You may not have heard of Jason Boyd, better but not widely known as Poo Bear, but you’ve heard him.
After more than two decades as a songwriter and producer of mostly R&B and pop, his fingerprints are on hits for an array of artists including Usher, Chris Brown, and Lupe Fiasco.
Peaches & Cream by the R&B quartet 112, which spent 25 weeks in the Top 40 in 2001, is one of his. So is Caught Up, Usher’s fifth single from Confessions. And Work, one of Kelly Rowland’s most successful solo works.
Poo Bear was 14 and still in high school when he co-wrote his first hit, Anywhere, for 112; he is now 38.
He considers his low profile the secret to his longevity; people tire of the same old songwriters and producers. “It might not mean that your music isn’t great anymore; it might just mean they might just be over it,” he says. “For me, it was a blessing to stay under the radar so they couldn’t really get tired of me ... I’m like a secret assassin. You don’t even know – it’s like, ‘oh, Poo Bear did that’.”
His star is in fact the highest it’s ever been, thanks to a boost from a musician whose own could not have fallen much lower. Poo Bear was instrumental in Justin Bieber’s turnaround from one of the world’s most-loathed celebrities to electronic dance music superstar, co-writing much of his 2015 album, Purpose.
Just weeks after Bieber brought his megatour-stroke-victory lap to Australia, Poo Bear is in Sydney for the world premiere of Afraid of Forever, a documentary about his career, produced by Red Bull.
Softly-spoken and earnest, with the trademark greeting “happy birthday” (because “you’re supposed to feel like that every day”), he seems a little bemused by the attention.
“I’ve watched songwriters, writers, producers, even artists that I’ve written hits for come and go,” he says, speaking to Guardian Australia at the Star casino on Wednesday morning. “But to the world, it looked like Justin Bieber was my first success.”
When Bieber and Bear were first introduced in Las Vegas in January 2013, they bonded over their shared love of R&B, with Bieber a fan of many of the artists Bear had written for.
Both were raised by single mothers in low-income, religious homes, and both entered the music industry at a young age. As Bieber once put it, they “kind of just vibed on a personal level”.
Poo Bear’s parents divorced when he was eight; two weeks later, a tornado destroyed the family home in Connecticut. He and his mother and brother spent nine months homeless before moving to Atlanta, Georgia, for a fresh start made possible by a donation of $4,000 from their church.
Bear signed his first record deal four years later. Bieber was the same age – 13 – when he was discovered on YouTube by his longtime manager, Scooter Braun.
Braun disapproved of Bear when he first started spending time with Bieber, concerned he was a bad influence at a time when the young singer’s star was already in a nosedive. (Bear did once characterise his early friendship with Bieber as making “bad decisions with a minor – smoking weed and getting into trouble”.)
“[Braun] did try to separate us, and that brought us closer. Over time, I understood it ... This was a kid he’d been raising since he was 13 – if I was in that situation, I probably would’ve been a little overprotective too.” (Braun is now Bear’s manager as well.)
Poo Bear and Bieber eventually collaborated on Journals, an unassuming compilation of mostly R&B singles released at the end of 2013. It was never intended to be a commercial hit, says Bear; Bieber was exercising “some creative freedom” and taking tentative steps out of child-stardom – a transition to which Poo Bear proved crucial.
“People always say, ‘I wasn’t really feeling Justin’, but it wasn’t really for them. It was always for kids and little girls. When Journals came out, it opened up the world to this other side of Justin that we never knew existed.”
At that time, Bieber was almost exclusively known for abandoning his pet monkey to customs officials, spitting on fans from a balcony, and urinating in a restaurant’s mop bucket.
“There’s no time for failure; there’s no money for failure,” the producer Scott Storch, with whom Poo Bear collaborated closely between 2005 and 2008, says in Afraid of Forever.
Compared to the songwriting-by-committee approach – and safer bets such as the Swedish hit-making powerhouse Max Martin – Bieber’s insistence on working with the relatively unknown Poo Bear constituted a risk, and at a time when his future was at stake.
The foundations for Bieber’s comeback were laid in a “whole campaign” devised by Scooter Braun, says Bear: “The [Comedy Central] roast and everything – that was all Scooter’s idea.”
But public relationships could only do so much: it would take a hit to cement Bieber’s return, and that pressure was on Poo Bear.
The breakthrough was Where R Ü Now?, imagined by Bear as a piano ballad. “Then Skrillex turn it into a movie,” he says, almost with awe.
Skrillex and his fellow producer Diplo had heard the demo of the track, and expressed interest in it as a single for their upcoming collaboration as Jack Ü.
In their hands, the wistful ballad became springy and cinematic, with a throbbing beat and a dolphin-cry chorus that was revealed to be Bieber’s voice, digitally manipulated beyond recognition, in a slick New York Times video about its production.
Its influence is inescapable now; in February 2015, when it was released by Jack Ü “with Justin Bieber”, it was utterly new. “It literally changed music,” says Bear. “It took a while, but it ended up catching on. It was played, oh my God, so much on the radio.”
Where R Ü Now paved the way for What Do You Mean?, the lead single off Purpose and co-written by Bieber, Poo Bear and just one other. It was an immediate hit – the first number-one of Bieber’s half-decade career – and introduced to the charts the Caribbean-influenced tropical house sound now so ubiquitous, even Ed Sheeran has dabbled in it. (“It’s like, ‘out of all the people, I would have thought you would be somebody to do something different,” says Bear, slightly accusatorially.)
Two more number-one singles followed, while Purpose itself debuted at number-one on the US Billboard 200 album chart. It topped album charts in 11 other countries, and was nominated for album of the year at the 2017 Grammys.
Bieber was back.
“It was done,” says Bear. “Nobody could take it away from him. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but America loves redemption. They love giving people second chances.”
With the momentum behind Bieber came unprecedented attention for Poo Bear, who gave the first extensive interview of his career to the New York Times in October 2015; at the time, he didn’t even have a Wikipedia page.
At the same time, he is under no illusions that he is now a celebrity.
“I like going out and having very few people coming up to me because they read the credits and they know,” he says. “I see my friends who have superstar lifestyles, and it’s great to have hundreds of millions of dollars, but at the same time, it’s a sacrifice of your own sanity.”
He has, however, quadrupled his pre-Purpose fee in a bid to retain some exclusivity in the face of increased demand. Now he is working with Skrillex and UK singer-songwriter Sam Smith on projects that, he hopes, will throw out the sound he pioneered 18 months ago and which has been widely aped since. (He makes a conscious effort not to listen to popular music: “it’s not inspiring”.)
“Finally, I’ve reached a place where if I’m working with an artist, they allow me to just do whatever I feel,” he says. “Growing up it was like, ‘we want another Peaches and Cream’. Then you realise ... why would you want a 2001 Mercedes Benz when I’m making 2018 Benzes?”