Philip Lawrence: Bruno Mars’ Right Hand Man Goes Solo
Bruno Mars has enjoyed a wildly successful run on the charts thanks to “Treasure,” “When I Was Your Man,” and “Locked Out of Heaven,” all smashes that would not have been possible without Grammy nominee Philip Lawrence, one third of Mars’ production team dubbed the Smeezingtons (which also includes songwriter Ari Levine). On top of Mars, the Smeezingtons have also created hits for the likes of Flo Rida, Lil’ Wayne, Wiz Khalifa, Cee-Lo, and many more. Here, Lawrence walks me through his biggest successes, the thrill of being nominated for a Grammy, and his debut CD as a solo artist entitled Letters I Never Sent.
Let’s start out with the most obvious question: how did you first link up with Bruno? You were living in LA at the time, right?
I first got a call from a producer we were both working with in late 2006 and he said, “I got this kid who’s phenomenally talented and he’s signed to Universal Records, but I think they’re going to drop him because they don’t know what to do with him. He’s great, but he needs a writer to help get his ideas out.” At the time I was flat broke with no money, no car, and it was going to cost me everything I had to get to that studio session. Plus, I was leery at first because everyone in LA says the have the next big thing. He said, “Whatever it costs you to get out here, I’ll reimburse you.” So I said, “Just give me five dollars back for the bus.” I get to the studio, and it was Bruno, and that session was the first time either of us had written and recorded an entire song. From that point on we never stopped working together. He and I were writing songs for him as a solo artist, then would go to labels and get No’s everywhere. Finally it got to be really desperate because we started thinking we weren’t as good as we thought we were. We were toying with the idea of him moving back to Hawaii, and I was going to move back to Florida to go work at Disney World (where I was working before coming to LA). That week, we got a call from someone who is now our manager, Brandon Creed, and he was A&Ring a reunited Menudo who needed songs. He liked our song “Lost” that we had written for Bruno. At first we didn’t wanna give it up, so he said, “Well, I’ll give you $20,000 for it.” So we were like, “You can have that one and whatever else you need!” It was that call that kind of saved us and allowed us to stay in LA a little bit longer.
What were you feeling like when you were struggling in LA waiting for that big break, which really didn’t come until your late 20s or so.
Yeah, it was late. The one thing I always found to be my saving grace, even when I was struggling and broke and young the idea of leaving LA was our friendship, and family members who were supportive. I never really felt 100 percent alone, even as broke and destitute as I was, holding down these random telemarketing jobs to keep the lights on. It wasn’t that depressing of a time because I had good people around me, so I think that helps. But man, it was really rough there for awhile.
So how long was it between first arriving in California to getting your first single, which according to Wikipeida which is never wrong, was “Get Sexy” by Sugababes.
Haha, never wrong. Well, I guess there were a couple of first things. The absolute first thing I did was me and Bruno co-writing a song for Brandy called “Long Distance,” and that was 2008. Then we co-wrote Flo Rida’s “Right Round” and that was our first taste of having a successful song. Afterwards, we were getting calls to produce people.
“Right Round” was such a big track and was even in the credits of the original “Hangover,” right?
It’s unbelievable. I think it still holds the record for most downloads in a week. We couldn’t believe it, we were just over the moon because it was almost something we had accidentally written in the car one night just hanging out. It was me, Bruno, and our A&R guy Aaron Bay-Schuck. He was playing us some tracks and wanted to come up with something big for Flo Rida, and we were just throwing out 80s ideas. That night, we went to the studio and recorded it; the turnaround was unbelievable. For the sake of being corny, it was a dream come true. We had struggled for years in LA to make a name for ourselves, and finally we began to do that with that song.
Were the songs that wound up on Bruno’s first album, Doo Wops and Holligans, like “Grenade” or “Just The Way You Are,” tracks you guys had written for other artists? They’re almost like radio standards right now, and seem so perfect for Bruno.
Yeah, we got lucky. We had just been in the studio writing as much as we could the couple years before we got signed. It happened quickly because we got signed and “Nothing on You” came out and was a huge hit, then “Billionaire” came out which was also a hit; now people were like “who is this Bruno guy?” At the time, the label was telling us we had a lot of time to produce the first album, but all of that went out the window when the demand changed. They called us up and said instead of six months you have one month to finish this album. So we were scrambling trying to finish the album, and I think “Grenade” was the last song we finished.
Was that daunting at first to put a full album together, your very first thing?
It was ridiculous. We had no idea what we were doing, and for the most part we still have no idea. Back then, it was just like, “Holy hell, how are we gonna pull this off?” But still, in the midst of that we couldn’t believe we had a record deal, and that we were making songs that were hits, so it was all this fantasy. We were in kind of a haze with the success we were feeling. We knew we were right where we were supposed to be, so we thought “let’s just get this album done.”
And it’s so rare for artists because you usually see a sophomore slump; you use all the good stuff for your first album, and your second one is just scrounging stuff together and you don’t know if you’re going to repeat that same magic. Then Unorthodox Jukebox comes out, and it’s crazy how successful that album is. What was going through everyone’s minds?
Dude, we had a lot of sleepless nights! I mean, we were feeling that intense pressure, like, “You have to do that again and prove that Doo Wops wasn’t a fluke,” which is the absolute wrong mind-set to be. So those four or five months, anything we threw up on the wall was just falling- nothing would stick. Finally, we left the studio, had a few drinks and said, “Let’s chill out, relax, and not put so much pressure on ourselves. Let’s just let it come.” So then these ideas started coming out again.
The single “When I was Your Man” is the kind of a timeless song that could have been released at any point in time; from 1970’s to now.
Thank you. I think Bruno and I are both huge fans of older music, like Billy Joel and Elton John. We always loved those moments where you can sit at the piano and emote. Those intimate moments when an artist is so naked and vulnerable; you can’t help but be drawn to it. We always wanted to find a stripped down song like that, which is how that song came to be. The subject matter was real life; Bruno had experienced that, so we tried to say it in the best and catchiest way we could.
What about a song like “Treasure,” which is getting a lot of airplay right now.
Well, the thing we learned after touring with Doo Wops was how it is we like to feel on stage when performing. We’re fun, like to dance and party, and we didn’t really get to do a lot of that on the first album. So after touring the world for the first time and we saw what people love about us. Even going to festivals and seeing big bands live, like Coldplay or Bruce Springsteen, we knew the second time around we wanted something fun and that’s where “Treasure” came from. It’s the kind of song where the whole band can get up and jam and have this Earth, Wind and Fire kind of moment.
Another song from Doo Wops, “Marry You,” is played at every wedding, there’s YouTube videos of people dancing in the street to this song, people proposing to it. That’s probably gonna be the track from that album that lasts for a long time… kids are going to show wedding videos of their parents and “Marry You” is going to be playing in the background.
When we were coming up with that song, we had this image of a slow-mo video in Vegas of a couple running, and she’s in her gown and he’s in his tux, the wedding party is behind them and everyone’s raging. This sort of crazy, daring, wedding feeling. It was more of a racy kind of idea, as opposed to this classic marriage tune it has become. We always thought it was a good song and catchy, but we didn’t think it would affect pop culture the way that it has. The first time we saw one of those YouTube videos, it changed everything for us. We were almost in tears, just the power of music… the power of what it is we can create. These ideas, words, and lyrics and how they can get into the fabric of society and effect people’s lives in such an amazing way.
I have to ask you about the Grammy nomination for “Young, Wild, and Free,” it’s such a fun song and that must be awesome to get recognized.
Yeah, I didn’t see that one coming. That song was an after-thought. Most of our songs come about when freestyling in the studio; we’ll get behind the mic and sing until something sticks, and that’s exactly how it came about… we never thought it would ever be heard. Aaron Bay-Shuck heard it, and he said, “What the hell was that?!” We thought it was just a little something, and he told us it was a smash, and to finish it! So we did, and he put Wiz (Khalifa) and Snoop (Lion/Dogg) on it, and made it a hit. It’s crazy how it got nominated for a Grammy; I don’t want to diminish how good the song is though, because there’s a lot of fun behind it.
You had a hand in writing Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You.” I feel like that song was the most talked about thing for a long time in 2008. I remember me and my friend were first hearing that song by watching the lyric video on YouTube, and I thought, “Wow, this isn’t just a novelty track.” It was probably a little risky for Bruno then too, with the profanity and his squeaky-clean image then.
It was at the time, for sure. That song started off like a joke; we didn’t really think it was ever going to be played or heard anywhere. It was during a session with Cee-Lo, and we were feeling the pressure trying to come up with something to impress him. The day we were supposed to record with him, we were messing around with some ideas and came up with “I see you driving ‘round town with the girl I love and I’m like, fuck you.” And that was supposed to be the last idea we were going to show him, but it turned out to be the only thing we had. So we thought,“alright, whatever.” He shows up and we play him that ditty, and in Cee Lo fashion, he sits there for a moment to let us freak out and said, “Man, I love that! Let’s work on it.” We then proceeded to start figuring out what that song really means… the more we worked on it, the less of a joke it became. So we finished it and he recorded it that day which never happens. We sent it to the label and they freaked out and told us “this is it,” and in a million years we didn’t think that was going to happen. We thought they were going to ask for something else, but the planets aligned. We came up with the “Forget You” version for radio, and the rest is history. It was one of the more special moments I’ve ever had in the studio.
Your solo album Letters I Never Sent is so good and spot on. These are just classic songs that could have been recorded at any point, and I think those are the songs that last the most. Are these songs you had in mind for other artists?
This album came about back in 2009 when Bruno’s fame was about to rise. I moved to LA to be an artist as well and forgone that dream to write and I’ve been completely happy. But I missed myself singing and my own performance and being an artist. I had something I wanted to say, so I thought If there was ever a time to write an album, it’s now. After Bruno’s stuff, I’d go to the studio every night to write and record it. The basic premise was to not have any boundaries, and to use the influences I love, like Seal and Billy Joel. The title came from me not knowing if this album was ever going to see the light of day.
These influences can be traced throughout your entire career. Where did you grow up?
I was born in Evansville, Indiana into a very musical family. Probably 90 percent of my family can sing or play instruments of some kind. The first time I was on stage was when I was around 4 years old. My dad was a DJ in the 70s, so at any given time there were crates and crates of albums just laying around the house- everything from the Isley Brothers to the Eagles, Led Zepplin, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel- you name it, it was there. So we were inundated with music and all these styles at a young age, so I think it was inevitable what I was going to do.
So you graduate high school in Indiana, and what’s your path after that to get to LA?
I went to college and studied communications and theater for a year in Nashville, Tennessee and all I did was write songs. I would meet people and start groups, so needless to say me and school never really got along. After a year I said to my parents, “I can do this school thing if you want me to, but it’s probably going to be a waste of your money. I kind of know what it is what I want to do- perform and sing and pave that route for myself. So they said “Alright, set out on your journey and blaze a trail for yourself.” Over the years I did some theater, and one of the longest jobs I held down was worked at Disney World in Florida for about six years, and that was kind of like my college years. I came into my own as a performer there, and really kind of got the bug for songwriting. I left there to move to California and pursue my dream even further.
Rob LeDonne is a writer of comedy, articles, and songs. He’s currently a contributing joke writer for Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update and has also written material for MTV’s Video Music Awards and the Onion News Network. On the journalism side, LeDonne has also written for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Nylon Guys. Follow him on Twitter: @RobLeDonne.