In the hippest building on what has been called the coolest block in America, Venice Beach’s Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Jeff Bhasker is wearing white jeans and a T-shirt, smoking an American Spirit cigarette. He’s seated at his brand new piano in his brand new apartment.
“If I sit down and start playing something, I always have, like, a cool idea,” he says. “Something jumps out, like when I did ‘Lift Off.’ It’s on the Jay-Z, Kanye West album Watch the Throne. That music just popped out of nowhere too, and it was like, what is that?”
At Sunday’s Grammy Awards. Bhasker is the man to watch. He was nominated for a best nonclassical producer. He’s the man behind much of the success of the band fun., which is up for song, record and album of the year and best new artist. Bhasker has worked with everyone from Taylor Swift to Kanye West.
“I knew Kanye would love that music, you know, it’s like the climax. That’s the good thing about hip-hop and pop music: It should just be all climax. And then a bigger climax, and then the bridge hits, and that’s an even BIGGER climax, and you’re just like, ‘Oh, my God, I wanna die!’ “
Bhasker grew up with his piano-playing mother in Socorro, N.M., where his father has been mayor for 24 years. After playing in his high school jazz band, Bhasker studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and played with a wedding band. New York was next; he arrived there on Sept. 11, 2001.
“New York’s already a tough nut to crack,” he recalls. “But at that time, people didn’t want to help you; they were struggling themselves. No artists wanted to come to New York to record because it was terrifying. But I learned how to write songs, and I just sat in my basement and worked.
He started coming out to L.A. to work with friends, and that led to producing a song on the first album by The Game. He linked up with Bruno Mars to write songs. Then he subbed for the keyboardist on tour with Kanye West, and ended up as his music director.
“Kanye has so much enthusiasm and passion, it rubs off on people,” says Bhasker. “And getting to work on a whole album with someone who has a really strong vision, that really prepared me to take on something like fun. and do something as a whole body of work, with a concept and really strong intention and integrity.”
Still, Bhasker admits he needed some convincing to work with the indie band fun.
“It kinda took a little prodding for me to say, OK, I’ll produce this white rock band,” he says. “But it ended up being the best thing I’ve done so far.”
Lead singer Nate Ruess says Bhasker blew him off twice, before agreeing to meet up with him at the bar of the Bowery Hotel in New York. He sang the chorus to the band’s song “We Are Young” a cappella, and Bhasker’s jaw dropped. The producer got the band to record the song immediately, then ended up writing songs, producing and mixing the entire album, Some Nights.
Ruess says the band was inspired by Bhasker’s bravado. “Jeff is … I don’t want to say ‘cocky,’ but when you’re with Jeff, you feel like you have to step up to the precedent he sets,” Ruess says. “And you also feel like there’s no way that we’re gonna fail with this guy. I mean, he wouldn’t let us record anything on the album unless it was absolutely important.”
Just as with Kanye West, Beyonce and other artists, you can hear Bhasker’s influence on fun.’s album. He even got soul singer Janelle Monae to do a cameo, though Rihanna was the band’s first choice. “Rihanna was kinda our muse for the album. We had pictures of Rihanna everywhere while we were recording,” Bhasker says. “But someone threw out Janelle Monae, and I was like, ‘That’s perfect!’ I wanted it to be accessible to every fans of any genre, hip-hop, rock, classic music.”
Bhasker says he likes to “vibe out” with artists before working with them. So before recording sessions, he played basketball with Kanye West, dined with Alicia Keys, and had Taylor Swift sing and play her guitar in his living room.
“It’s like dating,” he says. “You have to kind of say, like, ‘I really like this person. I want to make a baby with them,’ ya know? ‘I wanna make a record with them, I wanna make music, I wanna make a song with them.’ You feel it pretty quickly.”
Bhasker is now hard at work with a new singer, Natalia Kills. And he’s launching his solo career under the alias Billy Kraven. “I just thought it was a cooler sounding name, and I was making these kind of dark pop songs that suited it,” he says. “It’s kinda like Billy Joel meets Wes Craven.”
After making so many catchy hits, Bhasker says the world doesn’t need one more love song or a song about partying. He wants to do something different — “leaving behind music that really moves people, that puts a tear in your eye or gets you choked up or makes you really feel something powerful.”
His upcoming solo album is about soldiers in the Middle East confronting death. But it still has a pop sound and a chorus that sticks in your head.