The Song of the Year Grammy is awarded to a songwriter – or songwriters – each year. Last night it was awarded to Ella Yelich-O’Connor, aka Lorde and Joel Little, for “Royals,” a song they wrote when she was only 15. It was intended as a free download, simply a tool to introduce the world to this remarkable artist.
“When we wrote it, we started recording immediately,” said Joel, over the phone from his native New Zealand. “It had a lot of language – all of which, with few exceptions, came from Ella’s notebook. This one particular week she brought a bunch of lyrics in, and one of the lyrics was, basically, the entire lyric to ‘Royals.’ It instantly stood out to me as a unique and interesting take on something that people could relate to. I came up with the ‘We will never be royals, royals’ idea of having her sing that, and having a choir of Lordes follow.
“Once we had that idea, I put a beat together pretty quickly. Then we messed around with trying to come up with a verse and a pre-chorus that fit what she was saying. And we got pretty stuck – and pretty frustrated at the end of the day. But the next morning we had this idea of having the contrast between a dark and soulful verse, and a nursery rhyme style pre-chorus. Once we clicked into that, everything came together pretty quickly.
“I can’t remember whose idea it was to use the word ‘royals’ as the title. She was inspired by a picture of a guy from the Royals baseball team up in her room. She has an amazing way with words, much more advanced than I am, and I’m twice her age. I am proud when I can sneak a line in. The tiger on the gold leash, that was mine.
“We kept the instrumentation spare; I tried to add other instrumentation, and every time I added something, it took away. But all we left was drums, bass and a lot of vocals. It was instantly apparent that the song was about the lyric and melody, and everything else should hang back. And we had many layers of vocals – all Lordes’ voice – about 40 or 50 vocal tracks. I like the idea of using the unique color of her voice as an instrument.”
Asked about Ella’s brilliance with words and concepts at such a young age, he said:“It took me about ten years to feel like I had a grasp on songwriting. But she took to it ridiculously fast. Because it’s fairly complex what she’s saying, a combination of saying something in colloquial language, but then combining those words in a way that is magical. But there’s also a sense of mystery, like she knows something you don’t know.”
I asked about the content of the lyric, which, although written by a New Zealand native, is so reflective of the American obsession with wealth, and its ostentatious displays. “Yes, it is a reflection of America,” he said. “Being a teenager in New Zealand, that’s what you are given from overseas, that is the story you’re told, that reality is a lot different for a whole of people. Though that is your culture, we are immersed in it, and yet also so distant. And that is what she is reflecting.”
I interviewed Little several months ago for this piece and for my annual contribution to the Grammy program book for their two pages on the Best Song nominees. I’ve been privileged to do these for several years, and often interview one or more of the writers of the songs to explore the origins of these newly famous tunes.
The intention of my slant on this, and the category itself, is to celebrate songwriters. This is not a category for production, or performance, or any other aspect. This is a songwriter’s tribute, and each year by awarding it they are celebrating the art of songwriting – and underscoring the reality of this industry – that nothing would exist without a songwriter writing a song. That is where it starts. So I always focus on the origins of the song, and the marriage of craft and art at its source.
Here’s a quick look at each of those songs, with thoughts from the songwriters.
“Just Give Me A Reason”
Jeff Bhasker, Pink & Nate Ruess, songwriters (Pink Featuring Nate Ruess)
Track from: The Truth About Love
Written by Pink with Nate Ruess of Fun and Jeff Bhasker, its origins tell of one of those mythic songwriting tales in which writers had mere hours to write and came up with a jewel. “Pink had wanted to work with Nate and myself,” said Bhasker, “and we were on tour, so we had one day. It was nerve-wracking, but I had to be the confident one and say, `Hey we can go ahead and do it. We’ll write a hit song with her.’ So we went in and Pink was there with her iPad on the floor. I played some piano chords, and Nate started singing and she started typing. Suddenly she had all these lyrics; she started with lines and phrases and a melody, and Nate sang a few lines. Suddenly she had almost the whole song, and we just had to fill in the blanks. Then they sang their parts as a duet, with the intention of having someone else sing with her. Nate didn’t want, at first, to be on the song because he’s part of Fun. But he ended up sounding so amazing on it, who was going to top that performance? It really was a totally collaborative process, and everything worked; we were able to put the puzzle together. And it’s such an interesting flow. It’s a complex melody, but it works. The whole chorus doesn’t have one repeating hook. It is wordy and complex, but it works like a classic Burt Bacharach song.”
“Locked Out Of Heaven”
Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine & Bruno Mars, songwriters (Bruno Mars)
Track from: Unorthodox Jukebox
Written by Bruno Mars with his collaborators Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine, this great soul intersection with ska was but one of many they wrote based on classic songwriting inspirations, such as Motown, The Beatles, Earth, Wind & Fire and Michael Jackson. “It’s about finding ways to mix the classic we all love with modern songs,” Ari Levine told Billboard. “It’s familiar-sounding with new-classic songwriting and instrumentation with a little twist.” But the influence most mentioned by writers and fans both is The Police, bolstered by Bruno’s duet with Sting on the previous Grammys. “Hell, yeah! You try to write a Police song!” he said in an interview with MTV. “I grew up listening to The Police, performing in bars, singing Police songs … I remember performing ‘Roxanne.’ You play those first couple of chords, and you hit that first note, and you watch the whole bar ignite. And as an artist, as a songwriter, it’s like `Man, I want to write a song that makes people’s eyes explode on the first chord!’” To Yahoo Music, he said, “I don’t think [the song] initially tried to sound like anybody else, but I picked up the guitar and just started playing; that’s how it normally works: I’ll pick up a guitar and I’ll start humming a melody. I started singing that, and I was up there in Sting-ville, in that register, so that’s what you get.”
Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Bonnie McKee, Katy Perry & Henry Walter, songwriters (Katy Perry)
Track from: Prism
A song of empowerment, of bravery in the face of all life throws in our way, it started, according to Henry “Cirkut” Walters, as a track he concocted with Dr. Luke: “Luke and I worked up several tracks that would have a fresh sound for Katy, and one of those became ‘Roar.’ The changes are simple, only two chords really. We had melodies to the tracks – without lyrics first, just vowel sounds – and then we played the track for Max Martin, and he came up with a lot of the melodies and melodic vibe. He took the track into his land, and started recording stuff on his own. He brought down most of the melody, the top-line. Then Bonnie and Katy tweaked the melody and put lyrics to it. The whole concept of empowerment – that vibe and essence – was there, but they came up with the lyrical content and the title ‘Roar.’ Also the wordless tag at the end of the chorus, Katy and Bonnie interwove that into the melody and made that a choppy, repetitive thing. I know people sometimes think the artist didn’t have anything to do with the writing, but Katy’s a great songwriter; she’s very hands-on. She knows what she likes, what sounds she’s going for, and is deeply involved in the creation of her music. And it became a song of female empowerment, but the lyric is gender-free. It gives a general sense of triumph to everyone who listens to it. It’s an uplifting song for any listener.”