Andrew Watt is one of pop music’s hottest hired guns. The 29-year-old has written and produced for megastars including Post Malone, Cardi B, Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. His calling card is blending of-the-moment pop with a rock aesthetic. Last month, shortly after recovering from COVID-19, he played guitar while Miley Cyrus covered Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” on Saturday Night Live.
Watt says guitar has always been his true love — one he’ll get to embrace fully on an upcoming solo album — while writing and producing for pop royalty has been one successful detour in a life full of many. He first caught the music bug when he was 10 and went to see a cousin’s play.
“There was a pit band and there was a guy with long hair, and he was playing bass guitar,” Watt remembers. “And the guy was rocking out. I couldn’t stop watching him.” Soon after, he got a guitar of his own. “There was never a moment from that point on in my life that I wasn’t playing.”
Watt enrolled at New York University’s music school, where he managed to secure an internship with The Roots, expanding his musical chops beyond rock. “I started wanting to play with hip-hop artists after that and use the guitar in a different way,” he says.
Watt’s next gig was playing guitar for the songwriter Jared Evan, whose song “In Love with You” became an unexpected hit. A tour was scheduled, and Watt decided he was definitely going — even if it meant missing weeks of college. The decision didn’t go over well with his family.
“I just went and I didn’t tell anyone,” he remembers. “My dad is calling me because they found out I hadn’t been in school for a couple of weeks, and it’s not the American ring [on the phone] — he’s hearing a European ring.”
Watt’s father cut him off financially. He says that to have money to eat, he had to drop out of college and really hustle — but in the end, it’s what forced him to dedicate himself to music. “If he didn’t give me that push, I wouldn’t have stepped up in the same way,” he says.
Part of that dedication meant realizing when it was time to step back from his own music and start writing for others. “I really think it’s so incredibly important to understand when to pivot,” he says. “I started out playing guitar for other people and wanting to be a rock artist, and then when it wasn’t getting me to where I could be successful and really just live off of this, I pivoted to writing songs for other people.”
Those “other people” came to include the biggest names in pop — such as Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello, who racked up over a billion streams on Spotify last year with the Watt-composed single “Señorita,” partially inspired by Jose Feliciano’s cover of the Doors’ “Light My Fire.”
Watt says he also sees collaborations in his imagination. He once heard a story about his friend, the rapper Post Malone, going out drinking one night at an LA club and buying a picture off the wall of his idol, the heavy metal legend Ozzy Osbourne. “I just saw this picture in my brain of Post holding a photograph of Ozzy, hammered, walking down Sunset Boulevard,” he says. “And that was when the idea hit me: ‘Man, if Post and Ozzy did a song together, it would be absolutely insane.”
Watt floated the idea to Ozzy’s daughter Kelly; she liked it. So Watt and Post wrote a song together and sent it to Ozzy. They didn’t hear back for a long time. “What I didn’t realize — Ozzy had just gotten really sick, right when we made this song,” Watt says. “He broke his neck, and then he had pneumonia that he couldn’t come back from.”
Months later when Ozzy got out of the hospital, the family told Watt to come by. They agreed to do the song, but there were ground rules: Because he was still recovering, Ozzy needed to get in and out of studio fast. Watt thought he had maybe 45 minutes.
“So there’s an extra bit of pressure: We’ve got to get it quick, we’ve got to make it easy for him,” he says. “So he comes over, and when he gets down to the studio, his eyes light up and he turns into a little kid, saying, ‘What about this lyric? And what about this melody? And can we change this, and do that?’ and just this collaborative thing. And he stayed at my house for five hours.”
After the session, Watt says, Kelly Osbourne called him in tears.
“She’s like ‘Andrew, my dad is taking my mom out for dinner for the first time in months since he’s been sick. He’s laughing. He’s smiling. This has helped him so much and made me feel like my dad is my dad again.’ It was the first time I had ever been involved in something where it was more than the music,” Watt says. “This was breathing life into something.”
After that, Ozzy decided to record a full album, his first in a decade, and chose Watt to produce it. Released in February, Ordinary Man boasts an all-star cast of Watt’s childhood heroes — players from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Guns N’ Roses and Rage Against the Machine.
“I got to work with Slash. Ozzy sent me to Atlanta to record Elton John on piano,” Watt says. “They were all things that I just dreamed of. I literally had Chili Peppers and Guns N’ Roses posters in my bedroom as a kid.”
Watt was finally living his rock star dreams. But he says he took the long way — and a few detours — to get there.
“I think that dreams develop. Some people are blessed to get there in a straight line, and other people, they’ve got to go the semi-circle route,” he says. “I think in the semi-circle route, you learn a lot more about yourself. I’m at a place now where I’m making my album this year. That was always the initial dream, and I’m here, about to do it.”