How to write a boyband hit – by One Direction's songwriters

It’s easy, surely? Just get five good looking lads to sing any old tosh, and watch the money roll in. Not so, say three experts

The days of crisp white suits and singers rising from their stools at the key change are long gone, but the demand for five guys with clean hair and middling vocal abilities is seemingly inexhaustible. It’s why Jason Orange leaving Take That remains national news, why McBusted are able to sell out arenas, and why One Direction are worth a considerable fortune, which will only swell with the release of their fourth album on Monday.

To a discerning muso, the artistry behind a boyband might appear nonexistent, but without the right song, there is nothing for fans to scream about. That is where the silent Svengali comes in, the possessor of the secret pop formula: take Wayne Hector – the songwriter behind 30 No 1 singles to date, a man who’s written for Westlife, Damage, 5ive, Blue, A1, Il Divo, JLS and One Direction. Or Ed Drewett (the Wanted, One Direction) and Fiona Bevan (5 Seconds of Summer, One Direction) – both skilled at morphing music base metal into chart gold.

So, how do they go about writing a boyband hit?

Capture your ideas quickly

Wayne Hector: Ideas arrive at strange times. When I came up with Westlife’s Flying Without Wings, I was in a hip-hop session in LA, which is the weirdest place to think of a song like that. I went for a walk and started to sing the words – I didn’t know what it meant, so I called my mum, got her voicemail, sang the melody and at the end said: “Do not delete this message!”

Ed Drewett: I come up with ideas a lot when I’m driving. I leave my phone recording normally – but there was a time when I hadn’t taken my phone in and I came up with a fantastic melody – I couldn’t forget it, so I literally had to sing it for an hour and a half, the whole journey home.

Balance the needs of band and audience

Fiona Bevan: I often think about who the lead or best singer is, and make sure the song fits their voice in terms of pitch and tone. When One Direction recorded Little Things, they all equally had a special moment to showcase their vocals. Ed [Sheeran, co-writer] and I hadn’t imagined them sharing out the melody in exactly that way, but it was a stroke of genius on their part in the studio.

WH: I always tell the bands I work with: “People don’t buy records because of what it represents to you, people buy records because of what it represents to them.” I’ve had guys in bands saying, “I wouldn’t say that,” but I remind them that there’s a hell of a lot of people who would.

ED: Very rarely do I consider members. You think: One Direction need a first single. It needs to be mid-to-up tempo, have a massive chorus, to sound fresh, but still familiar. That’s how I tailor it to the band.

Channel the emotion

WH: If you work with a group that don’t inspire you then you’re not going to give them your best. When a band want to keep their emotions fenced off it can be an emotional strain. It means the whole writing session is at a distance. I like someone who can spill their guts. In a way it’s like counselling.

FB: It’s hard to get a whole band to spill the beans. You can usually work out quickly which members are interested in making sure the song emotionally resonates. Writing with a lot of people in the room can be tricky, but a lot of bands work together on the same wavelength. They’ve got to sing the song every night so it’s got to feel meaningful and real to them.

Know your boyband history

ED: As a songwriter, you have to be on everyone’s level. If an A&R guy calls you up and says: “We need a song,” you need to know: what was the last thing they brought out? Does the band need to progress and mature? Have your own understanding of what the artist needs next.

FB: The music industry is such a shifting landscape that I think songwriting can’t help but change with it. The YouTube and X Factor generation love cover songs, which has led to increased conservatism and mistrust of new music when there’s a lot riding on a project. Digital technology and loops have changed the way people write, and many artists now sculpt their songwriting around how likely it is to be synced to an advert. I’d say most boyband songs still follow a very traditional pop song structure which is tried and tested over time to be hugely successful, however: It’s verse, chorus, verse chorus, middle eight/bridge, double chorus with a possible key change.

Learn to let go

WH: Once I’ve written a song I leave it to the producer knowing that I’ll hear it a few weeks later. In the past I found it hard to surrender my songs to someone else but now I accept it as part of the process: you can become obsessed with it and it’s soul destroying when things aren’t going the way you think they should be. It’s like having a child. You’ve done it, you’ve given them as much as you think you can and now you’ve got to let it get on with the world and be whatever it’s going to be.

FB: When the song fits the artist and gets them excited, I’m so happy for them to take it and run with it. No painter wants their attic full of paintings gathering dust – they want their work out in the world making people think and feel and becoming part of their lives – and it’s the same with songs. Nowadays you often have to deliver a demo that’s pretty fully formed, so that gives you scope to experiment with potential final sounds. Ideally the band and producer can see the bones in a demo and add their own meat, and make it their own.

ED: Not once have I ever felt any jealousy for anyone else singing the songs. I guess its still an exciting process – I’m thinking, “This is brilliant – it’s going to be played all over radio!”

Keep an eye the future

WH: Back in the 90s you could write about pure love and the key changes really did work. But now people want a concept. It has to have substance. We went through a period where boybands only wanted ballads and now everyone wants songs to be slightly cooler. When I wrote songs like the Wanted’s Glad You Came I put elements in there that would make it a little bit more leftfield. You’ve got to give people something to talk about.

FB: Boybands have always been edgy, in the context of their era – just look back at some of the Take That bondage costumes, or bad boys East 17. The lyrics have definitely become more explicit, but the same is true of the scripts and visuals in the movie industry. I think boybands tiptoe the edge of being exciting outlaws who fans would still want to take home to meet their mums.

Fiona Bevan’s debut album Talk to Strangers is out now on Navigator Records


Harriet Gibsone

The GuardianTramp

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