Steve Mac: ‘There are no rules to pop music now. It just has to be of great quality.’

MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the pop composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. This month, we talk to Steve Mac, the British pop composer extraordinaire – who’s recently written smashes for Ed Sheeran, Anne-Marie and Clean Bandit. 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.

“Any chance we can change the name of this feature to the World’s Luckiest Songwriters?”

In the music business of yesteryear, Steve Mac never really knew just how good he was.

For the best part of two decades, the UK’s leading pop tunesmith specialized in crafting domestic-sounding hits for domestic-sounding radio.

He was bloody great at it, too.

From JLS to Westlife, The Saturdays, Boyzone and Damage – often in tandem with Wayne Hector – Mac built a reputation as the go-to writer/producer for polished pop tailor-made to storm the British charts.

No wonder he became the first name on Simon Cowell’s teamsheet to launch an array of X Factor graduates.

Along the way, Mac flirted with Stateside blockbuster successes: The Wanted’s Glad You Came (2011), for instance – a US sales and airplay smash – as well as Susan Boyle’s multi-platinum-selling debut LP.

Other Top Ten US hits included O-Town’s All Or Nothing At All (2001), Cobra Starship’s You Make Me Feel (2011) and Ruben Studdard’s Flying Without Wings (2003) – but it’s fair to say Mac’s talents have typically been better reflected in Blighty, as opposed to Beverly Hills.

However, as it has for so much in this business, streaming’s changed all of that.

For the first time, the wider world is being properly exposed to Steve Mac’s master-crafted pop songs. And evidently, it loves what it hears.

In the past two years alone, Mac has written or co-written worldwide hits for the likes of Little Mix, Clean Bandit, Demi Lovato, Matt Simons and Anne-Marie  – whose Alarm has now been streamed 195m times on Spotify.

Clean Bandit’s Rockabye, meanwhile, has 440m Spotify streams to date. It recently became a firm US Top 5 radio hit, and is currently wedged at No.9 on the Hot 100.

And then… there’s the small matter of a certain song by Ed Sheeran.

Shape Of You, co-penned by Mac with Sheeran and Johnny McDaid, has obliterated records and topped charts the world over.

It now boasts a whopping 11.7m total worldwide sales (and 760m+ streams on Spotify), having just secured its 12th week at No.1 in the US.

The track also recently broke the all-time Top 40 airplay record in the States for the highest play-count ever recorded in a single week.

An interesting twist: with Steve Mac’s songs sounding more globally ambitious than ever before, his success in his home country has reach head-bending proportions.

This is one of those stats that sounds a bit wrong. We promise you, it’s not.

Across Rockabye (by Clean Bandit ft. Anne-Marie) and Shape Of You, compositions by Steve Mac – both released via Atlantic Records UK – have just held the Official British No.1 single slot for 22 weeks in a row.

Or to put it another way… five-and-a-half months.

As he explains in our exclusive interview below, ASCAP Award-winner Mac got his big break in the music business back in the early ’90s.

An admirer of the emerging British house scene, one of the first tracks he ever co-wrote was (I Wanna Give You) Devotion by NOMAD – a massive 1990 chart hit, reaching No.2 in the UK and No.1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart.

From there, Mac (real name Steve McCutcheon) became a member of a dance act, Undercover, which specialized in reworking hits from the past (their version of Baker Street, a Gerry Rafferty cover, was a Top 5 hit in the UK and Germany in 1992).

Then, in the mid-nineties, Mac met Wayne Hector, and the duo established themselves as the UK’s slickest pop ballad writers.

These days, you’ll find press-shy Mac working Monday-Friday in his own Rokstone Studios in London’s Parsons Green – where MBW recently sat down with him to ask all about the changing face of pop, his new deal with UMPG – and his views on the modern music business…

How did you come to co-write Shape Of You?

It was all down to Anne-Marie. She called me up and said: ‘My mate wants to write with you.’ I rolled my eyes and was like: ‘Right. Okay… has he done anything before?’

‘Kind of, yeah. It’s Ed Sheeran.’

At which point, I realized I might just be able to find a gap in my diary.

Ed reached out to me and said his album was finished but that he wanted to do some cool stuff together. He came in and brought in Johnny [McDaid] with him.

Ed played me what he thought was the first single from [Divide], which sounded amazing. So we started writing and within the first two hours, Shape Of You came along.

“At the end of the session, Ed said: ‘Can I hear that first one again?’ And then: ‘Do you think the Rihanna record’s closed?'”

In our minds we weren’t writing for Ed at this stage, which is probably why it sounds like it does. We parked it and wrote two more songs that day.

At the end of the session, Ed said: ‘Can I hear that first one again?’ And then: ‘Do you think the Rihanna record’s closed? We should pitch it!’

Talk about timing: that night he went to see [Atlantic UK’s] Ben Cook and Ed Howard and played them what he thought was the finished album.

Then he played them Shape – which was called at the time ‘In Love With Your Body’ – and as I understand it, [Atlantic UK boss] Ben Cook got very excited and said: ‘This should be the single!’

Ed, myself and Johnny never even thought it was an Ed Sheeran record – we just thought it was a good little pop song.

Ben and Ed Howard heard something different; that’s why they’re good at their jobs.

What’s it been like to break all those sales records – especially in the US and beyond?

I realize what this is: it’s a good moment.

I’m getting a lot of phone calls, which is great. But I’ve been doing it long enough now not to get carried away. I just celebrated 25 years with my engineer, Chris Laws, and I was doing it three years before that on my own.

“I try to surround myself with nice people who are much more talented than me. Ed fits firmly into that category.”

I’ve only known Ed for a few months now and we’ve written maybe six days together. We have so many singles coming out for other artists. We have a great connection.

I try to surround myself with nice people who are much more talented than me. Ed fits firmly into that category.

How has pop music changed throughout your career?

There are no rules now. That’s the big difference.

Five years or ten years ago, it had to be one of three different types of record that you were making, and that in turn had a lot to do with radio.

“Today, you can do absolutely anything and get away with it – so long as it’s of great quality.”

Look at [Justin Bieber’s] Love Yourself. It’s just a guitar and a vocal. There was a time when it would have been like: ‘You’ll never get that on the radio.’

Today, you can do absolutely anything and get away with it – so long as it’s of great quality.

When you were writing in the earlier days, did it all feel somehow more ‘British’?

Yes. Now, every Friday, it feels like you’re releasing a record around the world.

Radio was a lot more powerful back then, so that’s probably a factor in that ‘let’s work the UK first’ [approach].

For me personally, I think I’m writing much better songs now. I look at songs I wrote back in the day as feeling a bit more domestic.

Tell us about your big break.

I always wanted to be an architect when I was at school. I loved drawing and I loved design.

The first hurdle to that came with work experience when I was 16. There was no-one in the local area that would take someone who wanted to do architecture.

So the school said: ‘What’s your second choice?’ I played the piano and really liked music, so I asked if there was a recording studio nearby.

“I forgot all other plans and left school. I’d fallen in love.”

Luckily there was, in Chertsey [in Surrey] where I was based. I took the view that I’d do it for a week, then return to the long career path of an architect.

I got to the end of the first week of working at the studio, and the guy said: ‘Do you want to leave school and come and make tea for us?’

I said yes straight away. I forgot all other plans. I’d fallen in love.

What did your parents think about this idea?

I don’t think my dad wanted me to do it. My dad was a publisher and managed a jazz-funk band called Shakatak. He was always away touring and he knew how tough it could be in the music business, and what the failure rate was.

To this day, I’m genuinely scared that if this fails for me, I’ve got nothing to fall back on!

I remember my mum saying: ‘Go for it. Whatever you put your mind to, you’ll make it work. You’re the most competitive person I’ve ever met.’

That was the best advice. And she’s my biggest fan to this day.

You were off to a flying start – it only took you a year or so to go from tea boy to creating (I Wanna Give You) Devotion…

Yes, but it was a big lesson for me. You make your first record like that and you think: ‘I’ve cracked it. I know exactly what I’m doing.’

It took me seven more months to make anything that anyone paid any attention to.

“It took me seven more months to make anything that anyone paid any attention to.”

(I Wanna Give You) Devotion was a complete accident. It’s one of my favourite records I ever made because I didn’t know what I was doing.

When I listen back now I want to change so many things on it, and it would be a much worse record if I could.

After that you did a Gangstarr remix and some Cooltempo stuff with Simon Dunmore. How do you go from that edgier house world to working with Boyzone and Susan Boyle?

It makes more sense if you think about the writer/producers who influenced me at the start of my career: Clivillés and Cole, Jam & Lewis, David Morales and Frankie Knuckles.

They were all what I consider ‘pop’ producers. Even though some made dance music, it was dance with an eye on the charts.

On the ballad side, I also loved David Foster, Walter Afanasieff, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.

I reached the point where dance music wasn’t really working for me – I wasn’t making a good living out of it – so I thought: ‘Let’s try the ballad writing.’

“one of those backing vocalists was Wayne Hector. I never forget, he charged me £30 and was four hours late…”

I moved to Islington in London. One of the first sessions I did there, I needed some backing vocalists – and one of those backing vocalists was Wayne Hector.

I never forget, he charged me £30 and was four hours late!

He asked me if I wrote songs, and I told him I’d had a couple of dance hits. He suggested we try something together.

We met up, and the first thing we [co-wrote] was a song called Forever for a band called Damage – a big ballad.

Simon Cowell saw Damage supporting Boyzone or someone like that. And he thought: ‘I want to do this.’

He came to find me and Wayne, and asked us to do this band with him. And that’s how Westlife came about.

What was it like writing for that string of boybands – Damage, Westlife, Boyzone, 5ive, The Wanted. Did it ever feel like a conveyor belt?

No. The really exciting thing about working with boybands in that era was you had an audience already there. All you had to do was deliver the songs.

I think where Wayne and myself ‘won’ over a lot of other writers in that period is that we didn’t just rely on that fact.

“We would work as though we were writing for Whitney, or Celine Dion, or Boyz II Men, or Bryan Adams.”

We would work as though we were writing for Whitney, or Celine Dion, or Boyz II Men, or Bryan Adams.

These were the people in our minds when we were writing Swear It Again or Flying Without Wings. We knew we’d never get those cuts, but it drove us to write better songs.

You made a lot of cover versions as a producer for Simon Cowell’s acts.

One of the very clever things about Simon was, when the original songs weren’t good enough he’d go with a classic [cover].

I spent about three or four years just producing cover versions. Some people might say that’s a step backwards, but it was the best learning experience of my life.

It sets the bar: ‘If I’m going to write something, it may as well be at this level, otherwise… what’s the point?’

I enjoyed making the [debut] Susan Boyle record and she was obviously incredible. But by that point, I really wanted to become a pop songwriter again.

And then I met Nick Raphael.

You wrote ‘Beat Again’ with JLS – Nick Raphael and Jo Charrington‘s big UK moment at Epic, before they moved on to Capitol and signed Sam Smith.

Nick originally wanted a Flying Without Wings-type epic for JLS, but then he heard Beat Again and loved it.

What really matters to me about that was he let me produce it too.

I thought he’d take it and give it to a much ‘cooler’ producer. That was a pivotal moment, and I owe him a big thank you.

I followed it up with Glad You Came by The Wanted – which was a big hit in the US.

What makes a really good A&R person… and a less good A&R person?

I will say that I don’t like indecision – that’s one side of A&R that troubles me. We all need someone to be positive and say: ‘This is the right way to go.’

As an example, Ed Howard at Atlantic – all of the A&R coming out of Atlantic UK at the moment, actually – is on fire.

They don’t think they’re songwriters, they don’t think they’re record producers, so they don’t micro-manage the whole thing.

“We all need someone to be positive and say: ‘This is the right way to go.'”

I’ll take on board any criticism and address it. [A&Rs] are ultimately your clients. And I certainly don’t have all the answers.

But great A&Rs don’t come in and sing you how they think it should go. I think we all struggle to work with the frustrated songwriters that never quite made it.

What was it like working with Simon Cowell?

Simon was the game-changer for me. Simon and Sonny [Takhar at Syco] taught me so much.

I always wanted to be credible as a young musician. It’s all I cared about.

I remember Simon saying to me: ‘Steve, you have to understand, that there’s only one kind of credibility in this business, and that’s a hit. How do you become more credible? You have another hit.’

“I remember Simon saying to me: ‘Steve, you have to understand, that there’s only one kind of credibility in this business – and that’s a hit.”

I’ve never forgotten that – and look where he is now.

I also always wanted to be cool. There was a point where I used to get really offended because every A&R who had a project would go to every ‘cool’ producer first – and I’d be the last person they would call.

My whole mindset has changed these days. That [process] still happens but now, I take it as the biggest compliment.

It means they’re thinking: ‘Nope – we still haven’t got it. We’d better go to Steve.’

If you could go back 20 years and teach yourself something, what would it be?

Just because you had a hit doesn’t mean you have all the answers.

Enjoy it, but realize that once the hit has gone, everything resets.

Do you ever look at an artist enjoying massive success with a song you’ve written and get jealous?

[Laughs] I love this question! [Laughs some more].

Do you know what? It’s the best thing in the world to see someone like Anne-Marie (pictured) doing what she does.

To see what goes into a song like Rockabye – across (co-writers) Jack from Clean Bandit, Ina Wroldsen, Ammar Malik and myself – and then to see it up there, that’s such a proud feeling.

“I’m the lucky one. No-one on the street has a clue who I am.”

Seeing Ed Sheeran performing Shape Of You at The Grammys… that’s just amazing.

I know we talk about songwriters not getting the credit they deserve sometimes. But it’s also true to say that these artists work their nuts off.

I saw all the promo Ed did for Shape. It’s insane. I just kept calling him to say thank you for working it so hard.

I’m the lucky one. No-one on the street has a clue who I am.

You certainly have a more normal life that way.

I have the most boring life. And I love it.

My day starts at 9.30am. I get in the studio every day. And I finish at 7pm.

“I get to spend proper time with my kids – family is everything to me.”

I get to spend proper time with my kids – family is everything to me.

Because my dad managed this band, he was away touring a lot. I understand, but I’ll never forget my dad wasn’t around that often when I was young.

You’re having huge global success, based out of London. Aren’t you tempted to work more in LA?

I run two studios in London. I’ve got two guys – Chris and Dan – I work with every day. It’s a big thing for me to leave this.

But the main thing is, it works. I went to LA four times last year. And you know what? No hits whatsoever came out of those sessions.

Every hit I’ve ever made has been created in London.

We all complicate the crap out of life. I’m at my best when I keep life simple.

You love streaming as a fan, but we all know songwriters don’t get the lion’s share of payouts from these services. How would you like things to change?

I can say is that songwriters are clearly undervalued. It’s a common theme.

There are a lot of people making a decent amount of money from streaming; I’m just not sure that applies to the songwriters.

I wish we could go back to start of streaming and downloads, and have a look at those numbers again. Everything would be much easier now.

“Maybe I’m blinkered, but surely this whole business starts with the songs? Without a song, you’ve got nothing to sell.”

Maybe I’m blinkered, but surely this whole business starts with the songs? Without a song, you’ve got nothing to sell.

For a young songwriter to come into this business now and try to make a living, not even a decent living, it’s so much harder.

Occasionally I have work experience in here and they expect me to say: ‘It’s going to be great. I did it, now you can do it.’

I can’t give them that talk. You have to explain that it takes ages to get that first cut – and then that even earning enough to live from that cut is so tough.

It’s sad to say, but I don’t envy any writers coming into this business at the moment.

You recently signed to Universal Music Publishing and its new boss, Mike McCormack. Why?

You just answered your own question: Mike McCormack.

I love that man. He’s one of the nicest people you’ll meet. I don’t know anybody that’s got a bad word to say about him.

“I’d love to tell you I analyzed Universal and every aspect of their business. but, really, it was just about Mike.”

I hadn’t talked to him for a little while – I know he left the business for a bit – and it’s such a pleasure having him back.

I’d love to tell you I analyzed Universal and every aspect of their business – and I’m still to meet Jody [Gerson] – but, really, it was just about Mike.

It was a very simple deal. We both knew what we wanted out of it and it took no time.

You’ve been with your manager, David Howells, for almost 30 years. How did you meet?

That was very early on. I was in this band Undercover. We took classic songs and made them… not so classic!

David Howells is an amazing manager. He’s shielded me from so much, and I’ve been very lucky in my career to have always chosen who I want to work with.

I don’t get to hear about any of the cr*p. He doesn’t get involved with the creative – he lets me get on with my job.

Who is your favourite songwriter of all time?

That’s impossible! It’s hard to look past Jam & Lewis.

My favourite album of all time is Hearsay by Alexander O’Neal. As a body of work, of pop music – melodic, production, performance – it’s a game-changer and one of the reasons I wanted to make pop music.

How Jam & Lewis went from that to Janet Jackson… just brilliant.

“I admire Max Martin so much on so many levels.”

Another name that comes to mind is Max Martin. I know I’m probably supposed to go for something classic from the past, but there really is nobody better.

I admire Max so much on so many levels: as a songwriter – because even though there’s a lot of co-writes you know he can do it himself – but also as a person.

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