meet the songwriters crafting this year's most amazing pop music

Get to know the minds who brought you MØ, Zayn, and Charli XCX.

by Michael Cragg
23 December 2016, 9:22pm

As outlined here, pop music has been an exciting, if slightly odd, place in 2016. While the art of creating a proper album has seen a renaissance in the face of streaming, there were still enough gold-plated, 3:30 bangers to keep the singles chart happy too. Below i-D speaks to some of the architects of this year's best songs, from MØ's Final Song to Charli XCX's Vroom Vroom to Zayn's Pillowtalk.

Singer/Songwriter/Producer. Collaborated in 2016 with the likes of Zara Larsson, MØ, Craig David and Little Mix. Released his own single At Night (I Think About You) in May.

Let's talk about MØ's Final Song. How did that come about?
We did that in March. It was a session that was set up with me, her and Noonie Bao, who I'd worked with before. It was a really quick process. We all got on so well and vibed off so many melodies. We had the chorus melody but no lyrics and then while she was in the toilet I came up with "don't let this be our final song". When she came back she was like "oh I love it so much!". It's a song I'm massively proud of because it's a song I love to listen to.

I remember hearing that she was asking for the production to be changed - how difficult is it to get the exact sound a person wants?
I think that was a bit dramatised. It was actually a swift process because basically Drum was going to be the first single and then we did Final Song and she emailed me and said they'd changed their minds and Final Song would be first. So she had to come back to London to finish the song quite quickly. It was all done in the space of a week.

You're back working with MØ and Noonie Bao again right?
Yeah, we were together last week. It was really lovely to be in their company again. It's always nice when you come full circle and work again with people who you've had success with the first time round.

You also reunited with Little Mix this year on their new single, Touch. What was that like?
I live for those girls so fucking much. They bring such a good energy to the industry. I'd heard Touch from their A&Rs and I loved it, so I asked if I could produce it and help make it sound finished. So I got the stems, I changed the key of the song, I put some harder beats on it and then got the girls' vocals on there. What I love about the Little Mix process is that their A&Rs are so involved and they really do care about the songs, so they give really good feedback on what can make the song better. Unfortunately I didn't get to be in the studio with the girls, but I'm always more than happy to be a part of their journey. I love them.

2016 also saw you have your first hit in America with the Zara Larsson collaboration Never Forget You - did the success of that song surprise you?
I don't know if I was surprised. It was really great to see the song grow. People really love Zara and what she brings to the table and they love a good pop star like that. To get to sing that song with her was really dope. And I got to be on Ellen, which was my first US TV show ever.

What's coming next year in terms of your solo material?
I'm mixing my next single now and I'm finishing the album production. Then I'm going to get other people involved because I'm happy to have features on the album now. I'm open to letting people in. The album will come next year - in God we trust (laughs) - and I'm excited about it. All this stuff we've just talked about is great, and I love being a part of it and having my name associated with these artists, but because I'm an artist as well there's this artistic frustration because there's not this one channel showcasing what I have to say. I'm excited to channel that into this album.

Noonie Bao
Singer/Songwriter. Co-wrote three songs on Charli XCX's Vroom Vroom EP, as well as Final Song and Drum for MØ. Also released two of her own songs, Reminds Me and Sorry Not Sorry.

Obviously this came out in 2015, but I just quickly wanted to ask you about working with Carly Rae Jepsen on Run Away With Me. What do you remember about crafting that gem?
I remember that it was a lot of fun in the studio. We were in Stockholm. I'd met her before in New York, and of course I fell in love with her immediately. She's such an amazing writer and person, so funny. But yeah, Mattman & Robin (the producers) had this track with the saxophone on it and we were both like 'wow, that's so cool'. So we wrote on it.

Does it happen a lot that you're put with people you've never met before? How easy is it to start working?
Almost everyday it's like 'okay, I don't know this person'. Sometimes I worry about whether we'd be able to write a song together or not, but then it always works out.

You've been working with Carly again this year - anything you can tell me about those sessions?
She's a friend now and we've been working a lot. It's great. If you've worked together a couple of times then you get to know each other's musical language. You can read each other better. We've mostly been writing for her new stuff. It sounds so amazing. So cool, honestly. She'll be back soon.

A lot of the people you've written with you've worked with more than once - is it important to create a chemistry with people you write with?
Yeah it is. I do love to meet new people in the studio that I haven't worked with before too. I write music 24/7 so that's how I meet people and make friends. But it's also great to have a few people, like with Charli XCX for example, because we have our way of writing now. We know each other so well so it's easy. It doesn't feel like working with her, it's just hanging out with a friend.

You co-wrote three songs on Charli XCX's Vroom Vroom EP - was there a specific brief for those songs?
No. We were actually in this big old chateau in Sweden doing a writing camp thing we do every year where we invite a bunch of friends and write songs. It was just a big party actually, with lots of champagne. SOPHIE was there and we were just so inspired by his sound as well. Everything just happened naturally.

Genuinely one of my dreams would be to go to this camp and write pop songs and drink champagne.
Yeah absolutely. It's the best thing ever, I actually think about it all the time. I'm not sure when the next one is, but it has to be soon.

When you're writing with other artists is it about sitting back and letting them take the lead with what they want the song to be?
Absolutely. I want to be a part of their vision. I'm not egotistical at all when it comes to songwriting. When I'm writing with other people I want the artist to be happy.

You also worked with Raye as well - is it different working with brand new artists?
My goal is not to just work with established artists. It's fun to work with new artists and bands that haven't been destroyed by big labels yet (laughs).

You co-wrote and featured on Easyfun's Monopoly - what do you make of what PC Music are doing with pop in general?
I love it all so much. It's really inspiring. I remember being in the studio with SOPHIE and AG Cook for the first time and I realised I could just be myself. I love that we both love sugary pop music.

You also released two of your own songs this year - what's coming next year in terms of singles and albums?
I'm going to Joshua Tree in January for a while and just work on my own stuff. I'll invite some guests out there at some point. I need to have breaks from songwriting for other people so I can focus on my own music.

Who would be the only person who could get you to leave Joshua Tree in January and come and write with them?
Michael Jackson. He's dead, but imagine.

Levi Lennox
Songwriter/Producer. Co-wrote and produced Zayn's Pillowtalk.

How did you come to work with Zayn?
I used to work at a studio called F Block and at the time Zayn was working there with Naughty Boy. So I met him just through being at the same studio, then I didn't work for him for months and then randomly he passed by the studio and heard a track and that's where things really took off.

Did you have any reservations about working with him?
Well at the time he was still in One Direction, so I wasn't sure if what we were doing made sense. I didn't understand what was actually going on at the time - when we made Pillowtalk there was no plan, it was just us in the studio with [producers] MYKL. There was no plan, it was just okay let's make a plan. There was no talk of him going solo or working on an album. It was the most random thing.

Is that why you don't feature on the rest of the album? Because it was made out of context almost.
There are other songs I've produced with him on it but obviously they never made the album, which is the nature of the game.

Did he give you a sense of the direction he wanted to go in with the song?
Surprisingly we never really had conversations. I wrote the song with MYKL and then it was like, he came into the studio, loved the song, we got his vocals down and then we didn't hear anything about it for months. There were no conversations - he was still being Zayn, still being One Direction.

When did you find out it was going to be the first single?
I think I was on a train and I read that Zayn had left One Direction blah blah blah, then a few months after that he signed a deal with RCA, then shortly after that I found out from Pete Edge [Chairman and CEO of RCA] that Pillowtalk was going to be his first single.

That's mad considering when you made it you just assumed it would never see the light of day.
I thought we'd just done it for fun and I didn't think it was going to go anywhere or doing anything. As far as I was concerned he was still in One Direction.

"Climb on board" would have been quite the opening line for a One Direction song.
Exactly. I was like there's no way anything's happening with this song.

Did that annoy to think you might have lost a great song?
I had it set in my mind that even when I was in the studio with Zayn that nothing would happen with the song anyway. Once we did it, I kind of just forgot about it and didn't really think about it and just carried on working with other people to make ends meet.

Zayn is credited as a co-writer on the song, so what did he bring to the table?
Zayn's biggest thing was that he didn't want to play by the rules anymore and do the big One Direction pop songs because that's never been him from what I understand. So even words like "fucking" - excuse my French - that's something he wanted on the song. He didn't want to censor himself anymore and so that's what he brought.

Were there any musical touchstones you were looking to reference in the song?
Especially with the chorus, I didn't just want to produce a straight up R&B song. I wanted to merge it with a bit of rock, so you hear the heavy drums and the roaring guitars in the hook. I don't feel like it's your typical slow jam song.

How did you react when it went to number 1 in the UK and the US?
I couldn't believe it. For it to leave my hard drive and go into the world and then go number 1 was the best feeling ever. Even when the song went out I was panicking - his fans are One Direction fans and I thought this is either going to go down as a major fail or it could be the greatest thing. I'm just happy it wasn't a fail.

When you hear it now what bits stand out?
I'll be honest with you, I don't listen to the record. As a producer, there are always things you wish you'd done differently so I'll hear it back and think 'maybe I could have played a different chord there' or 'changed the drums there'. I critique too much, so I have to detach myself from the song.

How have things changed for your since it came out?
Pillowtalk has definitely opened a lot of doors for me in the sense of the people I work with now, people like Sam Smith and a lot of other major artists. It's definitely changed my life and it's put me in a better position musically.

Would you work with Zayn again?
I would love to. He's not the easiest person to get hold of, but I would really love to. I feel like not just me and Zayn, but everyone that was involved in that song, I feel like we all made history with that song.


Text Michael Cragg

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