how do you write a grammy award-winning pop song? we asked an expert

"The verses are for you, the choruses are for them." Want to write your own chart-topping pop banger? NYC songwriter Emily Warren breaks it down.

by Frankie Dunn
12 July 2017, 9:27am

Are you into Dua Lipa's New Rules? Maybe you're secretly listening to Shawn Mendes' platinum selling album Handwritten on repeat? Do you agree that Little Mix's mechanical bull riding party tune No More Sad Songs is one of their best? Other than being Bangers with a capital B, these songs all have one common thread: 24-year-old songwriter Emily Warren.

NYC born and raised, Emily's high school band Emily Warren & the Betters got their single Not at All synched by MTV's attempt at USA-ifying Skins: cool. No wonder, then, that she got a place at the prestigious Davis Institute of Recorded Music (her fellow alumni include Bjork collaborator synth god Arca and Ms "I made Pharrell cry" Maggie Rogers) and signed a songwriting contract halfway through her course in 2013. Basically, she might have only graduated two years ago, but she's already raking in the hits.

Challenging the idea of the pop assembly line, Emily knows that there's an art to a well-written pop song. And hey, she should know -- her work with divisive EDM-pop duo The Chainsmokers won her a Grammy after all. The huge single Don't Let Me Down is still going strong with a casual 800 million plays on YouTube and they don't seem to be going anywhere either.

Though currently working with the likes of Charli XCX and Camila Cabello, Emily has just branched out into a musical world of her own with emotional debut Hurt By You that she released back in May. Pop fact: in the accompanying music video, the mic she's cosying up to was once used by Elvis Presley at the iconic Sun Studios in Memphis. Hopefully they've cleaned it since. Give it a good watch and take notes as she shares her secrets below.

Emily Warren's ultimate songwriting tips:

1. ALWAYS tell the truth.
Sometimes it's uncomfortable to dig inside yourself and make yourself vulnerable enough to tell the raw truth, but chances are, if you're experiencing something and are honest about it, your listeners will be able to relate.

2. Find the concept.
I like to start with the concept. Almost like a thesis of an essay. What is the point I'm trying to make? You can discover this through conversation, by jotting down notes or ideas, and by looking inside yourself -- what's the main thing you want to talk about?

3. Write the chorus.
I find it easier to build the rest of the song once the chorus is written.

4. Figure out the structure of the story.
What stories are the verse and pre-chorus telling, that together, lead up to the chorus? Once I have a general outline and plot, I start digging in.

5. Time for the verses - the fun part.
This is where you get to tell a story in two different ways that ramps up to the chorus. Sometimes I like to tell the surface level plot in the first verse and get deeper in the second, or sometimes I like to tell two completely different angles of a story across two verses, both still leading into the same chorus.

6. Build suspense.
I often like to do this in the pre chorus. I like to think about putting a lyric here that leaves you NEEDING the chorus, like a cliffhanger of sorts.

7. Use different ranges.
Melodically, I think it's important to make sure that each section occupies a different range. Typically I like making the verse the lowest, the pre a little bit higher (using tense notes if possible) and the chorus the highest. There are, however, examples of songs where the chorus is lowest, or the pre is highest, so what I think is good to remember is that variation is important. This keeps the song interesting.

8. The same goes for rhythm.
If you start the verse on the ONE beat, you may want to start the pre before, and the chorus after.

9. I once heard someone say, 'the verses are for you, the choruses are for them'.
Meaning, you can go as deep/poetic/indulgent on the verses as you like, but remember that the chorus is the part that people will want to latch on to, so keeping it simple and easy to sing along to is key!

10. It should be fun!
If you're getting stuck, go for a walk, start something else, clear your mind. There's a difference between challenging and frustrating. Songs are like puzzles -- it can be challenging fitting the pieces together, but as long as you're having fun it's worth it.

11. FORGET numbers 1-10.
Songs should be an expression of you and come from your heart. Everyone has a different way of writing, and these just happen to be the ways that work for me.

Read: Iconic DJ Honey Dijon on queer liberation and the death of subculture.


Text Frankie Dunn
Photography David O'Donohue

pop music
music interviews
emily warren