Thursday 19 July 2018

Meet Max Martin, the prolific pop writer behind hits of Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and more

The hit man: Max Martin has written number one hits for most of the top artists today
The hit man: Max Martin has written number one hits for most of the top artists today
Max Martin is the most sought-after songwriter in pop music
Katy Perry has had hits written for her by Max Martin
John Meagher

John Meagher

The US singles chart - the Billboard Hot 100 - makes for interesting reading this week. Sitting pretty at the top is the Jamaican, OMI, with his reggae fusion song 'Cheerleader'. But it's the artist at number two, and knocking on OMI's door, that grabbed my attention. The Weeknd (yes, Abel Tesfaye has dispensed with the final 'e') is a Canadian R&B singer on the cusp of a significant American breakthrough and much of it is down to the insanely catchy 'Can't Feel My Face', which features a line you won't find in the Bob Dylan songbook: "I can't feel my face when I'm with you, but I love it."

The song has been in the chart for six weeks and there's a fair possibility it will go to number one next week. (Songs don't fall out of the chart like they do in Britain - there's much more of that old-fashioned 'climber' there.) If that happens, it won't be just Tesfaye who'll be celebrating, but the man who wrote the song, the spectacularly prolific Max Martin.

He's certainly not a household name, and even those who have heard of him would struggle recognise him in a line-up, but this 44-year-old Swede has got the Midas touch when it comes to delivering pop gold. Martin has written for every huge-selling name you care to mention over the past 20 years - among them Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC - and, if anything, his ability to write a sure-fire chart-topper has intensified in the past few years.

His record is stunning. He is responsible for fully writing, or co-writing, 20 US number ones. That puts him third in line behind Paul McCartney (32) and John Lennon (26) and ahead of the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson combined. Lennon, whose haul includes 20 Beatles number ones, some posthumous hits and the David Bowie song, 'Fame', which he co-wrote, may be pushed into third place in the next few years.

And it isn't just songwriting Martin excels at. He's a producer too, and he helmed 17 of those 20 US chart-toppers. That puts him right behind George Martin in the record books. Earlier this year he won a Grammy for Producer of the Year (Non-Classical) and the response from those in the know was: What took them so long?

It's no wonder the biggest names and record companies are constantly pounding on the door.

Here's someone who not only knows how to write songs that ear-worm their way into the hearts and minds of countless people around the world - in fact, one of his compositions, Katy Perry's 'Roar', has been viewed on YouTube more than a billion times - but he is a master of the studio too, capable of turning bare bones into glossy, glitzy, oh-so-clever pop confections.

Those who wondered how Taylor Swift could seamlessly go from bland country-lite singer to the hottest talent on the pop planet should bear in mind that Martin started working with her on her crossover album, Red, and continued that relationship on her latest, 1989, which was comfortably the biggest selling album of last year.

An incredible six songs - three from each album - were US number ones and all were co-written by Martin. One of them, 'Shake It Off', was arguably the defining song of 2014 and another, 'Style', also had critics in a lather, including those like me who used to give Swift a very wide berth.

Both songs go to the essence of great pop: they're immediate, easily transcend cultural boundaries and are fixated on sex. Irrespective of the era, three-minute pop songs have been centred on getting laid, or wish you were getting laid, and Martin has understood that since his first efforts in the mid-1990s.

Born Martin Sandberg in Stockholm, he dreamed of being a metal rocker but his awful glam-tinged band, It's Alive, struggled to get noticed. They were signed to Cherion Records, an affiliate of the now defunct BMG record giant, and Sandberg soon became intrigued by the embryonic songwriting factory that Cherion's Denniz Pop had created and he wanted in. He quickly learned the rudiments when working on the second album released by compatriots Ace Of Base, and he truly alerted the industry to his talents with his work for The Backstreet Boys.

In 1998, he wrote a song that was rejected by the boyband, and also turned down by the R&B group, TLC, but was eventually recorded in Stockholm by a 17-year-old American newcomer called Britney Spears. The song, '...Baby, One More Time', went on to shift 10 million copies and is one of the biggest selling singles of all time.

Martin has his detractors, including those who say he has helped usher in a homogeneous sound into contemporary chart music. While that is undoubtedly the case when I think of some of his earlier keyboard-driven dance-pop efforts, his best material sparkles quite wonderfully. Want proof? Listen to the Robyn's 'Show Me Love', Ariana Grande and Iggy Azelia's 'Problem' and Kelly Clarkson's 'Since U Been Gone'. Forget any notion of guilty pleasures, they're all great pop songs - and I'd rather listen to them than anything you care to throw my way courtesy of Ed Sheeran or Sam Smith.

Perhaps Martin's greatest strength is the ease with which he works with other songwriters and producers. As anybody who's bothered reading the liner notes on Katy Perry's latest album, for instance, will note the songs are the products of committees with Martin (as executive producer) harnessing the best songwriting and production talent at his disposal. For years he's worked closely with another pop-creating maven, the American Lukasz 'Dr Luke' Gottwald.

Martin has noted that writing pop is not an exact science. Just ask Lesley Roy, a pop hopeful from Balbriggan, Co Dublin, who was tipped for the big time a decade ago. Martin co-wrote her debut album, but it disappeared without trace.

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