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The desi who writes songs for Britney, Enrique...

April 10, 2014 14:43 IST

The desi who writes songs for Britney, Enrique...


Chaya Babu/ in New York

Savan Kotecha has written tracks for Usher, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera.

Chaya Babu spoke to the desi songwriter.

Last month One Direction's Harry Styles made an appearance on The Tonight Show as part of a week of A-listers stopping in to wish new host Jimmy Fallon well.

Well, it wasn't Harry Styles exactly.

Funny lady and Saturday Night Live star Kristen Wiig impersonated the British boy band heartthrob with a hilarious interview and an amusing spontaneous rendition of the group's hit What Makes You Beautiful.

Wiig's vocals were off-key -- she clearly didn't really know the song even though it's among one of the best-selling singles of all time and has been all over the radio since it came out in 2011 -- but the moment was representative of the popularity of the group and the track.

On network television that night, it sat at the centre of pop culture, bringing together comedy, celebrity (Lady Gaga and Jerry Seinfeld were there too), style (Wiig did a great job in her suit and Harry Styles bouffant), and, of course, music.

Though Wiig's grasp of the words and the tune was rough, almost anyone who has turned on a radio in the past two years knows at least bits of What Makes You Beautiful.

What is less known is who was behind the scenes on the song, written by Savan Kotecha and its producers, Rami Yacoub and Carl Falk, and that Kotecha had his wife in mind while penning the lyrics.

Tween girls everywhere would be disappointed by that last bit of information. But all in all, the single was huge.

"It's become this pop culture thing -- that's a pretty tough one to top," says Kotecha -- who aids and develops budding talent as the vocal producer on The X Factor and has been called the man behind One Direction's rise to the top -- as we discussed the ups and downs of working in the music business.

It may not come as a surprise that the industry is unpredictable and offers little security, but still, his verbalising the internal sense of volatility even when things are going well speaks to the nature of doing creative work and, more specifically, working in a creative field where success is defined by a recognition that is often and increasingly ephemeral. Next week, the kids are singing something else.

"It's weird," he says of the idea of achievement and milestones. "It's never what you expect. One, earning a living doing this isn't what you expect. I think some people think it's like, 'My song's on the radio! I'm a millionaire!' and it doesn't really work that way unfortunately. There were a lot of moments of, 'Oh, now it's gonna be all good,' and then, 'Oh wait, no it's not.' You're only as big as your last hit."

And this is coming from someone who has written songs for big-time acts like Christina Aguilera, Usher, Enrique Iglesias, Backstreet Boys, and more.

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Image: Savan Kotecha.


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Chaya Babu/

It sounds like a vicious cycle of highs and lows, but perhaps that constant push works for those with an obsession with what they do. That's how he described it: Being obsessed with getting the next hit. And it's the same way he described his path into the business to begin with.

"When I talk to my contemporaries, 'obsessed' is a very familiar word," Kotecha says. "When it comes down to how we got started in music, it's because you become obsessed with it. And you don't see or hear any of the voices around you or even in your head that are telling you not to do it or to do other things. You're just... yeah, you're obsessed."

Kotecha's early years story is as expected for someone who grew up when he did -- he was a kid who liked to sing and dance; he idolised Michael Jackson; and he fell into the 1990s hip-hop and R&B craze that propelled groups like Boyz II Men to new heights of fame.

It was his family's move from Manassas, Virginia, to Austin, Texas, that led to the integral events of Kotecha deciding to mess around on his sister's keyboard after spotting it in an unpacked box, and joining the high school choir. His sister had taken piano lessons, which was why they had the keyboard, but he didn't have a clue about how to write, read, or play music.

Out of laziness, he said, he started making up his own songs on it instead of trying to play ones that already existed. He figured out different chords and started putting together his own melodies; choir and music theory class at school rounded out this initial song-writing training.

He recalls spending hours and hours every day trying to play, teaching himself, practicing, sitting with his headphones on until 4 or 5 in the morning. He put a band together that sang the songs he wrote and performed at high school events. He saved every penny he could to buy new equipment. He was so passionate that the choir director turned a blind eye when he skipped other classes to sneak into the choir room and use the piano. It was everything.

"My parents were pretty freaked out, especially my mom. There were definitely calls to the high school choir director, like, 'Savan is spending too much time in your class and not enough time on anything else'!" Kotecha remembers, laughing about his parents' angst about his singular focus.

"There were so many people who were achieving amazing things academically, and I was failing a lot of classes because all I was doing was writing songs. I wouldn't do any homework. I'd go home and spend time at the keyboard, figuring out how to work equipment, and reading books about the music business, and writing songs. So it was a tough pill for them to swallow I think."

All things considered Kotecha said his father was very supportive. The elder Kotecha told his son that he had two years after high school to start to make a living doing what he loved, or else he'd have to go to college full-time like all of his friends and classmates.

That was not on the itinerary, in Kotecha's mind. He was committed and in it for the long haul, and he didn't even know his own determination for what it was.

"I didn't think about it ever," he explains. "I was like, 'Of course, I'm going to make it in the music business'. Not in a cocky way -- of course, I was scared at that time, too. But I was just never took my eye off the ball. I always knew I'd do whatever it took to make it work."

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Image: Britney Spears, one of the artistes Savan Kotecha has written songs for.


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Chaya Babu/

Of all the things he talks about when discussing his path to where he is now, Kotecha's perseverance and diligence is what stands out the most and snakes its way into the conversation through different aspects of his experience.

He mentions going to the hotels where he knew music industry big wigs were staying during Austin's South by Southwest festival, where he would hand out demo tapes to anyone who had a nametag and then get kicked out for soliciting.

Then he'd go to the car and put a hat on and a different shirt and go back and do it again. And then get kicked out again.

He estimates the number of tapes he sent out in those years to be 460-something; many of the rejection letters are still somewhere in his parents' home. He jokes about scraping by, living on canned beans in Sweden, years later. And he still turns days into nights into days in the studio.

But it's true that he's not cocky. His tone isn't boastful or self-important; he's not being cautionary to younger people who may not understand the dedication involved or have what it takes to 'make it'.

He's simply and sincerely looking back on -- and even acknowledging the persistent need for -- his grit, hard work, and hopefulness. In his mind, he's only just arrived.

Writing Britney Spears's If You Seek Amy, working with Carrie Underwood on her winning songs on American Idol, helping to develop artists like Cher Lloyd and, of course, One Direction from their beginning stages -- together, accomplishments like this have slowly helped Kotecha feel secure and confident in his role as a pop songwriter.

"You're really just chasing all the time; it's all a chase," he says. "My family is like, 'When does it end? When is this over and you feel like enough is enough?' And I could never answer that."

But, he says, his mother has certainly found some peace with it.

"Now, it's the best thing in the world to her," he laughs. "It's been really slow though. When I started to make decent money, she stopped with the panicked phone calls saying things like, 'Mrs Patel's son is a doctor! My son writes pop songs about the sex!"

But this was after the years of the demo tape grind and a life abroad, struggling at first to get by. Thirteen years in Sweden brought Kotecha close to some of the biggest people in the pop music business, including producer Max Martin, to whom Kotecha credits much of his success, and Simon Cowell and his team. Of these mentors, he says he's blessed to have been given a shot.

These days, acts like Maroon 5 and Jennifer Lopez have been on the roster for Kotecha, and they are representative of the evolution of his work.

"You grow up as you grow up, and your music grows up too," he says. "Plus, my son is 22 months old and he doesn't care about the next hit, so I gotta find some balance and not be in the studio nonstop for days. We'll see how it goes."

Image: Christina Aguilera, another singer whom Savan Kotecha has written songs for.

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