Sia's Reject Opus: Songwriter on Reclaiming Adele, Rihanna's Unwanted Hits

Singer dishes on writing sessions with Katy Perry and Beyoncé, tells us why she thinks "Titanium" is "very cheesy"

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Sia
"You're basically throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping it will stick," says Sia of writing for the pop machine. Christopher Polk/Getty

Sia Furler's forthcoming album, This Is Acting (due January 29th), has a novel concept: It's full of songs rejected by A-list artists. Furler has been successfully writing for music's biggest names, from Adele to Beyoncé, since she crossed over to writing pop music around five years ago, after solidifying herself as a Top 40 artist with her hit single "Chandelier." "I feel like they're hits, but nobody wanted them," she says of the tracks on the new LP, which have been written during the last few years. "So I thought, 'Let's see, as an experiment, if I'm right.'"

In anticipation of the album, Furler spoke in depth with Rolling Stone about pop music, her productivity and on becoming her clients' "bitch" in the studio. 

You've described songwriting for others as "play-acting," hence the title This Is Acting. But can you take me through that mindset of writing a song with the intention of having it sung by someone else?
Sure. I probably get 20 or 30 tracks a week from my producer friends who are hoping that I'll write lyrics and melody on top of them. I write over them in my house, and I record demos of them, in my house. I have an engineer come over. If I know Rihanna is looking for a single, I'll actually choose tracks that sound like a Rihanna-like jam, and then I'll start the writing process over it. That will come first with melody, and then I'll chose lyrical content from a list of concepts I have in my phone, and whenever I think of one, I write it down.

So I'll just scroll through all of my notes and look for concepts that feel like that particular artist. I might have something called "Bubble Gum," and I'll think, "Yeah, that's not Rihanna, that's more for a younger artist." Or I might have something like "Liquor," and with that as a concept, I can imagine that she would sing something about someone not being able to hold their liquor. Melody comes first, and you have to feel like she can sing it, and then I have to choose lyrical content that also feels aligned to that particular artist. That's kind of how I do it. I'm often wrong, and then the song ends up in a different home, and sometimes it ends up in the trash.

It's really just hit or miss, and I think the reason I'm pretty successful is actually because I'm really productive, not necessarily that I'm a great songwriter. I think I'm a good curator, so I know how to choose tracks that feel like they're anthemic, or that seem to have an uplifting quality in the chorus. It really seems like the general public responds well to songs about salvation or overcoming something, or that everything’s going to be OK, or that things are fun. So yeah, I think that my skill is more upbeat curating, as in choosing the right tracks and then sort of trying to understand the will or nature of popular culture.

"I think that the stuff I write for pop music is terribly, terribly cheesy."

With that theme in mind, I feel like you've always been really great at not crossing that line of cheesiness when writing something that's empowering. You avoid clichés ...
Thank you. That's hilarious to me, because I think that the stuff I write for pop music is terribly, terribly cheesy, but I'm coming from an indie background. I was like "Whoa" when I decided to crossover. For me, "Titanium" is very cheesy. And "Wild Ones" is definitely 100 percent cheese. It was quite confronting to start writing in that way. I never intended or wanted either of those songs to be seen because I felt like it diluted my credibility because I found them to be very cheesy. I wanted other people to sing them, and I just wanted to collect the publishing checks at the end of the day. It turned out that both of those songs really helped me in the end to secure my place as a pop songwriter, and that also the success of them helped erode my feelings of insecurity around how cheesy they were.

[After] watching the PS22 choir sing "Titanium" and then listening to the children being interviewed afterwards saying that it actually really impacted them — some of the kids were being bullied — I felt like I was jaded and cynical, and I felt like a bit of an asshole. I thought, "Why don't you loosen up, you prick! This stuff that you think is cheesy is really impacting these kids around the world. Why don't you stop being so judgmental?" [Laughs] I actually had that conversation with myself.

But I still believe I'm straddling the line between art and commerce, but I think that my visual work is art and my music is definitely commercial. I think I managed to trick people a little bit into thinking I'm more arty by making creative, artistic, visual work and applying it to commercial music. Maybe. I don't know.

Were you a pop consumer and listener before you started writing pop music?
No. I mean, yes, as a 10-year-old. Probably from like 10 to 14 or 15, I would just listen to pop radio. Then I started to listen to some more, I guess [it] would be considered more indie music. I was listening to Jeff Buckley and Soul II Soul and Malcolm McLaren. And then I just stopped. I discovered television. I started actually singing and writing music, and as soon as I started singing and writing it, I stopped listening to it really. When I was on tour with Zero 7, they would listen to music. We would be on the tour bus and the Kings of Convenience would be playing, and then I made Colour the Small One which couldn't be more derivative of Kings of Convenience and James Taylor and the things that Zero 7 were playing on the bus. I'm very easily influenced, and I'm also a quick study, so I think when I decided I wanted to write pop songs I literally just listened to pop radio for six months to get a feel for it and understand it. 

Malcolm McLaren; Jazzie B of Soul II Soul; Jeff Buckley
Malcolm McLaren, Jazzie B of Soul II Soul and Jeff Buckley CBS/Ullstein Bild/Getty, PYMCA/UIG/Getty, Paul Natkin/Getty

Were all the songs from This Is Acting intentionally written for other artists?
Yes, actually, I guess all of them were written with the intention of being for somebody else. But there is one I didn't send to anybody called "One Million Bullets." That one I liked — and I already had so much of the album completed — but I loved it and didn't want to give it to anyone else. So that one I don't think I sent to anyone else, but my memory's terrible. There's one that I went into a session with Kanye, to write for Rihanna, so that one was intended for her, but then I'm keeping that one.

Was that "Reaper"?
Yeah! 

I was surprised when I found out that the song was co-written by Kanye. What were your writing sessions with him like?
Well, he wasn't there!

He wasn't?
[Laughs] No! They'll entice me into a session by saying, "Rihanna will definitely be there" or "Kanye will definitely be there," but it's hilarious because I turn up and, almost always, they never come. So I went into the studio to write for Rihanna with Kanye and neither of them showed up and stayed for less than an hour. They had two tracks. They told me what they had wanted. There were notes from Kanye, and I can't even remember what they were. I remember I just raced in and raced out, and I thought there was something about the chorus that seemed fun about this song, but I never thought it would see the light of day. My manager pushed for this song to be on the record, but I don't care about it.

You don't care about the song?
I don't care about the song. I know in print that will look bad, but what I mean is I'm not emotionally attached to it. I thought it was a fun song. I think it's a good, fun song, but I didn't anticipate it being on the record. But my manager really likes it so I put it on for him.

I heard the song "Cheap Thrills" and that one also sounds like it could be for Rihanna ...
Yeah, it totally was.

I felt like I could hear her singing it.
Her manager said "We want 'Diamonds.' [Ed. Note: Furler wrote "Diamonds" for Rihanna] We need soul. We want some music that has feeling. I went to Greg [Kurstin], and that's what we came up with. I realized just as soon as I was cutting it that it sounded a little bit too Brit-pop for her. It's more Icona Pop. We did actually send it to her, but they passed on it, and then I just couldn't stop listening to it in the car. For some reason, I really liked listening to it which makes me feel masturbatory, but I wouldn't normally be just jamming out to my own tunes. There's something really uplifting about it that put me in a good mood, and I would just pretend it wasn't me singing [laughs]. It felt very summer and fun, and I was like, "I'll put that on there."

What song or songs feel the most Sia to you? Which ones are you most connected with?
"One Million Bullets" is my baby. I had seller's remorse with "Bird Set Free" every time it went away and then came back. First it went to Rihanna and then it was returned. Then it went to Adele, and Adele cut it and sounded amazing on it. Then it was returned. The truth is that we wrote "Bird Set Free" for Pitch Perfect 2. They rejected it and took another song of ours called "Flashlight." That become a big thing through the movie, but I could not believe they rejected "Bird Set Free" because to me it was such a big, anthemic, fun, sing-along-in-the-car song. I felt seller's remorse. I had grief. I feel connected to that song. I feel connected to a song called "Footprints." That was a Beyoncé reject that I wrote in the Hamptons a couple years ago. I feel really connected to one song that I actually decided to leave off the album because I wanted to use it in the movie I'm directing next May. And I really like "Cheap Thrills" because I think it's fun. Those are the ones I actually feel most connected to, but the truth is I can't even remember the track listing because I've taken off songs, picked up another one so many times, I actually don't even know. I like one called "Broken Glass." That's another one, but I think that might only be a bonus track. 

Sia
Sia performs "Bird Set Free" on 'SNL' on November 7th, 2015.

Adele recently told us about working with you in the studio and gave this great visual of you two "being bossy" and all the male producers "shitting themselves." What were those 25 sessions like from your perspective?
Well, she's extremely talented, so it was really easy. It's funny because both of us are quite dominant because we are both skillful at our jobs of songwriting or singing. I think that maybe we're not dominant but confident. I think because we're both very confident in our skills, we're just naturally alpha in some way in terms of our work. It's funny that she phrased it like that because I know for a fact that I do choose to work with producers who are better at production and better at instrumentation and better at songwriting than me but who are generally beta types. Like when you're making a movie, it's cool to have a co-director or whatever. At the end of the day, you want to have a singular voice. I think that the thing about working with others in terms of music or film or music videos or whatever, it has to be my voice that I am standing behind. It was a very interesting process working with her because I felt insecure because I didn't want to dominate because it's clear to me that she's the dominant party. When I work with artists, I basically check my ego at the door and I become their bitch, and I'm completely comfortable in that role. Sometimes I'll steamroll them, and I'll realize I'm doing it. Because I'm so fast, for me, it's all channels. Words come out and it's just like, "bluh." It comes out, and I'll just write the lyrics. I don't overthink it. If a word or sentence sounds silly, then I'll change it, but I'm not analytical.

That's what was interesting about writing with Katy Perry because, again, it's her voice at the end of the day. She's also quite dominant, and she's extremely analytical. I actually quit within the first hour of our first session. I was like, "Can we be friends if this doesn't work? Like our whole songwriting dynamic?" [Editor's Note: Rolling Stone has changed this sentence to reflect a correction from Sia] And she was like, "I love it. It's like a puzzle to me. It's like a crossword." And I was like, "But this is boring for me. The analysis is totally boring for me. It feels like the enemy of creativity." It was so cool to be able to have that conversation on why we wrote in such entirely different ways. I'm glad I didn't give up on it because I actually did get a song out of it, and we also really had a laugh because we were able to be authentic.

I remember the day after I wrote with Adele. I wrote her saying, "I'm just writing because I want to make sure I wasn't too overly dominant. I'm feeling a bit insecure that it was a bit annoying working with me as opposed to satisfying." That was what my experience was like. I felt kind of insecure. I'm a fan and I want to do a good job and I want to work for the artist when I'm writing with them. Sometimes that can bring up insecurities. Then she wrote me back and was like, "What are you talking about?" [Laughs] I was like "Riiight, OK!" I'm just a human being who's on my own trip. Trying to be of service, walking through life trying to make sure I'm being the best version of myself I can be.

I chose the people that we worked with and I choose those people because they're so incredibly talented and they check their egos at the door too and allow me to be the artist. Then when I want to bring another artist, I try to check my ego at the door and be of service to them and allow them to be the artist. But in the case of Adele, I'm not sure if I did that or if I succeeded. Maybe that's why those songs ended up on my album and not on hers because it was too much my voice and not enough hers. 

Besides Adele and Beyoncé, who else were some of the songs intentionally written for?
Mostly we've been pitching on Rihanna for the last couple years because she's been looking for a couple years. Well, it feels like a couple years. It might be one year. They're always looking for that first single. I didn't send as much to Beyoncé, though I do know she's working on something. One of them is a Shakira reject, which there's no doubt when you hear it. You'll know that it was a Shakira reject because I sound like Shakira.

Oh, yeah! There is a Beyonce reject on there. It's one of my favorite songs, actually. I really like it. We did that in the Hamptons session we did years ago for the most recent album she did. I got "Pretty Hurts" from that album, but originally I wrote 25 songs for it while we were in the Hamptons and one made the record. Isn't that amazing? 

Beyonce
Beyoncé's "Pretty Hurts" music video

Did you write with her?
The process is like a writing camp, essentially. She flies us all in and puts us all up. We all live in a house together — like five producers and five topline writers. She visits each room and will contribute and let us know what she's feeling and what she's not feeling. Lyrically, melodically, anything. She's very Frankenstein when she comes to songs. She'll say, "I like the verse from that. I like the pre-chorus from that. Can you try mixing it with that?" In the end, she had maybe 25 songs of mine on hold, and I was very excited to get a couple of them back. Definitely one is on the album.

Otherwise, I always try to pitch to everybody. If somebody rejects it, I usually just go down the list. Like, I tried to give Katy Perry "Elastic Heart." I think I tried to give her "Chandelier" as well. 

I feel like I can definitely hear Katy Perry singing "Elastic Heart."
Yeah, I really wanted her to sing some of my songs. Mostly because I love her as a person. But if you mention [artists], I'd probably be like "Oh, yeah!" You're basically throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping it will stick. You start with the people you really can hear and feel like they would be the best person for the job. Then if they reject it, you start thinking more creatively or broadly. You're like, "Well, maybe she can pull this off!" Or "Actually, she's trying to move out of that and into this, so maybe this could work for her." Or "Well, that's too dirty for that artist, but she's trying to make more mature records this time, so maybe she'll want something a little more seductive." It's really like a puzzle. You're just trying to find where to put all the pieces. Then sometimes I think a song is too good to give away. It sounds bad, and I'm trying to think of a nice way to say it, but an artist who gets high rotation on the radio is your target when you're a songwriter. That's the goal. You want someone who gets highly rotated. Then you get people who get slightly less rotation. Sometimes I'll give them songs, but sometimes I'll think a song is too valuable and that I can get higher rotation if I sing it myself. Does that make sense?

Basically, if all of the top-tier artists who get the most rotation blow off a song that I think would succeed at radio, I'll then decide to keep it for myself instead of giving it to a next-tier artist who gets less rotation. I realized — this wasn't when I first started writing pop songs; I couldn't have gotten a song on the commercial radio if I tried — but now, as my value increases, it actually makes more sense for me to sing those new pop songs as opposed to giving them to other people. Which is exciting!

From The Archives Issue 1250: December 17, 2015
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