Hit Songwriter Freddy Wexler Talks About Co-Writing Hits For Ariana Grande & Justin Bieber (“Stuck with U”), Marshmello & Halsey (“Be Kind”) And His Other Projects
Freddy Wexler is a hit songwriter, artist, producer & music exec who’s been successful in the music business for over a decade. He’s co-written songs for wide range of popular artists, he’s released songs & videos using his artist name Jackson Penn, and he’s run a music publishing & entertainment company.
Notwithstanding his success and credits prior to this year, Wexler’s career has reached a new level in 2020. He co-wrote the number one pop hit, “Stuck with U,” for Ariana Grande & Justin Bieber, and he co-wrote the Top 30 hit, “Be Kind,” for Marshmello & Halsey.
In addition, Wexler has co-written recent songs such as “Like it’s Christmas” by the Jonas Brothers, and “Wolves” by Kanye West, which was featured on Kanye’s #1 album, The Life of Pablo. He has also collaborated with top artists across various genres including Demi Lovato, Post Malone, Lil Wayne, P!nk, Pusha T, Steve Aoki, Martin Garrix, Wyclef Jean, and Celine Dion, among others.
Wexler has recently signed a global publishing administration agreement with Sony/ATV Music, which reunites him with CEO Jon Platt and other music execs that he previously worked with at EMI Music Publishing, where he started in the music business at age 19.
Besides his credits as a songwriter, Wexler has had success as an artist and music exec. As an artist, he is known by the pseudonym Jackson Penn, under which he has released several records. The first single he released, “Streetlights on Mars”, reached #12 on Spotify’s Global Viral chart and appeared in several television shows. Notably, he has released several songs that have videos which have attracted over 500,000 views on YouTube.
In addition, Wexler is the founder of The Brain Music, a 360 music company specializing in records and publishing. Its catalog includes songs by Chance the Rapper, Alicia Keys, Dierks Bentley, Jill Scott, Ty Dolla $ign, Nico & Vinz and Steve Agnello. The Brain has joint ventures with Disney, SB Projects, Warner Chappell Music and Prescription Songs.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Freddy Wexler. He tells how he got started in the music business, and how he co-wrote the hits “Stuck with U” and “Be Kind.” He also discusses his artist career and his music company.
Here’s the video of Ariana Grande & Justin Bieber’s #1 hit “Stuck
with U,” which was co-written by Freddy Wexler.
DK: I read that you’re based in Los Angeles. Where are you originally from, and how did you get started as a songwriter & musician?
Freddy Wexler: I was born and raised in New York City. I used to sit with my mother at the piano while she played Chopin. I learned to play by watching her hands. My mom was like the Jewish Mary Poppins—a Sarah Lawrence grad in ripped jeans and a t-shirt who saw the good in everyone and actually believed that I could be anything I wanted to be. Every parent says that, but my mom really believed it. I wrote my first song at 16. I found writing to be extremely cathartic and I became obsessed with it.
DK: What was your first big break in the music business?
Wexler: There were two. While interning for Sony Music, I met an artist who hired me to record her demos. I didn’t have a studio, so I set up an mbox in my parents apartment and recorded her night after night. This was my first paid job, but I didn’t even care about that. I was mesmerized by her and after a while, convinced that she would be famous—though I’m not sure I ever told her that. At my internship, I even persuaded some music execs to see her live. I told my dad I was going to be the youngest president of Sony Music after that performance—that I had an ear for raw talent—but the execs didn’t share my conviction. I didn’t lose faith. Anyway, that was my first paid gig in the music business, and it paved the way for my career.
The second break: I started a couple bands but my bandmates didn’t see our potential (maybe they were right—our songs were awful), so I started performing as a solo artist. After a couple shows at CBGBs and Arlene’s Grocery, I found myself in a crazy bidding war situation where all these different CEOs were trying to sign me. I knew nothing about the business, how unusual it was for a potential signee to fly private, or how much more I would need to achieve to actually be where I wanted to be…which I guess made it all the more fun.
I ended up taking a leave from school, signing a record deal with Virgin Records—only to be dropped by Virgin six months later (my first slice of humble pie). The silver lining was that a publishing deal I had signed with EMI at around the same time was turning out really well, and I was collaborating with all sorts of incredible songwriters. And that artist whose demos I recorded? Around this time, she changed her name to Lady Gaga.
Here’s the video of Marshmello & Halsey’s hit “Be Kind,”
which was co-written by Freddy Wexler.
DK: As a songwriter, what are your strengths? Is it creating the music and producing? Or is it writing the topline (melody and lyrics)?
Wexler: I consider myself a topliner, but it really depends on the day. Inspiration is mercurial. Sometimes a chord progression or musical idea comes to me first. Other times it’s a word, a phrase, a title. With the best songs, it starts with a feeling. But yes, melody, lyrics and chords are what I love most. Songwriting is an intimate thing, and sometimes certain writers don’t mesh well in a session. I would say one of my more interesting strengths is helping different personalities get to the finish line when it seems unlikely. I also push, when possible, to create something classic. I really gravitate toward classic songs. Classic anything really. I love stuff that’s modern but could have worked 10 years ago and would work 10 years from now. I’m not saying everything I write is that—it’s not—but that’s what I like most.
DK: This year, you co-wrote the number one hit “Stuck with U,” for Ariana Grande & Justin Bieber. How did you connect with the other writers to create this song, and was it written and recorded during the shutdown?
Wexler: “Stuck with You” is a great example of art imitating life, not only because we were all literally “stuck” at home, but also because it was inspired by an argument I’d had that morning with my wife. I remember turning to her, saying something like, “You know, if I have to be stuck with someone, I’m glad I’m stuck with you.” Scooter (Braun) and I had been talking about a song that reflected this time, and I thought, this is it. Fortunately, I had a session in the calendar with some of my favorite writers—Gian Stone, Skyler Stonestreet, and Whitney Phillips. Ari and Justin worked on what we started and the rest is history.
DK: Also this year, you co-wrote the hit “Be Kind” for Marshmello & Halsey. How did this song come together?
Wexler: I remember I bought this crazy synth an hour before our session, and I thought, all we need to do is write a hit today, and then this will have been a great decision. Amy Allen and Gian Stone came to my studio. I think I played a riff on the piano, Amy started singing some melodies, and Gian started working up a track. It turned into something very cool, very quickly. Halsey and Marshmello took the idea we started and turned it into a smash. When I heard what Halsey had written and the way she sounded on it, and what Marshmello had done with the track, I got the chills. The coolest part of this record is that we got millions of people to sing about how cool it is to just be kind. I love that.
Here’s the lyric video of the Jonas Brothers’ single “Like It’s
Christmas,” which was co-written by Freddy Wexler.
DK: You’ve released several songs and videos as an artist, using the name, Jackson Penn. Can you talk about your artist side?
Wexler: I spent years writing for other people, which I absolutely love, but somewhere along the way, I lost my own voice. My wife pointed that out at dinner one night—when she asked what a song would sound like if I wrote it for myself and I couldn’t answer. So that night, I decided to write one with no intention of pitching it. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine myself playing at Madison Square Garden, but I couldn’t. I decided to think of someone else, someone fictional. I called him Jackson Penn, and I started to write for him. For some reason, the inspiration just flowed. It was a new, raw way of creating without overthinking. If it felt right, it was right. The funny thing is, Jackson Penn is, in some ways, more me than I am. He’s the kid in me who doesn’t pay any attention to what other people think. He’s pure.
I started releasing music here and there and was blown away by the support I received. (Music execs) Dave Rocco and Troy Carter were early champions, and I really didn’t have a plan for Jackson. I was just having fun. A number of my producer friends loved the music and helped me with it and other creatives like Andrzej Sekula who shot Pulp Fiction helped me with visuals. Releasing my own music transformed my own writing for other artists too. When I go into a room now, I always try to bring my own artistry and voice with me.
DK: On the music business side, you’ve founded The Brain Music. Can you tell me about this company?
Wexler: I started The Brain as a junior at UPenn. After recording an album for Virgin Records, I went back to school where I met Eric Wortham. Eric’s piano playing was like a mixture of Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, and I was blown away. We became close friends, and I ultimately signed him to a management deal. Eric went on to become the pianist for icons like Jill Scott and Adele, as well as a talented songwriter and producer. I also signed Rachel Platten (who would later go on to record the 10x platinum hit “Fight Song”) and Dave Kuncio (Dierks Bentley, Selena Gomez)—a football kicker turned hit songwriter. My life became a balancing act of school, my own songwriting, and managing talent. I stacked my classes as 9 hour blocks twice a week, so I could make it to Rachel’s shows and take her to meetings. I worked around the clock and spent all my money on Amtrak, but I loved it.
Here’s the video of the single “Sick in the Head” by Jackson Penn
(aka Freddy Wexler).
As time went on, I became obsessed with the idea of creativity. Why do brilliant ideas come to us some days and not others? What exactly is inspiration? I realized that some of the writers I admired most worked in teams: Lennon and McCartney, Elton and Bernie, Ashford & Simpson. Would my songwriting improve if I had a group of regular collaborators? It can be lonely sitting at the piano at 4 am by yourself. So I created an experiment. I sent 6 creators (who had never met) one-way tickets to Los Angeles. I would work with them, pay for studio time and engineers, but there was one condition—we all had to live together. I was fixated on this idea that if art reflects life, you might try living with your collaborators…temporarily. The house became a sort of, modern day songwriting commune, and within a short time, a success.
The Brain House became The Brain Music—a 360 music company with various joint ventures across the music industry. Nearly all the initial residents ended up signing deals with The Brain Music. Today, the Brain’s writers have cuts with artists like Alicia Keys, Chance the Rapper, Selena Gomez, Jill Scott, and Dierks Bentley and recording deals with various majors. Fortunately, The Brain has an amazing team and incredible partners that allow me to stay creative and focused on writing.
DK: Thank you Freddy for doing this interview. Is there anything that we haven’t talked about yet, that you’d like to mention for this article?
Wexler: In the past couple months, two things came full circle: Sony/ATV (Music Publishing) and Rachel Platten. When I signed my first publishing deal at 19 with EMI, I would have never guessed that years later, I would be working with some of the same people by signing a new deal with Sony/ATV. Reconnecting with Jon Platt (CEO) and getting to work with people like Thomas Krottinger and Amanda Hill is incredibly special. And then there’s Rachel who I’ve been writing with recently. You have to understand how much time Rachel and I spent together, creating a vision, building a foundation. We were kids when I managed her. Now we each have kids! To come together again now to just create music is the purest, coolest, thing I could have asked for. I can’t wait for people to hear the songs we’ve been writing.