While the 48-year-old hit maker is credited with more than 70 US Top 10 hits and 22 No. 1s —including “Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears, Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl,” Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off and the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” — he is notoriously private with the press.
Martin, however, is being forced into the spotlight promoting the new West End musical, “& Juliet,” a reimagining of William Shakespeare’s tragic “Romeo and Juliet.” The new tale shines a light on a now woke Juliet opting out of committing suicide with Romeo, instead heading off to experience life with her nurse. The play includes 30 Martin hits, including Romeo singing the Ellie Goulding track “Love Me Like You Do,” Juliet belting out Perry’s “Roar” and Shakespeare leading the company through a rendition of Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling!”
While discussing his career and the musical — inspired by ABBA’s jukebox show, “Mamma Mia!” — Martin revealed a few ingredients in his hit-flavored secret sauce.
Made Up Words and Bad Grammar = Pop Hits
Pay no mind to the odd lyrics “Sadness is beautiful / Loneliness is tragical” in the Backstreet Boys’ song “Shape of My Heart” or the tragic slaughtering of grammar by Ariana Grande in the Zedd collab “Break Free” (“Now that I’ve become who I really are” and “I only wanna die alive,” for instance); there is a method to the madness, Martin explains. “I grew up on Elton John and the Beatles and I had no idea what they were saying, it was just gibberish. If we come to a place in a writing session where one word might be better sense but the other option sounds cool, I will always pick the one that sounds appealing to me.” If you “say something meaningful with the right sort of phonetics. Then you’re golden,” he says.
Every Max Martin Song Has an Equal Number of Syllables
“If the first verse is super-busy, a lot of words, maybe the next part should be the complete opposite, with long notes,” he says. “It’s a good resource when you’re stuck. But the thing that happens within the method has to be free-flowing and creative in order to be great. That’s the magic part.”
Collaboration is Key
“If you’re working with someone whose point of view is really far from yourself, like a young girl in her twenties, the story needs to come from them,” says Martin. “I like being around people who keep me curious. Experience might be one part of the puzzle, but beat-making and trendsetting, it’s a young person’s game.” To stay in that game, one must remain open to new pop trends. “If 200 million people love [something] then I try to understand why. It’s almost like science to me; you listen and try to crack the code.”
Vocals Don’t Necessarily Have to Be Great to Sell a Song
“There’s lot of singers who are not maybe considered great but have a sound that’s unique and are geniuses in telling the story. If you’ve done your job, it should feel like no one else can sing that song.”
Teamwork Beats Lone Rangers
The top 100 biggest hits of 2018 were each composed by an average of 5.34 writers. Noel Gallagher of Oasis doesn’t approve (“two guys do the beats, another one does the top line, another does this, that and the other. It’s the death of art, because there are no artists — there are just writers and performers”). But Martin has a different perspective. “I think art is art, however it’s made,” responds Martin. “I’m a huge fan of what Noel did with Oasis. But in the whole history of pop, from Elvis to Motown to Whitney Houston, great artists have had songs written for them by teams.”
His Own Music Would Lay Off the Beats
What if Martin made his own records? “It would probably be acoustic, melancholic and very super-melodic. My favorite feeling in music is dancing with tears in your eyes. I guess it’s a Scandinavian thing.” Will it ever happen? “Never,” he says.