MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the pop composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. This time, we talk to Valerie Simpson – one of Motown’s most brilliant pop composers, who racked up timeless hit after timeless hit in one of the most cherished songwriting duos in history. World’s Greatest Songwriters is supported by AMRA – the global digital music collection society which strives to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in the digital age.
The internet recently had a bit of fun with Lorde.
A political party in the singer-songwriter’s native New Zealand proposed a law which would make it illegal to leave school before the age of 16.
By the time Lorde was 16, she’d already released The Love Club EP and was on her way to becoming not just a global star but one of the most original and interesting new voices of her generation. But, counter-balancing that, she did not complete Year 12 and is known to be slightly flaky on trigonometry.
A #FreeLorde campaign was duly mobilised, with fans jokingly concerned that some sort of retrospective punishment could see their idol behind bars.
So, yes, a bit of fun. But, to play along for a second, if such measures were introduced, and previous ‘offenders’ were tracked down, where would that leave Joel Little?
He, after all, knowingly and flagrantly co-wrote every track on Love Club, including Royals (which went to No. 1 in the US and UK when released as a single) and every track on her debut album, Heroine, which went Top 5 in the US and UK, topped the charts in 12 other territories and has global sales of over three million to date.
Okay, he might not be looking at jail time, but there’s a case to answer as an accomplice, surely.
Little remembers: “We just kind of hit it off straight away, and we were introducing each other to different music. She was a lot more in tune with what was going on, like really recent releases of unknown artists and weird remixes of things. And I was more like, ‘You’ve got to check out this Prince album’, or ‘you’ve got to check out this David Bowie album’ or whatever. So were helping each other, expanding each other’s horizons a little bit
“I also instantly realized that she was way more mature than I was – and much more intelligent. And so instantly you just kind of forgot that she was as young as she was.”
He adds: “When she first came in, I think she’d experimented with writing a little, but she wasn’t really a writer at that stage, I would say. She’d written these amazing lyrics, but they weren’t really in any sort of structure or anything, It was almost just like amazing poetry on a page. And so I would help kind of structure and go, this part here feels like it should be chorus, this part here could be a verse.
“I’d never written songs like that before. Usually, you know, you have a melody and some chords and then you put lyrics to it, whereas this was basing everything around the lyric, which was a challenge at the time, something we’d never done before. But once we figured it out, it’s an amazing way to write songs, because you can find the mood and melody that suits what the lyrics are saying as opposed to trying to come up with lyrics that suits the melody. And her lyrics are so amazing and so figuring out a way to do that was a lot of fun and I think really beneficial to the song.”
Little had himself been something of a prodigy – but in a different genre and on a different scale.
“As a teenager I was into bands like Blink 182, Fallout Boy and My Chemical Romance, which was what led me to pick up a guitar and start learning how to play properly,” he says. “Me and some friends formed a band, Goodnight Nurse, we got signed and released a couple of albums that were both top five in New Zealand. We definitely had our moment and it was a lot of fun.”
Little describes himself as “the reluctant frontman” of the band, not allergic to the spotlight, but not addicted to it either. “For me it was about writing songs and being creative. Being in the studio was my favourite part, for sure.”
The band split, amicably, when Little felt he’d outgrown it to some extent.
“We were a pop punk band, and I wanted to write different types of music. Also, I’d had a kid as our second album came out and it started to not feel genuine anymore. I was on stage telling people to throw their hands in the air and, I don’t know, it didn’t really feel right by that time.”
A little while later, another Goodnight Nurse alumnus, Sam McCarthy, sent Little a demo of a song called My House. “It was just a chorus, but I was blown away by it. He had a home recording set-up and I said, ‘I’m coming round, this is too good not to finish.’
“We spoke to Ashley Page, the A&R guy at Warner who had signed us [Goodnight Nurse], and who’s still my manager to this day, and he suggested we launch a little label and put it [My House] out.
“So, we formed Dryden Street, put the song out and it ended up going Top 10 in New Zealand. That led to an album [recorded by McCarthy and Jordan Arts, under the name Kids of 88], and that was my first foray into writing for something that wasn’t my project.”
Sony/ATV-signed Little was also writing music for TV ads, a sideline that simultaneously necessitated and funded building his own studio, Golden Age – “and one of the first artists to come through the door was Ella [Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor… soon to be known as Lorde]”.
Little says: “I remember writing Tennis Court. I’d been playing the chords and singing the melody for the verse and she was like, ‘Oh, I think I should probably write a lyric for that.’ And that was the first time we’d done it that way round – usually I was composing around her lyrics.
“I was chilling in another room later on and she was like, ‘I think I’ve got a chorus for that song.’ And she sang pretty much the whole of the Tennis Court chorus. I remember thinking, Holy shit, she’s become one of the best writers I’ve ever worked with in the space of two months. It was all on from there.”
What the pair were doing, it turned out, was writing the songs that would become Heroine and developing the artist that would become Lorde.
“First the Love Club EP took off, and by ‘took off’ I mean about 10,000 free downloads from SoundCloud. We were pretty excited about that. And then it just exponentially multiplied.
“Initially I knew it was something different when I would see my friends on Facebook sharing it and talking about it, without knowing I was involved. Then some overseas artists started tweeting about it, and soon after that we were told that the US label were really excited.
“I remember thinking, Holy shit, [Lorde] has become one of the best writers I’ve ever worked with in the space of two months.”
“I came over to LA for the first time and we were No. 74 or something, which for me was crazy – I’m in the Billboard Hot 100! Then it kept on snowballing, eventually getting to No. 1.
“It was surreal, but, strangely, we sort of got used to it, because every day there’d be some new piece of craziness. Everything being weird became the new normal. Only a couple of other artists from New Zealand have had major international success, so we were definitely not expecting anything like what happened. Maybe because of that, we just kind of sat back and enjoyed the ride.”
The craziness culminated in four Grammy nominations in 2013, and two wins – one for Lorde for Best Pop Solo Performance, and one for Lorde and Little for Song of the Year, for Royals.
“I flew half my family over for it and I remember thinking, Shit, there’s going to be some awkward conversations with these guys if we don’t win. But, luckily, we did. To see something you made, just the two of you, in this little studio all the way down in New Zealand, it’s insane.
“It never entered my mind that something like that was even a possibility for me. You know, you have big dreams, but I never dreamed that big.
“I remember being ecstatic, obviously, but also, a week or two afterwards there’s a comedown; like, Have I just peaked? And then I realised, We got here because we were trying to make something we thought was special, so just keep trying to do that.”
Post-Grammys, Little re-located to LA and, as he says, “got to work with lots of cool interesting people that I was a fan of, I was in a very fortunate situation”.
It turned out, however, that the pathway to his next game-changing collaboration was back home in New Zealand.
“I did the first [NZ brother/sister duo, signed to Little’s Dryden Street label] Broods record [Evergreen, 2014, on which Little co-wrote and produced all 11 tracks] and because of that connection I ended up meeting Taylor Swift at one of their shows in LA.
“A couple of years later she was on tour down in New Zealand, we re-connected and a few weeks later I ended up flying to New York to work with her.
“Taylor is a phenomenal writer and she almost always has ideas already when she comes in the room.”
“She was obviously a Lorde fan, and was a big Broods fan, which meant, luckily for me, she liked my work. And then weirdly, once we started writing together, it just kind of clicked immediately. The way that she writes and the way that I work just somehow makes for a great combination..
He adds: “Taylor is a phenomenal writer and she almost always has ideas already when she comes in the room, starting points for songs. So she’ll come in and play me something on guitar – and pretty much every time, without fail, it’s amazing.
“Other times she’ll send me a voice memo with a melody or a chorus idea. For me, that’s great, because I can sit down and start building a track based on what she’s sent me, and by the time she gets here we can pretty easily finish something up.
“She always has such amazing ideas, she’s a dream to work with.”
The dream became reality this year when Little co-wrote four songs, includingYou Need To Calm Down and ME! on Swift’s Lover album [a No. 1 record in the UK and US].
Three out of the four of these tracks were what one might sniffily call ‘proper’ co-writes, as in 50/50 creative collaborations – the fourth, ME!, also credited Panic At The Disco’s Brendon Urie, who sang on the track.
Little prefers a more intimate songwriting process, but is not zealous about it: “I mean, whatever it takes to get the best song – and if you need however many writers to make the song great, then that’s cool. But I prefer smaller, I like being in with one or two people.
“I think that’s just my personality as well. I’m not the most outspoken person to be around. I like being in a room where we can bounce some ideas around, it suits me.”
Asked about artists he’d like to write with/for in the future, Little mentions Lewis Capaldi and Camila Cabello, while citing Adele as “one of the best voices and writers of our time” and describing Post Malone as “insanely talented”.
He also, however, insists he will always want to (and benefit from) work with new/emerging artists – which might explain some of his motivation to recently co-write with the likes of Bishop Briggs, Tove Lo and Noah Kahan.
“I feel like that’s always been a big part of my success, working with people before they skyrocket,” says Little. “If I hear a voice that I feel is special and has something I think I could help with, I’m always interested.”
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