It's tempting to play the numbers game with Justin Bieber's Purpose. More than two years in the making. His fifth million-plus selling album. Three Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hits, and a spot atop the Billboard 200. Certified triple platinum by the RIAA.
But beyond sheer numbers, the album speaks to Bieber's ability to beat the odds in an industry where the half-life of most teen pop stars can be measured in months rather than years.
It's worth remembering, after all, that Bieber was just 15 when he scored his first Top 10 record. Now an industry veteran at the age of 22, Bieber is a top GRAMMY contender with four nominations: Album Of The Year and Best Pop Vocal Album for Purpose, and Song Of The Year and Best Pop Solo Performance for his No. 1 hit "Love Yourself."
Following, key participants give the inside story behind Bieber's Purpose.
Randy Merrill (mastering engineer): A project doesn't make it to this level without having good songwriting, production, recording, mixing, and mastering. Purpose feels like a very personal album for Justin. The lyrics seem to come from his heart, expressing honest sentiments. So they don't come across as contrived or manufactured, just real and honest, delivered with his signature voice.
*Skrillex (featured artist/producer): His album is so honest to who he is right now. He's still a pop star making pop music, but at the same time, all the stuff I worked on with him had a sense of honesty about it. I'm not saying he wasn't honest before, but when you listen to his lyrics, you can tell he is becoming an adult.
Josh Gudwin (producer/engineer/mixer): Initially we were just expanding on the style of music Justin was making at the time, but during the last six months of the process things really evolved and took shape. Every day in the studio we talked about the music and Justin strived to improve constantly. When it was go time, the direction set its own course naturally and we embraced that all the way.
Steve James (co-writer/producer): As an electronic producer, I was really excited to work on more fleshed out and rhythmic productions. But the more we sat with the song "Purpose" — and once Justin sang it — it was obvious that it would be best communicated stripped down, letting the lyrics and message really speak. Ballads usually work best either as acoustic or massive anthemic productions. And for "Purpose," the former was the obvious choice.
Chris "Tek" O'Ryan (engineer/mixer): The vocals for this album were really focused on a strong lead and not a lot of background vocals like previous records. This presents the challenge of making sure that lead vocal is "the one." It has to be perfect in every way — feel, emotion, timing, groove, and pitch — as there's not a lot of backgrounds and tricks to hide any flaws. This was especially true for "Love Yourself," and the result speaks for itself.
O'Ryan: I think this is the album where Justin really found his best tonal sweet spot, and I think that came naturally from him writing so much of it. He also was producing his own vocals, so he did what felt natural and I think that really comes across to the audience.
**Justin Bieber (artist): You never know what people are going to like. I've just got to the point where [I accept] what I feel and [go] with my gut.
Gudwin: A lot of writing took place in the studio. Some days Justin would come in to write by himself, and other times he collaborated with [producer Jason "Poo Bear" Boyd]. When he really liked a fully composed song that came in but felt there were parts lyrically or melodically that could change to suit him better, he would rewrite them on the spot.
Tom Coyne (mastering engineer): One thing that really helped is the fact that the vocals were so well recorded and produced. This made it easier to pull all the songs together into a consistent sound across the album. For a vocally driven album such as this, it's always important for the vocals to be consistent throughout the album in order to tie the whole thing together.
Gudwin: All the way up to mixing, it wasn't unusual for Justin to recut certain parts. Over the course of the project Justin's voice reached a very stable point tonally, and his delivery was dialed in. He was very conscious of where his voice was sitting within the album and we worked hard to achieve consistency throughout the entire body of work.
James: I'm immensely grateful for this opportunity. In the third week of my first summer in Los Angeles — when I was 17 — we wrote ["Purpose"] together. And as a result of that, I left school and moved across the country and have been working on music every day since. This song opened so many doors for me.
**Bieber: I named the album Purpose. And the reason why I named it Purpose was because for a while there I feel like I lost my purpose and I feel like I found my purpose again. So just … that message to say no matter how far you feel like you are away from yourself or you feel like you don't have your purpose or you don't know what your purpose is, or you feel like you lost your purpose, there's always room to find that purpose again.
*As told to NME
** As told to BBC Radio 1
Bill Forman is a writer and music editor for the Colorado Springs Independent and the former publications director for The Recording Academy.
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