How Music Works: how to write a hit pop song

In How Music Works, Niall Byrne talks to those who make a living in the Irish music industry. This week, professional songwriter Richey McCourt on the art and craft of writing pop hits for the stars

There are songwriters who articulate their own world views and experiences, who write songs that tell their truth. Then there are professional songwriters for hire, who write songs for others, mainly songs intended to be hits that live in the mainstream through radio, the charts and in public consciousness.

Far from a recent development, songwriting houses have been around since the dawn of recorded music in the late 19th century with famous examples being Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building in New York.

Professional songwriters have to be adaptable, universal and versatile. A songwriter is hired by a client and there are other considerations including industry machinations and writing in the authentic voice of the artist.

"When you're writing for yourself, you have no one but yourself to please," says Dublin songwriter Richey McCourt, who has recently worked with pop artists like Will Young, Pixie Lott and Matt Cardle.  "When you're writing for others, there is the artist, management and label to consider. If all three don't sign off,  the song might not happen."


"I could be pitching to a 21-year-old female pop star," adds McCourt. "Being a 34-year-old father of two, we wouldn't have much in common, but I have to imagine what her life, or her audience’s lives may be like – boyfriends, parties, things like that."

McCourt is a rare breed, a musician who has graduated to the backroom of the songwriting industry. Having played in bands like The Voyeurs and The Million Dollars since he was 15, and with no record label deal forthcoming, McCourt decided to try a different professional music career.

A change of career
"I'd just become a father and realised that I needed to change direction," McCourt recounts. "The prospect of being away from my kids for six or seven months at a time was a deal-breaker for me. It​ was a huge decision, as for years, I could never even admit to myself that I might not 'make it' as a musician. I had dabbled a little in writing pop songs, more as a laugh, but realised I actually have a bit of a knack for it."

McCourt was working as a live and studio session musician, as well as writing with vocalists and artists who themselves were looking for a record deal. He was also a regular performing music on RTÉ on TV shows such as The Late Late Late Show, The Voice of Ireland and The Saturday Night Show. Through meeting and hanging with artists and people in the industry, he had built up a solid network of contacts. But it was a chance meeting during the Irish Eurosong rounds in 2012 with Swedish songwriter and producer Nick Jarl that was the catalyst for his current career.

"Once Nick and I started working together, through his vast Stockholm-based network, names such as Shellback, Tove Lo and Max Martin were giving us feedback and tips on our work, which was surreal," says McCourt.

McCourt then signed up to the publishing company One MGMT, who were looking for a strong topline songwriter, the process by which a writer comes up with the melody and lyrics for a song.

"The company is based in Stockholm, where so many monster pop hits are made," enthuses McCourt. "Since Nick and I signed, our diaries have been filled with co-writes and sessions, so I’m really happy there and feel they have my back."

McCourt says we could we learn from the Swedes, who have a great reputation for making pop music that started with Abba and has continued with artists such as Roxette,  Robyn, Lykke Li, Icona Pop and the songwriting svenagali Max Martin, who has written huge hits for Britney, Backstreet Boys, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Jessie J.

“Swedes don't put pop in the corner, and I love that,” says McCourt. “ I've worked with so many Irish writers that feel pop is a dirty word and are constantly afraid of anything being too commercial or catchy. There can be that mentality of 'What will people think?'”

Jarl has thought McCourt some key things in their work together, including to work more on a song that is “80 per cent there”.

“The thought of having to rewrite all the lyrics because they're not as good as they could be would have made my head spin,” says McCourt. “Now, it's not unusual for me to do three completely different drafts of lyrics, and melody changes when working on a song. I learned that from him.”

How to write a hit song
McCourt doesn't adhere to any set rules in the songwriting process. He can play guitar, piano, flute and produce a little bit too (a necessary skill in pitching demos to vocalists).

“I am constantly making lists of words/phrases that could work in songs,” says McCourt. “I also record voice notes of sometimes random melody ideas.”

“If I'm meeting an artist for a writing session, I will have at least three ideas demoed roughly and maybe another two for back up. I'll leave a lot of the lyrics to be done on the day, as a lot of artists want to be involved with that process. I may have a chorus line, or a title or direction, lyrically as a foundation.”

When writing for a particular artist, a little research goes a long way.

“If they've just been through rehab for a drink problem, I'm not going to write a song about getting wasted and having a good time in a club!”

Writing for a girl band isn't that different as writing for a solo singer and jumping between genres and styles isn't a problem for McCourt, who grew up listening to his brother's Sepultura and Pantera cassettes alongside Prefab Sprout and the longwave radio station Atlantic 252.

“This is probably what holds a lot of people back from wanting to be a songwriter for hire,” expands McCourt. “I genuinely like pop music, I listen to it and enjoy it, as much as any other genre.”

McCourt's ambitions are beginning to be realised. A recent success for McCourt and Jarl is the final track on Will Young's 85% Proof UK number-one album, the stirring ballad  I Don't Need A Lover, and he hopes for success in the singles charts and the US Billboard charts in future.

"It says a lot that I Don't Need A Lover could just as easily have been a Hometown song as we heard that Louis Walsh really liked it," says McCourt. "Lots of people will have heard that The Backstreet Boys & TLC both turned down ...Baby One More Time, and I Don't Need A Lover was actually initially written for another huge pop star who rejected it. However I have been sworn to secrecy on that one!"