For this month’s interview, we spoke to Melanie Fontana, a multi-platinum #1 Billboard songwriter. She has been involved in writing many well-known K-pop songs including ‘Boy With Luv’ for BTS featuring Halsey, which landed them in the Guinness Book of World Records for ‘most viewed YouTube video in 24 hours’ and ‘most viewed music video for 24 hours’. Melanie also co-wrote the anthemic track ‘Euphoria’ for the BTS’ album LOVE YOURSELF: Answer, and ‘CROWN’ for TXT’s debut. She was part of a team who wrote music that was performed by the contestants on the Korean music show Produce 101 and was involved in writing songs for the resulting group I.O.I. She also had single releases with notable artists Girls’ Generation, Minzy, F(x), Hyolyn, Tiffany and Jay Park, as well as Britney Spears, The Chainsmokers, Justin Bieber, and many more.
Melanie was able to tell us how she started songwriting, how she was able to work with Big Hit Entertainment to release some stand-out music for their groups, her feelings about the release of Boy with Luv and meeting the BTS boys at Saturday Night Live! Melanie has a knack for coming up with hooks and catchy melodies which make her songs immensely enjoyable for the fans of the groups who perform them.
We found Melanie in a relaxed mood on a sunny afternoon. She is a naturally bubbly and energetic person, smiling widely as she begins talking about her earliest memories in music. Even at an early age, she seemed to have a sense that she and music belonged together.
I remember my mom bought me a toy record player. She got it from some sort of garage or tag sale. It came with little plastic records. There was actually one song on each record. I remember singing along to all these children’s songs as a little kid and my mum always said, “I think Melanie can sing! You have such a pretty voice!” I was probably about 3 or 4 years old at that point.
There was always a little voice in my head saying that there was something different about my abilities in music and the arts. I always felt like there was something that set me apart from everybody else. I wasn’t sure what it was, I wasn’t even sure whether I was better or worse. There was an innate feeling since childhood that this was my path.
Melanie continued to expand on who encouraged her as a child and what piqued her curiosity about music. She doesn’t come from a musical family but became fascinated with music herself.
I always wanted to be an artist, even as a young girl in my pre-teen years. When Britney Spears first burst onto the scene…Mandy Moore, LFO, BBMak, and all these pop bands. As they came onto the scene, I couldn’t help but say “hey, I want to do that too.” I used to look up the writers’ information on the back of CDs. I’d see the names and do some research into who these people were. I’d ask “Who’s this? Who’s that?” I always wanted to know who was doing things behind the scenes doing the music for the pop stars.
My parents were actively encouraging me. They were not the typical stage parents going “you have to go to voice lessons; you have to go to dance lessons.” They were the type of parents who would ask, “You seem to love to dance. Do you want to go to dance lessons?” I was the one who would ask and they would make always sure that I got what I wanted, in some sort of way.
I come from a completely non-musical family with the exception of my grandfather who was a [member of a] vocal quartet in the 40’s; an acappella group, essentially. He was like the older generation Pentatonix! But nobody in my immediate family is a musician.
From an interest in music in childhood, she sought to pursue a music career. As is the case for many, Melanie’s route wasn’t easy. She was almost in a girl group herself but instead, it led to writing for big name artists. She matured as a person and came to a realisation about her true motivations for writing.
I started making demos; my parents would help pay for me to actually go into studios. I would write songs in a notebook without music. I don’t actually play an instrument; I play a little bit of ukulele by ear and a little piano by ear but I’m not a player so I’d get notebooks and write songs. Smartphones help a lot nowadays but before phones I just wrote everything in a notebook. As soon as I looked down at my notes, I’d remember the melody by simply reading the words. I don’t know how I did it!
Those demos would graduate into other demos, and I would take those songs to another producer, and then eventually I worked my way up to putting songs onto SoundCloud. Then I got discovered by the sister-in-law of a very famous (at-the-time) music producer. He said I should come out to LA and audition for his girl group. That whole thing flopped. The girl group never happened, but I moved from the East Coast to California and nearly spent all my money doing it. During the time I was signed with this super-producer, I met a lot of people working in the music industry. I was so green and new and in awe of everyone. I took note of the people I met and stayed in touch with them even when the girl group flopped.
I had to go work on a cruise ship to make money to survive so I actually left LA for a year to be a band singer on a boat, which was an adventure on its own. But when I came back I utilised all the people I had met, and then I ended up getting signed by a singer/songwriter named Nasri, who is the lead singer of the band Magic. He was writing for Justin Bieber, Jason Derulo, JoJo, Carmen, but nobody from the East yet. K-pop was still bubbling underground at the time.
It was 2010-2011 when I was being signed to Nasri and his team as management. My first cut ever was Justin Bieber and set the bar so high for me. Everything after that felt like a big letdown. I don’t want to be ungrateful for things that happened along the way, because they’ve gotten me to where I am now, but at the time I was thinking, “Shouldn’t I just be writing for stars at all times? I wrote for Justin Bieber. I don’t want to work for unsigned artists.” But my mind quickly changed. I realised that it’s not necessarily about that for me, about the clout, about the name; It’s about getting what I want to say out on paper. Having the right vessel (the artist) to get those words out.
Next came opportunities to learn from reputable songwriters and Melanie’s foray into writing for the Korean market. Melanie recognises that luck does play a part in careers and has a pragmatic stance on how important it is to complement that with talent.
After writing for Justin Bieber, it started snowballing. I got sent on a trip to Scandinavia to work with an awesome songwriter, Andreas Carlsson. He wrote songs like ;I want it that way‘, ‘Bye Bye Bye‘ (songs for the Backstreet Boys), ‘Waking up in Vegas‘ for Katy Perry. He has written some big ones for Britney too. He took notice of me when I was working with Nasri and Justin Bieber and when I was getting signed to Universal. He brought me to Stockholm which is where I wrote for Girls Generation for the first time in 2011. And that’s how I got into writing for the East.
If you don’t know people, you’re not going to get far. There could be a girl in the house next door from me right now writing the greatest songs, but if she doesn’t know who to reach out to, nobody is going to hear those songs unless somebody accidentally comes across them on SoundCloud, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat… It is equal parts luck and talent – the luck of knowing the right people and the talent to deliver when you are in the room. There are many people who get lucky (they’ve written a few big songs) and get cuts, but when it comes down to it, they can’t deliver when they are in the room with these big artists. They end up writing flop after flop. So it’s equal parts luck and talent.
I was very lucky because I got my first publishing deal which allowed me to be comfortable. I was signed to a big label and was paid money upfront. But I was conscious that I was living on someone else’s borrowed money, which did make it stressful. It probably took 5 years of doing that 7 days…no 8 days a week! to get to a stage where I wasn’t worried about having to do a job on the side. It was a struggle.
Melanie paused, seemingly in a reflective mood. Having listened to the detail of her hardships, we wondered whether music continued to feel fun during this period of her life. She seemed like such an optimist, that we weren’t surprised to hear her eventual response!
Music was always the prize at the end of all the stress. The goal, the light at the end of the tunnel. To go into the studio and write a great song was always the prize I was striving for.
We were interested to know whether Melanie had ever felt intimidated by anyone she worked with, having collaborated with some very established people in the industry. She nodded, provided an example, and explained how she took positives out of the experiences she’s had.
Nasri was difficult to work with and he knows it. I love Nasri but he’ll walk into a room and stomp on a song that you’re writing. He will add his own flavour without any direction and just leave. I would be thinking, “what do I do next, where do I go from here? Do I use your part? Can I use your part?” Because it seemed like he didn’t like everything that I did before.
However, he helped me learn how to fend for myself as a writer and crush bad ideas. I lost the fear of taking out bad ideas due to worry that writers wouldn’t like me. He broke me down to build me up essentially. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.
My writing partner (husband Lindgren) and I are known to be one of the fastest songwriting teams and it is because we don’t let bad stuff float around in the air. I just want the best music coming out of our studio. If my name is attached to something, I want it to be the best it can be.
Having learned many things along the way, she is well aware of what she brings to the table during a songwriting session. Songs tend to evolve before they are released, though Melanie demonstrates how invested she is in music that she has created.
I’m not quick-witted when I speak to people, but when I am writing songs, I’m very quick-witted. I’m very good at finding the flip or twist on a concept so that the end result won’t be so generic. I’m good at making things that are simple as well as memorable at the same time. I feel like my strength is being ‘hooky’. I’m good at lyrics and melody, making quick little ditties that get in your ear, like little earworms. You’ll hear it in ‘Boy With Luv’ by BTS; there is a little tag in the beginning, and it’s the post hook of the song as well. It’s a little ear-wormy thing that I came up with!
Even though I know in my heart that a company will likely remove my concept or lyrics, I still try to write the best song that I can because I know that if I’m singing a song that I love, it’ll be better. It irks me when other songwriters do it the other way. I mean, why not give your best?
Writing K-pop songs is like a bandwagon now and everyone is trying to jump on it. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been doing it for almost a decade so I feel like I’m a gate-keeper in a way. Just because you think it’s cool, you can’t just jump on; I feel that you need to pay your dues!
Songwriting can take place in either a solo or team working environment. Melanie prefers to work in teams but continues to slot in some solo writing on the odd occasion. Tilting her head, she laughs loudly whilst giving her reasons for this.
Songwriting is my social life. So for me, co-writing is important because that means I’m getting to socialise with humans other than my husband! I do prefer to co-write, to have an experience with another person because so often I don’t get that. Sometimes songwriting is lonely. You could be in the studio with headphones on and the world is closed off. I do write on my own once in a while (once or twice a month) to practice my songwriting though.
Sometimes tracks are put together by seemingly enormous teams. The songwriting and producing credits can reach double figures. Melanie provided some insight into how this comes to be.
Sometimes songs get passed around. For example there could be 2 producers and 2 people working on lyrics and melody in a room. The producers are working on the beat and people working on lyrics and melody (like me for instance) are listening to the track as it’s being made and coming up with earworms, catchy lyrics and phrases. Other times we’ll receive an instrumental from a record label who will ask us to write something on it. We’ll record something and send it back but the label might like parts from many songwriters so they’ll ask each of us for the capella (vocal only), then cut and paste the song from all these different people. That’s how some songs have very long tracklists!
We’ll only find out maybe a week before release about the number of people on a track that we’ve been part of.
We thought that many of our readers would be interested to know about particular factors that Melanie thinks about when writing for Korean artists. She elaborated on how she makes allowances for the differences in language and followed by describing her approach for writing a song based on an entertainment agency’s instructions.
Korean is such a percussive language so I tend to add a busy chorus or verse which allows them to say their Korean words. I make room and leave space for them. I do this because Korean words are much longer than the English. Sometimes I might need to adjust the song a little after they’ve written Korean lyrics. Basically there’s no one set way to write a song!
Instructions are very basic. I may be told that the track is to be a love song or that it needs to be cool. They usually give me a link to their artist’s last single. They might say “think Britney Spears meets Taylor Swift”. I listen to the artist’s back catalogue so that I am inspired by what they were. But I don’t pay too much attention to it because I want them to graduate. I want the next song to be a step up. I get inspired by their vibe but not their style or old energy. I want to give them something new.
In this day and age, I do believe a great song can be performed by a multitude of artists – a good song will always find a good home however I do believe that once it’s placed with an artist, it should be modified to make it more their own. Like for TXT we would take out the emotional guitar because they are a younger brighter group.
Korean artists tend not to be in the studio with the songwriters, but there was one instance where it did happen, with soloist Hyolyn, formerly of girl group SISTAR. Melanie described what happened during this particular songwriting session.
She requested that. I was really excited because I’d never heard of it before. I always assumed that in general K-pop artists were entertainers and performers but wouldn’t like to be bothered with the studio stuff. But I was wrong about many of them actually; I’d just never had that request before. I was blown away by how great her melodies and lyric ideas were even though she didn’t speak English that well or maybe she was shy about speaking English. It was so easy to work with her.
Her manager and head producer Jay Choi was there and he helped translate. She would speak to him and he would just direct me.
Melanie’s biggest successes in the K-pop industry lie in her collaborations with Big Hit Entertainment who manage BTS and TXT. Her experiences with them have been wholly positive and she gave some insight into how she sings guide vocals on many of the tracks she has penned.
I didn’t know much about Big Hit before I started working with them but they are a shining example of how artists should treat songwriters. They are very different compared to other record labels because they are very involved. Most labels may have 10 – 20 big artists but Big Hit have BTS and TXT and they put all of their energy and resources into these two groups so I think that is why they are very successful.
We knew that it was important to distinguish TXT and BTS and we didn’t want to infringe on what has already been successful for BTS. It had to be something new and very different. Big Hit certainly thinks ahead and they knew exactly what they wanted for TXT’s first song.
Lindgren, my writing partner, is a multi-instrumentalist and he plays everything well. I always sing the guide vocals and write the lyrics (on my tracks). I am singing on Crown and the BTS song. The companies trust me with the Korean language! I listen to teeny bits, second by second, to make sure I am saying it perfectly and then repetition gets me to where I need to be.
For BTS’ ‘Boy With Luv’, the beat was already done. Lindgren is a brilliant topliner and we worked on the rest of the song together. We didn’t know it was going to be the title track and only found out that Halsey was going to be the feature artist when everyone else did!
Jungkook sung ‘Euphoria’ which is a big favourite among the BTS ARMY. Melanie became involved in the Euphoria writing project a little later in the process, but contributed major parts that helped bring the song to life.
I was invited to write on ‘Euphoria’ after the team had started a basic idea. They wanted to bring in some new energy. I really felt something as an initial reaction. The guitar seemed to pull at my heart and I immediately fell in love with it. I wanted to add something really heartfelt to the song and I wanted the melodies to make you cry when you heard them. I wrote the chorus of the song separate from the rest of it. We laid down some placeholder English lyrics and we weren’t sure who the song was for initially. DJ Swivel (the producer) sent it to Big Hit for BTS to see if they would like it. It opened the door to my relationship with the record label. I had no idea what I was walking into!
When I found out I got number 1 on Billboard, my manager brought me a big balloon and I got some BTS lights! We had a big party and popped a bottle of champagne. It was the biggest moment of my life.
Big successes lead to a lot of social media attention. With her feet firmly on the ground, Melanie has a realistic way of dealing with it all.
I’ve gotten so much attention from BTS fans. My twitter account would start blowing up! If I looked at all the comments and all the reviews, I’d have a breakdown. I do have a quick scroll through comments, and look at the numbers on Spotify and Apple Music. Then I just call it a day since it is essentially out of my hands.
We finished off the interview with Melanie’s thoughts on the rise of social media, and how she envisages the next progression of K-pop.
Now, because of social media, people are collaborating more and more all over the world. I can see lots of East-West collaborations happening in the future with K-pop artists. I’ve always felt strongly about global love. Why separate genres by such huge gaps? I’m very anti-border. That’s why I fell in love with K-pop when I first saw it. It reminded me of pop music in the States when I was a little kid. I naturally started to like listening to Girls Generation and f(x). I discovered SM artists first, then I got into hip-hop, like 2NE1, CL…getting to know all the YG, JYP and Cube artists!
I think that’s what is happening now. Everybody wants to discover something cool and I think that’s how it is for so much of America with K-pop.
Later, we caught up with Melanie following the release of BTS’ new album Map of the Soul: Persona and her appearance on Saturday Night Live (SNL) with BTS, to get her perspective on how everything went following all the promotions.
It was bigger than I could have imagined. When you are part of a co-write like that, you never really expect something like that for yourself. I am thrilled at the fact that it is climbing on radio. I’m honoured and flattered and blown away by the response. I appreciate all the messages and videos from people who have the heard the song on the radio. As for Saturday Night Live, it was probably the coolest experience of my life – the guys are incredibly beautiful human beings, they have beautiful spirits. They accepted me like a sister. As soon as we met, I felt instant chemistry and a good connection between myself and the guys even though we didn’t all speak the same language (with the exception of RM who speaks English). If we ever got into the studio together I know it would be so much fun. If it was even half as fun as SNL, it would be the best session ever!
(Responses have been partially edited for clarity)
Thanks to Melanie and her team for taking the time to communicate with us and our readers. We look forward to many more new tracks from her in the future!
Featured image and in-article images source: © Melanie Fontana. The Dream Adopters. 14.05.2019. All rights reserved. Images were provided by Melanie’s management team for the purposes of this interview. No reproduction is permitted.
© Interview with Melanie Fontana. 14.05.2019. Inspire Me Korea.