“The Middle” from Zedd hit a peak of No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week. Believe it or not, featured artist Maren Morris wasn’t the first choice. In fact, no fewer than 12 notable female singers were considered before the 28-year-old country singer snagged the job.
Find out below how Demi Lovato, Camila Cabello, Anne-Marie, Carly Rae Jepsen, Tove Lo, Bishop Briggs, Bebe Rexha, Lauren Jauregui from Fifth Harmony, Daya and Elle King all took a stab at the infectious smash hit. Fingers crossed some of their demos leak online sometime in the future.
January 2017: Songwriter Sarah Aaron and Monsters & Strangerz, who met during a writing camp the previous year, riff on a synth progression and, in 45 minutes, come up with the chorus for “The Middle” off of a Wurlitzer riff that Lomax was tinkering with.
February to March: The guys finish production on a demo version of “The Middle” with Lomax adding a Vocoder to the hook. The sound would become a key component in future versions of the song.
April: A finished demo version is sent to Demi Lovato via her manager Phil McIntyre. “Demi really liked it but Sarah was not happy with the verse,” says Stefan Johnson. Worried that additional changes would “mess it up,” Johnson recalls: “Sarah was, like, ‘No, I need to re-write [some verses],’ and she did and they ended up being the best ones.”
May: The producers fly to Miami to cut a vocal by Lovato. “She sounded awesome and we were really hyped on it,” says Stefan Johnson. “But then we didn’t hear anything after a couple weeks and other people were hitting us up about the song, so we asked: ‘Is this gonna be a single for Demi?’” Lovato was conflicted between “The Middle” and “Sorry Not Sorry,” eventually opting for the latter (written by Oak Felder), he explains. “We got the call. Demi thought it was too pop, she’s trying to go more soulful and urban. We were super bummed.”
June: “We really wanted the Demi single, but we also weren’t discouraged because so many other people wanted the song,” recalls Jordan Johnson. Publisher Andrew Gould of BMG intervenes, sending the song to Dave Rene, who manages hit DJ-producer Zedd and newcomer act Grey. Word filtered down that Grey was going to play “The Middle” for Zedd. “That got everyone excited,” says Lomax.
July: “When we got the Zedd version, it was like a home run,” says Johnson. “It sounded like it was supposed to. It was our demo production taken to the finish line. We went in for a day of edits with Sarah, Grey and Zedd and put together a wish list of artists: Camila Cabello, Julia Michaels…”
August to September: Cabello is into the song and goes to cut her vocal with Zedd. “He sends us a version that’s incredible,” says Stefan Johnson. “I sent Camila a text about it, and she’s usually very responsive, and there was no reply. So I’m, like, what’s going on?” By this point Cabello’s “Havana” is climbing the charts and Johnson watches it take off “from 25 to 20 to 15…” And eventually to No. 1.
October: It’s “Defcon 4” at Monsters & Strangerz. With an Oct. 18 release date for the Cabello version two weeks away, the call arrives. “Camila’s out. She doesn’t want any song to overshadow ‘Havana,’” Stefan Johnson recounts. That’s when the song goes out to all comers and a slew of versions come back, including vocals by Bebe Rexha, Tove Lo, Bishop Briggs, and Carly Rae Jepsen, among others. Listening to the vocals, some takes are nearly indiscernible from the final versions. Yet, each is missing a certain something. Says Jordan Johnson: “Some of them are good but none feel like Sarah [Aarons]. Or Demi or Camila.”
November: Anne-Marie is a vocal powerhouse who’s popular in her native England, but still a relative unknown in the U.S. Monsters & Strangerz had worked with her before, and Zedd was down to giver her a shot. Says Stefan Johnson: “She cut a version by herself and Zedd really liked it. So he flew her out [to L.A.] and they cut a version together. Boom. Anne-Marie, Zedd and Grey. The release date is Jan. 6 and they even sent us the artwork.” A year’s worth of work and “the most phone calls I’ve ever had about any song,” he laughs. “You hope it’s worth it after all that.”
December: According to Stefan Johnson, a call to Monsters & Strangerz from their manager on the 30th goes something like this: “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Target is going to premiere the song on Jan. 28 during the Grammys as part of a huge campaign. The bad news? We don’t have a singer. Anne-Marie’s out.” With DJ and publisher politics at play, DJ-producer Marshmello is releasing a song featuring Anne-Marie called “Friends” (No. 14 on pop radio as of April 19), and there’s a reticence by Zedd to have a track out with the same singer at the same time. Plus, Warner/Chappell has the master for “Friends” and Anne-Marie is signed to Warner Music, so that “takes priority,” says Johnson. “I was, like, this is just the worst. We’re done. We have no more ideas. There’s nothing left.”
January 2018: Country singer Maren Morris is “the angel that saved us all,” says Jordan Johnson. Unbeknownst to the production trio, Morris had cut a version on her own that no one had heard. Zedd listened, liked it, and flew down to Nashville at the top of the year to record her vocal. “She sounded incredible,” says Lomax. “It was the best one yet, no question.” Adds Stefan Johnson: “The lyrics took on a whole new meaning when Maren sang. All of a sudden, you believe it. The taps are running. Dishes are broken. It sounded a little Nashville and felt right. We were pumped. They sent new art with a new name again. And there was a new release date: Jan 26. Still, we were, like, we won’t believe it until we see it on the Grammys.”
To read the rest of the story, head over to Variety.com. It’s a very interesting read.