Interview with NICOLE MORIER, songwriter for Britney Spears, Wynter Gordon, Pixie Lott, Sky Ferreira - Aug 23, 2010
“[Songwriting] was something I wanted to do but I had no idea how to go about it, and Greg [Kurstin] was the first person to be like, ‘Talk to my publisher. Get a publishing deal. That’s where you start.’”
As a far as songwriting debuts go, having pop deity Britney Spears serenade her fanatical fan base with your lyrics and melodies is difficult to top. When ‘Heaven on Earth’ was cut by Britney for 2007’s ‘Blackout’ album it marked Nicole Morier’s dramatic initiation into the world of pop songwriting. Although no industry unknown when she pulled off the incredible coup, having been a member of acclaimed Berlin-born electro-rock duo Electrocute, her indie background was a world away from Britney’s, and a pop songwriting career proved a brave new world for the Albuquerque-raised artist. Two equally excellent cuts for the subsequent ‘Circus’ album followed in ‘Mmm Papi’ and ‘Rock Me In’, and Morier is now writing for Spears’ eagerly awaited new opus.
With her new career now in full flow with diary dates dotted with names like Wynter Gordon, Pixie Lott, Sky Ferreira, Morier talks to HitQuarters about how she made the jump into professional songwriting, the anxiety of waiting for a song to make the cut and the salacious research involved in writing ‘Dirty Talk’.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Umm … no [laughs]. I remember writing it and being really proud of it, but I didn’t record it and I don’t remember how it goes.
When was that?
That song was probably when I was 18.
Your dad, the songwriter Johnny Morier, was obviously a significant musical presence as you were growing up, but how has he influenced your songwriting do you think?
He introduced me to a wide variety of music - he loved opera, country music like Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, and he would listen to current stuff like rock. Mostly what I remember is that he was a sucker for a great song, a great ballad - something that would pull your heartstring.
For a while I just tried to avoid that. When I was younger I thought, “I’m going to write really fun stuff.” But now I think the emotion he put into his music, and even his listening to it, has found its effect on me.
When you started performing music, were you someone who wanted to write songs or someone that wanted to create music?
I started performing music at 5 years old. I did violin all through elementary school, then I switched and played clarinet at middle school, and at high school I’d sing. I started playing guitar at 16 and started finding my own way outside of classical training.
So at first it was more just as a musician. It wasn’t until much later that I realised I could have a more creative role in it. I started learning how to make beats and we were using Logic before I ever started to write a song. And then it all came together, and it was basically just by default - all of a sudden I thought if I wanted to do anything with music then I had to be a songwriter.
Why did you choose to move to Berlin - was the decision motivated by music?
… Music and love.
The city is renowned for its thriving artistic culture. As a songwriter did you find it a creatively inspiring place to work?
It was amazing. Far more than I had ever experienced. I’d lived in cities like New York and New Orleans in America, which are great musical cities, but Berlin ... the timing from when I was there - 2001 to 2006 or something - was just incredible, so many amazing performers, and a lot of women - Cobra Killer, Peaches, Feist, all these great people were around. Coming from this little town in New Mexico and then discovering the underworld in Berlin culture changed my life, for sure.
You’ve said that Greg Kurstin first gave you the idea that you could do pop songwriting. What do you think he saw and heard in your writing that made him think that it would be a good career for you?
At the time he was still doing some session work and when I came to make this album with my band Electrocute, and Mickey Petralia, the producer, suggested we bring Greg in to play some synths and stuff. We hit it off and when I came back a month later to do the song for the ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ movie (‘Bikini Bottom’) I was like, “We have to get Greg back in here.”
We were chatting and I asked him what he was up to and he said, “I’m starting to write pop songs now and I’m pitching them to people.” And I just jokingly said, “Wow! I want to do that!” And he was like, “You should talk to my publisher because he’s a big fan of your band.”
So it was like, maybe we could actually get into this and make some real money doing music. We both have a secret love for pop music too - I love stuff like Kylie Minogue and Britney Spears. So it was something I wanted to do but I had no idea how to go about it, and Greg was the first person to be like, “Talk to my publisher. Get a publishing deal. That’s where you start.”
So, getting a publishing deal was the next step towards a songwriting career?
That was the next step. He’d implanted the seed in my head, and it didn’t leave me from then on.
It was weird because it took me a while to realise that that was actually what I grew up around. I then just started realising that I could write songs and I could write a lot of songs, and that if someone like a publisher could help me get those songs to the right people, then it could be a really great career for me.
Why did you choose Los Angeles to pursue your songwriting career?
Well, I came here to make the album with Electrocute, and I just met so many amazing impeccable musicians - it’s the best musicians in the world here, and not the best in terms of technique but in terms of style too.
But there was other factors; my family was here, my mum, and I was homesick for America - I love Berlin but it’s hard because culturally it’s so different between Germans and Americans.
Did choosing to focus on a career as a songwriter affect your management and publishing situation?
Yes. It was a transitional period - all of a sudden publishing became the bigger role. I was actually without a manager for the first couple of years doing songwriting because I needed one less since I wasn’t always doing the band. I was relying a lot on my publisher, who really helped me.
Now I’m doing my own recordings again I have a lot on my plate. So, now I have a manager and a publisher, and they both help me a lot, so I can keep track of everything and do as much as I want to do, because I want to do everything [laughs] ...
Going back to why you chose to pursue songwriting professionally, didn’t writing a song for the SpongeBob soundtrack already make you think that you had a talent for writing to a particular brief?
That was also the beginning of it, because I was asked to write a specific song and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. They said, “Write a song about this.” And then I did and they loved it, and I thought, “This is the biggest paycheck I’ve ever made for a song!”
Who asked you to write for that project?
I had a phone conversation with the producer of the soundtrack and the creator of SpongeBob [Steve Hillenburg]. I made this little demo at my house and wrote the song in a couple of days and came up with the beat and everything. Then I thought, “Wow! I could do this.” My initial thought was to write songs for movies or cartoons and stuff.
Electrocute have also been featured in Grey’s Anatomy, The Beat That My Heart Skipped and also video game soundtracks. Who is taking care of these placements and licensing deals for you and do you have much involvement in where your songs are featured?
My publisher Kobalt, are the ones that play it for people. I think they love Electrocute because it’s very sync-able in that it’s a little weird and fun and works well for soundtracks, especially video games and cartoons and stuff.
Who is responsible for finding you new songwriting projects?
I’ve only recently started working with Redbird in the last few months, and I’ve already had so much going on that a lot of stuff I’ve just been throwing their way and saying, “Help me! Organise it!” [laughs] So, they haven’t had a moment to breathe and think of what they could do.
They’ve brought some stuff my way, but Kobalt had a lot to do with introducing me to other producers to write songs with and to A&R people to play the songs to, and also putting me in with artists.
Having a song recorded by Britney Spears as your first songwriting cut is quite a coup. How did that come about?
[laughs] I don’t know. I guess I finally got a little lucky. It was crazy.
I signed with Kobalt and they started putting me in with some producers, and they put me in with Freescha, who are also unknowns on the indie side of music, and ‘Heaven on Earth’ was the first song that we wrote together.
I had been writing songs with Greg and some other people, and hadn’t really found my niche yet. But when I wrote ‘Heaven on Earth’ it was immediate - we all knew it was a really good song. And it was one of the first songs that I wrote that was very real for me - it is a very honest song.
When I played it for my publisher, he said, “This song is definitely a cut.” And we ended up in a meeting with Teresa LaBarbera-Whites (HQ interview) and played it for her and she loved it. And Britney was coming in later that day and she played it for her and she loved it. So, it’s just one of those magical things where you write a good song and you get the opportunity for someone to hear it.
You’ve said that ‘Heaven on Earth’ was written from a dark place. Are you able to reveal where this dark place was?
I was thinking of someone and thinking they were so perfect and that I have all these imperfections. Even though it’s melancholic in the melody, it’s a sweet song and I think what’s touching about it is that it’s from the perspective of someone who feels like they really need this person just to feel safe and feel good. I’m proud of the song because I feel it connects in a real way because it was actually something I was feeling.
Your first ‘unmasked and honest’ was one sung by another artist. Do you find it more liberating writing a song that you don’t have to sing yourself?
I don’t know if it’s exactly liberating, it’s just really exciting. I love to hear how other people interpret my songs.
Also I have a very particular voice. So I like how my voice sounds on a lot of my recordings, but it’s not always right for every song I would write. So it’s magical when you hear someone - especially someone iconic like Britney or Tom Jones - singing your song, because they put so much of themselves into it that it becomes their song too.
You said ‘Heaven on Earth’ transformed your life. Can you explain what the immediate impact of it was in terms of your career? What offers did it lead to?
It gave me a certain credibility in terms of meeting new people, playing songs to more A&R people. For instance, with the Tom Jones thing that was, “We’re looking for young writers in L.A.” And my publishers were like, “There’s this girl Nicole, she’ll be perfect for you. She loves your music and this is what she has accomplished so far career wise.”
So many songwriters would try to write for [Britney], and so it put me in a new status. But on the other side, I expected things to be much crazier after that, like, “Here I go!” And it wasn’t as much as I thought it would be. It was still a good year or two more hard work until stuff got really really busy. There was a little wave, but it wasn’t as much as after the second album that I did (‘Circus’). Then stuff really started.
Your electro pop background seems somewhat at odds with that of Tom Jones - how did you come to work on his album?
Yes, in a way, but if you listen to Electrocute there’s a lot of Sixties rock ‘n’ roll influence, and I think if you look at Tom Jones’ history, he’s been known to work with young, more out-of-the-box writers. He has never played it safe. He has covered Prince, he was working with Future Cut, who did Lily Allen’s ‘Smile’. I think they were looking for people that were out-of-the-box, and just trying some stuff to see what happened.
I also think it probably came from the fact that my publishers are really aware of my broad taste in music, and that I’m not just an electro pop fan but have a really wide array of music in my collection from sixties soul music to eighties German new wave. So, I don’t really consider myself a strictly electro pop songwriter.
How were you approached to work on Britney’s upcoming album?
Same as always. I haven’t been getting in the studio yet. For now I’m writing with other top songwriters in L.A., and also in London. I’ve been working with some cool producers trying to find new sounds and write great songs, and then I’ll just play them for her and Teresa, and hopefully get one that they like.
Can you guide us through the writing session for ‘Rock Me In’?
Britney and I had been writing together, and I would bring in some tracks and we’d step through them and write. I asked Greg [Kurstin] if he’d give me some tracks and that was one of them, and Britney and I wrote in some verses and a pre-chorus, and then I think the music he given us wasn’t really working for the chorus, so, I went back in with him and we reworked the chorus.
During Britney Spears’ sessions there were a couple of songs that you started and that were great ideas but just incomplete. What was incomplete?
Well, I just think you have to write a bunch of songs and some of them come together naturally, and sometimes you think, “This verse could be better” or “This chorus could be better.” And you can go either back and just keep working on it or you can start a new song, and at one point you just run out of time, or of the energy to revisit the song.
You’ve said that with an established artist the writing challenge is to come up with a new perspective for them without changing who they are. With something like ‘Mmm Papi’ or ‘Rock Me In’, how are you trying something new while keeping it recognisably Britney?
Well, I think it’s easy to keep it recognisably Britney because she is her, and she’s very real and true - she doesn’t really play with her persona, it’s always her. The cool thing about her is her tastes are very open. ‘Mmm Papi’ has got this sixties go-go feel to it, with handclaps and stuff, and so it doesn’t sound like a track that she would normally do, but she heard it and loved it immediately.
Your job as a songwriter is to write something that you think can suit her but also to take a little bit of a risk on the production, and maybe even the lyrics. She’s able and willing to take those risks and that’s the other exciting thing about with working with her. Songs like ‘Piece Of Me’ are so different than what you normally hear on mainstream radio. She’s established enough that she can do whatever she wants.
If a song moves too far from being ‘Britney’, will Teresa step in and say, “That’s not appropriate, change this bit ...” ?
To a certain extent the A&R and management will have their say, but they don’t get too specific, they just tell you, “That’s not working.” And it’s up to you to go back and make it work. I guess they would tell you if there’s a lyric that was not going to work but I’ve never really come across that. It’s either the song is working and it’s a great song or it’s not and it’s back to the drawing board [laughs].
When you’re writing a song for a pop artist, do you create a demo version that is then passed on to the appropriate A&R or manager for consideration? How does the process work?
A lot of the time, with like Wynter Gordon or Pixie Lott or a lot of these other younger artists, I work directly with them and we write the songs together or they’ll be in the room and I’ll be with the producer and myself and them, and they’ll sing the song immediately right while we’re writing it.
Once the song has been recorded, are you then anxiously waiting for a long time to find whether it’s been chosen as a single or whether it features on the album?
I definitely have to wait, but I try not to be anxious because that would make my life really difficult [laughs]. I just put a lot of songs out there, and let them go, and if people are holding them, maybe I get a little more excited - let’s say if Britney cuts three of my songs then of course I’m going to be a little anxious.
You never know, it could change at the last second. It happened to me before with albums. You know, for two years they’ve held a song and then, oh it’s not going to be on the album now, or it’s just going to be the bonus song. And you’re like, “Oh great”. It can be frustrating because you do get your hopes up and then they get shot down sometimes, but I don’t think about it too hard and I’ve been really lucky so far I think.
Can you explain how the song ‘Dirty Talk’ (Wynter Gordon) came together?
I’d been working with her writing a few songs together for her and for other people, and we heard this track and I think Wynter started singing, “Dirty talk”. Then we were trying to think of all the sexy things we could and started looking on sex sites to see what words we could pull [laughs].
We were just being silly but on the other side I thought it had this really great catchy melody, and I love the chorus. I don’t think either of us at the time thought it would end up being her launching single [laughs].
How were you first approached with that?
I guess my publisher had a meeting with Mike Caren (HQ interview), who is A&R at Atlantic and was in charge of her record for a while. He’s got some studios here and I’ve come in before, and so he put me together with her.
So are you always writing totally fresh in the studio, you don’t have an archive of ideas that you draw on?
I used to keep ideas but now I’m just too busy, so I just come in with nothing in my head and see if I can get something straight away. l feel I’ve written so many songs that there’s no room for an archive anymore [laughs]. It just has to be whatever comes out that day. I never have time to do much preparation. I wish I did.
Do you prefer co-writing or writing solo?
Co-writing. I like to work with people. I get lonely on my own [laughs].
Are there any artists you would still love to write and produce with?
I’ve always wanted to do some songs with Kylie Minogue, I think she’s great. And Missy Elliott. In terms of the pop world right now, I love Beyoncé, Rihanna ... I think the other thing though is there is a lot of like more bands or artists that do a lot of their own songwriting that I think would be fun to collaborate with, like M.I.A. for instance. There’s older artists I’d love to work with, like Dolly Parton.
A lot of the people I wanted to work with have already come true. Britney was a big one, and Bloodshy & Avant were my favourite producers.
What’s in the pipeline for the upcoming year and what should we be listening out for?
Well, I have a new artist project for myself that I’m doing called Spy Numbers, and that will be coming out soon. And then the Sky Ferreira album, I’ll have five or six songs on that album hopefully.
Are Electrocute still going?
No, I’m starting this new thing and so Electrocute will … we’ll definitely sing some more stuff, but we’ll have to see what happens. If one of our songs takes off then you might hear more from us [laughs].
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Songwriter Chris Braide on writing for Cheryl Cole, Pixie Lott, Diane Vickers
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