One Direction’s Songwriters: They’re What Make the Boy Band Beautiful

The writers behind 'Take Me Home' share the secrets of building a hit

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Sway with One Direction at the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards.

One Direction’s Take Me Home is the year-end, last-chance hope of the record business. It’s aimed straight at the adolescent girls who swooned en masse over last year’s fusillade of compliments “What Makes You Beautiful” and who did it again recently for the politely insistent seduction “Live While We’re Young.” Those girls, as it happens, are just about the last faithful purchasers of CDs left. Up All Night, One Direction’s debut, came out in the U.S. in March; it has since sold over 1.3 million copies in the States and about 10 times that many worldwide. It’s the third best-selling album in the country this year, after Adele’s 21 and Taylor Swift’s Red. Artists don’t often release two albums in a year these days, but One Direction’s industry can’t afford for them to wait.

That meant bringing in a crew of experts to stock the new album with potential hits. Here’s how the dozens of songwriters who worked on Take Me Home did it, in five easy steps.

They write in teams.

Harry, Niall, Zayne, Louis and Liam are the public face of One Direction, who were assembled for the British version of The X-Factor in 2010 and signed to its judge Simon Cowell’s label Syco in the U.K. But it takes a legion to make a boy band: Take Me Home has an average of just under five songwriters per track. That’s very much in keeping with other big pop records of the moment. Solitary tortured artists with guitars are fine if they’re writing songs for themselves, but for singers who aren’t also songwriters, the TV-style “writers’ room” model simply works better to generate hits. And the surprisingly small pool of masterminds whose songwriting and productions dominate the pop charts these days almost always work in groups.

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They do Swedish-style songwriting: melody first.

There’s a cluster of high-powered songwriters who are based in Sweden, and the grandmaster is Max Martin, the wizard behind hits from Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” and Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” to Katy Perry’s “Part of Me” and Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Savan Kotecha, the American who co-wrote both of One Direction’s big hits, spent six months in Stockholm developing songs for their new album with Martin disciples Rami Yacoub and Carl Falk — and, later, dodging the thousands of screaming girls who surrounded the studio when the group showed up to record them.

“We work melody first. That’s Max Martin’s school,” Kotecha says. “We’ll spend days, sometimes weeks, challenging the melody. The goal is to make it sound like anyone can do this, but it’s actually very difficult. In Sweden, you don’t do anything until you do it right. I was One Direction’s vocal coach on The X Factor, so I know their voices better than almost anyone. We were able to shape melodies around their tones. And once we saw what ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ did, we wanted songs that kids could play on guitar and cover on YouTube.”

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But they also do American-style songwriting: groove first.

The other major school of contemporary chart-pop songwriting — although the schools sometimes overlap — starts with an instrumental groove and arrangement and then adds hooks, “top line” melodies and lyrics, often each by a specialist. Take Me Home’s “Rock Me,” for instance, came together in a single-day collaboration between guitarist Peter Svensson of the Swedish band the Cardigans (who had a hit with “Lovefool” 15 years ago) and Americans Allan “Kool Kojak” Grigg and Sam Hollander. “We all agreed, ‘Let’s not write an uptempo song with a guitar hook,’ because One Direction’s pile of those songs had to be the biggest pile in the universe,” Svensson says with a laugh.

First, Grigg worked out a boom-boom-wham beat, a cousin to Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” (“If you can slow a song down to midtempo, the girls are just gonna lose their minds,” he boasts.) Then, Svensson says, “Sam had an idea for a title that’s like ‘rock me’ instead of ‘rock you,’ and the melody just came.” Co-producers Dr. Luke and Cirkut ended up with writing credits on the finished recording too — standard operating practice, now that the sound of a song has as much to do with its identity as its lyrics or melody.

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They present the group’s voices individually.

Kotecha notes that Backstreet Boys’ late-’90s hits inspired the way he frames One Direction’s voices: “Harry’s got that raspy thing that A.J. McLean had, and Liam’s got the Nick Carter kind of reliability. I used to study Backstreet’s songs, so when I got to write for One Direction, I was like, ‘Finally, a group that I can sink my teeth into.’ “

Writer-producer Julian Bunetta, who worked on three of Take Me Home’s tracks, also tried to underscore the sound of each singer. “All five of them have very distinct tones that I wanted to make sure came through,” he says. “The fans can tell the difference, but we wanted to make sure that when it came on the radio, the average person knew that it must be One Direction, because it’s five guys.” And the new One Direction single, “Little Things,” features solo verses sung by each of the group’s members.

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They take fans’ psychological needs into account.

” ‘Rock Me’ is blatantly a double entendre about sex,” Grigg says, “but at the same time, there’s a vulnerability in it that’s, like, so sweet for girls. It’s a little self-deprecating. There’s not a lot of overt machismo in the song.”

“I approached it like high school,” says “Rock Me” lyricist Hollander. “On the first record, they were freshmen, innocent and wide-eyed. Now it’s sophomore year, there are parties and driver’s licenses, and the world is theirs for the taking. That’s what I wanted to capture.”

As Kotecha puts it, “It’s all about knowing their audience, and I know their audience — from the very beginning, they’ve followed me on Twitter. It’s nice to write lyrics that their fan base would want boys to say: ‘You don’t know you’re beautiful/ That’s what makes you beautiful.’ My older sister was a shy kid, but when [’80s boy band] New Kids on the Block came out, all of a sudden she had something in common with the other girls. That’s what this is to me.”

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