As unsung heroes of music, songwriters have been behind you're favorite chart-topping hits, record-breaking albums and stan-worthy pop stars without you even knowing it. Too often buried in the liner notes and Genius annotations, they play a vital role in shaping the modern music landscape. They're the ones working alongside your faves to make sure they hit a hook just right. PAPER has teamed up with superstar songwriter Justin Tranter for a June Pride series spotlighting queer voices you may not have known are behind today's biggest bops.
At the age of 19, Long Island native, Michael Pollack asked Billy Joel if he could perform "New York State of Mind" with him on stage and surprisingly the Piano Man said yes. A clip of Pollack's spontaneous duet with one of his childhood idols went viral, getting picked up by CNN, The Today Show and The Jeff Probst Show. But that was only the beginning.
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Pollack signed as a songwriter with Warner Chappell shortly thereafter and in the years since has gone on to write songs for the likes of Celine Dion, Kelly Clarkson, Maroon 5 and Bebe Rexha. He was part of the team that gave us Charli XCX's iconic "Boys" and has co-written quite a few of Lauv's biggest hits to date including "i'm so tired...," "Mean It" and "Fuck, I'm Lonely." Now seven years after that fateful performance with Billy Joel, Pollack isn't just singing the hits, he's making them too.
Justin Tranter caught up with Michael Pollack to talk coming out, being roommates with Lauv and working on Katy Perry's recent single "Daisies."
Justin Tranter: So tell me how you're doing right now in quarantine.
Michael Pollack: I'm good, I'm good. There are two sides of this quarantine. One, I've been separated from my family and my boyfriend, which has been really tough. He's in Pennsylvania, he works at a greenhouse, so his work is considered essential and he's working as much as he's ever been working — which is great for him, but also terrible for us being apart. I'm going to see him in July, which is really nice. I've been really creative, really productive during the virtual sessions. Which I'm actually really liking. I feel like my skillset as a writer is evolving and changing because of the limitations of the virtual sessions and writing more on the microphone which I don't usually do. My hands are on the computer a lot more which has been fun. It's been productive. It's been different but I feel like I'm getting a lot done.
My mission, besides writing music, is to let the whole world know how much amazing, massive music is written by LGBTQ people. For this pride situation here at PAPER, there was no way we could leave you out. I just want as many young queer kids out there to know that "Memories," which is like one of the longest running songs of hot [Adult Contemporary] radio ever was co-written by an LGBTQ person. I know of almost everybody involved in that song but I've never talked to any of you about how it came about or where you were when you wrote it or any of that stuff.
It actually started in Long Island, which is where I'm from, because a couple of the other co-writers live in Long Island still and we had been doing trips out there to write with them. So it was me, Jon and [The Monsters & The Strangerz], and the idea was conceived not far from from the house I grew up in — we rented an Airbnb like down the street — so it's kind of a special one for me. I grew up in Roselyn, New York and made all these memories there and then down the street years later, I come back and we started a song that was so reflective. I like to think of it as a healing song. The idea really began because our friend's father passed away. Jon had been at the funeral earlier that day and the concepts were brought into the session and it just kind of steered itself. We got the magic going and eventually you get it to Adam [Levine] and [Jacob Kasher Hindlin] and they take it to the finish line. Adam's just so good at taking a record, making it his own and really finessing the lyrics to his story. It's incredible.
That's so beautiful. I had no idea that it was that personal and close to your literal hometown. I know when I first heard that song, I knew that it was just going to never leave the radio. When you guys were writing it, was it one those songs that you felt like there was some magic happening, or...?
100%. We knew it. My favorite thing to do is go back and listen to the voice memos of sessions that result in successful songs or songs that I love. I love to study them because it's almost like studying tape as an athlete. I can listen to it and hear myself suggesting these terrible ideas that are about to derail the song and then somebody comes in and saves it. I'm like, "Oh, so maybe the next time this happens, I should think..." Going through the voice memos, you can see the excitement. There are some moments where we're literally screaming because we knew how special it felt to us. Sometimes the shine kind of wears off as the demo's being made, and that kind of happened with that song, but then we relistened to it and were like, "Oh god, this really was as good as we thought it was." We sent it to Kasher and the rest is history.
Since we're talking about your hometown and this is for Pride Month, I would love to know when did you come out? How was your coming out experience?
I grew up in Roslyn, Long Island, New York, and I grew up in a very liberal, progressive family in a very liberal, progressive town, surrounded by liberal, progressive friends. So I had the greatest chance ever to come out at an early age. For me, my coming out experience was really this coming to terms with myself. That was really a struggle for me. There was never a moment when I was contemplating coming out whether or not my family or my friends or my teachers would support me, which I'm so blessed to be able to say that, but because of just the way the world was at the time, not that it was too long ago, but things are changing so rapidly. I think the toughest part for me, was that I felt like I didn't see myself in what was projected as the gay community. For me, there was always a stereotype hammered home of what a gay person was and I never fit into it.
When you started in the music business, were you already out? What was that situation?
So I went to college in Nashville — I went to Vanderbilt University. I had a little viral moment my freshman year coming in the door with publishers and labels and I landed a publishing deal halfway through college with the stipulation that I would graduate college. So I didn't come out until my senior year of college. I spent three years of college still in the closet. And by default one of those years I was in the closet and in the music industry, nonetheless in Nashville in rooms with people that...
Go for it, just say it.
I was in Nashville... I mean it's implied.
For me, I have been out since I was 14 in 1994. I am a very obvious queer person. No one doesn't think that I'm not queer. Honestly, we have two very different personalities. So like, when you're in these rooms, are you hearing horrible shit because everyone just assumes that you're straight?
"I hope that people can see themselves in the music. It's one of the greatest gifts we have, is to allow people to find themselves."
Definitely, I would say 100%. I hear things that you might not hear because people at first don't think that I'm gay. I would say a large portion of it is this implied homophobia where somebody says something like, "but if you kiss the guy" and then they giggle after, implying that this is funny. You know those moments? I'm sure people are a little bit more on their toes with you because everyone is aware of how much of an activist you are and how much you do for the community. But for me they don't even realize that I'm in the community, so a lot of shit flips. What's really crazy is even people that know I'm gay will also [do it] because they just forget while we're having a conversation. Even little things like speaking about a song and the protagonist's love interest being female if we have a male singer, without even acknowledging the fact that it could be anyone else. I definitely feel like I see a different side of the community at times, but at the same time I do feel accepted, I do feel loved.
For sure. The microaggressions and all that stuff, it's important to talk about. I understand that me being such a proud femme person my whole life has led to a lot of persecution and hate and this and that, but I would never change that. For people who are naturally masculine or whatever phrase you want to use, you have to come out every time you meet somebody. I haven't had to come out ever. I think that's a mental drain of having come out every day.
I was gonna say the interesting thing is that especially with female writers, and more specifically with female artists, I go into a room and it's incredible how guarded they are at first. Then 20 minutes into the session, I happened to bring up my boyfriend, and it's just like the walls crumble. There's an openness to share and you are right it does kind of have to happen every time.
Since we're talking about gay shit, we have to segue and, this is a huge compliment, one of the gayest songs ever, "Boys" by Charli XCX. We have to talk about that. How did that song come about?
That song is one of those Frankenstein songs. It started with Jerker Hansson actually writing the chorus and coming up with the track with the little Foley kind of sound between the words and the chorus. Brandon Davis sent it to me, for a specific artist that he wanted me to write it for and I heard the course I was like, "This is massive!" So I was living with Ari Leff, aka Lauv, at the time and my friend Ingrid Andress from Nashville was in town. I was like, "Guys, this is a massive chorus. Come write this with me, let's have a giant song together." We wrote the verses and the pre-chorus, and next time we heard it, parts were swapped and all of a sudden Emily Warren and Cass Lowe had written a new pre-chorus and a bridge. It's so funny because conceptually the song feels very well-written, which is difficult to do when writing the song is like a game of telephone.
Me, Icona Pop and Jerker had a session together, where we wrote verses and pres to that song that were clearly not good enough. They were clearly not good enough and you guys kicked our ass.
That is the greatest of compliments right there. I'm sorry we couldn't share it together.
No, it's quite alright. It was probably a year after Icona Pop's huge hit and we had a session with them in the Valley and Jerker played us that chorus we were like "Oh my god." But that leads me to next what I wanted to talk about: I didn't know that you and Ari Leff, Lauv, were roommates.
Yes. Ari and I met midway through college. He was at NYU, I was at Vanderbilt. We got linked through Warner Chappell. Every time I would go home for like a Christmas break or Thanksgiving, we would link up and go into the city to write songs. Like really, really, really terrible songs, unlistenable songs. We continued writing via FaceTime and stayed in touch. We were both graduating at the same time and he's like, "Dude, you've got to move to LA, I've got to move to LA, let's get a place. I have my friend Michael Matosic..." So Matosic came with him, I had my friend from college come and the four of us got the house. Michael lived in it for the first year and then left because he needed his own bathtub, which if you know Michael, that is totally 100% true.
When you guys put all these songs together, obviously "I Like Me Better" being a fucking humongous song, did you write that in the house you lived in? How did that come about?
So "I Like Me Better" was Matosic and Ari, 50/50. I did not write that one. I was in the room next door while they wrote that one. I was in the house, but no I'm not on it. I'm very thankful for that song and how much it's done for him.
"As songwriters, we have moments we have to be the genius and other moments we have to facilitate genius."
You've done so much with him, remind me of some of the other songs you've done with him.
The big ones are "i'm so tired..," "Modern Loneliness," I did like half of the first project and then like two thirds of his last project.
That first project, was that made in your guys' house for the most part?
Some of it was made when he was at NYU, he did with Matosic. Some of it was made at the house and then a little bit of it was made either on the road or in this other studio we ended up using. It's crazy, because he spent so much time [on it]. It's the classic music industry story of you give your whole life for the first project. It really spanned like four or five years. I was thankful to get involved while it was still happening.
We have to, of course, talk about my favorite song right now, which is "Daisies," by Katy Perry. No joke, you hadn't posted about it yet, but I heard it and I was like "Michael must have written on the song." I looked up the credits and of course it was you. You're just like killing this thing right now between "Memories" and "Daisies" and a bunch of other stuff, where you're nailing this super honest, almost earnest emotional stuff. So as a fan, I would like to know the story of "Daisies."
"Daisies" is me, Jon Bellion, Kasher, Monsters, Jordan and Katy that wrote it. It happened so quickly. It was one of those where it just kind of fell out. This is kind of a departure but it'll speak to the song. I feel like as songwriters, we have moments we have to be the genius and other moments we have to facilitate genius. I feel like when I'm with Jon Bellion in general, my job is to facilitate genius because that's what he is. Kasher had the line that was like, "you won't chase me until I'm pushing daisies," and we didn't know if people would understand it, so we changed it to "covered in daisies." I feel so often like I'm facilitating genius. And obviously Katy, when she steers the ship, it's so unique and so artistic.
I think it's amazing, between "Memories" and now "Daisies," and I want young LGBTQ people to know that like these very fucking down the middle, home run, pop as pop can be smashes, very mainstream ideas are you know, co-written by an LGBTQ person. Which I just think it's so inspiring to know that our ideas and our thoughts are just as mainstream as anybody's.
Thank you, thank you that means so much. I hope that people can see themselves in the music. It's one of the greatest gifts we have, is to allow people to find themselves, so I'm honored that you would say that.
No, that's a fact. You're slaying.
Photography: Quinn Baganz