He’s responsible for the past two decades’ best pop songs, but Swedish songwriter and producer Max Martin likes to keep a low profile. In a rare interview, the Los Angeles-based hitmaker has explained the method behind his perfect pop formula.
Martin has been working at the very top since the late 90’s, where he co-wrote Britney Spears’ ‘…Baby One More Time’ and NSYNC’s ‘It’s My Life’. Since then, he’s become the songwriter every superstar worth their salt wants to work with. He’s arguably best known for his work with Taylor Swift – responsible for hits including ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, ‘Shake It Off’, ‘Blank Space’ and ‘Style’. Adele discovered him after ’21’, and they co-wrote ‘Send My Love (To Your New Lover)’. He’s also teamed up with Katy Perry (‘I Kissed a Girl’, ‘California Gurls’), Justin Timberlake (‘Can’t Stop the Feeling!’) and Kelly Clarkson (‘Since U Been Gone’). In other words, he’s the best chance the world’s biggest stars have of striking pop gold. In 2013, The Hollywood Reporter tallied his single sales to the tune of $135 million.
Speaking to Swedish newspaper Di Weekend for his first interview in 16 years – excluding a chat with Popjustice about the band Carolina Liar – Martin explained his reclusiveness, his rock group background and why he never listens to the radio.
He also gave a brilliant insight into how to pen the perfect pop song. Here’s five lessons from the interview:
1. There’s no golden rule
“I think that a great pop song should be felt when you hear it. You can hear songs that are technically great, songs that tick all the boxes. But for a song to be felt, you need something else. It’s incredibly important to me that you remember a song right after the first or second time you hear it. That something sticks to you, something that makes you feel: ”I need to hear that song again”. That’s fundamental. Something you want again. And again.”
2. Create a sense of familiarity
“Another theory is that you can also sing the chorus melody as a verse. For instance, take ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ with Prince. The verse and chorus of that song are exactly the same. But as a listener, you don’t really notice since the energy of the chorus is completely different compared to the verse (he sings like Prince to show his point). Once the chorus comes, you feel like you’ve heard it before. And you have!”
3. Always change the chorus
“If you listen to the first, second and third chorus of a song, they don’t sound the same. It’s the same melody and all that but what really happens is that the energy changes. It’s all about getting the listener to keep his or her concentration.”
4. Vocals are the most important part
“Singing involves a great deal of psychology. If the artist isn’t having a great day or finds it all boring, my role becomes that of a coach. Getting the very best out of the artist. Helping them perform at their very best when it’s game time. One way to get them there is to bring them out of their comfort zones. To coach them a little, get them to try new stuff.”
5. Don’t overwhelm the listener
“I have lots of theories when it comes to this. If you’ve got a verse with a lot of rhythm, you want to pair it with something that doesn’t. Longer notes. Something that might not start at the same beat. As I say this, I’m afraid it might sound like I’ve got a whole concept figured out…But it’s not like that. The most crucial thing is always how it feels. But the theories are great to have on hand when you get stuck. ’We can’t think of anything, is there anything we could do?’ In those cases, you can bring it in as a tool. If you listen to ‘Shake It Off’ with Taylor Swift (he hums the verse melody). After that segment, you need a few longer notes in order to take it all in, otherwise it’s simply too much information. If there would have been as many rhythm elements in the part right before the chorus.”