Savan Kotecha has built an exceptional career as a songwriter. But despite a résumé containing hits for Justin Bieber and Maroon 5, Kotecha was feeling glum when he first sat down with Ariana Grande to discuss songs that would later appear on 2014’s My Everything. Kotecha had played a key role in One Direction’s breakthrough, but “after the second album, they were kind of growing away from me, and I was kind of bummed out about that,” he recalls. “I dragged my wife from Sweden to the States, we’d just had a baby, moved [to L.A.]. I was in a bit of a funk.”
Working with Grande helped dispel his gloom. “When I met with her, she was talking about how she wanted Drake-y melodies, and when I played her ‘One Last Time,’ she was like — exactly like that!'” Kotecha remembers. “Then I said, I have this idea of doing a ‘Whisper Song,’ like the Ying Yang Twins, except for a girl. She loved that idea.” A few weeks of work together yielded multiple hits, including “Problem,” “Love Me Harder” and “Break Free.”
Kotecha has worked on every Grande album since then, including the just-released Thank U, Next, which debuted at Number One and set a personal best first-week sales number for the singer. Kotecha spoke with Rolling Stone about co-writing four of the album’s songs, including the new single “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” and Grande’s vocal wizardry.
How did your work on Thank U, Next begin?
When it’s time for an Ariana Grande album, ideas just come to my head. The way we always approach it is like, her and I would talk a lot about what would be different [for her]. She’s the best singer in the world in her generation. “What’s a melody language that’s no one heard you do?” You do the R&B stuff with Tommy Brown and those folks so well. What can my crew add?
“Into You” [from Dangerous Woman] was supposed to be an a capella song. I’d never heard singers like her, or like Mariah [Carey], do those Michael Jackson-aggressive melodies: Sings chorus of “Into You” in a fiercely percussive, Jackson-like style. Mariah Carey never did a reggae song, let’s do a reggae song: “Side to Side” is born. With “No Tears Left to Cry” [from Sweetener], we were listening to a lot of Lauryn Hill, and she was also talking about doing a song that starts out as a ballad: Sings Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”
“I’ve been around some of the greatest singers of all time. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
On the Sweetener album, these conversations are happening with me, Max [Martin, who has co-written 22 Number One hits], Ilya [Salmanzadeh, another Swedish writer-producer with a long hit-list] and her. As Ariana’s grown as a writer, she’s become more and more involved, to the point where she’s now the driving force. “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” — she called us with that idea. We’re like, “OK!” She’s on her way over to the studio. We were playing around with melodies before she got there, and it coincidentally worked with the hook melody we were already working with.
She’s now at the peak of her powers as a tastemaker, a songwriter. All the success she’s had, she’s learned from it all: What her voice is, what works for her. And she’s learned how to go and write a hit song. She’s really good.
What do you think has allowed her build to the point where everything she touches is a hit?
She’s super intelligent. She learns fast. And she’s brave — things have happened in her life, and she could’ve run away from it. She could’ve released whatever fluffy song. But she was brave enough to go, I’m going to talk about it. We’re in a time when fans want to know about the artists they love. She offers that. After the unfortunate tragedy she’s been through, to be an open book with it, that’s bold.
When I listen to this album, what makes me so happy about it is you learn about her. This to me is the first album of hers that I feel like you can listen to and really get to understand her. That’s not to dismiss any of the work we’ve done together prior to this. The Sweetener album was a big step forward for her as a songwriter, getting comfortable with being open. After the success of that — “Breathin” was [written on] a day she was having panic attacks. I saw a turning point where she said, “OK, I’m just gonna go for it and write the lyrics about that.”
She also loves being in the studio, which is awesome — a lot of artists don’t. She loves the process of doing it until it’s right. Sometimes people get frustrated with the way me and Max and Ilya do things: We make sure if it’s not good enough, we keep fighting for the best part, keep digging. We don’t just go, oh well, let’s write another one. She’s become a part of that thinking with us as well.
[When we were writing] “Ghostin,” we were in New York with her. The song speaks for itself in terms of what it’s about. We were with her for a week in New York witnessing that, witnessing her feelings on that. We all wrote it, but she never really loved the verses we had. Victoria Monet was with her, and her and Victoria rewrote the verses a few weeks later. That’s a good example of how she doesn’t give up on a song. She keeps trying to get it right for her.
A lot of powerful singers haven’t figured out how to fit big vocal runs into the trap template, but that doesn’t seem to bother Ariana.
She’s super musical. She’s a vocal savant. She does those harmonies, those vocal patterns – the thing at the end of “Ghostin” sings riff, she came up with that. She’ll comp her vocals. [Comping is a painstaking process of singing numerous takes and then fitting together bits and pieces from the best ones to make the final recording.] She knows every detail about her voice. “That note over there, that’s a little bit flat.” We’ll be like, “what? No it’s not.” She’s like, “yes it is, that little syllable there.”
The way that Jimi Hendrix was with a guitar, Ariana Grande is like that with vocals. When the producer or engineer is not understanding what she wants [from the vocal arrangement], she just goes, “do you mind if I sit and do it?” She’ll go into Pro Tools and fix it. She’s a master of the craft. I’ve been around some of the greatest singers of all time. I’ve never seen anything like this.
Where did the ‘NSync interpolation come from in “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored”
That was her idea. She’s a huge ‘NSync fan, as am I. At some point she just started singing that melody. Me and Max never do samples, so that made us nervous. But we were like, fuck it, let’s just do it. Again, I think that’s the thing with her: She’s in the zone where she’s brave. Let’s just go for it. There’s this point where great artists just have their finger on the pulse. And she’ll have her finger on the pulse as long as she wants to, because she’s that good and that smart.
You don’t use samples because you have to give up publishing?
Publishing, and it’s a challenge to oneself. We try and write something that will one day be the sample.
When you made “Bad Idea,” did you start with that guitar riff?
Again, we were theorizing with her: What are the different things you haven’t done? There’s track language, but there’s also melodic language. We’re dealing with amazing vocalist that could literally sing the phonebook and make everything great. So what melodic language haven’t we tried before?
That one came from: What would happen if Ari did a Police kind of melody? When I was coming up with the melody it was more that kind of thing, and a Police kind of guitar with a trap beat. What would that feel like? Then we went off of that. The phrasing was a little different on the second line. Peter Svensson, one of our co-writers [former member of the Cardigans turned hit writer], helped fix that, and then he came up with the guitar riff with Ilya. Max and Ari came in, we fixed all the melodies. The end was an Ilya special. He dropped it half time, and we all went, “shit, that’s cool.” And again, Ari was brave: That’s dope, let’s do it, extend the ending.
“We’re all just hanging on to her coattails, and she’s leading the way.”
Think about the amount of songs she has on radio right now. “Breathin,” “God Is a Woman,” “No Tears Left to Cry” aren’t even that old. [Kotecha co-wrote all three.] They’re still being played on recurrent radio while you’ve got “Thank U, Next,” “7 Rings” and now “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.” That’s pretty insane. And from what I’ve heard, they’re all researching really well. So radio’s not going to slow down and kick any of them off.
We’re all just hanging on to her coattails, and she’s leading the way. We’re as fascinated as what’s going on as I’m sure a lot of people. I’ve seen artists get super huge and they were super huge despite themselves. Then it fades away. This is an artist that was watching and learning. OK, I know what I’m doing now. She took it and ran and became a phenomenon. The only thing you can compare it to is Drake.