Across 24 years, nine albums and 48 singles, Britney Spears has racked up some of the most defining and inimitable pop songs of all time. While the genius of Max Martin has been a mainstay in her discography, over the years her career has showcased a host of the biggest songwriters in the music business. Here, Rami Yacoub, Carla Marie Williams, Justin Tranter, Lauren Christy, Ina Wroldsen and Christian Karlsson reflect on the art (and joy) of making a Britney song…
…BABY ONE MORE TIME
(…BABY ONE MORE TIME, 1998)
Baby One More Time Written by: Max Martin.
Published by: Zomba Music Publishers Ltd./ Grantsville Publishing Ltd.
Where were you at in your life when you first started working with Britney?
Rami Yacoub: “I had started my own production company maybe three years prior to the Britney era. We made a lot of remixes in the beginning that barely paid the rent, but we eventually made a few hits with an American artist called Lutricia McNeal. They never stretched across the European border, but it was rather successful and gave us some breathing room. Me and my partner were childhood friends and we played every day after school, started a band and then eventually became producers and songwriters. We felt that it was time to grow apart after such a long time together, and I started looking for other opportunities. Me and Max [Martin] had a mutual friend that got me a meeting with him. I played him some of my jams, including a few up-tempo songs that I basically had ripped off from the Cheiron sound just to impress him (Laughs). He respected the effort and liked what he heard... But I also had a huge song on the charts at that moment, so that helped a lot. Denniz Pop, Max’s mentor, and essentially the whole team’s, was sadly sick with cancer and had taken a step back in effort to get better, so Max was looking for a partner. They were obviously very big shoes to fill. I never did and no-one ever could, but I tried my best and so did the whole team in Denniz’s spirit after he passed. May he rest in peace.”
When it came to producing ...Baby One More Time, did you know you were working on a huge hit?
“Honestly, you never know. You can only do the best you can on each song and leave no stone unturned. We work on each song almost surgically, but there are so many emotions going through you when writing a song: love, hate, blood, tears, joy, you name it... So the simple answer is no, we didn't know it would be a hit.”
What did you learn about songwriting from working on ...Baby One More Time with Max?
“It’s not something you really learn from one person or one song, it was our first, ‘Let’s try to make this song and see if we click’ (laughs). I guess we did... But, throughout the years, Max mentored me and we learned from each other. I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher than him.”
Britney’s smart, she’s been part of a lot of decisions that led her to be the queen of pop
How did Britney deal with being in a studio for the first time?
“This is a very long time ago... Wow, I feel old. She was so young, but she was very professional and never complained. We would record for hours and hours, and she never so much as asked for anything. She deserves to be where she is at. She is a diamond. Britney’s voice has so much character, it's fragile and she sounds human, if that makes sense? Not intimidating, but inviting. There are many mind-blowing singers, and Britney might not be up there with them, but she has a far better asset, which is the character in her voice. That’s far more important.”
Why do you think the song had the impact it did?
“Well, a lot of things. The melodies were on point, the production was raw, simple and different, but it didn't take over. It was just holding the song’s hand. A production should always support the song not overshadow it. And then, on top of it all: Britney. Who knew that little kid was a beast? She is smart and she has been part of a lot of decisions that led her to be the queen of pop.”
Incredibly, the song is now over 20 years old. What has Britney’s contribution to pop music been?
“Yeah, that's pretty amazing. A lot of artists contribute to pop, but a few with such impact. If pop was a big old oak tree, she is definitely part of those roots.”
You’d go on to write a number of classic pop songs together. What’s special about you, Max Martin and Britney’s chemistry in the studio?
“I don't know, we just clicked. I mean, me and Max were goofballs – easy to get along with, and she felt safe. You fill a room with people that love and respect each other and, most importantly have fun, some good shit will come out of there.”
OOPS!... I DID IT AGAIN
(OOPS!... I DID IT AGAIN, 2000)
Oops!... I Did It Again Written by: Max Martin/Rami Yacoub
Published by: Zomba Music Publishers Ltd.
When it came to Oops!... I Did It Again, how had Britney grown as a singer and artist between the two albums?
Rami Yacoub: “Wasn't it barely a year between them (laughs)? I didn't reflect on it, but she was one year older and a little more outgoing, since she had already been on tour and had had success. That speeds up a lot of things.”
What inspired Oops!… lyrically?
“I don't remember 100%, to be honest. For those of us that don't have English as a first language, melody came first and then lyrics. It was not easy for us to write lyrics, but we knew lines had to ‘pop’ and sound like ear candy. ‘Oops’ was a good word to start with. It took us two weeks to finish those lyrics. It was rough, that much I remember...”
The term ‘Oops I Did It Again’ became a cultural catchphrase, one recently referenced by Anne-Marie on 2002, and another by Fall Out Boy on Young And Menace. Did you ever expect the song would have that kind of enduring power?
“Not in a million years... There is no greater reward than when fellow artists you yourself look up to refer to your song you wrote 20 years ago.”
What actually inspired the spoken-word bridge that references Titanic?
“It was us just being stupid and romantic (laughs). We initially had reached out to Leonardo DiCaprio to do it and he said yes, but I think for some-reason politics and copyright laws got in the way.”
Finally, Oops!... features one of the most iconic pop videos of the ’00s. As a songwriter, is it a thrill to see a song you’ve created in become a massive sci-fi epic video?
“(Laughs) Videos were such a big thing back then. MTV was amazing when it actually was Music TV, so we were super-excited every time they sent a video of a song we'd done. I do remember we were mostly bummed, since we expected Britney to be on a train station for the bridge part! You can clearly hear the sample of an old train and the conductor saying ‘all aboard,’ and in the video they ended up in space and on a planet for the bridge.”
Written by: Britney Spears, Carla Marie Williams, Tramaine Winfrey and Simon Smith.
Published by: Britney Spears Music/Universal Music Z-Songs, New Crowd Ltd./Audeobox LLC, Nappy Boy/Songs Of Universal, Inc.
Carla Marie Williams: “When I heard that Britney was coming back, I was like, ‘You’ve got to work with her, she’s a legend!’ Her team had heard some of the songs that I was doing and heard my voice on some of the tracks and felt I might be a fit for where she wanted to go musically and vocally. They introduced us to each other, and that’s how we basically started with Private Show: she heard some of it, really loved it and then we got into it from there, did some more writing sessions and wrote another song called What You Need. The vibe and energy in the room was so high. People underestimate her vocals – she’s got a big voice. We spent probably a week of writing together and then those two songs blossomed. She, in particular, wanted me to just do what I do, rather than do what everyone has already done for her. Off the back of that, she was looking for a name for her perfume at the time, and she really loved the idea of Private Show, so she made it the soundtrack as well. I was like, ‘This is amazing, this can’t get any better!’ To me, she’s the dying breed of artists that sing, dance and work frickin’ hard, that absolutely craft their skill. They’re superstars, and we don’t have many superstars anymore. We’ve got Beyoncé and Britney, but they’re a dying breed, really, the all-rounders.”
People underestimate her vocals... She has a big voice
Carla Marie Williams
SLUMBER PARTY FEAT. TINASHE (GLORY, 2016)
Written by: Mattias Larsson, Robin Fredriksson, Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter.
Published by: Ma-Jay, Wolf Cousins, Warner/Chappell Scandinavia AB, Warner Tamerlane, Thanks For The Songs Richard, Justin’s School For Girls.
Justin Tranter: “I’m a huge, huge fan, so to get to work with Britney was an actual dream come true. I mean, she’s literally one of the most iconic voices of all time, one of the most iconic performers of all time. The number of hits she has is truly shocking, the number of amazing songs she has is truly shocking. She had been a fan of songs that me and Julia Michaels did, and we had been asked to go into the studio with her. It was awesome to see what a strong writer she is – she’s got super bold ideas. Of course, if you pay attention to her discography, we’ve seen that she’s the best – but when you see it in real life, it’s a whole different experience. You’re seeing the proof of it all – it’s just amazing.
“Me, Julia, Matt [Larsson] and Robin [Fredriksson] were at Conway recording studios in LA, for a couple of days set aside where we were trying to write for Britney. I think the idea for Slumber Party – like most of the ideas – started in Julia’s brain, and I’m just lucky enough to help organise and elevate them, but I won the lottery there and I’m not afraid to say it.
The first time we heard Britney singing in the studio we were freaking out so much we had to sit in the hallway...
“It’s always hard for me to tell a story about how the actual song happened, because it all happened so fast, everyone was so excited. All I know is that the first time me and Julia heard Britney sing on the mic in the studio, we were freaking out so much that we actually had to go outside and sit in the hallway because we were disrupting the session. There’s something about Britney’s voice where you just believe every word, you follow the whole story, and I think it’s her vocal tone and her live show that takes it to another level. It was really amazing to have Tinashe with the princess of pop, too – that’s a pretty cool moment for pop culture history. It was amazing to see all the pop fans and Britney fans be so happy and excited and proud of her and the album, and saying this was one of her best videos in recent memory, too.
“I think she’s an amazing example of a woman in control of her destiny, and a woman in control of her sexuality and a woman in control of her vision. And I think that’s such an amazing thing for young people to see. Since day one, you’ve had this young, strong, confident, bold woman with one of the most special voices ever, taking over the planet.”
HE ABOUT TO LOSE ME (FEMME FATALE, 2011)
Written by: Rodney Jerkins, Ina Wroldsen.
Published by: Rodney Jerkins/EMI Blackwood, P&P Songs Ltd.
Ina Wroldsen: “I love this song. It came about on my first ever trip to LA. I was over there and met Rodney Jerkins at dinner and he asked me to go to the studio, so I went and was super-nervous, because he is one of my heroes. I think the third song we wrote was He About To Lose Me. I’d been to this club with some of my friends and my sister, and I had an argument with my husband. My sister was dancing with this guy and she looked so happy, they were just touching hands, and I just got [the lines], ‘I’m touching hands with someone seriously beautiful, eh-eh-eh,’ and, ‘He about to lose me.’ I like writing about stuff that’s personal. We’re writing about sex a lot now – that’s fine – but I still feel that there’s a holiness and intimacy that I feel sometimes gets lost when we make it too crude. So, I like writing about the stuff that isn’t, ‘Let’s get down to it.’ I like the beginnings of something, and it’s just that image of my sister dancing with this guy! What did Britney bring to the song? She brought Britney, bitch! The first time I heard it I cried thinking, ‘Oh God, I wrote a song for Britney!’ I still remember getting my sister her first CD, I can remember hearing …Baby One More Time and going, ‘What is this!?’ She’s a legend. It’s one of the highlights of my career.”
SHADOW (IN THE ZONE, 2003)
Written by: Britney Spears, Lauren Christy, Scott Spock, Graham Edwards and Charlie Midnight.
Published by: Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Universal Music Publishing Group, BMG Rights Management.
Lauren Christy: “Britney came in to spend a few days with us at The Matrix’s studio. We, of course, prepared things because it was Britney Spears, my goodness! Charlie Midnight, our dear friend, came in and the four of us ruminated on ideas. Charlie and I kicked it outside on the patio and came up with the, ‘It’s only your shadow, never yourself.’ We felt it had a pathos and sadness to it that would be interesting for her to do. Britney’s very discerning about what she wants to do but she loved it. She was so nice, very in control of what she feels she can do and so nice with that Southern charm. The song just came together really easily with her. We had three or four days, and at one point the paps were outside climbing on top of our cars trying to look in… That was awful. But it was lovely in our studio, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is surreal, I’m chilling with Britney Spears on a couch’ (laughs). I just love the song. She played it live where she went up in the air on a big hoop, and it was an honour for us to work with an icon like Britney Spears. She’s a real talent, and I would love to work with her again. I really want to see her show!”
TOXIC (IN THE ZONE, 2003)
Written by: Cathy Dennis, Christian Karlsson, Pontus Winnberg and Henrik Jonback.
Published by: Colgems-EMI, Murlyn Songs, Universal-Polygram.
Christian Karlsson: “Before Toxic became a song, basically, it was, like, 10 beats I was working on on just one given day. I had the strings on a loop, and then I left it to think about it. The next day I came back and I listened to it and I was like, ‘This is impossible to make a song out of, but I love it!’ I didn’t know how to make it a song but I wanted to try, so I immediately looked to get some acoustic guitar in there. It was all piece by piece – it was all about trying to make that freaking string thing work in a song without making me nuts. I’m happy we did that.
“We didn’t know it was going to be a big hit or anything, because we didn’t even know if anybody was going to take the song. I sent the song out to the first artist and we didn’t hear anything back. When I was in a session with Britney, I played it for her and her A&R and they we’re like, ‘We’ll get back to you.’ It was still the dark horse on that album, because it wasn’t the first single.
Toxic was all about trying to make that freaking string thing work without making me nuts
“I worked on Toxic with Cathy Dennis, who I still work with today and every day for the past 15 years. I don’t know what it is about our chemistry in the room, it’s just something where we don’t have any worry that the idea might be crazy, or rubbish, because we just dare to go to any place. Of course, it was also very important I did Toxic with Avant [Pontus Winnberg], that I’m also in Miike Snow with, and I’ve been working with for 20 years.
“Britney just has that tone of voice that, no matter if you like it or not, you know that it’s her. I like that you’re never going to think it’s another artist, you’re going to know that it’s her. I think that’s the most valuable thing, more than maybe being the best singer in the world – to have that tone that is recognisable is worth so much.
“There have been so many different artists and musicians and writers that have praised Toxic, and it’s amazing. To be honest, I was on the younger side when I was writing in the early ’00s. I was writing so much at that point I didn’t want any of my music to be critiqued at all. So when Toxic won the Grammy, I didn’t even go to the ceremony, because I was so against everything that had to do with competing with music – it stressed me out so much. That was me being very young, and I just wanted to be in the studio, basically, and escape that.
“I think Toxic resonated because it was just fresh-sounding, in so many ways, within pop music when it came out. It was both original and very strong in the melody. The production was also something that people thought was very new. I think the Bollywood string thing really grabbed people’s attention.
“It was pretty mind-blowing. I’d had some hits before that, but it was a very big artist and a big single and an amazing video. It was a big moment for me.”