Smooth Like Butter, Like ADHD Undercover [Video]

By Understood

Alex Bilowitz put in the elbow grease to create a thriving career as a record producer, songwriter, and composer — and he did it all with ADHD. He was part of the team who wrote the lyrics with BTS for the hit song “Butter.” In this episode, Alex talks about what led him to his career, and what it takes to break into the music world.

Though he was diagnosed in the third grade, ADHD sat in the background for Alex until college. Being super organized and on time, Alex didn’t think of himself as someone with ADHD. But during his first year of college, that all changed. Listen in to learn about how ADHD looks different from person to person — it doesn’t always fit the stereotypes.

To find a transcript for this episode and more resources, visit the episode page at Understood.

We love hearing from our listeners. Email us at

Understood is a nonprofit and social impact organization dedicated to shaping a world where the 1 in 5 people who learn and think differently can thrive. Learn more about “How’d You Get THAT Job?!” and all our podcasts at Copyright © 2022 Understood for All, Inc. All rights reserved.

Transcript provided by YouTube (unedited)

when you’re working on a song in the studio it’s not like you’re jamming it’s way more often that you have like four
bars of a song on loop and you are fine-tuning and fine-tuning and
fine-tuning like let’s just take butter for example if we’re working on the verse right smooth like butter like a criminal
undercover and then you loop just that smooth lag but and then you have that loop going for like hours it would make
a normal person go mad [Music]
from the understood podcast network this is how’d you get that job a podcast that explores the unique and often unexpected
career paths of people with learning and thinking differences my name is eleni mathil and i’m a user
researcher here at understood that means i spend a lot of time thinking about how we find jobs we love that reflect how we
learn and who we are i’ll be your host [Music]
so if you don’t know what bts korea is do yourself a favor stop the podcast for a second and search bts butter on
youtube bts is a korean boy band they are one of the most popular music groups worldwide and in the united states our
guest alex bilowitz was part of the team that wrote the lyrics with bts for their hit song butter
alex is a producer songwriter and composer he’s written and produced for artists like megan the stallion keith
urban gavin degra lil wayne busta rhymes and more i invited alex on the show to talk about
his adhd creativity and his career in music welcome to the show alex thank you
i think that we should start off by talking about the bts army since that’s such
you know a popular thing i will out myself to say that i know nothing about
pop music in general let alone korean boy bands and i didn’t i don’t
think i fully understood like how famous this band is until i mentioned it to
people that are like not into pop and they were like oh my god that’s huge and i was like oh okay
so i have you know i have listened to butter and i now know the lyrics basically just from
listening it to it one time ever so that’s how catchy it is perfect that means we did our job well exactly um so
do you want to tell us a little bit about working on the song what that was like why you chose the
lyrics you did sure it’s like kind of the picture that you have in your head when you’re starting a career of what you want a pop
project to be it is it’s this massive spectacle where every lyric has to be perfect every melody has to be
perfect they’re the best performers basically in the world so every single thing has to be at that level and every
single person that’s working on it is at that level so you know it was it was a blast and it was also coved so we were
all inside and the the guys were you know they were involved on zoom and like on whatsapp and they have you know
people whose job it is to handle so like we were never in the same room as them but we were with them on the internet and and
it was wild just based on what you’re saying about the fans i mean they are the greatest fans in the world truly i
mean they make beatle mania look like uh like an open mic at a coffee shop these
fans love bts more than anything on earth and i know that i’m grateful for
them and i’m i’m very positive that bts and and everyone who works adjacent to bts is grateful for them too they they
really are the reason why that band is just the biggest and best band in the world
and you know i can’t speak as to why every demographic of bts fans loves bts
i know why i love them but you know the thing that’s so interesting about it is that and i didn’t know this until i
started working with them until i was fortunate enough to work with them you know i kind of assumed that most bts fans
would be young and because when i grew up boy bands of my
era of the 90s backstreet boys and n sync and so on and so forth it was young fans they were fans at the time they
were it was my age it was you know let’s call it 9 to 14. and that’s just sort of what i assumed i
didn’t realize that it was like oh there are 50 year olds that live for this band
that like camp out and to buy tickets and there’s five-year-olds that it’s really really wild and amazing and
extraordinarily rare in any form of entertainment you know if you think about a movie that is universally loved
between 5 year olds and 50 year olds there’s maybe one every few years same with television shows same with books
it’s it’s very very rare that there’s something that just touches everybody honestly even after listening to the
song one like i watched the video clip and i was like oh i’m into this i never thought that i would be into this yeah
yeah i mean honestly that’s sort of how i felt having nothing against uh pop i obviously love pop music i made
a career in pop music and there there was you know i was i wouldn’t call myself a big k-pop fan before i started
working with them but i wasn’t not a fan there there were k-pop songs that i knew and liked and obviously k-pop’s uh
explosion in america this was sort of like the last frontier it was huge all over the world and now it’s huge in
america and you know of course we know what the entertainment industry in america does to things it just you know
multiplies it by a hundred and yeah it was very it was surprising to me when we were working on it and working with the
guys and working with their label i was like wow this is just so awesome well do you want to talk a
little bit about what you did specifically with on the song butter yeah sure so my contributions to that
song were lyrical i was a lyricist i’m a producer and a writer equal parts both but on that song
there were other producers i was one of the lyricists on it and why did you choose the lyrics that you did i mean
we and the guys chose them because you know it felt like a smash like it really we just
i mean we all thought it was going to be a hit it obviously was a monster hit and there were many other versions of that
song before the version that you know the world knows there were different titles there were different sequences
there were different lyrics and yeah it was not like a group of people sitting in a garage with guitars
and candles like jamming and then we wrote a song one day i mean it was weeks of rewrites and we would tweak
every single interesting every single word every single phrase it was just perfected and you know frequently we’d
get to a point where we thought we were done and then one of the guys would have an idea and then we’d we’d switch it and go back
and they were usually right there’s only one part of the song that i i really fought for
i wanted it to be different than the final version and now that i’ve heard the final version like everywhere on earth in every car and supermarket ever
i’m like yep they were right this is better like way better mine was not better
well it’s funny that you talked about boy bands of the 90s because uh well my first concert as a kid was asha so i
heard that usher reference and i was like oh yeah yeah yeah yeah
so yeah as you said you’re a lyricist and a producer and a composer was music
always part of your life yes my parents are both musicians so my father was a clarinetist and he played
in orchestras around new york city and then became a music teacher and he was he was like the band director in a
middle school in new york for 30 years career new york city board of ed school teacher and my mom was an opera singer
and she was constantly touring around the world and you know doing productions
and yeah rehearsing and vocalizing and wearing wild like an opera singer like
wearing ridiculous costumes and yeah and she did that she did that for her entire career i
believe ages i think she debuted when she was 19 and she stopped singing professionally when she was 60.
wow yeah whole career and and then were you always interested in pursuing a
lifelong career in music or no what was your path no i wasn’t the writing was absolutely on the wall i’m sure that
everybody looking in at my family was like this kid is doomed to do music there’s just no chance it’s not going to
happen i mean i went to i had the greatest piano teachers and and i went to
performing arts camp and i was in all city and i practiced and this was my whole life i didn’t play sports or
anything like that but my parents were very adamant about me
not making a career in music because obviously it’s very difficult it just it is there’s no way around it and so
when i went to college i went to skidmore college in upstate new york and i went there basically because they were
known for having a very good business program and a very good music program my folks wouldn’t they didn’t pay for all
of college they paid for some of it and they took a loan for the rest but they were not going to pay for me to go to conservatory they were just like that’s
out no i wasn’t good enough to go to juilliard and and like the berkeleys of the world
they were just like nah that’s not happening you’re getting a real degree in something from a real college and so
i went to skidmore with the idea that i would be a music and business double major and that when i graduated i would
go and i would work for a car company because i’m equally as interested in i
mean i’m obsessed with with cars german sports cars to be precise and that was always the bond between my dad and i it
wasn’t really music we don’t listen to the same kind of music we don’t like the same kind of music so really the thing that we had in common was cars and sort
of like mechanics and engineering and and racing and things like that and so
yeah he was like go to this college you can be in bands but get a business degree and then after that move to
germany for a few years and do the bmw or porsche executive training program that was really the path that he saw
um she’s also super specific and niche yeah well i mean he was a teacher so he
was very good at sort of like figuring out a thing that would get a kid interested and i had add and and like i
had a hard time focusing and and staying on task with school and studying but i
didn’t have a hard time staying on task with music or car related things you know so
i think he said he likes these things and and i actively did so why not do that i mean it’s sort of
in theory it made more sense than every kid going to a liberal arts college to sort of you know quote unquote feel it
out but in actuality you know then you have to go sit through macro and micro
economics and you know if you have a learning disability and your passion is not sine wave sign curves like
good luck yeah on that note do you want to talk a little bit about what challenges came up when you were in college and
as you said when you’re studying something that you know you’re not necessarily interested in like it sounds like the
ultimate goal was and like the drive was there but not necessarily like you know the
i don’t know present so basically what happened is i went to college like every one of my friends and so i got to school
and i basically failed out my freshman year not because i was partying or doing drugs or it wasn’t anything
like that i wasn’t skipping class i was at class on time with my computer open ready to go with all my
materials and then i would go to the library at five and stay there until midnight but to simplify the whole thing
basically what was happening is i was just staring at the screen it was as if i was asleep and i don’t
really know why uh i i think it was because of my add or maybe my lack of interest and so at the end of freshman
year i had to go in front of the dean of studies and they were basically like we don’t know what to do with you because
your grades i had a 1.7 gpa they were like your grades are so bad
but but you haven’t like there’s no infractions you didn’t like miss i don’t think i missed one class
i mean literally not one i i was there they’re like but you you haven’t gotten any trouble and like the r.a the person
in your dorm says that you don’t like make noise or there’s no smells of weed coming out of your room
and you’re just like not doing anything but your music professors think that you’re this like great talent and they
le and they like you and you know i had a band and we would play
and the whole college would come out and and they’re like so we don’t really know what to do i was like i i don’t know what to tell you so they they kind of
came up with this formula with a professor who had really taken a liking to me that i would take a semester off
so i took a semester off i went back to the city i had like a very sort of like manual labor kind of job i
was basically a doorman in a building like take load of packages and take out trash and things like that and then i went back to
college second semester sophomore year not only did i have to make up the fall semester
that i missed i basically had to make up all of freshman year because the only credits that i had from freshman year that were the transferable are
applicable were my music ones and so when i went back to college i had this loan and i wanted to
graduate on time with my friends so in practicality i had to do college in basically two and a half years
and i had said to my parents i was like i’m not gonna make it as a business major i’m just not like
it will be so unbelievably impossible and i i just don’t think i’ll be able to do this so i’m going to be a music major
fully and that’s what i did and i graduated on time i ended up graduating with like a 3.4 3.5 gpa
and i was in bands too i would like play out every night that’s how i made money um i would have like three or four gigs
a week i’d play like jazz piano in restaurants and then on the weekends i had like rock bands um
what a contrast yeah yeah and so yeah i graduated in time with a music major and
in between my junior and senior year a different professor had really taken a liking to me and said that there’s this
alumni name scott jacoby he’s a very well-known producer record producer in new york every music major
is going to try and get an internship with him in so many words that he they’re sort of like you’re the one that should have it
he gave me the internship and from day one of walking in that studio i was i was like this is what i want to do it
was it was so abundantly clear and then i went back to school finished my senior year he had come up to visit me a few times
we were like brothers we still are and then i graduated from college and he hired me full time and i ended up
working for him for five years we had a studio in the city an indie label we had an artist with a grammy nomination
and yeah it really just sort of clicked one day i’m i’m very fortunate well i want to come back to like why it clicked
and like why that felt like the right thing for you like when you took that semester off or when they were like
evaluating your first semester you know they knew that you were present
and you had been like working but the grades weren’t necessarily reflecting that
did that lead to your diagnosis like were they able to identify that was aedd related yeah i think that they advised
to my parents that i go see a specialist they were like this kid just has all the signs of somebody with with a learning
disability and i never knew this but my parents told me later that when i was in
third grade the teacher thought i had a learning disability and this was in the 90s and they had somebody come sit in
the back of the class and evaluate me of course i had no idea that they were there for me neither did any of the other students the evaluator the
therapist or whatever their title was gave my parents a diagnosis that was like this kid has atd and my parents and
i don’t blame them for this they’re they’re great parents and very smart but they’re like no he’s just a nine-year-old boy i wasn’t like the type
that was bouncing all over the place i was just staring into space or like at girls or whatever i was staring at um
thinking about cars literally thinking about cars i always make this joke with with my wife where she’s like well what do you think about
when you’re like going to sleep or trying to relax i’m like james bond she’s like no no seriously i’m like no
seriously like i pretend that i’m in monte carlo driving an aston martin in like a perfect tuxedo and like drinking
champagne like i that’s what i think about i’m like oh one day i’ll be james bond um it’s so funny so yeah so so they
advised that i go see this specialist and i did and she was she was very helpful she was really good and
we sort of like worked on like concentration tactics i guess you would call them and
exercises and more so she was just somebody to sort of talk to um
you know i had no problem putting in the work like i started working in a garage when i was 15. i’ve been doing manual
labor my whole life like i worked at a garage i was a contractor i was a doorman as a matter of fact other than being a record producer the only job
i’ve ever had are like dirty manual labor jobs i never like had an internship at my friend’s dad’s law firm
like it was always like get your hands dirty and make the most money you can so like i never had a problem putting in the hours it was just in school i just i
wasn’t interested and i mean i don’t think i could tell you what any of the books
the assigned reading like the scarlet no okay i don’t remember i think i remember
one i think i remember the plot of catcher in the rye and that’s about it
well let’s go back to talking about the studio um i’m curious when you say it clicked for
you like what felt so good about being in the studio and did that continue to feel good yeah
there’s a lot of different reasons why people love being in the studio i mean but the first reason is that being in a recording studio is fun
it’s fun like it is it’s fun it’s definitely cool it’s way cooler to work in a recording studio than to work like
you know in a cubicle somewhere and it’s obviously a lot harder to make a living but
um it’s fun and there was this feeling of and it’s still to this day if you make
it into the room like if you’re in the room you’re at some level of talent or coolness so i like that and i also like
the feeling that there was a little bit of like an army of one aspect
because like if you’re in a band and the drummer is not any good you’re like oh well our band’s not gonna
be good because like frank isn’t good at drums and then you have to like kick him out and fight when you’re a producer at
least in pop music you know everything’s done on a computer basically you’re doing it all yourself um so i was like
as good as uh as good or bad as i am able to get it’s it’s all up to me
it’s like that’s interesting all up to me i’m not relying on anybody except for you know maybe people that teach you a
few tricks but like at the end of the day it’s kind of like practicing the piano you’re only going to get as good as the time you put
in or you know tennis it’s you know basketball is not an army of one you can be you can be bad and be on
a team that’s great if you play tennis it’s just you yeah so i know
that you talked about you know the days that you’re in class that you you know didn’t feel like
physically present and you know i think la la the the last time we spoke
you said something like oh the library is the kiss of death yeah um you know and you’ve talked about struggling with
reading and books and things like that so i’m curious what’s so different about the studio what captures your attention
and keeps you present in the room i mean well first of all it’s i mean it’s private so you feel like you’re sort of
like the master of your domain you know you’re in your own space um you’re in control of the music that’s playing most
of the time and the people that are in the room are like-minded you know it’s no one’s coming to a
studio it’s not a music maker i’m not like inviting like stock brokers to come over here i’m
like you have wall street and all your money you don’t get to come here and i don’t
get to go there and that’s totally fine um so i think that
there’s also a little bit of a feeling of like you feel a little bit like a superhero when you’re in here you know you there’s like a lot of buttons and
there’s a lot of you know when you make something really good and the room is like
you know people can’t see me right now but i’m bopping my head like we’re listening to jay-z like when they’re doing that it
feels real good it feels the same as going out and finding out that somebody has a crush on you you’re like oh they like me i’m good um
so you kind of get that dopamine hit yeah have you thought about how your add brain contributes to you being really
good at this skill like do you think that it makes you you know more creative or
yeah maybe i don’t know if it makes me more creative i mean i know that there are a lot of people in music that have
learning disabilities there’s a lot of there’s a lot of people here that didn’t do well in school it’s sort of in in many ways the
industry kind of encourages that it’s for the misfits you know what i mean like you don’t need to you don’t have to have gone to college to do anything in
music as a matter of fact sometimes it’s a disadvantage because you’ve lost four you’re four years older than your competition i don’t know if
i don’t know if the 80d contributes to me being more creative i mean
i i really don’t know the answer to that i do know that i get fixated on things when there’s something i like i just get
completely consumed with it and i remember thinking at the time i mean we’re going back
i guess i was 19. so we’re going ooh i don’t want anyone to know how old i’m in my 30s so
but i like let’s call it 15 years like i remember thinking to myself like that people with 80d were messy
there’s something about that like oh people that have 80d like their rooms are messy and they’re not organized and
like they can’t be places on time and that’s obviously not the case there’s a there’s so many forms of this and that’s
not the case for me i’m like hyper organized and extremely reliable um i
don’t think i’ve been late to anything like ever but yeah when there’s something that i’m really interested in i get
i’m just obsessed with it yeah so it has to be something that you’re interested in and i have yeah
so yeah because i guess you know when i think about producing or editing i
imagine that it’s quite like tedious and you have to have a lot of patience which i do not
have so it’s it’s interesting how you know you’ve talked about struggling to like
you know focus and assist with certain tasks but when it comes to this particular um skill set it’s the
opposite just thinking about tasks that might seem tedious or repetitive for
some people oh i get it for you you’re able to like really focus when you’re in the studio yeah you’re producing music
yeah well i mean i assume that most people know this but maybe they don’t like when you’re working on a song in the studio it’s not
like you’re jamming it’s way more often that you have like four bars of a song on loop and you are
fine-tuning and fine-tuning and fine-tuning and you know it would make a normal person go mad you’re like how
have you listened to like let’s just take butter for example if we’re working on the verse right
smooth like butter like a criminal undercover and then you loop just that smooth lag but and then you have that
loop going for like hours hours and hours and hours and you know and apply that to any section of the
song they’d be like well i like this song but i don’t like it that much um and that’s very common so
i don’t know which is part of the job only in songwriting sessions the the method is that you sort of get a little
loop going of whether it’s piano chords or it’s a beat that already exists and then you loop it for hours while
the lyricists one or multiple lyricists come up with lyrics to it and just looping and looping and looping um
frequently with a metronome in the background like just going like click click click click i i can see why but people would
hear that and be like this is adjacent to torture
totally um well i know that we talked at the beginning of the conversation about you
know the music industry being notoriously difficult to crack and you know your parents thinking well
there’s no way this you could do this as a career because it’s really tough um do you want to talk a little bit about
um you know like what were the factors that contributed to your success and you talked a little bit about your five-year
internship but you know what what happened from there um to land you to
yeah so now sure so that internship well just to clarify it was not a five year internship it was a one summer
internship and then i was hired i was an employee like hired out of college so basically one summer of internship four
years of full-time employment and i lived at that studio basically i mean not literally i had an apartment with a
bed yet but i you know i mean it’s new york so yeah i’d wake up good clarification yeah i’d wake up at
nine i’d be at the studio by 11 i’d go home at 2 or 3 a.m every night and then do that and that’s what i did for four
years um and that’s what most people that are in the studio do they you know it you’re here all the time
there was a lot of years where i i barely made it financially you know there were where i was just scraping by
um there were a lot of years where i was like looking for other sources of
music related income you know where like i was scoring documentaries or or working on
music for commercials or working on um you know writing songs for projects that let’s
say we’re not going to make it to bts or artists of the absolute top echelon like
they are um you know it took a long time there are some songwriters and producers that have
a hit very early in their career that’s extraordinarily rare and there is no
telling when your first big thing is going to come and unfortunately for most people they never get a big one you know
very very very very very few people get to do this as a career
and even less get hits and i and i hate to say it that way
because there are there are a million ways to make a career in entertainment and it’s as it’s as fulfilling as you
make it out to be um it’s it is not all about the money the gift is that you get to make music every day but if you are playing the
game of pop music at a certain point unless you’re you have funding somewhere from
somewhere else if you want to make pop music you basically have to live in l.a
or nashville and or new york and these are expensive places to live and
you know life is life is not cheap so at a certain point
it’s art and commerce like you’ve got to do something so yeah it has to be a bit of a trade-off yeah i mean i’m lucky
that i have this but i worked really hard for this for a really long time and i’m really good and i spent a lot of i
wasn’t always really good it took me a long time to get to the level i’m at now and i want to be
better tomorrow and the day after that and i wanted this like i really really really wanted it and i really worked
hard and i can say i will go on the record and say this that i worked harder at this than most people that do this
and then of course you know timing and being with the right people at the right time of course yeah and
then i mean i think that’s a really good segue to ask you know what advice do you have for anyone wanting to pursue a
career in music yeah work really hard i mean that’s the only guaranteed and that’s not even
guaranteed either but it’s it’s as close to a guarantee as you’re gonna get which is um
you have to want it more than anybody you just have to want it so so so badly and
you have to work whatever your version of work of what you think working hard is
multiply it by 2 3 5 10 20 times and that’s how hard
you have to work and you’re if you think you’re a great songwriter i promise you there’s someone
out there that’s better um if you think you’re a great producer i promise you there’s someone out there that’s better that never goes away nor
should it it’s it’s how you have competition that’s how you get good stuff
yeah yeah yeah totally so i know that you said you know once that you were in the studio it really
clicked for you that that’s what you’re meant to be doing and there’s a lot of other people that
don’t haven’t even really reached that point so do you have any advice for people in that position yeah sure well
the first thing i should say is that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that you know there is nothing wrong
with maybe not finding your absolute passion and making your career
out of out of your hobby or your passion there’s plenty of people probably way more than not that the job is just a job
then it’s a way that you make money and then you buy food with that money and you feed your kids and that’s great and the amount of times that i consider
doing something like that in my career in music i don’t have enough hands to count you know hundreds of times that
i’ve been like you know what maybe i should just go
be a real estate agent or work at a company with a desk where i have insurance and all of this so i i don’t
judge people like that at all so you know if you are someone that is able
to make a job out of your hobby that is the reward it’s not the money and if you’re one of the people that’s able to
make a a very good living or you know become wealthy based on that that’s even
better i i i hope they’re happy you know and i guess that’s really the best you can ask for
yeah oh well thank you so much for joining alex this is really interesting cool
thanks for having me appreciate it [Music]
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The post Smooth Like Butter, Like ADHD Undercover [Video] appeared first on The Good Men Project.