Andrew Watt, Producer In Demand, On Living His Rock Fantasies

May 19, 2020
Originally published on May 19, 2020 1:04 pm

Andrew Watt is one of pop music's hottest hired guns. The 29-year-old has written and produced for megastars including Post Malone, Cardi B, Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. His calling card is blending of-the-moment pop with a rock aesthetic. Last month, shortly after recovering from COVID-19, he played guitar while Miley Cyrus covered Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" on Saturday Night Live.

Watt says guitar has always been his true love — one he'll get to embrace fully on an upcoming solo album — while writing and producing for pop royalty has been one successful detour in a life full of many. He first caught the music bug when he was 10 and went to see a cousin's play.

"There was a pit band and there was a guy with long hair, and he was playing bass guitar," Watt remembers. "And the guy was rocking out. I couldn't stop watching him." Soon after, he got a guitar of his own. "There was never a moment from that point on in my life that I wasn't playing."

Watt enrolled at New York University's music school, where he managed to secure an internship with The Roots, expanding his musical chops beyond rock. "I started wanting to play with hip-hop artists after that and use the guitar in a different way," he says.

Watt's next gig was playing guitar for the songwriter Jared Evan, whose song "In Love with You" became an unexpected hit. A tour was scheduled, and Watt decided he was definitely going — even if it meant missing weeks of college. The decision didn't go over well with his family.

"I just went and I didn't tell anyone," he remembers. "My dad is calling me because they found out I hadn't been in school for a couple of weeks, and it's not the American ring [on the phone] — he's hearing a European ring."

Watt's father cut him off financially. He says that to have money to eat, he had to drop out of college and really hustle — but in the end, it's what forced him to dedicate himself to music. "If he didn't give me that push, I wouldn't have stepped up in the same way," he says.

Part of that dedication meant realizing when it was time to step back from his own music and start writing for others. "I really think it's so incredibly important to understand when to pivot," he says. "I started out playing guitar for other people and wanting to be a rock artist, and then when it wasn't getting me to where I could be successful and really just live off of this, I pivoted to writing songs for other people."

Those "other people" came to include the biggest names in pop — such as Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello, who racked up over a billion streams on Spotify last year with the Watt-composed single "Señorita," partially inspired by Jose Feliciano's cover of the Doors' "Light My Fire."

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Watt says he also sees collaborations in his imagination. He once heard a story about his friend, the rapper Post Malone, going out drinking one night at an LA club and buying a picture off the wall of his idol, the heavy metal legend Ozzy Osbourne. "I just saw this picture in my brain of Post holding a photograph of Ozzy, hammered, walking down Sunset Boulevard," he says. "And that was when the idea hit me: 'Man, if Post and Ozzy did a song together, it would be absolutely insane."

Watt floated the idea to Ozzy's daughter Kelly; she liked it. So Watt and Post wrote a song together and sent it to Ozzy. They didn't hear back for a long time. "What I didn't realize — Ozzy had just gotten really sick, right when we made this song," Watt says. "He broke his neck, and then he had pneumonia that he couldn't come back from."

Months later when Ozzy got out of the hospital, the family told Watt to come by. They agreed to do the song, but there were ground rules: Because he was still recovering, Ozzy needed to get in and out of studio fast. Watt thought he had maybe 45 minutes.

"So there's an extra bit of pressure: We've got to get it quick, we've got to make it easy for him," he says. "So he comes over, and when he gets down to the studio, his eyes light up and he turns into a little kid, saying, 'What about this lyric? And what about this melody? And can we change this, and do that?' and just this collaborative thing. And he stayed at my house for five hours."

After the session, Watt says, Kelly Osbourne called him in tears.

"She's like 'Andrew, my dad is taking my mom out for dinner for the first time in months since he's been sick. He's laughing. He's smiling. This has helped him so much and made me feel like my dad is my dad again.' It was the first time I had ever been involved in something where it was more than the music," Watt says. "This was breathing life into something."

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After that, Ozzy decided to record a full album, his first in a decade, and chose Watt to produce it. Released in February, Ordinary Man boasts an all-star cast of Watt's childhood heroes — players from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Guns N' Roses and Rage Against the Machine.

"I got to work with Slash. Ozzy sent me to Atlanta to record Elton John on piano," Watt says. "They were all things that I just dreamed of. I literally had Chili Peppers and Guns N' Roses posters in my bedroom as a kid."

Watt was finally living his rock star dreams. But he says he took the long way — and a few detours — to get there.

"I think that dreams develop. Some people are blessed to get there in a straight line, and other people, they've got to go the semi-circle route," he says. "I think in the semi-circle route, you learn a lot more about yourself. I'm at a place now where I'm making my album this year. That was always the initial dream, and I'm here, about to do it."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The producer Andrew Watt is one of pop music's hottest hired guns. The 29-year-old has written and produced for Cardi B, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and so many other huge stars. His calling card, really, is blending of-the-moment pop with a rock aesthetic. Miley Cyrus doing Pink Floyd pretty much drives that point home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WISH YOU WERE HERE")

MILEY CYRUS: (Singing) So - so you think you can tell...

GREENE: Miley was singing here with Watt on guitar recently on "Saturday Night Live." Guitar was always Watt's true love. He always dreamed of rocking on stage to a packed stadium. And he is about to release a new solo album soon. Writing and producing for megastars, well, that's been one successful detour in a life full of so many. I reached Andrew Watt at his home studio in Beverly Hills, where he actually just got over a case of COVID-19. We talked about his journey from hard-rocking teen to hit-maker in a career that all began when he was 10 years old and he went to see a cousin's play.

ANDREW WATT: I didn't want to be there. And there was a pit band, and there was a guy with long hair, and he was playing bass guitar. And the guy was rocking out. I couldn't stop watching him.

GREENE: Soon after, Watt got a guitar of his own.

WATT: There was never a moment from that point on in my life that I wasn't playing.

GREENE: He played at music school at New York University. He did an internship with "The Tonight Show" house band The Roots.

WATT: I started wanting to play with hip-hop artists after that and use the guitar in a different way. I got a gig playing with this artist named Jared Evan, and his song went No. 1 in Greece.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN LOVE WITH YOU")

JARED EVAN: (Singing) Hey, hey - I'm in love with you.

GREENE: A tour was scheduled, and Watt decided that he was definitely going, even if it meant missing weeks of college.

WATT: I just went.

GREENE: Wow.

WATT: And I didn't tell anyone. My dad is calling me because they found out that I hadn't been in school for a couple weeks. And it's going - like, not the American ring, you know? He's hearing, like, a European ring.

GREENE: (Laughter).

Yeah, that didn't go over so well with the family. Watt's dad cut him off financially. To have money to eat, he had to drop out of college and really hustle. Music became more than a passion; it had to pay the bills.

WATT: If he didn't give me that push, I wouldn't have stepped up in the same way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SENORITA")

CAMILA CABELLO: (Singing) I love it when you call me senorita.

GREENE: You know, I went on to Spotify, and I just started listening to stuff. And it's like (laughter) every megahit in different genres recently you're somehow connected to. It's stunning.

WATT: Thank you, man. I really think it's so incredibly important to understand when to pivot. I started out playing guitar for other people and wanting to be a rock artist. And then when it wasn't getting me to where I could be successful and really just live off of this, I pivoted to writing songs for other people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SENORITA")

SHAWN MENDES AND CAMILA CABELLO: (Singing) ...Don't stop. I love it when you call me senorita.

GREENE: Other people like Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello, producing this, the most streamed song in the world on Spotify last year, with more than a billion streams. Can you even describe or understand why it reached such immense popularity?

WATT: Anyone that answers that question with certainty doesn't know what the hell they're talking about.

GREENE: And that's the thing - Andrew Watt sometimes finds this wild success going off instinct. He knows what he likes. He imagines collaborations. There was a story he had heard about his friend, the rapper Post Malone. Post was out drinking one night at this LA club, and he bought a picture off the wall of his idol, the heavy metal legend Ozzy Osbourne.

WATT: And I just saw this picture in my brain of Post holding a photograph of Ozzy, hammered, walking down Sunset Boulevard. And that was when the idea hit me - man, if Post and Ozzy did a song together, it would be absolutely insane.

GREENE: Watt floated this idea to Ozzy's daughter Kelly, and she liked it. So Watt and Post wrote a song together, and they sent it to Ozzy.

WATT: What I didn't realize - Ozzy had just gotten really sick...

GREENE: Yeah.

WATT: ...Like, right when we made the song, you know. He broke his neck, and then he had pneumonia that he couldn't come back from.

GREENE: But Watt kept checking in. And months later, when Ozzy got out of the hospital, the family told Watt to come by. He and Ozzy agreed to do the song. But there were ground rules laid out by Ozzy's wife Sharon. She said Ozzy was still recovering, so get him in and out of that studio fast. Watt thought he maybe had 45 minutes.

WATT: You know, so there's an extra bit of pressure. We got to get it quick. We got to make it easy for him. And so he comes over, and when he gets down to the studio, his eyes light up, and he turns into, like, a little kid, saying, what about this lyric, and what about this melody, and could we change this and do that? And it's just this collaborative thing. And he stayed at my house for five hours.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE WHAT YOU WANT")

OZZY OSBOURNE: (Singing) I feel you crumble in my arms down to your heart of stone.

GREENE: After this session, Watt says Ozzy's daughter called him in tears.

WATT: She's like, Andrew, my dad is taking my mom out for dinner for the first time in months since he's been sick. He's laughing. He's smiling.

GREENE: Wow.

WATT: This has helped him so much and made me feel like my dad is my dad again.

GREENE: That must have meant the world to you.

WATT: It was the first time I ever have been involved in something where it was more than the music, you know. This was breathing life into someone.

GREENE: From there, Ozzy decided he was going to record a full album, his first in a decade, and he chose Watt to produce it. It had an all-star cast of Watt's childhood heroes - players from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Guns N' Roses, Rage Against the Machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORDINARY MAN")

OSBOURNE: (Singing) I was unprepared for fame, then everybody knew my name.

WATT: I got to work with Slash, and Ozzy sent me to Atlanta to record Elton John on piano. And they were all things that I just dreamed of, you know. I literally had Chili Peppers and Guns N' Roses posters in my bedroom as a kid.

GREENE: That's what I wonder. I mean, as amazing as this is, do you ever think about, like, did all the producing overshadow the dream that is still inside you as a 10-year-old?

WATT: I think that dreams develop. Some people are blessed to get there in a straight line, and other people, they got to do the semicircle route. And I think in the semicircle route, you learn a lot more about yourself. And yeah, I'm at the place now where I'm making my album this year. So that was always the initial dream, and I'm here about to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ORDINARY MAN")

OSBOURNE: (Singing) Yes, the truth is I don't want to die an ordinary man.

GREENE: Best of luck with your solo album this year. We'll be listening for it.

WATT: Thank you, dude.

GREENE: That was producer Andrew Watt talking about his career in music.

(SOUNDBITE OF OZZY OSBOURNE SONG, "ORDINARY MAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.