interview

Songwriter Savan Kotecha on the Making of Ariana Grande’s Sweetener

Photo: Republic

In his impressive career as a pop songwriter and producer, Savan Kotecha has helped craft some of the biggest radio hits of the last decade. The bulk of One Direction’s discography, including their career-making debut “What Makes You Beautiful?” was written by Kotecha. The Weeknd’s groovy 2015 signature “Can’t Feel My Face?” Kotecha helped write that one too. Usher’s “DJ Got Us Falling in Love,” Maroon 5’s “One More Night” and Demi Lovato’s “Cool for the Summer?” He was part of those too. But Kotecha has perhaps worked most closely with Ariana Grande, helping concoct a string of her hits: “Problem,” “Love Me Harder,” “One Last Time,” “Into You” and “Break Free,” just to name a few. So it stands to reason that Grande would call on Kotecha to help concoct the songs for what would become her fourth album, Sweetener. Alongside the legendary pop mastermind Max Martin and producer Ilya, the team crafted four of the album’s standout tracks, including recent singles “No Tears Left to Cry” and the anthem “God Is a Woman.” Here, Kotecha breaks down the stories behind the songs: including studio therapy sessions, fruitful 11th-hour additions, and how working with Grande creatively reinvigorated him.

You recently posted on Instagram about how, just a year ago, you were in a total funk and felt like just moving on from songwriting. Why you were feeling that way?
There’s some internal business stuff that got me uninspired, as it can do to creative people. I was just being really hard on myself, looking at my life and how much time I spend away from my kids, not just physically but mentally. I was searching and searching and felt like things weren’t working. I wasn’t meeting that many artists I was inspired by. I can’t do the hip-hop thing, so if that’s where it is now, it isn’t for me. Streaming is also a tricky thing because songwriters don’t get paid a lot for those royalties. I have some of the biggest songs on Spotify and when I see the streaming income on the checks, it’s barely minimum wage, and I spend so much time on every song. I was feeling that maybe my process and my way of doing things — where I do so few songs a year and spend so much time on them — wasn’t working anymore. It’s an insecurity thing. For the first time I can remember since I was 15, I woke up not feeling like going to the studio. I thought, Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s a young guy’s game.

Is that when you heard from Ariana?
I think she’d agree we have a great bond, so we’re in touch all the time. She’s been an important part of the last five years, and I think vice versa, and we had spoken earlier about how she wanted to go in a different direction and try working with other people which I was totally fine with. I was like, “Yeah, you should. You should branch out as an artist, do what you feel is right, challenge your audience and expand sonically.” That was around the time when I was not feeling good anyway. But randomly she texted me and said, “Hey, I really wanna go back in.” So she came to the studio with me and Max [Martin] for a little bit. That day, me and her sat and just listened to music, and it was something about that day and her energy and excitement lit the spark again. I used to have ideas popping up all the time, like the idea for “Problem” came from an airplane bathroom. That stuff wasn’t happening for a big chunk of last year, but after that meeting she lit the fuse again.

What did you listen to during that meeting? I’m assuming it provided some sort of musical bedrock for what Sweetener would become.
We listened to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I think Max brought up Brandy’s “I Want to Be Down.” We just listened to great songs that I loved growing up, and I know Ariana does too. We talked and she had amazing ideas which were inspiring and we just got going. I woke up the next morning wanting to create again.

It’s interesting because you usually you hear how a producer or writer inspires an artist, but this time was the opposite.
For me, absolutely. Also what she went through after Manchester; just as a friend the toll that took and how strong a person has to be to come back from that was inspiring.

Sweetener’s first single was “No Tears Left to Cry,” which sounds kind of like a throwback, but also very of the moment. Was that the goal? Did you have artists in mind that you were inspired by? You mentioned Lauryn Hill …
Well, we started talking when we were listening to Lauryn Hill about chord changes and why we stick to four chords all the time. She wanted to go back to when the verses and the chorus had different chord changes. I was also listening to a lot of En Vogue [like “Don’t Let Go”] and the changes in a few others. She was also very insistent on starting a song as a ballad and then just becoming an up-tempo [track]. I think it was Max who started singing that melody of the chorus, which was fantastic and magical, so we just took it from there. Ari made it clear that she didn’t want to dwell on what happened [in Manchester]. She wanted to touch on it, but at the same time wanted this album to be positive, about light and sharing love. It was really important to her that whatever the first thing she did coming back had to be hopeful. At one point she said something like, “I don’t have any tears anymore, I don’t have any tears left to cry.” We were like, that’s it! That’s it. That’s the line. And we went from there.

So that fake-out where the first ten seconds or so sounds like a ballad, and then it launches into something up-tempo — was the initial idea to build on that?
Yeah, that was all Ariana’s vision. It was important to her to start as a ballad and Max and Ilya started playing those chords and it just fit; it was magical. It all came together and had this flow. One thing that was super challenging was the pre-chorus, we spent a lot of time on it. We tend to spend a lot of time on pre-choruses if I’m involved in the song. “Side to Side” took two weeks, for example. Then Ilya made the groove super tight and knocking in the right way.

Tell me about the lyrical architecture here. It sound very simple, but that’s also deceiving because I’m sure this was plotted out painstakingly. Ariana sings, “I’m pickin’ it up, I’m pickin’ it up, I’m lovin’, I’m livin’, I’m pickin’ it up.” How long does a line like that take to put together?
I think it’s just instinctual flow. It’s already quite a complicated song, chord-wise, and the audience right now is so used to hearing a loop of a beat or a loop of chords. Keep in mind that when we were writing, [Post Malone’s] “Rockstar” was the biggest song on the radio, and that’s just one melody repeating itself over and over. Compared to that, this song is very complicated. You want things to be digestible, but when it gets too complicated with the chord changes and the melodic shifts, the lyrics need to be easier to grasp.

Ariana recently told Jimmy Fallon that “Breathin” came to fruition when she was having an anxiety attack. How does an episode like that become a pop song?
I think we started that day with her saying she wanted to do a song that had a specific vibe. Ilya started coming up with an instrumental hook and she went in and started singing melodies. Even before she started feeling that way I started singing “breathing and breathing” as a hook. I collect titles and I was using “breathing” [as a placeholder]; sometimes we’ll use bullshit words just for the sake of filler for the moment. It sounded so magical when she sang it, but she had to take pauses because she was having a tough day. We were concerned, and she was talking it out. We’re all friends and the studio is a therapy session for us all; whether I’m going through something or Ilya’s going through something or she’s going through something. It was quite impressive because sometimes artists don’t wanna say what’s really there and she was willing to put it in the lyrics. The melodies make it a pop song, but it’s the lyrics that make it an artist’s song.

It’s fascinating to watch pop’s lyrical evolution. It wasn’t that long ago that pop songs were focused on having fun and talking about how life is carefree, but now we’re in a phase where pop stars are more relatable. The Chainsmokers had lyrics about drinking too much on “Closer,” and Shawn Mendes is singing out laying on his bathroom floor, “feeling overwhelmed and insecure,” on “In My Blood.” Is this evolution something you think about?
It’s all cyclical, right? We’re in a cycle now that culturally people want authenticity. Artists collectively want to be as authentic as possible in their music. Someone like myself and the teams I frequently collaborate with, our jobs is to help artists do that in a way that it connects to the masses. You don’t want to lose that authenticity and heart, but help shape it into something that connects. Maybe it also has to do with social media as well? Though at the same time, this is also Ariana’s fourth album [its concepts] had to do with her being determined to have more depth in her music. She’s done the [lighter] pop thing, and was determined to express herself in ways she hasn’t before. It’s a healing process for her, but to also help others. She came out of Manchester determined to make the world better.

Speaking of that, what makes for the perfect pop song? Is there a recipe?
I don’t think there’s a recipe, because it changes with culture and where music is. I always like to think of melody first, along with the right lyric or punchline. Back in the Backstreet Boys days, those songs had amazing melodies and the punchline was catchy but the lyrics made no sense. If you can get that lyric that connects that’s catchy with a melody that’s different enough and simple, that’s where your magic is, [but] it’s hard to do. Just as the best athletes in the world make it look easy, the best songwriters in the world make it seem simple too. You say, “I can write that!” And when you try and it’s pretty difficult.

Those elements kind of come together in “Everytime,” which is lyrically simple, but also an earworm. 
We already had some of the melody and we were in the middle of trying to figure out if it was anything when Ariana texted to see what we were doing and came by. She heard the skeleton of the idea and said, “I love that, that’s mine, let’s finish it!” She recorded it and it was magic. She puts her voice on something and it comes alive in a way nobody can expect. All of it was based on her direction.

How about “God Is a Woman”? Did that begin with a concept, lyrics, or the instrumental?
That was the one that was unique compared to the other Sweetener tracks. I love to write from concepts and titles, and before I got in my funk I had this chorus idea. I was alone in a room and started singing into my phone … [Hums the melody to “God Is a Woman”] Rickard [Göransson] walked into the room and heard me singing this melody and he grabbed a guitar and started to figure out chords to what I was singing, which I finish with the phrase “You’ll find out God is a woman.” It was before Ariana came calling, so we didn’t know what to do with it. We played it for another artist or two and it didn’t work out. Then maybe [we were thinking] we’d get a rapper on the verses? Our big dream is always Drake. [Laughs] We had to have someone who could write the lyric for the chorus, because all I had was “You’ll believe God is a woman.” I couldn’t write the full lyrics, it had to be a girl to write it to pull the whole concept off.

Working with Ari was the most obvious thing I could ever think of, but I never thought of it. So two days before her label listening meeting when they were supposed to hear the Sweetener songs, she came to just hang in the studio. Ilya goes, “Why don’t we play Ariana ‘God Is a Woman?’” and she goes, “What? What did you just say? You play that for me right now.” She heard the hook and was like, “You guys are stupid, why would you not play that for me all this time?!” I was like, of course, there’s nobody else who could pull this off. She’s a feminist, her mom’s a feminist, and her aunt is this trailblazing feminist. Sure enough, she came back the next day with lyrics; her nonna was there, her mom was there and she recorded it. It was the last thing we did before her label meeting. She took it and owned it and was like, “This is what I wanna say and this is what I’m about.”