MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the pop composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. This month, we talk to Savan Kotecha, the uber-talented musician who has penned smashes for everyone from One Direction to Usher and Ariana Grande. The 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.
If there’s a pop melody stubbornly refusing to leave your inner-ear right now, there’s a fair chance it was written by Savan Kotecha.
The Vermont-born musician specializes in the kind of toplines that stay with you for days on end, whether it’s One Direction’s What Makes You Beautiful, The Weeknd’s Can’t Feel My Face, Maroon 5’s One More Night or Ariana Grande’s Side To Side.
Kotecha spent his early years in Manassas, Virginia, where he developed a love for the songs of Michael Jackson while living with his sister and his parents, who both worked for IBM.
This was a million miles from the nepotism-rife music industry, and the sort of LA connections which many of Kotecha’s peers have since relied upon to climb the ladder.
In the early ’90s, Kotecha’s family moved to Austin, Texas, where he began experimenting with playing the keyboard and writing his own tunes.
As he explains in our interview below, it would be a long while before Kotecha’s big break: when his Inside Your Heaven was released in 2005 by Carrie Underwood as the American Idol winner’s anthem.
Since then, Kotecha has gone on to write a string of hits for top artists, which also include Jessie J (Bang Bang), Demi Lovato (Cool For The Summer), Justin Bieber (Beauty And A Beat), Usher (DJ Got Us Falling In Love) and Ellie Goulding (On My Mind).
Below, MBW asks the 13-time ASCAP Award winner about his struggles as a songwriter, the high points of his career so far, his tips for young songwriters, the current state of US politics and a host of industry talking points…
When did you first realize you wanted to write songs for a living – and that you had the ability to do so?
I’m still not sure I have the ability! When I was around 15 years old, we’d recently moved to Texas, and I still remember the night I picked up my sister’s Yamaha keyboard. I was curious and bored and just started playing chords.
I remember starting to get obsessed with it after that night; staying up with headphones on. It was around the time Bryan Adams was releasing those huge ballads, and I remember watching Uncle Jessie on Full House; he was in the studio, writing songs. And I was like: ‘Wow, that’s something you can do? That’s awesome!’
John Stamos is probably the No.1 reason I’m a songwriter [laughs].
Who were your inspirations in terms of songwriters growing up?
I was always a pop guy. So when I started writing, it was Richard Marx and Bryan Adams, and my biggest hero at that time was Babyface – I was obsessed with him and trying to figure out how to write songs like that.
Then when I started getting into it more, Max Martin obviously became a huge inspiration.
If you could go back to the very beginnings of your career and teach yourself something, what would it be?
Probably when I started doing sessions, I would tell myself to slow down. When I started having real success – and this is something I learned from Max – I really started challenging every idea, every lyric and every melody after I created it.
“You can’t just be satisfied as a songwriter.”
You can’t just be satisfied as a songwriter. In the beginning, you think: ‘Wow, we wrote a song – a whole song! Amazing!’ But then you have to go back and make sure it’s something people will relate to and love.
You always need to step away from it and think, ‘Okay, how can we make this better?’
You sound like you’re quite hard on yourself.
I’m pretty brutal on myself, that’s true. I don’t actually write many songs anymore because I’m so self-critical.
It’s fair to say I maybe over-think things – to a fault, possibly.
“I’m pretty brutal on myself, that’s true.”
If I don’t feel I’ve got the right idea, I won’t work on it, so I don’t do as many sessions.
What can I say – I’m afraid of failure!
Aren’t we all. What golden tip would you give a songwriter to help them get in the right frame of mind to create at their best?
It’s about distancing yourself from your original idea, and being honest with yourself. Is it actually great, or do you just want it to be great?
If you’re looking at the commercial hit-songwriting world, then you have to look at what’s out there, see what’s working and leave no stone un-turned.
You hear these stories where writers say: ‘I wrote this song in 10 minutes.’ And yeah, that can happen, but those same people won’t tell you they also wrote 300 other songs that weren’t as good.
When you watch an artist enjoying huge success with a song you wrote, do you ever get jealous?
No, not at all. A lot of songwriters are failed artists, but that wasn’t really the case for me; I kind of accepted early on that no girl would want to put my mug on their wall!
This is a very rare interview for me – I’m not looking for [fame].
I like to know that I helped artists. But being an artist, being a celebrity, is a brutal life. When you get to know these people and see what they’re dealing with, it’s a monster that sometimes can’t be tamed.
“I like to know that I helped artists. But being an artist, being a celebrity, is a brutal life.”
Obviously it comes with a lot of blessings as well, but everybody has their own problems.
Now… do I wish songwriters would financially benefit a little more? Of course. But wouldn’t anybody?
I’m doing okay for myself, but for the younger songwriters out there, it’s a tough world for them right now.
Songwriters should get a bigger piece of the pie, and I’m hoping it gets worked out where that will happen.
On that topic… Streaming is increasingly defining the recorded business. What’s your view of it and how do you want it to change for songwriters?
The rates just have to be higher. The record labels have to give up more of the pie to songwriters – otherwise they’re not going to have any music.
If you look at Spotify‘s global Top 10, I’m sure most if not all of those tracks were written or co-written by professional songwriters.
These people have to earn a living – there’s no music business without the song.
I look at the movie business with envy, because I see how well respected screenwriters are – there’s an appreciation there that there would be nothing without them.
“I look at the movie business with envy, because I see how well respected screenwriters are.”
It’s a shame. The music business was founded on ripping off creators: ‘You want a Cadillac? Give me the rights to your song!’
I feel sometimes the label heads aren’t always looking at the big picture; they’re looking at meeting their numbers, knowing they’re going to be out or retired soon.
We all love music, we all love this business, but we’ve got to work it out so the next generation of writers can thrive.
I came in at a lucky time; an era where people were still selling millions of albums. So as I was developing as a writer I was getting cuts on Westlife, Il Divo – pop things that would allow me to earn a great living while I was developing. Now these kids don’t get that chance; they have to write a hit, and if they don’t, they’re screwed.
People have to realize that songwriting is a craft, and it takes time to get good. I hope the labels and the industry does the right thing eventually – or the US government does the right thing for them.
Why did you pick Kobalt as your publishing partner?
I have a couple of publishing companies which operate through Kobalt. I believe in Willard [Ahdritz, Kobalt CEO], I think his intentions are great.
I lived in Sweden for a long time, so I believe in the ethics of Swedish people, I find the way they do businesses quite fair.
“I look in Willard’s eyes and I believe his passion about songwriters and fairness.”
I look in Willard’s eyes and I believe his passion about songwriters and fairness, and disrupting the system a little bit. Kobalt is so transparent; it makes you wonder why some other companies aren’t quite so transparent.
Kobalt are great, easy to deal with and their synch team is incredible.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given in the music business?
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.
When you start getting success, you suddenly get all these opportunities to do things, and it’s easy to forget that you don’t have to say yes.
“Do stuff you’re passionate about. It won’t work otherwise, because it won’t be honest.”
In music, it’s about emotions and connecting people; it’s not about money or ego.
That’s why you should do stuff you’re passionate about. It won’t work otherwise, because it won’t be honest.
What did you parents think when you told them you were embarking on a career as a professional songwriter?
I come from a very traditional Indian family. So as you can imagine, it was all the clichés many people have talked about and worse. They were quite horrified, frankly.
Most of my family live in the UK, and I would get calls from cousins saying: ‘Savan, what are you doing with your life?!’
My mum now kind of gets it, but only because I was on X-Factor for five seconds.
It’s hard for them to accept, because it’s a whole different world. I remember ‘If You Seek Amy’ the Britney Spears song came out, and was quite a big hit in America.
“My mum called me and was like [upset voice]: ‘My friend’s son is becoming a doctor. And my son? My son is writing pop songs about sex!'”
There was quite a lot of controversy, and there was a Good Morning America segment, where teenagers were discussing that lyric [phonetically, F-U-C-K..my].
My mum saw it and she called me and was like [upset voice]: ‘My friend’s son is becoming a doctor. And my son? My son is writing pop songs about sex!!!’
Then my dad got on the line and was like, ‘You’re being indecent.’
I wasn’t allowed to have a girl call my house until I was an adult. So maybe a lot of pent-up sexual stuff comes out in my songs… and that’s quite a foreign thing to my parents.
It sounds like they’ve reached some level of acceptance now?
Yeah now I have kids, I have a good life and they see awards and things, they’ve kind of accepted it.
Again, after the X-Factor thing and being a part of One Direction, that was something they felt. [Savan also co-wrote hits for 1D including Live While We’re Young and One Thing.]
“after One Direction happened, when I was on YouTube videos with them, young kids living near my mum would come up to her and say: ‘Oh my God, Savan’s a part of 1D!'”
Indian parents only really care about what other Indians think. So after One Direction happened, when I was on YouTube videos with them, young kids living near my mum would come up to her and say: ‘Oh my God, Savan’s a part of 1D!’ – that helped my mum connect the dots a bit.
But, you know, I have two kids and I’m wondering how I would feel if they told me they’d want to do this. I do empathize because it’s so foreign an idea.
My mom and dad were just trying to protect their kid. And it was hard – there were years I had to starve for it.
How bad did it get?
There were a lot of times I was literally eating beans out of a can.
I remember when Carrie Underwood performed my song on American Idol and it went to No.1, I was watching it in Sweden – where I was living at the time.
I was streaming it on a computer live while eating beans out of can. That was all I could afford for dinner. I wouldn’t want my kids to go through that.
How long did it take before that breakthrough moment?
There were tough times. I made a lot of friends to help me out, and I was apartment-hopping for a fair while.
There were years I was in Sweden where I was flat broke, living out of two suitcases. There was probably two years where I had to be strict about spending less than $10 a day.
There were times it got scary, but I was blessed to be around successful people who would occasionally buy lunch.
“Royalties are crazy. if someone said to me: ‘Side to Side is huge, what’s that going to earn you?’, I’d still have no idea.”
Being paid by royalties is kind of crazy. This goes back to my point about complicated the songwriting business is.
Back then, you’d write a song and you wouldn’t get paid until two or three years later.
You also have no idea what [a project] is going to pay out. So your life planning is pretty tough. I’ve been blessed to have a number of hits now, but if someone said to me: ‘Side to Side is huge, what’s that going to earn you?’, I’d still have no idea.
A songwriter can spend a year with a producer on an album, and the producer gets paid for the production. But then if the album gets shelved, as a songwriter, you get nothing.
Not to paint a bleak picture, but now I’m in the position I’m in I want to make the situation better for the next generation.
What is the song you’re proudest of writing and why?
It changes constantly. The stuff I’m most proud of now is probably the Skip Marley stuff I’ve been working on. There’s a song called Calm Down with Skip which should be coming out over the spring if all goes well.
It was written after the Orlando shooting, and that’s the one I’m proudest of now. Skip (pictured) is Bob Marley’s maternal grandchild and has a big future. He wants to follow his grandfather’s legacy.
“This is a time where artists really do need to say something.”
I’m quite politically active, and we wrote some songs about what’s going on in this country. The first song, Lions, was written for the protesters two days after the election.
This is a time where artists really do need to say something. They are the voice of the people; it’s not going to be the news media or politicians.
As a creative individual living in California… What do you make of the state of the US right now?
Very scary. When the truth and facts no longer matter, we enter into a dangerous space and that’s what’s happened here.
To be fair to those who voted for the orange dictator, there were people who were suffering who felt ignored.
But I think there’s also underlying racism in this country that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world – and it hasn’t gone away. That’s partly why this happened.
“When the truth and facts no longer matter, we enter into a dangerous space and that’s what’s happened in the US.”
On the positive side, I’d like to think this will make people more engaged and realize what a dangerous thing politics can be.
I’m not a politician and I’m not a journalist.
But I am a father, and if I can help an artist like Skip Marley get his message out there – a message of love, peace and acceptance – then that feels like the most important thing I can do.
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