Pop princess Britney Spears released her ninth studio album, Glory, this week. The drop has elated her longtime fans, including many members of the LGBTQ community, who have rallied behind Spears throughout her career. And she's not alone. Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha all count LGBTQ people as some of their biggest fan groups, yet gay songwriters remain a minority in the music industry.
One rising LGBTQ songwriter, Jesse Saint John, is starting to make waves. He co-wrote a song on Glory called "Love Me Down." John comes from a different background than most songwriters; he attended art school, performed in theatre, and participated in the queer art scene. His music, however, fits right in with Glory's throwback jams reminiscent of Spears's earlier hits. We spoke to him about the song he wrote for Spears, the lack of LGBTQ songwriters, and how the music industry is starting to recognize the work of queer men and women.
Broadly: How did you end up writing for the album?
Jesse Saint John: I met her A&R, Karen Kwak, who Britney has been shouting out in interviews. I was like, "Oh that's dope. She's doing a shoutout to her A&R." But I met Karen, and I spoke really candidly with her. Karen was like, "You don't understand—this album has been manic for me. Every single person seems to have this personal attachment to Britney Spears and really wants to be a part of this album." I was like, "I really, totally get that." So she asked me what my favorite Britney album was, and I was like, "Ugh, don't make me choose! But if I had to choose it would be In the Zone and a close second is Blackout." She was like, "That's exactly what I wanted to hear." Those were the milestone albums that she wanted to reference for Britney, so she was like, "I'm going to keep you updated as far as what Britney's feeling and all that." She was my big champion to make sure I got a song on the album.
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That's great. How did you find out that your song was confirmed for the album?
I did another song for Charli XCX called "Secret" that Karen really liked, and for a second she thought it could be for Britney Spears. Then Charli ended up releasing it, and it was meant to be because it's perfect for Charli. But ever since then Karen was like, "Whatever song you have next, send it to me." So the song I did for Britney Spears called "Love Me Down" was the last song she recorded for the album. So it was a real last minute like, "Get it on there!" It was a huge accomplishment for me. She kept me in the loop up until the last minute when we got the vocal files of Britney actually singing the song, and that's when I knew it was real and I was walking on air.
Have you met Spears yet?
I haven't met her yet. I'm waiting. I'm going to go see her in Vegas before the year ends.
How did you get into songwriting to begin with? Did you always know it was something you were interested in?
I have to say, I didn't always know. I started out doing theater because I'm gay, and then I had a band, so I wrote songs with them. I translated my theater background into performance and song, and I looked at songwriting as a means to do the performance. When I decided to work with an unsigned development act, I just started writing all the songs and then realized that that was sort of a career option because people started reacting really well to the songs that I wrote. So I realized that that's something that I can do and make an honest living out of. I kind of almost fell into it, but I've always been doing creative and artistic writing so it was kind of a natural progression.
I just always believed that you shouldn't have any guilty pleasures because if you don't have any guilt about your pleasures than they're not guilty pleasures.
Was Spears always an inspiration?
She was always my favorite, favorite icon and my favorite artist. When I was 10, my first concert was the Oops!... I Did It Again Tour, which was so iconic for me. It really shaped my mind because when I was little I didn't really understand what kind of lines were being blurred. I think Britney Spears was 18 or something like that, and she was riding a pole, and there was fire, and it was just this experience of raw, sexual energy. She was having a slumber party, and it was such a theatrical show. Everything about that shaped my vision about what it was like to do music and art, and then I ended up going to art school and would get into these heated debates about what certain people considered to be novelty. I was like,"'No, you don't understand. This shapes the way people look at everything, at art, the way we look at each other." I just always believed that you shouldn't have any guilty pleasures because if you don't have any guilt about your pleasures than they're not guilty pleasures. I always thought that vapid and seemingly surface entertainment actually had all this depth and interesting discussion points, so Britney's been my goddess.
Are there more queer songwriters now?
Within the last year there has been this amazing shift in the tide where queer songwriters are starting to have a voice. There are plenty of amazing queer songwriters, but it's sort of a new thing. I know myself and a few other queer and non-conforming guys are making their way into music, which is so weird because even when I first signed just last year it still felt really archaic. It felt like I was always walking into these boardrooms with these heteronormative older gentlemen looking at me like a novelty. I never looked at my sexuality as a weakness. I thought I might as well use it as a superpower and walk in and shake everyone up a little bit. Now I'm starting to see others when I walk into the studios. We all pretty much work in the same studios. There's such a small community of actual everyday working songwriters, so now when I walk into the studios, I see a couple other gay guys and it's like, "Oh. Hey, brother!"
Why do you think there are so few queer pop songwriters, even though gay men and men are some of the main consumers of pop music?
Isn't that so bizarre? The first person who really gave me a chance as a songwriter was Sia, and she's so supportive of the community. I always thought that made so much sense because we are the people who actually buy the music. Gay people usually have the expendable income to be going to concerts and buying merch, so it's so funny that we've been shut out for so long and yet we are the ones driving [pop music], especially female pop music. I thought that was so ass-backwards. Then, all of a sudden in the last year, I think they're starting to snap into it like, "Oh you guys love this music, so you might as well write it."