This is how you make a Justin Bieber song
If you haven’t yet heard the Justin Bieber song “Thought of You,” it is only a matter of time. It’s the ninth track on Bieber’s third album, Believe, and while it has yet to hit airwaves as a single, its earworm potential is undeniable. There’s something joyous about the way all the sounds come in and start grooving together, a blend of sugary synths, handclaps and sirens. The song demonstrates the weird mix of euphoria and precision that now characterizes pop music. You get the sense that the man behind the track is part composer, part gem cutter and part drill sergeant.
The man behind “Thought of You” is Ariel Rechtshaid. He is a 32-year-old music writer and producer who has worked with a notably diverse set of artists, including Usher, Cass McCombs, Snoop Dogg, We Are Scientists, Glasser and Theophilus London. He masterminded the 2005 platinum-selling ballad “Hey There Delilah” by the Plain White T’s and is a veteran performer in his own right.
As a producer, Rechtshaid isn’t as well known as Max Martin, Dr. Luke or David Guetta (they’re the kings of production, he’s still a prince), but a string of wise partnerships, including an ongoing alliance with Philadelphia-based hit-maker Diplo, makes him an artist to watch.
While Rechtshaid’s songs have the deliberate, micro-managed feel of a lot of modern pop music, they come about through experimentation. Rechtshaid builds songs from the ground up, without a particular vision in mind. He describes messing around with chords on the piano or guitar, haphazardly throwing in drum tracks, running everything through various distortions. One of his rules is not to repeat himself. That means trying to outrun not only the so-called “formula” – a typical hit’s rote journey through intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, lift, bridge and outro – but his own instincts. “I realized at a certain point that everything I knew, all my intuition, always got me to a place that I could predict,” Rechtshaid said.
What’s the most unusual song he’s ever worked on? He points to “Climax,” by Usher, which he describes as “all tension and very little release.” Restless for a slow jam but reflective for a club track, the song throbs and smolders instead of “arcing” like a standard R&B tune.
But on a basic level, Rechtshaid says, pursuing the unpredictable just comes down to making counterintuitive choices sound-by-sound – reaching for sample B when he wants to use sample A. That he takes pride in rarely deploying the same sound twice shows how far pop music has come from the days when every hit consisted of guitar, drums, bass and maybe keyboard.
At times he comes close to denying that his own works share any aesthetic at all. He believes his job involves getting inside a band’s headspace and channeling its peculiar spirit – because “every artist, every project, should be unique.” If a common theme does animate his work, it may be some version of Ezra Pound’s injunction to make it new. “I strive to create music that doesn’t sound like anything else,” he says.
As for the hits themselves, each one has its own origin story. Sometimes an artist will call and request a track from scratch. Sometimes the call comes after Rechtshaid has already been toying with a few ideas and has a portfolio to vend. Sometimes he brings an artist what he thinks will be a beautiful fit and the artist rejects it. Sometimes, after that, the two begin an impromptu brainstorming session that produces radio gold.
“Thought of You” arose in a typically contingent, unforeseeable way. According to Rechtshaid, he and Diplo received a call from Usher requesting a meeting, so the two of them began working up a chord progression and some drum tracks. When they played the embryonic song for the star, though, everyone agreed that its tone felt slightly too bright. Usher, who is close to Justin Bieber, gave Rechtshaid his blessing to present the track to the Bieber camp.