Growing up, Whitney Phillips wanted to be an architect. “I liked the creation of things from the ground up,” she tells Billboard. “I loved conceptualizing things and building them.”
By the time she started high school, though, Phillips recalls becoming “pretty much obsessed with Mariah Carey” — and as a result, decided to trade in her architectural dreams to pursue music, too. In 2006, right after high school graduation, she left her native Seattle and moved to Los Angeles hoping to break into the industry while majoring in business marketing and communications at Loyola Marymount University. Phillips describes her early days in L.A. as “very Coyote Ugly,” adding, “It takes a while to figure out your best angle to get in.”
While doing just that, she was often invited on stage to sing hooks with fellow musician friends at live shows, but quickly discovered that she “never felt at home on stage” as a performer. “It was more about the things I had to say versus the things I had to show,” she says.
Phillips realized what she really loved about music was the creation process; turns out, songwriting wasn’t a big leap from architecture after all.
“I’m big on concepts, probably leftover from my architect days,” she says. “That’s the foundation of your song, always. I like to know the why and the how of every song. I like to know what the roots are.”
With that re-calibration, Phillips leaned into songwriting and soon enough, in 2012, wrote a piano ballad with Swedish producer Harry Sommerdahl. The following year, she was waiting tables in Malibu when she got the phone call telling her that “Lil Wayne cut a 16 bar verse on [her] song,” she recalls. The Stafford Brothers had produced that ballad into an EDM track called “Hello” that the duo’s label, Cash Money, then placed Wayne and Christina Milian on.
After that track released, Phillips landed a publishing deal with BMG and steadily racked up songwriting credits for superstars like Christina Aguilera and Kylie Minogue. Now, her latest songwriting project “Stuck With U” performed by Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber, scored the songwriter her first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. And though Phillips describes her decade-long career as having “a lot of false starts, it almost feels like it takes 10 years for a fire to start in two seconds.”
Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber
“It really took us just sitting in front of our computers in our pajamas to write something that would go No. 1,” Phillips says. Over remote writing sessions on Zoom, Phillips along with Skyler Stonestreet, Freddy Wexler, and Gian Stone wrote the initial version of “Stuck With U” on April 3. From there, Wexler sent the demo to Scooter Braun, who manages both Grande and Bieber. The pop stars picked up the song immediately, Phillips recalls, and “within the week, Ariana was sending us edits. Justin was doing the same.”
While “Stuck With U” was written at home in pajamas, “The Hard Way,” performed by Celine Dion and included on her 2019 album, Courage, was written in a castle in the south of France. In 2017, veteran producer Greg Wells invited Phillips to his annual writing camp at Château Marouatte. In a writing session with Wells and fellow songwriter Harloe (born Jessica Karpov), Phillips describes the song as the kind that wrote itself as it dug deep into the writers’ personal experiences with loss. Wells eventually produced the track for Dion, who “reacted pretty much right away to it. Hearing her sing those words was incredible and a huge bucket list moment for me,” Phillips adds.
Phillips expanded her writing portfolio when she added K-pop girl group Red Velvet to her artist roster after a successful trip to South Korea. In 2017, Phillips was invited there by South Korean hit-maker SM Entertainment and L.A.-based production team The Stereotypes to work on some tracks for the K-pop act. Using K-pop music videos as a mood board, Phillips was inspired to write a fun and vibrant track — and ended up writing the the English version of “Bad Boy,” included on the group’s 2018 album, The Perfect Red Velvet. Phillips says the key to writing a K-pop hit is to make it “incredibly layered and colorful,” adding that “you always write a bridge, and you always put a bunch of harmonies.”