The Doctor Is In: A Q&A With Dr. Luke

Much like the California Gurls in his smash-hit of the summer with Katy Perry, Dr. Luke’s style is undeniable. It’s not a question of when you’ll hear a song he produced on radio, but how many you’ll hear in a row – he caught three himself the other day. Working with pop stars like Ke$ha, Taio Cruz and Britney Spears has paid off for Dr. Luke. He was named the 2010 ASCAP Songwriter of the Year and has been nominated for two Grammys. Read on to find out how having a strong musical background can sometimes limit your songwriting, the story behind recording “Since U Been Gone,” and some tips on writing a hit of your own.

You’re nominated for two Grammys, including Producer of the Year. What’s your reaction to that?

I feel very blessed and very pleased to be considered. I’m surrounded by a lot of talented people in that category.

Can you talk about your songwriting process?

It’s different every time, depending on the artists and the genre and the medium. The one consistent thing is I keep going until it’s right. I don’t give up, and I make sure to keep my standards high. It helps to collaborate with other people because then if everyone thinks the song is good, it’s more likely that it really is.

What was the process of writing “Teenage Dream”?

That chorus was written over five times. At times, some people were not happy about that, but it had to be right. There’s a lot of feeling in the music on the song, and the lyrics had to show the emotional qualities of that yet still be a pop lyric. It was difficult at times, but we got through it. A lot of times it takes a while to write a great song.

Can you go into the studio with the mentality that you’re going to write a hit?

Most of the time, that’s what people seem to want from me. But it’s not just “Do you want a hit?” More importantly, it has to be something we – the artist and I – like. If you go in just wanting a hit song, it’s not going to happen that way. You have to first be committed to making music you like.

You have a strong musical background, having attended The Manhattan School of Music. How has that helped your career?

It’s been very important at times, but it may have also been a hindrance. There’s something really pure about people who don’t know that stuff. They just feel it and go with it. But then there’s certain times when people hit a dead end and don’t know how to get out of it. That’s when the training comes in – for the music problem solving.

When I started studying music, you learn about voice leading and Bach Chorales and there are all these rules and this and that. You start understanding things and then it becomes a go-to to do things that way. I’ve seen other people become incredible players but not incredible composers because of that. It can be a problem.

Would you say that it’s sometimes more important how a lyric is sung than what is being sung?

I’m sure there are examples of that. I’m not always proud of all the lyrics in my songs in retrospect. Lyrics have never been my strong point. There are songs I’ve written the lyrics for that have become number one songs, but sometimes I look back and think, “Well, that could’ve been better.” But at the end of the day, when you hear the muzak version of your song, it’s not the lyrics you’re hearing. It’s the melody. And when someone goes to play it on piano, you hear the melody.

You wrote Kelly Clarkson’s smash hit “Since U Been Gone” with famed songwriter Max Martin. How did that come about?

I met him when I was DJing. One day he called me when he was in town and asked me if he could use my studio. I had this really crappy studio in my basement of my duplex apartment. We think it was the first song we wrote together. He taught me to think bigger, to strive for more. And we still work together to this day.

Clive Davis told me that “Since U Been Gone” would be on the radio in April. It came out in October. I remember counting the months. I remember thinking he was crazy, that he was out of his mind. But he was right. Never doubt Clive Davis.

In 2007, you were part of a court case over the Avril Lavigne song, “Girlfriend”, in which a ’70s band sued you for infringing on their copyright. Where is the line between influence and copying?

The truth of the matter is I had never heard that song before in my life. That case got resolved and it’s in the past. I’m not uncomfortable with how it ended.

These days, anyone can put two songs up and make a mash-up by changing the key of this one and say, “Oh, these songs are similar.” A lot of things are similar. But you don’t get sued for being similar. It needs to be the same thing. Almost doesn’t count. Close but no cigar. People are suing for close. There are standard chord progressions that everyone uses. There are plenty of songs that are really similar and they never sued each other. We are a very litigious society today. You can fall on the sidewalk and sue the city.

Do you have some advice for aspiring songwriters?

For people that are making music, there are certain classic progressions. Find those standard chord progressions that a thousand songs have been written with and try to find great melodies to go over that. If you can name six hit songs that were written on those three chords then you know there’s a hit song to be written there.

Then there is no excuse. You have to write something stellar then. For lyricists, same thing. Find people you really love and listen to them and learn from them. I did a lot of analytical listening when I was first started. I’m still always listening to things and checking them out. I’m surrounded by people who are really excited about what they are doing. I get to learn and teach and all that stuff. It’s great.