MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the pop composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. This month, we talk to a man who’s written big hits for everyone from Justin Bieber (What Do You Mean?; Where Are U Now?), Usher (Caught Up), Chris Brown (I Can Transform Ya) and Kelly Rowland (Work). The World’s Greatest Songwriters is supported by AMRA – the global digital music collection society which strives to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in the digital age.
“Happy Birthday!” are Poo Bear’s first words to me when we chat a couple of weeks before my actual birthday.
I am not thrown. I have done my research.
Happy Birthday is the songwriter’s greeting of choice – to everyone, every day. The thinking is that we all deserve to feel as special and inspired, loved and appreciated as we do on our birthday, all the time.
The man himself was born on September 4th 1979, to an impoverished family in Connecticut. This year he marked the occasion by releasing a new track, a collaboration with superstar Brazilian singer, Anitta, called Will I See You.
If you fancied a flutter, it would be well worth betting that he also marked the day by writing a new song. The numbers would certainly be on your side.
Poo Bear says he writes around 600 songs a year. I’ll give you a minute to do the numbers regarding how prolific that makes him on a daily/weekly/monthly basis.
He says he doesn’t force these songs out; they’re all inside him, waiting to be released (and then, hopefully, actually released) – melodies, lyrics, ideas, emotions, all spilling out into some of the biggest hits of the modern era.
In fact, Poo Bear is a co-writer on one of the very biggest hits of this or any other era, the Bieber-featuring remix of Luis Fonsi’s Despacito (which followed hot on the heels of DJ Khaled’s transatlantic chart-topper, I’m The One, again featuring JB).
Hard work pays off. Especially when combined with being rather gifted.
A genuinely humble interviewee, Poo Bear has to be persuaded to reflect on the level of his current success.
He never celebrates – not when he gets a cut, not when he has a hit, and not when his songs break global streaming records across audio and video platforms.
Instead, he says, he is already thinking about the next song he’s going to write. It’s an attitude that you suspect owes much to his upbringing and, especially, his mother.
He mentions her more times than anyone else in our interview, more than any artist, more than any executive, more than Bieber.
And the only time he does reference his success is to give thanks that it has allowed him to fulfill his lifelong ambition of providing for Dolores Boyd, mother to Jason Boyd, the boy who would become Poo Bear – and the boy who, ironically, before (literally) disaster struck, she wouldn’t even allow to listen to music, let alone make it…
Tell us about your childhood. When did you first fall in love with music?
I grew up in a religious family, a strict family, so I wasn’t really allowed to listen to music, regular music. I was only allowed to listen to Christian music.
I remember, aged about eight, sneaking downstairs at three in the morning, making sure nobody saw me, and listening to Stevie Wonder, I Just Called To Say I Love You. That inspired me to want to make music. I knew then: I want to be able to make people feel the way this makes me feel right now.
“We were homeless for about a year – me, my mom and my brother. We lived wherever we could, like High School gyms or whatever.”
But I couldn’t, I didn’t have a clue; I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t play an instrument. I just had the desire.
Then, when I turned nine, my parents got a divorce and my father left. Two weeks later, the only tornado ever recorded in Connecticut history hit our neighborhood and destroyed the apartment we lived in.
We were homeless for about a year – me, my mom and my brother. We lived wherever we could, like High School gyms or whatever. Finally a church took up a collection and gave us $4,000 and we were able to move to Atlanta and start our lives over again. That was 1989.
How hard was that year for you?
It was definitely a turning point. My father leaving was tough. It’s not like now, when everyone has cell phones and social media.
He left and there was no real way to reach him. Separating is one thing, but not being able to reach him or see him was something else. But he’s human, man, everybody makes mistakes him and I’ve forgiven him now.
At the time, I was confused and I was hurt, but I decided that I was going to be the man of the house; I was going to take care of everything, take care of my mom and my family – somehow.
What was starting again in Atlanta like?
It was such an amazing city; it was the New York of the South. There was this new emerging music scene, with all these kid groups, like Another Bad Creation and Kriss Kross, and that was really inspiring as an 11 or 12-year-old who wanted to make music.
So I started groups in my neighbourhood, sometimes I was rapping, then I was singing.
“It was funny, we got ripped off pretty badly.”
Then, when I was in a group called Young Harmony, aged 12, I signed my first record deal with an independent label called Jungle Juice Records.
It was funny, we got ripped off pretty badly. When you sign a deal, you’re supposed to get an advance to live off; when we signed we got a jean suit each: jean jacket and pants. That was it.
What did your mom think of this, considering she didn’t even want you listening to music, let alone signing a record deal?
You know what, after the divorce she lightened up.
I think she felt bad for us and she started to give me options and choices. She was being very sympathetic to what we’d been through.
She ended up taking us to the studio, taking us to the shows, taking us everywhere.
the goal then, presumably, was to make it as an artist?
Yeah, we got signed, we got taken advantage of a few times and then, by the time I was 14, I was in a group called Friction.
I was writing songs for us, and my cousin, Courtney ‘Bear’ Sills, discovered the groups 112 and Jagged Edge.
112 got a deal with Puffy, on Bad Boy [Records] and I saw them go from nothing to superstars and once again, it was affirmation that this was possible.
“112 got a deal with Puffy, on Bad Boy [Records] and I saw them go from nothing to superstars and once again, it was affirmation that this was possible.”
On the second album, my cousin says, I know you’ve been writing songs, they’re good songs, and you can make money writing songs. I’m going to put you with the guys from 112 and if they like you, maybe you can work with them on this album [1998’s Room 112].
Anyway, we hit it off and the first song we did together was called Anywhere, when I was about 15. And a little while later I did a Pink record, called Love Is Such A Crazy Thing.
Had you always been writing?
Yeah, I’d been writing for my groups. I started writing when I was about 11, I was engineering and producing, because we didn’t have engineers or producers! I’m a quick learner – and it’s funny what you can do when you don’t have any other choice.
Both the Pink album [her debut, 2000’s Can’t Take Me Home] and the 112 album did a couple of million records and that built my relationship with 112.
They took me on tour with them and with Puffy and that was when we created Part III [released 2001, debuted at number two in Billboard album charts]. I wrote [Grammy nominated] Peaches & Cream and Dance With Me and a few others on that album.
I’m so appreciative of 112 for allowing me to work with them and even to this day, if they ask me to work with them, I’d 1,000% be there for them.
Tell us about Peaches & Cream and how significant that track was for you?
It was definitely a turning point in my life, because even when we were making that record, I had made a very small amount of money and I remember being hungry, literally hungry, before I wrote that song.
I was in New York with my brother and we had two dollars, which meant we could split a chicken sandwich from El Ranchero. I remember going to the studio, pretending I wasn’t hungry, pretending I was doing great and then creating Peaches & Cream – and finding it funny that I was writing about food. It must have been on my mind!
That track opened up so many more doors [and] Dance With Me meant I got to meet producers, like Dre and Vidal [Andre Harris and Vidal Davis] out of Philadelphia. They flew me out and kind of kidnapped me, then I ended up working with Jill Scott, Glen Lewis…
Is this the point where you decided that you would make the switch from artist to songwriter official and permanent?
Yes, because my group members started being a little envious of my success as a songwriter. They were kind of giving me a hard time.
We were still hanging out, I was sharing what I was getting, if I went out I’d take them with me, but their view, I think, was that I owed them – that they were entitled.
That made me realize: I don’t have to be a singer, I don’t need to be in a group, I just want to be able to take care of my ma, I just want to be able to take care of my family – and I could do that through focusing on songwriting.
Working with Dre and Vidal also lead to the next big shift through the gears, didn’t it?
That’s right, from there I ended up working with Usher on Confession’s [2004, No.1 in US and UK, 12m+ sales worldwide] and that was another big turning point in my life.
Dre and Vidal got a call from LA Reid, who, at that time was head of Arista Records, and he had heard a song [Superstar] that myself, Ryan Toby and Dre and Vidal had written and he was like, I really want Usher to cut this song.
“I had to move to LA and start my life over again, simply because I trusted someone and they’d failed me.”
So we cut Superstar, we cut Caught Up and we cut Follow Me – and Confessions turned out to be one of the biggest selling albums of the decade.
After that I ended up moving to Miami and started working with Scott Storch, including the Kelly Rowland record, Work. That was an era in my life where I learned a lot.
I was 24 and I had a producer [Storch] who was asking me to only work with him. We had an agreement and he didn’t follow his part of that agreement. I trusted him for two years but I ended up in a place where, in 2008, I had to move to LA and start my life over again, simply because I trusted someone and they’d failed me. It put me in a bad position.
How did that experience change you?
It made me realize that even having hit records doesn’t exclude you from going through stuff. It made me hit bottom again, and maybe some people thought I was done.
And then Tina Davis, who at the time managed Chris Brown, reached out to me. And this was literally right after the Rihanna incident [Brown had been charged with assault and making criminal threats against his then girlfriend]. Nobody wanted to work with him, they were all saying his career was over.
Did you have reservations about working with him though, having read about the incident?
I met with Chris and I had a conversation with him and his mom, and that gave me both sides of the story.
He and Rihanna were going through turmoil throughout the whole of their relationship. Chris Brown is human, people make mistakes; as long as he acknowledges his mistake, apologizes and understands that it is wrong to ever engage in any kind of violence against a woman, or against anyone… once I heard him say that was wrong and he was completely and utterly sorry, it gave me a new outlook on him.
Everybody deserves a second chance, man.
I went to Orlando, where it was very secluded, intentionally so, and we ended up doing a song called I Can Transform Ya and, in total, three songs on Graffiti .
After that, I moved again, this time from LA to Vegas because, to be honest, LA was a little bit too expensive for me. I was trying to be realistic and not live beyond my means.
“LA was a little bit too expensive for me. I was trying to be realistic and not live beyond my means.”
I ended up working at a studio called Future Music and in my mind it was interesting because I was thinking, people don’t really think Vegas is a place where music gets made; people come here to go to strip clubs and gamble.
So we started putting out records that were hits: House Party by Meek Mill, The Motto by Drake and it was cool, because Vegas was turning into this place where you could come hang out, but you could also get some work done.
Anyway, Vegas was where I met my friend Kyle Massey, who was Cory from That’s So Raven. One day I remember him inviting [Lil] Twist over and I recorded a record with him, because I thought his voice was cool.
Next thing, he wanted to have a birthday party and so we had it at the house where I was staying. And he invited his friend, Justin Bieber.
And that’s how I met Justin. We clicked, we hung out, we had fun, simple as that.
What were your impressions of him before you met him and how did they change once you did meet him?
Well all I really knew was that he’d had success from an extremely young age, and I never thought I’d get the opportunity to meet him, let alone work with him.
He was just a really nice person, man. He was nice to me even before he knew I was a songwriter, we were just being cool with each other as human beings.
Then when he did hear my music he immediately said, Hey, I wanna work with you.
“Justin was nice to me even before he knew I was a songwriter.”
The first song we ever did together was Recovery, on Journals [2013, Bieber’s ‘transition’ album]. He called me on the phone and said, ‘Can you flip these Craig David, Can You Fill Me In chords? Can you make a whole new record from that?’
I was so excited and inspired by the call, because, y’know, this is Justin Bieber calling me at home, and I had the song within two hours. He flew me to Boston and we cut the track. That was April 2013 – and basically he never let me go home!
Why did he do that, do you think? What did he see in you?
I think we shared this passion and love for the same style of R&B. He started to figure out the songs that I had been involved in.
His true love is R&B – he grew up singing Boyz II Men and Neo and I think hearing my music reminded him of first love.
“It was a weird time, because the media was trying to tear him down with so many lies.”
And it was a time when he wanted to create a more mature sound and I think he definitely saw that he and I could make music that we love rather than music that the audience wanted and expected.
So we did Journals, which was an R&B album, and it did a million records, but it didn’t really have the support from the label.
It was a weird time, because the media was trying to tear him down with so many lies.
How was that to witness as a friend and collaborator?
I felt it was so unfair. To see him and be with him when these things were being said about him was hard, because I knew the truth.
Like when he got arrested in Miami, he wasn’t speeding or drag racing and it was crazy to hear the lies and the accusations, because I was with him, I knew what was actually happening.
They were just lies to boost [the media’s] ratings, I get that. But as a human, he’s so sweet and it was tough man.
Everybody turned their backs and people were saying to me, ‘Why you wanna be working with Justin? His career’s over man.’
I’m looking at them thinking, You’re crazy! He’s so special.
How hard was that for him?
It was tough. I think it’s tough for anyone who goes through that kind of ridicule, let alone a teenager.
I just remember everyone was dissing him and turning their backs and at the same time, I was ready to commit to working exclusively with Justin. They were like, Wow, really?!
They thought you were going down with a sinking ship?
One thousand per cent, yes. And I just didn’t feel that way.
I loved him and I thought he was a really special artist. I used to tell him all the time, You’re gonna come out of this and you’re gonna be bigger than you were before.
Did he believe you?
I think so. I don’t know, it’s so tough, because if you had a camera pretty much constantly on any 17 or 18 year old, they’re gonna do things way worse than Justin!
You get kids going away to college for the first time, what do you think they’re doing?! So it was crazy, with the world watching his every move, every day, but it gave us fuel and fire that we took into the studio to work and create.
I remember going in and coming up with Where Are U Now and I wasn’t sure if Justin would like it or not. Then I played it for him and he went crazy for it and we ended up finishing it together in New York.
And that was another turning point in my life, because that became the big Justin Bieber comeback record.
Scooter [Braun] is such an amazing manager and he mapped out all the steps that went towards getting people to give Justin a second chance and a second listen. Scooter played a big role in that.
He was also smart enough to release it as Jack U [side project of Skrillex and Diplo] featuring Justin Bieber, because that was a way to test the water without putting everything on Justin.
“if you had a camera pretty much constantly on any 17 or 18 year old, they’re gonna do things way worse than Justin!”
Thank God it ended up catching on and growing and growing, to the point where it won a Grammy. I would say that song has the most meaning for me still, because I knew where he [Bieber] was and how the world looked to him before that song.
After it came out, he had fans he’d never had before. It was such a testament to us sticking together.
I thought after Journals I wouldn’t be able to work with him again, because Journals wasn’t a favourite with the label and wasn’t a radio success. But he’s just such a loyal person, we stayed in the studio, we stayed together and we came up with Purpose.
How sweet was that comeback for people inside the camp?
Yeah, it was great, we were humbled by it. I was emotional about it because, like I say, I didn’t think he’d work with me again after Journals. He’s the most amazing artist I’ve ever worked with, and he’s the first artist to ever say in interviews, I did my album with Poo Bear.
He’s the first person to give me recognition. I’d gotten so used to just getting publishing credit, but no public recognition that it was actually kinda awkward to hear my name out there!
“Justin’s the most amazing artist I’ve ever worked with, and he’s the first artist to ever say in interviews, I did my album with Poo Bear.”
I remember saying, Hey, you don’t have to do that man. And he was like, Are you crazy? I want everybody to know that you did this, the world should know you did this.
Most artists want to act like they did everything, and I was used to it. I was like, whatever, as long as I can take care of my mom, that’s fine, you go ahead.
But Justin is different. He also invited me on tour and that meant I got to see him perform 15 or so songs that I’d written with him. And man, I cried like a baby, because I remembered everybody giving him such a bad time, and then you look around to youngsters and adults singing these songs, singing these records that came from my heart.
Amazingly, after that, you and Justin went on to even greater success, most notably with I’m The One and Despacito. Can you talk a bit about how those records came about for you both?
With I’m the One, I remember Justin Facetime-ing me in, I think it was March, and he says, DJ Khaled’s on the way over to my house, he wants to play me this record, he says it’s a smash.
So he hears it and tells Khaled, It’s cool, but I really want me and Poo Bear to try it.
Khaled Facetimes me immediately and says Justin wants you to come up with an idea for this beat and I told him, book a studio right now. So he booked a place at Westlake Studios, where Thriller was recorded, I’m in the Michael Jackson room, and I came up with the main idea and main melody.
I sent it to Justin and he sent back a couple of notes.
I sent it to Khaled and he went crazy and then Justin came in and recorded what we created. Khaled kept saying, This is a number one record. And he was right, it debuted at number one, it was mine and Justin’s second [US] number one debut.
But it was there for one week only because Despacito came and replaced it [laughs].
How did you get involved with Despacito?
Justin was in a club in South America and he heard the [Luis Fonsi ft. Daddy Yankee original version of] the record and he just went crazy.
He called Scooter, Scooter called me and said, I want you to get in the studio and create an English remix for this record, send it to Justin and he’ll add his part.
So I remember on April 10th, which was my first wedding anniversary, going into the studio and coming up with the melody, sending it to Justin and he called me up crying, he loved it.
Then he put his part into it and sent it back.
It was all really emotional because he really believed in this record so much. It was totally his idea to do this remix, nobody came to him and asked him, or wanted to try and make money out of him, it all came from him.
We cut it, it came out four days later, it was all so quick. By then the original was at 49, it jumped to nine, and then to three, and then it replaced I’m the One at number one.
Justin’s got good ears!
He’s got amazing ears [laughs]. And I think the world has figured that out now. For him to be able to hear that track and say, I want to remix that and for it to become the most streamed song and most watched video, that says everything.
what’s next with Justin? Some time off, I guess.
Yeah, he’s taking some time off, but we’re still on the radio, you know. I’ve never met anyone who’s toured more than he has.
Artists do 50 shows, 60 shows, then at 80 shows it starts getting weird – but 150?!
That’s a little unfair and I’m just glad he made that conscious decision to look out for his health first and put that before trying to please the world.
So he’ll just call you and say, Let’s go again?
Yeah, well we’re always in touch and sending each other ideas all the time; it never stops.
He loves music and he can’t get away from music. He can take a break from touring, but he can’t take a break from music.
You’ve talked before about an instance when you heard a record and realized that you’d written it but hadn’t been given any rights or any credit. Did that really happen?
Yeah, it sounds crazy, this far into my career, but it happened.
I can’t say any names, but I was driving in my car and I heard this record, on a big album, a big album – and I was like, Wait a minute, I wrote that hook! I reached out to the person I wrote it with and they were like, Oh no, you just inspired me to write it.
Listen, I don’t need to take credit for something I didn’t do, I’ve got enough credits out there, I’m fine. So I’m not gonna be making stuff up.
“I was driving in my car and I heard this record, on a big album, a big album – and I was like, Wait a minute, I wrote that hook!”
Plus I’ve got people in the room who were saying, No, you definitely came up with that. It’s just weird, I had to go and fight for my publishing, and that was only last year.
Most people want me to have my credit, because they want to say, I did this with Poo Bear. But with this person, they wanted to take all the credit because they’re a songwriter themselves and it was an ego thing.
Anyway, I ended up getting my publishing [royalties], but I didn’t get my credit, my name’s not on that album.
But, again, that lit a fire under me and inspired me to go in the studio and create. Okay, cool, you say I inspired you, whatever, I’ve got my publishing, which is proof that I did write it and now I’m gonna go and do something way bigger.
I take it you won’t be working with that particular artist again?
Never! But you know what’s strange, they reached out to me a few months ago and said, I can’t wait to write my next album with you! I never replied, obviously, but to even text that to me!
I think there’s something wrong with him. Like, does he not remember? There’s no amount of money that could make me work with that artist. It’s especially weird for it to happen this late in my career, but it’s all good, I’ve learned from it, I protect myself even more.
Now whenever I’m creating, I always leave the memo recorder on on my phone.
Do you now feel established and confident and part of the A-list, or will you always have this underlying insecurity?
I think I’ll always naturally feel like an underdog, like I have a point to prove.
Even after Purpose, my first thought was, What am I gonna do now? And then there was I’m The One and Despacito, but still, for me, I haven’t proven I can continue to deliver, not to myself.
We’ve had the most streamed song of all time, we’ve equalled records for being at number one, but what’s after that?
For me, I never feel complacent, I never feel like I’ve ‘made it’ – and I never want to feel that, to be honest, no matter what I achieve.
“I want to grow and get better. I want a country hit, I want a country smash!”
I want to grow and get better. I want a country hit, I want a country smash! I need new goals. I wanted to break into the Latin market and we did it. So now let’s do a country record.
I have my album [coming] out, called Poo Bear Presents Birthday Music Volume 1 and the first single from it is with a huge Brazilian artist, named Anitta.
How hard do you work?
Well I work every day, and I do one, two or three songs a day, which means I get at least eight or nine songs in a week and I try and keep that average.
I aim for 600 songs a year. It’s like me in the gym, shooting free throws over and over again.
Your music is synonymous with streaming services, but despite that, do you have concerns about the financial models behind those services?
I have concerns about the amount of money that we, as songwriters, receive from those services. But we’re in a trial in Washington right now, so we’ll see.
It shouldn’t take a million spins to earn $1,000. A hundred million streams is $100,000 – and then you have to split that with everyone involved.
“It shouldn’t take a million spins to earn $1,000.”
So that’s not really fair, especially when I know the labels are making ten times that amount, and on top of that, the streaming companies are making the most, because they’re leveraging our songs to bring an audience to their platforms and then they make their money advertising to them.
Everybody’s making money off our creations and yes, that bothers me, but I do feel it will change. It may not change much, but any change is better than no change.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your time in the industry?
Never get comfortable, never get complacent, never feel like you’ve made it just because you’ve had some success.
There will always be someone out there who’s willing to work harder than you, who has the passion and the drive that you used to have.
“I’ve seen so many writers and producers come and go after they’ve got cocky and big-headed.”
I’ve seen so many writers and producers come and go after they’ve got cocky and big-headed, and I’m just so grateful for the success that I’ve had, starting in the ’90s, and to still be here doing this.
The people who last are humble and work hard, that’s why they stay in the game and those are the people I respect.
There are other people who are like, I’m the best writer, I’m the hottest producer, and then you look up and where are they?
So, did you buy your mom the house?
Oh yeah, I bought her a couple of houses! That was an amazing feeling, because it was always my goal, I just wanted to make sure she had everything she wants and lives a really cool and comfortable life, so that was a dream come true for me.
“I just wanted to make sure my mom had everything she wants and lives a really cool and comfortable life.”
But the best thing is, she’s proud of me and always says that If this success hadn’t come along, she’d still be proud of the man that I’ve become and that means everything to me.
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