“Executive songwriter” isn’t a title. But Madison Love — who’s penned smash hits like Selena Gomez’s “Rare,” Lady Gaga’s “Sour Candy,” and Ava Max’s “Sweet but Psycho” all before age 26 — thinks it should be.
Love wants to “set a new precedent for what our roles are as songwriters,” she says, speaking from the studio she built with her brother in her parents’ San Fernando Valley home during the Covid-19 shutdown. She was musical from the start; her father, a well-known vocal coach in the entertainment industry, practiced scales at the piano with her as a newborn. Love had always wanted to be a performer, not a writer, which is why people know her as a “method songwriter”: She throws herself fully into the creation process.
Her first big hit was 2016’s Machine Gun Kelly & Camila Cabello’s “Bad Things.” She conceived the four-times-platinum song while still a student at NYU, “typing back and forth with the writers during my physics class,” and recalls FaceTiming with publishing execs from campus while cramming two years’ worth of courses into one so that she could graduate early (“I really hustled!”). She signed a publishing deal with APG while she was still enrolled at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute. Thanks to the music program’s esteemed reputation, Love’s teachers included A&Rs, prolific songwriters, and publishing executives, who opened her world to a plethora of networking opportunities.
The first time she was offered a professional contract, “I called my dad and was like, ‘Dad, I need a lawyer,’” she says. He immediately assumed she was in trouble and asked what she did wrong: “He was so mad at me.”
It didn’t take too long for the “stars” — the kind of both metaphorical and celebrity nature — to align. When Love wrote the first version of “Sour Candy” with producer/writer BloodPop, no artist had dibs on the song yet. But in her heart, she knew it belonged to Lady Gaga. “I love to write theatrical pop,” Love says. “I decided to sing it like Gaga for the demo just in case he wanted to play it for her. But then, the song was dead. I didn’t think anyone was going to use it at all.” BloodPop called months later to say he was working on Chromatica. He told her Gaga wanted to enlist Blackpink to put her song out, after reworking it a bit. “I screamed,” says Love.
Gaga invited her to the studio to hear the song when it was done. “I walked in the room shaking,” Love admits, laughing at herself in retrospect. “I work with artists all the time and I don’t get nervous, but she’s just a star to me… She puts it on, and we’re dancing. She’s dancing on me and doing full choreo in the middle of the room. I was so overwhelmed. It was the coolest five minutes of my life.”
On the drive home, she couldn’t tell her Uber driver what happened, but she wanted to. “I was basically crying on the phone,” she says, remembering the driver’s expression of bewilderment. “They were like, ‘What just happened to you?’ And I was all, ‘I can’t talk about it, but you would be screaming too.’”
Her first experience with executive production started with writing Max’s first international hit, “Sweet But Psycho,” which now has more than a billion streams. Max and Love were friends and collaborators in college, and coincidentally, Max signed with APG as an artist not long after Love secured her publishing deal there. “I wrote that song around the same time,” Love says, adding that her publisher, Mike Caren, was the one to suggest that Max cut it. “That was really exciting. I’d never broken an artist. And breaking a new artist with your publisher is groundbreaking as a songwriter. Breaking a female artist, too, is hard.” Love is particularly proud of being able to do so with “straight pop” during a time when “every song on the radio was rap.”
Caren encouraged her to soar, and told her, “You are an executive producer.” People may often assume that an executive producer has to be a beatmaker, but Love says that’s a misconception: “It’s an intimate relationship with the artist, wherein you help them shape the music, look out for the artist as a whole, and make sure the vision stays intact,” she says. “I’m the person who says, ‘I think we should bring in this producer’ or ‘Today, I think we should work with this writer because they just did that song and this could be a good team. Putting the teams and writing rooms together is part of my job.”
Songwriters who serve as executive producers “should be credited” as such, Love adds. “A&Rs get credit, engineers get credit. It should be normalized.”
Recently, Love executive-produced TikTok superstar Addison Rae, who boasts some 80 million followers on the social-media platform and came out with her surprise debut music single “Obsessed” this March. Love’s manager, Adam Mersel, teamed up with hitmaker JKash, to act as Rae’s label representatives; the two of them immediately spotted Love and Rae’s chemistry and brought forth the executive producer opportunity. Says Love: “I play guitar, I write chords. I’ll say, ‘Oh, I think we should do a C here. I think this key is wrong, so let’s take it down two steps.’ I’ll say, ‘I want to hear a drum like this.’ And even Addison is like that. She’ll be like, ‘I hear this. I want this sound. Can you do a pad here, a synth here?’”
Thanks in part to the Rae project, Love now gets asked to handle executive production for a lot of newer artists, but she’ll only accept such an all-encompassing job if she has the time to invest in an entire project. “People will throw money at me, but it’s not about that,” she says. “When I met Addison, I fell in love with her, her drive, and her work ethic… I believe in her so hard and I think I can be an asset to bringing her vision to life.” She says Rae often comes in with melodic and lyrical ideas, which is a treasured rarity — it’s usually Love bringing the ready-made ideas and titles into the studio.
In looking back at her last year of releases, which also included songs performed by Katy Perry and Zara Larsson, she realizes everything she’s written lately has been for women and about empowerment. Even more recently, she co-wrote two songs for Demi Lovato — featuring Noah Cyrus and Saweetie — which came out in April. She has a song on Bebe Rexha’s May album. And there’s Max’s second album, which is in the works. Love prides herself on taking an aerial view of an artist’s vision, and plans to run a female-centric company someday. She also recently celebrated a full-circle moment in launching a scholarship fund at NYU to support a summer high school program that covers music business, production, and songwriting.
“It’s nice to be able to practice what I preach,” Love says. “I feel very empowered in my life.”