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‘Levels’ Up: Writer/Producer Ian Kirkpatrick and His Long Journey to Top 40’s Rooftop

The Neon Trees and Jason Derulo knob-twiddler has left his parents' house and moved into pop's top echelon

Ian Kirkpatrick is having a busy 2015 — so much so that he has to delay our conversation 24 hours to meet an emergency deadline for a song he’s working on, aimed at newly minted solo star Nick Jonas. He’s already had one hit with Jonas this year — the jet-fueled “Levels,” currently shooting its way up the Hot 100 — to go with work he’s done on albums by Prince Royce, Hilary Duff, and Jason Derulo, the latter of whom gave Kirkpatrick his biggest hit to date, with his top-five-peaking “Want to Want Me.” “I was saying I would take a break after my first hit,” the writer/producer says of Derulo’s Everything Is 4 lead single. “And it’s funny, cause after you’ve got a hit everybody just wants more s–t from you. So, it’s like, time to work.”

It’s a long time coming for Kirkpatrick, who has toiled around the margins of pop for the better part of a decade. When he first started pounding the pavement as a writer and producer — part time while studying economics at UC Santa Cruz — he worked with local bands, gradually working his way up to Warped Tour bands. “It was the slowest, most painstaking build,” he says. “Like, I had to live at home till I was 26 because my partner, my manager, and I would just keep buying equipment for our studio. We were building out the studio and it would cost so much money to buy, like… ‘What do you mean $3,000 for a f–king pre-amp? What the hell’s a pre-amp anyway?'”

Kirkpatrick did get a minor break in 2008, when he was hooked up with Illinois quintet Plain White T’s while they were working on Big Bad World, their first album after hitting it improbably big with the chart-topping “Hey There Delilah” a couple of years earlier. (He recalls T’s frontman Tom Higgenson stressing about the pressure of following up “Delilah” in a drunken tour-bus confessional: “He was in tears, like, ‘I don’t know what I’m gonna do, I don’t know if I can come up with something that good anymore.'”) Kirkpatrick worked on the gratifyingly sleazy pop-punk blast “Natural Disaster,” which ended up being the new album’s lead single, but the track stiffed with the public, barely even scraping the alt-rock charts. (Producer and band would fare better with another collaboration a few years later, hitting the top 40 in 2010 with the more “Delilah”-esque “Rhythm of Love.”)

The first major success Kirkpatrick found was with Utah crossover stars Neon Trees. He produced the band’s debut single, “Animal,” an immaculate radio smash that mixed ’80s new-wave production with ’90s alt-rock urgency, and became one of 2010’s biggest and best rock hits, hitting No. 13 on the Hot 100. “Animal” should’ve marked Kirkpatrick’s arrival as one of pop/rock’s premier magic-makers, but he got in his own way, feuding with the band’s management over the song’s direction. (“It needs to just sound timeless,” he recalls being told, his eye-roll audible. “Don’t put too many synthesizers, we wanna make it like a Zeppelin thing.”) He would end up leaving the project — “I was a bit of a hothead back then,” he admits — before it was finished, though he notes that the band mostly ended up going with his vision for the song anyway. Regardless, “Animal” did mark a breakout of sorts for the writer/producer, the song that “made people’s eyes kind of get a little bigger.”

Still, Kirkpatrick found himself somewhat miscast as a producer for pop-leaning rock acts like Breathe Carolina and the Summer Set, when his interests and skill set may have left him better-suited for straight-up pop production. “I was doing all these rock bands and stuff, but I came from, like, the Aphex Twins you know? And, like, the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim… and all this really experimental s–t that was very programmy and melodic,” he explains. “With pop music, it was so much more programing. I can get so much more intense on that end, and it was so much more fun for me, to get away from real amplifiers and actual drum sets and stuff.”

The doors would finally be broken open for Kirkpatrick in the Top 40 sphere this year with the Michael Jackson-filtered turbo-pop of “Want to Want Me,” which he co-penned with an all-star team of writers (including fellow pop-punk refugee Mitch Allan of SR-71), and produced on his own. The song was shopped to a number of artists — Carly Rae Jepsen and One Direction considered it but ended up passing, and Kirkpatrick says Chris Brown even cut a version — before Derulo agreed to take it on. “The process of ‘Want to Want Me’ becoming a single, was like, eight months of waiting and not knowing,” Kirkpatrick says, while Derulo’s camp decided between his song and the Charlie Puth-penned “Broke” for the album’s first advance cut. “We were so stressed out about it, that by the time we found out it was the single, it was just like, okay.”

“Want” proved the right choice, topping the charts in the U.K. and peaking at No. 5 in the U.S. Kirkpatrick also co-wrote and produced “Cheyenne,” Derulo’s follow-up single, which Nick Jonas — whose 2014 self-titled album he also contributed a couple of songs to — wanted for himself. As a makeup for Jonas not getting “Cheyenne,” Kirkpatrick and his team of collaborators offered him their next concoction: “Levels,” which the JoBro performed at the VMAs pre-show in August, and which seems on its way to being the writer/producer’s second huge hit of 2015. Along with “Want,” “Levels” perfects Kirkpatrick’s brand of expansive pop-funk: lithe, rubbery, and constantly in motion, with hooks zooming out from all angles. “I think I made a joke, like I yelled out ‘PENTHOUSE!’,” he hazily recalls of how the song’s most memorable hook came to life. “And Sean [Douglas, co-writer] was like ‘ROOFTOP!’ and we’re like “Yeah, ‘ROOFTOP,’ that’s it!

Now established in the mainstream realm — and with further work on the way with Jonas and pop royalty Britney Spears — Kirkpatrick has moved out of his parents’ house and into a Hollywood apartment, but he stays grinding, an avowed workaholic. “I had just come out of three days working on this Britney Spears thing, and I was telling [collaborator Stefan Johnson] of how I was taking so much Adderall and I was drinking all this coffee,” he remembers. “And he was like, ‘You know what bro… this is what we wanted.’ And I was like, ‘Wow. You’re right…’ So, then I shut up.”