When Ryan Tedder, the OneRepublic frontman and first ever in-house writer and producer on The Voice, had to create the coronation song for the 2013 Season 5 winner, he knew just who to call: Noel Zancanella.
That was hardly a tough decision, though. Tedder had leaned on Zancanella’s songwriting and producing talents many times over the years, including to create “Good Life,” OneRepublic’s multi-platinum hit that peaked at No. 8 on the Hot 100 in 2011 and became a pop culture mainstay thanks to appearances on TV hits Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill.
Zancanella, whose father was a jazz trumpeter in the Navy, got his start as a hip-hop producer, but his successful foray into pop has led to work with Janet Jackson, Gym Class Heroes, Demi Lovato, Maroon 5 and many more. And with a steady growing list of accolades – including the Songwriter of the Year honor at the BMI Pop Awards in 2015 and an Album of the Year GRAMMY for Taylor Swift’s 1989 in 2016 – Zancanella can no doubt look forward to many more calls in the future. BMI caught up with the hit maker as he prepares to craft his next big project.
Tell us about co-writing OneRepublic’s “Good Life.” Did you know it would be your first big hit?
You know, I didn’t. It took forever for that record to actually even work at radio. It was the third single on the album. There was a point in time when it wasn’t even going to be a single. I waited a long time for that record to do anything. So it was such an amazing surprise to have it work and to have it work as well as it did too.
You won a GRAMMY for Album of the Year for your work on Taylor Swift’s 1989. What was the process like in the studio?
We went in with Taylor and she knew what she wanted. She had the songs for the most part written. I think there were just some tweaks that needed to be made, some lyrics that needed to be written, some melodies that maybe needed to be tweaked. And I helped out on the track side of things, on the music side of things. It was just a really wicked record to be a part of, first of all. She’s so talented. She brings such strong songs and solid ideas. She’s not looking to lose, you know. That’s why that record was such a great thing to be a part of. The quality factor. All the other producers and songwriters associated with that album were top notch too.
What do you think is the most important element in crafting a hit song?
That’s a tough one isn’t it? Only because we talk about it – me and other songwriters and stuff – we sit around sometimes, trying to describe the indescribable. It’s a nebulous thing. I think it’s about believability. Obviously you know a song has to have great lyrics, it has to resonate, it has to have great melodies, a melody that gets stuck in your head, some kind of X factor that makes it unique. But above all of those things—the artist has to cut the song, perform the song in a way that makes it believable. I think that’s the most important element, getting the right performance out of the artist, if that makes any sense. That’s at least a big part of it for sure.
You’ve said that part of your process is getting artists to be comfortable, paying attention and being honest. How do you go about building that rapport?
The thing is for the last however many years I’ve been signed to Ryan Tedder, which is since 2009 I guess, he’s such a killer songwriter but he’s also an artist. He sees things through two different lenses. I’ve learned to do that with him a little bit. With regard to artists they have to believe in the material they’re doing and feel comfortable performing it, right, or they’re not going to do it well. So that’s a huge part of it: the artist being comfortable and believing in the record that they’re actually recording. I think it’s fundamental. Writing a record or [having the artist] involved in a songwriting capacity that’s a really great situation because automatically the artist is more inspired. The record is also theirs, they also own part of it. It’s closer to them.
What’s the difference for you between producing an album for an artist and actually writing and producing their work? How do you approach each?
I’ll be honest: I’ve never done an album for an artist – I’ve worked with OneRepublic and that’s probably the closest thing I’ve gotten. For instance on the new album we’re working on now, I’m involved in––when everything is said and done––maybe eight songs. And so it’s an interesting process because they’re a band so they’re constantly…they want the record to have a, for lack of a better word, cohesiveness. It’s got to have a flow. They want the songs to all sound like they came from the same place, the same thought process behind them, the same vibe. There are always these considerations being made: Does this song work with this song? Does this song fit in with the other six? Does it all make sense together? If you were to listen to these things from end to end, press play and listen to everything once through, does it make sense in context? There’s been a lot of emphasis, time and discussion put into that. However when we go for just a single for an artist, you’re just trying to write the greatest song possible. So there’s a difference there. Pop stars, they just want to pack that album full of hits. It doesn’t matter what shape or size. It’s almost like Ghirardelli chocolates: they just want each one to be amazing. And when you’re producing a full record, it’s different. You want a little bit of everything in there. You’re not trying to write 10 hits. You’re trying to put together the two or three solid hits that will do well, and then the rest of the record you want to explore the band. Give people a reason to come see a performance––I think that’s the other part of that as well. That’s the other half of an act; you want the stuff to do well at radio and all of that, but the other component is you want people to hear the song on the radio and go, ‘Dude I want to see those guys in concert!’ Not, ‘Holy crap that’s an amazing song – that would be terrible performed, I’m never going to see them live.’ Those are the differences. When you’re just trying to make one or two songs you’re just trying to make the most potent thing possible that has single potential.
Your music is having an impact on emerging songwriters and artists. Tell us what it’s like for you to hear your songs performed on The Voice.
Yeah that’s pretty awesome. It’s just awesome to see all that stuff connect. It’s funny, even beyond The Voice I was just fortunate enough to get in with a crew, OneRepublic and obviously Ryan Tedder and those guys. I was fortunate to get in with a writer like Ryan who does songs that get so much recurring play. So it’s been amazing that I‘ve been involved in songs with Ryan. We’ve written some songs that still, til to this day are constantly on radio and all this good stuff. The Voice is amazing. The performance of the new single, “Wherever I Go” was really good, and it’s amazing to see kids perform that and get excited about it.
You’ve worked with so many heavy-hitters, including Maroon 5, B.o.B, Gym Class Heroes and Gwen Stefani, among others. Which project stands out most now as you look back and why?
Oh man. Obviously the Taylor Swift stuff was amazing just because the record was so massive and culturally relevant. To be a part of that, that’s like being struck by lightening or something. Other than that the Ella Henderson “Ghost” song that I did with Ryan was really awesome. It just kind of exploded. It was a really cool song as well, it wasn’t your typical pop hit. It was kind of a rootsy, fun record to be involved in for sure. So many to be honest with you. It’s been pretty wild.
Tell us about your current projects and who else you’d like to work with.
I’m finishing the OneRepublic record still; I’ve been writing since November of 2014 on it. We’re still just getting all that stuff tied up. We’ve got to have it done by end of this month basically. Aside from some Adele sessions that I did last year I haven’t been doing too much. I’ve done some writing here and there with Julia Michaels, which I’m sure anybody else will say the same thing: it’s fun to write with her because she’s such a monster. She writes such epic songs. I’ve been working on some new stuff for Ella Henderson. I got some sessions coming up soon for Maroon 5 stuff. So, now that that the album is finishing up, we’re getting close, I’m going to circle back around and try to attack the other stuff – artists and projects I’ve had singles [with] in the past, including some new stuff too.
What’s the most unexpected place you’ve found creative inspiration?
Oh man, that’s a tough one. (Pauses) I think you could say that the unexpected places are always whenever you’re in some kind of pinch. It’s surprising. We’re all procrastinators. I’ve been in some last minute situations. I won’t tell you the artist but one time we were doing these sessions. We were running so late, we just had so much going on and we had no time to prep and write songs for this artist. And so the only thing we had was this really lengthy cab ride; we were in London. It was 45-minute cab rides each way, so we would set our laptops up in the cab and write songs and work on songs feverishly in the cab on the way to the studio in hopes that we’d have a song start or two. On the flip side, the other way you could answer that question is, the inspiration has definitely come from songs I’ve done like “Good Life” even “I Live”: being tied into Save the Children campaigns and seeing how the music affects real day-to-day people, and being inspired from that, realizing your songs can actually change people’s lives.
You’re an example of someone who worked his way up through the business. What advice do you wish you had been given when you were starting out?
Man I think maybe for songwriters I would say… that’s a tough one to answer without being cliché. I think I’m about to say anything that David Foster would say, you know? Like, ‘Play an instrument!’ It’s all true. The thing is with me and my career, the way it’s gone, it took me forever to become a songwriter. I didn’t sign my first songwriter’s deal until I was 32. I mean Julia Michaels has like 9 hits and she’s what, 21? But, I mean, it’s one foot in front of the other. I knew that if I kept at it sooner or later something [would] budge. It’s just about sticking with it. That’s the cornerstone, stick with it. And keep a good attitude. Be positive about it. That’s it.
As a songwriter, what does it mean to you to have been named one of BMI’s Songwriters of the Year? And more broadly, what does BMI’s recognition of writers mean to you?
BMI is legendary man. I remember when I first sent my thing to become a BMI member, probably in like 1998 because I was doing a bunch of underground independent releases and stuff, I remember I sent something ASCAP and I sent something to BMI and ASCAP wouldn’t accept me, you know, whatever it was, I didn’t have any commercial releases I think. But BMI brought me in, and then years later here we are. It was my first BMI Awards that I went to that I realized the scope of how big this thing is. Watching everybody attend this thing. People that you looked up to your entire life. And people that are even beyond, the Carol Kings… people you may not have known a lot about and you realize they had a jaggilion hits and they’re so massive and everybody is kind of tied in to this same machine and this is larger than us, if that makes sense. I think that was the first thing. Then, starting to get more involved in BMI and then going one year and winning a couple awards, things kind of ratcheting up to the point where I won Songwriter of the Year. It was a crazy experience to say the least, and still pretty unbelievable. All in all, I’m just excited to be part of such a great company and such a great legacy.