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Eurovision Songwriter Savan Kotecha on His Oscar Nom, Will Ferrell’s Voice, and Visiting Húsavík

Photo: Dave Pedley/Getty Images

The dreams of thousands of Icelanders came true today as “Husavik,” the power-ballad finale of Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, was nominated for an Academy Award. It’s just the latest heartwarming development in an Oscar campaign that the actual small town of Húsavík is helping to spearhead with its own DIY efforts, and it’s also a dream come true for co-songwriter Savan Kotecha, who saw the news while working on another musical-film project in his adopted home of Sweden. You might not immediately know Kotecha’s name, but you definitely know his work. The song “Love Me Like You Do,” which he co-wrote for the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, was previously nominated for both a Grammy and a Golden Globe. He has also worked with nearly every major pop act, including One Direction and the Weeknd (co-writing his No. 1 single “Can’t Feel My Face”), and has had a long working relationship with Ariana Grande. Vulture spoke to Kotecha over the phone just hours after he had finished screaming about the “Husavik” Oscar nod and picking up his kids from school.

Thank you so much.

How are you feeling today?
I’m, uh, I’m a little speechless. To be honest with you, it’s kind of wild. I can’t really believe it, actually.

Well, you were up for a Grammy last night. Were you up late for that?Yeah, luckily it wasn’t too late my time. But when that didn’t happen, it was like, Oh, okay. We’ll just see today with this. You can never take these things for granted, you know? But I’m still honored. It’s just such a shock. I mean, for me, the Oscar is like the holy grail of awards shows. Growing up, even when I started writing songs, you never would think an Oscar was even in the cards at all. I’m just so elated. I’m just so glad that people connected with the song in the movie, and I’m so grateful.

Where were you when you heard that you’d been nominated?
I was in the studio, actually, starting to write for another film. That seems to be what I’m doing more of now than the pop-star thing. I find it so fun to do that. I’m working on songs for another musical, and I was like, I think they’re announcing the nominations, and then I turned [it] on and like two minutes later, they said the song nomination. It was on mute, and I saw, and I just started screaming, and one of my co-writers is down the hall. So I just ran and started banging on the door. I didn’t have the key to open the door — I was like banging on the door on like the other side of the building, screaming bloody murder, and everyone thought I was going crazy. It was like, “Where’s the fire!?” But they were saying it in Swedish. And then he came out, and he was like, “What? What?” And I was like, “You got an Oscar nomination! Call your family!”

Oh my gosh. Was that with [co-songwriters] Fat Max Gsus or Rickard Göransson?
Fat Max. Rickard’s in L.A. So we’re all scattered. One American and two Swedes, and the American’s in Sweden, but yeah — it was wild. And then I had to just go pick up my kids from school. It’s one of the coolest ways to pick up kids from school. A 5-year-old and a 7-year-old. So it’s probably not the same, though, in L.A. If you get, like, an Oscar nomination, and now you’re in L.A. and go pick up your kid from an L.A. school, it’s like a big deal then. Here, it’s like — Sweden, nobody cares. My kid was like, “I got on student council today.” And that was like the big win. He didn’t really care about the Oscars.

You’ve been nominated for a Grammy and a Golden Globe. Did this feel different?
Yeah, this is — I mean, I remember the Golden Globe. I’m a movie buff, so when I first started writing songs, I would always only write songs from like a character’s point of view, because I’m from a very traditional Indian family. So I could never, like, have girls call my house or anything like that. It was not allowed, but, you know, I would always just watch Dawson’s Creek, and I’d write songs from like Dawson’s perspective or from Joey’s perspective. That’s how I started writing songs. I would do the same with film. I would, I mean — I don’t know how many of my songs were inspired by the Winona Ryder Little Women film and things like that. Always, like, especially sappy movies. And it was, like, how I used to write songs. And then I got lucky and started writing for all these big pop stars and from their experiences. It was really fun to, you know, do the movie thing — to me, [it] is so special and that’s my heart, you know? It just feels, like I said, like the holy grail of awards, and to be a part of, you know, the movie industry in sort of this way is just incredible. It’s a dream.

When you were working on the soundtrack, did you think “Husavik” would be the song, or are there other songs that you thought might hit more?
I think when it was done and I saw the first screening, I knew, we knew — we thought it was really special. A lot of the answers for writing the song were in the script and the journey of Sigrit, Rachel McAdams’s character, putting in such a relatable journey. I had that in my own — we moved to Sweden almost for the same reason. My wife is Swedish. And it was, you know, “I don’t care about this fancy L.A. life with all these stars. I just want you and our family.” You know, I wanna come back to my hometown — you know, that kind of stuff. It really just felt like it’s such a relatable topic. So the answers for all this were in the script, and I think when it got together and I saw the scene, especially where Rachel was playing on the piano in the hotel — when [director] David Dobkin showed me that scene, I just got goose bumps.

And I realized that, Wow, this is something special. And, of course, when the movie came out, so many people started texting. The reaction to this film for me — like as someone who has been lucky enough to be a part of a lot of big hit songs — I never got so many texts and emails. Even when it was “Can’t Feel My Face” or something like that, or those kind of big hits. I got so many texts and emails about this movie and this song that it felt like, Oh, wow, this is something, because you really never know until it’s out in the world, and, you know, you do your best and you hope you connect, but then when it’s out in the world, that’s when you can feel it, you know? And I started feeling. I was like, Oh, this is something special.

You’re great at writing these big, like, bombastic tracks that are also so heartfelt. How do you make that work and resonate with people? How do you balance that emotional resonance with this big sound?
I think it’s always melody first. I’m also around some of the most talented collaborators on the planet. So it’s not like I can take all the credit, but, you know, we always go melody first, and melody is its own language, and you can give off so much emotion through melody. So we always make sure that that’s the priority. You should be able to feel something, you know, regardless if the lyric was, like, just “Blah, blah, blah” and didn’t make any sense, or not like it should. You should feel something by the melody, if you get the melody to that place. And then you, on top of that, you get the lyrics right. It’s just like lightning in a bottle, and you just roll up your sleeves. I mean, at least that’s my process, is roll up our sleeves until we get to that place.

Job well done, because I’ve cried over this song many times, and part of it’s in Icelandic. Could you talk a little bit about Will Ferrell’s voice — I know you’ve talked about it with us before — about how you didn’t want it to overpower the song or bring anything goofy to it? Did you give him certain notes, or was there something that you did to make sure that that didn’t happen?
We just figured that it was best that he sort of was in the background. Like, you know, he’s sort of catching on to the song, you know, so he starts participating just by echoing what she’s doing. And he does it softly. Because his character doesn’t want to overshadow — he’s been overshadowing her for their whole relationship. And this was her moment, you know, and he was there just for support. So I think his part in the song had to represent that. So it was very light, like just sort of a backing vocal and just dropping something here when it was needed. And that’s part of his character, where his character lands. And his understanding is, I can’t just go and take over, you know, I’ve got to give her a moment to shine.

You said you’re working on another musical film now. Can you share with us what it is?
I can’t, unfortunately. I wish I could. I think I’d be in a lot of trouble.

Have you ever thought of writing a theatrical musical? Like, musical theater type of stuff?
I have. I have to come up with the idea. I’ve actually been developing films and TV stuff, and I’ve sold a few things that are in development — some of them are music, and some of them aren’t. But it’s definitely been something I’ve been talking to a lot of certain industry friends about, just finding that right story. But eventually that’s one of the goals for me, absolutely.

Oh, that’s so exciting. I’m going to look forward to that. Also, did you see the DIY Oscar campaign that the town Húsavík put together?
Oh my gosh. Yes. It was sent to me by — I think it was David Dobkin. I actually got in touch with the guy the other day. Because he reached out to me on Instagram, the guy that put it together, and I was sending messages, just like thanking him. I mean, it’s incredible. And then he sent me the sweetest message, just saying like how much this song has meant to the town. It’s a small town. And he was like, “This song has meant everything. And, you know, I’m crying as I write this. It’s meant the world to this town, and you’ve made us so proud.” And I can’t wait until COVID’s done so we can go visit. I told my wife and kids that’s like the first thing we have to do. We have to go to Húsavík.

Seriously. I was going to ask if you’d ever been or had plans to go to Iceland in general, but especially Húsavík.
Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I think they created a Jaja Ding Dong bar. So there’s actually a bar based off of the song. I mean, when you’re doing the movie, you don’t really think, Oh yeah, there’s this town where people — this movie’s gonna mean so much to them. But yeah, it’s been so heartwarming. I mean, gosh, this movie, to be a part of this movie that Andrew Steele and Will Ferrell came up with, especially at the time when the world was going through COVID, you realize, you know, what feels so special about this project is it brought so much joy to people at the time, and a laugh to people at the time when we needed it the most. It’s been a really special thing to be a part of. And now there’s an Oscar nomination, so that’s kind of life-changing.

Are you going to Zoom in for the Oscars? I assume people aren’t traveling, right?
Yeah. I think I’m going to have to. I’m waiting to see what the whole thing’s going to be, but I assume, to be on the safe side. We’ll see, it’s gonna be the middle of the night here. I would have loved to go and take my wife. It would have been amazing, but let’s see what happens.

You guys can get all dolled up and be comfy at home. That’s kind of nice, right?
Yeah. That’s true. I just hope that I can find a place to stream it in Sweden, like a VPN sort of thing. But yeah, I’ll definitely make sure. Like the kids are gonna want to stay up — they’re just excited about “Can we miss school that day?” Yeah, maybe the day after. I mean, it’s a good excuse. I think the Oscars are a good excuse to maybe miss one day.

Eurovision Songwriter Savan Kotecha on His Oscar Nomination