If you read the list of artists with who Swedish producer and songwriter, Rami Yacoub, has collaborated, it reads less like a resumé and more like the roster for a “pop’s greatest hits” radio station. Brittney Spears, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Backstreet Boys, One Direction, NSYNC, 5 Seconds of Summer, Avicii, Pink, Celine Dion, Weezer—the list goes on.
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Born to Palestinian parents in 1975, Yacoub’s first foray onto the international scene was a producing credit on Spears’ debut single, “…Baby One More Time,” which he made alongside one of his closest collaborators: fellow Swede, Max Martin. Since then, Yacoub’s career has been a journey with a lot of peaks and valleys. In 2005, he began a 5-year break from music—returning in 2010, he dove straight into one of the most creative periods of his life.
Through it all, Yacoub, who also serves on the advisory board of the entertainment education platform, OCS Institute of Arts and Innovation, has stayed true to one thing: his passion and love for getting his songs heard. Speaking with American Songwriter over email, he opened up about what it’s been like to adapt to the ever-changing tides of the music industry, trying to stay as earnest and expressive as possible along the way. Talking about everything from the specifics of his career to his philosophy in general, the interview gives a direct look at one of the minds who helped shape the modern music landscape as we know it. Read the conversation below:
AS: What was your break in 2005 like?
Rami Yacoub: I actually took my break from 2005 to about 2010. It was really only supposed to be one sabbatical year. But, I was so drained and tired from working 24/7 for so long, that it turned out to be five. I always loved music, even during my time away, but I needed to take a breather and reset my mind. My intention was always to come back.
After one year, it definitely didn’t feel like enough. After two years, I tried to jump back in but didn’t quite feel like I was ready. After that, I put it on pause again for another three years until I found my ex-partner, Carl Falk. In 2010, he and I started Kinglet Studios in Stockholm, Sweden. That really kicked off the latest chapter in my career working with artists like One Direction, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga and so many others.
AS: Have technological advancements changed your creative process in any notable ways?
RY: My creative process has always remained the same. It’s just quicker now with all the programs being as accessible as they are. You still need to write melodies and lyrics and put things together in a way that sounds good. Advancing technology has been a great tool for making it easier to do those things.
AS: Tell us a little bit about your work with Dirac Live.
RY: When I’m in the studio, I tend to sit in front of the speakers. Before Dirac Live, when I leaned back, reached for my coffee, or even tilted my head slightly — the entire sound would shift. When you run Dirac Live, it doesn’t really matter what studio you’re working in. The space’s design doesn’t matter; its construction doesn’t matter. The software actually compensates for the nuances of each studio so that, as a producer, I hear that true, faithful sound I’m trying to achieve.
I got introduced to the company and went to their offices outside Stockholm and it just blew me away. It’s really like you are sitting in a perfectly built studio every single time. It removes any colorization and gives a true representation of what’s going down. You do a measurement with a mic and it takes about five minutes. You put the mic in different points – there’s a picture that shows where to put the mic – and then you save it and it becomes a plugin that you put on your master and you can turn it on and off, regardless of studio or space.
It’s night and day. I really hope it becomes an industry standard.
AS: Have you found yourself easily adapting to the ebbing tides in the industry?
RY: Like I said, the process has always remained the same. But the industry has surely changed in that you don’t really sell physical records anymore. The streaming services have obviously made a major impact. In the old days, you could make money simply by producing an album. Of course, having singles is the best outcome but you could make a great living just producing hit records. Nowadays though the only way to make the big bucks if you’re a songwriter is to have a mega-hit single.
In the end, we all strive to make singles, we want our songs heard. That’s the greatest reward, to have people hear and love your work, the money is a bonus.
So yes, all has definitely changed, yet I really don’t think about it. The process is the same even though everything else has changed around me.
AS: What have been the most surprising moments in your career or developments in the music business at large?
RY: I never would have thought how influential social media would become in the music business. I grew up long before Facebook, Instagram or TikTok. You couldn’t even take a picture on your phone. It was completely private, which I kind of miss in some ways.
Social media has brought about plenty of good also. For me, I love that it sort of gave the power back to the people. Before the days of smartphones, radio was so important, and getting your song on was like the holy grail. The labels did everything they could to make sure their songs were played and that’s just how it was for many years. But today, a song could become extremely popular purely through TikTok, for example. Regular people are becoming the gatekeepers of what’s popular and what’s not. The labels no longer have full control over what’s played or what people have access to. It’s pretty remarkable.
I personally don’t know much about TikTok and I definitely don’t post. I know many influencers and artists that do and it really seems like a full-time job. I don’t know how they do it.
AS: What is it about songwriting that still fulfills you, creatively?
RY: To this day, it still amazes me how a song comes together. The first two hours of a session often sounds like a group of kids just jamming away. Kicks and snares and melodies come from all different directions and you wonder how the hell this is going to turn out to be a song. Fast forward 10 hours and something clicks and you have a finished production and a beautiful song. That process of getting from point A to point B has always fascinated me. When you’re writing a song, you have all these talented people together in one room and they all have great ideas. The challenge is to work as one to make the song the best it can be. It’s really a beautiful thing.
I also love hearing people sing my songs. When you’re at O2 Arena and 40,000 people are singing “What Makes You Beautiful,” that’s enough to make a grown man cry. When everyone is singing, dancing, or enjoying a song that you put so much work into, that’s really the reward. It makes it all worth it.
AS: I know your process has generally stayed the same, finding the chord progression first and then building outward from there—why does this prove to be so effective as an approach?
RY: Certain philosophies can be effective for any job, especially those that involve creativity. If you’re an artist, you want to create the best piece possible. If you’re an author, you want to write the most interesting book possible. If you’re an architect, you want to design the best house possible. It’s the same with songs.
I try to perfect my songs every time out, leave no stone unturned and never leave anything to chance. That’s the mantra I’ve lived by all of these years. It’s led my focus to be a lot more on quality over quantity. One song could take a week, three weeks, or longer to finish. But at the end of the day, it should sound like you wrote it in five minutes.
AS: So much of this industry is built upon meeting people, often in chance encounters. Do you believe in fate or a grand design? Or do we make our own luck simply by chasing our passion?
RY: I think it’s a bit of both. I do believe everything happens for a reason like we’re all a part of some grand design. On the flip side, there are no shortcuts to any success in life, whether it’s me or anyone else. My ex-partner Max Martin is still in the studio 24/7. If it’s his song and his passion, he’ll dedicate whatever time is needed to make sure it’s done right. So, yes, if a particular song allowed me to meet certain people — maybe fate did bring me there. But what you do with that song is up to you. You have to pitch it to the right artist. They have to like it, pick it up, and sing it. It has to be released at the right time and most importantly people need to enjoy it.
Basically, you still have to put the work in. Fate can lead you to a place where you’re not prepared for what’s to come and that’s on you. It’s a wasted chance.
Fate gives you that chance, but your actions create the success.
AS: If you had to distill your career down to one thing, what would you say you’ve learned most over the years?
RY: Never give up. I’ve had about three different runs in my career. My first run was from about 1996 to around 2005. Then I had the five-year break, followed by a second run from 2011 to 2015. Things started to slow down again until I met Lady Gaga right around when the pandemic began. Throughout all that, the highs and lows, the breaks and triumphs, I never gave up on myself or lost confidence in my abilities.
Music has always been a passion and the breaks only happened when I felt like I needed them. I never worried that I was going to lose my touch or fail when I returned. Of course, not every song is going to be a hit. There are more important things in life. I love music, but I love my family even more. When something doesn’t go well in my job, I always remind myself that it’s still only music. As long as I can put food on the table for my family, I’m a happy man. What can really go wrong when you have people that love and care about you?
AS: What was your experience like over the last year during the pandemic, personally and professionally?
RY: Personally, it’s really been about my little boy who’s kind of been deprived of being a five-year-old. He’s missed out on a lot of the things that come with being a kid. It’s the stuff like going to the park, playing with his friends, going to school or going on trips with us. It hurt me to see him not be a kid more than anything else. It hurt me, even more, knowing that I couldn’t fix it.
As far as my work, I still collaborated with a lot of the same people—just on Zoom. It actually turned out very well because I feel like it allowed me to grow as a professional. I spoke to a lot of my friends who are producers or songwriters and a lot of them felt the same way. For once, every artist had a clear schedule. They could experiment in the studio and try things they never had a chance to do before. They could devote a week or two straight to studio time because they literally had nowhere else to be.
So COVID never really got me down. I looked at it this way. A lot of life’s problems can make you feel pretty depressed and you feel alone trying to cope with your demons. With COVID, it was the opposite. I could remind myself that literally everyone was affected. We were never alone in our issues. The entire world was experiencing what we were. In fact, I probably had it better than most people. I was able to continue working and my family stayed healthy. So there really was nothing to complain about.
AS: What advice would you give to up-and-coming songwriters and producers today?
RY: There’s strength in numbers. Find a good group of people that you love and work with them as much as you can. If you’re a songwriter and work with a different group every week, try and find the one or two producers that you love and stick with them. I think that’s so important. Before I started working with Max, I was able to work with my best friend every day at Cheiron Studios. I have no doubt that comradery plays into success.
Main photo by Adam Hart