Having previously worked with G.O.O.D. Music, T.I., and 2 Chainz, Brown was led towards pop music after finding himself in a studio session that included both Grande and Nick Jonas. He formed an unbreakable bond Grande (who was the star of Sam & Cat at the time), both in and out of the studio.
The first song they worked on was “Honeymoon Avenue,” the opening track on Yours Truly, with the help of Babyface. Since then, Brown has written and produced on all of Grande’s albums, including Dangerous Woman’s “Let Me Love You” and “Be Alright,” Sweetener’s “Better Off” and “Goodnight n Go,” her entire holiday EP, Christmas & Chill, and most recently, her fifth studio album, Thank U, Next.
From the album’s origin story to its quick turnaround to tales of flowing champagne and shopping sprees at Tiffany’s, Thank U, Next has captured the hearts of long-time Arianators and casual listeners. Tommy Brown spoke with us about what made Thank U, Next so special and Grande’s growth as an artist. The interview, edited and condensed for clarity, is below.
How was the process for Thank U, Next different from working on Ariana's previous albums?
In the beginning, it was never about going to the studio to do the songs. It was more about going for therapy for everybody, because as you know, we lost a very close friend. We said, "Let's just throw some paint and see what we come up with." We went in, and then song after song just came out incredible: “Thank U, Next,” “Needy,” “NASA,” “7 Rings,” “Make Up.” I was like, "Okay, I think we're on to something."
One thing that was different was that we did it in New York [versus Los Angeles], so we had very few distractions. It was really, really zeroed in. We were only supposed to be there for a few days, but we ended up extending to two weeks. We had a white board where we’d write the titles of the songs that we were doing. Then one day, [Ariana] went over and circled “Thank U, Next” on the board, and she was like, "That's the title of the album." That was the moment where it was like, "Oh, this is a real thing that's happening."
What was the vibe like in the studio?
Like I said, it was kind of like therapy. With me, we’re always ordering pizza, and this time we were drinking champagne, too. So the songs that came out were more friends just talking, rather than saying, "Okay, let's go write a club song," or, "Let's go write this." It was literally us talking through what we were going through, how we felt, and how [Ariana] felt.
Do you think that your friendship with Ariana has contributed to the quality of the work?
That's a real thing. When we went in to do these records, I don't think she wanted to even go and record songs. It was just, "Let's go to the studio and mess around and see what happens." I think having a close friendship with her helped, because we were able to sync. There are things that we've been through, stories that we share that we're able to talk about, different things we've lived through.
I think I’ve [also] just found an artist who is truly loyal to the creators. [Ariana is] an artist who truly appreciates the work. I think that's an incredible attribute that she has.
Why do you think that this album in particular has taken off the way it has?
When we did "Thank U, Next," [Ariana] literally called me at 8:00 a.m. and said, "Hey Tommy, did you see everything that's going on with the 'Thank U, Next' tweet? I'll be at your house in an hour. Let’s get the song mixed and put it out today." I was talking to Big Sean last night about the process [of “Thank U, Next”], because I've seen it from my side and he's seen it from his. He's like, "She sent me the song and I was like, ‘Man, this song's incredible, and it's her truth.’"
A lot of times with artists, as a composer or writer, it's like, "Hey, how are you feeling? What are you going through?” Or, “I need something they can play in the club." We didn't go into it with that thought process. We went in thinking, “Let's just go and write however we feel.” So as a result, [Ariana] has these songs that are so, so personal. I'm sure for her it was a bit scary to be so personal, but I think that has contributed to the success of the album.
[Ariana] was always a boss, but seeing the way she’s grown—she knows how to direct studio sessions.
Do you have any stories from the making of this album?
We all stayed in a hotel in New York, and before every session, everybody would meet downstairs and have a glass of champagne—some of us may have had two, some of us had just a half of one. But it was always a bonding moment, being able to sit down, have a drink, and be like, "Here we go, y'all ready to do this?" Then we’d get to the studio and have more champagne, and it just allowed us to be open and build an unbreakable bond.
I only know about the songs that we did, but they sit high on the value chart in my heart, because it was really just friends doing what we do. We always think, "Yeah, this is going to be the biggest song in the world." We always say that. But then to actually see that [“Thank U, Next”] also resonated with other people... I think the emotion that we put into this music, into these songs, really helped shift the world.
Do you have a favorite song that you worked on from Thank U, Next?
My favorite song is “Needy.” I never knew how to play instruments. The music camp that I grew up in was an R&B camp, and everybody knew how to play except for me. I had to sit in the back room and learn how to play instruments. So it's funny to me, now, that I do Ariana's ballads—from “My Everything,” to a lot of her other ballads. To do that and not necessarily come from a musical background, I really love it.
There was some controversy surrounding the release of “7 Rings,” which you produced. Can you speak to that at all?
When we’re in the studio, Ariana likes to listen to rap music, pop music, everything. If you look back at her previous albums, we’ve had Lil Wayne, Future, different people. Originally I was a rap producer, never knew I was going to get into pop.
So for us, doing our therapy [in the studio], we just literally were like, "Hey, let's have breakfast at Tiffany's." They bought the rings. I was like, "Let's do a song about it." Came back [to the studio] and boom, “7 Rings” happened. I was like, "Okay, this is kind of crazy. We've never heard this before, but this is sick." It was just fun.
Has this whole experience with Thank U, Next changed your perspective on the way music is released today?
I’ve worked on both rap and pop music, and the difference between the two is that pop music is so much more calculated, and rap music is, "Let's throw it out and see what happens." So I think more of a rap approach to releasing music, and not being just so stuck to what everybody else does, works. It worked out for us, specifically, because Thank U, Next was a real-time story. It was like, "This is what's going on in her life, and boom, here's the soundtrack to it."
I encourage everybody to put out music when they feel compelled. This was real time. When the music came out, everything that was talked about was common knowledge. It wasn't like, "This happened six months ago." It was just insane to see it done in real time, and then the effect it had on the world.
This is just the beginning for her—that's the scary part.
You write songs and produce. How do those processes inform one another?
I was songwriting before I was producing, and I love songwriting. What I do is try to pick the all-star players around me, who also happen to be my friends. So when I'm stepping into the room with these people, like Victoria Monet, Njomza, Tayla Parx, and other people, I don't need to write, because they're so talented. I wouldn't want to look silly trying to build something subpar to these women who are writing these songs—they're incredible.
There are times where I do jump in and love to write songs, but in this case, there was no way I could do anything better than they did. I'm a very big supporter of women, so it just made me so happy that it was all women who came together and put these records together. I got to sick back and be like, "Okay, touché."
Having produced with Ariana since her debut album, how has her music and her artistry evolved? And what has stayed the same?
She was always a boss, but seeing the way she’s grown, she knows how to direct studio sessions. She writes, she even comps her own vocals on the computer. She goes in, sings, comes out, and tells the engineer to politely evacuate the seat, and she's hands on from there. We can literally leave her in a room and come back and she can have a whole song recorded without anybody in there. It’s crazy to see the growth that she’s had. I'm just happy she doesn't make beats—if she did, I might be out of a job.
What attracts you to working on pop music?
I never thought I was going to be a pop producer. I was just a producer who loved music. I was doing songs with rappers, and then it just started happening and I found my success in pop music. I just love working with singers, and when [Ariana and I] found each other and I heard her voice. It was like, “This is what I want to do.” I love going in and crafting songs, and not just, "Hey man, here's 100 beats; let me know what you rap on." I like literally sitting there with the artist and building something from scratch.
Do you feel like after this album, people are starting to take Ariana more seriously?
If they didn't before and they do now, welcome to the club. This is just the beginning for her—that's the scary part. When we were at the album release party, she and I were sitting there talking about songs and she's like, "Tommy, we're sick." I'm like, "What do you mean?" She says, "We're at my AG5 release party talking about AG6." I think a lot more people are going to take her seriously now, if they didn't before.