Man behind the music – Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette
Songwriter/producer Nick Monson, who co-wrote and produced mega-hits for Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez, feels surprised all the time by his success.
“I look back at stuff I’ve done and places I’ve been and it’s really hard to believe,” he said. “I come from a town of basically 1,000 people.”
That would be Oakwood in Vermilion County, 24 miles east of Urbana. Monson’s achievements really hit home three or so years ago when he was in Oakwood visiting his parents, Mark and Ellen Monson.
They were all watching on TV a Muppets show in which Lady Gaga and Elton John were singing a song Monson had co-written.
“That’s amazing. To be able to share stuff like that with my parents is a blessing,” he said.
Monson co-wrote seven of the songs on Lady Gaga’s “Artpop” album. One was “Applause,” which became a worldwide hit.
He doesn’t know whether Lady Gaga will perform “Applause” or any of his other songs during halftime of the Super Bowl game this evening.
“I hope so. You never really know until the performance goes down,” he said.
He’s not going to the game — he said he wasn’t invited. Instead, he’ll watch from home.
And not just from the vantage point of having been a co-writer of Lady Gaga songs.
He spent a year and a half with the superstar on her 2012-’13 “Born This Way Ball” tour to 30 countries.
“It was amazing. I got to go to places I never dreamed I would go,” he said. “I never thought I’d be able to go to Russia or Africa. We went everywhere that year. You definitely travel in style when you’re with her.”
Over those 18 or so months together, Monson and Lady Gaga wrote 70 or so songs.
“I was writing all the time. It was a lot of work,” he said. “Her energy is crazy. She would do a whole two-and-a-half hour show, and we’d go back to her suite and make songs all night.
“She’s a person that is hyper-creative. When she gets a song idea, she also gets the video idea, the costume idea and what it’s going to look like at a show. It’s really something to see. It’s pretty cool. She’s a nice person. It was nothing but a positive experience.”
For Gomez, Monson co-wrote “Good for You.” Like “Applause,” “Good for You” reached the Top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100.
Monson received two BMI Pop Awards, one for each of the songs. The award is given for songs that receive the most radio play throughout the year.
“I’ve never been nominated for a Grammy, but I will be one of these days. That’s what I’m working toward,” he said.
Monson, who’s 37, also has written and produced for Nick Jonas, Little Mix, R. Kelly, Britney Spears and the Veronicas.
He moved to Los Angeles from Chicago in 2013 and was soon signed to Warner/Chappell Publishing.
The company or a record label places Monson into the L.A. pop-music writing system, where he works alongside other songwriters, sometimes in his home studio.
“You find out who your favorite writers are, who you have success with,” he said. “You write every day and write about 200 songs a year.”
Warner/Chappell recently sent Monson and its other top writers to a writing camp in Las Vegas, where they worked together in a room.
“You have six hours to try to come up with something amazing,” he said.
Sometimes he and his co-writers know the artist for whom they are writing. Sometimes he works with the artists themselves. For example, Monson recently traveled to Nashville to work with Grammy winner Kelly Clarkson.
In the music industry, being from a tiny town in the Midwest can be both an advantage and disadvantage, Monson said.
“A lot of people just grow up here, and it’s a lot easier for them to break into it. I didn’t get to L.A. until I was 32. That was kind of a disadvantage.
“People talk about the Midwest work ethic, which is an advantage. I had played sports so I learned how to compete, win, lose and be thick-skinned. That helped me immensely in my career.”
People who want to break into the music industry also have to be patient.
“It takes a long time for anything to happen,” he said. “I got a job fast in engineering, but producing is another beast entirely. You have to get people to trust you.”
He quickly learned he preferred producing over engineering. As a producer, he makes the beats, writes the music and plays instruments — he doesn’t do lyrics. He plays guitar, piano and bass and does all of his own programming.
“Everything you hear in the song that’s not vocals is something I create — the backing music, the whole production,” he explained. “If I’m the producer and want something to sound a certain way, it’s up to the engineer to technically make that happen.”
He’s known as being “elusive” in the music industry because he doesn’t do social media. Only one photograph of him exists on the internet.
“I consider my job one that’s really behind the scenes,” he said. “I’m really there to make the artists look and sound the best they can.”
Monson didn’t grow up wanting to be a songwriter or producer. After graduating in 1997 from Oakwood High School, he went to Illinois College to play basketball. He stayed just one semester — he had starting playing guitar at 17 and was having more fun with music.
After leaving college, he saw an ad in the back of Rolling Stone magazine for The Recording Workshop near Chillicothe, Ohio. The school offers training in audio engineering, music producing and live sound engineering.
Monson enrolled, having no idea about the production side of music.
“I was a huge fan of music all my life but didn’t put too much thought into what I could do in music as a job,” he said. “It’s an intensive program. You kind of have, like five months there. The best thing about a school like that is you learn what things are in a studio. It gives you a base and some familiarity with the gear.”
After The Recording Workshop, Monson moved to Chicago and applied to Chicago Trax, where Korn, Limp Bizkit and other bands recorded. He started as an unpaid intern. After a month, he was hired by R. Kelly, who co-owned Chicago Trax.
Monson worked for them for two years.
“That’s where I really learned record making and all that stuff,” he said. “So my first real job in music was making music that millions of people would hear, which was pretty cool and kind of strange.”