‘I never had a plan B. This was my passion, my everything, so I just kept going’

MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the pop composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. This time, we talk to Sarah Hudson, who burst onto the scene as co-writer of Katy Perry’s worldwide smash, Dark Horse, and was most recently an integral part of the team behind Dua Lipa’s Grammy-winning Future Nostalgia album. 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.

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Asked about her wish-list of artists she’d most like to write with, Sarah Hudson mentions Britney, Cher, Lady Gaga and Billie Eilish. But, most of all, on a pedestal, on a cloud, on a poster on her childhood bedroom wall, there is Madonna.

And who knows, it might happen. Hudson’s rise as a songwriter has been so steep and star-studded that nothing – and no one – can be ruled out.

Part of you, however, reluctantly speculates that, perhaps, this is one teenage dream that shouldn’t come true. Because, you can’t help wondering, could she cope?

Not with the task. That would be, if not a breeze, then certainly within the impressive capabilities of a woman who co-wrote Katy Perry’s Dark Horse [No. 1 in the US for four weeks, 7.9m sales], Iggy Azalea’s Black Widow [Top five in the US and UK] and contributed two tone-setting tracks, Levitating and Physical, to Dua Lipa’s Grammy-winning album Future Nostalgia [No. 1 in the UK, No. 3 in the US]. She also contributed eight tracks to Perry’s No. 1 2017 album, Witness.

So, chops: tick.

It’s more the ‘breathing the same air as Madonna’ thing that might prove tricky – perhaps literally, as in hyperventilating, lack of oxygen to vital organs etc.

Recalling her childhood obsession, Hudson says simply: “Madonna was my everything. She came out of the blue and hit me hard.” She adds, “I learned her concert performances back to front,” and you assume it’s a turn of phrase, and then you think…

Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much if Hudson and her hero wind up in the same space. She has made big leaps before and never been affected by the change in altitude. In fact, she’s more likely been looking for a peg with her name on it.

Hudson was pretty much unknown as a writer when she got a call from Katy Perry to join her, Max Martin, Dr Luke and Cirkut for a session. The only things that jangled were her car keys as she sped straight from nowhere to Santa Barbara.

“I always just had this confidence, I was like, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’ In a way, in fact, I was thinking, ‘Finally! These are the people that I should be working with; this is the level that I should be at.’

“I always had that belief in myself. I know it’s not easy for a lot of people, but I always have had it. So I was more grateful and excited than I was nervous or freaked out. ‘Okay, this is it, let’s go’.”

Part of that confidence, or at least a level of familiarity, might be down to her family background. Her father, Mark, is a successful songwriter and producer who co-wrote Aerosmith’s Living On The Edge.

Hudson says: “Music was playing constantly in my house – The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, just incredible music.”

On those solid foundations was built a more personal taste for classic pop – Prince, Janet Jackson, and of course Her Madgesty. “I was also heavily influenced by Tori Amos and Fiona Apple, anything really authentic is what I gravitate towards.”

At 10 years old, she decided – and indeed declared – that she was going to be a pop star. It seemed reasonable. “Music was always in my world, so it’s almost like I never thought I would do anything else. It was kind of what was natural in my house. I feel like it would have been a shock to my parents if I’d said I wanted to be a lawyer.

“It was nothing serious or professional until after High School, and then I was like, ‘All right, it’s time to really go for it.’”

Initially that meant going for it as an artist – twice, in fact. And both times proved to be nearly-but-not-quite experiences that steered (and informed) her journey to writing rooms and behind the scenes success (“I understand the pressures of the label, of making a record, getting signed, getting dropped, the whole rollercoaster ride. So I have empathy for their experience and I’m very precious about staying true to their vision”, she says).

Hudson’s first swing was as a solo artist: “I got a deal, I made this whole crazy record [Naked Truth, 2004], and I was like, ‘This is it, this is going to be my moment.’ And then, after maybe three or four years of making this record, putting everything into it and writing with incredible songwriters [including Desmond Child, Billy Mann and her dad’s old pal, Steven Tyler], I ended up getting dropped right before it was supposed to come out.

“It was horrible. I was devastated, and really angry with the industry, but I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to start my own fucking band, do it myself, be independent, just really do my own thing’.

“I started a band called Ultraviolet Sound, it was very electronic, very underground. We toured across the country in our car, we lived in a studio, we really went through it for five, six years.

“At the time I’m living in the studio, no shower, I’m filing for bankruptcy.”

“We had some culty success, but it didn’t really pan out, we didn’t get a big deal or anything like that.  And when we decided to part ways I just didn’t know what I was going to do. I always knew I was a songwriter first. I mean, that’s what I am. And I thought, well, I’ve met a lot of amazing people along the way, we did shows with Katy Perry, we did shows with Lady Gaga, and I was like, Okay, let’s reach out to some of the people I met.

“So I reached out to this artist named Ferras, who is one of my best friends to this day. I loved his vibe and we started writing songs together. He was good friends with Katy, so I started becoming closer friends with her, and I just kind of started getting my feet wet in that world of song writing, figuring out my own path.

“At the time I’m living in the studio, no shower, I’m filing for bankruptcy. I’m literally eating, like, every other day, it was really a struggle . But, I never had a plan B. This was my passion, my everything, so I just kept going.

“Anyway, I’m out one night at this show and I get a text from Katy, it’s during the time she’s making her Prism album, and she goes, ‘What are you doing tomorrow? Do you want to come to Santa Barbara to write with me, Dr. Luke, Max Martin and Cirkut?’ And I was like, ‘Yes! Obviously, of course, oh my God!’

“The next day, I drove up there, I walked in, and we wrote Dark Horse in four or five hours. I mean, it was such an effortless, fun, incredible experience.

“I remember thinking at the time, before I walked in that room, girl, if this is all it is, just you being in a room with these incredible people, this is amazing, be grateful for this.

“Six months or so later it started just climbing the charts and my life changed…”

What do you remember about the writing of Dark Horse?

They had started the track when I came in, and then Katy and I brought the concept, we came up with it together, and we all kind of shared equally in just creating the song. It’s crazy because whenever I’m asked how a song came about, I never really remember, because it’s always so collaborative.

When it’s those special songs, it feels like we’re all in a circle, playing volleyball or something, keeping the ball up: What about this? What about that? And then it becomes… it just comes from nothing and turns into this song. It’s wild every time.

Did you know at the time that you’d been part of writing a smash?

I had no idea. I knew it was cool, but it was very different for Katy at the time, that vibe. I drove home literally just thinking I hope it makes it on the record.

When its success did come, what sort of impact did that have on your career?

It just opened the flood gate of opportunities, people were reaching out. I mean, some of those people I would be knocking on their doors for years and years and years, and never get an answer back until this happened, which sucks – but also, I get it; it’s just the way it is.

“When there is a supportive, ego-free environment that is when you can create.”

And I have no complaints, I got to work on some of the coolest projects, stuff that I’m so proud of to this day: a Justin Bieber song [The Feeling, 2015], a Nicki Minaj song [Get On Your Knees, ft. Ariana Grande, 2014], [Iggy Azalea’s] Black Widow; Years and Years [Palo Santa and Karma], which was one of my favorite projects to work on; Santigold [Banshee]; I mean, things that I just was so passionate about. And I also met some of the most incredible people that are like my family now.

What do you think is the mix and chemistry of skills and personalities that makes some rooms work on a different level?

My ultimate scenario: good energy and no ego. When you’re able to just be in the room and feel like you can say the worst idea ever and no one’s going to criticize you, or laugh at you.

When there is a supportive, ego-free environment that is when you can create.

There’s a real art to collaboration. Can I write a song on my own? Sure. But I thrive when I’m in a collaborative environment. And I’ve been in rooms where I’m with writers who are very in their own lane, in their own head, in their own process and they don’t really have that collaboration skill. I don’t enjoy that.

So, I think no ego is huge, and I think just creating a space where you’re comfortable and where you feel free, because it takes 100 bad ideas to come out of your mouth for that one amazing one, and I think when you’re comfortable, then that’s everything.

Can you tell us about how you came to work with Dua Lipa and what that was like?

I worked with Dua on her [eponymous] first album [2017]. My manager was like, ‘There’s this artist, she’s really great and I really want you to get in a room with her.’

She came in and I  just knew. ‘Okay, this girl, there’s something very special about this girl.’ She was just so confident and strong in her vision. We wrote Genesis together for her first album and it was just an effortless, amazing experience.

“When we wrote Levitating, I think that was the song where it was like, ‘Okay, this is a vibe.’”

We stayed in touch and she started writing for Future Nostalgia. She had such a vision for this record, she is such a great writer and has such incredible ideas. We experimented a lot in the beginning and then it really kind of started with Levitating. When we wrote Levitating, I think that was the song where it was like, ‘Okay, this is a vibe.’

It’s like me and Katy in a way, we are just such good friends, we’re just really authentic, genuine friends, and that is such a cool place to be when you’re creating music together. It’s the ultimate scenario, making music with your friends.

I think there’s something special when a trust develops between a writer and an artist, there’s nothing like it, because you can trust them with your most sacred thoughts.

Were you surprised by the level of success of Future Nostalgia? Obviously, Dua was a big star before, but this has moved her up several divisions globally, hasn’t it?

Honestly, no, I wasn’t surprised. I knew this record was so cool and special and I just think she’s such a star. She is so genuine and authentic as a human being and I think people really feel that from her, and they feel that in the music.

When we wrote Levitating, we were literally levitating, we were dancing off the walls, jumping around. We were having the best time ever, and the same with Physical. I feel like when you play those songs, you can feel the energy in the room when they were created. I also think it gave people the joy and the fun and the light that we needed last year.

What would your advice be to a songwriter just starting out?

I would say be sure that you are getting onto this career path for the love of writing and the love of music, because it’s not easy, there’s a lot of rejection and there’s a lot of obstacles. But, if you really do have that love and that passion, it’s like nothing can stop you.

And always remember that’s why you’re doing this, because you are a creator, because you create art and music.

I’d also say something that took me a while to learn, and that is that as a songwriter and as a creator, we’re living our job 24/7. It’s not like a nine to five where we go home and it’s over. We are constantly in our emotions, and I think it can get all consuming.

So, go live your life, read a book, pet your dog, go to the museum. Find joy and happiness in little things outside of this career as well, because you need that balance. It will eat you alive if you don’t have that.

Finally, never give up.

Right, because you must have come close – with bankruptcy imminent, eating every other day etc.?

Totally. But then look what happened.

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