Today’s pop music has Cirkut’s hands all over it.
Cirkut is one of the world’s leading songwriters and producers. Monster hits he has worked on recently include ‘Seven’ by JungKook (ft Latto), ‘Unholy’ by Sam Smith (ft Kim Petras), and ‘Hold Me Closer’ by Elton John and Britney Spears; he’s also co‑written and co‑produced major hit songs by Lil Nas X (‘Star Walkin’), Kanye West (‘Hurricane’), Maroon 5 (‘Girls Like You’), Ava Max (‘Sweet But Psycho’), the Weeknd (‘Starboy’), Miley Cyrus (‘Wrecking Ball’), Katy Perry (‘Part Of Me’), and dozens more.
Along with a handful of other producers, his work has come to define the sound of modern pop and R&B. “I try to remain humble, and not credit myself unduly, but I recognise that I have a sound,” he admits. “I think it’s to do with the drums hitting hard, which comes from hip‑hop. Even if it’s bubblegum pop, the drums have to be in your face, punchy, and they have to have some grit to them. They have to be not too dirty, but also not too clean. Coming from the pop world, the vocals also have to be nice and bright. I’ve done music that’s darker and more subdued, but I think my forte is a sound that’s bright, punchy, aggressive, loud and in your face. So I guess I helped create a certain sound.”
Cirkut: Even if it’s bubblegum pop, the drums have to be in your face, punchy, and they have to have some grit to them. They have to be not too dirty, but also not too clean.
Cirkut, aka Henry Walter, has his roots in Canada — he was born and grew up in Halifax — and in hip‑hop. Although he has long ceased to work exclusively in the genre, the influence continues to run through everything he does. “I draw inspiration from what I’ve grown up on, from many different genres, whether it’s electronic music like Daft Punk, Justice, Sebastian, Mr Oizo, or hip‑hop stuff like DJ Premiere, Pete Rock, RZA and Large Professor, or more indie rock stuff like MGMT, or ’70s soulful funk, or New Wave. I’ve always injected what I love in what I’m working on. I think that’s what everyone does: chasing that feeling of nostalgia of what they grew up on, while also making sure it sounds new.”
Cirkut’s journey began when he started DJ’ing at the age of 14. “When I started as a DJ, I had a Technics 1200 turntable, and I was into ’90s hip‑hop, scratching and vinyl. I loved what I was hearing, and wanted to learn how to make beats myself. So I downloaded whatever I could get my hands on at the time: Cool Edit Pro, Adobe Audition, Reason, Acid, Fruity Loops. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was just messing around. Then I found [Steinberg’s] Cubase SX. The way everything was laid out made sense to me, and I stuck with it. I’m now on Cubase 12, which shows you how long I’ve been using it!
“The MIDI in Cubase is the best, and there are many hidden features that you can dig out, and many macros and things to program to make your flow much quicker. Your choice of DAW is a personal preference, and you can accomplish the same things in any DAW. Ableton is incredible, and Pro Tools is great for audio. At the end of the day it’s just a canvas, a tool to put down your ideas and your music. So I stick with Cubase. I think it is the best. It’s what I’m comfortable with, and I’m really fast and efficient in it. I’m close with some of the representatives at Steinberg and they listen to my comments and suggestions on how to improve it.
“After high school I moved to Toronto, where I went to a recording engineering program at the Harris Institute. During that time I was looking for an internship, and I read an article in a local newspaper about the electronic music duo Mstrkrft, who at the time were not globally known, but were already hot DJ/producers in Canada. I really liked their music, which is aggressive hard electronic dance. I ended up briefly interning with one of them, Al‑P, but he didn’t really need me, so he said, ‘You make cool beats. I’ll refer you to our lawyer.’”
The lawyer was Chris Taylor, who represented many big Canadian acts, and remains a well‑known Canadian music industry lawyer and label executive. “Chris had a beat CD of mine, and gave it to a few people. It ended up at Kobalt Music, and was sent to their writer and producer Nicole Morier, who happened to be in the studio with Britney Spears. So they wrote a song called ‘Mmm Papi’ to a beat that I made. The Britney track opened doors, and I’m obviously grateful for the opportunity, but listening back to it now... I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time. It’s a good and fun song, but if I’m being honest I didn’t know how to produce.”
‘Mmm Papi’ appeared on Spears’ sixth studio album, Circus (2008), which was a US number one. He shared co‑writing and co‑production credits with the other two members of the electronic‑rap trio he was a part of at the time, Let’s Go To War. Realising that he preferred a behind‑the‑scenes role in the studio to being an artist, Circut formed a production duo called the Dream Machine with fellow Let’s Go To War member Adrien Gough. They hooked up with a fellow unknown Torontonian, Abel Tesfaye, and co‑wrote and co‑produced the song ‘High For This’. It became the very first song released by Tesfaye, aka the Weeknd, and the opener of his first mixtape, House Of Balloons (2011).
Cirkut’s reputation grew, and he signed to Dr Luke’s publishing company Prescription Songs. He soon found himself working with Dr Luke and Max Martin on a song called ‘Seal It With A Kiss’ for Britney Spears’ seventh studio album, Femme Fatale (2011), and on two songs for Katy Perry’s 2012 album Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection, ‘Wide Awake’ and ‘Part Of Me’. The latter in particular became a milestone.
“It was my entry into the pop world, working with these pop music giants. I was just a kid and here I was, working with Dr Luke and Max Martin! At the time I wasn’t a full‑fleshed producer yet, I was more of a beatmaker and was good at creating interesting sonics. When I came in the song was already fully written. It sounded more like indie pop, and I felt I could put my production sauce on it. So I stripped back the drums, and made them hit harder, and the bass more aggressive and pumping, all from a hip‑hop perspective. It was a great experience. Since then, I’m definitely asked for that sound.”
This experience led to a string of high‑profile co‑writing and co‑production credits as Dr Luke’s right‑hand man, including Jessie J, Flo Rida, Rihanna, T‑Pain, Nicki Minaj, One Direction, Kesha, will.i.am, Miley Cyrus, Pitbull, Shakira, Usher, Maroon 5, Jennifer Lopez and more. Then, in 2016, Cirkut worked, without Dr Luke, on eight songs on the Weeknd’s Starboy album (2016), including the two songs that were famously co‑written and co‑produced with Daft Punk. “It definitely was a highlight of my life and career to be able to collaborate with them. Abel contacted me and said ‘Hey, I have a bunch of songs, I’m not happy with the production on it yet, I’d love to have you come in and do your thing.’ Abel, Doc McKinney and I then worked at Conway Studios here in LA.
“For ‘Starboy’ and ‘I Feel It Coming’, the initial writing was done by Abel and Daft Punk in France. I wasn’t present for these sessions. Daft Punk gave me the files...