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Cirkut shaped global hits, but it's a lesser-known tune that landed him a Grammy nod

TORONTO — Few music producers hold the magic touch for shaping a pop hit quite like Henry Walter.
Halifax-born Henry Walter, who produces under the name Cirkut, is nominated for the best dance/electronic recording for his work on Disclosure's "Higher Than Ever Before." Walter is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Diego Andrade *MANDATORY CREDIT*

TORONTO — Few music producers hold the magic touch for shaping a pop hit quite like Henry Walter.

While he's not a household name, chances are you've cranked up the radio, danced at a nightclub, or celebrated someone's wedding to the beat of his songs. Under his Grammy-winning production alias Cirkut, the Halifax native's resume reads like a pop soundtrack to the 2010s.

“Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus, “Where Have You Been” by Rihanna, and Katy Perry’s “Roar” all credit him among the writers and producers. So do several songs off the Weeknd’s album “Starboy,” including the title track, which won Walter his first Grammy five years ago.

There are also megahits "Sugar" by Maroon 5 and Kesha’s "Timber" with Pitbull — even these still only brush the surface of his Top 40 entries. Last year, he landed another No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “Seven,” sung by BTS member Jungkook and rapper Latto.

Being part of so many recognizable tunes, it's inevitable that Walter encounters his work in public all the time. Any one of his songs could be playing over the speakers at the local convenience store or pumping out of a car racing by with the windows rolled down.

“I don’t know how I’d describe it, if it’s weird or good – it’s a bunch of different things,” the 37-year-old said as he paused to contemplate his life as a prolific music producer.

“It is, I guess, a little bizarre sometimes.”

Walter spoke to The Canadian Press by phone from his Los Angeles home ahead of the Grammy Awards on Sunday. He's nominated for the fourth time in his career, vying for best dance/electronic recording with his contributions to Disclosure's track "Higher Than Ever Before."

The drum-and-bass-infused song marks a departure for everyone involved, especially Howard and Guy Lawrence who operate as Disclosure.

The English brothers are recognized hitmakers in their own right. They introduced the world to Sam Smith on their 2012 single "Latch," and followed it up with several other electronic favourites. Last year, their album "Alchemy" marked a change of direction as they set aside their tendency toward samples and pop vocalists to create a pure electronic record.

Walter also found joining them to experiment outside of pop music appealing after spending so many years inside the genre.

His first breakthrough came more than 15 years ago when a confluence of events led Britney Spears to record "Mmm Papi," a song Walter co-created with his electronic and rap group Let's Go to War. The track, which appears on Spears' 2008 album "Circus," put him on the music industry's radar at 22 years old.

Not long after, Walter branched off on his own, taking the name Cirkut and a role in the production of a song for a little-known artist called the Weeknd. "High For This" was the breakthrough that introduced Abel Tesfaye to the world in 2011, and helped make Cirkut one of the industry's most sought-after names.

The same year, he was credited on a succession of Top 40 hits — including "Domino" by Jessie J and "Good Feeling" by Flo Rida — all of them produced under his mentor Lukasz Gottwald, better known as Dr. Luke.

As part of Gottwald's publishing company, Walter became a crucial piece of the machine for the better part of a decade.

Their partnership ended several years ago when Walter's contract expired, and at the time, Gottwald was embroiled in a prolonged legal battle with Kesha over accusations he drugged and raped her. Gottwald responded with counterclaims that she fabricated the allegations to defame him. Both sides settled last year.

On his own, Walter proved he still had the ingredients to deliver hits. 

His 2018 single "Sweet but Psycho” by Ava Max soared up the charts, the most popular of multiple collaborations with the vocalist, while the 2022 single "Hold Me Closer" gave Elton John his biggest charter in decades, helped by an appearance from Britney Spears.

Walter insists that while he's proud of his work, he tries to live "a bit more on the humble side." He's quick to credit his collaborators and express how grateful he is to have prolonged success, including his latest Grammy nomination.

"Higher Than Ever Before" came about through a string of connections between Disclosure and the producer.

In 2022, the brothers were brought on to remix "Unholy," a 2022 chart-topper by Sam Smith and Kim Petras that was co-written and co-produced by Walter.

With Disclosure's version of "Unholy" primed for dance floors and electronic playlists, it required consultation with the co-creator, which opened the door for more conversation.

Walter began talking directly with Guy Lawrence about something they might create together, which ultimately became their Grammy-nominated song. 

Most of the work happened separately. Walter said it began with a chord progression he suggested before Lawrence jumped in with his ideas.

And from there, Walter took the song back and tweaked some things. He shaped the "vocal chops" — an industry term for short audio samples — in which Guy sang the melody.

“I’m usually the one who’s producing and finishing a song," Walter added.

“With this, I started with a seed that I had created. He brought it across the finish line.”

The creative exchanges happened several times before the song reached its final version, released last summer. The team finds out if they're Grammy winners at a pre-broadcast ceremony streamed live on hours before the main telecast airs.

Whether they win or not, Walter and Disclosure are already treating their partnership as a success. They plan to reunite at the studio in the coming months to attempt a second collaboration.

Before that happens, Walter already has a few potential hits brewing. Last month, Justin Timberlake's "Selfish" became his latest high-profile release, while others are percolating that he refuses to discuss.

"Maybe I've told someone, 'Hey, I'm working with this artist.' And then the song didn't end up coming out," he said.

"I don't like to count my chickens before they hatch."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2024.

David Friend, The Canadian Press