Meet the Songwriter for Kanye West, Selena Gomez, Steve Aoki, and Martin Garrix (and he has a great story with Quentin Tarantino)
I had the pleasure to interview New York-based storyteller Jackson Penn. Jackson has penned songs for many artists including Kanye West, Selena Gomez, Steve Aoki, and Martin Garrix. “Streetlights on Mars” is the songwriter to the star’s debut single and a chance to hear what the writer behind a handful of hits has to say for himself.
What is your “backstory”?
I started writing songs as a teenager. I taught myself as much as I could about the piano and fell in love with the instrument. Most of the kids I grew up with played a sport, but music was my outlet. I was an artist, I signed a deal, and played a bunch of shows. But somewhere along the way, I became a behind-the-scenes guy, developing talent and co-writing songs for major artists. I woke up one day and realized that while I was blessed to have written songs for so many of my favorite artists, I’d lost my voice in the process. I decided that day to write a song with no intention of pitching it. I just wanted to see what I had to say for myself.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your music career?
I was in a session for a high profile artist, and a dessert tray was being passed around. There was a whole entourage of people laughing, dancing, and partying in the studio that night. I took a brownie and scarfed it down. Two hours later, I looked at the engineer and said “Call 911. I’m dying.” He started laughing, and said, “No man, you ate edibles.” I assured him whatever happened, I was going to die, and he should definitely call an ambulance. Of course, just as the paramedics were about to burst into the room, the artist walked in. Mind over matter, I pulled it together like nothing was wrong. “Play the track,” the artist said. The only thing louder than the drums was the knock on the door and the frenzy that followed. I said there must’ve been a misunderstanding, and the paramedics left. The artist ultimately signed off on the track, and right as he left, I went to the hospital. I’m a lightweight.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Moxie Raia and The Spencer Lee Band. Moxie’s newest single “Wheels” is a jam (I didn’t work on it but I really love it). Spencer is an amazing artist from Kansas that you’ll hear about soon. I also have upcoming cuts with DNCE, DJ Mustard, Galantis, and some others I can’t talk about yet!
Who are some of the most famous people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Demi, Shakira, Enrique, Kanye, Wayne, Tiesto, Selena — Selena Gomez is one of the most down-to-earth people I’ve worked with. In terms of stories…there are so many stories…I once asked Quentin Tarantino if he’d read a treatment of mine and tell me if it was worth pursuing. He answered, and I paraphrase “Who cares what I think? If you think it’s worth writing, write it, and write the shit out of it.”
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
Jesse Owens, John Lennon, Jackie Robinson, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney — people with vision who dared to defy convention.
Who do you aspire to be like one day?
Billy Joel. I want to live in New York and sell out the Garden once a month!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve supported various organizations, including Art of Elysium, A Place Called Home, MusiCares, Kidd’s Kids, and The Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai. Next month, I’m excited to start working with Musicans on Call. In general, I do my best to just be helpful, in whatever ways I can, every day. I try to mentor other artists and make them aware of the mistakes I’ve made so they can avoid them. I try to tell aspiring writers that the platinum plaques and Grammy parties don’t mean much and to savor the journey, because no high beats the process of creating.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.
1. Everything my mom told me as a little kid was true
2. All you need is love
3. You can’t please everyone. Be yourself
4. Nothing really matters
5. Don’t take yourself too seriously
I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.
In music, Kirk Sommer; my touring plans are ambitious.
In life, David Geffen; I’d love some advice.
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