Gregg Wattenberg: From Five for Fighting to Phillip Phillips, A Musical Force For Over A Decade

Gregg Wattenberg

Listen to any adult contemporary radio station across the country, and it’ll be easy to hear a song that Gregg Wattenberg has either written, produced, or both. “I recently drove from Seattle to San Fransisco, and on the radio during my trip I was always hearing songs I’ve been involved in,” Wattenberg says from his office in New York City. “I think it’s awesome! Especially having a kid now, you realize the importance of having a legacy.”

Fortunately for Wattenberg, his legacy is full of some of the biggest tracks of the past decade; songs that were not only mere hits, but smashes that reverberated throughout pop culture. Bouncing around between writing and producing for artists like Train, Daughtry, Finger Eleven, and Five for Fighting, it’s hard to believe that Wattenberg didn’t get interested in the craft of making music until during college. “I went to Tufts and majored in economics and music.  When I was there, I took a Music Composition class which did a lot for me. What I really wanted to learn was classical guitar,” Wattenberg remembers. To pursue his guitar interests, he connected with a music teacher who taught at the Boston Conservatory for Music, who soon became a mentor-like figure. “I had this whole mission that I was going to learn every style of guitar, but he ended up not only teaching me about playing, but about life and songwriting as well.”

FROM PERFORMING TO PRODUCING

However, Watteneberg says he couldn’t get out of school fast enough: “I wanted to rock star.” As a result, upon graduation he packed his bags and moved to Los Angeles to start a band called Tonto Tonto, which quickly snapped up a record deal. Tonto Tonto experienced some success, but his biggest takeaway was writing songs for the first time. “Our producer was MIA for most of our sessions,” Wattenberg recalls. “So I took over and was learning production on the fly. I was like, wow this is kind of fun.” As Tonto Tonto was recording their sophomore album, Wattenberg realized that his interests began to lie more in songwriting and production than actual performing, and after some soul searching, he decided to focus his talents behind the scenes full time. “After I left the band, I had no work coming in at all. I couldn’t get arrested.”

FIRST HIT

Luckily, an A&R guy named Evan Landberg believed in Wattenberg’s production skills and paired him with a couple of artists, one of whom was John Ondrasik, better known by his stage name: Five for Fighting. Wattenberg and Ondrasik clicked and started sharing ideas, one of which was a track Ondrasik wrote on his guitar. “He played me this song fully written, and said he didn’t even know what to make of it. He thought someone like Celine Dion could sing it,” explained Wattenberg who immediately realized its potential. “I said, this is a hit song and we gotta do it how someone like Bryan Adams would; understated and classic, and not blownout and bombastic.”  That song, “Superman (It’s Not Easy)”, was recorded in 2000 and came out in April 2001, then slowly but surely started moving up the charts. After the terror attacks of 9/11, it’s lyrics referring to humble heroes immediately resonated with the public, and peaked the little track that could peaked at Number One in October 2001 on Billboard’s Adult Pop Songs charts and was later nominated for a Grammy for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.

Suddenly, Wattenberg was hot and in-demand. “I was asked to work with everybody,” he remembers of his first brush with success. “The music industry is funny. First, you can’t get anything done at all; then you have one hit and I was suddenly in the studio working with artists like Guns and Roses. That’s how freakish life is.” At the same time, Wattenberg was wondering when his next hit would come: “I was excited getting so much work for both producing and writing, but I did have moments where I wondered if I could repeat my first success. I know many producers and writers who have huge hits, and then none ever again.” Fortuantly it didn’t take long for Wattenberg’s next hit, which came in the form of producing Five for Fighting’s “100 Years,” another melancholy song, this time written on piano. “They play “100 Years” at events like sweet sixteens now and “Superman” at tributes… John Ondrasik is a smart, educated guy so it’s not surprising that these songs get adopted by people looking at moments in their own life.”

“IT’S NOT OVER” AND “HEY, SOUL SISTER” EXPLODE

“I was known as the up-and-coming rock radio producer, so Pete Gamberg came to me with an artist,” explained Wattenberg referring to Chris Daughtry, who was hot off “American Idol”. “A lot of people didn’t think that show had enough credibility to launch a rock star, but I wanted to give it a shot. At the time, people were asking me why I’d waste my time; they thought his solo record had no chance.” Trusting his instincts, Wattenberg sent Gamberg a cold pitch, which was a “recorded idea with a drum machine, guitar, vocal melody, and rough lyrics.” That pitch turned into “It’s Not Over,” the demo of which was finished backstage at a show in Hartford, Connecticut. “I thought it was a hit, but you obviously never know for sure,” Wattenberg remembers. Once again, his instincts were right; “It’s Not Over” sold five million copies, landed an ASCAP Award for Song of the Year, and went to Number One, a notable accomplishment in 2008 when electronic pop dominated the airwaves. In addition, Daughtry’s debut became the fastest selling debut rock album in history.

“After that, I was like I can do this!” Wattenberg said, who saw another influx of production and songwriting work, including Train, who was trying to recover from a recent album which was a commercial failure. “When you have a failure like that, it’s hard to push the rock back up the hill again,” Wattenberg notes, but after his success with Daughtry he knew he had a knack making hit singles for underdogs. “I met with Pat (Monahan, Train’s lead singer), and just fell in love with him. He’s not only insanely talented, but a good person. He needed a huge hit and I was totally rooting for him.”

After a few collaborations which wound up on the album (including future hit “If It’s Love”), Monahan played him “Hey, Soul Sister” which he wrote the day before. “I said to him, that song’s a hit; no doubt in my mind,” said Watteneberg who made arrangement changes and attached drums to it. However, when the record company was picking singles, they didn’t have as much faith in the track as Wattenberg and Monahan. “They were like, what’s a soul sister? They started to overthink it.” Wattenberg won out when “Hey, Soul Sister” was released as their album’s first single in August 2009, and became the second best selling song of 2010, the most popular download of all time for Columbia Records, and the eighth most popular digital song in history.

RETURN TO “IDOL”

Throughout all of Wattenberg’s successes, he’s been working creative at Wind-up Records, a New York-based record label founded in 1997 which focuses on rock acts, which he says informs his songwriting and producing work: “I spend so much time with radio programmers, so I see exactly how people react to songs,” he explains. “Really great songs tend to not be so obvious on the first listen, so it can be tricky.” It’s that know-how which led Wattenberg to produce the album for another “American Idol” discovery, Phillip Phillips, the series’ most recent champion. “They called me up and said we have three weeks to make his record; from blank page to the final mixes,” Wattenberg says of the hectic time. He then assembled the best session players in New York City, and had three rooms going simultaneously. “At the time, we didn’t even have enough tracks for a full album, so the label was sending us demos from outsiders, none of which Phil liked.” It was then that Phillips, Wattenberg, and two up-and-coming songwriters named Derek Fuhrmann and Todd Clark started working on “Gone, Gone, Gone,” a triumphant folksy track which is currently climbing the Billboard charts and rapidly gaining airplay after being released this past November. “It was frantic; Phillip learned and sang that song within two days, and when I hear him perform it live now I think it’s better than the recording.”

FUTURE

In addition to his newest hit “Gone, Gone, Gone,” Wattenberg cowrote and produced “Rebel Beat,” the comeback single for the Goo Goo Dolls, and was recently in the studio working on tracks for the likes of Rascal Flats and Michael Franti. “When writing songs, I always say “where’s the surprise,” looking for those three or four moments that hook you. What’s coming has to be catchy enough that it gets stuck in your brain. It’s all about that opportunity to do something that sounds like a hit, but also sounds a little bit different and fresh.”

Throughout it all, he’s grateful of how far he’s come: “During school, I was interning at a recording studio in Manhattan and getting hot dogs and coffee for Richie Sambora from Bon Jovi. A few years later, my band was their opening act, and a few years after that I was producing a song of theirs,” Wattenberg recalls. “I was in the studio with Jon Bon Jovi, and we were going to record some guitar track but Richie wasn’t there, so he asked me to play instead; I couldn’t believe it. Just recently, I spoke at a songwriting panel and Bon Jovi was in the audience, but I never mentioned (all of these connections) to them. It’s just weird how the world works.”

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