The Alchemy of Untypical Hit Songs 

What happened to the days when hit songs burned through you like a fire so deep you couldn’t sleep? It isn’t often that’s for sure. And then came Adele… and Someone Like You.

Blew us all away.

This kind of songwriting is what I live for. Thanks to Adele for baring her wounds like that and Dan Wilson for helping her do so, so eloquently (it’s both writers in a great co-write that come to the table with offerings). You know the lyric could have been “Never mind, I’ll find someone new.” That would have been typical. The “like you” was the knife in the heart, that reached across the table and said, “I know, I’ve been there too.” Someone Like You is the art of great music making at its best – great song, great voice, great production that didn’t over-ride the song, great artist – thought behind the music – it has it all.

But it’s certainly not one of your typical hit songs – the tempo is ballad-like, no production bells and whistles really (thank you to the mighty Rick Rubin). So why do you think this song rose to #1 and stayed for how many weeks now on the British and American charts? And why do you think this album broke through so much stronger than her first? Chasing Pavements was good – why this record and not her first?

Do you think she had better marketing this time round – a better team?

Do you think it’s because she had a better set of co-writers?

Do you think it’s because her voice matured or got stronger?

Yes, she had a great team in place – everyone around her is in it for the right reasons. (Producer Rick Rubin at the helm – and then the fact that it’s a British thing – why do they always do it better?)

A dream-team of co-writers made a big imprint – some of the best in the world: Ryan Tedder, Dan Wilson, Jim Abbiss, Francis “Eg” White, Fraser T. Smith, Paul Epstein…

And yes, her voice was on fire her this time, but it wasn’t just about her voice – it wouldn’t have worked on the level it did (good voices are a dime a dozen). It’s the energy behind her voice – her emotion, her authenticity and her words that hit you in the gut. And she hits you in the gut because she hit herself in the gut first. That’s how hit songs work.

It’s the subject matter – it matters deeply – to her. Every song on the record is about the biggest heartbreak of her life – and she’s been chronicling the blow-by-blow ever since the tour started. Think about it for a minute. Whoa – that’s way easier to watch than do – most people throw up before revealing their weak spots – it’s not the kind of stuff you want to hang out on the line. Yet, when it comes to music, it’s what creates that intimate connection between artist and listener (if it’s done right) – that intangible invisible chord that’s struck when truth is revealed – humbly, honestly, flaws and all… and the listener is given a personal invitation to a rainy Sunday afternoon with a best friend, a French film, a glass of Cabernet, the Kleenex box – and deep conversation…

It’s the willingness to bare all and offer it up with humility that makes us give anything to be close to you. It’s what makes us cough up our concert dollars, give our loyal and undivided attention (as long as it continues – short attention span). Heck, we’d do almost anything for you.

And it’s tricky business – because it’s raw. Look at Amy. That’s not for show, Amy was inside out, in pain – and it cost her, her life. Mark Ronson once said he felt bad for her – that he felt like an intruder taking her journal and exposing her to the world like that …

People could care less whether you have a great voice or not – they want to be spoken to, understood, to feel better, have a shoulder to cry on – they want the permission that your music gives them and the experience that comes with it – for their own, to go to sleep at night by and to wake up in the morning to. They want to put you in their ears and feel better, connect to something real, it’s like a lifeline – be close to someone out there who understands them.

There’s too much talk these days about everything BUT the music. The buzz in the Indie world is all about “music business” – how to attract 1000 true fans, how to get your YouTube video to go viral – but without a great song – all the advice in the world is worth nothing.

Here’s a quick peek at the checklist for Untypical Hit Songs:

  1. Is this a true story from my life?
  2. Do I feel just a little bit too exposed?
  3. Does it give me the chills? (Goose bump factor)
  4. Did I have an epiphany, major ah-ha or cry when I wrote it?
  5. Did I say exactly what I wanted to say?
  6. Did someone else cry at first listen?


Does your music hit you in your gut or does it just sound like it does?

I’ll leave you with a quote from Bob Lefsetz about Adele’s album – “That’s the humanity we want in our musical stars, when they crack they endear themselves to us, they make us swoon and want to empty our pockets and give them everything we’ve got.”

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