Oscar-nominated songwriter Savan Kotecha is known for writing some of the most popular songs of the century so far including Ariana Grande‘s “God is a Woman”, “Love Me Harder”, “Problem”, The Weeknd‘s “Can’t Feel My Face”, and One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful”. Other notable collaborations with music superstars include Demi Lovato, Katy Perry, Ellie Goulding, Britney Spears, and more. His prior work has garnered him three Grammy nominations and a Golden Globe nomination.
Now, Kotecha is nominated for his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for the song “Husavik (My Hometown)” from the Netflix film Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams. Koetcha spoke with Awards Radar on the process for writing “Husavik”, his collaborations with director David Dobkin & screenwriters Will Ferrell and Andrew Steele, and what the Oscar nomination for the song means to him and the people of Husavik.
How did you get involved in the project? Did the director David Dobkin reach out to you, or was it Will Ferrell?
It was actually Netflix. Amy Dunning from Netflix, who’s an old friend. We had been talking about doing stuff. She called me asking for advice on who I think could do it not knowing that I knew much about Eurovision. She was like “You’re around a lot of Swedish people. Do you know who could help with this movie?” And I was like “I could do it.” My wife used to torture me in my early days in Swden and force me to watch it before I really got it. It was perfect revenge. I told her I sort of get it and I would love to do it and read the script. She sent me the script and I was laughing the whole way through. I met David Dobkin and (screenwriter) Andrew Steele first. I tried out a song which was Double Trouble. Will came to hear it as well after David heard it. And we said “Let’s do it. Let’s do this together”. Luckily, we all loved each other and had a good time.
Before taking on the project, did you have any experience with the Eurovision Song Contest? Did it mean something to you?
I actually lived in Sweden from age 22 to 35/36. When I met my wife, I was here just for work. And I just remember one day everything shutting down. They were like “Oh, we gotta leave. It’s Eurovision.” I was like “What?” Everything was shut down. It was like the Super Bowl. Everyone was having Eurovision parties. After that, I didn’t really pay attention to it that night because it was a social thing. Then, my wife forced me to watch the Swdeish version in their round while they picked their song. I was in the middle of trying to write cool songs for American artists and I was like “What in the world is this? I don’t want this to inflict my brain.” And then after the next year, I sort of started getting it when I started really feeling how big this thing is and then understanding the rules that each country votes for each other and that you can’t vote for your own country. And it’s really about acceptance which is a beautiful thing to learn about other countries. And the songs were really great. As a songwriter, you want to create songs that connect globally. It’s actually an advantage to watch Eurovision to understand what’s going on in the rest of the song musically.
You are someone who has bounced around from place to place in your life, growing up in Virginia, moving to Texas, now living in Sweden. Were you able to draw any inspiration from your own life into Husavik?
Subsciously, I think I did. For me, everything was in the script. I approached it the same as every song on the soundtrack. Sigrit was like an artist. So all the answers were in the script and if she sat down in front of us as an artist, this is what she would say. That she’s in love with this guy, and I’m following him and his dreams. They’re not really my dreams, but I’ll do it for him. He doesn’t seem me. But I just wanted him. I don’t want all the things he wants. I just want to be back in our hometown and I don’t want to leave. After doing these interviews and talking about it, in a weird way it sort of paralleled my life. That’s what my wife was trying to tell me. We moved from Sweden to Los Angeles. She gave me 8 years of her life for me to follow my dreams. Around that time is when I realized that we should move back. She wanted to move back and raise our kids here. It was all about focusing on our kids. I didn’t care about all this entertainment industry stuff. I wanted to be back in my hometown. I think subconsciously that was all there. And now we’re here in Sweden. We started the process of moving back a year ago because it’s a whole different tax system and all that. But we officially moved back last August.
The film overall is very silly, goofy and tongue-in-cheek. Was it a fine line you had to walk in writing a song that was a bit more serious in tone with “Husavik” while also making sure the humor stayed in there? How were you able to make it feel authentic, yet in keeping with the satirical aspects of the film?
I think the whole thing was to find the truth in it. The approach with all the songs, which I find with Urovion in general, there’s sometimes these kooky productions and crazy costumes. But sometimes at the core of these songs, the melodies are really good. I’m a strong believer that if the melody is great, you can do whatever you want around it. It’s just like the movie. If the story, or theme is great..it can be a comedy, an action movie, whatever. That is how I approach every song. Then it was like, you know, getting lyrics that kind of felt Google translated but also felt honest to each performer like Lemtov’s character. He was high on the fact that he was gay and he was acting overly mancho the whole time. And that’s where that line from the love song came out. You know, what was the most ridiculously macho lyric? And with Sigridt, it was sort of finding the truth of the lyrics especially. And then also not worrying about perfect English. Making it feel a bit Google translate. It feels like Sigridt would be naive enough to sing a song where she sings “Where the whales can live with gentle people in my hometown”. I think the goal for us was just to be honest to the character.
Did you speak with ordinary citizens of the city of Husavik to draw inspiration for the lyrics of the song?
Not with Husavik. Now we have quite a lot. Really, everything was in the character. Some research I did on other songs on Iceland was like “DOuble Trouble”. My friend who co-wrote a song with me was Icelandic. He was talking ab9ut how in Iceland they have these apps where when you’re in a bar and you pick someone up in the bar, you look them up and make sure they’re not related. That’s where that song came from. It was that kind of stuff. But with Husavik, we just wanted to be honest with what Sigridt was going through. It was a lot of conversations with the director David Dobkin. It was a lot of talking about her and what her arc was and what she’s feeling in the moment.
What was the collaboration like between you and the director David Dobkin? Was there any guidance you provided for you before writing the song in what he wanted it to sound like? Or did he give you a great deal of freedom while working on it?
He was an amazing collaborator. Luckily, a lot of times we’re on the same wavelength. We broke through where the barriers were. He was always available to explain what we needed and what the character needed to say. Most of the time we were on the same wavelength. It took a while to nail this one. We actually thought the song sung by Demi Lovato in the movie was going to be our fallback if we couldn’t nail this one. He always told me that he wanted it to be something that expresses what she’s feeling at the time. He wanted to earn the dramatic ending. We had a comedic ending originally. But he really wanted to earn the dramatic ending. And it was really about the song mostly. Obviously, Rachel’s performance was incredible but the song and so it was a lot of sending him rough demos and going back and forth. All the time, there were voice notes and things like that. For the final production of the song, there were some 60-something versions. We were figuring out the shots, what it should feel like, what intructuments should be on stage. We had a guitar version, a dance version, we had a bunch of different things until it really felt right to David’s vision.
Was it a similar collaboration with screenwriters Will Ferrell/Andrew Steele during the songwriting process?
Very much more with Andrew. When we all thought it was right, Will would hear it. And he would make comments. Fairly early on in the process, I was able to talk with Andrew and Will and discuss the characters a little bit more. Some of the songs like Yah Yah Ding Dong and Coolin’ with the Homies for example, those were two titles that were in the script. There was some help there where they wanted a song like Yah Yah Ding Dong that was like a pub song that people had been singing forever. It was a fantastic collaborative process.
You’re well known for writing some of the most famous non-film song hits of this century so far from artists such as Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato, and the Weeknd. How was it different approaching writing a song for a film?
It’s a lot more chefs in the kitchen in a way. But, it’s a lot more creatively freeing because you’re not really writing for Top 40 radio so you can say things you normally wouldn’t say. You can explore with sounds or melodies or a lot of themes that you couldn’t because you’re not going “if it doesn’t work on the radio” and working through the formats your artist is in, you’re gonna fail. This is a lot more freeing. And i’m gonna start doing a lot more of it because it’s just so freeing. I love filmmakers. But what I was able to bring from the pop world into this is really approach every character like an artist. And if the script is written as well enough as this one is, it’s gonna be easy.
What’s truly incredible to me is that this never seemed like the sort of film to launch an Oscar campaign as it’s a fun comedy that came out early in the year. But it was sort of a grassroots effort spearheaded not by Netflix, but by the people of Husavik who fell in love with the film. What has that meant to you knowing that your recognition for your work at the Oscars is because of their ongoing support?
It’s so touching. Me and my two co-writers, it’s so hard to believe when we saw that first video they made I got goosebumps. Since then, I’ve had a couple conversations with the Mayor of Husavik and the guys that made that reached out afterward through social media. So we’ve started texting and stuff. They’re gonna stay up late and watch the Oscars. The Mayor sent me a photo yesterday of the town coming together and painting the streets red like a red carpet. The kids are learning it in school, in choir. It’s been so heartwarming and so touching. We’re honored that they are taking this song on with their hearts like that. We want to win for them now. We really want to bring it home for them.
What can you tell us about the song’s performance at the Oscars? And will you be attending the ceremony?
I won’t be at the ceremony but I am helping organize some of it. That’s why I’m talking a lot to the Mayor and stuff. I don’t want to reveal too much but it’s gonna be really special. I’m really happy for the people of Husavik that it was able to happen. And I’m so happy and grateful to the people of Husavik for allowing the performance to take place there. The original singer, Molly Sandeen, is going to perform. And she’s incredible. She’s a Swedish artist. She herself has a story. She auditioned for Eurovision when she was a kid. So for her, this is a magical time as well. I didn’t want to go back to the states for the Oscars right now because of family reasons but what I know now is that they’re going to create some sort of a hub on my property. So we’ll be able to be there live and outside in the cold. But it’ll be wonderful.
I heard you are working on a musical film. Can you tell us more about that?
I can’t but it’s a fun one. It’s a known entity. It’s a version of a known entity’s film. Or a prequel to a known entity’s film I guess I should say. It’ll be announced and when it’s announced I can talk about. I hope by the summer it can be announced. And then I’ve been developing a few things that I’ve sold of music elements.