Max Martin very rarely opens up.
The Swedish producer is responsible for some of the biggest songs in the last two decades, helping Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Celine Dion, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Usher, Avril Lavigne, Christina Aguilera, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, you name it, reach the top of the charts.
His ability to treat music to the masses has earned him a coveted spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and he's opening up about the feeling formula that works so well in a recent interview with Di Weekend. The full interview is extensive, but here's a couple of highlights:
The recipe for a great song:
“I think that a great pop song should be felt when you hear it,” he explains. “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.”
How music changes:
“We’ve just made it out from the marshlands of EDM,” the Swede begins. “Nothing wrong about EDM, great songs came out of it, but there was a period when everything had to have a pace of 128 BPM and be DJ-related. These days, there’s no dominating trend among the Top 40 songs, and I really enjoy that. A hit can be someone just singing to piano music, anything.” The next trend? “Pop music follows the evolution of society in general. Everything moves faster. Intros have gotten shorter.”
He must adapt:
“The whole boy band thing almost turned into a stock market crash,” he remembers of his time with the Backstreet Boys. “We folded Cheiron at the right moment. Then, there was a period when we thought that Pharrell and the others came and ruined it all for us with their super cool beats. I spent a lot of time in New York and worked with artists who never really got anywhere. Then things took a new turn with [Kelly Clarkson's] ‘Since U Been Gone.'”
Constructing music – using Taylor Swift and Pharrell as examples:
"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 … Does what I’m saying make any sense to you at all?"
"Sweet and salt might be a description that’s easier to grasp. You need a balance, at all times. If the verse is a bit messy, you need it to be less messy right after. It needs to vary. “Shake It Off” is a good example, where the math behind the drama is pretty clear. But the melodies themselves, they may appear wherever. It’s never like ’Now I’m going to sit down and write this or that kind of song’. The melodies may show up in the car, in the shower. From then on it’s all about how you manage the melody, how you make sure that you’ll be able to hear it over and over again without tiring of it."
"If the chords change a lot over the course of a song, it’s better to stay within the same melodic structure. Once again, it’s all about the balance. 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! You’ve heard it in the verse. It automatically creates a sense of familiarity. Prince does this a lot. “Let’s Go Crazy,” same thing. I’ve used this trick a few times myself. “In Do You Know (What It Takes)” with Robyn for instance … There was a phase when I and people around me listened to Prince a lot. A lot. We took Prince-fandom to the extreme. The insights we gained proved helpful. Absolutely not like the fundamental ways of making music. Sometimes you hear rumors like ’They’ve figured it out!’ But it’s not like that. It’s about understanding and learning, putting a toolbox together."
Why he rarely gives interviews:
"Because my life is so much easier without the attention," he said. "I'm not on social media either. I don't do anything like that. I meet people who have so many problems related to that kind of stuff. 'People think this or that about me'. But those people wouldn't have those problems if they, like me, hadn't read it. I want to keep it simple."
Which was inspired by Prince:
"I thought it was so cool that all you knew about Prince was about his artistry and music," he said. "Early on, Dagge (Denniz Pop) and I did an interview for some weekend supplement. We left the studio and did the interview in a cafe somewhere. Right away, I realized how wrong it all felt. 'What am I doing, sitting here blabbing away? I should be in the studio. That's my place.' Then, for two weeks, I was anxious about what it would say in the paper. One upside of saying no is that nothing happens. If you say yes, stuff can happen, if you say no, you don't need to worry."
Read the full interview here.