What Happens When Gun-for-Hire Songwriters Try to Go Solo?
Photo by Mary Ellen Matthews for RCA

What Happens When Gun-for-Hire Songwriters Try to Go Solo?

It worked for Sia and Bruno Mars, but what about the women trying to break out on their own today?
March 8, 2017, 1:22pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK. 

Think about the last song you couldn't get out of your head. I mean the last one that really burrowed in there and wouldn't let you live; the one that made you growl in frustration when you realized you were absentmindedly humming along to its chorus, when it had definitely not been playing aloud for hours. What was it about that song, or its chorus or pre-chorus, that you couldn't shake?

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That unspoken allure of an earworm, that sticky hook, has become the mainstay of pop today. Back in the 90s, before songs crammed about three refrains into three minutes, chart pop stuck to a formula that had been cemented since the 60s: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge or middle eight instrumental, then chorus to fade (or a key change if you wanted to go for drama). Now, though, you've got to have hooks.

"It's not enough to have one hook anymore," Roc Nation president Jay Brown, said to the New Yorker's John Seabrook in 2012. "You've got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre-chorus, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge." That's because, Brown continued, "people on average give a song seven seconds on the radio before they change the channel, and you got to hook them." As has been the case since the days of Motown, a crop of songwriters have learned how to make a science of those hooks, filling top 40 charts with them and using them to facilitate the hits of whichever boy band, girl group or solo pop act works best. But the formula for a smash is changing quickly now, becoming more slippery.

With a legacy set up by people like Sia, Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga—who all started out as guns-for-hire before going solo—how do songwriters today translate hits written for others into their own material? How do they make that material as good as, if not better, than what sent them to the top of the charts from behind the scenes? And is it always worth making the transition, particularly for women songwriters who then have to contend with the added pressure of having their looks picked apart or their skills potentially second-guessed?

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"I think some women are maybe put off by the way they're perceived visually, and how you just can't get away from that," says Fiona Bevan, a singer-songwriter from Suffolk who I first stumbled across at a tiny venue in Brighton in 2009. "In some ways …"—she pauses—"I've always felt slightly free from that, because I've never looked how you're 'supposed' to look and I've done it anyway. I'm never going to look like some skinny girl with straight blonde hair," she says, laughing, before turning serious for a second. "Being outside of 'the beauty pageant' has in some ways been difficult, because I've never signed a major label deal and played by those rules—'only eat salad' and whatever—but it's also given me complete freedom to do it my way."

Fiona Bevan

Doing it her way has involved going from an impromptu songwriting session with Ed Sheeran—yup, we're all going to be seeing his name a lot this year, sorry—to having One Direction release the song she and Sheeran wrote together. And that single, "Little Things," topped the UK chart in 2012. With its doe-eyed lyrics about loving someone just the way they are – "full of real details, from people who Ed and I had both loved"—it was perfect for a boy band and its tween market. But, when you listen to Bevan's solo stuff, particularly her early work, there are elements of baroque pop, gently strummed guitar, click-clacking percussion and a dreamlike quality anchored to her breathy voice that sound worlds apart from the music she tailors to fit other acts.

Writing that hit, though, gave her the exposure to land the publishing deal that's bankrolled her career ever since. As a jobbing musician, she'd "made coffee, scrubbed floors, worked in various different shops," she remembers, laughing. "I used to work in a book publisher's, I've been a PA. I've done bits of music teaching, gigging and used to survive off selling my CDs." Now she's been afforded the luxury to make the sort of music she wants to, as on her 2014 album Talk to Strangers, which brimmed over with a warmth and texture that's often conspicuously absent from lots of UK top 40 hits. You'll have already noticed how chart-toppers from the past decade tend to sound slick with a polished sheen rather than crackling with grit.

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In the case of 23-year-old Julia Michaels, though, that chart aesthetic exists in both her work for other people and her own material. Michaels co-wrote Bieber's "Sorry," Selena Gomez's "Good for You," and that Linkin Park song from last month that sounds nothing like a Linkin Park song. Off the back of creating some of the biggest hits from the past couple of years with her collaborator Justin Tranter, she's decided to do her own thing—and it's taking some getting used to.

Julia Michaels, photographed by Meredith Truax

"I've always been very sheltered from this part of the process. Every time I've worked with an artist we've been behind closed doors—just us, being humans and talking about our daily lives. This is definitely a transition for me; I'm not used to having to get up and do 13 interviews in a day," she says, laughing in the middle of one of the 13, "so that's new." She speaks in a sweetly high-pitched voice, rattling through a day of promo for her single "Issues." Unlike Bevan, Michaels' own work sounds more like the songs she puts together for people like Hailee Steinfeld, Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani: it has one of those verses centred on a hook, the minimal, finger-clicking production style over which Lorde and her producer Joe Little rode to fame a few years ago.

On the one hand, someone like Bevan uses her platform and earnings as a songwriter to weave together a load of different—and often exhilarating—styles. On the other, an artist as young as Michaels is shooting for the more familiar sound circulating the charts now. But they both handle the lurch of flip-flopping from writing for themselves to doing so for some of the most famous pop performers out there. Hearing someone else singing your song can get old, though. "It definitely starts to wear on you the 100th time," Michaels says, drily. "The first time, though, is really magical," which hit when she heard her 2013 Fifth Harmony co-write "Miss Movin' On" on the radio. "I remember they did an acoustic version of it on Kiss FM and I was driving around waiting for it, and the moment it came on I had to pull my car over, just crying. I was 19, it was the first time it had ever happened. It was surreal."

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Bevan—who knew Sheeran when he was a teen, recorded "Little Things" with him on his mobile before he "walked off into the sunset and had the phone stolen" and fished the song out of his memory—remembers a similar feeling. "On the first day it was released, it was on Nick Grimshaw's breakfast show, and I was sitting there in my pajamas. And my phone and computer just completely blew up, it went crazy," she says, giggling again. "As a songwriter who was living off peanuts and trying to make a living off gigging and odd jobs—which wasn't easy but I'd been doing it for a long time—I just cried. I knew my life was going to change, and I was going to have a career I could get stuck into where I could make something happen."

After the tears dry, the hard part comes when you decide to gamble on your chances as a solo performer. Michaels says she deals with "crippling anxiety" when it comes to singing on her own to an audience—though her Rio Olympics Closing Ceremony performance with pop-dance's relentlessly dry Kygo might make you think otherwise. Bevan's done well for herself, but hasn't yet risen to the heights of someone like Sia, who famously wrote "Diamonds" for Rihanna in 14 minutes and used her massive wig enigma effect and distinctively powerful hooks to make a name for herself.

Surely it's daunting, making the move? "You know what? I can't lie—it's kinda scary," says Camille Purcell, a mid-twenties south Londoner who wrote Little Mix's Brit award-winning "Shout Out to My Ex," their number 1 single "Black Magic" and other tracks for people like Ella Henderson, Tinchy Stryder and Jessie J. She's currently signed to Virgin/EMI and working on solo stuff now, after a good few years in the industry and picking up an ASCAP songwriting award of her own. "I mean, as writers we just make the songs, without ever having to go and put ourselves out there, you know? We can just move on. But as an artist, it means so much more. Every word I write, I sing, it really means something, something deep to me, and people can judge that now and I can't hide anywhere."

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She goes on to write in an email that "as much as it scares me, it thrills me. I've wanted this all my life"—and until the rest of the world hears her music, there's no telling how well things will go. The trick seems to be combining a classic songwriting sense with an ability to adapt to the pop landscape today. Bevan's co-writes generally follow a more traditional structure, in line with the sort of pop that's been out since the early 00s (she's behind the new Steps comeback track due out on Friday). Michaels shoots for hooks from the hip, sounding firmly like someone's who's grown up in the Max Martin era of one earworm flung out after the next—it makes Motown feel a world away. And we're yet to hear what Purcell's likely to come up with, but if she pushes beyond the template used by Little Mix or Olly Murs, she'd have the musical chops to make something unexpected.

"To me, all songwriting is a political act," Bevan says. "I'm always thinking about all those things: What are you really saying with your lyrics and melodies and rhythms? Who are you speaking to? Who's it going to hit? And what does it mean? Even the act of writing a song, as a woman, is a political act; there are so few of us." And she's right there, with recent figures showing that just 16 percent of the 124,000 creators and songwriters registered with the PRS for Music are women. In the US, Fusion found that only 13.5 percent of the songwriters behind the American top 40 in 2015 were women.

The key to pushing past those dire numbers thus rests on being adaptable, making savvy career moves and understanding that if you pull in the more stable cash from a publishing deal – rather than a recording one—you can set yourself up from there. But you've got to have the guts. "Three years ago," Bevan remembers, "I was thrown into a session with some of the most famous songwriters in the world, at the top of their field and I … and I did my thing. It's amazing, when someone gives you an opportunity and you go, 'look, I can do this. I'm on a level.' I don't know how to say that without sounding arrogant, I suppose. What I mean is that, in some ways, writing a song is democratic because everyone in the room who you're writing with gets an even split. And a good idea is a good idea, whether it comes from the most famous person in the room or the newbie. If you've got confidence in your ideas, and you know what's good and what's bad, the world's your oyster."

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