By Geoffrey Rowlands
American singer Halsey has only good things to say about hot-shot songwriter and producer Benny Blanco. “He is hands down the most tremendous human I know. Everything about him personally and professionally is unique. He has a way of really connecting with his artistes and pulling out the special elements that make the songs one of a kind. His ear is unbeatable and he can always predict a hit.”
Halsey speaks from experience. She enjoyed the benefit of Benny’s song-writing and production talents on her sophomore album, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, which took pole position on the Billboard 200 in June, 2017. She is also one of the featured vocalists on Benny’s UK chart-topping debut single, Eastside.
“It was so nice of Halsey to say those things about me,” smiled 30-year-old Benny, real name Benjamin Levin. “I’ve been very lucky to work with so many artists who have become my friends. I don’t know that I deserve all of Halsey’s kind words but I will say about myself that I seem to have an ability to know when a song is really good.”
This particular talent has brought massive success to artists such as Ed Sheeran, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, The Weeknd, Maroon 5 and many more. It has also earned Benny the Hal David Starlight Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame, multiple BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) Songwriter of the Year Awards and the iHeartRadio Producer of the Year Award. It was 25 years ago when Benny first began taking an interest in music.
“Rap was all I listened to in those days. I wanted to be a white rapper. This was before Eminem came on the scene. All my friends said I couldn’t be a rapper but when Eminem came out, I said to them: ‘See, he’s white and he’s a rapper. I can be the same.’ The problem though was I wasn’t good enough.”
He did at least acquire his professional name from this period. “I went through all kinds of rap names. I was Benny Bounce at one time. I was studying Spanish and I suddenly thought I’m white so I could just call myself Blanco, that’s Spanish for white. But a friend said I should be Benny Blanco and that sounded right.”
Having given up any thoughts of becoming a rapper, Benny tried his hand at producing. “I had a friend who made beats and thought I could do the same. The problem was I didn’t really have any equipment. I just had a Casio that I could mess around on and started making beats. They were so bad. I was 15 years old and had no concept of song structure.”
The next two years saw Benny attempt to improve his beat making and contact every successful producer on MySpace in a bid to find work. “I actually had one of my beats used in a softcore video called Hip Hop Honeys. It was produced by Jonathan Shecter, who started The Source magazine. I got a copy of the video and showed it to my friends every day. My mom would come home and turn it off but I was just excited that music I’d made was used in a video.”
His big break came when one of the people he contacted through MySpace, Disco D, real name David Shayman, invited Benny to his New York apartment.
“It was a six-hour journey from my home in Virginia but this was my chance to impress an important person in the music business and ask if I could work for him. D said he was leaving for Brazil the following week but I was hired if I could book someone to work at his studio every day he was away.
“I did get it booked the whole time and D was true to his word. I’d go to New York every weekend during high school and then I enrolled at the Institute of Audio Research in New York which meant I was able to work with D every day.”
Disco D proved to be a hard taskmaster.
“I played him all my beats and he erased everything. He said he wanted me to get better and I would only do that if I started over. He would stop work for one hour each day and teach me how to layer drums, create pre-chorus, chorus, verse, everything. I didn’t know any of these things. It was really intense but this was my musical education.”
Benny then had to recover from the shock of his mentor committing suicide.
“He was only 26. No-one could believe it. (Rapper) Spank Rock was friends with D and my manager, James Johnson. We all wanted to carry on D’s legacy. We freestyled over one of D’s beats. That led to Spank and I working on beats sampled from 2 Live Crew songs. We ended up co-writing a five-track EP called Bangers & Cash. That was in 2007.”
His work on the EP got Benny noticed in the wider music market. He was asked to create remixes, got a publishing deal and was introduced to Lukasz Gottwald, better known as Dr Luke.
“Working with Luke was like the continuation of my song-writing and production education. I learned so much from him. The time eventually came when I felt like I had to put everything I’d learned into practice and branch out on my own.”
Benny’s first big hit came about almost by accident.
“It was with 3OH!3. I was only supposed to help them add layers to one of their songs. But we got working on a new idea which turned into Don’t Trust Me. I produced the song and co-wrote it with Nathaniel (Motte) and Sean (Foreman). It reached number seven on Billboard’s Hot 100. I’d previously co-produced some really big hits but this was the first for me as the sole producer.”
His subsequent career has been filled with a succession of smash hit songs. But Benny is also involved in artist development. He has created two labels to which he signs up and coming performers. Perhaps the best known of these is Tory Lanez whose two albums have peaked at numbers four and three respectively on the Billboard 200.
After so much success writing and producing for other artists, what made Benny decide to release a song under his own name?
“I was with Ed Sheeran. We’d been watching that four-part documentary, The Defiant Ones. Ed said we should be doing more stuff and I just thought maybe I could try to make my own songs. I asked friends what they thought really expecting them to say I should stick to what I’d been doing. But every single person said I should go for it.”
Recruiting Halsey and Khalid as guest vocalists, Benny co-created Eastside with both artists plus other friends such as Ed Sheeran and Cashmere Cat.
“It was so much fun to make and very rewarding to hear Halsey say Eastside is the favourite song that she’s ever made. We recorded it at my home studio with my dogs running around. The whole process was fun. We all made our contributions to the song. That’s how I love to work. Making music should always be fun.”
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