I was recently asked what my approach is when writing for pop radio and how it differs from writing for other genres. At first, I thought “great question”…then I realized, hmmm, I really don’t have a specific approach for writing for pop radio at all. In fact, I realized that I approach every writing situation whether it be pop, rock, indie, whatever…all the same. I make sure I’m prepared to give my best effort, energy and creativity to the artist in the attempt to bring out the best of who they are. For me, it’s a very personal experience, not a mathematical formula, and I’ve found that regardless of genre, by letting the creative process unfold naturally, good things will happen.
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This year, I was lucky enough to have co-written two songs that broke through at pop radio. Two very different songs. The first, an inspirational, empowering song, “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten, and the second, a whimsical retro jam, “Ex’s and Oh’s” by Elle King. Neither song was initially pegged as a giant smash, and both took almost two years after they were written to reach their peaks on the charts. In addition, both Rachel and Elle were new to most listeners, so it wasn’t as if we were writing for pop radio from their experience of success on the charts. So what was our approach? Well, I do know that as we began writing these songs, we certainly weren’t sitting in the room discussing strategies. We didn’t analyze metrics and trends at Top 40. Sure, it may be true that a lot of charting pop songs are at 128 bpm and many successful songs don’t stray from the same “4 chords of doom”. But in the creative moment with a new artist, chasing the radio has never been the approach I’ve taken. I have always felt that it is a more pure experience to disconnect from the do’s and don’ts and rules and parameters, and to strive to connect with the artist as an ARTIST. To know that the artist is connected to the song emotionally, and that the music is a direct reflection of them as a person, the more impact it will have on the listener. So, it is my job to get to know the artist and understanding their strengths, and then do my best to pull that into the music and lyric.
This can be difficult since often writing sessions feel like speed-dating. You only have a few hours with a total stranger and somehow you have to get them to reveal their deepest feelings and emotions. In the case of the Elle King “Ex’s and Oh’s” session, it was easy. Elle is a vibrant personality to say the least and within minutes of meeting, we were joking and laughing and she was telling me about a guy she liked and another guy who she dumped and on and on. The title “Ex’s and Oh’s” came up and the lyric wrote itself it seemed – she just told her story. Musically, I knew that she wanted to make a gritty soul-filled record and so I based my riff and chords around a very traditional progression and got a nice nasty guitar tone. Within a couple hours we had the song written and recorded and not once did we think about how it would compete at pop radio. We were just having fun and keeping true to her style and story.
In the case of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song,” it too reflects the personality of the artist and the emotion of the moment. Rachel and I had written many songs already and I knew her well. But the frustrations of the music biz were getting to her and although every label was interested in signing her, nobody was showing the full commitment. But rather than feeling sorry for herself, that day we decided to channel that frustration into music and channel the strength and commitment she has to her music into a song. We decided to write her fight song. At the end of that session, we weren’t concerned whether program directors at the big pop stations were going to add the song to their rotation. But we felt great that we wrote a song that expressed her feelings, and felt like a song she could stand behind that said, “no matter what, I believe in myself and that’s all that matters.” It took months for Rachel to settle on the final lyric and verse melody, and even longer for the song to find its way onto YouTube and then the radio. But when people heard the song, they believed her and her message – because it was honest and true.
So, while every label is constantly searching for “the next _____”, fill in the blank, (whoever is at the top of the charts), what motivates me is finding the next unknown artist that has a voice of their own who wants to make music they believe in. And if that honesty comes through, and I’ve done my job of pulling the best out of them musically and lyrically, who knows, maybe in a couple years they will be all over pop radio.