He is the RP in the interview and Jenna Andrews is his wife. Nice to get an insight into their process.
BTS’ ‘Butter’: The Origin Story of the Band’s Summer Smash (EXCLUSIVE)
Popular on Variety
As hit songs often go, BTS’ “Butter” started with a simple hook. Jenna Andrews, the seasoned songwriter-producer-publisher-A&R executive and all-around industry badass, played it for Columbia Records chairman Ron Perry, himself a skilled musician and creative, who immediately thought of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” and a smash was born.
But the road to “Butter,” the No. 1 song in the U.S. currently on the heels of record-breaking showings on Spotify, YouTube and virtually every other platform frequented by music listeners since its May 21 release, was a long one as its writers and producers detail to Variety in an exclusive interview about the making of the song.
The players: Andrews, a Canadian hitmaker (Benee’s “Supalonely”) who co-heads Sony/ATV-affiliated TwentySeven Music Publishing and serves as an A&R consultant at RECORDS, home to Noah Cyrus and 24kGoldn. She also helmed vocal production on “Dynamite.” Perry, who sold his stake in SONGS Publishing (The Weeknd, Lorde) before joining the Sony Music label in 2018. Songwriter-producer Rob Grimaldi and co-writer Alex Bilowitz, both signed to TwentySeven Music, and Stephen Kirk round out the creative team.
Also highlighted: how Columbia’s promotion department, led by EVP Peter Gray, hit the road with 12 tour buses, bringing “Butter” to decision-makers across terrestrial and satellite radio coast-to-coast where programmers were able to hear the song for the first time. Is it any wonder every single Top 40 station added “Butter” to its rotation upon release? That’s only happened twice before in recent history: with Taylor Swift’s “Me!” featuring Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco in 2018, and with Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s “I Don’t Care” in 2019 (though it’s worth noting that both these songs are duets and features and BTS is a singular act, and an international one at that).
Of course, some of this is familiar terrain for the group comprised of members J-Hope, Jimin, Jin, Jungkook, RM, Suga and V, whose 2020 single “Dynamite” is among the biggest of that year, logging 2.8 million song project units to date, according to Alpha Data. “No pressure” on the follow-up, snickered the “Butter” creators.
Let’s start at the beginning, when was “Butter” born?
Ron Perry: When Jenna played me the hook. I had a vision for this song that was Michael Jackson “Smooth Criminal” meets Daft Punk.
Jenna Andrews: The chorus and the melody is basically what existed in the beginning. Alex had been coming over and writing with me every day during quarantine, and Rob had sent me the song with a hook that he and Stephen had written. And I heard the melody and thought, “This is incredible.” And I played it to Ron, who has the magic ears…
RP: It had different lyrics at the time.
JA: “Smooth like butter, like a criminal undercover,” literally came from Ron’s references. So that got us to be, like, this is the concept — and it all started from there.
How did the lyrics develop?
RP: I would say it took a month to try different versions of the verses and melodies, different lyrics on the chorus, different tracks. We have hundreds of versions of the song.
Alex Bilowitz: I was going to say a month-and-a-half of doing lyric edits on “Butter.” It was a staggering amount of rewrites and really pushed all of us to the max in a way that I don’t think any of us knew we could be pushed. But every time we’d land on something, there would be one person who would be, like, “That’s not it.”
JA: We really wanted to dig in and make sure that we were doing the best thing for the group — that was important to us — so we went over each lyric with a fine tooth comb over six weeks of rewriting and rewriting every day.
Rob Grimaldi: It probably sounds crazy to say that we took a month-and-a-half to get to a point and then another month-and-a-half fixing whatever we came up with. But BTS are all so unique in their own way and they do their thing so well, which is why their fanbase is so invested in them. And so you’re really writing for a whole cultural movement.
AB: It’s an honor to be able to work with them and for them. And we didn’t take it lightly not one step of the way. That’s why there was so many revisions and so many versions of the same thing, because we wanted to get it right.
RP: Because “Dynamite” was so good and so big, we knew our bar was really high, so every part of “Butter” had to be perfect. We knew what the boys mean to culture, how influential the ARMY is, and, if we got this right, how big it could be.
Were you thinking “Butter” had the makings of a summer bop?
RG: If you look at the trend of popular music the last few years, so many songs are really sad. Like it’s almost cool to be sad and, just speaking for myself, being in a pandemic in New York, being cold, wearing a mask in the studio all the time, I was pretty tired of writing sad songs where you’re just feeling bad for yourself and lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely. So for me, working on this song was like my therapy. I don’t know if I would say that it felt like summer, but it felt like the way that you remember the world being in its best sense.
RP: I think they wanted to have a really fun song, post-COVID — that was their goal. And we wanted to write something that had swag like the boys do — a song to match that. Also, we wanted to make sure that all seven members got shine and that everyone has his moment.
There are references to Usher, Michael Jackson… How do those fit in?
JA: We thought it would be cool to bring up late ’90s references: Usher, rock with me, I look in the mirror, like “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson — lyrics that paid homage to that time period.
RP: And I wanted to throw the Daft Punk talkbox in there because I was obsessed and have always loved them.
What about the rapping? How did you approach that?
AB: I think the biggest piece is we really did a lot of research on the group and wanted to identify their strengths as a whole, but also their strengths as individuals so that we can give each member their shine. And I remember we were listening to a bunch of their music, and we found that a couple of them were really skilled rappers. And it was a moment in the song that we wanted to have this high energy explosion of everyone taking part and everyone taking turns — a real throwback hip-hop moment almost. And I think that was a great way to get some of those rap-heavy members involved. And when we first did the demo, BTS loved it so much that they wanted to also put it at the end, which was a brilliant idea, because they were able to actually give more of a moment to those members. So it was a cool, collaborative effort.
How did you work out the time difference between where you were in the States and Seoul? What was the process?
RP: We’d keep doing revisions all the time, so we probably have hundreds of texts over four months regarding lyrical changes and ideas.
Stephen Kirk: The problem with BTS is, when you hear their stuff, you love everything that they’re doing. So you’ll get a take that sounds good and say, “Send me another one just for good luck,” and then you like that one better and try to figure out what is the best take from both. So we were lucky enough to work with the band that is so pro, so good that I mean, nothing’s easy in the music industry, but it was easier than a lot of the stuff that we’ve done. And it was also challenging picking the best ones and where to put them. And especially when it’s overnight and you’ve been working all day on it, it was a process.
JA: We did a lot of it on WhatsApp. We’d basically stay up until five a.m. every day, work from five to eight a.m. with each [member] giving 20 minutes in the studio. They’re pros. … We would send voice notes of suggestions back and forth.
RG: Jenna would get with them at five. And then I’d call her the next morning at like ten or eleven, and she wouldn’t call me back until one or two, which meant she’d been up all night. I was on with them deep into the sunrise.
RP: And then my life was, my day job [at Columbia] and then nighttime at the studio.
Do you feel like they’ve progressed in terms of recording English vocals?
JA: I do. I think they’re amazing singers, and there’s been a progression in the last year between “Dynamite,” “Savage Love” and now “Butter.”
What is it about the song that connects with listeners so immediately?
RP: The track is insane. The lyrics are insane. Every melody is great. The rap parts are great. Every part of the song has been thought through over and over again. All the time we put into it shows, and I don’t think we ever disagreed with each other. I remember when we first got the mix back, we were all jumping up and down. I couldn’t be more proud of it. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and we didn’t know it would break records like 20.9 million global Spotify streams in its first day of release, but we knew it was great.
JA: In today’s world, I think it’s also important to have a lyric that’s visual — something that people can latch onto, like the butter emoji. I keep that in mind when I’m writing now — to have something that can resonate.