Interview with ANDREAS CARLSSON, songwriter for Katy Perry, Backstreet Boys, Clay Aiken, Céline Dion - Jul 27, 2009
“You can’t just be a songwriter anymore, you have to be an entrepreneur, you have to be able to brand yourself and market yourself in other businesses.”
Sweden’s extraordinary influence over modern pop music can in part be credited to the legendary 90s production house Cheiron, run by the late great Denniz PoP, and although its doors have long since closed it still exercises a phenomenal pull through the talented songwriters and producers it cultivated including Max Martin, Per Magnusson, Rami Yacoub and today’s interviewee Andreas Carlsson.
Since flying the coop, Carlsson has upheld the values of Cheiron by penning hit after hit for the likes of Katy Perry (US & UK No.1), Clay Aiken (US No.1) and, Céline Dion (US & UK No.1). HitQuarters talked with the Swedish songwriter about his work experience at Cheiron Studios, his songwriting with pop legends Max Martin and Desmond Child, and his current work in TV and on stage.
With an autobiography (‘Live To Win – The Songs That Wrote My Life’) due out this year, why do you think it’s now time for the world to hear about the life of Andreas Carlsson?
Even though I’m only 36 I’ve lived through some really interesting times. I started with absolutely nothing, and I hope the book can serve as a motivational tool for young people who are about to venture out in life, being songwriters, artists, or whatever it is they want to do. Nothing is easy because if it were, everybody would do it. So you have to work hard no matter what your passion is.
If the songs wrote your life, how much of your life was in the songs?
The reason it’s called ‘The Songs That Wrote My Life’ is because every chapter has one of my songs as the title. This was actually an idea I got from Will.i.am – he said, “Gimme all your songs!” And I gave him them and he said, “That’s you! That’s the story of your life.” They describe me - those songs are a big part of my life.
What song or songs have had the greatest impact on your life?
The song ‘Live To Win’, which is the book title, is my motor in life because there is no such thing as winning, but only doing better. What I always strive for in life is to accomplish something and enjoy the process. But ‘Live To Win’ was a complete affirmation because when I was a kid I had this one dream and it was to be able to work with KISS.
I believe dreams can create your own reality, and KISS was the reason for me wanting to be in music in the first place – so writing with Paul Stanley brought me full circle. And that was what the song was about which I wrote with Paul for his solo album. It’s not the biggest song I’ve written, but it’s something that I’m most proud of.
Perhaps your biggest song is ‘I Want It That Way’, which the Backstreet Boys recorded and became your first No.1. Can you explain what inspired it and how you and Max Martin wrote it together?
‘I Want It That Way’ was a play with words. When Max came up with the original idea for the song, it already had the line “you are my fire, the one desire”. We tried a million different variations on the second verse, and finally we had to go back to what was sounding so great, “you are my fire, the one desire”. And then we changed it to “am I your fire, your one desire”, which made absolutely no sense in combination with the chorus - but everybody loved it! And Zomba thought it was an all time classic.
For a while there was another version of the song that Mutt Lange helped to write, but that version never made it because this was the one the band loved.
‘I Want it That Way’ was one of several hits you wrote as part of Cheiron, the legendary Swedish production team helmed by the late Denniz PoP. Did Denniz have a hard time convincing you to join the team?
It was a gift from heaven. When I first walked into Cheiron Studios in 1994 it was already a legend in the Nordic territories. They had all this success with Ace Of Base, and later on Robyn, Dr. Alban and all that stuff. So when he asked me to become a writer at Cheiron, it was like, “Wow, this is unreal!” At that point I thought the success had already passed me by and I was just going to get in at the end of it, so to speak. But when I stepped into Cheiron, it became a worldwide phenomenon. Not thanks to me [laughs], but it was just at the right time, I was lucky to come in just before *NSync hit big in America.
You say you thought your chance for success had passed you by because you were struggling with a career as both a songwriter and pop star that began with so much promise. As a 19-year-old fresh out of high school, how did you manage to get signed both as a songwriter at Warner Chappell and then to Ricochet/BMG for a record deal?
Well, I was already very into music in school, and I had a friend who passed my first demo tape on to Warner Chappell. I was about to go to a school in the States called MI (Musicians Institute) when this guy Roy Colegate - who used to be with Warner Chappell, and who sadly passed away a few years ago – said that I had a talent for writing and if I decided to stay in Sweden he would give me a publishing deal.
At that time you were also invited to take part in writing sessions with Bill Champlin – how did that come about?
I was a huge fan of Chicago, and when he was in Sweden I was at a Meet & Greet, and gave him my first single ‘Those Where The Best Days’, and he invited me to stay with him for a while and write some songs. As a 19-year-old it was a big deal for me.
Writing with Bill taught me how to stay focused when writing songs, to “stay in the zone and stay in the moment.” Bill taught me a lot about the business, and about failures that he had, as well as things to avoid as a young writer and artist.
Staying focused was clearly an asset when later working at Cheiron Studios. What was the atmosphere like there – was it collaborative or competitive with the other songwriters?
It was collaborative and competitive at the same time. It was one of those amazing places that happen once every so often - you had Motown, you had Stock, Aitken & Waterman in England in the 80s, and then Cheiron in the 90s.
What did you learn from working with Max Martin – was he an inspiration?
Max is one of the biggest geniuses I’ve ever the pleasure to work with. He is very precise, and the melody is king, melody is everything. Later on I learned about lyric writing from Desmond Child.
Did your experience at Cheiron act as a springboard for your career?
Cheiron was a career springboard. I did everything I could to experience the world at the time. We went to the States, and we met everybody over there. I made sure that once Cheiron was over I had my own world of contacts, my own universe.
Aside from the efforts of Cheiron, Sweden has long been a major force in pop music – why is it such a small nation as Sweden manages to be such a hotbed for pop?
I think that Sweden, first of all, has a very strong, very melodic folk music - almost like Ireland. A folk music that’s singable and that you can turn into pop tunes.
Also we have terrible weather, so people stay in. We’ve always been very icily focused on the technical side of things, so everybody is very experienced in all the music programs like Logic and ProTools. I also think we are prepared to work long hours to get it right.
Most important of all, the economy never allowed anybody to have first assistants, second assistants, runners, and all of that. If you wanted something done you had to do it yourself, and that’s the only way to learn.
You say your big inspiration in lyric writing was Desmond Child – how did you relationship begin?
Well, at the end of Cheiron we got a letter – I don’t think it was even an email or a fax – from this guy Desmond Child who wanted to come over and write with us. At the time Desmond was beyond hot with Ricky Martin, but it wasn’t Ricky Martin that caught my attention – I’ve been a huge KISS, Bon Jovi and Aerosmith fan since I was a kid. So when Desmond Child said he wanted to write with us, I was the first to bite. I actually went to his home in Miami, and that was our first time writing together.
What do you think it is that has made your partnership successful?
We’re two complete lunatics who are very passionate about our music, and we love to work. And it could be 1:30 in the morning after a writing session, and Desmond and I are on our computers planning how to conquer the world. I haven’t met anybody like Desmond - he’s still on it like nobody that I’ve ever met. That’s really inspiring for me, and we have the same humour and laugh a lot.
What attracted you and Desmond into working with Katy Perry?
Katy was instantly recognised by Desmond and me as somebody who has the talent of Madonna. I’ve said it many times - I think she is the most talented artist that I’ve ever come across, and I think she has a huge career in front of her.
Can you talk us through the songwriting process of a song like ‘Waking Up in Vegas’ (read our interview with ‘Waking Up In Vegas producer Greg Wells here? Did Child, Perry and yourself work together on the song at the same time?
Yes we did. We really wanted to tell the story that described that moment when everybody’s checking out on Vegas after they’ve had their fun. And Katy is the perfect artist to tell such a story - she has humour, and she knows how to deliver it.
I already had the guitar riff of the song. The phrase “put your money where your mouth is” was something that we always wanted to use - it was almost the title, but ended up in the chorus. I don’t know where that Vegas thing came from, but I was a big Elvis fan and it just seemed right at the time.
Besides Martin and Child, you write a lot of songs in collaboration – do you prefer working like this?
I haven’t really written anything solo for many years, but I just finished my first musical where I wrote solo again. It’s a little scary, but the feeling is very gratifying when you’re done. It’s like, “Okay, I did this. This was me, and I decided exactly myself where it should go.” So I like both - I love collaborating with people too.
Are you able to define what it is you bring to a composition? What is your style?
Well, I think my style is … I’ve become a better lyricist over the years. That’s something that comes with experience and life, and the more you write the better your lyrics become. I have to thank Desmond for his expertise that he has shared with me over the years - and I think he is the best lyricist in the world - but I think what I contribute is a sense of melody.
One day, I think, people will remember me as the guy that did the boy band and the pop stuff, however I have a big passion for rock and everything. But with everything I do, the melody is very important.
Yes, you write as much for rock artists as pop starts – as well as Paul Stanley, there’s Europe and Bon Jovi – so do you have a natural inclination for heavier music, and how is it different to write than pop?
Well, writing is always the same thing - a hook is always a hook. It could be a pop song, a rock song, a country song, but the writing side is always the same - unless you do real urban stuff and hip-hop. Every good rock song that is memorable and that survives through its time - like ‘Living On A Prayer’ - is a great pop song, but just dressed up differently in the production.
Have you enjoyed being one of the judges for the past two seasons of Swedish IDOL, and has it been good for your career?
IDOL has been an amazing experience and has led to other things. One of the reasons why I did IDOL was that I wanted to learn how to do TV. I had this idea for a show called ‘Made In Sweden’ that came out last year.
The format is to take a person from ‘hillbilly’ to red carpet in real time. And I’m packaging that show to do a ‘Made In The UK’, ‘Made In America’, things like that.
And this is something you’ve been working on with fellow producer and IDOL judge Anders Bagge (read the HitQuarters interview with Anders here)?
‘Made In Sweden’ was our brainchild. How do we sell music? How do we have a TV show drive the web? What’s so unique with iTunes? Why can’t we have our own set up where people go in and download songs? We did it together with a phone company - the TV show, the phone company and the website. And it really worked. He’s a very creative guy and he has brilliant ideas. He’s a long time friend - I’ve known him for sixteen years when he produced my first single.
As Carrie Underwood recorded one of your songs after winning Pop Idol, do you think the show offers a great means for songwriters to achieve success and recognition in the industry?
I think IDOL has done so much for songwriting - it has brought back old catalogues, it has given pop music its own island in a tough time, and it’s still a worldwide phenomenon that doesn’t have any comparison. It’s mind-blowing really, and still in Sweden, this coming season will be the biggest of them all. We’re six years into it, we doubled the audition for it, with 10,000 people coming, wanting to be idols. It’s still a big thing, and it’s a big career move.
Your restless creativity and vision demanded an alternate artistic format, which led into the multi-faceted brand ‘DANDY’. What’s that all about?
DANDY is my desire to do something that has everything. There have been a lot of brands that have this multi-faceted thing where you have a show, you have the film, you have the merchandise etc. I was looking into musical theatre and discovered you can have a show in 180 countries with no celebrities or artists attached and still build an amazing brand.
I think DANDY’s something that hasn’t been done - combining the magic of Vegas and the storytelling of Broadway. It’s a fable told through pop music, because in my world as a songwriter that’s hired to write hit songs, if I’m set up to write a musical, why can’t it be a musical with all hits? That’s what I think is missing – except with ‘MAMMA MIA!’ of course.
Musicals don’t really have songs that are to the point. I don’t want to sing about a sweater or little subjects like this. This is bigger, and it is supposed to work on radio. I had it up on Sirius Radio in New York and it was played 9,000 times. Then I was offered a record deal from Sony Music in New York for DANDY, but I didn’t think it was the right way to go, however it’s something that’s in development. We are in the early phases in Vegas, the pre-production side of it - it’s very exciting!
Would you recommend a writer to start their own publishing company?
No, there are always good reasons to be with an established writing house. However, I would look into the retention period - when do you get your songs back? I would look into the splits. I would avoid getting too much money in advance. And I would have a good lawyer look into it. You really have to know what you’re doing, because you can make huge mistakes early on in your career that you’re going to pay for a long time.
Looking back from when you started producing and writing, what do you think are the key lessons you’ve learnt?
Well, the key lessons I’ve learned is that for every success there’s at least ten failures. So you just keep working, and keep trying, and have many things going on at the same time. You can’t just be a songwriter anymore, you have to be an entrepreneur, you have to be somebody who’s able to brand yourself and market yourself in other businesses, because I think music is going to be a great driving tool for many other business opportunities. You’ve got to be open to that and go out there and promote yourself.
It’s a different time, but I think it’s more exciting now than it has ever been, because music is back in the hands of the songwriter and the creator. The person that comes up with content in the future is king.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: One of the most influential pop producers of the last decade, Richard X, is interviewed