Oscar Nominee and Songwriter Savan Kotecha Talks ‘Eurovision Song Contest,’ Indian Roots
Working with artists such as The Weeknd, One Direction, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber and more, the American producer currently lives in Sweden
Although he was raised in Austin, Texas in a Gujarati household by Ugandan-born parents, Savan Kotecha did develop a liking for pop balladeers such as Bryan Adams and Richard Marx, much like a lot of Indians back home during the Nineties.
Kotecha, who is among the songwriters who work with chart-toppers such as Britney Spears, One Direction, Ariana Grande, The Weeknd, Maroon 5 and more, says over email, “I was a big fan of cheesy ballads! Always have been. So when I first started messing around on a piano, I would learn to play their big hits by ear, and then I started falling in love with Babyface and Boyz II Men’s music. I think a lot of my early Westlife songs were all trying to be Richard Marx or Bryan Adam’s songs.”
Also a vocal producer, Kotecha moved to Europe and began working with Swedish super-producer and songwriter Max Martin (being part of Spears’ 2009 hit “If U Seek Amy”) and also landed up working with contestants on U.K. show The X Factor in 2010. It made him among the key persons on the show amid Simon Cowell and future pop star group One Direction. In the last decade, Kotecha was part of the team that churned out hits such as “Love Me Like You Do” by Ellie Goulding, “Side To Side” by Ariana Grande, “One More Night” by Maroon 5, “Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd and several more.
As recently as last year, however, Kotecha took on the role of an executive music producer for the comedy musical Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, which released on Netflix and starred Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams. Arguably gleaning from his years of being a musician and songwriter in Sweden and understanding the Eurovision phenomenon, Kotecha’s work on the film has led him to his first ever Oscar nomination in the Best Original Song category for “Husavik (My Hometown),” a rousing piece that was co-written by Fat Max Gsus and Rickard Göransson and sung by Molly Sanden. It may have lost out to “Fight For You” by D’Mile and H.E.R. but Kotecha did play a key role in putting together a performance of “Husavik” by Sanden and a children’s choir in its namesake town in Iceland.
In an interview with Rolling Stone India, Kotecha talks about working on Eurovision Song Contest, the songwriting industry, working with Max Martin, music in India and more. Excerpts:
Eurovision Song Contest definitely felt like one of the most fun projects to work on for you, is that fair to say?
Absolutely! I’ve always been a movie buff and always looked for films and T.V. shows for inspiration for songs. This was the most involved I’ve been in any film, beyond the music, [director] David Dobkin and I formed a great relationship and I learned a lot from him about the film making process as a whole. That was so cool for me. And the fact that this was comedy and that I could sort of ‘flex’ my comedic side was feeling in a lot of ways. And just getting the chance to work with Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams was a career highlight!
It’s a little different being an Oscar nominee and following the Oscars this year owing to the pandemic, right? How are you feeling about it at the moment?
I mean, I feel bad for Brad Pitt and George Clooney for not being able to hang with me! But there’s always next year! [laughs] Seriously though, I feel like it’s an honor either way. Sure, it would’ve been great to experience it in L.A. but I chose to stay in Sweden with my wife and kids because I wouldn’t want to experience all this without them.
Specifically with your Indian roots, I wanted to know a bit about what part your parents were from and how much Indian-ness do you still feel you carry with you? Have you ever got to follow some of the non-film pop music that’s being made out here?
My grandparents are from Gujarat, Porbandar area, but parents were actually born in Uganda and had to go through Idi Amin. I was raised in the U.S. in a very traditional Gujju house hold and we always had a big Indian community around and stuck with them. So I carry a lot of that with me and try to pass it on to my kids. I haven’t been able to follow the non-film stuff other than here and there, I get sent some hip-hop from India which is great, but I’d love some recommendations!
You’ve said you’re often the kind of songwriter who’d like to meet an artist/singer that you’re writing for. I’m guessing that’s seen a bit of a shift in the last year due to the pandemic? How has it been working remotely some of the time?
To be honest, I haven’t been doing much writing at all other than working on a few other soundtracks. I’ve been focusing on our family’s move to Sweden and spending more time with my kids and wife as well as my film and T.V. development. It’s been nice to take a break from being in the studio all the time for the past 20 years!
This is a bit of a cliched question, but are there artists on your wish list? If so, what does it look like?
To be honest, I’ve gotten to everyone that I’ve dreamt of. I feel really lucky about that!
What would you say is the best part about associating with someone like Max Martin?
Firstly he’s a great friend. I’ve learned so much from him and continue to do so in life and in music. It’s always a blessing and inspiration to be around someone who is the best at their craft so it just raises the bar for those around him like myself. I think I’m a much better songwriter because of him.
I feel like you’ve often spoken about how streaming, label business and the music industry’s commercial interests in general don’t favor songwriters a lot of the times. What kind of change are you trying to effect on this front?
Songwriters need to start getting their fair share of the income their music generates. Right now, they are basically last and have the smallest part in a business that wouldn’t exist without what they do.
What else is coming up through 2021 for you in terms of songwriting projects and more?
I’m about to start executive producing music for a new film and I’m also working on some of the films I’ve been a part of developing. Once the world opens up a bit, I’ll start working with some artists.
Have you ever got to visit India? Are there any artists you’d like to work with or had offers to work with, here?
I actually went to India for my honeymoon! It was so great. I can’t wait to bring my kids there. I have to explore the pop artists there more but I ideally would love to create or join a talent show there to find artists that can work globally from India. I think that is the thing to do. We need a desi pop star!
Watch the performance of “Husavik” live at the Academy Awards below.