Evan Blair’s first go as an executive producer was on Nessa Barrett’s September 2021 debut EP, Pretty Poison. The fearlessly honest seven-track project housed the gold-certified, dark-pop revenge anthem, “I Hope Ur Miserable Until Ur Dead,” which debuted at No. 88 on the Billboard Hot 100 — Barrett’s first-career entry on the chart.
As Barrett’s genre-defiant profile rose, Disruptor Records’ Head Of A&R and West Coast Jennifer Fierman was focused on Blair, whom she’d known since 2018.
“I was in the unique position where I happen to be A&R for Dove Cameron and also Evan’s publisher,” Fierman tells Uproxx via email. “Knowing them both so well, I could see them aligning in musical taste and knew Evan’s ability to be a strong creative partner would help her find this new direction.”
The first song Blair and Cameron wrote together was “Boyfriend.” The perfectly paradoxical record — bombastically jazzy yet dripping in sultry romance — released in February 2022, climbing to platinum-certified status and peaking at No. 2 on Billboard‘s Pop Airplay chart and No. 16 on the Hot 100.
So, the question is right there for Blair: What makes a song a hit?
“I think the most important answer is that I have no idea,” the Canadian-born musician, producer, and songwriter tells Uproxx by phone. “Every time that I try hard to make a ‘hit,’ it’s not one. Every day, you’re trying to make a good song, but oftentimes, when a song feels like a hit, it’s because it feels like a hit that already happened. There was no blueprint for a song like ‘Boyfriend’ to be a massive hit. That’s kind of why it was so cool. It was our own.”
Blair is fluent in his song-making process, independent of the result. He developed his method during Pretty Poison. In his view, the majority of the music industry at the major-label level follows a uniform formula: Stick an artist in a room full of other top-tier musicians, try any and everything, and hope a resonant song surfaces.
“That’s the antithesis of the model I use,” Blair says. “It really starts with building a personal relationship with the artist. Let’s get into the trenches together. … I’m really willing to put in the time with someone and fail over and over and over again until we get it right. I think creating an environment where we’re allowed to fail, there’s a camaraderie that comes with that that brings out the best in almost every artist, specifically young female artists [who have to face] environments every day of new people who may or may not take you seriously, and you have to fight for your ideas.”
Blair’s methodology hinges upon asking every artist to make him two playlists, one that “makes sense” and one that “doesn’t make sense.” The “makes sense” playlist is meant for the artist to identify songs they wish they’d written; the “doesn’t make sense” playlist gives them permission to call out songs they like that might not align with their perceived artistic identity.
After Fierman connected Blair with Cameron, he asked for her two playlists. Blair remembers being struck by her “doesn’t make sense” playlist because it was “brimming with personality,” pulling from Cameron’s formative theater background. Cabaret. Jazz. “Nautilus” by Anna Meredith. James Bond soundtracks. The moodboard wasn’t restricted to sonic inspirations, either, as the aesthetic tone was set by movies like The Joker. Blair and Cameron even shared an affinity for “absurd, totally over-the-top dubstep,” he says with a laugh.
When Blair and Cameron actually got in the studio together on October 18, 2021, they had everything they needed for “Boyfriend” to materialize — subconsciously, at least.
“It felt like a demo,” Blair says of that day. “I’m neurotic about production, so I [thought the] mix was terrible. I had no idea that it was gonna be the song and the cultural event that it became.”
On January 30, 2022, Cameron nonchalantly posted a TikTok featuring a snippet of the “Boyfriend” demo. The following morning, she texted Blair, “Look at this.”
“It was just insane,” Blair continues. “From that point on, it was a rocket ship. What constantly fascinates me about making music is that, after it becomes accepted by the public, you hear it differently. I listen back to ‘Boyfriend’ now and I’m like, Oh yeah, we nailed that. The only thing that changed from [October 18, 2021] is the mix. It’s wild to me how your perception of songs can change based on the world’s view of it.”
“Boyfriend” served as an undeniable arrival for Cameron, while Blair privately experienced it as a once-inconceivable arrival of his own.
Blair’s music journey began as an EDM DJ and producer under the pseudonym Charlie Darker. In 2013, he thought he’d hit the jackpot, setting out on a North American bus tour with the DJs Wolfgang Gartner and Tommy Trash. The momentum felt even more tangible in 2014, thanks to Disruptor CEO Adam Alpert, who signed him to a publishing deal at Selector Songs.
“All my songs were getting played by the biggest DJs in the world, and the success level wasn’t out of this world, but you know, in that scene, for me at that time, it really felt like everything was going right,” Blair says. “My personal issues with alcohol and with drugs put a ceiling on my success and, ultimately, was likely the reason that it didn’t work in the way that I thought it would.”
Alpert adds via email, “He was doing really dark bass-heavy electronic music, but he sent me some of his other songs that he wrote and produced all by himself and I thought to myself, Wow, I don’t think he realizes how versatile he is and that he’s capable of making pop music, alternative music, rock music — not just dance music.”
Blair didn’t yet have the luxury of considering his artistic versatilities. He entered rehab and got sober in 2018. While healing, he understood what Alpert already knew: He loved making music, not being the face of the music. For a time in 2018, he questioned whether music was a viable career at all.
“It wasn’t gonna work out as a [public-facing] artist, and that was a huge thing for me to have to deal with. If I had not been able to let go of myself being the artist, I think that that would’ve been one of the biggest mistakes of my life,” Blair says.
In the early months of his sobriety, Blair called Alpert and Fierman to tell them he wanted to go all-in on serving other artists as a producer and songwriter. They began booking him studio sessions, sometimes up to five days per week.
“I had to really earn my stripes as a behind-the-scenes guy. It’s a different skill set. The rewards aren’t the same. It’s not that they’re not as good; they’re different. You have to define your pleasure in a different way,” Blair says, describing the two-year process.
Blair was ready to empathetically meet Barrett in early 2021. He related to the necessary yet painful inflection point of shedding a past identity, which applied to Barrett and Cameron. Barrett wanted to leave behind her teenage TikTok persona; Cameron, a veteran actor (Descendants, Disney’s Liv And Maddie, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., Schmigadoon!) didn’t want to play a character in her music.
Blair bonded with their inner conflicts — from Barrett’s past with eating disorders (“Dying On The Inside“) or suicidal ideation (“Scare Myself”) to Cameron owning her sexuality with “Boyfriend” — because his no longer intimidated him.
“Having to go to the depths of the human experience and then climb our way back out is something that people recognize in each other,” he says. “There’s a camaraderie that you can develop with other people who have experienced trauma in their life, and I don’t think it has to be something unhealthy. There’s just a recognized humility and common ground. What sobriety gave to me in terms of clarity and stability as a person is ultimately what allows me to do what I do and be a positive presence in artists’ lives, especially artists who are living these exceptional and oftentimes extraordinarily difficult lives.”
Alpert adds, “It hasn’t been an easy road and it never is. Evan has had his share of ups-and-downs, but the more inspiring thing about him is his perseverance and passion. He has the ability to make an artist feel comfortable and safe in the room and brings the best out of them like no other producer I’ve worked with.”
Since Pretty Poison and “Boyfriend,” Blair also executive produced Barrett’s October 2022 debut LP, Young Forever, and he co-wrote and produced Cameron’s 2022 singles “Bad Idea,” “Breakfast,” and “Girl Like Me.”
But “Boyfriend” will always hold an incomparable piece of Blair’s heart as a team win.
“I owe so much to my publishers at Disruptor, Jen and Adam, they stuck with me the entire time. [This is] what they’d always wanted for me but never pushed me. Dove is signed to Disruptor/Columbia, so it’s this really special thing for me to get to have my first real huge hit with my people, my day-ones,” he says. “Dove and I — we’re such good friends — were just constantly calling each other, texting each other, being like, ‘Can you believe this?'”
“Based on the numbers alone, it was very clear prior to and on release that the song was a hit and went on to have incredible success both in the US and internationally,” Fierman says. “What really made it special was the response from the LGBTQ community and knowing that they had made something that reflected listeners identities and experiences.”
It cannot be overstated how moved Blair is to have a hand in “a queer anthem,” noting, “To have that level of cultural impact from something that we created in my studio on a random Monday is unbelievable to me.” His grandmother loves “Boyfriend.” The Temple University Diamond Marching Band performed to it. The 2023 ASCAP Pop Music Awards honored him for his songwriting contributions. He’s in a bit of disbelief at his luck, as he calls it.
Alpert, however, isn’t surprised: “I always knew early on that Evan was capable of these size records, and I am looking forward to many more. Some of the yet-to-be-released stuff I’ve heard, and I’m like, ‘Holy sh*t, these are big songs,’ so I think, even though we signed his publishing to Selector Songs in 2014, this is really just the tip of the iceberg for what he’s going to accomplish.”
In Blair’s experience, Gen-Z values lyrics in an unprecedented way. They paid attention and appreciated the bravery in Cameron singing, “I could be such a gentleman / Plus, all my clothes would fit.” Blair constantly keeps lyricism at the forefront of his production style, reminding himself that “people just want to feel something.” He’s still in the trenches with Barrett and Cameron, prioritizing the freedom found in vulnerability over big-hit potential because experiencing the commercial success of “Boyfriend” affirmed his lasting source of fulfillment.
“You always dream about having the mega-hit, and there’s something about doing it that demystifies it — that question that we all ask of, ‘Do I have it in me? Will I ever have that?’ Having gotten that off the bucket list, it takes a pressure off your back because you know you can do it. You did it,” he says.
“It wasn’t like we were doing what someone else wanted us to do. It’s not like we had a hundred different writers and producers involved. It was so organic that it really empowered me and made me really believe in the process that I have because it works. I think that is really important for artists to be working with someone who isn’t second-guessing themselves and can say, ‘Hey, look, we got this.'”
Nessa Barrett is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.