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Meet Omer Fedi, the 21-Year-Old Prodigy Bringing Guitar Back to Top 40

Meet Omer Fedi, the 21-Year-Old Prodigy Bringing Guitar Back to Top 40

Even among the trees and thick shrubberies lining the pathways outside Conway Recording Studios in Hollywood, it’s easy to find Omer Fedi. His hair, dyed a siren red last year, makes for a blinding follicular flash that, combined with his rainbow manicure and heavy chain necklace that jangles loudly when he gets animated — which is often — immediately announces his presence.

Ensconced behind the sound board at Conway’s Studio C, Fedi gives a one-word explanation for his hair inspiration: “Kurt” — as in grunge icon Kurt Cobain, who went rouge in 1992 and whose style Fedi is also invoking today, despite the 75-degree weather, in a brown and yellow cable-knit sweater. He elaborates: “I was looking around, like, ‘Nope! No one else has red hair. Might as well be me!’ ”

It’s becoming an increasingly unavoidable sight. You might have seen it in photos alongside Machine Gun Kelly and Travis Barker. Or maybe on Ellen last November, when Fedi played the ubiquitous guitar riff to 24kGoldn and iann dior’s “Mood,” the Billboard Hot 100-topping smash he co-wrote and produced. Or on Saturday Night Live in May, when he strapped on an acoustic to back The Kid LAROI and Miley Cyrus on their collaborative version of the former’s breakout ballad, “Without You.” But Fedi isn’t just the new sideman of choice for all these artists; he has quite literally played an instrumental role in creating all their most recent hits, writing, producing and/or performing on each.

Now that the world is reopening following the COVID-19 shutdown, Fedi is even getting recognized in public — like on a recent trip to Chipotle with Keegan “KBeaZy” Bach, his best friend, roommate and most frequent collaborator. “We were just sitting outside, talking probably about nothing,” recalls Fedi. “And some kid came up to us and was like, ‘Producers have to get the recognition! KBeaZy and Omer!’ ” KBeaZy says it has happened multiple times: “I was telling him the other day, ‘Yo, the red hair’s like a crazy branding advantage.’ ”

More important than the hair, of course, is that the 21-year-old Israeli-American’s sound — piercing, melodic, muscular-but-melancholy riffs laid over super-charged rock and/or trap beats — has become just as distinctive a presence in modern pop. As much as any artist whose name appears on his or her cover art, Fedi has been responsible for dragging the guitar back to the forefront of top 40, helping to revitalize alt-rock and pop-punk in the mainstream and, in turn, helping pave the way for artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Willow Smith to crash the charts with electric-powered ass-kickers of their own.

His sound might be immediately recognizable, but it’s not always predictable. See Fedi’s second 2021 Hot 100 No. 1, Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”: with no overt pop-punk or alternative signifiers, it’s built off a flamenco-tinged riff (inspired by a Spanish movie Fedi was watching at the time) and a hand-clapped beat based on a recording of Fedi’s own drumming on a countertop. “I like that nothing I do sounds alike,” Fedi says. “ ‘Mood’ doesn’t sound like ‘Without You.’ ‘Without You’ doesn’t sound like ‘Call Me.’ ‘Call Me’ doesn’t sound like anything MGK did.”

That owes in part to Fedi’s wide range of influences — including rock guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix and John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as well as hip-hop and jazz — much of which he absorbed from his father, Asher, a studio and session musician whom Fedi refers to as “the biggest drummer ever in Israel.” Fedi also started on the drums but switched to guitar after seeing an episode of Nickelodeon’s Drake & Josh in which Drake slings a six-string. (Later, he gives a different explanation: “Guitar players get more girls than drummers.”)

Fedi credits his father not only with expanding his musical universe but instilling a freelancer’s work ethic and competitive drive in him as well. “When we were jamming, he would always be like, ‘Oh, you have to practice this, and you have to do this…’ He would never be like, ‘Nice,’ ” says Fedi. “Which I appreciated! Because then I would be like, “Oh, have to practice, have to make sure I’m better than everybody.’ ” (The lessons have stuck: His manager, Conor Ambrose, says Fedi just took his first day off “like, ever” a few weeks ago).

Asher moved his family to Los Angeles when his son was 16 to give the apparent prodigy — who also plays piano, drums, bass and varied other stringed instruments — the greatest opportunities possible. It was an adjustment for Fedi, who quips that, at the time of his family’s move, he was failing his English class in Israel. But he always trusted that “I’m going to meet a musician somehow, and we’ll figure it out.” (He turned 21 in March but still has a preteen’s excess of energy — constantly climbing up and spinning on his stool and later politely denying a photo shoot request for a “slower, quieter” pose with a matter-of-fact “I’m really a pretty intense guy.”)

Fedi’s innate ability to find his people has led to most of the important relationships in his career. He met Machine Gun Kelly when he went out to eat with MGK’s alt-rock buddy Yungblud and tagged along when Machine Gun Kelly summoned the latter to come by the studio (he’d later play with both on “I Think I’m OKAY,” the alt-radio smash that signaled MGK’s pivot from rap to pop-punk). He linked up with 24kGoldn at a University of Southern California party, and then with KBeaZy at a 24kGoldn record release gathering (with KBeaZy, he’d end up crafting the hook to “Mood” in just his second session with 24kGoldn). Even manager Ambrose, then working at Interscope, was first drawn to Fedi because he kept coming by the label offices to meet people and jam. “I think he’s probably the best networker I’ve ever met,” says Ambrose.

In just a short few years, Fedi has translated that ability into a string of friendships that then became close collaborations. When presented with opportunities to work with the likes of Lil Nas X and Cyrus, he makes sure to hang out with them at length first. (Both social experiments were successes: He’s executive-producing Nas’ upcoming Montero alongside co-producer Take a Daytrip, and he’s currently in the studio with Cyrus.) Early on, he learned that getting placed in writers’ rooms and pitch sessions didn’t yield much. “Why would I ever do this again, when I could just go on SoundCloud and find someone I’m a fan of and try to build with them?” he recalls thinking. “It’s just way more fun making music with your friends.”

Lillia Parsa, Fedi’s publisher at Universal Music Publishing Group, calls him “a good blueprint for up-and-coming writers and producers. So many times, they come to my office saying, ‘I need to work with A-list [artists],’” she says. “And sometimes you can just make great music [with your friends] that you enjoy, and that other people enjoy.” She was charmed the first time she met Fedi — even though he initially told her he didn’t think he needed a publisher — a not-uncommon reaction. “A lot of people who meet [Fedi] are kind of just like, ‘I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about this kid,’ ” says Blake Slatkin, a frequent co-writer/producer. “You just want to be around him.”

Over the course of the pandemic, so did seemingly every artist in Los Angeles. Today, Fedi is at his base in Studio C, but Studio B is reserved for The Kid LAROI, while Charlie Puth, another recent newcomer into Fedi’s fold, is occupying Studio A. “I was like, ‘Wow, my whole friend group is here!’ ” he raves about the setup. It’s almost like a college campus, with Fedi able to dorm-hop at his leisure.

It’s hard to argue with Fedi’s methods. He currently has credits on four songs that have spent nearly the entire past three months in the top 40 of the Hot 100 — “Mood,” “Montero,” “Without You,” and MGK and blackbear’s “My Ex’s Best Friend.” Just a few weeks after we meet, The Kid LAROI/Justin Bieber collaboration “Stay” is released (on which Fedi and Puth are among the co-writers/producers) and soon after it debuts at No. 3 on the Hot 100. He commands as much as music’s biggest producers — top industry fees now hover around $50,000 per track — though deals vary by project, and Fedi declines to comment on their terms; he defers on all business matters to Ambrose. “When Omer’s like, ‘I need to get these deals done for these songs,’ Conor is just kind of the guy who comes in and makes sure that everything gets done,” says UMPG’s Parsa.

All that success has even impressed Fedi’s toughest critic: his dad. “When ‘Mood’ hit No. 1, he was like, ‘Proud of you,’ ” recalls Fedi. “And I was like, ‘Whoa. That was hard.’ ” His own reaction to the No. 1, on the other hand: “I was like, ‘Oh. That’s cool,’ ” he recalls, a smile creeping across his face. “I have 40 more to go now.” But while he hopes he inspires kids to pick up the guitar, he doesn’t care if they know he’s the ax man behind their favorite hits. “I’m not really thinking about the recognition thing,” he says. “I like to be behind the scenes.”

Still, he’s competitive enough to look askance at his own hits that merely peak in the top 10. (“If it’s not No. 1, I have nothing right now,” he seethes through a grin.) It’s conceivable that Fedi might approach the heights of the uber-producers he looks up to, like Benny Blanco and previous Studio C-inhabitant Max Martin (“Tell me what to do!” Fedi shouts to their spirits at one point in mock frustration). “Omer has the thing,” says Blanco. “A way of making you feel comfortable, making you want tell him your life story, making you want to do everything with him. If he has the keys to the car, you’re getting in and you don’t care where you’re going.”

Blanco also recently offered Fedi some grounding post-COVID-19 perspective. “He would go, ‘You know, it’s insane, because [while] you guys started popping, all the artists were in L.A. all the time,’ ” recalls Fedi. “Most of the time, the artists leave and go on tour, and it’s way different.’ ”

He acknowledges it’s going to be a challenge adapting to a world in which his crew may no longer reside cozily in his orbit (even if he is relocating imminently — he and KBeaZy are looking for a new L.A. house). “It’s going to be interesting to see while my friends go on tour what’s going to happen,” he says, sounding hopeful but also a little sad, like a rising undergrad bummed that the school year’s over and everyone is going home for the summer. “Maybe LAROI’s gonna call me and be like, ‘I’m gonna be in Miami next week, and I wanna make music — pull up.’ And then we’re gonna work in Miami….Maybe not. I dunno.”

Then he reconsiders: “Maybe we’re going to be lonely in L.A. — and me and KBeaZy will just go and eat Chipotle every day.” His energy revs up again at the idea of going back to basics with his best friend. “We’ll just be eating our tacos and burritos, and vibe and listen to music.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the July 17, 2021, issue of Billboard.

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