The Backstreet Boys Were Hitless for Years. Then They Met Stuart Crichton
Crichton, a veteran writer and producer, is credited on five different songs from â€˜DNA,â€™ which debuted at Number One with 234,000 copies sold
The last eight months have been full of â€œfirst sinceâ€ moments for theÂ Backstreet Boys: â€œDonâ€™t Go Breaking My Heartâ€ became their first Grammy-nominated song since 2002, their first single to crack pop radioâ€™s Top 20 since 2005 and their first Hot 100 entry since 2007. On Sunday, the groupâ€™s new album,Â DNA, debuted at Number One, making it the ensembleâ€™s first chart-topper since 2000.
Two factors helped boost the Backstreet Boysâ€™ numbers. First,Â a bundle dealÂ â€” which lumped copies ofÂ DNAÂ in with tickets to the groupâ€™s summer tour â€” shrewdly capitalized onÂ Nineties nostalgia. Second, the Backstreet Boys paid for top songwriters and producers:Â DNAâ€˜sÂ credits include Shawn Mendes, Ryan Tedder, the Stereotypes (Bruno Mars), Kuk Harrell (Rihanna), Ross Copperman (Nashville songwriting royalty) and Brett James (ditto).
If thereâ€™s a common thread onÂ DNA, though, itâ€™s actually the work of a lesser-known musician: Stuart Crichton co-wrote four songs on the album (including â€œDonâ€™t Go Breaking My Heartâ€), helped produced another, and has a sixth on the deluxe version, more than any other writer or producer. Crichton is quietly enjoying a late-career renaissance, with Grammy nominations in three different categories this year for collaborations with the Backstreet Boys, Toni Braxton and Kygo. â€œItâ€™s quite a nice time: Hitting 50 [years old], most people say youâ€™re getting on, but I feel like Iâ€™m actually beginning to hit proper speed in my career,â€ Crichton says. â€œI finally found out what to do.â€
He spoke withÂ Rolling StoneÂ about the making ofÂ DNA. These are excerpts from the conversation.
How did you get pulled into the Backstreet Boysâ€™ orbit?
I do quite a lot of work with RCA. I produced and wrote on Keshaâ€™s last album. Conrad Sewell, Kygo â€” thereâ€™s a whole lot of artists there Iâ€™ve worked with. They said, weâ€™re looking for [songs for] the Backstreet Boys. They actually picked a song of mine called â€œProphecyâ€ that they ended up recording. It was gonna go on the album, but for some reason it didnâ€™t. This was probably a year ago. I was overseas at the time so I didnâ€™t actually meet the group.
Later, one of my friends from Scotland was over and he said, I wanna go to Vegas. We drove there, and I was playing him some songs on the way, and one of them was â€œDonâ€™t Go Breaking My Heart.â€ He said, you know who would really suit that? The Backstreet Boys. But I didnâ€™t really think anything of it.
So weâ€™re in Vegas, and I think weâ€™re about to go for a debaucherous night out. We end up going for a nice Chinese meal. Then I said, why donâ€™t we go and see the Backstreet Boys? So we ended up, two 50-year-old men, going to the Backstreet Boys show. My friend, when he was a kid, he was a punk rocker. Now heâ€™s 54 or 55, but he stood up during the whole show and sang nearly every word to every song. The show is super-tight. I know theyâ€™re doing a world tour this year, and if those shows are anything like what the Vegas show is like, those shows are going to be amazing.
We said hello [to the Backstreet Boys] after, and I said I was going to send them a song. They fell in love with it, and I think recorded it like a week later. Not long after I did â€œDonâ€™t Go Breaking My Heart,â€ which I wrote with [Stephen] Wrabel and Jamie Hartmann, Wrabel and I wrote a song called â€œChateau.â€ I played it for the guys and they wanted to cut it straightaway. They kept on saying, send us songs, send us songs. And there were songs that Iâ€™d already written that I thought, this would be perfect for the Backstreet Boys. I think I recorded seven songs with them, and they used five or six on the album.
Youâ€™ve only recently started getting some of these big pop cuts Stateside. How did you get connected the L.A. songwriting machine?
Iâ€™ve been doing this 30 years this year. I started out as an artist in 1989. There was a lot of early dance music in Scotland and the U.K., so I started getting early success with that under different monikers. Eventually I started writing songs and that kept the roof over my head. I lived in London for 18 years, then Sydney for 8 years.
I moved to Los Angeles four years ago. I love it in Australia â€” my wife and I are Scottish, but we now travel with Australian passports â€” but I felt like I needed to give it one real shot at having major success. So we decided to move to America. Los Angeles is obviously the epicenter of everything music nowadays. Just in the last year, the move seems to be really paying off.
What are your thoughts on the classic Nineties Backstreet Boys singles?
Iâ€™ve always loved pop music, and Max Martin has been the top of the pop game for so long. You couldnâ€™t fault any of the early Backstreet Boys stuff â€” itâ€™s perfect pop. One of the things that really impressed me: 25 years on, theyâ€™ve all still got amazing voices. They know instinctively who does what part and who goes where.
And theyâ€™re really nice guys. When we had the big radio hit with â€œDonâ€™t Go Breaking My Heart,â€ they were all emailing me, thanking us for putting them back into the radio Top Ten [in the Adult Contemporary format] for the first time in a long time. Obviously theyâ€™ve had a lot of radio success, but in recent years, not so much. It was great to see their faces when they were Top Ten at radio again. They even added â€œDonâ€™t Go Breaking My Heartâ€ to their show in Vegas.
As a writer, do you feel pressure to try to top the Backstreet Boysâ€™ early stuff â€” like you have to make another â€œI Want It That Way?â€
I just do my thing and donâ€™t think about it. Max Martin is the Godfather of pop writers; you donâ€™t get any better. Just even to be in the same line, working with a band that has worked with Max Martin, thatâ€™ll do it for me.
When you started looking back through songs youâ€™d written recently, how did you decide what might be good to send to the Backstreet Boys?
Something written fairly recently so theyâ€™d be modern sounding. Songs that lend themselves for multiple harmonies in the chorus, because thatâ€™s obviously what theyâ€™d want. And they were very vocal about the fact that they wanted to make the album very eclectic. So I kept on sending them stuff, and every time we met up to record stuff, I would maybe play them some more. They were very receptive. All the Boys would come back with suggestions for what we could do to make the songs better. Theyâ€™ve been doing this a long time, so they can tell you very specifically what they want. A lot of people are jaded 25 years into their career. These guys are still hungry.
â€œChateauâ€ was the next song you wrote that grabbed them?
We actually did â€œThe Way It Wasâ€ next. Then another song that never made the record. Then a song called â€œBest Daysâ€ thatâ€™s on the deluxe album. Then â€œChateauâ€ and â€œOK.â€
â€œThe Way It Wasâ€ has the classic 6/8 ballad form.
Exactly. Their voices suit that style. That was a favorite of the label. Kevin [Richardson from the Backstreet Boys] said in an interview that the album was kind of 12 potential singles, and after hearing the whole thing, I kind of agree with him.
The â€œChateauâ€ chorus reminds me of Playerâ€™s â€œBaby Come Back.â€
Itâ€™s possibly a similar narrative. Thatâ€™s all Wrabel: He writes these choruses that are lyrically so catchy. He also wrote the songÂ for the Ruth Bader Ginsburg film that Kesha sang. I thought that mightâ€™ve been up for an Oscar! But sadly itâ€™s not. Wrabel is another genius, one of the most talented people that Iâ€™ve ever met. Heâ€™s so visual. His lyrics draws you into a scene, which is such a talent to have.
You mentioned the group wanted to make an eclectic album â€” did they succeed?
The fans have now grown up, so they can do different things as well as doing the classics. Iâ€™m sure that there are new young fans now too after â€œDonâ€™t Go Breaking My Heartâ€ was big on the radio. Even my mom loves the album â€” sheâ€™s 78. Though she doesnâ€™t love it as much as she likesÂ The Greatest ShowmanÂ album. Thatâ€™s her go-to. She bought the DVD too. I think she watches that a few times a week, in between listening to the Backstreet Boys album.