The Canadian behind pop’s top hits

He’s a one-man ’Wrecking Ball,’ the writer of chart-toppers by Katy Perry and Rihanna – and a ‘nerdy laptop guy’ from Ottawa
Mike Doherty
May Truong

When Henry Walter drives down Sunset Boulevard and one of the songs he’s co-written plays on the radio—maybe Katy Perry’s Roar, or Rihanna’s Where Have You Been, or Ke$ha’s Die Young, or Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball—he gets reflective. “Every day, I’m thankful,” he says. “I pinch myself; this is crazy.” But sometimes, the 27-year-old Ottawa native, who writes and produces music as Cirkut, wonders, “Am I ever going to have a hit again? How long can I keep this going?’”

Walter has been working in L.A. for the past three years—an eternity in the pop world. He’s spent most of it at the right hand of hitmaking producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, whose chart achievements, starting with Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone in 2004, are legendary. In that time, Walter has evolved from an assistant (or what he calls “a nerdy, laptop-and-make-beats kind of guy,” creating rhythms and fleshing out Luke’s ideas) to a collaborator who produces vocals and works directly with the stars. “It’s easy enough to get in the room with some of these people once,” says his entertainment lawyer, Toronto’s Chris Taylor (who also works with Drake and Nelly Furtado), “but to be continually invited back, you need the right combination of work ethic and amenability.”

Not to mention talent. In his teens, in Halifax, Walter discovered an aptitude for programming music on computers. After high school, he moved to Toronto and continued making beats with longtime friend Adrien Gough; Taylor sent one off to one of Britney Spears’s publishers, who was looking “for something that’s going to take Britney into the future.” Much to Walter’s surprise, it appeared on the song Mmm Papi in 2008—and became a calling card that helped him get heard by the likes of Dr. Luke.

In person, the stick-thin Walter is unassuming, unfailingly pleasant and very focused. Perched on a stool in the wood-panelled live room of Dream House, the cozy downtown Toronto studio he built from the bones of a former boozecan with Gough and producer Alex Bonenfant, he reflects on the first time Luke asked him to work with him: “I didn’t know what to think,” says Walter. “I was like, ‘Am I just going to be locked in a room for 16 hours a day making beats? Is he crazy?’ ” But he found they complemented each other.

Dr. Luke has said he wants his songs to be “fun and spread joy.” Walter adds, “I like more dark and emotional and weird songs, too.” Before L.A., he had produced, with Gough, the claustrophobic High for This for Toronto R&B star The Weeknd, and it was clear he had an aptitude for the kind of woozy dubstep breaks heard on songs like Rihanna’s You da One. But he also contributes to the fat, shiny texture that makes his and Dr. Luke’s productions sound like polished chrome.

Walter has no desire to be a superstar: He discovered this when his short-lived electro band, Let’s Go to War, opened for MIA in 2009. “I don’t want to tour and play in front of tons of people,” he shrugs. Instead, he’s something of a pop psychologist. Working with A-listers, he says, “is a balancing act. Some people you need to caress and, with some people, you need to be firm; it is kind of an art.” He has learned at the hands of pop wizard Max Martin, Dr. Luke’s own mentor; all three, along with Katy Perry and lyricist Bonnie McKee, are nominated for Roar for song of the year at this year’s Grammy Awards (broadcast live Jan. 26 on Citytv). In the studio, drama is to be avoided; the sessions for Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball were less emotionally wrought than the video. Walter laughs: “I wasn’t like, ‘OK, think of your boyfriend,’ but we had the lights dim and it was a good vibe. She actually works really hard.”

For those who believe pop songs are just technological concoctions, he offers, “You just can’t fake emotion and the performance. AutoTune and effects are just bringing something from great to absolutely the best.” He hopes to bring his pop perfectionism home; he and Gough are signing writers and producers to their company, Dream Machine; Walter will mentor these “mini-Cirkuts” (as Taylor calls them). He’ll be sure to let them know the pop-music world isn’t all about bling: Always smiling, he says, “I’m not here to play around.”