MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the pop composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. This time, we talk to David Stewart and Jessica Agombar, jointly the 100% songwriters behind BTS’s recent worldwide smash, Dynamite. 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.
When word gets out that BTS (aka the biggest pop group in the world) are on the hunt for their first ever English language single, the normally quite collegiate world of behind the scenes songwriting goes a bit UFC.
In such a raw, high stakes environment, you might not bet on two super-naturally sunny best friends from London — one a girl-group graduate, the other a former session drummer — as likely victors.
But, when the bell rang, it was David Stewart and Jessica Agombar, who, thanks to the explosive power of Dynamite, emerged triumphant, feet on the fallen torsos of vanquished rivals – or, more accurately, toasting each other on Zoom, allowing themselves one orbit round Planet Crazy before moving on to the next job.
Landmarks on Planet Crazy, by the way, include: over 100m views on YouTube in the first 24 hours of Dynamite’s release (a new global record); 12.6m streams on Spotify in the same period; and reaching No. 1 in the US, so becoming BTS’ first chart-topper in the country.
As with all prize fights, it helps to have the right people in your corner. And as both writers explain, having the likes of Neil Jacobson (head of Stewart’s management company, Hallwood Media) and Tim Blacksmith and Danny D (founders of Stellar Songs, the publishing company to whom both writers are signed) behind you does put some lead in your gloves.
But make no mistake, in a world where contacts are key but the song is king, this is Stewart and Agombar’s victory. Especially so as the duo jointly wrote 100% of Dynamite (with Stewart on production duties).
Listening to Stewart talk about his songwriting ‘training’ regime, the MMA comparison doesn’t seem too far wide of the mark. “Neil has got me listening to an hour or of music every single day, different playlists,” he says.
“It’s like being an athlete, you know? You need to know exactly what these guys want. So now, in the least sterile way possible, we know that at 40 seconds, we’re hitting our first chorus. At 55 seconds, we’re out into the second verse.
“It’s very rare now that we’d write a song over 3 minutes 20. I mean, almost every single song that we’ve probably written for the past year and a bit has been in that vein.”
“whenever I’m with an artist, I take my ego, anything I’m going through, out of the room.”
Agombar and Stewart first met as artists. Agombar was first signed, as a teenager, to UK dance label Ministry of Sound. That project never took off but, when the A&R who signed her, Ben Cook, moved to Atlantic, he recruited her for a second girl band, Parade.
This time, there was a flicker of success, in the form of a Top 10 UK single, Louder. But, the group broke up after a disappointing debut album. Agombar has no regrets about giving it a go – and less than no regrets that it didn’t work out: “It was a useful experience, because we used to [perform] songs we had no emotional connection to, and that never felt right.
“The way I’ve turned that around now is that whenever I’m with an artist, I take my ego, anything I’m going through, out of the room. Even if me and David write [a track], even if we write the lyrics, we talk about the artist’s life, we talk about their story.”
Stewart started off drumming in a band supporting Simply Red across the UK, playing 15 arenas. He then graduated to playing guitar and touring the world with British solo act Example, before putting together a mixtape that featured, amongst others, Ed Sheeran.
He recalls: “It blows up, I get a bunch of record deal offers and a bunch of publishing offers, which I didn’t take, thank God, because they just would have been wrong and I would still be in them now.”
Instead, the buzz was loud enough to reach the ear of Ludacris’s team, leading to an unlikely development deal out of Atlanta.
Stewart says: “That was totally weird and wild, but an amazing experience. I was cutting my teeth and learning the ropes as far as how quickly those guys work – they’re doing three sessions a day sometimes. It was a real boot camp into how American music is made.
“But ultimately it didn’t work out. I was trying to be R&B, but also trying to be pop. The main thing I heard from every A&R was, ‘You’re an incredible songwriter, you can sing these records amazingly, the production sounds great, but we don’t know who you are. You’re doing too much.’
“The main thing I heard from every A&R was, ‘You’re an incredible songwriter, the production sounds great, but we don’t know who you are. You’re doing too much.'”
“I was flown out to New York, I did a showcase for Republic, for the Lipman brothers, but it didn’t go to plan. And I’m not surprised it didn’t, because I wasn’t good enough. I was nervous. It was all just flying by the seat of my pants, I’m happy to admit that.
“That all came to an end about five years ago, and I decide to make a conscious effort to make a living out of what I know I’m good at – songwriting and production.”
Stewart got some cuts quite quickly, with big artists on major labels, but it was when he crossed paths with Agombar – an old friend he’d first met on the UK radio promo circuit – that the fuse for Dynamite was lit…
How did your involvement in Dynamite come about?
DS: I already knew, before we even got into this, that BTS were looking for their first English language single; it was like the Holy Grail of cuts.
Everyone that I knew in America was fighting for it. I had conversations with a lot of my peers out there, and people who have had far more success than I have were fighting hard for it.
“BTS were looking for their first English language single; it was like the Holy Grail of cuts.”
For us it starts with Ron Perry, who’s the Chairman of Columbia Records, who had a conversation with one of my two managers [Neil Jacobson, the other is Charlie Christie]. He basically explained what they were after: something that was fun, exciting, with tempo, and kind of left it open-ended.
Prior to running his management company [Hallwood Media], Neil was the president of Geffen Records [and] a legendary A&R at Interscope for many years. We had a conversation at the start of lockdown and he said, ‘You should go back and listen to some Jamiroquai, I feel like we could really get into the weeds with that kind of stuff.’
I was just like, ‘Cool, leave it with me.’ And literally two days after we’d had that conversation, we delivered Dynamite.
So you wrote it specifically for BTS?
DS: I think it was half and half. We knew what they were looking for, so it was still in the back of our minds, but also, about a week before, we were told that they were holding another one of our songs – so we were like, ‘Oh, okay, we might already have this! But let’s just write this anyway…’
And then after a few weeks passed, our management send the song to Ron. It also got sent to Big Hit, BTS’ label. Our publishers [Stellar Songs] also sent it to Ron. It was a two-pronged attack. And then I get a FaceTime from Ron, probably at the start of July, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, they’re cutting it.’ Two weeks later, it was recorded.
How do you both complement each other as writers?
JA: We always look forward to working together. One part of what’s incredible about working with someone like David is I always know we’re going to have a productive day. We’re going to start at the same time, eat lunch at the same time… our work ethic is exactly the same.
The enjoyment that comes with working with David, I’ve never found elsewhere. We’re so similar in our work ethic, and what we want to get from music, and where we see ourselves going; we have the same tunnel vision.
“Jess is an all-rounder. There’s nothing that she can’t do, as far as her writing is concerned.”
DS: There’s honestly no set way of working for us. I might have a beat idea before Jess walks in; Jess might come in with a full page of lyrics; we might sit down and have a conversation that sparks something.
Jess is an all-rounder. There’s nothing that she can’t do, as far as her writing is concerned: she’s a phenomenal lyricist and incredible at melody.
What are your memories of the Dynamite writing sessions that changed everything?
JA: Honestly, if someone says, ‘This is what we need, can you deliver?’, we can always deliver, I know we can. But, in this industry, as we all recognize, it’s sometimes up to the Gods, it’s sometimes down to timing, it’s about a whole load of things.
“I remember having a really special feeling towards this song… I knew it sounded like a worldwide hit.”
I remember having a really special feeling towards this song, just because I knew it was instant, it was high energy, I knew it sounded American, I knew it sounded like a worldwide hit. That’s not me being arrogant, I just think you have to believe in everything that you create. And I truly believed in Dynamite.
What was your reaction when you realized what Dynamite was going to mean for you both?
DS: It was pretty insane. I felt instantly sick, because it was just so exciting. It was funny, because actually, a few days before I had just had an offer accepted on a flat, and I said to my parents, ‘Imagine if I could just get one big cut, just to cement this whole thing and make me not worry about everything moving forward’. Four days later we were put in the stratosphere.
How much of a surprise was it when it became record-breaking big? And also, what does it feel like to be in the center of the BTS hurricane like that?
JA: Well, basically, it’s that: I’m at the center of a hurricane. It’s very surreal, and I think it could be overwhelming. For me, the way I’ve dealt with it was spending time with family, and I’d speak to David about it a million times a day, because he’s the one person that understands.
“Our mentality is, ‘That’s it. It’s done. It’s amazing. It’s incredible. Now let’s get back to work.’”
Then, honestly, it’s just on to the next. We’re in the studio now [as we speak], waiting for the artist to come by and start work: let’s crack on. That’s the way you get past the heat of the moment. Our mentality is, ‘That’s it. It’s done. It’s amazing. It’s incredible. Now let’s get back to work.’
Did you get much feedback from the BTS themselves, or Big Hit? Or does that all go through label and publisher?
JA: Yeah, Big Hit were amazing to work with on the song, and really communicative. When we were going back and forth with the A&R at Big Hit, talking about lyric tweaks and changes, they were totally open-minded, they gave suggestions.
“Ron Perry at Columbia has been amazing, and messaged congratulations, and we speak to him all the time.”
Me and David were totally open to that, of course, because, culturally, we wanted to learn from them. Ron Perry at Columbia has been amazing, and messaged congratulations, and we speak to him all the time. The only thing we need to do now is meet the boys, which sadly we haven’t been able to do personally because of COVID.
How has life changed since the single broke, in terms of the calls you’re getting, the conversations you’re becoming part of, and the projects you’re being connected to?
DS: I mean, as far as what we’re doing, as Jess said, nothing is changing because we were in the studio the day after it came out, and we’re in the studio right now. We haven’t stopped working hard. I guess the difference is that the doors are open to working with an awful lot more people, we’re in that league now.
“the doors are open to working with an awful lot more people, we’re in that league now.”
JA: They say it takes 10 years to have an overnight success, and it has taken a lot of years and a lot of work to get to this incredible, life-changing moment. I think we’ve always known that we were going to do it, it was just when. And hopefully it doesn’t change our lives too much – just for the better, but not for the crazy.
Can you talk at all about what you’ve been working on since, or what you’re working on now?
JA: There’s a lot of stuff in the pipeline. There’s an artist that we’ve been working with, signed to Interscope, she’s called Claudia Valentina, and we’ve got her next single. And there’s an incredible American artist called Anthony Ramos, who is also signed to Interscope in the US. He’s an amazing actor, he’s in quite a few films, and he was the lead in Hamilton on Broadway two years.
And will you be working with BTS again?
JA: Yes, we’re working on something at the minute for them, yeah, which is even more exciting. I think it’s the start of a great relationship with the boys.
You’re both signed to Stellar Songs, and that’s one of the things that brought you together. What do you think they bring to your game?
JA: Having people like Tim and Danny in your corner is just incredible. Their legacy, their wisdom, their knowledge, the success that they’ve had, over years and years. With Tim and Danny, you’re literally one call away from anyone you’d want to talk to within the industry. Honestly, it feels more like working with family than someone in a suit that doesn’t understand music, and just puts up the money to publish it.
“With Tim and Danny, you’re literally one call away from anyone you’d want to talk to within the industry.”
DS: It means we’re speaking to real music people. So when they’re giving constructive criticism, we’re getting it in a musical way rather than having to try and read between the lines. They really know what they’re talking about.
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