On the surface, singer-songwriters Camila Cabello, Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, Anderson .Paak, and brothers Ron and Russell Mael (aka Sparks) don’t have much in common — their ages span 24 to 76, their birthplaces range from Havana to Cleveland, and their music genres are all over the map. But when the quintet gathered for THR’s Songwriter Roundtable in November, it quickly became clear that they speak the same language — music — and before departing they exchanged hugs, phone numbers and snapped selfies, along with plans to get together and perhaps even collaborate. In theory, they could also meet up at the Oscars, given the buzz around original songs they co-wrote with others and sang in their respective films: pop star Cabello’s “Million to One,” written with Scott Harris for Kay Cannon’s live-action Cinderella in which she also starred; rapper Mescudi’s “Guns Go Bang,” written with Jay-Z and Jeymes Samuel for the latter’s The Harder They Fall, and “Just Look Up,” written with Nicholas Britell and Ariana Grande for Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up; rapper .Paak’s “Fire in the Sky,” written with Bruno Mars, Tay Dex, Wesley Singerman, Son Tzu, Alissia and Rogét Chahayed for Destin Daniel Cretton’s Marvel film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings; and the Maels’ “So May We Start,” which begins the film that opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Leos Carax’s Annette.
Let’s talk about how you came to these projects. Ron and Russell, as Sparks, you’ve been working across genres for 50 years, as chronicled in Edgar Wright’s documentary earlier this year, The Sparks Brothers. After almost making music for movies with everyone from Jacques Tati to Tim Burton, how did it finally happen with Leos Carax for Annette?
RUSSELL MAEL Well, we’ve made 25 albums as Sparks, so at a certain point you want to find new ways to challenge yourself. We wanted to do a narrative project and came up with a story called Annette nine years ago. We went to Cannes, met Leos, who used one of Sparks’ songs in his movie Holy Motors, and as a result of that, offered him this project. After a couple of weeks, he said, “I want to direct this as my next movie.” And it’s a full-blown musical, with 42 pieces of music.
CAMILA CABELLO Whoa!
RON MAEL Leos had never directed a musical before, but every one of his films has a musical element that’s extraordinary, so I had great faith he’d be the guy. Plus, he stole our albums when he was a teenager, he said, so we knew he was a serious fan.
Camila, Cinderella has been done so many times, but never in the modern way that you all did it. You obviously made your name as a singer with Fifth Harmony and then solo. But was acting also always an aspiration of yours?
CABELLO My favorite thing about my music videos was getting the chance to be a part of a narrative. I was in drama class when I was in middle school, and that’s how I came to singing, too. It was a way I could express myself and overcome my shyness. My drama teacher was the first person I sang in front of, and I realized, “Oh, I love getting onstage and performing,” whether it be singing or doing improv or whatever. So as time went by, I was always like, “Music is my first love, my first vehicle for expressing myself, but if I stumbled upon the right thing, I would be so hyped to explore acting.” It was fucking terrifying that I had the lead in the first acting project that I did, but eventually I was like, “Here we go — music video!”
Scott, “Guns Go Bang” for The Harder They Fall reunites you with Jay-Z, and connects you with Jeymes Samuel, aka The Bullitts; “Just Look Up” for Don’t Look Up is a collaboration with Ariana Grande and Nick Britell, who has previously written scores for Moonlight and Succession. How did these collaborations come about?
SCOTT MESCUDI Well, let’s talk about The Harder They Fall. I was in the Hamptons at this party and I hear somebody call my name. I look over and it’s Jay-Z waving me down, and I’m just like, “Holy shit.” I hadn’t seen Hov [one of Jay-Z’s nicknames] in person in years. He was like, “Yo, man, I’ve been trying to get up with you. I have this song that I think you would be perfect for.” And I was like, “Anything for you, man, send it.” Two days later he texts me with Jeymes on the group text like, “Yo, wanted to connect y’all.” And I was like, “Oh, shit, he was serious — I got a text from Hov, this is great!” Me and Jeymes worked together in 2008 indirectly. But we talked and hit it off, and he told me what he wanted to do with the song. I felt like, “Wow, I can make an anthem for this character, Nat Love, something that drives the story along, and then Jay-Z will come through and do his piece, and it could be really epic.” So we got together, bounced ideas, sat there with the verses. We worked on it all night and banged it out.
CABELLO In a night?!
MESCUDI Yeah, in one night.
RUSSELL MAEL Sometime you have to teach us how to bang something out in one night!
ANDERSON .PAAK Exactly!
Meanwhile, Don’t Look Up is a movie about humanity’s inability to get out of its own way to deal with a crisis threatening its existence.
MESCUDI There was a really small role first, and I was like, “Hey, man, whatever Adam McKay wants me to do, I’ll show up.” But then I got to this place where I was like, “I want to let them know that I’m interested in doing more.” A day later, they were like, “OK, we got this song and two more scenes for you.” So I met up with Nick, whom I’d already met through Timothée Chalamet. He’s a sweetheart and I knew we were going to be able to spark a vibe. And we met two or three times to do this song.
Anderson, you’d worked with Marvel on Black Panther. Now, for Shang-Chi, another landmark film in terms of representation, you’re back in business with them again.
.PAAK They’re the best. Big-ass budgets. It’s great. This one was a little different, though. This one, I’ve got to say, was the Korean connection. Dumbfoundead is one of the pioneers of battle-rap in L.A., and one of my best friends, and he introduced me to Awkwafina, who’s the star of Shang-Chi, and both of them were like, “Yo, we’re about to have our time, it’s about to be the Asian Black Panther, we’ve got to have you!” I’m their Blasian [Black/Asian] homie. I love doing soundtrack stuff because I have so much music that sometimes it doesn’t fit with my album, but it’s like, “Damn, I wish I could just put this to something that it could work with.” I don’t feel like you should ever waste a good song.
Some of you are known for writing about things that are very personal. Is it jarring to have to write about something that’s not?
CABELLO I don’t think I know how to write in any way that isn’t personal to me. When I was working on “Million to One” for Cinderella, to be totally honest, I was going through a really hard time with my mental health. It was just a period of a lot of anxiety and sadness for me, and that song had me feeling like, “I can overcome this. I know that I can make my life better.” I feel like I channeled my personal journey into the one of the character. The character was super confident — everybody was telling her no, but she knew.
MESCUDI It’s interesting, because I had a little taste of this when I was working on my show Entergalactic [Netflix’s animated series based on Mescudi’s upcoming album of the same name], because the music narrates the story, so the majority of the songs are told from the perspective of the character. So with these songs, it was more just trying to find the truth in them. For example, for “Just Look Up,” it was our version of a — I wouldn’t say “cheesy,” but a pop song with a pop star. It’s hilarious, man. But the special thing is it starts off and you’re like, “Oh, this sounds really good,” and then the lyrics take a turn and it’s like, “Wait a minute …”
Anderson, your song plays over the end credits. Does that make your job as a songwriter easier or harder?
.PAAK My whole thing was, “I would love to see the movie,” but Marvel was being really secretive. So I was with Rogét [Chahayed] and Sonny [Tzu], and I was like, “Fuck it, let’s just make some tracks and then maybe we’ll see it and we can fine-tune it later.” So we made four or five tracks. Four in the morning comes, everybody’s tired, and it was like, “All right, let’s try to do one more.” That’s when “Fire in the Sky” happened. It started off as a joke. We were like, “Let’s make something with no drums, on some lounge piano, stretched-out stuff.” I was listening to a lot of Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick, so I wanted to try to make this ballroom-type thing. It was horrible, but there was a part that was like, “You was cruising with your top down,” and we got the meat of what ended up being “Fire in the Sky.” Fifty versions later, it ended up making the movie. But it wasn’t until the 10th or 12th version that they were like, “OK, you can see a cut.” Then I saw the movie and I was like, “Oh, OK. We’ve got to make this song great. When people see that movie and then my song comes up, I want it to be like it takes it to the next level, not a letdown.”
Ron and Russell, you not only wrote all the songs for Annette, but also crafted the script with Leos to determine how to incorporate them. How early on did you decide to start the film in a meta way, with you two, Leos and everyone joined by the actors, not yet in character, and speaking directly to the audience in a tongue-in-cheek way, saying things like, “The budget is large, but still it’s not enough”? It’s hilarious.
RUSSELL MAEL “The authors are here, and they’re a little vain.”
RON MAEL Usually we don’t write autobiographical things, but that line is. (Laughs.) We just wanted to figure out a way to do something in a novel way, rather than, “This is just a musical that you accept in toto.” Our intention with the musical was to do one that was really unorthodox. There’s a song at the end of the film, too, that kind of bookends that — “It’s the end, so we bid you good night” — saying goodbye to the audience.
Scott, “Guns Go Bang” also plays right at the beginning, and it sounds like there’s a giant orchestra backing up the lyrics …
MESCUDI When I first signed on to do the film, the main thing that I wanted more than anything was an orchestra. I was like, “Look, I don’t know all the details, but put that in the budget.” That’s my way of trying to make the music more cinematic. So Jeymes took what I recorded and added different things — cello, violin — and I was hearing it piece by piece. It sounded so epic. Then I met up with him and he showed me the opening credits, where the song lives, and I was like, “Man.” When you see your music in a film, you want to make a movie for every fucking song you make! The label’s telling you, “All right, we’ve got a budget for three music videos …”
MESCUDI You’re like, “But I want to do all of the [songs].”
The Maels got to do that!
RUSSELL MAEL 42 times.
RON MAEL “Guns Go Bang” is so amazing because it sounds like a Western, but modern at the same time. It’s perfect for that film. I really love that piece.
MESCUDI One of the things I loved about it is that it kind of has an old Negro spiritual tone to it. I was like, “Oh, this sounds like some old-timey shit right here, I like this!” Nobody would expect me to be on a record like this. And everybody that knows me knows that I’m always about doing something new and different and leaving people on their toes.
When did you first feel like you’d “made it”? Let’s start with Scott, because there’s a very good new documentary about him called A Man Named Scott, and one of the things I learned is that I was wrong to assume that his song “Day ’n’ Nite” changed things for him.
MESCUDI I was still working at the Bape Store in SoHo when “Day ’n’ Nite” was out and on the radio. Fans would come into the store and I’d hide in the stockroom. People would come up to me and be like, “Yo, we love your song. It’s really dope.” I’d be like, “Thank you, man.” Then they’d be like, “Can I get this in a size large?”
RUSSELL MAEL We had the same thing on our first album. We were on American Bandstand way back when, and then we went into the grocery store the following Monday. The checker says, “Oh, I saw you guys on TV — I love you guys so much!” And then she said, “OK, how do you want to pay?” And we got out our food stamps, and she shouted out, “Check stand 32, we got food stamp people. Can we get the food stamps cleared?”
.PAAK I was broke. I had my first son. I was selling weed — I was a horrible weed dealer, getting robbed, taking the bus. I was on a similar [assistance] program called WIC, but that’s when you’ve got a family. People were always like, “It’s going to happen for you, man.” And I always had people that let me crash on their couch or borrow their cars or use their studio. But when I linked up with [Dr.] Dre and signed my first deal and got in the room with Dre, I knew that it was like, “All right, it’s starting to spike up.” And then I got my little check and it was like, “I’m never going back.”
CABELLO I’ve been lucky to have people at different times show me kindness. When I was like 16, 17, and I was still in Fifth Harmony, I fell in love with songwriting. I remember approaching Taylor Swift and being like, “Hey, what do you do when you’re in a writing slump?” or whatever, asking her for advice, and she showed me a lot of kindness. Ed Sheeran too. These were my songwriting heroes, so I was stoked that they were even talking to me.
Because of technology, the industry has also become more democratized. We have people here who are living proof of that. Scott emerged through MySpace, for Anderson it was SoundCloud …
.PAAK OnlyFans! My OnlyFans is popping. (Laughs.)
CABELLO For me it was The X Factor. When I was 15, I was in Miami, and there was no way I would’ve ever gotten to have a career without just a one-in-a-million — speaking of “Million to One” — opportunity like that. That show really does democratize. I had to drive with my family seven hours to North Carolina and was one person out of thousands who got picked, and if it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t be here. But even before that, I put up videos on YouTube of me singing cover songs.
What’s the feedback from fans that has meant the most to you?
RON MAEL Something that means a lot to me is when people from other fields are inspired by what we’re doing. In the documentary, we found out that Neil Gaiman, the great writer, has been following us for years, and it blows our minds because we think, “What he does is legitimate art.” We’ve kind of always felt a certain illegitimacy about what we’ve done.
.PAAK With a soundtrack, when the director is really happy about how it came out and you’re seeing people hit you up, “Yo, I stayed until the end and we was jamming out in the theater,” that’s the best feedback you can get.
CABELLO The feedback that I got from young girls when they watched Cinderella was really heartwarming. But the feedback I’ve gotten that means a lot to me right now? For my latest album, tapping into my family, my roots, my heritage as a Cuban and Mexican woman: I wrote a song with Cuban artist Yotuel called “Lola.” Talk about music being powerful — this accompanied a movement which gave the Cuban people the bravery, for the first time in like 60 or 70 years, to go out into the streets and fight [as part of anti-government protests that began July 11]. And my mom and grandparents and cousins hearing it and crying and being like, “Damn, she’s really fucking giving a voice to our people” — to make my family proud, that’s special.
Scott, your fans regularly say, “Your music saved my life.”
MESCUDI It’s an overwhelming feeling. Back in the day, I was scared when people would say that. It freaked me out because I was like, “Oh, I have this responsibility that I’m not prepared for.” But I’m 37 now, I’ve been making music for 13 years, and I’ve been able to recognize that I’ve created something here. And whether I was prepared for it or not, I have to get my shit straight so I can wear those shoes and lead. And it took me going to rehab to break through the chains that [were]holding me down, and then take a step back and look at the love that I had out there, and realize that it was waiting for me, that I needed to rise up and fulfill my destiny. When I watch the documentary, I cry, because during that part where I start talking about rehab, they show comments from my Facebook page, and I’d never seen these comments before, and it was some of the most heartfelt shit. Sometimes I need the reminder that whatever I’m going through, what I’m doing is helping people. I have a purpose here. If something happened to me tomorrow, I know that I did my job here.
Roundtable discussion edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.