When Freddy Wexler was a kid growing up in New York City in the Nineties, there was no artist he loved more than Billy Joel. The 37-year-old singer-producer — who has has written songs for everyone from Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande to Kanye West and Celine Dion — used to sit in his bedroom, put on The Stranger, Turnstiles, or River of Dreams, and dream. “I would imagine it was me performing,” Wexler tells Rolling Stone via Zoom from his house in L.A. “I wanted to be Billy Joel.”
But despite all his songwriting success over the past few years, Wexler’s more realistic dream of meeting and working with Joel seemed just as unlikely. Joel quit making pop albums after 1993’s River of Dreams, and hadn’t shared new material of any sort since 2007 when he released the romance ballad “All My Life,” and the politically-charged rock song “Christmas in Fallujah,” which was sung by Cass Dillon. But for Wexler, the impossible challenge of getting in the studio with his hero became a goal he had to achieve.
“I love the word ‘impossible,’ Wexler says. “I’ve always been somebody that loves to make the impossible possible. I’m a dreamer, but I’m an executor and I’m relentless. There’s nothing more motivating than someone telling me I can’t do something.”
It took that level of determination to persuade Joel to release his new single “Turn the Lights Back On,” which was produced and co-written by Wexler. That nearly two-year journey culminated Sunday night when Joel performed the song to close out the Grammy Awards. “This has all been so humbling and such an extreme honor,” Wexler says. “I am a storyteller and a guy on a mission. That’s what I’ve always been.”
The journey started for Wexler as a kid accompanying his mother to Sloan Kettering hospital and watch her play the piano for cancer patients. “I would watch her hands,” he says. “That’s how I learned how to play.” Back at home, his parents introduced him to jazz artists like Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, along with Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, Paul Simon, and Joel. “They became,” he says, “the soundtrack of my youth.”
His first concert was one of Sting’s semiannual Rainforest benefits shows, where he first saw Joel perform, followed by a Janet Jackson gig not long afterwards. “That one had a totally different vibe,” he says. “I remember her taking a fan onstage who did some really inappropriate shit, and security had to take him off. It was insane, but it showed me the power that one creative person could have onstage.”
Wexler starter writing his own songs at 13 after a girlfriend broke up with him, but didn’t get serious about it until three years later when he had a particularly vivid daydream about a close friend dying. “It felt so horrible and so real,” he says. “There was a keyboard in my room, and I just started playing chords. I just knew in my soul that I needed a catharsis at that moment.”
Shortly before heading off to college at the University of Pennylvania, Wexler enrolled in an NYU class about the music industry. This wasn’t for college credit, but he was interning at Sony Music and wanted to learn more. He played one of his original songs for the class, impressing an 18-year-old student named Stefani that coaxed him into recording her demo tape in the laundry room of his parent’s apartment building. “I’m a real gut and instinct person,” he says. “I just knew she was going to become famous.”
He was so sure that he gathered up the nerve to march into a meeting of top executives on the 32nd floor of the Sony Building on Madison Avenue, uninvited, to tell them about his discovery. “I was wearing ripped jeans and a t-shirt,” he says. “I shouldn’t have been there, and I was scolded for it later. But I said, ‘I just want everyone to know that I found the next Madonna.’ They sent someone to see her play at the Bitter End a few days later, but didn’t wind up signing her. She ended up becoming Lady Gaga.
“To be very clear,” he continues, “I take zero credit for her success. But I clearly remember telling my parents, ‘She’ll be the next Madonna, and then she’ll become Streisand,’ which is really what happened.”
Unsure of the direction he wanted his life to take, Wexler majored in English at Penn. But he sent off the demo tape that impressed Lady Gaga to all the major labels. “It triggered the largest bidding war in North America in 2006,” Wexler says. “The Financial Times wrote about it. I signed with Virgin, and I left college to record my first album.”
The label teamed him up with Matt Wallace, the producer of Maroon 5’s 2002 debut Songs About Jane. Members of Maroon 5 and Buckcherry played on it. The future seemed very bright. But Virgin merged with Capitol Records at this exact time. There was a huge shakeup on the executive level. His album simply fell through the cracks and vanished, unreleased.
Wexler headed back to college dejected but much wiser about how the music industry works. The dream of somehow making it as a pop star remained, but he started looking for other talented acts he could bring into his orbit. He met pianist Eric Wortham in the dorms while working on a school project, signed him to a management deal, and set him a course that eventually landed him a job as Adele’s pianist, a role he holds to this day.
Not long after first encountering Wortham, Wexler met Rachel Platten, and signed on as her manager. “I really saw a vision and a potential in her,” he says. “I sent her to Sweden to record. In between my classes, I would travel to New York, take her to every show, and lug her keyboard around. I’m always really passionate when I love something. I was an artist in my heart, but also a business guy. I wanted to protect other artists, and I felt that I could help them with their songwriting and the business side.”
This whole time, Wexler was posting original songs on MySpace, hoping to land another label deal. “Everyone wanted to sign me prior to the Virgin deal,” he says. “The problem is that once your deal gets to that level, it better go right because you piss off a lot of people by not choosing them. I couldn’t get a deal to change my life. They were all like, ‘Fuck you, you should have signed with us.’”
One day, the phone rang in his dorm room. The voice on the other end said they were calling from The Kidd Kraddick Morning Show, which was syndicated on the radio across America. “We’ve just discovered your music on Myspace,” they said. “Why aren’t you famous?”
Wexler hung up three times, positive someone was pranking him. But it wasn’t a prank. Kidd Kraddick wanted to talk to him on the air in front of millions. And when the DJ heard the details of his shelved Virgin record, he invited him to his studio in Dallas. “I drove a U-Haul truck,” Wexler says. “I played shows along the way to pay for my gas. It was called the Freddy Needs Gas Tour. People gave me $14,000 of donations for gas, which I donated to the DJ’s charity. They actually asked me to stay in Dallas, and I become a guest co-host of the show for months.”
When Wexler’s bizarre Kidd Kraddick experience came to an end, he moved to Los Angeles with the ambitious scheme of starting a publishing company and management firm. He scoured the Internet for raw talent, and invited seven complete strangers to live with him out there. “I said to them, ‘How would you like to come to L.A.?” he says. “‘I’m going to pay for all your studio time, your entire cost of living, Ubers to drive you around, and engineers.’ I then picked all these people up at LAX in my used Ford. It was like a fuckin’ reality show.”
It seemed even more like an un-filmed reality show when Kevin Rudolf let them spend a year in his rented Hollywood Hills mansion because he wanted to leave the city, and was worried that somebody else might damage the property. “I said to him, “Well, listen, I could probably pay you one-tenth of your rent,’” Wexler recalls, ‘”but I promise you’ll get your security deposit back.’”
Wexler transformed every room of the house short of the bathrooms into makeshift recording studios, and moved in his entire songwriting collective. “I said to everyone, ‘As long as you live in my house, I’m going to be the publisher of whatever songs are written here,” he says, “‘but you can leave at anytime you want, and I can kick you out.’ It was a cool deal for anyone who doesn’t want to sign a real deal. There was a lot of friction in the beginning, but we did become a family. And it was a wild success. We called it The Brain.”
Over the time, major artists like Jill Scott, Demi Lovato, Shakira, and Selena Gomez utilized the talents of The Brain. Wexler scored writing credits on West’s “Wolves,” Lovato’s “Without the Love,” Gomez’s “Beat Down,” Halsey and Marshmello’s “Be Kind,” and Celine Dion’s “Perfect Goodbye,” the last song on what might wind up being her final album.
One of his biggest hits came during the height of the pandemic in 2020. He was trapped all day in the house with his wife Olivia, and they started to squabble. “I said, ‘Liv, I know I can get under your skin,’” he says. “‘You can get under mine, but if I had to be stuck with anybody, I’m glad I’m stuck with you.’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, babe, that’s sweet.’ I go, ‘Wait a second, ‘Stuck with You.’ That could be a hit song if I write that right now during quarantine.”
He fleshed out the song with a few buddies on Zoom, and started shopping it around. Label heads came to him with major artist that wanted to record it. “I would say, ‘No, that’s not big enough,’” Wexler says. “If you heard the artists that wanted to do it, you’d think I was fuckin’ crazy. They were big artists. But I needed the biggest.”
Scooter Braun, who has a joint venture with Wexler, eventually called him up with Ariana Grande on FaceTime. She loved the song, signed on, and Justin Bieber agreed to sing it as a duet with her. “Stuck with U” debuted at Number One on the Hot 100. “We agreed to give a portion of the proceeds to charity,” Wexler says. “It’s raised five and a half million dollars to date, and it’s in perpetuity.”
He was raking in huge money at this point from publishing deals and artists he managed, but the lure of singing his own songs remained. “I had a successful career writing for so many different other artists,” Wexler says. “I forgot who I was. I didn’t know what I sounded like. If I sat at the piano, I’d say, ‘Well, who am I writing for?’ And if someone said, ‘Just write for you,’ I don’t know who that is. And if I did, I don’t have faith in that guy anymore, Freddy Wexler.”
With almost no publicity and no label backing, he started releasing sparse, intimate songs online under the pseudonym Jackson Penn. “I closed my eyes and I imagined someone else, an idealized version of myself,” he says. “I saw him playing at Madison Square Garden, and the songs flowed.”
Jackson Penn songs like “My Girl” and “Streetlights on Mars” racked up millions of streams on Spotify and YouTube even though few listeners realized who was actually behind them. “There was no promotion at all,” he says. “Streetlight on Mars’ reached 16 on the Spotify global chart, which is just insane.”
The craziest chapter of Wexler’s life started when his wife Olivia attempted to pull off something very ambitious for his 35th birthday. She knew Paul McCartney and Joel were his two biggest heroes, and she wanted to make arrangements for Freddy to meet one of them. Getting in touch with Joel wasn’t easy since he doesn’t have a traditional manager, but they had a mutual friend in a Long Island doctor. Communicating solely through him, Joel agreed to meet Wexler for lunch at Dockside Restaurant in Long Island.
“I go to meet him,” Wexler says, “and it’s clear he has no interest in being there. He orders his lunch — clams on the half-shell — to go. And I later find out that he thought he was meeting a kid, so he was looking around for a teenager to sign an autograph for doing this doctor a favor. And then he meets me, and I’m this grown man…It was clear I had about ten minutes to make this guy a little more interested in hanging out with me.”
Thinking to his experiences writing songs as Jackson Penn, he asked Billy if he ever got in the mindset of a different person when creating music. “He paused and put his clam down,” Wexler said. “He said, ‘I’ve always imagined I was someone else for every song I’ve ever written. I don’t really know who Billy Joel is.’ I said, ‘Wow.’ He said, ‘You too?”’
It was the start of a serious conversation about the craft of songwriting, though the waiter kept coming over to ask if they wanted the check. “He’s denied this, but I’m convinced he told the waiter ahead of time to bring the check after ten minutes,” Wexler says. “He kept pushing the damn check. And Billy kept saying, ‘Give us ten more minutes. Give us ten more minutes.’ That ten-minute lunch turned into a two-hour lunch.”
Near the end, he gathered up the courage to ask Joel about his decision to stop releasing new music. “I said, ‘Listen, I just met you,’” Wexler says, “‘but this is my guess. I feel like music stopped being fun for you at some point.’ And he nodded. I said, ‘I know you don’t know me, but I think I could help make it fun again. I don’t have any agenda here. I don’t need you. You certainly don’t need me. But you’ve given me so much joy in my life. ‘Vienna’ helped me get over panic attacks that I had developed. It became my soundtrack to my own struggles…I don’t believe that you’re done writing songs. I don’t believe that you can’t write songs. I don’t believe any of that.’”
Joel merely shrugged and said, “You can believe whatever you want to believe.” Wexler pushed on and asked if he had any unfinished songs from his days as an active recording artist. Joel said he had tons of them. “I looked him in the face,” Wexler says. “And I go, ‘Why don’t you let me finish them?’ And he looks at me and he goes, ‘I should let you finish my songs?’ And I said, ‘It’s just an idea. There are two possible outcomes. One is highly probable, and that’s I do a terrible job. The song stays an idea, sits in the drawer it’s always been in. But maybe I do something that at least inspires you, sparks something for you to finish.’”
It was a bold gambit, and hardly the first time someone had tried to reignite Joel’s interest in creating music again. But something about the eagerness in Wexler swayed Joel to consider the idea. He invited him to drive right over to his house, and asked him to play “the best song you’ve ever written” on his piano.
Wexler knows this next part sounds incredibly arrogant, and he is hesitant to repeat it, but after playing him a few Jackson Penn originals, Joel stopped him. “He looks at me,” Wexler says, “And he goes, ‘That sounds like something Lennon and McCartney would have written. That could be a hit record. Why aren’t you putting these songs out?’ We chuckled and realized we were both insecure songwriters.”
Two days later, a FedEx package arrived for Wexler. It was a complete collection of Joel’s unfinished music. “I feel that I’ve just gotten the Ten Commandments,” he says. “Can you imagine? I was the only person in the world besides maybe [Don] Henley to have this material.”
Over the next year and a half, they worked together to flesh out the songs, telling absolutely nobody about the endeavor. Wexler moved his family out to Long Island, turning down major opportunities elsewhere so he could focus all his energy on this project. “I started hanging out with him all the time,” says Wexler. “I went to all his shows with him. We really bonded and became good friends. We’d talk about lyrics, and I’d send him my ideas. He was a genius in his responses. But he had this sense we were writing these songs for other people to sing. Sometimes I’d be like, ‘But can you imagine if you…’ He wasn’t going for it though. His wife said to me, ‘Nobody has ever come this close. Don’t give up.’”
At one point, Wexler flipped the script and e-mailed him a song he was working on with his buddies Arthur Bacon and Wayne Hector called “Turn the Lights Back On.” The lyrics were essentially a conversation he wished his father would have with his mother during a rough spot in their marriage. “That’s a damn good song, Freddy,” Joel wrote back. “It’s very informal. I think that 6/8 time is effective here. Your voice sounds good on this.”
Joel agreed to help him finish it. “I knew this was a big deal,” Wexler says. “This felt new and different. It wasn’t his original thing that he had started. He was disconnected from it enough to be a little more committed, a little less hesitant in a way. And so we did. We finished it.” (Wexler says he wants to be “a little vague with every detail of the writing process,” but offers that he created much of the music with Bacon, and that he wrote the hook and many of the lyrics with help from Hector. Joel contributed to the arrangement and threw in ideas elsewhere.)
When they had a finished song, Joel said he could imagine Adele singing it. “Billy,” Wexler said. “This is a Billy Joel song. Can you just try it? Can you sing the demo? It really sounds like Billy Joel.”
It took several months of cajoling just to get Joel into a home recording studio in Water Mill, New York. “This moment was two years in the making,” says Wexler. “I called up my best friend, my wife, my parents. I was going, ‘Oh my God! He’s on his motorcycle in the driveway! This is insane!’”
“He comes in and he goes, ‘Hey, what’s up Fred?’” Wexler recalls. “I said, ‘What do you want to do today?’ He goes, ‘You tell me. You got me here.’ I said, ‘Why don’t we just work out that song we finished?’ He tried to back out. He had all the excuses. ‘I have a cold. This isn’t a good day to sing.’ I said, ‘I think the cold will sound great. It’ll be vulnerable.’ Then he said, ‘Maybe this is better for Elton. We should send it to him.’ I go, ‘No, it’s Billy.’ And then finally, honestly, in these words, I said to him, ‘I need you to get in the fuckin’ vocal booth. Just give me one take.’”
Joel did as he was told. “I was freaking out,” says Wexler. “I jump out of my chair, open the double doors, and I jump on his shoulders. ‘Billy! Billy! Billy! How does it feel?’ And he said, ‘I like singing, I guess.’”
They cut two more vocal takes, and fleshed out the song with a string section, and additional instrumentation by Wexler and co-producer Marco Parisi. Canadian musician Randy Cooke played the drums. “Billy had some specific things that he wanted,” Wexler says. “He didn’t want it to lean into the waltz…. There was a temptation to add more, because it’s a ballad. But the key to me was to have restraint. And if anything, to take more away, to strip it back to its essence, which to me was Billy Joel.”
A few days later, Wexler drove over to Joel’s house and played him the finished track in his car. “I said to him, ‘It’s not like you need to play this live,’” Wexler says. “‘The Beatles stopped playing their music live.’ And he says, ‘Well, if I’m going to release this, I’m going to kick the crap out of it live.’ I was like, “Oh, my God. He’s thinking about releasing it!’”
Over the next month, Wexler played the song for Joel’s lawyer, his wife, and other members of his core team. “All these people cried,” Wexler says.
They finished the song in late August 2023. The next month, Joel agreed to release it. “He hired me to manage the whole project,” says Wexler. “I became the quarterback of this whole thing. We talked about album art and the music video, even though he hates videos. We put a plan together, and walked into Sony Music and had this meeting with [Sony Music CEO] Rob Stringer and [Columbia CEO] Ron Perry.”
They originally thought about Joel unveiling the song at the Grammys, but decided to drop the song a few days before the awards. The wanted to give fans a chance to become familiar with it before the live debut at the end of the ceremony.
Wexler plans to be at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 9 when Joel plays “Turn the Lights Back On” for the first time at a proper concert. Their plans beyond that are unclear, but Wexler says they are continuing to work on unreleased Joel originals. “Billy’s voice is like a bottle of red,” Wexler says. “It actually gets better with age… I’m as determined as ever that if the process can remain fun or at least not too painful for him, the possibilities are endless.”
Could all of this be building toward a new Billy Joel record? “I’m nervous that if the expectation is so great for an album, and it becomes a press thing for Billy, I think he will shut down,” Wexler says. “I’ve been trying to have this be where it’s like, maybe he’ll do a second song, and then a third song and then organically…you know what I mean? But there’s been no talk of making an album.”
“It should be noted,” Wexler adds, “Billy has never really written a song with anybody else besides for once [“Code of Silence”] with Cyndi Lauper. It’s such an honor. I know he’s been approached by a lot of people over the years to work and he didn’t want to. I think he partly did it for me. I think he was like, ‘I really like this song. I can help finish it.’ He said to me, ‘I’ve said these words before. This feels like a song I would’ve written on my own.’”
Before the Grammys, the two of them went out to dinner together in Los Angeles. “We’re in the back corner and we’re eating,” says Wexler. “The lounge singer at the restaurant starts playing ‘Piano Man’ for him. He says to me, [Flustered] ‘I wrote better songs than that! Why can’t it be something else?’ And at the end of the night, he put his arm around me and he said, ‘Hey, thanks for everything.’ And I could almost cry telling you that. He’s never going to be like, ‘Freddy, I love you. You’re the best.’ But that was so huge. ‘Thanks for everything.’”
The experience has been so fulfilling that Wexler feels it’s time to put “Jackson Penn” aside and start releasing songs under his own name. “I’m more inspired than ever,” he says. “It’s time to put out music under ‘Freddy Wexler.’ I’ve also been approached by a couple really exciting artists who’ve heard the Billy Joel song. They’re the types of artists I want to work with.”
Sticking with the Billy Joel formula, might Wexler seek out another icon that’s been out of the recording studio for the past few decades, perhaps Phil Collins? “Should that be my next mission?” he asks. “I have the in to do that. I worked on music for Emily in Paris, which stars his daughter, Lily Collins. She’s talked about me on the red carpet and said how much she liked my work. That’s a great idea. I’m going to DM her and say, ‘Is your dad next?’”