Q&A on K-pop with LARS HALVOR JENSEN, songwriter/producer for Girls Generation, TVXQ, Lil Wayne, Diddy, JLS - Oct 24, 2011
“We sold as many copies of the Girls Generation album in the first week in Japan as Pitbull's Planet Pit has sold in the US to date.”
Why would a successful Western songwriter/producer with credits including Lil Wayne, Diddy, JLS and Sugababes want to write for artists in the Far East?
Following on from our special feature K-pop songwriting, Q&A asks Lars Halvor Jensen, of famed Danish songwriting and production team DEEKAY, about the attraction of creating songs for K-pop superstars such as Girls Generation (#1 JP, KOR) and TVXQ (#1 JP, KOR), what the differences are between East and West pop, and what it will take for K-pop to truly break through in Europe and the US.
How did you get your first breakthrough in the Asia music market?
My good friend Lasse Lindorff (from GL Music) pitched a song of ours called ‘Holla’ to SM Entertainment for SHINee and it ended up being their next single. At the same time, Pelle Lidell (HQ interview) from Universal Music Publishing had pitched one of our songs called ‘Bulletproof’ to SM for Girls Generation, and this in turn became ‘Hoot’.
Our introduction to the K-pop market was two #1 hits - not a bad start!
You are already very successful in both the US and Europe so what is the attraction in working with artists in the Far East?
Music is not limited to certain markets – it's more global than ever before and to me there is as much satisfaction in having a big hit in Japan and South Korea, for example, as in having one in Europe.
In lots of cases sales in Japan have actually exceeded those in the US. As an example, we sold as many copies of the Girls Generation album in the first week of release in Japan (more than 225,000 copies) as Pitbull's Planet Pit album has sold in the US to date. On top of that the Japanese market is still based on physical sales, with albums retailing for 40-60 USD, and so the mechanical royalties are way superior to the US.
On a creative and personal level, it was amazing to see 15,000 fans at the Girls Generation concert in Tokyo singing along to ‘Hoot’. Those are some of my favourite moments as a songwriter – to see the end result of all our hard work in the studio.
Why do you think Korean entertainment companies have actively sought songs from Western songwriter/producers?
The level of production and songwriting from Western songwriters and producers is extremely high, and the success that SM Entertainment have had using Western songs/productions has greatly contributed to the increased demand for these types of records from other labels in Southeast Asia as well.
Can you explain the whole song creation process with ‘Hoot’ to give an idea of the stages a song goes through from being first conceived to being adapted for a Korean artist?
‘Hoot’ was originally called ‘Bulletproof’ and is a song that my writing partner Martin [Michael Larsson] and I wrote with Alex James at Alex's place in the UK. We wanted to create an exciting up-tempo record for a female artist or group, such as the Sugababes or the like.
The writing process was effortless. Martin started the track from scratch and as he was building it, Alex and I came up with the melodies and lyrics for the verse, pre-chorus, chorus and bridge. Nina Woodford sang the demo and did an amazing job. Martin and I then went back to Denmark and finished and mixed the demo.
We knew it was a strong record and a lot of the time you have to be patient until you find the right artist to cut it at the right time. Girls Generation were that match. The translator made a fantastic new lyric, which incorporated some of our English words such as "trouble, trouble, trouble". It sounded amazing in the new Korean adaptation. It's all about getting the right vowel sounds for the song to have maximum impact. And with 18 times platinum and half of South Korea doing the ‘Hoot’ dance, one could argue that this record did!
How does it work in terms of lyric writing? For instance, using TVXQ’s 'Superstar' as an example, are your original lyrics translated as closely as possible or are they completely rewritten with a different theme?
[‘Superstar’] is a Japanese lyric as it was the Japanese single for TVXQ this summer/fall. The song was originally called ‘Everyday Superstar’ – the translator decided to keep “superstar” in there as it's a catchy word that everybody understands. Other than that, it has been completely re-written and the meaning is very different now.
If you are writing a song to pitch for a Korean artist then how might it differ to writing a song for a European or American act?
We usually try not to write for a specific market, but rather go for what we feel is a great record.
But if we were to tailor something specifically for a Korean artist, we would look at adding verses that are quite tonally static, but rhythmically active, a pre-chorus that has a catchy scale rise or drop on the melody and then a chorus that hits hard from bar one.
In terms of production styles and lyrical themes, what would you say characterises K-pop songs, and how do they differ to US and European pop?
Since they are using more and more Western productions, the differences are getting smaller, but if you are talking about productions made locally, they usually have a softer and more "innocent" sound with less tough synth sounds. This is of course a generalisation, but that is the impression I have gotten from listening to K-pop.
You’ve said that you believe there to be a massive worldwide potential for K-pop. What do you think needs to happen for it to really breakthrough in Europe and the US?
Exposure, exposure, exposure! These days it's all about being on TV, YouTube, radio, at big events etc. It will need to be a massive record, an undeniable smash hit, with the right sound to fit in on US/European radio, and then a band like Girls’ Generation to present it.
I truly believe there is room for a new "Spice Girls", a fun act that will have success worldwide. Imagine if Girls’ Generation had a song like ‘Barbie Girl’ with a current sound - that would be a smash worldwide, I believe.
interviewed by Barry Wheels
Read On ...
* Special feature on how Western songwriters are bridging the East-West pop divide
* Lars Halvor Jensen on the finer points of pop production