Interview with STEFAN ÖRN, writer of the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest winner, songwriter for Louise Hoffsten, member of Apollo Drive - Jun 13, 2011
“I wouldn’t have done [Eurovision Song Contest] five years ago, but today, with how the industry is, it’s a good platform for new artists and new songs.”
As the writer of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest winner for Azerbaijan, Swedish songwriter Stefan Örn has attracted huge media and record company attention across the continent and no doubt received a great career boost as a result – but only a few years ago Örn wouldn’t have even considered taking part. His involvement is a mark of the competition’s growing credibility and influence as a showcase for top quality pop songs. Örn’s ‘Running Scared’, as performed by Ell & Nikki, is not the only one to have found major success in charts across Europe - several of the ‘losing’ songs have too.
In this interview, the songwriter and member of rock/pop band Apollo Drive talks to HitQuarters about how to compose the perfect chart-friendly Eurovision song, why stringing loops together on a computer isn’t producing, and laments the monotony of identikit modern songwriters.
Did you make it to Düsseldorf to see Azerbaijan win the Eurovision Song Contest with your song ‘Running Scared’?
From the beginning we’d always said we shouldn’t go, but then the day before we just suddenly decided to. And in the end we were really happy to be there and see everything.
So what was your reaction?
I thought we were going to be top 5, but to win is something entirely different. Me and Sandra [Bjurman], who I wrote the song with, were both really happy. We were sitting together in the arena, and that was amazing.
What was the original inspiration for ‘Running Scared’ and how it was written?
The originally inspiration came from the movie ‘Running Scared’. It’s a good movie but terrible in that the story is really sad.
We’d had a hard day in the studio. We were trying to write a song for another artist and it was going really badly and so we just decided to start with some new ideas. This one came up and in about 30 minutes we were done.
How did you first meet Sandra Bjurman and what was it that appealed to you about her songwriting skills?
It was five years ago. The bass player [Mason Pitts] in my band Apollo Drive thought that we’d make good music together and so introduced us both - and we just clicked.
Sandra’s really good with lyrics. She’s not a typical songwriter, but more of an artist. Her soul is very dark, and so she’s interesting compared to a lot of the songwriters today. They are so boring because they work in the same way with the same music, and the same frame … for me everything sounds the same.
Not only did you write Azerbaijan’s Eurovision entry for this year but last year’s too. As a Swedish songwriter, how did you get involved in writing songs on behalf of Azerbaijan?
They asked my friend Anders Bagge, who’s a big producer/songwriter, if he wanted to help Azerbaijan, and he asked me if I want to be a part of it, and I in turn asked Sandra. We wrote this song ‘Drip Drop’ for Safura [Alizadeh] for last year’s Eurovision and it ended up in fifth place.
I worked with the Icelandic singer Yohanna (Jóhanna Guðrún Jónsdóttir) for this year, but after [the Icelandic singer Sigurjón Brink] died – that was a terrible story – the Iceland entry went to ‘Aftur Heim’ (‘Coming Home’) sung by Sigurjón's Friends.
So when Azerbaijan called me and asked me for a song I told them, “Yeah, let’s go for it.” We wrote a couple of songs and they chose this one. Eurovision is not actually my area - I’m more like a rock/pop guy - but it’s been really fun.
How do you decide what would be a good fit for a Eurovision entry?
It’s a simple song that can reach everybody pretty quick. You need a good hook at the beginning – a simple but strong chorus. I told these Azerbaijan guys that I don’t know about Eurovision but this song is perfect for radio.
Eurovision songs are once again finding success in the charts across Europe – so when you’re writing the songs, you must be conscious of writing songs that would appeal to the mainstream radio?
Yeah, I think so. When I write for other artists, I try to make it easy and big, but interesting at the same time, with interesting lyrics and melodies - and that’s a hard thing to do.
Today’s music is still a lot about production and less about the lyrics and melodies, and that’s not my kind of writing. I just try to write a good song.
What do you think of Eurovision as a platform for songwriting?
I think it’s getting bigger and bigger. I wouldn’t have done it five years ago, but today with how the industry is, it’s a good platform for new artists and new songs. 90 percent of it is still shit, but 10 percent is starting to be made up of some pretty good songs.
On a professional level, what has been the response to your success at Eurovision – both this year and last?
Well, last year was pretty good, but this year has been a bit crazy because we’ve got all the media, and a lot of record companies calling me. We didn’t get a lot of respect for the song but it’s a good radio friendly song.
You signed with Anders Bagge’s Razor Boy publishers with your band Apollo Drive. How did you first approach them?
Anders Bagge and me worked a lot together, and Fredrik [Olsson], the owner of Razor Boy, talked to Anders and wanted me to sign to his company. That was three years ago.
Fredrik and Razor Boy are still doing a really good job putting me out there. He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever seen. I can call him in the middle of the night and he still answers.
Given Apollo Drive had not had any significant chart success, why did Razor Boy decide to work with you?
They love the singer, and they believe in the music, and also in me as a songwriter. And to be an artist today, it takes like a couple of years before you get there. But right now it’s growing - we have a single out in the States and we’re working on the second album.
What advice would you give unsigned songwriters/artists that are looking to get signed with a publisher?
Write good songs and believe in yourself, because the knowledge out there of what’s good is not always right.
What are some of the ways in which Razor Boy develops its artists and songwriters?
At Razor Boy it’s all about the song. He only wants good songs. So, even in the process of writing songs we work really closely together. He always stops by my studio, and we have a discussion where we want to go, and I love that.
Anders Bagge has an incredible pedigree as a songwriter and producer. What are some of the key things you have learnt from working with him?
To have fun and be crazy. That’s what Anders is all about – as well as the melodies of course.
How did you first get involved in writing songs professionally for other artists?
Through Apollo Drive. When Apollo Drive was signed with Razor Boy I started working with Anders. He was supposed to be writing songs together with us, but then suddenly me and Anders started writing songs for other people. That was the first time I’d done it, and suddenly I found that I was pretty good.
How were you able to adapt from writing for your own band to writing for individual artists with different personalities and styles?
As I’m used to deciding what’s good enough and what fits the music, it was a little hard at first because I had to start looking at it from a different angle. But I adapted quite quickly because I found the two are not actually that far away from one another, and plus if you’re an artist you understand other artists much easier.
Do you write together with the artists or do you write songs that are then pitched?
Both. But I prefer to write with the artist because it’s the artist that’s going to perform the songs, and so I want their input on the lyrics, what they want to write about and what they like. The artist is the most important thing and that’s something a lot of songwriters forget about.
What are some of the challenges of writing with an artist that you may have never met before?
The challenge is to try to find his or her or voice, and work out how we can use it in the best way.
I think the hardest thing in writing in a session with people you don’t know is that you have to get to know them within 20 minutes. They come into your studio, you say ‘Hi’ and introduce yourself, and then suddenly you have to write a song together. If you get the wrong start then it can be really hard.
So what are some of your techniques in getting the best out of a session?
The same thing as I learnt from Anders Bagge: be crazy and have fun [laughs]. You need to create a certain kind of atmosphere.
What were the challenges you faced when you worked with Safura in the studio?
Safura is a little different than normal because when she first came into the studio she didn’t know any English at all. It was terrible, and so I brought in a friend of mine from London to help me with the vocal coaching. That was a big challenge. She’s a great singer, but at the beginning the English and the pronunciation made it hard - she learnt fast though.
Also, at first she had like fifteen people arriving at the studio along with her, and so eventually I had to throw everybody out except her. In the end it was just me, her and this guy from London. We worked like for three weeks and it was actually really fun.
How did that compare to writing with Louise Hoffsten?
With Louise it’s totally different, because she’s a big artist in Sweden and one of the best, and has been around forever. She knows what she wants. And so the challenge is to try to inspire her to write good music, and we’re always trying to find new ways to do that.
How did you come to get involved with Cineast Entertainment?
Through ‘Bag’ as well, because he’s part owner of that company. The owner of the company, Fredrik Sarhagen, wanted me to try writing for movies, and I did a couple of tracks for him, and he loved it, and then wanted to sign me.
I’m the songwriter and the producer for the company. The three of us - me Anders and Sandra - each writes the songs and then I produce all the tracks.
Cineast has a strong focus on providing music for film and TV. It’s been said that there’s less money in traditional songwriting these day, so is film, TV, advertising where it’s going?
Yeah. I love to do that, because I love how music fits together with the pictures. I love to have the picture of a frame or even a movie to work with, because it inspires me a lot.
What advice would you give unsigned songwriters in approaching the industry? If they’ve written a good batch of songs then what should be the next steps?
To find really good people to work with. You need a good team around you. You need a good publisher, you need good management, but most of all you need a good partner to write with.
You’re a producer as well as a songwriter. How did you first learn your production skills?
Through a mutual friend, and also from Anders Bagge. Bag put me in front of a computer and gave me a studio and, without teaching me any programs, just told me, “Go to work!”
At the beginning I was just a songwriter with some terrible sounding demos, and I thought, okay, I need to be able do this myself. So I started to work as a producer and started producing my own stuff. Now when I start to write a song, I can see the whole picture and I know what I want – even if it takes a while. That’s the most important thing as a producer.
So you’d advise young songwriters to learn production and get their own recording facilities so that they can at least create their own good quality demos?
Yeah, get your own recording stuff, and also don’t just work with the computer but try to learn it the old school way – for instance, in how to make up the amps and the drum kit to get a good sound. That’s really important and how you get really special. Producers today just know how to put together loops and for me that isn’t really producing.
You’ve said that the hard part in creating a record is the recording and producing – what’s key to getting the song sounding how you envisioned it?
I know it’s hard today, because there’s less money, but you have to try to get the most out of it in the studio with as much time as you can get. The mic’ing is key - mic’ing the drums, even the vocals. Good mics, and a good mixing board are both very important.
Do you analyse contemporary music in terms of what’s working in both a songwriting and production sense?
I listen to a lot of music, but I don’t analyse. I do my own thing.
What’s in the pipeline for the rest of the year?
Right now I’m on my way to Berlin and in June we’re going to L.A. to try to get Safura’s record out there, and we’ll be having a lot of meetings. And then we’ll be trying to sell Louise Hoffsten’s album.
I have a lot of things in the loop, but I need to sit down and have meetings and chose what I want to do because after Eurovision everything has gone crazy and I’ve got lots of requests.
And what is it you’d like to do the most?
I want to finish our record and get it out, and I want to do Louise Hoffsten. Earl Slick wants to produce the next album with Apollo Drive and we’re going to have a meeting with him to discuss. That’s our biggest thing now this fall. At the end of the day I love being an artist more than being a songwriter.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
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