Sia (pictured) brought more light to the secretive nature of pop songwriting.
Professional songwriters often remain shrouded in mystery. We always see the singer of a hit pop song or album—on the cover, on stage performing it, in the music videos, speaking in interviews—but we almost never see the face of the songwriters behind the hits. Beyoncé’s recently released Lemonade came under fire for containing 72 collaborating songwriters, but this is becoming more and more of a regular occurrence. Did you know, for instance, that not a single number 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2015 was written by a one person? Or that out of the 37 number one songs released since 2012, only two were written by one person: “Happy” by Pharell Williams and “We Found Love” by Calvin Harris? Behind the 35 other number one hits lie hundreds of songwriters who have worked together to create the songs that you love.
Just because we don’t regularly see these backstage masterminds doesn’t mean we don’t know them. Songwriters often have signature sounds and styles, just like performing artists. They often leave their fingerprints all over a song through musical elements that are unique to them. Here are three songwriters and their signature sounds that you can hear in the songs they’ve written for other artists.
1.) Bibi Bourelly’s swag in Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.”
I’m guessing that I wasn’t alone in noticing a huge shift in Rihanna’s tone from her first stripped-down 2015 release, “FourFiveSeconds,” to her second, the bombastic “Bitch Better Have My Money.” The latter was so explicit that it practically required the acronym “BBHMM” just so it could be universally dissected across the internet. If the song sounded just a tad left of Rihanna’s wheelhouse, that’s because the song served as her first project with then twenty-year-old songwriter Bibi Bourelly, whose signature style includes rhythmic greetings and soulfully sung expletives. Just check out the first lyric of the song, a nonsensical ditty, “Yehyo Yehyo moo-la-la Yehyo”:
Bourelly’s “Ego” starts out similarly, with an “Ehya” repetition that sounds like it came right out of BBHMM:
These vowel sounds are a bit of a signature of Bourelly’s; expect them to show up in her later releases as well. Further along in “Ego,” Bourelly makes a declaration that suddenly makes sense in light of “BBHMM”: “I cuss when I talk / And I lean when I walk / And I been through some shit / And I’ve gained and I’ve lost.” As Bourelly struts through the streets of LA in black and white, you begin to see where the character Rihanna embodies in “BBHMM” comes from. Bourelly isn’t singing “BBHMM,” but her songwriting fingerprint conveys a brash strength and soul that combat your senses. These techniques probably led to her further co-writes on Rihanna’s Anti: “Yeah I Said It” and “Higher,” which feature further dirty lyricisms like “This whiskey got me feelin’ pretty / So pardon if I’m impolite / I just really need your ass with me / I’m sorry ’bout the other night.”
2.) Charli XCX’s vocalizations in Selena Gomez’s “Same Old Love.”
Sometimes a songwriter’s vocals in the original recording of a song, or “demo,” are so strong that the performing artist keeps some of them intact for the final version of the song. The performing artist re-records or “cuts” the vocals themselves and then the producers or writers tend to decide what gets put in the final mix. Such is the case with Selena Gomez’s “Same Old Love” which was written by Charli XCX. Although the song is solely credited to Selena Gomez, the song clearly contains two distinct voices: those of Gomez and Charli XCX. Take a listen to the “Ohs” at the end of the chorus line:
Do they sound a bit out of place now that you notice them? Just to reinforce my point, watch Selena perform the song live below. She never sings these vocals.
Finally, listen to this part of “Fancy” for Charli XCX’s signature sound in her own tune:
Charli XCX quite clearly sings the “Ohs” in the final cut of “Same Old Love” just as she did in her number one hit with Iggy Azalea, “Fancy.” Perhaps Charli added these vocals because she wanted to add an extra oomph to Selena’s song. The final decision to keep the vocals in allows Charli’s sassy sounds to complement Selena’s more subdued vocals and take the song over the top. After the lyrics “I’m so sick of that same old love / That shit it tears me up,” Charli’s vocals are new and exciting to our ears: almost as if a new instrument has entered the mix to thicken the production. After the “Ohs,” Selena re-enters with “that same old love” twice and we are hooked—we get to hear a new, exciting sound (Charli’s voice) but we also have the title (“Same Old Love”) ingrained in our head two more times before the chorus ends.
3.) The Sia “accent” in Britney Spears’ “Perfume.”
A singer will often copy the vocal leanings of the songwriter of a track. Generally, this phenomenon is not easy to hear, because we don’t usually have access to the original recording of the song by the songwriter (the “demo”). However, when you have a singer-songwriter with an incredibly unique voice writing songs for other artists, it can become pretty clear when the performing artist follows the demo closely. Although there are many examples of this, Sia is the easiest to illustrate since her unique voice has been featured on the radio when she performs her own songs.
Listen to the chorus of this Britney tune, “Perfume,” which was written by Sia:
Does Britney sound not quite like herself? She pronounces “perfume” like “parfume” and sounds like she is constraining her voice more tightly than usual. This weird accent is one of Sia’s trademarks, and you can hear it in the demo that Sia wrote for Britney, below. If you listen back to Britney’s version you can hear that not only does Britney pronounce perfume just like Sia, but all of Sia’s backing vocals have also been left in the final song. In addition, the song opens with Sia’s laugh, which you’ll find in the original demo below. These choices make this song sound unique among Britney’s repertoire, showing a “different side” of the singer.
You might wonder where this accent comes from. Sia actually vocalizes melodies with vowel sounds when she writes songs, and adds in the words later. Following this process, Sia at some point had a song she wrote with the vowel sounds “Ah Oo” and later fit the word “Par-fume” on top of it. Sia actually uses this process to write nearly every pop song in her songbook. The process is fascinating; take a look at her demonstration and explanation below:
Behind every great pop track, you’ll find songwriters who have each contributed their own strengths to the mix. Talented songwriters can bring out different colors in your favorite artists, and ultimately lead to more complex, exciting tunes. So next time you hear a different side to your favorite artist, check out the writing credits and see who you find.
If you liked this article, please share it and sound off in the comments below. For another article on songwriters, check out The Grammys Interrupted Amy Wadge and Nobody Cared.