Most people have a mental image of how big pop songs are made. They think of a sterilised board room filled with men in suits, who try to piece together a hit based on focus group suggestions and algorithms.
It’s a convenient theory, but one that couldn’t be further from the truth. Much of the time, the people who actually make hits happen are songwriters — a profession made up of hardworking music nerds just as dedicated to their craft as any recording artist.
We’re gradually becoming more familiar with how the songwriting industry works, thanks in part to the growing profiles of superstar writers/producers like Max Martin and Benny Blanco, who between them have written hits for just about every major pop artist on the planet. Then there are artists like Tove Lo, Sia and Charli XCX, who are breaking ground as musicians that juggle prodigious songwriting careers with their own projects.
Of course, great songwriters don’t only exist overseas. Australia has its own class of writers, who in recent years have been responsible for some of the country’s biggest hits — including songs you might’ve seen up the pointy end of the Hottest 100. So to get to know the people who make our favourite songs happen, we spoke to four prominent Australian songwriters about what goes on behind studio doors, their relationships with the artists they work with and the industry at large.
The first, Alex Hope, is most known for her work with Perth pop star Troye Sivan, whom she met just before the release of his EP TRXYE in 2014. In the last year she’s written with Broods on their album Conscious, and picked up an Song Of The Year ARIA for Sivan’s track ‘Youth’. She’s now based in LA, working with artists like Emeli Sandé and Marina & The Diamonds.
Sarah Aarons is a relatively recent addition to the songwriting game, but has already chalked up global chart-toppers. You know that Zedd track ‘Stay’, which has stayed on the Billboard charts for 19 weeks and counting? Yeah, she wrote that. Remember L D R U’s breakout hit ‘Keeping Score’? Hers too. Like Hope, she is now based in LA.
As songwriting duo DNA, Anthony Egizii and David Musumeci have been responsible for some of the biggest pop songs of the last decade. From their small studio in Darlinghurst they’ve worked with Ricky Martin, Geri Halliwell, Guy Sebastian, Delta Goodrem and countless others. In the last two years they’ve revitalised The Veronicas career thanks to the stunning singles ‘In My Blood’ and ‘You Ruin Me’, and are the guys behind Dani Im’s (almost) winning Eurovision entry ‘Sound Of Silence’ and Isaiah Firebrace’s ‘Don’t Come Easy’.
Mark Landon, better known by his moniker M-Phazes, is a Grammy-winner, ARIA-winner, and modern legend of Australian music. As a producer and songwriter he’s crafted hits with the likes of Eminem, Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, Kimbra and so, so many more. Recently, he worked Illy on his chart-topping single ‘Papercuts’, and helped a then-little known Gold Coast singer called Amy Shark on a song called ‘Adore’. He’s also based in LA.
What we learnt? A lot more goes into making a radio hit than you might think.
Do you go into the studio with a song ready made for the artist?
Sometimes I like to go in with a little idea for a song — like little beats or little chord progressions, but not always. Sometimes the artist walks in and you can tell that there’s something going on, and you say “Okay, what’s happening in your life? What’s going on?”
It depends on the artist, which is cool because you never really know what’s going to happen. Then other times you could be writing with another writer and an artist, and the other writer might have an idea that you flesh out. I always like to check in with the artist: “What kind of mood are you in? What vibe are you feeling?” Some of them might not really want to write a big upbeat banger. They might be super depressed because they just broke up with someone and they want to write a ‘red-wine-cry’ song.
I’m not a big planner. I’m a ‘sit down and talk shit for like hours and watch hilarious YouTube videos of people tripping over then talk about our really sad personal lives’ person. Then we blurt out a song in like 20 minutes. That’s what I tend to do.
I don’t really prepare that much anymore. When I was doing hip-hop production, then yes — because you’re making whole tracks and then sending them out to rappers.
But with what I’m doing now — pop, and indie and whatever else there is — you’re in the studio with these artists most of the time, and you’re generally starting from scratch. I might jump on the keyboard, or someone might play a guitar, or I might have a drum beat going, and you just write.
That was probably the biggest challenge for me in the transition from hip-hop to other genres — working with someone from scratch and actually writing a song. It’s a much more fulfilling process.
There’s been times where we’ve come in and started something from scratch, and there’s been times when one of us might bring an idea in that’s already half-cooked. Sometimes those ideas end up in the trash can quite fast, and sometimes they end up becoming our biggest hits.
‘Sound of Silence’ was just Anthony and myself. That was a hundred-per cent DNA song. When we write with The Veronicas, or Delta, they definitely have a big say in what’s going to be said. We might come up with a concept, or they might. There’s no guaranteed way of how it’s going to happen every time.
It’s just whatever seems to be the strongest idea, and what everyone’s feeling that day. It’s really weird, right? If you don’t write that day, and say, “Oh, let’s just write in two days time,” what you’re gonna come up with is going to be completely different. It really is what happens that minute, or in that hour.
What do you do when an artist is wrong about an idea?
I feel like I have more control over things now that I’m producing. But I always want everyone to feel like they’re heard. There are definitely times where I’m like, “Okay, that’s not a particularly great idea.” It’s just about delicately finding a way to interest them with something else.
As a producer there’s a bit more control because the writers look to you. If there’s two melodies up for a pre-chorus, it becomes up to the producer to choose. Sometimes that’s great, but sometimes it feels like a lot of pressure.
That’s another challenging thing about being in the studio — and I used to get really defensive about it. If I’d been slaving away in the studio for hours while the artist was out doing whatever, and they came back and didn’t like something I’d done, I would take it quite personally. That’s something I slowly had to unlearn because, at the end of the day, I’m working for the artist who’s on the song, and I really have to get what they want. They’re the ones that have to live with the song and promote it and perform it.
The only times I’ll fight and argue is if I genuinely think my idea is going to benefit the song. In which case you just state your case. You just don’t say, “Well what I’m saying is right, so shut the fuck up.” You say “I think we should do this because of this, this, this, and this”. Then you ask them to tell you why they think this should work. You compromise and you butt heads at times, and I think that’s healthy and natural.
Our job is to not only write and produce the best possible song, it’s also about getting the best out of the artist. The song might not necessarily work when you’re looking at it as just a song, but when they sing it, and they get into the booth and they lay the vocal down, it’s like, “Wow. They just really made that lyric happen when I wasn’t sure about that line.” They just made it work. It’s how they sing it.
The artist always wins at the end of the day, because they have to sing it. But especially over in LA, there’s actually quite a respect for the writer. As much as there is for the artist, if not more. Because if you weren’t there, would they get the song that they were really excited about? Often they’re not writers, they can just sing really well. They might not be really good at making solid melodies — they’re just good at singing other people’s.
Can you feel when you’ve written a hit song?
There’s a hope that it’s going to be a hit, but you never go, “Yeah. This is definitely one.” When you’re working in a studio, you’ve got nothing but the four walls around you to judge what you’re doing, and even they absorb the bloody sound waves.
For ‘Sound Of Silence’, it wasn’t until [Dami Im] was up on that stage singing it in front of the audience, and seeing their reactions, that I thought “Wow, this is something special!”
I was holding my breath the entire time that Dami Im was singing at Eurovision. I didn’t even realise. But yeah, you never know. Usually, I find that when you say, “Yeah, this is definitely a hit”, it doesn’t end up becoming one.
No, I can’t predict that. I can tell when I think it’s good, but honestly I don’t know. I didn’t think ‘Adore’ would be a massive hit at all. I knew ‘Papercuts’ was really good, but I really didn’t know — I can’t sit here and lie to you and tell you I can predict it.
Sometimes when you’re in the studio, a song makes you go “Oh shit!” You get that excited feeling, and it’s like “Cool, if other people have this same feeling then we’re good. We’re gonna be fine.” I do think there are moments in the process when you think “Oh, this is actually really cool.” But then it’s such an up-and-down industry that you don’t ever want to get too ahead of yourself.
How the hell do you actually make money?
Oh man, it’s rough. I slept on a friend’s floor in Sydney for months when I was first doing the hustle and going to studios every day. Which is why I found the fact that I wrote ‘Keeping Score’ in my bedroom in Melbourne so funny, because I’d paid for all these flights to Sydney to get to my sessions.
After ‘Stay’ came out, I went home and all my friends are like, “Sarah’s buying drinks.” And I was like, “No, I’m not!” It was number one on US radio at that time, and so they said “Oh, my god. What are you gonna do? You have so much money.” And I was like, “Yeah, no.” It will actually take me about a year or two to see any of that money.
Before I signed my publishing deal, I was making a little bit of money off music, mainly selling beats. I’d sell beats for a couple of hundred here, or $500 there. I was also working a three day a week casual job.
Then I signed my publishing deal, and now I make a bit of money off royalties — and maybe a little bit of money in production fees. You generally have to work a day job if you’re not signed in Australia. Your best bet is to write a lot and then try and get a publishing deal.
Basically the advantage of a publishing deal is getting that advance, because writers don’t make much money unless they get a song out on radio that makes royalties. That’s kind of the point of the advance — they’re betting that you’re going to write a lot of music, so it’s like “This is some money to live off, and then we’ll get this money back when you actually have songs out.”
Being a producer is awesome because you get production fees. It’s amazing, because I’ve now realised how long it takes for royalties to come in if you’re a writer.
Publishing deals are so important. When I signed mine I took an advance, and that’s been what I’ve been able to support myself with. Now royalties have started to come in for previous stuff. You just never know what’s going to happen, but I definitely feel royalties take a long time to see. Which is kind of crazy.
Is moving overseas necessary to make it big?
I had a list of dream artists that I wanted to work with, and I felt that if I stayed in Australia I wasn’t going to get that opportunity. I just felt like it wasn’t big enough for what I wanted. Sometimes I feel guilty. You feel disloyal in a way. But there just so much here, it’s so tough to resist being in the hotspot.
LA is the hub, there’s everyone from Sweden, the UK, Australia here. There’s just so many more people to work with and so many different styles of music. You can actually just live in one style of music if you really wanted to. You can collaborate with whoever you want.
In Australia there are less artists to work with. And if you don’t really work well with them, you’re screwed. You could be best friends, but creatively you just don’t mesh. There’s not as much emphasis on songwriting in Australia. And there’s this big thing about whether you’re triple j or you’re mainstream — it’s such a crazy divide.
I think because we had such a good string of hits in 2011, and Sony offered us a deal that we couldn’t refuse, we just thought, “Let’s just do this. Let’s try to get all the Aussie artists to go abroad. Let’s get them internationally recognised.”
We’re not particularly concerned with going overseas. We can always take trips and go there, get some of the vibe of what’s going on there and bring it back with us here. We’re happy with our arrangement in terms of our exclusivity with the label, and what they offer us year-to-year to be part of their family. I don’t think we can pass that up. I don’t think any overseas success is going to come to that. We don’t necessarily have to be overseas to get cuts with overseas artists.
Someone’s got to stay and bloody fight for the Aussie pop market. Because we’ve got our own local scene, it’s really important that radio, and Australians in general, get behind our Aussie artists. If everyone leave to go for the US market or the UK market, what’s gonna happen to our local roster here?
For me, it’s really important that we keep building Australian success in our own country. Every other country has that — the US, the UK. We need to keep doing that here. That’s a big thing for us.
Finally, which artists are on your collaboration wishlist?
I would love to work with Sia. I’d love to have a smash song with her. Also Sam Smith, Adele.
Ed Sheeran. Beyonce. Taylor Swift. Pink.
Lorde. Adele, Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, Alessia Cara, Emeli Sande.
Kanye West. Chance the Rapper. Laura Mvula, Adele, Ed Sheeran, Major Lazer.
Jules LeFevre is Junkee’s Music Editor. She is on Twitter.
Illustrations by @mattjdesigns