He’s the genius behind some of the biggest hits not only of 2018, but the past quarter century. And more awards than you could count. Music Week travels to the studio to meet our Songwriter Of The Year: Steve Mac…
The first thing you notice when you walk into Steve Mac’s state-of-the-art West London studio is the plaques. Or, rather, the big numbers they sport. Together they tell the story of 28 years of singular dedication to the craft of songwriting; as does the building itself. Custom made to Mac’s specifications, every room has large viewing panels – meaning wherever you are, you get a clear sightline into rooms where people may be cooking up a song. That’s how Music Week first spies Steve Mac, hunched over a recording console naturally, from across the other side of the building. We can’t hear what he’s recording but you could bet your last grandma it’s going to invade the charts at some point.
In 2017, Mac had a spectacular year, not least for co-writing Ed Sheeran’s all-conquering Shape Of You which, of course, became the most streamed song in Spotify’s history, currently standing on over two billion plays. On top of that, and as his plaques attest, he’s notched up credits on Liam Payne’s Strip That Down (over 10m worldwide sales and counting, ta very much) as well as smashes like Rita Ora’s Your Song, Clean Bandit and Zara Larsson’s Symphony, Pink’s What About Us and Tom Walker’s Leave A Light On among others. His 2018 isn’t going too shabbily, either. In January, Mac won Best British Producer at the BRIT Awards, while in October he was the recipient of seven ASCAP awards including Song Of The Year. This year he’s notched up Little Mix’s Woman Like Me, Anne-Marie’s 2002, Jess Glynne’s Thursday, Years & Years’ If You’re Over Me, plus Marshmello and Bastille’s Happier which is currently at No.1 on US alternative radio, which Mac says has been one the highlights of his year.
It is for this veritable smorgasbord of reasons that Music Week has ventured here to crown him our Songwriter Of The Year. What immediately becomes apparent is that it’s hard to reconcile the previously outlined astronomical success with the man behind it. Very much a man who has left his ego somewhere else altogether, he is a riot of self-deprecating humour – even joking with MW snapper Paul Harries that he’s going to need 45 minutes before our shoot starts. To sort his hair. He’s quick to defer praise to his collaborators (personally, he would give the Songwriter Of The Year nod to either Ed Sheeran or Camille Purcell) and also notes that he is not mesmerised by the limelight – “At events, no one knows what I look like,” he grins. “It’s fantastic!”
While he is proud of his achievements to date, he seems uncomfortable flaunting them. When asked how he celebrated Shape Of You’s record-breaking success, he simply grins, “I’m sure if it gets to two billion, we’ll definitely have a drink.” It duly does, just days after we meet. Bottoms up, Steve!
Similarly, when MW delivers a ‘Cor, look at all those awards on that shelf!’ he seems sheepish, perhaps even a bit embarrassed, to admit that, yep, they’re all from 2018.
His has been an extraordinary career – one that has navigated the ever-changing pop landscape to consistently deliver big hits to the tune of over 200 million worldwide record sales.
Mike McCormack, UK MD of the Universal Music Publishing Group, praises Mac’s “ability to write and produce so many songs, but always maintain the highest of standards and quality control” and also notes that his is the kind of success that’s hard to quantify in words.
“I’m running out of superlatives to describe how well Steve’s career has been going over the past couple of years,” he laughs. “Abnormal success has become normal for him, but it hasn’t dulled his work rate or ambition one iota, if anything he seems more driven than ever to surpass what he’s accomplished already.... And I’ve no doubt he will!”
While Mac may strive for anonymity, his discography most certainly doesn’t. His first breakthrough hit was 1991 No.2 single (I Wanna Give You) Devotion by Nomad. His first No.1 was Westlife’s Swear It Again in 1999; from there he would work with everyone from Ant & Dec and Damage through to Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez.
“(I Wanna Give You) Devotion was the very first thing I did as a kid when I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he reflects. “I wasn’t sure I was going to stay in this business very long, I was just enjoying it. When I look back from then to now, I don’t know how I got here. I remember that first No.1 coming with Westlife and thinking, ‘Well, that’s it, I’m done now, I don’t need to do any more!’ Then you’re like, ‘Maybe I’d like another one of those… And maybe I can follow that up with another one!’”
As far as game plans go, it was a winning one. Time, then, to meet Music Week’s Songwriter Of The Year…
These days, do you pride yourself on hits, or is respect from your peers more important?
“Having respect from your peers and people loving your songs in the business is important, but the idea that a lot of the public love it and go out and buy and stream it is much more important to me. That’s really come from working with Simon Cowell for as long as I did. I don’t think I’ve ever felt credible, I’ve never been a core producer, I’ve never been a credible producer. I was talking to Simon about this back in the day and he said, ‘Steve, there is only one kind of credibility and that’s a hit record. How do you become more credible? You have another hit record.’ He said if you start building up you’ll become credible. It really stuck with me. I worry a little bit when I read tastemaker views and they love something that I have done – I know I am in trouble commercially at that point. I mean, I’ve had some shocking reviews back in the days of Westlife and the boybands. And I’m so proud of some of those songs, like Flying Without Wings. At the time they were big songs for myself and Wayne Hector, so to read, ‘This is drivel’ was tough. So then you stop reading those kind of things and start to appreciate that you’re making records for the public. There’s nothing better than watching a song connect at a concert with 20,000 people. It’s incredible. That’s why I do it: I still love that feeling.”
So do you feel credible now?
“No. I’m just this 46-year-old guy who’s lucky enough to be making these records after X amount of years, and having watched other people, who were coming up around the time I was starting to leave the business a long time ago. There was a time when A&Rs would go to what I call the coolest producers, or latest names, before me and then they’d come to me right at the end and say, ‘We didn’t get anything so we thought we’d give you a call.’”
How did that feel?
“I used to be really offended by that, like, ‘You’ve been to everybody else and now you come to me?’ Now I look at it like the biggest compliment, that you’ve gone to everyone else and now you need a hit and I’m the last call. Now, maybe that’s not the way I should be looking at it, but in my mind that makes it feel better. I normally get the call with an artist later in the day, which is strange, really... Again, this comes back to the cool and credible thing, the person I wanted to be that I never felt I’ve been... It does sometimes come down to voices. I’m a very selfish songwriter-producer, and if I think that voice can sing one of my songs, then I want it to sound great. Up until two years ago, just before I worked with Clean Bandit, my whole career had been based not on marquee artists, but new artists. I really was proud of the fact that I was there on the ground, helping them build – I was there at the start for Westlife and boybands like JLS and The Wanted. I was never given the gifts of, ‘This is one of the biggest acts in the world – do you want to have a go at doing it?’ It always comes back down to the voice. And if they can emote. I don’t even need to see them, and that’s why I’m not sure I’d be a good A&R person. There’s been numerous offers of JVs and I’ve seen producers go off and do it, and I’ve not really seen it work that well for them. My job is in the studio, my job is as a songwriter and to produce the record. I’m not sure what a great artist is, if I’m honest with you. All I know is what a great voice is, and what a good song is. I like to limit my job to that. Then it’s over to the label. I do think to myself some days and go, ‘Maybe I should go into the record side of it...’ But then I stop myself. I just think, ‘I don’t know, it just means I’d have to go to gigs and be out after 7 o’clock at night.’”
So you see yourself as a studio person?
“I love doing what I do. The best part of the whole process for me is that first three hours of writing a song with whoever I’m in with. It’s the promise of what it could be. In my mind, I’m still a kid. If you realised the amount of times I’m in the car on the way home practising my radio jingles over the front of these records, practicing the, ‘And at No.1 this week...’ It’s a bit embarrassing actually. I’ve read a lot about it where, if you think about where you want a record to be, it might get there. Me and Wayne Hector started this very early on when we wrote Flying Without Wings and Swear It Again. We weren’t thinking of them for Westlife and things like that, we were thinking Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey – to the point where it was a little embarrassing because we were doing all the hand movements, I was Mariah and Wayne was Whitney and we were walking around the studio. We were visualising it, and because of that I think we got a much better song. I’ve always thought that the song needs to be bigger than the artist, especially at the start of their career. Otherwise you can’t move that on – they have to grow into it. That’s how you get the career-defining songs. That’s what happened with Westlife and Flying Without Wings.”
Do you ever worry you’ll go cold on the hits front?
“It will happen, it’s just a question of when. I’ve been lucky enough in my career where I’ve had the peaks and troughs, and the troughs haven’t been too low. I’ve adapted. There was a moment with the boyband thing where that fell out of favour and we got into guitar-based music, which wasn’t me, so I moved into classical. I did Il Divo and Susan Boyle, just because I love that kind of music and I wanted to carry on making records. It was great to be a part of that, and when that felt it was falling a little flat I moved back into pop music, and I’ll do the same thing again. I’ve always said, ‘Worse case, I’ll do library music.’”
And what kind of songwriter/producer do you see yourself as?
“I don’t think I’m ever going to be a producer that does a whole album. I don’t think I’m that kind of producer. I just enjoy making hit singles. I don’t think that’s necessarily good for every artist you work with, to make a whole album. I know people will say, ‘You could make a whole album of hit singles!’ but I do feel to buy into an artist you need the highs and lows, and you don’t need every song pinning you to the back wall. But I’m happy to be the guy who makes the total banger, and let other people make much cooler records that probably will last slightly longer because they’re those hidden gems on the album that make them so special. I’m starting to understand a bit more about the longevity of an artist. An artist’s career isn’t just from hit to hit to hit – for an audience to buy into an artist there has to be so much more than just that one hit single. It has to be believable and you have to tell that artist’s story. That’s what Ed Sheeran does so well.”
A lot has been made in the pages of MW this year about the spiralling numbers of songwriters on songs. Liam Payne’s Strip That Down did incredible numbers but also had a lot of credits on it...
“That had 12 or 13 writers on it. It started with Ed and myself in a session just messing around, like we do. When you write with Ed Sheeran, you’ve got to be prepared to be writing three or four songs in the day because the guy is a machine. With [Strip That Down], the two of us started that together and we were thinking of Liam when we were writing that song. I sat there and I remember thinking, ‘OK, the pre-chorus sounds a lot like Shaggy’s It Wasn’t Me.’ Now, normally, and this is what I love about Ed Sheeran, you’d go, ‘OK, we might need to look at that’, but Ed was like, ‘No, let’s approach them and see if they’re OK for us to use that!’ That’s what we did and that’s why all the other writers’ names are on there. I didn’t realise, it wasn’t until we looked into it that it wasn’t just Shaggy and two other guys who wrote it, they used a sample originally. So, when I was standing at the ASCAP awards in April in LA and I’m meeting my co-writers for the first time, it was a unique situation. There were so many people onstage. Look at Anne-Marie’s 2002, which is a song Ed originally brought to me. He’d written that with Benny Blanco and Julia Michaels, so it was a collection on there already, but because of the lyrics in the hook referencing all these different songs, I think the song ended up having 27 writers on there...”
Aside from those instances, what about the idea of those songs where there are lots of people in a room each meticulously working on one part?
“I don’t work like that. Most of the songs, there isn’t usually more than three people – maybe four maximum on the songs that I write. I think, really, that is because I am a songwriter that produces his song rather than a record producer. It’s happened to me a couple of times when writers come over from America, or topliners and all they write is the lyric and the melody. They say, ‘Play me a beat!’ and I always say, ‘ I don’t really have any, but we can go sit at the piano!’ That marimba sound for Shape Of You was the very first thing I played to Ed: we didn’t have a beat, I had no idea!”
Finally, you’ve worked with some of the biggest names in music. Is there anyone you want to collaborate with?
“There are a couple of people I haven’t that I would love to work with, and I’m never expecting to...”
Go on, we can try and manifest it now in the pages of Music Week...
“Artists like Adele. That is someone I would love to work with. Chris Martin and the Coldplay boys would be incredible. These are the biggest artists in the world, and there is a reason: because they sound so good. I’m a fan. I listen to Coldplay all the time, and I actually worry about working with these artists because I’m like, ‘I’m a fan of yours – I just want to stay a fan, I’m happy to do that!’”