Interview with ERIK LIDBOM, songwriter for Girls Generation, BoA, Arashi, Exile, Kara - Sep 7, 2013
“All my songwriting colleagues were aiming for the US market, but I was never interested in that at all. I was totally hooked on J-pop”
Following on from our interview with Hide Nakamura, the song pitcher that has helped Western songwriters hit big in the major Far East music markets, we speak to the most successful songwriter of the lot, Erik Lidbom. The Swedish writer/producer has sold more than 20 million units, scored over 40 #1s, and written and produced for a host of top Japanese and Korean artists including Girls Generation, BoA, Arashi and EXILE. His massive achievements in the Far East have led to his nickname “King of J-Pop”, his studio in Sweden being known as “Little Tokyo”, and an international reputation that is fast growing with big names like Andreas Carlsson and David Foster keen to work with him.
Lidbom talks to HitQuarters about how he made his breakthrough in the Far East, why he was drawn to the chart music of J-Pop, and offers advice on those writers hoping to follow his lead.
What was it about J-Pop that struck a chord with you and that you weren’t finding in Western chart music?
I was struggling to get my music out for a long time. I was so broke I had to sleep on a mattress in the shabby cellar I used as my studio. I sent out demos to literally every music publisher I could find. Most of them never replied and the ones who did reply said my music was too strange for them to deal with. A few times I tried to adjust my sound to what was popular at the time, but it never felt right.
Around 2004 I was touring as a live engineer with a black metal band. We were going on tour to Japan and when I came off the airplane and heard the music from the airport speakers I honestly thought I was hearing my own music. It was like everything fell into place. I spent all my time on that tour at Tower Records in Shibuya and I came home with my suitcase filled with Jpop CDs.
It was like I’d found this universe that I had been writing music for for so many years without knowing there was a market for it. The chord progressions, the typical emotional vibes, the voices, everything was just what I thought great music should sound like.
How did you get your first cut in Japan and what was it?
My first cut was called WAVE, and it was an album song with the Japanese boyband Arashi. I got it through a local publisher in Sweden, who handed over the song to Hide Nakamura (HQ interview) at Soundgraphics in Japan.
What is Hide’s role in your career?
Hide Nakamura is with no doubt the most important person in my career. We met around seven years ago and we've been a great team since that day. Hide has been plugging my songs and productions and gave me endless support both creatively and business wise.
I'm also very fortunate to being able to work with a number of fantastic people within the music industry in Japan - A&Rs, executives, producers and artists.
Hide has described you as the currently the most successful Western writer in Japan. Aside from your obvious musical talents, what other factors have been key in helping you achieve this status?
I think it's because I truly love Jpop, and I spend a lot of time listening to it. If you're a songwriter who loves R&B you probably would have a good understanding of how to write a great R&B song, and I guess the same thing goes for all genres.
When I started out writing J-pop on a serious basis, all my songwriting colleagues were aiming for the US market, but I was never interested in that at all. I was totally hooked on J-pop, and so the learning process was very natural.
What are some of the difficulties Western songwriters and producers initially face in writing for the Japanese market?
I think the biggest challenge is to keep your style and not adjust to what you think would work in Japan, and then find something that you can add to the current market, whatever that might be.
Then there’s obviously language barrier and since J-pop is sung in Japanese, a certain knowledge about how the language is constructed would be helpful in order to understand melodies, phrasing etc.
Apart from the music, the business side is really complex, so it's great to have a Japanese manager, publisher or representative.
What is your songwriting process typically like? For instance, if you are given a song lead how do you then turn that into something that they are looking for?
It varies, and depends for whom I'm writing for. If it is a lead for a specific artist, I study the artist before doing anything else. I try to listen to as much music from that artist as possible and find out how the artist vocals sound in a specific range, chord progressions that are used a lot, tempos, sounds etc. I would also study the artists visual aspects - style, look, dancing abilities.
I could start with a beat, a chord progression, a hook or the title. Sometimes the idea comes pretty fast and easy to me, and sometimes it takes days to get the perfect vibe, and it's impossible to predict it. If I have the artist with me in the session it's usually easier to get where I want, and of course it's a lot more fun!
What are some of things you have learnt from co-writing with Japanese songwriters?
I've learnt millions of things in every session with my amazing Japanese co-writers. Not only from a musical aspect but also how to behave and when to shut up. I've learnt when to add one more syllable in a line or when not to, I've learned what a good sing-a-long phrase for an audience would be and that one should never interrupt while someone is speaking.
Nevertheless, music is music and no matter where you are and who you're writing with, there is always this strive for the best song.
Although you’ve previously worked with different publishers, you now have your own publishing company. What are some of the advantages of being self-sufficient?
Basically it gives me a lot more control and I can work faster and more efficiently, which brings me more cuts.
Today it's getting more important to understand the full matrix of the music business, and unfortunately many songwriters are not really interested in it.
I've worked with many different publishers on a song-by-song basis but I have had only one exclusive publishing deal, and that ended 2012. At that time I felt it was just about time to start my own publishing, and Hitfire Publishing was born.
My initial idea was to only focus on my own writing but eventually I decided to expand and today I have three great writers on the roster. Jon Hällgren, who was my first signing, has already achieved a huge success in Japan with cuts on Arashi, Girls Generation, SHINee, to name a few, and I’ve just signed another two writers Simon Janlöv and Robin Ericsson, who are now starting to create a buzz in Asia.
I'm constantly looking for new writers and producers as well, I truly love to support my team and see how they grow and develop.
What advice would you have for a songwriter that loved J-Pop and wanted to get involved writing for J-Pop artists?
Listen to the music! Find some artists that you like and that you enjoy listening to. There’s a wide range of musical styles in J-pop and hopefully you’ll find something you can relate too.
How do you see your career developing? Do you think you’ll continue focusing J-Pop or are you looking to broaden your target markets more?
As long as I enjoy writing for Japan and Asia I will keep doing it, but I've started to look into new territories and opportunities as well. I'm currently working with an American band signed to Universal, which is really exciting, and I'm moving to LA for a few months later this year to do some very interesting projects there.
I love to get involved with the artist, being able to shape and develop their sound is challenging and always inspiring.
interviewed by HJ Mullineux
Read On ...
* Interview with top Japanese song pitcher Hide Nakamura
* Publisher Fredrik Olsson on finding success in Asia with Western writers
* Songwriter Lars Halvor Jensen on writing for Japanese & Korean artists
* BMG songwriter Freakchild on songwriting camps and co-writing
* Interview with top Swedish songwriter Andreas Carlsson