Max Martin doesn’t really do interviews. The pop genius more or less responsible for the past two decades of Top 40 hits only rarely speaks about his work, so it’s always a huge deal whenever he opens his mouth. He recently gave his first extensive magazine interview since 2001 with Sweden’s Di Weekend, and he had a lot to say about his theories behind constructing vocal melodies — his specialty — using Taylor Swift and Prince as examples:
I have lots of theories when it comes to this. If you’ve got a verse with a lot of rhythm, you want to pair it with something that doesn’t. Longer notes. Something that might not start at the same beat. As I say this, I’m afraid it might sound like I’ve got a whole concept figured out…But it’s not like that. The most crucial thing is always how it feels. But the theories are great to have on hand when you get stuck. ’We can’t think of anything, is there anything we could do?’ In those cases, you can bring it in as a tool. If you listen to “Shake It Off” with Taylor Swift (he hums the verse melody). After that segment, you need a few longer notes in order to take it all in, otherwise it’s simply too much information. If there would have been as many rhythm elements in the part right before the chorus … Does what I’m saying make any sense to you at all?
Sweet and salt might be a description that’s easier to grasp. You need a balance, at all times. If the verse is a bit messy, you need it to be less messy right after. It needs to vary. “Shake It Off” is a good example, where the math behind the drama is pretty clear. But the melodies themselves, they may appear wherever. It’s never like ’Now I’m going to sit down and write this or that kind of song’. The melodies may show up in the car, in the shower. From then on it’s all about how you manage the melody, how you make sure that you’ll be able to hear it over and over again without tiring of it.
If the chords change a lot over the course of a song, it’s better to stay within the same melodic structure. Once again, it’s all about the balance. Another theory is that you can also sing the chorus melody as a verse. For instance, take “I Wanna Be Your Lover” with Prince. The verse and chorus of that song are exactly the same. But as a listener, you don’t really notice since the energy of the chorus is completely different compared to the verse (he sings like Prince to show his point). Once the chorus comes, you feel like you’ve heard it before. And you have! You’ve heard it in the verse. It automatically creates a sense of familiarity. Prince does this a lot. “Let’s Go Crazy,” same thing. I’ve used this trick a few times myself. “In Do You Know (What It Takes)” with Robyn for instance … There was a phase when I and people around me listened to Prince a lot. A lot. We took Prince-fandom to the extreme. The insights we gained proved helpful. Absolutely not like the fundamental ways of making music. Sometimes you hear rumors like ’They’ve figured it out!’ But it’s not like that. It’s about understanding and learning, putting a toolbox together.
And according to Martin, his aversion to interviews also goes back to Prince:
I thought it was so cool that all you knew about Prince was about his artistry and music. Early on, Dagge (Denniz Pop) and I did an interview for some weekend supplement. We left the studio and did the interview in a cafe somewhere. Right away, I realized how wrong it all felt. ’What am I doing, sitting here blabbing away? I should be in the studio. That’s my place.’ Then, for two weeks, I was anxious about what it would say in the paper. One upside of saying no is that nothing happens. If you say yes, stuff can happen, if you say no, you don’t need to worry.
Although Martin never really went anywhere, he had a bit of a low period after his wild success with Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and NSYNC, and he blames Pharrell’s sick beats:
I’ve learned that things change. The whole boy band thing almost turned into a stock market crash. We folded Cheiron at the right moment. Then, there was a period when we thought that Pharrell (Williams) and the others came and ruined it all for us with their super cool beats. My first thought was: people are idiots for not understanding how great our stuff really is. Then, in the end, I realized: the world has moved on, we’re the ones who’re stuck in one place. So I started listening to other kinds of music. I spent a lot of time in New York and worked with artists who never really got anywhere. Then things took a new turn with Since U Been Gone (Kelly Clarkson). But at the same time, during the Cheiron era, we never really understood what we had achieved down in our basement in Stockholm. Since we never realized how big we were back then, I took that cold period with a shrug of the shoulders.