For years, no one in the music industry cared about songwriter Kevin Kadish's passion project: a '50s-sounding record of doo-wop-inspired pop. Top 40 radio had increasingly fallen in love with the opposite: beat-driven, electronic-leaning dance music — and Kadish "just didn't care about that stuff."
The Nashville, Tenn., resident, who is originally from Owings Mills, kept the idea in his back pocket until June 2013, when a 19-year-old unknown visited his studio in hopes of writing together.
After bonding over a shared love of Jimmy Soul's 1963 hit, "If You Wanna Be Happy," Kadish and the teenager — a songwriter from Massachusetts named Meghan Trainor — quickly wrote their first song together called "All About That Bass." Pulling from a notebook of potential song titles he keeps, Kadish mentioned "Bass" to Trainor, who almost immediately began singing in a low register, "You know I'm all about that bass, 'bout that bass, no treble." Kadish added upright bass, handclaps and layered vocal harmonies — all hallmarks of the vintage sound they loved — and knew they were on to something.
"We were like, 'Let's do a '50s EP and see if anybody likes it,'" Kadish, 42, said on the phone last week. "Just for fun."
"Bass" is now the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the seventh straight week, despite sounding very little like its chart peers. If the pro-booty anthem — which celebrates "all the right junk in all the right places" — holds its position next week, Trainor will surpass Iggy Azalea for the longest run at No. 1 this year for a female artist.
Kadish, who co-wrote and produced "Bass," is still trying to wrap his head around the abrupt, life-changing success he waited decades to achieve.
"This business is peaks and valleys … so it was validating for me," he said. "I mean, come on. We all have ideas, like, 'I'm going to invent the next wheel.' But it doesn't always roll."
This level of success has been a long time coming for Kadish. The youngest of four brothers, he fondly remembers growing up near Baltimore. His parents, who still live in Owings Mills, had season tickets to the Orioles and frequented the Walters Art Museum, but music always seemed to be in Kadish's future.
In 1989, Kadish, an Owings Mills High School graduate, attended Berklee College of Music in Boston to study film scoring, but he said the school's competitive nature made him question his pursuit of music. After two years, he transferred to the University of Maryland, College Park, where he took landscape architecture classes. At the time, his best friend was killed in a car accident, which Kadish called a "turning point in my life."
"I [didn't] want to draw fountains for the rest of my life," he said.
Music once again became his focus. Kadish graduated from Maryland with a major he created, music management, but performing remained the goal. Strapping on an acoustic guitar, he played, by himself and with friends, wherever he could in Baltimore, from the Ottobar to the Horse You Came In On. Kadish went on to sign a development deal with Republic Records at 26 but was dropped from the label before he could release an album. With his hopes of becoming a star dashed, he returned home to start his music dreams over again.
"I had to go back to Baltimore from New York City with my tail between my legs and put a new band together," Kadish said.
He formed the pop-rock act Stereolife and continued to play city venues like the 13th Floor in the Belvedere and the 8x10. He had no money, Kadish said, which led to him crashing on the couch of Mickey Cucchiella, the comedian and former 98 Rock on-air host. Even though Kadish was struggling at the time, Cucchiella said recently he had no doubt his friend would one day find major success.
"The guy is absolutely a machine musically," Cucchiella said. "It went beyond 'chops.' He just needed the break."
Kadish hoped a New York showcase show for Stereolife in front of label executives would be that break, but the band failed to stir much interest. After the performance, Kadish met the one person in the room interested in working with him, producer Matt Serletic. Serletic — who had just produced Aerosmith's hit power ballad "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" — offered Kadish a deal as a staff songwriter, but not as an artist.
"I didn't even really know that people didn't write their own songs," he said. Now, Kadish —who can play guitar, bass, keyboards and drums — writes, produces and engineers other artists' works.
"I had come to the realization that what you want to be is not necessarily what you're meant to be, and that's fine," Kadish said. "Maybe when you're young, that's a jagged pill to swallow, but I was 30 — like, 'OK, I'm tired of being broke, and I still get to make music.' "
Judging from Kadish's resume, the decision was a sound one. Since moving to Nashville at the end of 2005, he has worked with a wide range of talent, including Miley Cyrus, Willie Nelson, O.A.R. and Stacie Orrico. His contributions to Jason Mraz's album "Mr. A-Z" earned Kadish a Grammy nomination for Best Engineered Album.
But nothing, he said, compares to the success with Trainor. After "Bass" landed her a deal with Epic Records, she and Kadish knocked out nine other songs, all of which are to appear with "Bass" on Trainor's full-length debut album, "Title," due out in January. Kadish said his phone has not stopped ringing with opportunities. On Thursday, Sony announced it had signed Kadish to a worldwide administration deal, which will extend the reach of his songs. Sony, he said, will secure writing appointments with artists and have his songs placed on TV and in movies.
The deal's catalyst was the success he and Trainor have had, Kadish said. He described their partnership as a "dynamic duo" that is only scratching the surface of their potential. By mixing late-'50s and early-'60s characteristics (dense doo-wop harmonies, upright bass, baritone saxophone) with Trainor's cheery disposition and contemporary attitude (The Shirelles never sang, "I see the magazine working that Photoshop," he said), Kadish and Trainor have come up with fresh pop-music catnip. The results have come quickly, too. Kadish claims they wrote her new single, "Lips Are Movin'," in eight minutes.
"It's almost like we share a brain musically when we're writing a song. I've never had that with anyone before," he said. "We only had two months to write a record. If we had six months, who knows what we could do?"
"Lips Are Movin' " is getting regular play on radio, but it has not eclipsed "Bass." Listeners have latched on to the upbeat song's embrace of round bodies, as opposed to model-thin skinniness. ("You know how the bass guitar in a song is like its 'thickness,' the 'bottom'? I kind of related a body to that," Trainor told Billboard in July.)
The song's video has more than 177 million views on YouTube, and it does not appear to be slowing down, even though some have found its take on body image off-putting. Slate called the lyrics' need for male approval (sample line: "Boys like a little more booty to hold at night") a "sexist, faux-feminist message" while others hear the song as "skinny shaming."
Kadish, who initially envisioned the song sung by a man, in the vein of Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back," said those offended are "overthinking it."
"We're not trying to be mean to anybody. It was showing Meghan's sense of humor more than anything," he said. "They're just looking for something to be upset about. I think chubby people have gotten the brunt of it their whole lives. I think [skinny people] have nothing to complain about."
While Kadish still sounds a bit shocked over the success of "Bass," one person who's not surprised is John Allen, current singer of Charm City Devils and former drummer of Stereolife.
"He's got a really great wit when it comes to writing lyrics. He's a very funny guy when you talk to him," Allen said. "['Bass'] has his fingerprints all over it. That kind of wordplay is something that I think is a real hallmark of his style."
There is a good chance many will hear more of that style soon. Kadish was in Los Angeles last week to work on a Christmas song with the major-label girl group Fifth Harmony. Robin Thicke's camp recently reached out to him, Kadish said.
Industry insiders are already talking about "Bass" winning Grammys, but Kadish said he can't bring himself to consider it.
"I can't even think about that stuff," he said. "I won't get any work done, honestly."
A golden gramophone would be an achievement for Kadish, but he's already looking beyond "Bass."