You might not have ever heard of Poo Bear, but you’ve definitely heard his songs.
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Best known as the mastermind behind Justin Bieber’s catalog, ever since Bieber’s historic 2015 comeback album Purpose, Poo Bear has penned some of the most iconic songs of the past decade, including “Where R Ü Now,” “What Do You Mean?” “Intentions,” Bieber’s portion of the “Despacito” remix and countless more.
But even before Bieber and Poo Bear—who’s real name is Jason Boyd—first met in 2013, the 41-year-old songwriter and producer had made a name for himself as a go-to source of relatable, heartfelt bops. Getting his first placement with 112 back in 1999 when he was still in high school—after a turbulent childhood, no less—Poo Bear’s now worked with everyone from P!nk to Usher to Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler, Zac Brown, Daddy Yankee, J Balvin, Ty Dolla Sign, Billie Eilish and many more.
Yet, through it all, Poo Bear’s maintained a relatively low profile. Stating before that he’s always felt like an “underdog” in the music industry, he’s stayed in the shadows, humbly working on his craft without letting the success build up his ego.
But now in 2021, Poo Bear is amping up to start accepting some long-overdue recognition. In April, he signed a joint-venture deal with Def Jam Records for his label, Bearthday Music. And in early June, he’s set to release a new solo single, “Day You Left,” inspired by the passing of his mother last year. Equal-parts meaningful and poppy—with a “really cool drop” added in by Skrillex—the song is a perfect testament to Poo Bear’s ability to make things innovative and radio-ready all at the same time.
A few weeks ago, Poo Bear hopped on a call with American Songwriter to discuss all of this and more. Humble, thoughtful and inspired to help others, he offered illuminating insight into his journey and speculated a few secrets to his continued-success. And being an open book, he made sure to fill the conversation to the brim with industry stories and songwriting advice. Read the conversation below:
American Songwriter: You had a fairly tumultuous childhood—you had an incredibly religious father who disallowed secular music and left your mother when you were 9. Then, a few weeks later, a tornado destroyed your home and forced your family to relocate. Through all of this, how did you come to music? When did you start writing songs?
Poo Bear: I would sneak-listen to Stevie Wonder when I was 7 or 8. That ultimately inspired me. I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a “songwriter” or not, but I knew that I wanted to make people feel the way his music made me feel.
Then, after we went through the tornado and all of that stuff, we ended up settling in Atlanta. At that point, I saw the opportunity to put together a group and create songs. I think I was age 11 when I really dove in—I signed my first record deal at 12. I was writing all the songs for my group and I just kept going at it.
For me, it was all trial and error, really. I had to get it all out, whether it was good or bad. I was writing, creating and staying focused. That’s really when I started getting confidence, at 12 or 13. When I turned 16, I got to work with 112 and P!nk while I was still in high school. That began my first professional opportunity.
AS: Was that the point when you felt that songwriting was a viable career option for you?
PB: Yeah. When I got the chance to work with 112, it showed me that I didn’t have to be an artist, I didn’t have to be on the forefront of it. I could make money and take care of my mom and family just by writing songs. So, I would definitely say that by age 16, it became a profession for me. That’s when it became real because I had songs on the radio and stuff.
AS: 16 is such a young age for such a high level of success—how did you handle it?
PB: It was hard to wrap my head around. I don’t feel like that feeling ever went away. For me, it still feels surreal, it still feels like it’s not really happening.
In high school, I didn’t tell anybody about what I was doing. I was really secretive. That allowed me to not really feel anything from my peers or from my friends, even. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want anyone to feel jealous of me or treat me differently, so I kept the fact that I had a record out with 112 a secret. It was definitely surreal. To this day, it still doesn’t feel real, I’m just kinda going along with it. It doesn’t feel like it’s happening, even though it definitely is still happening.
AS: You’ve spoken on record before about how you don’t really feel like you’re a part of the “music industry,” despite your success. Do you trace that philosophy to these early years when you were trying to keep a low profile? In a way, do you still see yourself as an “outsider” in the industry?
PB: I’ve never felt like I was a part of the industry. I never really participated in music industry events. For the first 10 or 12 years of my career, nobody really noticed me. It was cool—I was always the guy in the background. Whenever I worked on a record or song with an artist alongside someone else, they would usually give the credit—not the physical publishing credit, but the acknowledgment—to whoever else was in the room. I’m not sure why that was, but I always saw myself as an underdog with a point to prove. Granted, I didn’t mind being in the background—I actually loved it. It’s just that for such a long time, I got used to nobody acknowledging me. Therefore, I never went to all of those parties and events, even if I was invited. I felt like an underdog, I didn’t feel like a part of the music business.
That lasted until recently when I started working with Justin. He’s the first artist in my career to really mention my name and give me outward credit to the world. It was strange because I wasn’t used to it. For my entire career, I’ve been blessed to build relationships directly with artists and not with record labels and executives. That was a blessing because it’s ultimately up to what the artists want to do with their careers. So, I skipped all of those music industry events. I know that they can help other producers and writers, but I’ve also seen it where those people got what I call “musical chairs”—that’s when all those executives get laid off or switch positions and you’re back to square one because you don’t have a relationship with the artists. Now how do you expect to get into sessions with artists?
So, I’ve always taken to approach of proving a point to the artists. Thus, I never felt like I was a part of the music industry, either as an artist or a producer. I also think that has a lot to do with my longevity and people not getting mad at me. That’s why I don’t have a tagline at the beginning of my songs. I’ve had opportunities to put “Happy Bearthday” at the beginning of every hit record I’ve done, but I’m like “Nope, I don’t want anyone to get too tired of me.” So, I think that a lot of that is what’s enabled me to have longevity in this industry.
AS: You have a reputation for being someone with little to no ego—that “no tagline” thing is a really amazing manifestation of that.
PB: Yeah, I don’t have to take credit, I don’t have to be like “Hey, I did this!” I find that people genuinely get tired of things and other people all the time, instinctively. They don’t want to, but if you keep hearing Akon on a hundred features, people are going to get really burnt out.
After a while, if you’re not really strategically picking and choosing where you want to be heard and what feature you want to be on, you’re going to burn out and people are going to get tired of you. Whether that’s Akon or T-Pain… I could go down a whole list of artists who had so many features that they became over-saturated. In the music business, that works against you. Ultimately, it turns into: who’s next?
AS: You usually write over 600 songs every year—how do you do that? What’s your process for maintaining such a high volume of output?
PB: Yeah, I do a minimum of 600 songs a year. On a slow week, I’ll do two songs every day (except Sundays, which I save for my family). So, that’s six days, two songs a day—that’s 12 songs a week. Then, you have 52 weeks a year. So, at the very bare minimum, with me doing the least amount of work as possible, I’m writing 624 songs a year.
That seems like a lot, but when you break it down, it’s not really, especially if you’re working consistently. I mean, it is a lot, but the work part of it doesn’t entail as much as it sounds. That’s my work ethic and it allows me to do what I do. That’s how I got to where I’m at and I’m not going to stop doing what got me in this position, no matter what. I’m going to just keep working, pushing myself and pushing the envelope.
AS: When you sit down to write, what does the process actually look like? How do you get into the songwriting headspace?
PB: My goal is to continue being completely honest with myself. I think that a lot of people who are blessed to have hits start feeling themselves a lot—they feel like whatever they do is going to be a hit. But I’ve trained myself to know that not everything I write is going to be a hit. Everyone’s not going to love everything I write.
Knowing that, my approach to songwriting is: I want to genuinely blow myself away, I want to fall in love with it. I want to impress myself. So, if I hear a line and I know it can be better, I’m going to push it and push it until I come up with a better line. I won’t settle for less. That allows my music to have integrity. The more successful people are, the more they just believe in themselves—there’s nothing wrong with that, but I just feel like there’s a certain line. In order to grow—for me at least—I have to be brutally honest with myself and not think everything I do is amazing. If someone wants to say that I’m the greatest of all time, that’s a great blessing, but I would never look at myself like that. I will never look at myself the way the industry does, I don’t see that person.
I have written thousands of songs, so I can’t go back to think about what I did last year or the year before because my brain will have an overload. So, every time I go to start a song, I start with a clean slate. I make sure that I have a concept—if it’s a concept I haven’t done before, I make sure it’s original and fresh. I make sure the melodies are everything they need to be in order for people to resonate with them. That’s how I’m able to stay moving forward in this industry.
AS: That honesty with yourself seems to be a really important tool.
PB: Anybody can write a song, it’s really, really easy to do. But, it’s like: Is it pushing music? Is it original? Is it a sound we’ve never heard before? Is it a metaphor or simile we’ve never heard before? All of those things are important.
Like I said, I write songs every day. If I’m just feeling myself, I can be like “Wow, I killed it.” Or, I can be honest with myself and say “You know what? That can be better. I’m going to scrap this idea because it sucks.” All of that allows me to grow. It’s all about growth, constantly growing.
AS: Now, you’ve got a new single that’s due to drop in early June, “Day You Left.” What can you tell us about this song? It was in part inspired by the passing of your mother?
PB: Initially, this song was a poem that one of my collaborators had written. We ended up creating it and shaping into what it is now—we added a hook, put melodies and guitar on it. So, it comes from a special place. To be transparent, it wasn’t originally created for my mom, but once she passed away, it took on a whole new meaning for me. I couldn’t help but think about her. Once it was recorded, I sent it to Skrillex—to me, he’s, like, the biggest DJ of all time. He added a really cool drop to it, which worked really well, musically. It added this element where it could be heartfelt while at the same time being playable at something like a festival. There was a really cool balance with that.
It’s crazy how a song can change meaning depending on what you’re going through. That’s what made this track so special and valuable. Someone can hear a song that speaks to what they’re going through even if the song actually isn’t talking about that specifically. It just resonates and certain people are able to connect with it.
I was like “Well, this is the perfect tribute to my mother.” It means a lot. I know how much pain and suffering she went through. Her passing away was bitter-sweet—I wanted her to experience more life so I could keep showering her with all the benefits of my hard work. But at the same time, I know that she’s in a better place. Ultimately, this evolved into this memory for my mom and I think it’s beautiful. It shows how many layers these songs have and how you can relate to those layers. It could be about a break-up, it could be about your pet or your bird passing away, your dog running away. There are so many different levels people could relate to on this record. For me, it’s just my mother’s tribute.
AS: You recently signed a joint-venture deal with Def Jam Records to start your own label, Bearthday Music. What can you tell us about this project? What can fans expect from Bearthday Music?
PB: I just closed my label deal a few weeks ago. I’m excited just to have somebody believe in me. Like I said earlier, I never really had a relationship with labels. Now, to actually start building a relationship with Def Jam, I feel like it’s the beginning of something really cool. I have really amazing artists I’m working with and I can’t wait to have the support and opportunity to get music out with new artists. It’s a blessing and I’m really excited to see what’s to come.
I have a lot of points to prove now with new artists, artists outside of superstars. It’s one thing to have a hit record with a superstar… it’s another thing to have a hit with a new artist. So, I have a lot of new points to prove and I can’t wait to get these new artists out here to see how the world responds to them.
AS: On that note, do you have any advice for aspiring songwriters and artists?
PB: I always have advice. First and foremost: understand that there is no “right” and “wrong.” When an artist is painting a picture, no one can tell that artist if they’re right or wrong. You either connect to it and relate to it, or it might not resonate with you. But that doesn’t mean it’s “right” or “wrong.”
If you come to a place where you feel like you have writer’s block, my true theory behind defeating it is: just write. Just get it out. It might not be great, it might not be the exact thing you wanted to get out, but you have to get it out. I don’t believe in writer’s block, I just believe in getting it out of your system. A lot of people just stop. They second-guess themselves and their insecurities take over. They get into thinking that anything they do isn’t good enough. But, I’m here to say: a lot of the records I wrote in the times when I wasn’t sure of myself, turned out to be hit records. Then, a lot of other times, I was really believing in what I was making and then it turned out to not be a hit. Writer’s block just comes from being insecure. Just get it out of your system. Who knows what can come from it.
Also, just be honest. Listen to your surroundings, listen to what’s going on, listen to where everyone is, listen to what’s happening in music. You don’t have to conform all the way, but if your goal is to get a song on the radio, make sure it’s not so different that it doesn’t fit on the radio. You can’t recreate the wheel, it still has to be round. You can’t make a triangle wheel. I think a lot of creatives try so hard to be different, but then their songs don’t have a place. There’s a balance between originality and still being able to be in-tune with what’s going on on the radio. You can’t reinvent the wheel, but if the wheels right now are 30 inches, maybe you could make a 32-inch—that’ll still roll.
That’s my two-cents, but I feel like it could help a lot of people. I still stick to that. It allows me to create and have a real chance at more success. You never know when your next hit is going to be.
Poo Bear’s new single, “Day You Left,” is due in June 2021. Explore the iconic songwriter’s solo discography below: