MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the pop composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. This time, we talk to MoZella – the Sony/ATV-signed, Los Angeles-based writer of global hits for Miley Cyrus (the career-defining Wrecking Ball) plus One Direction and Madonna, amongst others. World’s Greatest Songwriters is supported by AMRA – the global digital music collection society which strives to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in the digital age.
The general public (and mainstream media) probably remembers Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball chiefly for the video. The industry might recall it as the breakthrough single for an artist making a clunkily controversial transition from tween-friendly TV staple to ‘serious’ pop/rock artist (and as a No. 1 in the UK and US – where it went 5x Platinum). Its co-writer, Sony ATV-signed MoZella, remembers it as the worst time in her life – and the gateway to the best, professionally and personally.
MoZella grew up (as Maureen Anne McDonald) in Detroit, loving Motown, getting heavily into Nirvana, and all the time gravitating towards singer-songwriters such as Carole King and James Taylor.
She started out as a performer and had two shots at making it ‘out front’, first with Maverick (then Madonna’s label) and then with Universal. Neither worked out and she became a songwriter, initially of the ‘jobbing’ variety, writing mainly in the sync sector for commercials and TV.
And then she had her heart broken – like, cancelled wedding-broken.
She was, she admits, on the verge of simply giving up, but the alternative was to pour everything into not just her work, but into one song – a song that resonated with another young woman going through a similarly terrible time.
And from that came subsequent hits with the likes of One Direction, Madonna, Charlie Puth, Kelly Clarkson and the Jonas Brothers.
From that also came recovery, resilience and, eventually, happiness…
How did you break into the business?
I moved to L.A when I was 18, I got a record deal [with Maverick] and I started making an album.
What was the dream at that point? How did you see your career developing?
I kind of wanted to be a singer/songwriter, touring and performing, but the whole industry got really weird around that time. I was really young, and Madonna’s label folded back into Warner Brothers. I mean, I got to do some really amazing things, tour and make videos, but it never came to full fruition.
Then I got picked up at Universal for a few years. I made another album. And then I just started realizing that maybe, you know, I love singing and I love performing, but not as much as not as much as I love writing.
Do you think that that experience of being an artist has helped you when it comes to writing with and for other artists?
Yeah, it’s interesting, I feel like all these years of wearing different hats has sort of prepared me to play a lot of roles when I’m with an artist. I see it from all angles and I definitely understand when they don’t want to say something that is not true to them, because I was in that position. Sometimes you’re a therapist, sometimes you’re friends, sometimes you’re sisters.
Was it tough to give up on the dream of being an artist yourself or were you actually quite happy with and ready for the way that it started to move?
It was kind of a slow transition; it wasn’t like I just abruptly stopped and it was heartbreaking. I’d kind of been moving in that direction anyway.
How did that transition come about?
I’d I had two albums, but then I got dropped from my second deal and I started doing a lot of sync work, tons of commercials and TV and movies; I was making a good living doing that.
I still felt there was part of me that wasn’t necessarily being expressed through that channel. So, I always knew I wanted to transition, but I didn’t know how I’d ever get there. Everyone said, ‘Oh, you know, you get in these rooms with these producers and these writers’. But I had no idea how I’d ever get there.
“Everyone said, ‘Oh, you know, you get in these rooms with these producers and these writers’. But I had no idea how I’d ever get there.”
But then I had a really, really tumultuous breakup that culminated in me calling my wedding off. I went through a horrible time. And through that tragedy, it all came to be.
When people ask me how it happened, I just say I got crumbled into little pieces and then I rebuilt, and through the rebuilding, after the rebuilding, I became a lot more fearless. I was more raw and more open and I was writing real things, true things and that’s when I got my first hit.
Which was Wrecking Ball. That’s some first hit [No. 1 in the UK and US, Top 10 in over 20 other countries, a billion YouTube views]. Can you tell the story of how that came about?
I had left L.A for a year and I was engaged but then, yeah, it was a really bad breakup, really, really messy. And I had really kind of been reduced, not much left of me at all. I had to start over; it was baby steps, it was just getting from A to B.
I came back to L.A and I just started doing sessions again. I got put in a room with two people I didn’t know and I cried the whole time, they probably thought I was insane. And I just poured this song out.
“I got put in a room with two people I didn’t know and I cried the whole time, they probably thought I was insane. And I just poured this song out.”
I knew when we wrote it, it was so true to the way I felt. I knew that it was just utterly true to the pain I was feeling.
Weirdly, I had met Miley when I was living on the East coast, and then when I came back to L.A, I texted her and told her I’d called my wedding off, and she’s like, ‘Oh, wow, I think I want to call my wedding off.’ So I sent her the song and then my whole life just changed.
You mentioned that you went into a room with people you didn’t know, cried your eyes out and then wrote this incredibly raw, emotional song. How do you go about doing that in front of, essentially, strangers?
Sometimes you go into a room and immediately, whether you know it or not, you put your guard up. And I think a lot of songwriters have a tendency to block their emotions from people they don’t know, because it’s just human nature to protect yourself like that. But, at that time, I was so raw that I couldn’t even pretend, there was no point in even trying to be guarded, it was all coming out. I was barely functioning, I was so sad.
And it’s interesting, now people talk about Zoom sessions, asking me if it’s hard to work like that. Well, no, it’s kind of easy for me, because the screen is a wall; people are in another room, I’m in my room and I get to just express myself.
Forgive the cynicism, and I only ask because you’re clearly very happy in your life right now, but when you go through something like that, do you, does every songwriter, think, ‘there’s a song in this!’?
No, honestly, I was so sad that there was no glimmer of opportunism.
I was ready to quit. I was ready to quit everything, I had already kind of quit everything, there was nothing left.
There was no agenda other than to get better. And the only way I knew how to get better was to write from my heart, whether anyone ever heard it or not. There was no intention for this song to become what it became.
You mentioned the effect it had on your life, changing everything in an instant, can you give us some detail on that?
You go from being nobody to being somebody. And that has its challenges, because, you know, everybody has their own motivation, and you just sort of find the people that you trust, and that you like, and you move forward with them.
“You go from being nobody to being somebody, And that has its challenges…”
It’s amazing because there are so many people that you could never get in a room with, but now suddenly you can. That was such a cool first year after [Wrecking Ball], getting to work with some of the best writers in the business. I learned so much that year, and I said yes to everything. I just wrote as many songs as I could.
As well as working with One Direction and Charlie Puth around that time, you wrote with Madonna for 2015’s Rebel Heart. Had your paths crossed when you were signed to Maverick?
I don’t think she even knew me. Guy Oseary was her manager, and ran the label. So I knew Guy.
I didn’t even bring it up to her when I saw her again, like, ‘Hey, I was signed to your label!’ I just kind of let it go. But I had met her once, yes.
Part of me, when she wanted to work with me, was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I’ve already had that chapter in my life, you know, the Madonna chapter…’ But then my manager’s like, ‘You know what, it’s amazing; go work with her.’ So I did – and two days turned into a month.
“She’s so smart and so hardworking, and she’s challenging in ways that I hadn’t been challenged before.”
[The experience] was amazing. She’s the one of the most unique individuals I’ve ever met. She’s so smart and so hardworking, and she’s challenging in ways that I hadn’t been challenged before, in good ways.
I don’t know, I felt like being around a woman that strong made me feel stronger. But then she has this really soft side, once you get to know her, and once she kind of trusts you and sees you, the real you, then it’s beautiful. It kind of changed my life.
How do you plot your working life now? Is it a question of filtering offers?
It’s been about five or six years since my first hit, and you kind of get on a little bit of a hamster wheel after that. I had to learn a work life balance, learn what’s important to me.
Everybody wants to be somebody, everybody wants to have hits, everybody wants to feel like they’re making an impact or getting their voice heard. But there’s this thing that you can’t really quantify, which is, you know, peace of mind and joy. So I’ve had to kind of learn like, what kind of art do I want to make? What kind of impact do I want to make? And where in the list of priorities is health? Or joy?
“Everybody wants to be somebody, everybody wants to have hits, everybody wants to feel like they’re making an impact or getting their voice heard. But there’s this thing that you can’t really quantify, which is, you know, peace of mind and joy.”
I’m managed by Rachel Kurstin, whose husband is [multi-Grammy-winning writer/producer] Greg Kurstin. And Greg and I work a lot together. So I kind of just started to say, ‘Who do I really enjoy working with? And who I make really, really good art with? And how do I do more of that?’ Because then I get to do both: I get to be happy and I get to make great art.
I like trying new people because you just never know who you’re going to have chemistry with. But a lot of writers will agree that you can sort of get a little burnt out with the speed dating aspect of songwriting.
At its best it’s like an old relationship: you find a groove and you don’t have to say the words, you both go to the same chords and you both sort of find the same emotion, you both have that little lightbulb go off at the same time.
You’ve worked on recent hits like last year’ chart-topping Jonas Brothers comeback album, Happiness Begins. Can you tell us a bit about how you write today, what your preferred process is?
Every artist needs something different. Sometimes you’re a more of a ‘shaper’; you help them shape their ideas, and help them edit their ideas.
Other times you’re taking the lead with lyric and melody, because maybe they have great ideas and concepts, but they haven’t really learned how to write a structured song yet. It kind of varies.
“Sometimes an artist has so much feeling and so much pain and so much emotion, but they just don’t know how to get it out.”
Sometimes I’m doing everything, they sing it and they’re perfectly happy with that too. Sometimes an artist has so much feeling and so much pain and so much emotion, but they just don’t know how to get it out. I almost treat them like a muse.
I talk to them, I ask them a million questions and I pick their brain about the psychology of the way they were raised, their parents, their ex-boyfriend. I sort of dig in and it really inspires me.
What’s your view of the level of recognition and remuneration that songwriters get in the streaming age?
I did a lot of lobbying with the Grammys and with ASCAP in Washington and I helped fight for the MMA.
The numbers are really… how do I put this? Streaming is still not paying songwriters. They passed something, and they have to pay us, but they’re fighting us now.
All these big tech corporations [Spotify, Amazon, Google and SiriusXM] are in DC fighting against the rate court upping our percentage of earnings on streams. So, while everyone’s giving songwriters a pat on the back and saying they’re great, they’re not paying us for using our copyright on their platform.
“Streaming is still not paying songwriters… while everyone’s giving songwriters a pat on the back and saying they’re great, they’re not paying us for using our copyright on their platform.”
Interestingly, right now, radio’s down, because people aren’t driving in America [due to COVID]. It’s the quarantine, so they’re not going to work as much. And the only place where songwriters can really earn a living [today] is through having a hit at radio. And that’s a very small portion of songwriters; it’s a lottery to get a hit on radio.
Streaming is… they’re basically using our copyright and not paying us for it. Or trying not to pay us for it.
The rate got upped, but it’s still not nearly what it should be. And that’s not to excuse labels. They’re kind of turning a blind eye to it, because they’re getting paid. I saw the MBW piece that said they’re now making $1 million an hour from streaming. It’s insane.
And so, to see people basically not being able to pay their rent still after having a lot of streams is… I could tell you my numbers and they’re staggering.
Something has to change. Songwriters need more than a pat on the back and a party thrown for them.
How are you finding working in lockdown?
Oh my gosh, what a weird time, right? We set up Zoom or FaceTime sessions, and I just sit with a guitar and, I don’t know, it’s actually been fun. I’ve written a few really beautiful songs. I think everyone’s feeling really emotional right now. I talked to a few songwriters the other day, we had like a happy hour on Zoom, and some people are feeling really uninspired and some people are feeling inspired.
I said, ‘Whatever you’re feeling right now, just feel it.’ Like maybe this is a chance to kind of rebuild and regroup and re-invent yourself.
I mean don’t get me wrong the world’s in a crazy, chaotic place and a lot of people are not doing well, and I’m very fortunate to be healthy, but I’ve enjoyed the quiet time. It’s actually made me feel very human, which is what songs are. I’ve just kind of tried to connect with my humanity.
Who are the artists out there who you would love to work with?
Maybe Adele. Because I just feel like I write those kind of songs, and I like writing those kind of songs. So I think she would be at the top of the list.
But, honestly, I’m really lucky, I’ve been able to work with almost everyone on my list. I’ve been very, very fortunate.
MBW interviewed John Legend’s manager, Ty Stiklorius, recently who said that she was surprised and disappointed that sometimes writers rooms and studios, still, could be not especially female-friendly places, they can in fact be quite dangerous places. Is that something that you’ve experienced?
I’ve been in a lot of studios and I’ve been in a lot of situations, usually with mostly men. I’m not sure what percentage of songwriters are women, but it seems I’m usually one woman, with four or five men. I think I’m fortunate that I’ve had the success I’ve had to be able to sort of whittle down those situations. I’m not in situations that make me uncomfortable anymore.
I choose men who are respectful and that I like to work with. I don’t put myself in situations that make me uncomfortable.
“I’m not sure what percentage of songwriters are women, but it seems I’m usually one woman, with four or five men.”
That’s not to say they haven’t existed, because when I was younger, certainly, there were studios where maybe you felt intimidated, or maybe you feel flirted with, or something that wasn’t called for. But no, I’m now pretty happy with the rooms I’m in and the respect I’ve been given by the men that I choose to work with.
Also, I had a baby this year and that’s another thing, because not a lot of female top liners have children. It was interesting pumping at studios, having to find space to do that and having to have that conversation. But I decided to just sort of be positive about it and find a space and do my thing. And all the men I worked with are amazing and really supportive.
My husband is Swedish, and their culture is very pro-family, pro-maternity and paternity leave, and pro-women. I’m very lucky. I have a lot of feminist men around me.
You mentioned your husband, so that means the story you told in Wrecking Ball has led to a happy ending?
Yeah, everything fell apart and got rebuilt better than before. And actually I met my husband at Conway Studios, so I would’ve never met him if I hadn’t been working with Miley.
Finally, what would your advice be for a young songwriter started out.
Well, I would say to write a lot. Just write and write and write. And when you think you’ve written your best song, keep writing.
Also, be your own champion, but also be your own critic; have a healthy sense of, like, ‘Is this good enough?’ But also be, like, ‘You know what, I’m good and one day I’ll get there.’
“Be your own champion, but also be your own critic.”
I certainly wasn’t that good when I started. I wasn’t. It took me 12 years to have a hit after I moved to L.A. And it took a lot of songwriting and a lot of singing and a lot of playing and a lot of touring – all those things sort of led me to the rooms that I got in. And then once I got in those rooms, there was a sense of confidence because I had done the work.
Because you might get thrown into a room, but if you haven’t done the work, you’re just treading water and trying to stay afloat. You’ve got to do the work.
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