For record producer Andrew Watt, nothing is more precious than a chance to get close to his musical heroes. He’s got a piece of rock history in his hands right now, slashing at a 1967 Telecaster electric guitar once owned by the late Mick Ronson, a crucial early bandmate of David Bowie.
Watt, 31, picked up the old metallic-blue instrument in London a couple of months ago and is in his Beverly Hills living room riffing through some favorite Bowie standards: “Ziggy Stardust,” “Suffragette City” and “All the Young Dudes.” The Grammy-winning producer realizes many collectors would never remove the guitar from its protective case, but Watt wants to keep it in circulation.
“They’re supposed to be played,” Watt says with a smile, his platinum hair cropped short. “If a guitar doesn’t get played, it cracks, it warps. It’s better in your hands. It needs human warmth.”
That organic connection is a through line in a lot of his work as a hugely successful, chart-topping producer, as comfortable with the newest pop and hip-hop sounds as he is with rock ‘n’ roll, mingling digital and analog, dance loops and guitar solos. Like his frequent collaborator Post Malone, he loves it all, transcending genres at will.
In March 2021, Watt was awarded his first Grammy as producer of the year, non-classical, recognizing his work with Malone, Miley Cyrus and Dua Lipa, among others. His recent weeks have been especially active, with the Top 10 single “Hold Me Closer,” a pop duet between Britney Spears and Elton John; and the release of his second rock album with Ozzy Osbourne, “Patient Number 9,” which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart.
“When you have artists trusting you to help create something that’s going to have their name on it forever, you’ve got to show up,” says Watt, who plays guitar on many of his productions. “You’ve got to give your best every time.”
Watt spends most of his days in the basement studio of his 1926 house, where the biggest names in popular music have passed through, from Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder to Justin Bieber and Charli XCX. The studio is a small but comfortable room crowded with instruments, amps and microphones. The colorful armchair where Osbourne sat during his sessions rests between a drum kit and a glowing neon sign reading “Disco” in blue letters.
Known for working quickly, Watt keeps the studio ready and plugged in for action at all times.
“There’s nothing like when you write a song and you track the vocal immediately after it’s written,” Watt explains. “The emotion of what you’re writing about, who you’re writing about and what’s inspired you is in the forefront of your mind.”
The stakes were different for “Hold Me Closer,” which would be the first new recording by Spears since the end of the conservatorship that controlled her life and career for 13 years and her first release since her “Glory” album in 2016. Built around John’s 1971 classic “Tiny Dancer,” with traces of his songs “The One” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” the new duet is very much a modern track, bouncing to an electro-pop beat.
“Britney came in and she knew what she wanted to do,” Watt recalls. “We sped up the song a little bit and she sang the verses in her falsetto, which harkens back to ‘Toxic.’ She was having a blast.”
The song was also a follow-up of sorts to John’s “Cold Heart,” a 2021 duet with Lipa that also melded together several of his hits. For “Hold Me Closer,” Watt says he was nervous about touching “Tiny Dancer,” one of John’s most beloved songs, but the singer was less precious about it.
“He was like, ‘Stop taking it so seriously. This is a fun summer version for kids to enjoy.’ He took the pressure off,” says Watt, who calls the finished track “grab-a-tequila kind of music.”
Just days earlier, Watt was onstage at SoFi Stadium with Osbourne at the halftime show for the NFL season opener between the Buffalo Bills and L.A. Rams, playing guitar on “Crazy Train” and the new album’s title song. For their second album together, the goal was to create a heavier rock record, and it grew to include solos by British guitar heroes Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, along with Osbourne’s partner in Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi, appearing for the first time on an Ozzy solo release.
“Me and Andrew work really well. He’s a new breed,” says Osbourne via Zoom, noting with a laugh that the producer works a lot faster than he’s accustomed. “He’ll fly through it. He’ll do an album in a week. You got to pull the reins on him. He’s at the finishing post before he’s started.”
As a producer, Watt made his way first with pop music and hip-hop, but all along he kept moonlighting in the rock world as a guitarist and singer-songwriter. By 2016, he’d already produced tracks for Bieber and Post Malone but made a different impression that year singing “L.A. Woman,” hair to his shoulders, with surviving members of the Doors for a tribute to the late Ray Manzarek at the Fonda Theatre.
Watt grew up on Long Island, N.Y., in the suburb Great Neck, with parents who loved classic rock and soul and an older brother who shared his grunge and hip-hop records. He was briefly in a rock band called California Breed, with veteran singer-bassist Glenn Hughes and drummer Jason Bonham, then went solo and released a 2016 EP, “Ghost in My Head.”
Along the way, Watt found a kindred artist in rapper-singer Malone, who attended one of the producer’s performances in 2014. They hit it off and within 24 hours, they were in a studio together working on music. “We’ve worked together on every one of his albums since,” says Watt, noting a new album is in the works. “There’s no genre we can’t do.”
“It helps us not be too scared to take risks and experiment in fun ways,” adds Malone via email.
As an artist, Watt was signed to Republic Records at the same time he was moving more deeply into producing. With his band, he toured small venues in a van, but as a songwriter-producer with Bieber, Watt hit No. 1 (“Peaches”) and joined him on the road in extreme comfort.
“It was like taking a step backwards,” Watt says of his tours as an artist. “If you want to make it in this industry, you have to know when to pivot. So: [life] in a van, or a No. 1 song?”
While adding that “my calling is producing,” he hasn’t sidelined his solo career completely and is halfway done with an album of collaborations with “multiple artists on each song that you wouldn’t ever expect together.”
He’s also deep into production on a new album with Pearl Jam, a personal favorite he’s seen perform live more than 30 times. All five band members have crowded into his basement together, playing face to face. It follows Watt’s work on “Earthling,” a solo album from bandleader Eddie Vedder, released in February.
Watt’s Rolodex is second to none. Later, as we’re riding in an SUV to a nearby appointment, he receives a FaceTime alert on his phone. It’s Elton John, checking in from a U.S. tour stop. They talk every day.
“He’s become one of my best friends,” says Watt, as his assistant maneuvers through neighborhood rush hour. “He’s the only person in the world that I can talk with about Lizzo and Little Richard in the same sentence. He knows more about music than anyone I know.”
The producer path has opened doors for Watt he couldn’t have imagined. A year ago, McCartney was set to visit for tea, and Watt prepared by renting three left-handed guitars, in case the former Beatle was inspired to create. They ended up working on a song that remains in progress. Whatever comes of the track, the experience was priceless.
“To watch McCartney play bass for two hours?” marvels Watt. “To sit with Elton as he works out a song? I feel like the luckiest person in the world.”