Interview with PER MAGNUSSON, producer and songwriter for Leona Lewis, Il Divo, Britney Spears, Westlife - Aug 31, 2009
“These days it’s becoming more A&R directed. Sometimes they’re very specific on what they want, and you have to be strong as a producer to do your own thing, especially if it’s not what [they] thinks is the right thing.”
From under the roof of renowned 90s hit factory Cheiron, and then alongside David Krueger in A-Side Productions, songwriter and producer Per Magnusson has tirelessly mined a steady flow of chart gold. Hits for Leona Lewis (USA, UK, GER, AUS No.1), Britney Spears (USA & UK No.1), Backstreet Boys (USA & UK No.1), Il Divo (USA, UK, AUS No.1) amongst others have set the charts a glittering across the globe.
HitQuarters spoke to Stockholm-based Per about working with Denniz PoP, Simon Cowell, and pushy A&R reps, and how he favours old skool songwriting.
As someone with a classical music background, what advantages has that given you with your pop productions? Has it made it easier?
Maybe not so much with pure pop productions, but later on when I worked with the likes of Il Divo and Paul Potts, for instance, where it’s heavily orchestra based. I had to show my experience because I used to play in orchestra and know a little bit about how it works. So, it helped me in the last few years working with these artists, I would say.
Do you think formal training makes you less experimental in your approach to pop, less eager to take risks?
I think it’s maybe one of the reasons why I didn’t want to continue with classical music, because it’s only about interpreting other people’s work and playing what other people have written, and I wanted to do my own music. That’s why pop music was more interesting.
Many producers – including many at Cheiron – started out in bands. What made you decide you wanted a career behind the scenes?
I did my share of trying to play in bands - I played a few different instruments, I tried guitar, bass and keyboards - but I noticed early on that my main thing in a band was just going around to the other members and telling them what to play and, “You should do this.” So, early on I noticed that maybe I should produce instead of play in a band [laughs].
Although many pop songs are written in collaboration, you are unusual in that all your songs are written and produced together with David Kreuger. How did you two first meet?
David was a DJ, but he used to work in a second hand vinyl shop where I’d buy records and just hang out. We started talking and he said he had a little set up at his home, and I had a little bit at my home. So we said let’s get together.
There must have been a necessity of writing and producing together. You could have done it solo.
Yes, I’ve noticed that there are quite a few producer/writer teams. Although a few work alone and do that remarkably well, I think it’s the way of having someone to knock ideas around with. It’s like a partnership. It’s easier when you are two, except when it comes to royalties because you have to split them [laughs].
How does your partnership work? Is one better in certain aspects than the other?
Yes, and I think it’s still like that. As I said, David comes from a more of a DJ background, and I’m more from a musician’s background - without being a real super-duper musician. David is good at understanding styles and sounds because of his DJ background, and he’s much better when it comes to computers and all that stuff. I’m the guy that probably plays around more with the harmonic ideas and all that.
What makes a good partnership?
For us, it’s being quite different as people, but there always being a great trust between us - I think that’s the most important thing. It’s also important to share the same dreams and goals.
What were your dreams and goals in the early 90s?
The first goal was just to be able to live on your music and not to have to go through a regular 9 to 5 job. It wasn’t necessarily to be very successful with hits. Of course, that was a dream, but just to be able to live on the music was the main thing.
What’s the difference in songs you wrote back then and write nowadays?
Well with the really early stuff, we did more urban stuff - with a Swedish artist called Dede. Urban music was quite different back then in the early 90s. But then at Cheiron we quickly we found our own format, which we kept all the way through where we are now.
Technology has changed a lot in the last fifteen years, of course. From a producer’s point of view, when we started out back then it was all 24 Track analogue machines, no ProTools, no Auto-Tune or stuff like that.
As someone who was working at Cheiron almost from the start, can you give us an impression of what the atmosphere was like working there?
I think it’s inevitable when you have so many people under the same roof that there’s a certain level of competitiveness, but it was more like people helped each other with ideas. I think that’s the good thing about being under the same roof - you can pass the door to one of the studios and hear great stuff going on there and you’re like, “Hey, what’s that? Oh that sounds great! Why doesn’t my record sound like that?” And you keep getting better as a result.
What did you learn from the experience of working at Cheiron Studios, and with Denniz PoP in particular?
I learned to collaborate. The music business has a lot of that, especially these days, and so you have to be really good at collaborating with people. I learned a lot. I wasn’t really very good when I started to be honest - I was pretty young and inexperienced. Denniz Pop took David and me under his wing and showed us some of his tricks, and the rest of it developed - together with our friends at Cheiron - to where we are today.
Can you tell us any of the tricks he taught you?
Denniz and I were very different. He was definitely a DJ - he could only play three chords, and I was a more musical guy. But he told us to take out everything that’s not necessary in a song. Quite often - especially back in the 90s - you had people overproducing and adding too much stuff that didn’t really make sense to the song.
He pointed out to us, “What’s the basis of this song? What’s are the necessary elements in this song?” And it could be two or three things that really made the song. Focus on those things and try not to stuff the song with nonsense. He was very good at that.
What do you think Cheiron has added to the pop world? What is its legacy?
That’s always hard because pop music changes all the time. But from a Swedish point of view, it’s easy to see, because I compare it to tennis. We had some great tennis players through the 80s and 90s, but it all started with Björn Borg in the 70s. We had one great guy and then everyone else wanted to play tennis.
That’s what you can see today in pop - we still have a lot of great producers and writers coming out of Sweden, Bloodshy & Avant, RedOne (read the HitQuarters interview with Red here), most recently. And that probably wouldn’t have happened without Cheiron, because everybody wanted to be like us, creating songs and producing, and all of a sudden we had a bunch of successful producers coming out of Sweden. That is the legacy of Cheiron, I think.
So you think that the dominance of Swedes in mainstream pop is largely because of Cheiron?
Yeah, it must be. But of course, it has always been there, back with ABBA. I think it’s a Scandinavian way of looking at melodies.
And where does that way of looking come from?
[laughs] It’s maybe in the water or something. The weather depresses, so we have to write sadder melodies instead. I don’t know, really.
Does your own musical listening tastes influence the pop music you produce?
When people ask me how do you become successful, I usually say that you have to like what you do, and although I think that’s true, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to just do the music that you really love. For instance, if you love Pink Floyd, you don’t necessarily start out doing Pink Floyd songs, because it’s hard to be successful with it.
The music I did back in Cheiron and maybe still today, doesn’t necessarily reflect what I was listening to when I grew up. But the music I listened to, even if it was The Beatles or Floyd, is still pop music and still quite musical and has great melodies, and I think that’s the thing we had at Cheiron too.
You don’t listen to classical music then?
No, I don’t listen to classical music very often at all, to be honest.
How much forethought goes into writing a song? With Westlife, for example, did you and David write songs with them in mind, and on certain appropriate themes?
That depends. At Cheiron it was like that - we had record companies and A&Rs approaching us with, “Can you do something for Britney Spears? Can you do something for Westlife or Boyzone or whoever?”
These days it’s different because record companies seem to want something new all the time. Although a couple of years ago, we did a song we thought was perfect for Westlife, and it ended up on a Leona Lewis record [laughs]. So, sometimes it could be the other way around.
So, now you write more standard songs that are suitable for most artists?
These days it’s more like that, I think. But back at Cheiron we had all these requests coming in, and it could sometimes be easier to write especially for an artist.
A Side Productions have had a successful involvement with artists that have won TV reality shows such as Pop Idol (Gareth Gates) and the X-Factor (Shayne Ward). How did those relationships come about?
The whole TV thing came through Simon Cowell (read the HitQuarters interview with Simon here). He was the A&R for Westlife and 5ive, which we worked with back at Cheiron. And he invented this TV formula. The Idol thing came together with Simon Fuller, but Cowell always had the roster, he had the artists signed to his label.
We had been working with him in the past and so he approached us to try to write the winning song. The first one, ‘Evergreen’, was a big hit with Will Young. It had actually been on a Westlife album initially, and we changed it a little bit.
Is ‘Evergreen’ your biggest hit to date?
Yes. I think it sold like 2 or 3 million copies in England alone, which is amazing. Worldwide, I think Britney Spears’ ‘(You Drive Me) Crazy’ is the biggest.
As somebody that has benefited from the association, do you think that pop reality shows are promoting the art of songwriting?
Not really, to be honest. It seems to promote only one type of song. Still many artists are breaking through from out of the formula. You had Leona Lewis, and even in America with Jordin Sparks coming out of their Idols. So they give you a lot of artists to write for.
What advice would you have for songwriters/producers wanting to break into the industry?
It’s necessary to go with your own thing. There’s just too many people out there trying to copy the flavour of the month. It used to be Cheiron, and then everybody wanted to sound like, I don’t know, Rodney Jerkins. Now everybody wants to sound like Ryan Tedder. It might give you a cut or something in the short term, but it’s important that you find your own style of producing and writing.
How can they stay original and think outside the box?
By not listening so much to which beat everyone else is using or what type of choruses everyone uses, and not listening too much to what everyone says. I know that’s hard, because A&Rs sometimes direct you in a particular way, “Oh, can it sound like this song?” Try to follow your own ideas a little bit more.
Do you have an identifiable style?
I like to think so, but it’s a very tough question. Most of my stuff is ballads or mid-tempos, I would say. I’m not a really up-tempo guy, as so many writers are today. I like to think that I’m original, but I’m not really sure how.
How do you normally approach a production? Do you know what you want from a recording before the artist even enters the studio, or does it often change as you go along?
I think it was easier back in the 90s when producers were allowed a little more freedom. These days it’s becoming more A&R directed. Sometimes they’re very specific on what they want, and you then have to be strong as a producer to do your own thing, especially if it’s not what the A&R necessarily thinks is the right thing.
Do you clash with A&R often?
[laughs] No, I wouldn’t say that. We’ve been lucky in that field. If you’ve been a successful producer, there must be something in there that you’re good at, and it’s important you remember that. It’s easy to lose track sometimes if you have too many discussions. You have to go with what you think is right.
You’ve also worked with Il Divo, a hugely successful vocal group created by Simon Cowell. Like with Katherine Jenkins (crossover classical), is it any harder working with a crossover act like pop and classical or opera?
I think it’s easier, to be honest. First of all, they’re all very good at singing in their own style. Sometimes pop artists are not – they are not all the very best of singers. All the crossover artists are really good vocalists.
And then from a production point of view, it’s easier since it heavily relies on orchestras. So as long as you have a great arranger, a great engineer, and record the orchestra in the best way possible. You don’t have to spend months on trying to get a great beat or the right sound - it’s more timeless.
How did you first meet Simon Cowell?
The first time when he was at Cheiron when he had this group called 5ive. I think it was the late 90s. And so he brought the group to Cheiron and then soon after that Westlife came about - about ten years ago. We started writing for him and we’ve been doing so ever since.
And how does your relationship work?
It’s changed because these days since he’s so involved in television. Back then he was just an A&R - like any A&R at a record company. It was easy to reach him. Now he’s a big executive, and so it’s harder to reach him personally. You have to talk to an assistant rather than him personally.
Did your relationship lead to your involvement with ‘Footprints In The Sand’ for Leona Lewis?
Yes. There’ve been several old poems called ‘Footprints In The Sand’ dealing with this message, this spiritual message. And he said, “Couldn’t you guys try to write a song dealing with this subject?”
It was in L.A. and we had a writing session scheduled the next day with Richard Page, who used to be the lead singer in the group Mr. Mister. He is one of our writing partners and a good friend and a great singer. So, we went to his place in Malibu and started to mess around with that idea and finished the song the day after. And that’s the song that we thought was great for Westlife but then turned into a Leona thing.
Can you guide us through a typical writing session?
I’m quite old skool. These days most people write a track and then the top writer comes in and writes on top of that track. I don’t really believe in that. Call us old skool, but we like to sit in a room with a blank piece of paper and throw ideas around. It could be me, David, and Jörgen Elofsson, or me, David, and Richard Page …
You usually start from scratch. One of us could have an idea, “Let’s do a song like this and let’s base it on this chord pattern or this bass line.”
We do work with top writers too. Sometimes they can be a little bit confused, because they’re so used to coming in like, “Where is the track?” And then they write for a couple of hours, and then move on to the next session. I don’t believe in that - if you write to a track then you’re limited to what’s on there.
‘Footprints’ came together really fast, is that right?
Yeah it did. And most of the songs do pop up in an hour or two.
So if something doesn’t go right, you leave it behind for a while and then come back at it later?
Yeah, sometimes it happens that you have an idea lying around for years and all of a sudden it can come together. But I think most of the time when you get stuck on something, someone else tries to tell you that this might not be the best of your ideas - maybe you should try something else. Most good songs do come up pretty quickly.
And what do you do if they don’t?
Start a new one!
Are you proud of your past pop song successes?
I’m afraid I’m a little bit like Woody Allen, the movie director, because he never watches his movies - he doesn’t think they’re very good [laughs]. I’m a little bit like that. I’m not the one to say whether the songs are good or not. I always feel like, “Oh, I could have done that better, and that could have been better mixed …”
Of course, if you’ve been really successful then a lot of people must have liked you, so that makes you proud that you reached out to a lot of people.
What are you and David Kreuger working on at the moment?
We’ve been working with a British girl group called The Saturdays that are coming out on Universal this fall.
What are your plans and ambitions for the future?
I hope to be able to continue writing and producing. It looks like it’s going more towards writing than producing these days. And I think that goes hand in hand with the music business itself, because it’s getting harder for producers to make their living these days. We’re back to 1961 when people bought singles and EPs, and not albums. Before The Beatles started coming up with Sergeant Pepper and all that.
With the downloading and singles and the radio play, it’s still a huge business going on with those songs, but just producing an album, or three songs for an album, that you didn’t write yourself, is getting pointless from an economical point of view. That’s why the writing is getting more important because that’s where the business and the money are these days.
In future, I’d like to sign an artist - maybe an artist that hasn’t released anything, so that we can break him or her. Maybe doing the whole album and maybe even signing them to your own label or something like that. All that stuff we haven’t really been doing yet. It could be the time for that now, actually.
For other chapters in our series focusing on Sweden’s phenomenal influence on modern pop, check out our interviews with Rami Yacoub, Andreas Carlsson, and RedOne.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Hot young hopeful Shara reveals her Artist Diary.
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