and style. You go on this, like, tangential journey that isn't not important because it's like leaving home — you have to just discover yourself again.
Ultimately, we learned a lot. We certainly improved a lot of our production and songwriting and everything. And now, it's like, going back to those important principles that got us here in the first place and innovating them. And I think So Far So Good did a really good job of that — finding some of those pieces and making them more interesting and exciting. We weren't scared about taking songs in really experimental directions.
It is interesting thinking about the complex of being an artist who has a hit song. That has to be so tricky, especially when you are eager to show that you are more than your big hit.
Taggart: Now more than ever, a lot of the artists that we look up to — that are some of the most popular in the world — they aren't ones that are living and dying by hit songs. They're obviously some amazing, massive artists that can consistently deliver big songs, but they don't have the highest streaming numbers. But, they still do arenas and massive festivals because they're really good at playing to their fan base and really focusing on that. I think that's the most important thing that any artist can do.
Pall: Yeah, if you want that longevity, it's [about] building worlds that people can live in with you. And that is why we hang out on our Discord and different channels so much — we want to keep connecting with those people, let them be a part of the process, listen to them, even. And hopefully, we'll figure out where we want to go next.
It's a cool time in music, with everything that's happening from the technology side to the GRAMMYs adding a songwriter category. It's certainly been an interesting year.
I watched your interview with Zane Lowe, and you were talking about the time that you were coming up with all of these other dance artists. You're just name-dropping all these people, and I was like, "Holy crap, I don't think I realized just how monumental dance was in the early 2010s!" And it does feel like it's coming back around now.
Pall: Back then, it was this really interesting time where you had bands like MGMT and Passion Pit and Phoenix, but then you had like Mastercraft, Boys Noize and Daft Punk — these kind of electro acts that were making really exciting and interesting music. And then it evolved into this Skrillex, Zedd, Avicii, Calvin Harris era, which was just like, the golden age of dance music, when we were getting into the scene.
Taggart: It does kind of feel like that now. Hard house is like, so big in Europe right now. It doesn't really have much presence in the U.S., but that could be the kind of the Boys Noize electro scene, and then you have techno and deep house that's really popping off. Where all this leads, I'm not sure, but it's really an exciting time that feels like the beginning of how it started before.
Pall: And you need producers. We have so much respect for artists like Flume and ODESZA and countless other acts [who are] experimenting. Experimenting and remixes ultimately led us to discovering our sound with "Roses." And I think that's why So Far So Good was so important to us, because it was that process of removing any sort of limitations and expectations that allowed us to dive into all these genre-bending songs. And then you kind of come out the other side with clarity on the things that really feel like you were honing in on something special.
You guys have already been in the scene for 10 years, and I feel like dance has completely changed in that time, in a cool way. Where do you think dance is at now?
Taggart: I haven't seen this many people excited about dance music in quite some time. I'm seeing so many more underground techno DJs build really massive followings that compete with more EDM [acts] and their followings on Instagram [and such]. They [post] videos of them playing shows, and the engagement is super high. And then you have new artists like Fred again.. that everyone is just rallying around right now. He's built this really unique, genuine, awesome, energetic show.
And then, of course, you have Beyoncé and Drake dropping albums that have a lot of dance-influenced [tracks] on there too. It feels like the world's kind of coming back to it, so I'm hoping that this leads to some innovation and we have another golden age of dance music.
I think people really just want to have fun right now, coming out of the pandemic. We've been in a hip-hop wave for about seven years now — which has been awesome, and there's been so much amazing, interesting music. I just think things are gonna change again now. And whether dance music becomes a leading genre, I hope that people get excited about it again, these festivals pop off again, and it leads to more innovation in the space.
You've both mentioned Fred again.., but are there any other dance acts — or maybe even people who aren't quite in the dance space, but are dabbling in it — that is really awesome and might even be kind of changing the game for dance?
Pall: There are a lot of cool artists — I love this group Ship Wrek, they have a really interesting sound. Tale Of Us, a deep house group, has been making really euphoric, cinematic, Hans Zimmer-type deep house records that are really cool. Rüfüs Du Sol obviously tapping into this really unique — I don't even know how you describe it — it's like, deep house, but it's from the perspective of a band.
Taggart: ARTBAT is these two Ukrainian DJs that are amazing. They have this massive sound that is just an experience that you can get lost in.
There's a ton out outside of dance music that we're super into too. I feel like our take on dance music has always been kind of combining indie/alternative stuff with traditional EDM energy.
I'm obsessed with this kid called Versace right now. And I don't know how that makes its way into our music, but his stuff sounds so fresh. It feels like I'm discovering Post Malone for the first time.
Is there anyone you're looking to collaborate with?
Pall: We've been super inspired by the Latin scene, from our friends like Sebastian Yatra and Bad Bunny and Maluma and Bizzarap. That's probably when we're at our strongest, when we do those really interesting types of collaborations that maybe people didn't expect. We're for sure gonna go further down that road in the future.
Have you guys done a Latin collaboration yet?
Pall: We've worked on a ton of different things. And it's got to feel right. It's got to have the DNA of Chainsmokers. You gotta find that right moment, right song, right collaboration. [We're] definitely exploring it, but it's just a matter of feeling really confident about the song itself.
Well, and you don't want to come off as like, "Hey, Latin music is really popular. We want to get in on that."
Pall: 100 percent. Now, if you hung out with us, I feel like 85 percent of the music we listen to is exclusively Latin music. So it'd be coming from a real genuine place now if it happened.
I mean, there's a lot of awesome beats in that world! I don't know how more dance artists aren't tapping into that.
Taggart: Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of songs that are great reggaeton songs, but a lot of artists that we love in that scene are multi-genre. I feel more comfortable about us fitting into the world than I did probably five years ago, when it was strictly something that wasn't anything we had traditionally come up in. Now it's more genre-bending.
Pall: For me, listening to Bad Bunny's amazing melodies and these incredible voices, it feels reminiscent of getting into dance music. It's a feeling that you get.
So aside from a Latin collaboration, are there things that you feel like you haven't achieved yet, whether musically or something that you want to do in your career?
Taggart: I just have been enjoying where we're at right now. We're having more fun writing music than ever before, and I feel very open-minded about trying new things. I just want to be around and be able to work with great new talent that comes out, and have fun, and kind of expand my artistic palette.
It's crazy to have a 10-year career in music. Going forward, I just want to be very embracing of everything that's new, [but] stick to our core, and remain authentic, and just lean into all that.
Pall: I don't know if we could ever recreate the amazing run we had for ourselves again, but if we ever found ourselves [with] a song that the world was embracing [again], [I'd want to] do things right, and enjoy that process more. Because, again, it was like us playing catch-up. [We were] just young and trying to figure it out. I would love to have the opportunity to live through an exciting moment like that again, and do it the way that we know we could now.
But if it doesn't come, that's totally fine, too, to Drew's point. We're having a blast, we have so many exciting things that we're working on and a part of. We're just grateful to be here, and we want to continue to feel like this into the future.
Did you ever think you'd add performing in space to your resume?
Taggart: [Laughs] Umm…we'll see how that goes.
Pall: It's such a Chainsmoker headline. It was funny, actually — obviously, we knew about this for a while, and there's still a lot of things that need to be figured out, whether this is a reality or not. But hopefully it works out. So much has been happening that we forgot about it. And we woke up that morning to like, 25 messages from friends being like, "You're going to space?" And we were like, "Oh s—, this is real now."
Better get your spacesuits on and train!
Pall: Daft Punk might have been a more suitable option to send into space, but we'll try our best.
I mean, you have until 2024. You've got time to figure things out.
Pall: I had a conversation with my girlfriend that morning. She's like, "You're doing what?" And I was like, "Don't worry about this yet." [Laughs]
That's definitely the kind of thing where no one will think you're serious until you're actually doing it. But I do feel like that's kind of like the way the music is going, though. I don't think it's that out of left field for an artist to perform in space.
Pall: It's always funny to me, the things we set our sights on as a human race. Like, "How cool would that be to say that you were the first artist to play in space?" But also, it's like, "Why are we playing music in space?"
In the meantime, I'm glad to hear that you feel like you are in the best place you've ever been as artists. I saw that you're already working on the next album — it must be nice knowing that you're going into this next phase of making music feeling so good.
Pall: Yeah, and not be so protective over it. Before, it was like, we'd make a song and we were basically in a bubble — we weren't allowed to play a song that we just made and dance with your friends and see how they feel [about it.] Now, it's the complete opposite. It's like nothing is sacred. We could go upstairs and post a video on our story of a song we're working on and everyone can say, "Holy s—, we want this!" It's definitely exciting times in that regard.
We're here for our fans that have supported us from the get go. We want to keep pushing ourselves to be bold as we write and produce, and continue to tap into those things that not only made us fall in love with music, but hopefully made people fall in love with the sounds that we create.
Since you're feeling so good about where you're at, how do you hope that this chapter of the Chainsmokers and what's to come is perceived?
Taggart: I've kind of given up on hoping for that. We just make stuff that we think is awesome and just keep doing that. It's all you can control.
Photo: Daniel Boczarski / Stringer
For The Record: How The Chainsmokers' "Don't Let Me Down" Set The Duo Up For Global Success — And The Freedom To Defy Dance Music Expectations
After their career started with an ironic hit, the Chainsmokers solidified themselves as dance hitmakers in 2016. As the duo releases their latest album, 'So Far So Good,' revisit the impact of their GRAMMY-winning smash, "Don't Let Me Down."
The pop-ification of electronic dance music did not start with the Chainsmokers, but no act blurs the line between arena anthems and DJ culture quite like Alex Pall and Drew Taggart.
In 2013, the duo were just another EDM twosome making remixes of indie rock bands for DJs on Hype Machine. By 2017, the pair were headlining their own international arena tour on the back of a multi-platinum sing-along that had just broken the record for longest streak on the Billboard Hot 100 top 5 in history.
When you're looking for an explanation — some musical node that connects the tissue of the Chainsmokers' signature dubstep-heavy DJ sets and the group's de facto pop stardom — one must inevitably turn to 2016 crossover hit "Don't Let Me Down."
Powerful and eruptive, the song's dark electronic hook and bright melodic verses straddle the Chainsmokers' bleeding synth past and made-for-radio future. Both halves are stitched together by the hauntingly strong, yet emotionally desperate, performance of then 17-year-old vocalist Daya.
It's a single that belonged as much on a festival set list as it did in the darkest electro-trap club floors, and it earned the Chainsmokers their first GRAMMY win for Best Dance Recording in 2017. It begs the question: How did they pull that off?
If the Chainsmokers give off a frat-house energy, it might not be their fault. The duo rocketed to stardom fresh out of college, and the band's 2014 breakthrough single "#Selfie" was indeed meant to be a joke. It was a gag song, a catchy pot shot at the vapid VIP bathroom talk that goes down in Miami Beach megaclubs like LIV.
Buzzsaw synth lines and pounding four-on-the-floor bass kicks gave the song a stereotypical EDM vibe. But underneath the novelty hit's spotlight, Pall and Taggert pushed themselves to write real songs full of love, longing and infectious pop hooks. They were never going to stay the "#Selfie" guys, even if they had to fight tooth and nail.
"Roses" — a sun-dipped pop tune with hints of the popular off-kilter future bass sound and an earworm of a synth hook — was the first taste of things to come. While the 2015 hit signaled a shift toward the now signature Chainsmokers sound, its 2016 follow-up was what really turned heads — and it all starts with a clear and wistful guitar pluck.
"All of our new songs happen right after we buy a new instrument," Taggart said in a "How I Wrote That Song" segment for 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon' in 2016. "We bought a new Fender electric guitar, and I was listening to a lot of the xx, and I wanted to do a lonely guitar sound."
"So I made that, and it was pretty vibey," he continues, "and then I was on a plane, and I got this new sample pack and it had this cool bouncy sound so I cut it up and made this cool trap drop. We'd never made trap music before, so I wanted to try it and see if we could do it."
Sourced from their friends in electronic hip-hop duo Loudpvck (whose member Kenny Beats has gone on to his own internet fame alongside big look productions for Vince Staples, Ed Sheeran, Gucci Mane and more), that trap breakdown is sandwiched expertly between the song's sentimental pop verses that make "Don't Make Me Down" such a striking hit.
The mix of hard and soft elements — an energetic club hook and sensitive lyrics — make "Don't Let Me Down" a defining tune of its era. The Chainsmokers' managed to capture the coy sleekness of 2010s indie pop and the gritty EDM trap world, then mixed it all up with a certain kind of cinematic grandeur. The song starts so subtle and rises in a gradual tension until it positively explodes, another element that brings it closer to the Chainsmokers' club roots.
They knew they had a hit on their hands, too, mostly because it came together fairly quickly. "Everything we do happens in one session," Taggart said in the "How I Wrote That Song" segment. But as Pall revealed, it almost became the hit that never was.
"When it was completely done, [the] computer crashed and we lost the entire song," Pall said. They had to completely remake it from scratch, but Pall suggested that it may have ended up working in their favor. "We remade it, and it's even better than before."
The song's dangerously romantic message — the line "It's in my head, darling, I hope/ That you'll be here when I need you the most" sets up the titular phrase — was penned by songwriter Emily Warren. (She later went on to co-write hits like Dua Lipa's "New Rules" and Charlie XCX's "Boys"; Warren also features on several Chainsmokers songs, including the 2017 hit "Paris.")
It was Warren's voice that originally graced the single when it was an unreleased set piece for the Chainsmokers, though she was never intended to be the final vocalist. The song was originally pitched to Rihanna, Taggart disclosed to Rolling Stone in 2016, but the R&B singer ultimately turned it down.
At the time, Daya's breakout hit "Hide Away" was gaining traction. "When I heard that, I knew that she had the range," Taggart told the New York Times in 2016. "Her voice was pretty unique and didn't sound like other people on the radio."
As Taggart recalled, Daya "didn't really need my help" in the studio, furthering the song's magic. But "Don't Let Me Down" clearly didn't just make an impact with those involved — it was a runaway hit that won the hearts of critics and fans alike without much effort.
"Don't Let Me Down" charted in 32 countries, including a No. 3 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Even Usher covered the song during an appearance in BBC Radio 1's Live Lounge. To date, the video has amassed more than 1.8 billion views on YouTube; it remains one of the Chainsmokers' three most-streamed songs on Spotify with more than 1.5 billion streams.
"Don't Let Me Down" opened the door for the Chainsmokers to do bigger and more glamorous things — including the biggest hit of their career The Halsey-featuring smash "Closer" earned the duo their first No. 1 on the Hot 100 (among several other charts around the world), becoming the first single to spend 26 weeks in the chart's top five.
The Chainsmokers went on to capitalize on that larger-than-life pop sound, collaborating with Coldplay's Chris Martin and celebrating the project's debut album Memories…Do Not Open with a 71-date world tour.
The band continues to mix its DJ past with its pop star reality, choosing not to perform fully-original sets, but cramming strings of sing-along hits between mixes of other artists' songs that influence them. It can be a bit clunky at times, sure, and the Chainsmokers' earnest white-guy style hasn't always made the group a critical darling. But the band continues to sell out shows and figure itself out, continuing their musical story with their fourth album, So Far So Good, a project they've dubbed "the start of a new chapter"; Apple Music's Zane Lowe declared it their "boldest song-based statement yet."
Are they a band? Are they DJs? Do they even make electronic music anymore? It doesn't really matter, and maybe that's the point.
In a world where genres have ceased to define listeners, why should they define the entertainer? "Don't Let Me Down" dared to break that barrier — and even six years later, the Chainsmokers continue proving there's frontiers yet to explore.
Photo: Clyde Munroe
Daya Talks The Magic Of Combining Words & Melodies, Her New EP 'The Difference' & Working With The Chainsmokers
Daya just released 'The Difference,' her first solo offering since her debut album five years ago. To mark the milestone, the singer/songwriter—who has worked with the Chainsmokers—opened up about the past, present and future of her artistry
It can take a singer years to find their voice—both literally and figuratively. "When I started, I didn't have the voice I have now," singer/songwriter Daya tells GRAMMY.com over the phone. "It was really breathy and falsetto-y and didn't really have a tone to it." Now, at 22, she's a full-fledged pop singer without a hint of greenness or tentativeness.
What about the latter form of the word? During a pandemic year, the artist born Grace Tandon realized she didn't need to please anybody but herself with her work. "I just wanted to take a step back and focus on writing songs that felt really authentic and honest to me," Daya states. "That's been so crucial to my development as a songwriter—putting all those expectations aside."
This intertwining of vocal and creative development has resulted in The Difference, which was released in May. While "First Time," "Bad Girl," "Tokyo Drifting," "The Difference" and "Montana" comprise Daya's first body of work since her debut album five years ago, there isn't a hint of rust therein. Rather, the release represents her vision in full bloom.
And while she's stepping out as a singer/songwriter again, there's another dimension of Daya's career to consider—her work for other artists, including the world-dominating Chainsmokers, with whom she recorded "Don't Let Me Down"—and won a GRAMMY for Best Dance Recording in 2017.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Daya to discuss her earliest days as a singer/songwriter, how she came to work with the Chainsmokers and how she experienced a creative growth spurt on The Difference.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell me about your background in combining words and melodies.
I started playing piano when I was three. I don't even remember—my mom just put me in lessons. I took to it really well and considered doing that for a long time. All around, I was really interested in music and instruments. I picked up the guitar and ukulele and started playing the saxophone in band.
It was my thing. My family was super academic, or whatever, and I took to music. Every day after school, I'd play instruments. I only started really singing to accompany myself on the instruments and do covers in that way. I [played] shows around the area where I grew up in Pittsburgh and was [introduced] to this voice teacher and sort of took lessons not too seriously. When I started, I didn't have the voice I have now. It was really breathy and falsetto-y and didn't really have a tone to it. I think she was [instrumental] in helping me adopt the tone I have now with my voice. I did theater for a long time and then transitioned to doing more straight-up pop covers.
Eventually, I started writing my music around 13 or 14—the first s*ty songs I wrote. I kept doing that for a while. When I was 16, I got connected to the writers I wrote "Hide Away" with in LA. Everything just kind of went from there.
Which tunes did you cover early on?
I was into alternative rock and pop singer/songwriters, badass female songwriters. So, my favorite artists were Alanis Morrissette, Amy Winehouse, I played a lot of Dido—I would play "Thank You" over and over again—I played Sarah McLachlan, too. I did a lot of piano covers growing up. My dad was super into that type of music as well. I loved Coldplay. I think they were one of the first concerts I ever went to.
At the first show I ever played, I think I played "Ironic" by Alanis Morissette, "Clocks" by Coldplay and "Time of Your Life" by Green Day. I remember those were the three songs because I was in this little band we had formed for this thing called Rock U University for this guitar store in town. I think I was nine.
When did you start not only writing for yourself, but for others?
Actually, the first time I was asked to go out to L.A. was by the songwriter I met through my voice teacher—they had gone to college together at the University of Pittsburgh—we had met a few times before and he would come and do camps with all her students, me included. He really liked my voice and I was interested in the writing world and wanted to see if that was a possibility. I was 16 and a junior in high school, so I was kind of figuring out what I wanted to do.
I flew out to L.A. to have this trial weekend with him and we wrote a few songs, "Hide Away" being the first one that we wrote, actually, which is crazy. "Back to Me" was this other song that I released on my first EP. We wrote those two songs and it was more for me to get introduced to the writing world. I worked with a few other writers he'd been working with to see if that was something of interest to me, and not necessarily for me to own these songs as an artist. Once I recorded the songs, they felt like my songs and they fit. I really love them a lot, and that was kind of a no-brainer at that point.
He introduced me to this manager I linked up with to release "Hide Away," and then my EP and debut album, [2016's] Sit Still, Look Pretty. It was a whirlwind of things. It basically went from me sussing out if I wanted to write for other people to exclusively writing for my own project. Now, I write for other people. I like being in sessions writing for other people and pitching songs to a few different people. I think for a while, when I first got here, it was just for me for a long time.
How do you tailor songs to specific artists?
I haven't learned how to do that yet! I feel like I've just written songs that don't necessarily fully feel like me while writing it. I feel like I usually have a pretty clear sense of whether or not it's really a song I love and want to own and put out or if it's a song that feels like—well, parts of me are still in it, but it still feels slightly off from who I want to be as an artist. At that point, we'll just pitch it to whoever.
I've never specifically written a song for anybody. I think that would be really hard, but I would definitely be down to try that soon.
How did you come to work with the Chainsmokers?
Yeah, we won the GRAMMY! They reached out to me when "Hide Away," my first single, was going up on the radio charts. They had their first single, I think, that went to radio, "Roses." They were just entering the mainstream consciousness, I feel like. They heard "Hide Away" at the same time and just liked my voice. They already had the song written, "Don't Let Me Down," and they decided to reach out and pitch it to me. I absolutely loved it.
How do you feel like your craft has developed over, say, the last year?
I definitely feel like I've come into myself a lot more. I feel like all the things I was pushing off—or was kind of skating the surface of—have really come to light this year. I guess it's a product of me spending a lot of time by myself and thinking about things, and also not touring all the time or having immediate busy work to do.
I've definitely learned about myself as a writer and artist and homed into what I want to be right now. I think it's taken me a while to get here, but I'm really confident in all the music I'm making and the people I'm writing with.
I feel really lucky to be at a point in my career where I feel supported and that there's been a lot of creative freedom with this new deal I'm with, which I signed back in August. So, it's almost been a year. Everything has kind of changed for me in this past year in really good ways, I think.
It seems like you've been reaching for something as a writer. What is that something?
I was, early on, introduced to the pop world—specifically, the radio pop world. I feel like with that comes a lot of expectations and parameters.
I just wanted to take a step back and focus on writing songs that felt really authentic and honest to me and weren't necessarily concerned with pleasing other people or pleasing a mainstream or radio audience. That's been so crucial to my development as a songwriter—putting all those expectations aside and just writing what feels really honest, authentic and intimate.
I've been lyrically coming into the stories I want to tell and not being so concerned with having it please a certain group of people or adhere to a certain formula, because I think that can be really toxic and not creatively stimulating.
Photo: Graham Wolff
Annika Wells On Writing For BTS, Her Advice For Singer/Songwriters & The Secret Value Of Making People Mad
Even when writing for massive artists like BTS, Annika Wells' MO isn't to appeal to the masses, but to be herself — even when it pisses a few people off
Annika Wells' songs have been breathed by artists that 99% of us could only fantasize about working with — including the titans of K-pop, BTS. And the 25-year-old got there not by trying to appeal to everybody at once, but by entertaining herself first and foremost — and trusting that the right audience will find her in the end.
"My favorite art is art that's made somebody mad. It means you're saying something new," the Angeleno tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom with a grin. "It's not like I'm trying to weird people out, or not not trying to weird people out. I'm saying exactly what I'm thinking and somebody somewhere is going to resonate with it."
"I would rather make one person's favorite song than 100 people's song they put on in the background when they go about their day," she adds.
For most musicians, unbending devotion to unfettered expression might leave their work unheard in the catacombs of Bandcamp. But Wells cultivated a large audience by dealing in universal concepts, like getting over heartbreak and taking a bite out of life. This applies not only to her work with BTS and Steve Aoki ("The Truth Untold"), the Jonas Brothers ("Like It's Christmas") and BAYNK ("go with u"), but her mouthy, personality-first singles under her own name, like "Fk Being Sober" and "Love Sucks."
Read on for an in-depth interview with Wells about how she entered BTS's orbit, why pleasing everyone is a no-no for artists and why finding success in the music business means "pounding down every door" until one swings open.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you talk about your songwriting process, as opposed to your performing process?
I've written for people like BTS, ILLENIUM, Hailee Steinfeld, Maggie Lindemann — a lot of people in the pop sphere. Songwriting has always been my original love. Since I was about eight years old, I've been writing music and have always known that's what I wanted to do. I absolutely love writing for myself and I also love helping other people's stories come to light. Songwriting in any capacity is my passion.
Writing for BTS sounds intense. What's that like?
I actually didn't write with them in the room, especially because they're abroad most of the time. Boy bands and girl bands' schedules are absolutely insane. It's pretty hard to get in a room with them. That session was actually a quick song in how it came about.
I wrote this ballad with one of my friends I went to Berklee College of Music with. He texted me that morning and was like, "Come join this session! Come over to my friend's place!" I was like, "Sure." We ended up writing this song about this unrequited love he had. We all loved it and the song sat around for six months.
Nobody was really picking it up. It's really hard to write a song for a pitch. Nobody was taking a bite. And then, out of the blue, one of the people we wrote it with, their publisher [made a series of connections] and got the song to BTS. [When we heard] BTS wanted to cut it, we were like, "What! That's crazy!"
It ended up being this collab with Steve Aoki and the song did incredibly well. It was such a cool surprise! I didn't get the opportunity to work with them in person, but it's funny how these opportunities all come about. You never know when something big can happen!
Do you write on a piano? On a guitar? With a digital audio workstation?
All of the above. I started writing on piano. I took classical piano lessons for about 10 years and that has always been my principal instrument.
But I've been actually writing on guitar recently because I don't know the instrument that well. I've never taken lessons. I feel like with piano, I always overthink it because I know the instrument so well. With guitar, there's room for me to play something wrong and have that mistake be cool. So, it's been fun to write for guitar recently.
Besides BTS, who else have you written for lately?
In the last year, it's been difficult, obviously, to collaborate. I've gone back to working with some people. I've been working a bit with Chloe Lilac, who's an amazing independent artist in New York. I have some stuff coming up on BAYNK's new album. Obviously, ILLENIUM and I are always collaborating. I actually had my first in-person session yesterday, which was so much fun because I'm fully vaccinated. I'm excited to finally get back into this.
What about the songs you write for yourself? Do you delineate between the two when you write, or is an Annika song just an Annika song?
There's definitely an indescribable aspect to it when it feels like me. The music I put out as myself is so deeply personal, and it's kind of the difference [between] "Am I going to tell an absolutely true story today or am I going to put on my imagination hat?" Not necessarily to make something up, but to connect to a real-life experience and tell a story that's not exactly my own.
How would you describe your voice as a songwriter?
My voice, I think, is kind of quirky. "Abrasive" sounds like too abrasive a word, but I think in some ways, it kind of is.
I want to peel back this veil of what we're supposed to say. Trying to look cool or trying to not embarrass myself. I just want to say what the f* is on my mind. What I'm actually thinking. It's more about saying what I actually want to say rather than thinking about what the audience wants to hear, and inevitably, an audience does come out of the woodwork that wants to hear that.
My favorite art is art that's made somebody mad. It means you're saying something new. Somebody's getting pissed off by it. It's not like I'm trying to weird people out, or not not trying to weird people out. I'm saying exactly what I'm thinking and somebody somewhere is going to resonate with it.
I would rather make one person's favorite song than 100 people's song they put on in the background when they go about their day.
Which songwriters are you checking out lately?
Julia Michaels has always been a favorite of mine. I've been obsessed with her and Justin Tranter since I was in high school. I remember my mom somehow found an article about Justin Tranter and was like, "You need to hear about this guy! You're going to love him!" I became obsessed with their writing style. I love how Julia started this new era of speaking so colloquially—those talking lyrics.
I also love Coldplay. Chris Martin has inspired so many melodies and also piano voicings. I absolutely love their voicings and how they use these pop chords, but if you actually look at the inversions and structures, it's really complex but they communicate in a way that's so accessible.
Anyone from, say, the '50s through the '80s?
My favorite album of all time is Ella and Louis. That one absolutely stabbed me in the heart. That's the first record I ever bought. Before I even bought a record player, I bought that record and carried it around with me for, like, three years. It's so scratched by now that I need to get a new one since I've listened to it literally hundreds and hundreds of times.
Do you have any advice for younger writers?
My one piece of advice I always go back to in terms of finding opportunities or getting people to hear your music — or generally finding success in the industry — is to get creative with the avenues you're trying.
The ways I've always found success have been because I've not just knocked on every door, but pounded down every door. Nine out of 10 times, the door's not going to open up! But then one out of 10 is going to open up. If you're the one person who's actively pounding down every door, you're going to be the one who gets through it.
Just try every avenue. Try something weird. Try something people aren't thinking of doing. Just get creative with how you look for opportunities and you're going to find something.
Photo courtesy of Warner Records
Bebe Rexha On 'Better Mistakes,' Working With Travis Barker & Her Dream Collaboration
Bebe Rexha spoke to GRAMMY.com about working with Travis Barker, mental health and the hardest song to put on her new album, 'Better Mistakes'
Bebe Rexha has never been averse to sharing raw emotion. But with Better Mistakes, her second album, she dug even deeper.
"I was coming to an acceptance of myself and being like 'This is what I've gone through, this is who I am,'" the singer/songwriter tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom from her home in Los Angeles. What that meant, Rexha says, was dissecting her mental health issues further and admitting her self-sabotaging and jealous tendencies.
But Better Mistakes came with some familiarity, too. Rexha, who's found a handful of hits with everyone from Florida Georgia Line to The Chainsmokers, wasn't shy about having a cohort of collaborators on the 13-track record. Everyone from Doja Cat to Travis Barker are featured on Better Mistakes. And as always, Rexha's explosive vocals dominate the album, which oscillates between pop, hip-hop and rock.
To mark the release of Better Mistakes on May 7, Rexha spoke to GRAMMY.com about working with Barker, mental health and the hardest song to put on the album.
What was the process of making Better Mistakes like for you?
It was a good two-and-a-half, three years ago. I was going through the phase of accepting myself and all the things that I was going through, but I'm still a bit unhappy with myself as a person. And I got into the studio with Justin Tranter, and we just started writing. He makes me feel really safe, and he just told me, "Let's write about real things that you're going through, jealousy, mental health, your body." That's what we did.
You've always been brutally honest in your music. How did you take that to a different place with your new LP?
I mean, I didn't really. I've always talked about my mental health and the struggles that I have with myself. But then I feel like getting to a point where we're talking about self-sabotage and then actually being jealous of other females. I feel like that's another step.
I think there are levels in life and things that you go through, and it was just things that were coming up. I was dealing with not accepting my mental health diagnosis and new things that were coming up in my life, and then that's when we wrote "Break My Heart Myself." And I was coming to an acceptance of myself and being like "This is what I've gone through, this is who I am."
I get jealous sometimes. I'm not what a normal, hot girl should look like in terms of size. I have a mental illness; I deal with it constantly. Sometimes I am my own worst enemy, and we were just talking about things that I was actually just dealing with and things that I was just trying to come to accept.
What was it like for you when you finally got the proper mental health diagnosis?
When I got my diagnosis about being bipolar, I kind of knew all my life that there was something not right with me. [Doctors] were always kind of like, "Oh, anxiety, depression, anxiety, depression". Like, is there ever going to be an end to this?
And then there were moments of clicking. I would go to an industry party, and it's kind of good to be seen and kiss babies and hug people. However, when I would go to these things I would just feel so stressed and so anxious I couldn't do it. I couldn't even get ready. That's when I was like, "Thank God I have people helping me get ready because I could never do it myself—like, ever."
I have a very hard time leaving the house. And when I finally figured out what my diagnosis was, I kind of was upset and angry because then I felt kind of embarrassed. I was like, "Is there something wrong with me?" Because there's such a stigma behind mental health and mental illness, I was kind of embarrassed and then I was kind of like, "No, I'm not going to be embarrassed or victimize myself."
And that's when we wrote "Break My Heart Myself." People think it's about love, but it's actually not about love. It's a song saying I've already broken my heart so many times by self-sabotaging [and] being in situations where I couldn't control the way that I was feeling, and I don't need anybody else to come into my life — whether it's a hater, a lover or a friend—I broke my heart.
So, it's kind of anthemic and empowering: I don't need anybody to hurt me, I've done it myself.
For "Break My Heart Myself," you collaborated with Travis Barker. Was that a way to pay homage to your days in Black Cards with Pete Wentz?
Yeah. For me it's like, I was always such a fan of Blink-182, but I feel like the true artist in me is that girl. Sometimes I battle wanting to make songs like that and just being that girl fully. But then, I feel the stress of having hit records, what pop music is and what's selling is constantly a battle within myself.
It's a lot of stress to be successful and to stay on top. So, my favorite song on the album is definitely "Break My Heart Myself," and it just felt like the most me. I wanted another element, and I thought that he would be perfect for it, so I asked him. Working with Travis has been very eye-opening because he comes to set and will literally play the drum part over and over.
Travis does not complain, is kind and every time he plays the drum and his part, he fking nails every [time]. He does not miss one kick drum, one snare, one cymbal. He just fking loves it.
That leads to my next question. Listening to the runs and some of the sounds on the record, did any specific rock albums or artists influenced Better Mistakes?
Yeah. I love The Killers, obviously Queen. More currently, Twenty One Pilots. I grew up listening to a lot of No Doubt. I listened to Aerosmith, Nirvana and Led Zeppelin, but I also listened to a lot of Lauryn Hill. I love The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I'm also Red Hot Chili Peppers obsessed. I love having a sheen of some type of rock somewhere. That's what really makes me happy.
You recently addressed being sexually fluid. What made you want to talk about that now?
Because I've been super-honest more than ever. There's nothing to hold back. I feel [freer] to be myself because I feel like I've come to a certain point where I'm not worried if people don't accept me or not because I'm lucky to have had some success and I feel that I can be myself fully.
I already have my fans who love me, and I know they always got my back. In the beginning, you get kind of scared, you don't want to be judged. But now I'm just 100% myself. This is me with all my imperfections.
There's obviously a lot of power that comes in owning your mistakes and I feel like that's something that you've always done. Why is it important for you to write songs about that?
We all make mistakes, and when I was younger I was like, "I can't wait to grow up, get my st together I'm gonna figure it all out. I'm gonna be peaceful, and everything's gonna make sense." Then when you grow up you're like, "I'm wiser, but I still don't know everything, I don't have the answer to all the things that I wish I had the answer to and I'm still quite fked up."
It's so important that we just talk about being compassionate with ourselves more than anything, wherever you are in your life, because we're always making mistakes. We have to just learn how to accept ourselves because we're all human. I'm still making mistakes but I'm making better ones.
While putting together the record, did you face any challenges?
My mom doesn't love "Mama" because my mom had me when she was super-young. She was 17, and we kind of grew up together. She was more like a sister, and I think that for her, the hardest thing with this album is she takes things very personally, especially when I talk about my struggles.
She feels like she did something wrong. She doesn't understand that it has nothing to do with her, she did a great job. I was scared to put "Mama" on there because I was really dramatic with that record and saying "I don't belong to heaven but because I sold my soul just like you have."
But what I was trying to say was, "I'm not perfect, and neither are you, Mom." That was a tough one. She hates that song. But it is what it is.
Many of your hits have been collaborations. Who do you dream of collaborating with?
I have so many people that I want to collaborate with. I would love to collaborate with System of a Down. I love them so much. My favorite thing is to get in the room, but if I could, I would even send a track over and have them mess with it.