Q&A

Meet The Pop Songwriter Behind Those Earworms In Netflix’s Eurovision

Anyone who has ever seen the Eurovision Song Contest knows that it’s a spectacle like no other. Between the elaborate special effects, outlandish costumes, and dramatic ballads and upbeat pop songs peppered with awkwardly translated English lyrics, the long-running European institution is ripe for parody. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga — starring Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, and Dan Stevens and now streaming on Netflix — answers that call. Director David Dobkin, co-screenwriter Andrew Steele, and Ferrell (who cowrote the script with Steele) certainly have a knack for spoofing the event’s absurd pageantry, but when they needed to create the music for the sendup, they sought out a producer with a very particular set of skills.

Enter Savan Kotecha, an American-born songwriter and producer who has written for almost every major pop artist in the last 20 years, including but certainly not limited to One Direction, Katy Perry, and Britney Spears. Often working alongside colleagues like Max Martin, Shellback, and ILYA, Kotecha’s had a hand in quite a few of Ariana Grande’s hit singles as well as #1 smashes from Usher (“DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love”), the Weeknd (“Can’t Feel My Face”), and Maroon 5 (“One More Night”). He’s also maintained a long-running partnership with Demi Lovato, who has a small role in the Eurovision movie as Katiana Lindsdóttir, a formidable contestant from Iceland who meets a hilariously tragic end.

Although Kotecha is originally from Austin, he’s uniquely positioned to recreate the Eurovision sound for the film given that he’s spent 15 years living in his wife’s native country of Sweden, the birthplace of 1974 Eurovision champs and global pop juggernauts Abba. Stereogum caught up with Kotecha to discuss concepting the music for the film, why writing songs for a movie is a welcome relief from writing radio hits, and how he came to genuinely love Eurovision after being completely baffled by his first viewing.

STEREOGUM: When it comes to the music in the film, you’re basically the boss that oversees all the production, correct?

SAVAN KOTECHA: Yes, I was the executive music producer. So I was brought in in the early process before they started shooting and while the script was in its final drafts to come up with some main songs and put teams together to do the songs that I didn’t necessarily have time to do. It was such a joyful, fun project.

STEREOGUM: Did you get to be on set?

KOTECHA: They wanted me on set but I was stuck in Sweden with my family. David Dobkin was going to have me [play a role]. Apparently it was between the guy [Christopher Jeffers] who got cast as the Swedish rapper [Johnny John John] in the film and me. David was like, “We decided to go younger,” and I was like, “OK.” [laughs]

STEREOGUM: Those were your vocals on “Coolin’ With Da Homies.” I love how you captured how dorky and square the hip-hop that typically gets into Eurovision is. Can you discuss the process behind creating that song?

KOTECHA: Andrew Steele, the screenwriter, along with Will [Ferrell] and I were talking about how it’d fun to then do the wackest rap song ever. I started laughing because I lived in Sweden for 15 years [beginning] in like the early 2000s. It’s one of the things I remember going to Sweden, like the rappers there would rap in English and they were always using two or three-year-old slang. I wanted to do something like that where you’re just using old slang like you’re trying to be cool.

STEREOGUM: Did you ever see the [2013] Eurovision contestants PeR from Latvia where one of the dudes beatboxes?

KOTECHA: I don’t think I remember them. I’m trying to think. I saw so much Eurovision in my days living in Sweden. It was all a blur. [laughs] I mean, at the time I’d be writing for a big pop star and my wife would be in the other room and she’d make me go watch Eurovision. I was like, “I think you’re confused where the bar is, lyrically, right now.”

When you’re in a country where no one’s speaking English around you, your English gets lazy, right? So when you’re watching something as big as Eurovision, the whole country kind of shuts down to watch the thing. You see how big it is, and the English isn’t very good. You start subconsciously thinking that’s where the bar is, lyrically. I was like, “I can’t write songs and watch Eurovision at the same time!”

STEREOGUM: I remember the first time I watched Eurovision, and between the songs, the costumes, and the special effects, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. What was going through your mind the first time you saw this spectacle?

KOTECHA: The first time I remember just thinking it was like the weirdest, cheesiest thing. It took a couple years of being there, but you start appreciating the diversity and how it’s really a celebration of these different cultures. It’s just silly and it’s tongue-in-cheek. I love the fact that you don’t get to vote for your own country. I remember being in a restaurant where people were having a Eurovision party and they were explaining to me that “no one is voting for that country because they did this to their people this year.” It’s a political thing as well.

STEREOGUM: How much about geopolitics did you learn solely through Eurovision voting?

KOTECHA: So much! Especially about the Eastern European countries that I didn’t even know existed. It’s pretty amazing. Also as a songwriter, you start realizing, like, oh, wait, a lot of these songs — and that’s what I brought to this project — a lot of these sings are really actually, if you take away the lyrics and you take away the bombastic production and you’re just listening to the melody. As a pop music guy, melody is everything. Melody, to me, is a universal language.

Those big Britney Spears/Backstreet songs back in the day, they made no sense lyrically, it was just the melody was so good. It spread across the world. As a songwriter, that’s what I learned from it. It was like, as long as your melody is great, you can dress it up however you want. A great melody is a great melody no matter what style you’re playing it. If a Eurovision song works as a cool hip-hop R&B song, it’s a great melody, it should be able to do all of those things. It’s just about arrangements around it.

STEREOGUM: Something that struck me was how much the Fire Saga song “Double Trouble” felt like it could be a great pop song but it also felt like a very Eurovision song in the sense that it’s grand and sweeping and it walks that line between ballad and dance song.

KOTECHA: That melody was just a melody, a chorus I’d saved in my phone. I was thinking there was a particular artist that I was going in with, and I was like, this would be good for that artist, for her voice.

STEREOGUM: I don’t suppose you’re gonna tell me who the artist was?

KOTECHA: No, I’m not going to say who it was. She might call me and be like [exasperated lady voice]: “What are you saying? You were going to play that song for me? I wasn’t going to record that song!” The skeleton of the chorus melody I just found on my phone, I was thinking, this could be something potentially for this artist, I’ll bring it up when I’m in the room with her, and we’ll shape it around her voice. Instead, it was like, this is also a good Eurovision melody.

In the end, [collaborator] Rami [Yacoub] picked up the guitar and we changed it a little bit to really go into Eurovision land. But again, the seed of it was a really good pop melody, and that’s what helped crack the code, and that’s what I stood by. And through all the other songs, the rhythm, and their sound, I stood by that for the people I’d put on assignments. I was like, don’t make this a joke. The melody has to be really good. “Volcano Man” is actually a really good melody and then you put the lyrics on top and the “Ross from Friends” electro production. [Editor’s note: Not to be confused with Ross From Friends.] At its core, though, it’s a really good melody.

STEREOGUM: Did the lyrics come exclusively from your end or was there input from the screenwriters and director on that?

KOTECHA: It’s a mixture of both. It depends on the song. Like “Coolin’ With Da Homies” and “Running With The Wolves,” screenwriters had titles they really liked. For me, if you have a great title, you do 50% of the lyrical work, then it’s filling in the blanks. A lot of it was a discussion about who these characters are. It was all approached in that way. It was like I would approach [songwriting] with an artist. This artist, what is their language? What would they say? What are the kind of melodies they would sing?

STEREOGUM: For this project, in writing the music, you’re essentially creating the glue that holds this whole movie together. Is that more or less pressure than writing a song for a huge pop artist?

KOTECHA: It was a different kind of pressure. I’ve been writing for big artists, I’ve been doing it now for a long time, so it’s a bit of a relief not to have that pressure, like to think, “Oh, this has to be a big radio hit,” because then you can sometimes feel [like] you’re in this commercial box. Like, “What’s the trend now? What’s going to work now?” And you have to work within that box. Here, because we’re not thinking radio, we’re just thinking about finding Eurovision, and you don’t have the pressure of “Oh, this has to be a hit song.” It opens your mind up and allows you to be more creative.

STEREOGUM: You’ve worked extensively with Demi Lovato for a decade. How did you pitch this project to her to get her onboard?

KOTECHA: I suggested it and contacted her people. I think they also contacted her agent. It’s a combination of both that got her in. She did awesome. She’s so underrated as a singer. She’s probably one of the top four or five if not top three vocalists of her generation, I think. It was such a good get. She really enjoyed it, and she was such a good sport with everything.

STEREOGUM: So she was a good sport about getting blown up?

KOTECHA: Yes. She’s such a funny girl. She has a great sense of humor and all that. We texted after she saw a screening of the movie and she really loved it. It’s exciting for everyone I think as well because it’s just really seemed to tap into something right now. I think everyone needed a movie like this.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga is streaming now on Netflix.