Interview: Michael Cragg
In the last eighteen months or so songwriter, producer and former X Factor class clown Savan Kotecha has helped create some of pop's best moments.
We're talking grade A brilliance like 'Bang Bang', 'Problem', 'Love Me Like You Do', 'Can't Feel My Face' and 'Cool For The Summer'. Oh, and 'On My Mind'.
For over a decade he's helped 'pen' more proper hits than you've had hot showers and is, alongside mentor and all round actual genius Max Martin and various members of his Wolf Cousins collective, about to unleash a slew of new, career-defining bangers.
Despite not really doing interviews he agreed to a chat over some breakfast in Beverly Hills.
Here's what happened.
How has your songwriting developed since working with the likes of Westlife and Shayne Ward?
In the beginning I was hustling. I'm from Texas, it wasn't a musical family and I had no connections, so once you start getting chances and opportunities you take them. I moved to Sweden from Texas for songwriting and at the time pop was dead in America. I'd met Simon Cowell and he was giving me cuts on Westlife albums and I was making a great living. So for years I was making songs for record executives, if that makes sense, rather than the audience. When I was in Sweden, where obviously English isn't the first language, I probably ruined a lot of Shayne Ward songs with really bad lines whereas if I was in the States and around Americans we could have bounced lines around and someone would have said 'that's not cool'. In Sweden they were like 'you can do the lyrics because you know English'. When you're outside of an English-speaking country you don't realise what's cheesy.
Do you remember the song where you started writing more for the audience?
I think it was when I was around Max [MARTIN, OBVIOUSLY]. Also when you have a real hit and not just a hit because they did the right TV shows in England. My first proper worldwide hit was 'DJ Got Us Fallin' In Love'. Back then, it was a certain amount of TV shows and you'd have a Top 5 single. The difference, even financially, which it has to be about at some point, was huge but you have to take what you can get when you're starting out. Simon was involved in so many records that I was able to make a living, but for a while I was eating beans out of a can, sleeping on RedOne's floor. It was either go back to Texas and live in my parents' house or figure out how to make it work. I was working seven days a week, sometimes twenty hour days for this dream. (Laughs)
What three things should every amazing pop song have?
Simplicity. We call it melodic math; the math has to be right. There should be no more than three to four parts to the song melodically. And a lyric that has a couple of words that are juicy, as we call it. Something that stands out. A great lyric to me in a pop song involves words that don't get in the way of a melody.
How many truly undeniably amazing songs have you written so far do you think?
If I ever felt like that I'd have to stop.
Is there one where you thought 'yeah, we nailed that'? 'What Makes You Beautiful' is pretty perfect.
I didn't think we'd nailed that to be honest. I've had artists come up to me and say 'dude, 'What Make You Beautiful' is the perfect song'. I knew that the math was right, but I guess when it's all together and the voices are on it and it's mixed it worked out. I still have the demo with my vocals on it. At the last second I changed a couple of lines, like the 'flip your hair, get you overwhelmed' bit wasn't there. That was a juicy line.
Tell me more about writing 'What Makes You Beautiful'. Where did it come from?
Well we're eating, but I'm just going to say it anyway, I was literally taking a shit at the Royal Garden hotel in London. My wife was on the other side of the wall and she was having one of those 'I feel so ugly' days. I shouted 'you're not' and in my mind I was thinking 'wow, that's one of the great things about you is that you don't know how beautiful you are and that's what makes you beautiful'. I literally wrote down the phrase and then I went to the studio with Rami [Yacoub] and Carl [Falk]. I had the melody of "baby you light up my world like nobody else" in my head and then everything connected.
It wasn't a given at that point that they would go on to do what they did. You still need that song, don't you?
At the end of the day, no matter how many viewers a TV show has, you still need the song. [Fellow Max Martin affiliate and amazing songwriter person Alexander Kronlund wanders past and they have a chat about finishing a song they've been working on. Alex thinks he's got an idea.] Alex wrote 'Til The World Ends' and we did 'Cool For The Summer' together. That's the perfect example of how we work — Ilya [Salmanzadeh] and I had this idea for a song for Ariana Grande and I was stuck on the pre-chorus so we got Alex in, who's been working with Tinashe, and he loved the song so I was like 'you want to help us with the pre-chorus?'. Then he listened to it and said 'how about something like this?' and it worked and so now it has a pre-chorus. That's how it works.
How long do you stick with a song that's not working? Do you persevere or should it click instantly?
I know a lot of songwriters like to talk about how they wrote a song in five minutes and they brag about that, but the people with the longest careers are the people who learn how to do it on purpose. Sometimes that happens quickly and sometimes you have to fight for it. The way that we've set our studio up with me, Max and the guys from Wolf Cousins, is that we have a lot of super talented people around us, so when I'm stuck I can call in Max or one of the young guys. It's a great team effort, which is why you're starting to see more names on the credits. It's a way for us to get more productive — so rather than us beat our heads against a wall if we can't solve it instead of giving up we'll get a different perspective on it.
Do you think seeing all those names on the credits is why people think pop is made by committee?
I hope not because it's not about that. Also sometimes it's not equal percentage with all the names on it. I hope people don't feel that way because there's a lot of work and heart put into these songs. The seeds of the ideas come quickly but building it up takes time. You try and give the song the best chance you can and that's the difference sometimes between a Top 20 song and putting in the extra work and then it's a Top 10 and then you go that extra mile and it's higher. You have to know why something worked.
Didn't it take two weeks to nail 'If U Seek Amy'?
Yeah. It was mainly to get the lyric right. The chorus melody was an idea on Shellback's phone for like two years that he thought of for Sean Paul.
I like that a finished song can be made up of little bits from other songs meant for other people.
One Direction's 'One Thing', for example, was two separate songs literally until the day they cut it. It was a chorus of one song and the verse from another and we couldn't get either right. Sometimes it's about not having pressure either, to allow those moments. That's why we don't have people in our studio building apart from the artist and maybe a couple of A&R people.
How involved are some of the popstars who don't have a credit on the songs? How much are they in mind when you write for them?
A lot. I've been blessed to have the reach where I can say that I won't work with an artist until I can meet with them. I meet with them and then I like to get to know them, usually with female artists. I was always the girl's friend in High School. I never got the girl, I was always their friend, and for some reason it's like that with female artists (laughs). We just talk. With Ellie Goulding and the stuff we have coming out with her we just talked. We had the melodies sorted out and then we'd just talk and then we fit in lines. Sometimes you get to know the artist and you know what they would say or what they wouldn't say.
Some people have taken issue with the fact that female artists are singing words written by men. How do you feel about that?
I don't think it really matters. Men can write female characters in movies. I've always found it easier to be friends with women rather than men. It sounds weird but every month I read Cosmo. My taste in TV shows is all the girly shows. Not that Cosmo represents all women, but I get a lot of stuff from when women write in with their confessionals. I should credit Cosmo for a lot of my songs.
Sia wrote Beyoncé's 'Pretty Hurts' after watching some trashy TV show, I think.
Sia's one of the people who can knock them out. I watch all the shows people would call 'girly shows'; I read chick lit, because — and again not that it represents all women — it's the closest I can get. I find it easier to write for women then guys.
When you're working with Max and Ilya Salmanzadeh and Ali Payami and all those people, are there specific roles for each person? Do people have things they're better at in terms of creating the songs?
It can differ from song to song. Ali and Ilya mostly do track but Ilya also has a very good melodic sense, so he started the 'Love Me Like You Do' chorus. Ali and Ilya really started that song and then Max and I came in. I thought it would be great for Demi and then we had the meeting with Fifty Shades Of Grey and Max said it would work well with the scene we'd watched. So he took it, tweaked it, I wrote the lyric and there it was. Tove Lo also wrote on it. And that's the other thing, and Max has really been the leader of it, there's no ego. Even though we have to give a little bit of percentage away, none of us really cares about credits or anything like that. That's the lucky thing about the Swedes — you don't get that ego. Which is why Max has been able to stay so successful for so long because other people get hits and it goes to their heads and they want labels and they want all this stuff and then you never hear from them again.
How much of it is down to timing and how a song fits in with people's perceptions of them at that time? Like that song came at the perfect time for Ellie.
Yeah, Ellie came in and killed it. We've had that with a few things this year. I'm not going to name names but a couple of things where the song maybe should have been somewhere else.
When you were on The X Factor, did your role move beyond vocal producing and songwriting and into mentoring and friendship?
I'd like to think so, yeah. Especially in the early days of One Direction and shaping those first two albums. I'm still quite good friends with Harry and Liam. Life moves on, you know.
What do you make of how they've developed musically?
I think they've done great for themselves. Nobody can complain. It's unfortunate that they haven't been able to nail more US radio hits but maybe they shouldn't. My theory with boybands is that it's supposed to be a teenage girls' thing. Their older sister's not supposed to like it and if they do then you're doing something wrong. It's supposed to be a little bit like even the band themselves thinks it's too corny, do you know what I mean? That's what I told them in their early days. Then they feel the success and they want to take things into their own hands, which they've done a good job of. They've maintained that success.
With The Weeknd's recent move towards pop, what did you and Max and everyone do to facilitate that? Was he already a great pop writer but he was just masking it or sabotaging it?
I think so. It's so funny how projects take you from one thing to the next and change the trajectory of your career. One Direction changed a lot for me. Suddenly I had all these people I wanted to meet with and financially I was doing well, but One Direction was really my thing [he co-wrote sixteen of their songs across the first three albums]. People kept coming to me with boybands and I made a conscious decision to try and do something different. I made a couple of mistakes that Americans make where you have success and people throw things at you and so I've learned a lesson where I used to do things because I could and not because I should. Now I do things because I should. I had two years of huge success and then started seeing things fail and was like 'oh shit' and then Ariana Grande walked in my life. You're lucky in your career to find artists that are muses to you and at some creative level her voice and my vision just matched. She's seen as a lot more credible so for the first time I started tasting that world. So when her A&R pushed to get The Weeknd on 'Love Me Harder' I don't think any of us knew what that would do to all of our careers.
I wonder if he knew what it would do to his career?
We didn't know anything about The Weeknd. When he did 'Love Me Harder' and it exploded he apparently realised the difference between having a hit in the credible world and having a hit in the commercial world. He's an ambitious guy. Super talented. I hadn't heard any of his music until we worked on 'Love Me Harder' and I don't think Max or anyone had either. We talked on the phone a couple of times. We didn't know what to expect really, but we prepared a couple of things and he came in and wasn't sure and said it wasn't really him. Now I understand because those songs were more for Usher or someone like that. He went in with Ali and was talking about Michael Jackson and 'The Way You Make Me Feel' and that's how 'In The Night' came about, but that was after we saw him at the Hollywood Bowl. We'd had a difficult day in the studio where we weren't reading each other well and we saw him at the Hollywood Bowl and we realised how big he is and how big he could be. Also how brave he was. He could have just continued doing what he was doing and to take that risk with us, I think we learnt to respect him a lot more. We understood it. Something snapped in all of us that night and then we did 'In The Night', 'Can't Feel My Face' and 'Shameless'.
Have people now got in touch off the back of The Weeknd songs?
Oh yeah. I can't say what artists because things are secret right now, but the kind of artists I would only dream about and who I never thought I would get. Those kind of people call now.
What is Max not very good at in the studio?
Leaving! No I'm kidding. He's a once in a lifetime thing. The world is blessed to have someone like him once in every generation. People can see his music as cheesy pop but the way it's affected the culture and what it's meant to people: He's constantly created the biggest stars in the world. He just has a sense of when to do what, which can't be taught. I always compare him to Michael Jordan. He's not bad at anything. He elevates everyone around him. You're playing with probably the greatest when it comes to pop and longevity, you know. He's defined US radio and he's mentored so many people, myself included. He also very competitive but in the right way. He just likes writing great songs and there are no distractions from that. There's no business, there are no interviews, there's no social media.
Do you think good pop should be following trends or trying to establish them?
I think establishing but at the right time. The trend starts and then people want to hear that thing but it's about knowing when to switch it up. Sometimes you try and push things further and sometimes you fail and sometimes you succeed. I think in our heads 'Cool For The Summer' is a very progressive sounding song. Doing a guitar solo before the chorus, that kind of thing to us was like 'should we do that or should we do that after the chorus'.
It must be quite exciting, having written so many, to do something different with a song.
That's what's good about having these young guys around, who are so naive. But that's what Max's gift is as well is spotting talent and knowing when to bring someone in. He's the Godfather of pop.
Does you sometimes have to get rid of bits you love?
There was a bridge to 'Can't Feel My Face' and I loved the melody to that but it didn't work for the song. So sometimes you have to kill your babies, as we call it. Everything has to be for the betterment of the song. Melody is the timeless element. Cool words change and cool tracks change, but the people who consistently win are the people who remember that it's all about the melody.
With the way the industry's changing, do you worry about the future of songwriting?
With Maroon 5's 'One More Night', which was Number One in America for nine weeks, you look at the Spotify statement for that and it was streamed over 78m times. We all had a third of that song and I made $11,000 off one of the biggest songs of that year. The reason I'm explaining how big that song was is because you think about the average songwriter who maybe has an album cut or a hit that's maybe Top 20 on radio, that used to get you a living. Now a Number One song for nine weeks makes you $11,000 from streaming and it's all going to go to streaming eventually. Radio might go away because of how streaming is and because of portable devices. I always read on the comments about the Taylor thing [re Apple Music] and I think she's been super brave fighting for songwriters, and I know that she's genuinely doing that for songwriters and not just herself. She's telling people that there are others that have helped make this thing.
Taylor's work obviously continues so she can go off and make money through other avenues too.
Yeah, this is the only way we make money. You really need public support and for them to realise that. It's not about me or Max Martin, it's about the next generation and the guys who are making the music now. They're not going to be able to make a living in the future. The laws have to change, especially in America and the public perception has to change. We're not being greedy, we just want to get paid. We're creating a product.
Do you think it comes down to the fact that people assume it's really easy to write a hit song?
Yeah. Which is our fault in a way, because the idea is that we're meant to write songs that seem easy but that's actually really hard. I think pop music shoots itself in the foot because what happens is it's all about image, right, so you're not going to get these big artists who don't write their own songs saying 'hey, I need these guys' because it affects their image. They want people to assume they wrote their songs. That's the trouble, we can't get Rihanna to say 'fight for songwriters'.
Yet she is one of the few big stars who doesn't add her name to the songs she hasn't written.
I'm really happy about that.
It feels like maybe she does need a massive hit again. She should pop over, maybe?
It's amazing to have kept it up for seven albums though. Credit to all of her team. So I think she can be forgiven for a couple of missteps. In general, not with Rihanna, artists get more control after a while and try to change history sometimes. Artists can be forced to record a song, then it becomes a hit and suddenly when it comes to the next album they go 'well I had a hit so now I want creative control'. It's like 'you only had that hit because we forced you and you didn't want to do it!'. I've had hits that record labels didn't like and it's done well and then they come back and ask for another one of those.
Can you tell me anything about some of the songs you have coming up?
I'm excited for people to hear the Ellie Goulding stuff. We normally don't do interviews so I don't want to reveal too much and get myself in trouble about what's going on in our house. I guess it's public knowledge that we did a lot of the Ellie album and it's obvious we're working on the Ariana album. The first single is coming soon, but I'll let her announce it [she subtly hinted it was due out in October]. Demi I'm excited about. I hope we did our job on Demi. [Fellow Max Martin affiliate and amazing songwriter person Ilya Salmanzadeh wanders past and they have a chat about finishing a song they've been working on].
Who else would you like to work with?
I don't know. I'm not sure actually. I'll work with anyone who's creatively exciting. We don't do that much, that's the thing. What has come out are the songs we've written. In the old days I'd do a song a day, but since working with Max there aren't a lot of songs. We're writing for the artist now so those are the songs.
Do record labels come and say 'quick, we need a hit!'?
Sometimes. It depends on the artist. There are no 'in the vault' Max Martin songs. You want to be proud of everything and that's what changed my thinking from the old days. Having the clout we have now we feel like we can be more honest with the label because so many people in this town are just selling shit. They just want to have a cut on an album. I recently talked myself out of having the first single with an artist because I didn't think our song should be the first single. We're trying to create a very ethical environment and that way when you do believe in something people trust you more.
I spoke to another songwriter who said they always ask to hear the song that's been chosen as the first single if it wasn't one of theirs.
Yeah I don't do that. Most people are like that but we don't really think like that because you can't force something to be great. It has to be great already. Songwriters forget that it's about the best song. I've been on the A&R side and there's too much at stake to just take a single because of politics. When they pick the single they're picking what they think is the best choice for the project. If you can't respect that then get your own fucking artist. Some people have it in their contract that they should have the first single but then if a better song comes along all you've done is hurt the artist and the album.
Especially now when if the first single isn't a hit the album flatlines.
Exactly. The public has to like it at the end of the day.
How much do you think the general public care about who wrote a song?
They don't care at all. They just want to hear a great song. It's a press thing and it's in artists' heads. I think publishing companies are partly to blame. Especially during the early Disney era you had these female artists who had a lot of clout because they were selling so much merchandise. The music was something Disney would put out for fun, you know, but the artists would want their own songs on the albums so songwriters would come in and the songs wouldn't be as good because you're writing down for the artist's taste. So then publishing companies saw that as an opportunity and so they start signing all these artists and offering them a lot of money but they only get that money if they write a percentage of their album. That's what killed the pop album. A lot of times, not all the time, there are artists who just aren't writers who have signed these publishing deals and their managers are like 'okay they have to write half the album' and then the songs aren't as good. You're not playing best song wins. People stop buying albums when the albums suck. If you put out a great product — Adele, Ed Sheeran, Katy Perry, Taylor, The Weeknd — you can see that they sell. It's more like they just need three singles and then the artist can do what they want. This isn't everybody, but it happens so often. Our responsibility is to try and make something the public wants. We're going to be wrong a bunch of times and I'm sure the Popjustice forum agrees I'm wrong most of the time. (Laughs)
It's Max, I have to take this, sorry. Bye.