A group of Grammy winners and nominees gathered at the Key Club in West Hollywood on Saturday to discuss songwriting at BMI’s ‘How I Wrote That Song’ panel. The panel consisted of Cee-Lo Green, Claude Kelly, Seal, Chad Hugo, Bonnie McKee and BC Jean.
Catherine Brewton, vice president of BMI, moderated the show with co-host Dallas Austin, a famous producer, songwriter and musician.
Cee-Lo Green, who is now well-known for his fun and bitter hit song “F*ck You,” first discussed the writing process for “Crazy,” a song performed with Gnarls Barkley. At the time, in addition to not having a record deal, Green was also going through a divorce.
“[Crazy] resembled this inner chaos,” Green said.
Not surprisingly, “F*ck You” was a song written by a very fed-up Green. He wrote it during the long period he spent working on Lady Killer, when he was sick of recording songs and having ideas shot down.
“I did it to be ridiculous,” Green said. “It was meant to be spiteful.”
Such spite produced a hit song that has been nominated for four Grammys, not including Best Short Form Video.
“You either have to be in touch with your feminine side or be a lady’s man. I’m a lady’s man,” Green said.
Claude Kelly, who has written hit songs “Party in the USA” and “Circus,” discussed writing Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You,” Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” and Fantasia’s “Bittersweet.” He also shared his experience with writing from a female perspective as a man.
“You can’t write from a female perspective and think like a dude,” Kelly said.
However, there’s more work involved than simply writing from a generalized female perspective. When Kelly is in the recording studio, he channels the specific artist for whom he’s writing, making a clear distinction between the aesthetics of artists like Fantasia and Kelly Clarkson.
“You have to be kind of selfless to be a songwriter,” Kelly said.
Seal, an acclaimed, award-winning artist, talked a little about his start in the music business, but mostly discussed his famed song “Kiss from a Rose,” after being convinced to sing part of it for the audience. He almost didn’t include it on his 1994 album Seal II, because he didn’t think it was “edgy” enough, but complied after numerous people involved with the album were impressed by the song. Although “Kiss from a Rose” is now part of his identity as an artist, Seal admitted to being eternally embarrassed by the music video.
“We wanted it to be disco without being too disco,” Hugo said.
Out of all the panel members, Bonnie McKee has written the most recent hit songs. Her portfolio includes Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me” and collaborations with Katy Perry for “California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream.”
She described “Dynamite” as a song that practically wrote itself while “California Gurls” was supposed to have lighthearted, ‘90s summer feel to it.
McKee has been in Los Angeles writing songs for ten years and found the process of songwriting others a nice breath of air from being an artist. She believes that there will be a backlash to today’s overproduced sounds, leading to pop music becoming more organic.
Last but not least was BC Jean, who has written songs for artists like Miley Cyrus, or rather Hannah Montana, and has had to alter some of those songs in order to make them appropriate for PG and PG-13 audiences.
“I write a lot songs that I’m not going to use for myself, so I have to find new homes for them,” Jean said.
BC Jean may be most famous as the original singer of “If I Were a Boy.” Jean had been going through a bad breakup, which turned out to be the best thing in her life because it compelled her to write the hit song, which was later recorded by Beyoncé for her album I Am…Sasha Fierce.
The songwriters also offered advice to those aspiring to make it in the music industry.
“The only way you can make it is if you get addicted to music and chase that ‘chill’ factor,” Kelly said.
Panel members encouraged aspiring artists to not be deterred by negative responses.
“Every ‘no’ is one step closer to a ‘yes’,” Jean said.