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While Simon Cowell is credited with discovering and molding One Direction into the pop phenom known today, there’s more to the story of their rapid rise to the top.
Cowell himself spotted something special in Texas native Savan Kotecha (who has found a mentor in pop music legend Max Martin), bringing him on to serve as a vocal producer on the original U.K. version of The X Factor and later on the U.S. version, as well. During his time on the UK show, Kotecha worked closely with the newly-formed boy band as they developed their sound.
“I helped develop their voices on the show and all that, so I knew what they were capable of and what they could do,” Kotecha tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ is just one of those, you know, lightning strikes.”
The 34-year-old songwriter — and mastermind behind Britney Spears’ “If U Seek Amy” and Justin Bieber’s “Beauty and a Beat”– is in the studio with the show’s fourth-place finishers Emblem3, executive producing their debut album under his newly formed Syco imprint Mr. Kanani.
“I just hope the public likes what we’re putting together,” he confesses. “It’s really good songs, it’s really different and it’s really their own sound. We haven’t really changed what Emblem 3 is. We’ve definitely refined it, but still at the core it is who they are.”
Below, Kotecha — ranked No. 30 on THR’s list — reveals the spark that inspired “What Makes You Beautiful,” why he compares mentor Martin to Michael Jordan and the challenges of working with budding talent.
The Hollywood Reporter: How is it different working with show contestants versus somebody who’s been in the business forever?
Savan Kotecha: They’re a lot more naïve because they haven’t gone through everything, so they’re all a little bit starry-eyed. You know working with more established hearts, who have gone through the whole primes you know and all that stuff there. It’s fun but sometimes at parts it can be a little jaded, especially when they’re already big. What’s fun about working with the X Factor contestants is that you feel like you’re 17 again and like really excited about being new to the business kind of thing, you know? So that’s sort of the real difference.
THR: Do you ever find that to be a bigger challenge?
Kotecha: It’s easier in some ways but, yeah, harder in some ways. Certain things will take longer and you have to educate them on how things are done and what to expect and all that kind of stuff. It all just depends, you know? Sometimes they come in with an idea of who they are and who they want to be as artist, or if they want to be a songwriter but they really can’t write songs, or that kind of thing. You just sort of have to educate them about how it works, and they have a certain perception on how things work in the music business, and how you know if they’re going to make an album and how the process will work and all that stuff. You are educating them.
THR: Tell me about Max Martin’s role as your mentor and some of the lessons he’s taught you.
Kotecha: He’s a very wise man, and he’s basically taught me to really challenge myself and challenge every song and set the bar high. Don’t sort of let good things go, only let great things go. He’s just great person to bounce ideas off of. If I’m struggling with something, even just music business related, he’s somebody I call to get advice. He’s obviously been around for so long, he’s so successful. He teaches me so much about melodies and song structures and all those kind of things.
THR: How involved is he still in your day-to-day?
Kotecha: Oh very much so. I mean, I’m actually, he’s my publisher now and I confide in him. Knowing that you have probably one of the greatest ever on your team — it sort of makes it like you’re playing basketball on the same team as Michael Jordan. Sometimes it feels like I’m cheating, you know? That’s sort of what it feels like.
THR: One of your biggest hits to date is One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.” How did that song come about?
Kotecha: I had the melody of the chorus in my song for about a year until I was in a hotel room in London with my wife and she was having a bad morning. She was like, “Oh, I feel so ugly” and I was like, “No, you look beautiful. You don’t know how beautiful you look.” And I was like, “Oh, crap! That’s a good song! Hold on!” And I wrote that down. I actually wrote the song for my wife, so I went to the studio and it took a process of a couple weeks to really tweak it, but the core of it was written within two days and then tweaked a few things here and there over a couple weeks, but I mean, I still have the text message from Harry [Styles]. When he heard the demo, I was in Miami on my way back to Sweden, and he sent me a text message saying, “I think you got it. I think you got the one here.” I still have that text message.
THR: As a songwriter, what is one lyric that you’re the most proud of?
Kotecha: Gosh, I guess since I’m being all sentimental with One Direction — I guess “What Makes You Beautiful” because I wrote that for my wife. I’ve written a few songs for my wife, but that’s the one that became the biggest hit, so I’m kind of proud of that. That’s a couple of Valentine’s Days and Christmas presents all ready there. If I ever forget one day I’ll just be like, “Hey, remember ‘What Makes You Beautiful’?”
THR: Is there a song that you’ve worked on that you believe should have been a hit but wasn’t?
Kotecha: Yeah, there’s probably a few. But you know, for whatever reason they weren’t. I mean, I really wish and thought Christina Aguilera’s “Your Body” would have been bigger than it was. I thought — and suppose I could have just been wrong — in the U.K. there is an artist called Shane Ward, and he had song called “No You Hang Up” I did with some friends, and I actually thought that would be a lot bigger than it was. It went to No. 2 in England but we thought it would be a bigger hit around Europe.
Email: Sophie.Schillaci@THR.com; Twitter: @SophieSchillaci
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