It’s not everyday when you’re called upon to work with the biggest group in pop music, but Toronto native August Rigo was one of the few trusted to co-write two tracks on BTS’ latest album, “Map of the Soul: 7″ — “Black Swan” and “On.” The former, written alongside BTS member RM, producer Pdogg, rapper Clyde Kelly and songwriter Vince Nantes, has surpassed 45 million views on YouTube while the latter, produced by Pdogg and written with RM, Suga and J-Hope as well as Fontana, Michel Schulz, Rock Mafia’s Antonina Armato, Krysta Youngs and Julia Ross, is at 134 million-plus.
Rigo, who’s Filipino, fell in love with music as a child after seeing Michael Jackson perform “Billy Jean” on television. Teaching himself how to play keyboards and guitar, he dreamed big of getting a record deal and becoming music’s next superstar.
After traveling to the U.S. to meet with producers and executives, Rigo began linking with a few industry elites. Eventually, he became a vocal coach on “America’s Got Talent” and landed song placements for the likes of Justin Bieber (“U Smile”) and One Direction (“Gotta Be You”). Today, he owns his own label, Summerchild Records, alongside business partner Benjamin Liu.
Variety caught up with the New York-based Rigo who took us inside the writing process with BTS, named Variety’s 2019 Hitmakers group of the year, and revealed his own muse.
What songs did you grow up on in Toronto?
I sang everything my parents would listen to like Air Supply and Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey — I had a really high voice when I was a kid. As I got older, I got more into Boyz II Men and Jodeci. When I started singing on my own, I started to gravitate more to R&B.
How did you get your start as a songwriter?
The funny thing is I didn’t aspire to be a songwriter. All I wanted to do was sing. I was real green to the industry. I didn’t know anything further than “I’m going to get a record deal and sing amazing songs.” As a byproduct of necessity, I started writing and producing my own music so that I had material to show people. I was hustling. I used to stand outside of Universal’s office at 1755 Broadway in New York City and hand out CDs.
My friend had a couple ins there so once in a while, we’d get a meeting and I’d play them the songs. That was 2005, and being an Asian kid from Toronto trying to make it in mainstream music was unheard of. There was no Drake, nobody even knew what was happening in Canada. To top it off, I’m Filipino so they’re looking at me, like, “Ee don’t really know what to do with you.” But they’d hear my music and love my s–t. [Being] Asian was a real obstacle, but it led me down the path of songwriting. … I was trying to do anything to get my foot into the door and that was my way in.
How did you come to write “U Smile” for Justin Bieber?
I was running around trying to get a record deal and writing with a bunch of producers, one of which was Jerry Duplessis. He’s Wyclef Jean’s cousin and did a lot of production with The Fugees and Lauryn Hill. I had a chance meeting with L.A. Reid, he heard the demo and said, “I need you to write more stuff for the kid.” This was before Bieber was the Bieber he is now — he wasn’t that popular yet. After L.A. heard my demos, he actually signed me to Def Jam as an artist. I did a couple more songs for Bieber and that led me to do One Direction and I got into a whole pop lane for a minute.
How did you get to BTS?
A very long, tedious journey … because I’d been doing K-pop since 2013 and going back and forth to South Korea to write songs there.
What was your view of K-pop?
To be honest, I had a very North American ego. The first time I got [to S. Korea], I really had to learn the process of what they’re looking for and how to integrate what I do into what they do. There’s a real process and vibe that’s theirs alone. There’s a lot of structure I had to adhere to and a lot of different formats. I actually learned to appreciate what they’re doing. It’s more westernized now but the older K-pop three or four years ago felt like five songs in one. But once you see the theory behind what they’re doing and how they cater to their fanbase, I really enjoyed the process of figuring out what they wanted from me, which was amazing.
Describe the workflow and collaboration process for a song like “On,” which has contributors writing in multiple languages.
They gave me a few references — an instrumental track, produced by their team, which I would write the melodies to. I’d actually write a whole song: concept-wise, lyrics, everything. They’d take the gist of my melodic structures and the cadence and my words and translate it. Some of my words stayed, like the easily understandable stuff in English. But that’s why you see so many writers because they might’ve taken my pre-chorus, or verse or hook, then decided “we need a rap part of it. And there are other writers which are the translators, who are key. … With BTS, their lyrical content is very important to them. They’ll ask me to write English words that are within the parameters of their rhyme scheme, but still mean the direct translation in English. It becomes difficult because you’re trying to match syllables and make the Korean lyrics read the same way in English, and also sing the same way. It becomes convoluted. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun.
The video has more than 134 million views; Is this the biggest record you’ve worked on?
Yes. It’s an honor and a really special thing to be involved with. It’s a historic moment to have, especially being an Asian artist who, at the beginning of his career, was looked down upon or looked over for being Asian. To be a part of one of the biggest Asian records ever, it’s poetic justice. It feels really good.
Did you know that your contributions would be released as singles?
We had no idea that we had the singles until they came out. I’m, like, “Oh s–t, we wrote that one!” That was “Black Swan.” Then we look up and have the next single is “On!” Obviously a very pleasant surprise.
What was the inspiration for “Black Swan”? How were the themes developed for what feels like a relatively dark song?
There’s a juxtaposition of something very heavy. The energy behind the song wasn’t as dark, but it did have a dark undertone. I tried to give something that felt international, that didn’t just feel K-pop. … There are dark times when you’re an artist. Even for myself coming up, that’s why I feel a personal attachment to what BTS are doing. It’s a very artistic look at what they go through internally. The deepest meaning of these songs is that they’re real artists, and they’re human as well.
Congratulations on becoming a father. What role did your daughter play in these songs coming together?
I’d hold her and sing the melodies very, very softly into the microphone and turn the mic up really loud. She’d just fall asleep in my arms and I was able to do double duty. I couldn’t go to the studio because then I’d have to leave my wife [Ginette] at home with the baby, so it’s cool that one of the biggest records I’ve ever written I ended up writing with my daughter.
How are you adapting to the life in the time of coronavirus?
I have a studio here in my house. I have my family. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more of a homebody. I’ve been staying inside, cooking meals, taking care of the baby. On a normal schedule, I’d be back and forth from Los Angeles, New York, going to Japan and S. Korea. But because we’re under this quarantine and everything’s shutting down, it allows me time to spend with my daughter. I’m really thankful.
What are your career goals at this point?
I just want to make great music. I’m putting together a new album. It’s the best music that most represents who I am and where I come from.