When France debuted a Disney compilation in 2013, filled with some of the country's biggest singers reimagining a rich history of family-friendly songs, it became an immediate international success that charted across Europe. A year later, Australia followed suit, helping turn We Love Disney into a franchise, with artists like Kimbra and Dannii Minogue breathing fresh life into everyone's childhood favorites.
After the French version went multi-platinum, Universal Records enlisted famed producer David Foster (Celine Dion, Whitney Houston) to organize a U.S. compilation. "It was one of those kind of things where you go, 'Shit, I don't know if I can actually ever pull that off [and] get all the great, hot, young artists," he says. Soon, however, he saw that artists' relationships with Disney from childhood — even carrying over into parenthood in some cases — pushed them toward an enthusiastic "yes."
"I was having lunch with Gwen Stefani, and I just popped out [asking], 'What's your favorite Disney song?' and she said, 'That's a strange question,'" Foster recalls. "But then she thought about it, and she gave me one. I realized that everybody — young, old, hip, not hip, whoever — they all have some attachment to Disney, and it's always positive. In Gwen's case, she said, 'We used to sneak into [Disneyland] and watch bands. Then it was really cool to play there one day.' It wasn't as hard as I thought it was, in the end."
The final product, to be released via Verve Music Group on October 30th, is a diverse collection culling contributions from both new and established artists across genres. From Jessie J belting out The Little Mermaid's "Part of Your World" to Fall Out Boy turning The Jungle Book's "I Wan'na Be Like You" into pop-punk gold, the collection showcases the timelessness of the Disney institution.
"I think there is a fearlessness to Disney in moving forward but maintaining the heart of what has made them great," Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz tells Rolling Stone. His band's Jungle Book track is available today following previews of tracks by Ne-Yo and Charles Perry. Beyond The Jungle Book's main character, Mowgli, providing baby-name inspiration for Wentz's first child, the choice to record "I Wan'na Be Like You" came about organically. "I think we wanted to come up with a song that not only we all loved but would translate and make sense as a Fall Out Boy song," Wentz offers. "I think we interpreted it more as a rock song, which was more of a challenge than expected, but I think how it turned out is pretty interesting."
David Foster offered his input for many of the covers, often choosing the song he felt fit the artist's style and vocal abilities, though he was trumped a few times by a singer's own childhood connection to a different track. "With Ariana Grande, I had picked another song for her, and she wasn’t feeling it," he recalls. "So then she came up with the Hercules song ["Zero to Hero"]. She knew it top to bottom. Without the lyrics, she could sing every single word. The decision was made on the spot. I wouldn’t want to fight that, go against the grain of her knowing the song so well and loving it so much."
"Working with David is such an honor," Grande adds. "I grew up worshiping his work so much. As someone who loves Disney musicals as much as I do. I'm so glad I got to cover literally my favorite Disney song of all time with a kick-ass choir and one of my favorite musicians of all time, Foster. It's all too much for my little heart to handle!"
Jessie J had a similar experience, knowing "Part of Your World" from top to bottom. "She just sat down and just sang it, without even looking at the lyrics because it’s part of the fabric of their DNA," Foster says. "Somewhere in every artist's DNA is a Disney song. You could pick any artist you want, from Dylan all the way up to Ed Sheeran. They all have a Disney story and a Disney moment."
"I was completely enamored by The Little Mermaid," Kacey Musgraves says of her own Disney story. "I remember that my mom made this big, giant mermaid tail out of paper, and I was five, I think, and I would always wear the mermaid tail while watching The Little Mermaid, like a ritual. I would sing along to, like, every part."
"I would always wear the mermaid tail while watching The Little Mermaid, like a ritual. I would sing along to, like, every part." —Kacey Musgraves
Musgraves turned Mary Poppins' "A Spoonful of Sugar" into an old-school Western tune, quite similar to her single "Biscuits," with not only the help of her frequent collaborators Luke Laird and Shane McAnally but also legendary Nashville-based Western-swing group the Time Jumpers, who offered fiddles and an accordion to the track.
"That's a case where she wanted to do the song from Robin Hood, and I begged her to do 'Spoonful of Sugar,'" Foster says of his contribution. "I just said 'Please, please, I know this is the right song for you.' People don't know the Robin Hood song. She did ['Spoonful'], and she killed it."
With R&B Ne-Yo, Foster had a track in mind before the R&B hitmaker even stepped into the studio. "I knew I wanted Ne-Yo to sing 'Friend Like Me' because he has this kind of Michael Bublé thing that he can do, even though that's not the kind of records he makes. But he has that top-hat dance thing. I wanted to make a really big-band version and did the track even before I talked to him, hoping that he would agree."
"I honestly didn’t know what song would've made sense for my voice, but when David told me what song he had in mind, I had to re-familiarize myself with it again," Ne-Yo adds. "If you listen to the Robin Williams version, it's very playful, and you know, caricaturized. He's barely singing; he's more talking and toying with the character. I was a little skeptical about how it was going to work, but when David broke it down, he said, 'It's basically just a big-band song with the horns and the whole nine.' I thought, 'OK, well, that's right up my alley with the Rat Pack and whatnot.' So we got into the studio and, honestly, it was pretty easy."
Aladdin had been one of Ne-Yo's favorites growing up. "It was one of the first ones where, not to make it a race thing or anything like that, but the characters were slightly darker. Before The Princess and the Frog, it was the closest thing to black people that I had seen from Disney. I was excited about it."
Many of the parents involved in with the compilation had new Disney memories to base their song choices off of. According to Foster, Gwen Stefani chose to sing The Muppet Movie's "Rainbow Connection" because she sang it to her children every night when they were little. "She said, 'I love this song more than anything in the world,'" he says. "There's so much passion in the way every singer did it, and they did it from the heart."
Even Foster found a connection to the project through the memories he gained as a parent to Disney-loving children. "When I started taking my kids, when they were young, to Disney [parks], we would stand in line for hours and hours, but you didn't mind because you knew your kids were having such a great time."
Some of his children continue to enjoy the Disney experience as adults. "I think my daughters just went recently, a whole pack of them, and they're in their twenties and thirties. They went without kids and had fun. My stepdaughters Gigi and Bella [Hadid] and their boyfriends went just to go too."
That's the magic of Disney: These songs connect on all levels, creating classic tunes appropriate for children, who carry those memories for the rest of their lives — especially if they go on to have children of their own. "Every Disney song propels the story forward," Foster muses. "When you hear the lyrics to The Little Mermaid, you know exactly what she's thinking and how frustrated she is that she doesn't have feet. It's just part of the story. If you pick any song that's a hit right now, it's a story but it doesn't belong to anything, right? Every one of these songs belong to a bigger story."