Nine years ago, on February 11, 2011, Lady Gaga made a mission statement into a mainstream smash hit with the release of her instantly iconic “Born This Way,” the lead single from her second album of the same name. The track, which finds the pop star laying bare her support for all people living exactly as they were born to live, became an anthem for the LGBTQ community as it reached number one in over 25 countries across the world.
The song also marked the first collaboration with now-longtime writing and production partner Paul Blair (aka DJ White Shadow) to be released in the wild, kickstarting a fruitful partnership that would see the pair work together on both Born This Way and ARTPOP albums, the pop tracks on the A Star Is Born soundtrack (which just earned both a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media last month) as well as various other tracks.
That lead to Williams asking Blair to submit some tracks for what would be the Born This Way album. Within a week and a half, he had a handful of tracks ready to send Gaga’s way. “She called me back the next day and was like, ‘What the f–k is this?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know,'” he recalled. “And then she called me two days after that and had done some lyrics and melody to ‘Bloody Mary,’ ‘Electric Chapel,’ and one other one. I can’t remember off the top my head. ‘Highway Unicorn (Road to Love),’ maybe.”
Working on the album while headlining her first arena tour, the two played phone tag “for a while,” Blair told us. “Then she came to Chicago and I got on a bus, and then I never got off the bus.”
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“I’ve been in the room with thousands and thousands of people over the last 10 years,” he told us. “And I’ve never quite witnessed the phenomenon that is Lady Gaga writing songs at a session. Like, for better or for worse, she’s unique, as unique of an animal as they come. It’s like a combination of drive and talent and ideas. Sometimes, you know, the whole thing is just like you just sit back and wait, watch and wait, because there’s nothing you can do. Because it’s such it’s like standing in a hurricane with, you know, a rain jacket on. It’s like, just wait till it happens because you can’t understand it while it’s spinning around.”
“We were trying to be f–king weird, man,” he continued. “And we were trying to like be left of center and try new s–t. And, you know what? We did that. So whether or not it became, you know, the theme song for f–king children show, who gives a s–t, you know? We were not trying to make the ‘ba-da-da-da-da’ whatever from McDonald’s. [Laughs] It was like we were trying to fu–ing weird and, hey, guess what? Mission accomplished.”
In honor of the ninth anniversary of the release of “Born This Way,” we asked Blair to take a trip down memory lane, revisiting some of the biggest tracks he’s worked with on Gaga over the last decade.
“So I think that everything starts somewhere and along the way, like, if I’m intending for me and you to drive from LA to Chicago, and our intent is to get Chicago, between the time we leave LA and Chicago, we’re going to have a lot of experiences that we didn’t expect, weren’t anticipating or maybe were anticipating but didn’t really understand on the way, right?” Blair explained. “So what I’m saying is that I don’t think the song was specifically made to be anthemic per se. It’s like, you write the song because you want people to shine a light on how people should be.”
“Maybe that song wasn’t for you,” he continued. “Maybe that song was for somebody who was not you, that never met you, that liked the song and then could understand you better. Also maybe it was made for you to understand yourself better and the way that you fit in and maybe it’s for you who needed to be understood to understand somebody else that was also born in a way that you didn’t understand.”
And because of that, much attention was paid to getting things exactly right. Blair told us that he has over 120 existing versions of the track in his possession, proving the point. “For me, I think out of every song I’ve ever made in my entire life, that’s the most important song I’ve been a part of making,” he explained. “Every time I hear that song, I’m like, ‘F–k, this is awesome.’ Not only just because of what it what it means, but just, I can remember like specifically sitting there and spending so much time making sure that it was dope. Because we all knew how important it was.”
“Her father’s a big E Street, Bruce Springsteen guy, you know? So she grew up listening to that. And as I started developing the song, she was like, ‘I really want a saxophone solo or really want, you know, solo on this.’ I don’t even know was first: sax, trumpet, whatever. I don’t really remember how that started, but somebody was like, ‘Let’s call Clarence Clemons, man. See what he says.’ And sure as s–t, he came rolling in pretty shortly after,” Blair recalled with a laugh. “We were all like, ‘Wait a minute.’ It was a crazy. I remember I don’t think I said one word that whole day to be honest with you because there’s certain times where you’re standing there and it’s like, ‘What is happening right now?!’ I was like, ‘Is this dude really sitting here like eating lunch with me and then he’s just gonna go play a solo here on this thing that we started making or whatever?’
“It’s pretty surreal. And I think that no matter who you are in the world, I don’t care how far up the river you are, you still get excited to work with people and see people and talk to people about their musical journey. We’re all like huge fans of him as an individual musician and then also of the band so somebody just said, ‘Let’s try it.’ And it happened.”
“Just this last weekend somebody was like, ‘Obviously Michael Jackson‘s like your favorite musician. Who’s your second-favorite musician?’ People ask that all the time and it’s the hardest question to answer because I have like such a long list, but in different times, I’ve answered different things. But the one that constantly stays in my top five and usually is usually at number two or number three is Lynyrd Skynyrd,” Blair told us. “I f–king love Lynyrd Skynyrd. So I always wanted to make something that kinda had dance stuff and rock stuff in it. And so, I f–k with guitars all the time and at the current time I was working on those things, it just, I don’t know, it worked. So I put that guitar in there and did whatever we were doing at the time and I was like, ‘Oh, cool. Here’s a track.’ Sent it off. And then when she sent it back, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so killer.'”
“I’m going to have to save this one for the VH1 thing for when I’m really old,” Blair told us, laughing. “But let me tell you this. I love ‘Applause.’ I think it’s just such an energetic song. And it was not intended to be the first single initially. When you’re dealing with the machine, and what I mean by machine is there’s a lot of people that weigh in on your record, you know, on your art. It’s very difficult, I think, for her, for everybody in the business that’s an actual writer, you know, songwriter, performer, whatever.”
An excellent remix with Christina Aguilera in place of Kelly remains, however.
As Blair recalled, it was he who suggested Kelly jump on the track. “It wasn’t like we did the record and everybody’s like, ‘Oh my God, don’t put R. Kelly on this. He’s an asshole.’ I think, dollar for dollar, R. Kelly as a songwriter—not as a human being, but as a songwriter—is one of the most talented people in the last 20 years,” he explained, citing hits like “I Believe I Can Fly” and “You Are Not Alone” as instances of Kelly’s unimpeachable songwriting prowess.
As Blair explained, he thinks it sucks that “everybody who’s ever worked with R. Kelly in their whole lives got s–t on” when the allegations came to light. “It doesn’t suck as bad as what he did to everybody that he did s–t to,” he adds, “and trust me when I tell you, our side of the fence is filled to the brim with love and respect and admiration for humankind in general. All people. So like if there was even a whiff…if we would have even had an indication…we would have changed. We don’t need R. Kelly to be on the song for it to be a dope song.”
“We recorded that in a hotel room. I don’t remember what city we were in. But I do remember that we started after her show was over and didn’t leave until noon the next day. We were literally up all night on that song the first night,” Blair revealed. “She had this idea in her head and wanted to get it out. Had a little part of it before the show. And then she was so stoked about it that after the show, we all went up in the room, set up, and worked on it for a really, really long time.”
He continued, “I think it was one of those things where she knew that she wanted to get that done, but didn’t exactly know how to do it right right off the bat. So we just tried like a bazillion, bazillion things and I remember specifically when she did get to where she was going, it was like, ‘Oh my god, so dope.’ Sometimes when you’re trying to explain stuff, even when it’s in your head, it’s hard to explain it. And that was one of those ones that took a really long time to get to where it was. And then once it got there, we’re all like, ‘This is great.’
“Madeon was mostly in charge of that track. Some of those things when we were doing them, it was a very, very genuine team effort. So it was like you’d do something somewhere, Madeon would come in and start taking it and running with it. Me and Nick [Monson] and Dino [Zisis,] we’d all kind of separate and work on different things at different times. It was a real squad effort.”
“I would say you’re not completely off base, but here’s how things work. Before A Star Is Born came up, we were just writing stuff for whatever. Even before ARTPOP, before Born This Way, after Born This Way, she just writes and I just make tracks. I mean, that’s what we do, right? So I’ll send her stuff sometimes or Nick would send her stuff or she’d send us stuff. So there’s stuff floating around, going around. ‘The Cure,’ I wouldn’t say was written for the film. It definitely was not written for the film, to go in that direction. It was just like, once one cup gets full, things start spilling out into other cups and you start pouring the water into other cups and maybe there was some cross pollination from one thing to another. But honestly, it wasn’t it wasn’t written for—it was just a good song.”
“I actually am not working on LG6,” he admitted. “I sat this one out. I’ve heard it. It’s not my art to share with you, but I can tell you this, [as] with everything that she does, it’s genius. I’m excited for her to put it out. I think that it’s really good.”