Songwriters Hall of Fame 2013 Hal David Starlight Awardee Benny Blanco thrilled students at the latest in the series of SHOF Master Sessions at USC Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles on February 28th.
Vice Dean of Division of Contemporary Music, Founding Director of Popular Music Program, Chris Sampson, moderated the Master Session and co-hosted the event along with SHOF Board Member Mary Jo Mennella and West Coast Projects Committee Member Barbara Cane.
It was clear from the beginning that this wasn’t going to be a typical class. “OK, here’s how we’re going to do this,” said Benny Blanco to a standing-room-only audience of students from the USC Thornton Popular Music Program. “You are just going to raise your hand and I’m going to answer questions until we run out. Ready – GO!” Immediately hands shot into the air.
Blanco’s approach immediately set a different tone; instead of a formal class, the feeling in the room was more like the students were simply hanging out with him talking about songwriting.
Benny spoke with admiration about his early experiences being mentored by producer, Disco D. “He was tough on me,” said, Blanco. “He would take an entire hard drive of my work and delete it and say, ‘Start again!’ He was like the Mr. Miyagi of producers!” Benny further explained that this very high standard helped develop and further his skills as a producer and writer.
Blanco went on to explain that each song is created differently and you never know how it’s going to emerge. He talked about one of the first times working with Dr. Luke. “I had just driven into Los Angeles from New York and I was tired. But, I thought I’d just drop by the studio really quick. Dr. Luke said we should try to make a beat. I was really tired - I wanted to get some sleep, but I said, OK. We picked up these little keyboards and instruments that were lying around and just started playing – not even in the studio, but kind of in the lounge area- and came up with two ideas. Those ideas eventually turned into ‘Teenage Dreams’ and ‘California Gurls.’”
Blanco is also known for his ability to identify a hit song. Dr. Luke has famously said that a song isn’t ready until it has been “Benny proofed.” A student asked him about this skill. “I don’t know,” responded Blanco with a humility that was present throughout the class. “I just know it when I hear it. You can hear when a song is great, right?” This response to the student was immediately empowering because it made the class realize that it wasn’t necessarily some kind of unobtainable sixth sense, but was an instinct that everybody could tap and trust for themselves.
After close to an hour of taking questions, Blanco then surprised the students by saying, “That’s enough about me. I want to hear your songs. Does anybody have any tracks they want to play?” The room immediately went into a buzz as students scrambled for their computers and phones to dial up their tracks. Blanco listened to 5 or 6 tracks from the students with a few getting his highest praise when he simply said, “That’s dope!”
Blanco concluded the class with some assuring words for the students currently working on their craft, “You’re going to be bad at the beginning. Everybody is when they start. Don’t be afraid to be bad and keep working at it – tirelessly. If you do this, it starts to get better. But, you almost have to be bad first so you can go through the entire process.”
Although the class was an informal conversation, Blanco received a standing ovation. After class, Blanco continued his generosity by hanging out and personally greeting the students and asking additional questions. As stated at the beginning, it wasn’t a typical class, and The SHOF Master Sessions, once again, provided truly unique insight into the creative minds of top songwriters from a wide range of genres.