Musings on Mashups: The Rewards of Taking Collaboration's Risks
By Michael Stewart with ASCAP’s Sarah Finegold, Erik Philbrook and Etan Rosenbloom • February 26, 2021
Quarantine conversations about cross-genre collaboration with music creators Melanie Fontana, Dev Hynes and Brett James
OUR STORY ABOUT MUSICAL COLLABORATION is itself a collaboration, a compilation of three separate conversations with top songwriters. Think of it as a “roundtable” conversation that never was, among artists working in different musical spheres, sharing their perspectives on creative connection, the meaning of genre and how as writers they navigate the practices and protocols of the modern music world. Read on for their unique insights into the essence of making music without borders.
Melanie Fontana is an American singer, songwriter and composer. Having joined ASCAP at 12, she’s written and co-written hits across a variety of musical genres, but she’s been particularly successful in collaborating with artists outside the US. Her expansive catalogue contains a myriad of pop, K-Pop, EDM and rap hits for international superstars like BTS, Dua Lipa, BLACKPINK and more. Her first big cut as a songwriter? “Home This Christmas,” from Justin Bieber’s #1 holiday album Under the Mistletoe.
Dev Hynes is an acclaimed singer-songwriter, producer, composer and director. As a soloist, the UK-born New Yorker was initially known as Lightspeed Champion, more recently as Blood Orange. He’s collaborated with Tinashe, Solange Knowles, Connan Mockasin, Tei Shi, Sky Ferreira, FKA twigs, HAIM, Florence +the Machine, Carly Rae Jepsen, The Chemical Brothers, Kylie Minogue, A$AP Rocky, Mac Miller, Blondie, Mariah Carey and Philip Glass, among others. Hynes also composes classical and screen music; he’s nominated for a 2021 GRAMMY for his composition “Fields,” and recently won an ASCAP London Music Award for his film score to Queen & Slim.
Brett James is a Nashville-based singer, songwriter and record producer who’s been credited on over 500 recordings by a wide variety of artists. He broke out as a solo artist in 1995 with three charting singles and released a self-titled debut album later that year. Since then, he’s had his greatest success writing songs for and with other country and pop artists. Among his best-known is Carrie Underwood’s 2006 #1 hit “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” which won the GRAMMY for Best Country Song. He’s credited on a half-dozen other country #1s, but also written for pop/rock artists like Kelly Clarkson and Daughtry.
In the Beginning
Melanie Fontana: “My first experience writing for an Asian act was for Girls’ Generation. They’re a predominantly Korean girl group signed to a Korean label, but they also put out music in other languages and in other Asian countries.
“[It] came through friends of friends, who connected me with a Swedish songwriter named Andreas Carlsson. He brought me to Stockholm to work with some of his pop genius friends, but I felt so intimidated by these people. The whole energy of a studio in Sweden is very different than in LA. It’s much less laid-back. It’s much more like ‘Let’s just do this. Let’s write a smash and if it’s not a smash we’re going to massage it ‘til it is.’ So, I went in there and wrote a song, a song that I thought was going to go to Jordin Sparks, so naturally it was in English. It had an English concept, an English title, and then I get an email from the producers saying, ‘Hey, this song is amazing. We shopped it to our team at Avex in Japan. Girls’ Generation is putting out a Japanese album, they want to include it.’ The song ended up on, I believe, three different versions of the album and won several Gold Disc awards, which is the Japanese GRAMMY.
"Yes, I was hoping for [the song to go to a US act], and then I realized very quickly that there is a music industry over there that is extremely powerful. [Korea] was the sixth biggest, but now I think it might be the second most lucrative for record labels.”
Dev Hynes: “I’m still making music the same way I made it when I was 12 years old. Me and my friends would say ‘Let’s make a song like [this or that artist]. And then we’d do it, so that’s kind of the only time I’d think about genre. It’s more the idea of learning from an artist I’m a fan of. Otherwise, I try not to think about it. I feel like [trying to write for a specific genre] can limit creativity.”
Brett James: “[There are] those people who have had success in a certain genre and they feel like, ‘Oh, I gotta go down this path, I gotta go down this trail,’ but you need to go outside your comfort zone, maybe into a situation where you don’t know if you’re going to be able to really do it or not. I think I do that almost every day. ‘I don’t know how this is going to turn out, but I’m gonna give it my best shot.’
"Especially on days when you’re writing cross-genre, you never know what you’re gonna get. You don’t know what to expect when you walk into any songwriting room, and that’s kind of the fun. There’s also the nervousness of it. It’s like, ‘I don’t know what this is gonna look like but I’m gonna hang on, go forward and do my best.’ I think that’s what songwriting is.
"We all start with the same blank page. Sometimes it really surprises you; you get something you never would have dreamed of. I had this conversation with – I won’t mention any names – but a massive artist and a massive pop songwriter. The three of us were writing in Nashville one day and we had this great conversation about impostor syndrome. All three of us have had plenty of success, yet we were all nervous and all thinking, ‘I’ve gotten nothing’ and ‘I’m a total impostor.’ I think that’s a real thing a lot of writers have to work through to just get to ‘You know what? Yeah, I can do this.’”
Crosstown TrafficMelanie Fontana: “There was a time when I didn’t know that I was going to be writing songs for acts like BTS or BLACKPINK or Girls’ Generation. I now tend to tailor-make my songs, especially if I’m collaborating with an act over there. Although the cool thing about music from Korean acts is that they’re so global now. It almost feels tragic to just call it K-pop.
"When you’re writing for an Asian act, you’re collaborating with songwriters or even translators from that territory. So, I’m generalizing, but it starts off with me and my production partner – who happens to be my husband – where he will create the instrumental. I might help. I might say ‘Hey, the guitar could be here’ or like, ‘There could be an arpeggiating synth here,’ but my husband is really track-focused and I’m topline-focused. I’ll write lyrics in English and all of the melodies and then I’ll either be thinking of one particular act, or I’ll just be writing a song just to write a great song. Then we’ll send it off to our label contacts, be it in Japan or in the Philippines or in Thailand or in Singapore or in Korea.
"The unfortunate part of the collaboration is that [they] ‘re-lyric’ it with amazing songwriters over there, and we don’t get to be a part of that process because a lot of the English stuff just doesn’t translate. Like for instance, the saying ‘to build a bridge’ or ‘burn a bridge’ might not be a thing in their language, so sometimes they’re gonna totally re-conceptualize the song. Other times they do what I call a ‘US translation.’ They’ll try to keep the vibe of the song the same if they like it a lot and track-wise it will stay the same, but it can end up with a totally different title.”
Dev Hynes: “[My art] comes from a very deep place inside me, so I could only make music and collaborate with people [who] share that passion; the idea of it being almost like ‘friendship first.’ We need to get to know each other. It’s very personal for me, very particular, like everything I make. It’s always going to be interesting working with people outside their genre community, someone who has a particularly different skill set or background or just frame of mind. But sometimes that’s been negative, if I’m honest. I’m pretty open; that person [needs to be] willing to explore. Although, when you’re working with people who do things really different than you, you learn things from them. I’m just trying to learn something.”
Brett James: “I’ve been going to this ASCAP songwriting camp in France for seven or eight years now, and for anyone who ever grew up going to summer camp, it’s very much like that. It’s a really unique experience where you’ve got 18 writers from al l over the world. It’s usually six artists, six topliners and six producers in this amazingly beautiful castle. Every day you wake up and they tell you you’re going into a room where three people are gonna write together for artist X, and sometimes there can be a slight language barrier. You could be writing with one person from South America, another from London and you’re from Nashville. At that point, you need to ask, ‘What is our common ground?’ To me, that’s what makes it really fun and exciting. There’s just that sort of joy in just creating with people who are talented, even if I might not have much in common with them musically. It’s just, ‘Let’s just get together and create.’”
Melanie Fontana: “I’ve been writing so much music for Asia that it’s sort of bled into my Western writing. In the US, it feels like songs need to be more monotone or more chill. The Asian [music] can be more melodic. There’s the song “Good in Bed” by Dua Lipa, and in the chorus of the song, the notes aren’t even really notes. They’re sort of in-between notes where like in a lot of especially older K-pop, there was a lot of chromatic walk downs and then walk ups, and changing the key of the song in the middle. The hook in “Good in Bed” goes into sort of like ‘Bad bad bad bad bad…’ When I came up with that note structure for the chorus with my friend and my husband, I was like, ‘This is different. I like it and it doesn’t feel like something I’ve heard a million times.’ It almost feels like something I could have written with a Korean act or a Japanese act.”
Brett James: “I think there’s huge value in writing cross-genre. If you have the tool s in your toolbox as a songwriter; if you have the ability, [then] every songwriting session is a learning experience. And when you step into a genre that’s not in your field of expertise, and all of a sudden, you’re writing with people who [know it], it can kind of broaden your scope; it broadens what you can do and then you can bring your kind of tools. So, when you come from where you are musically into their world, sometimes it creates magical things.
“We see it happening in country a lot. Great pop writers come out here and they bring some things we might not have in Nashville, and boom, they get a hit out of it. It’s kind of special and unique and it happens in the other direction as well. That’s what I do sometimes. I’m the country guy coming from Nashville into a room full of pop writers or even rock writers or alternative writers, and you know, they kind of lean on me for the reasons I’m there. That’s the beauty of collaborating. Everybody brings a skill set, and whatever that looks like that day in the room, we best utilize it and we all win.
Melanie Fontana: “I’ve learned that you have to take chances with your songwriting. You can’t just apply your Western sensibilities; you have to be able to mix genres within a song. You have to be able to add elements of trap and EDM into a classic R&B sounding ballad. For instance, I’ve learned that being more brazen with melody or instrumental choices is of ten what catches the ear of record labels [in Asia].
Thinking about genre is okay, too. If I’m in a mood for something calm, I’m definitely not gonna look for dubstep today. I’m not gonna go for hardstyle or slap house; I might just want to listen to some dinnertime jazz cooking music. I mean there are so many genres, so for me, while genre is a marketing tool for labels, it’s also a means for expressing your emotion that day. But I don’t think you need to stick to a genre. Like let’s say your first album was a little more like acoustic. That doesn’t mean you’re an acoustic artist forever.
"I don’t find it difficult to express myself across genres in different collaborative situations I think because I grew up listening to so many different varieties of music. But I always say this is in writing sessions: ‘This might be insane, but do I have the permission to suck?’ It’s beneficial to not be afraid to express a bad idea. You might think you have a bad idea and your collaborator might be like, ‘Oh s**t, I never would have thought of that.’”