Songwriter Sean Douglas spends most of his time writing songs in LA – you’ve probably, definitely, heard a hit or two of his. But on this occasion, he’s made his way to Nashville for a writing camp for a pop artist – later in our conversation, one of her songs plays across the hotel lounge’s speakers. Back in California, the Grammys are next on his schedule.
Douglas grew up a fan of pop, preferably peppered with R&B. “I had a huge Boyz 2 Men phase,” he says, laughing. “I was Michael Jackson-obsessed, which is not that unique, but I used to dress like him and dance on the coffee table at home. You broaden your horizons in college and get into all the cooler classic stuff that you’re supposed to be into, but I’ve always been an unabashed pop guy. I was a big Maroon 5 fan from way back when they were just playing clubs in LA. I always loved sort of R&B-tinged pop stuff like that.”
Though MJ’s impression didn’t leave a lasting mark on Douglas’ career as a frontman, his involvement with music stayed strong: he played in bands throughout high school and college, one of which received label interest in New York post-graduation. “We never really made it anywhere, but in the process of sort of finding out what our fate was gonna be, the guy who was managing us at the time was like, ‘You should try some of these writing sessions,'” Douglas says.
Though more or less aware of the concept of songwriters writing for other artists, the suggestion opened Douglas to a whole different world. He could never pin down the exact style of his band, he says – they lacked a cohesive sound because he “would always want to do a different thing every week.” While the band required streamlining and definition, writing allowed Douglas to dip into genres with a more experimental, flavor-of-the-day approach: “The writing thing was awesome for that, because Monday would be some like urban-leaning thing, Tuesday would be this girl pop thing, and it was awesome, ’cause that was how I felt day to day anyway.”
Douglas returned to his hometown of Los Angeles and began to co-write heavily, learning the landscape of the pop world. A song for artist Cady Groves helped put Douglas on the map, and he signed his first publishing deal with Warner Chappell. His first hit came with Demi Lovato’s smash single, “Heart Attack,” but he didn’t stop there: Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” went 4X Platinum in the U.S. and Platinum or multi-Platinum in 12 other countries; “Hey Mama,” the David Guetta hit featuring Bebe Rexha, Nicki Minaj, and Afrojack, boasts Multi-Platinum international successes as well. His co-writers include artists like Nick Jonas, Jason Derulo, and Madonna. At this Sunday’s Grammy Awards, he’ll celebrate the success of “Die A Happy Man,” his Thomas Rhett co-write nominated for Country Song of the Year.
“That one felt really special writing it,” Douglas says of the Rhett hit. “I did feel very personally invested in that. It came out of a conversation: let’s write something for our wives – or fiancé, in [co-writer] Joe [Spargur]’s case. We all have a personal connection with that one.” It’s an ode that earned Rhett an impressive six weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay Chart, the first song to do so since Taylor Swift’s “Our Song” in 2008. “The Grammy is ridiculous,” he adds, sounding a bit awestruck, when I congratulate him on his nomination. “I can’t believe that that’s a thing.”
The Grammy nomination caps a pretty impressive span for Douglas. In the five years since his Cady Groves cut, he’s been the writer behind tens of millions of units sold worldwide and won awards including BMI Song of the Year, CMA Song of the Year, and ACM Single Record of the Year. Many of his hits are the type of song you hear, well, everywhere.
It’s easy to imagine the writer would be as blinged-out as the superstars with whom he shares royalty checks, but Douglas is stylishly simple, a jacket-and-jeans kind of smart but not showy. He’s the son of Michael Keaton, something that comes up not in conversation but in occasional flashes of his facial expressions as he talks. When Douglas discusses listening to Top 40 radio – he’s a fan, too – he brings up the evergreen enthusiasm that accompanies hearing friends’ cuts before he describes the excitement of hearing his own. “[Hearing it played live] and hearing your song on the radio are still like crazy thrills, it just doesn’t really get old,” he says.
His six-week radio number one, “Die A Happy Man,” was the product of a writing session on the road. “We had this quick sort of session with TR in LA, wrote a song that we never finished,” Douglas says, “but he was like, ‘Do you wanna come on a bus trip?’ We didn’t know what a bus trip was.” In Nashville, it’s common for artists to invite co-writers out for a weekend of shows so that they can write in between gigs; in LA, Douglas shares, that scenario is much more rare. “As like the failed rockstar guy,” he continues, reliving his own days on the road, “who was always in a van or an SUV playing really dive-y, crummy gigs, it was like, ride on the tour bus, we have the big show and then we write songs after that and before that?” His decision wasn’t a hard one. “It was every bit as awesome as I thought it would be.”
Going out on the road to write isn’t the only difference between genres. In LA, Douglas says, there’s typically a producer who either brings a track to the session or creates one throughout it; Douglas, and often another co-writer or an artist, will write the melody and lyrics, a process known as toplining. Sometimes songs are the product of a single session – Douglas says most of his songs with Thomas Rhett were written from “just ground up on piano.” Some have a more complicated journey: “I Feel Good,” for instance, began as a track Spargur had started with Charlie Puth and Teddy Geiger, which he showed Rhett on a bus trip. In Nashville, the meeting to write a song is called a “write,” typically beginning around 10 or 11am and wrapping in the early afternoon; in LA, you go in to the “session” at 1pm and hope to be home in time for a late dinner.
“I like a bit of the Nashville approach in LA, where it’s like, let’s have a quick conversation about what we’re doing,” Douglas says. “I remember being in a Nashville session and we were talking about ideas for songs or titles or concepts. One person started to go to the piano or strum a guitar and the other guy was like, ‘Hold on man, we haven’t even decided what the song’s about, don’t touch that,’ which I thought was great. That’s very foreign in pop stuff in LA.”
As country continues to lean more pop, lyrics stand out as one of the key differentiations. Country is typically less explicitly sexual, for instance, and more focused on storytelling. “It’s still what separates the country stuff is it’s about the story, or at least the emotional core of the message of the song,” Douglas says. He cites the Florida Georgia Line song “Dirt” as a prime example. “If I were pitching that idea in LA I’d be like, ‘I want to write a song about dirt, but it’s really about home and family,’ and people would be like, ‘Oh that’s awesome, but no.'”
“I guess I know why,” he continues. “There’s something more primal about the pop thing, about how it makes you feel, and less cerebral. But I love that stuff.”
One song that felt great, even from the first writing session, was Jason Derulo’s international smash, “Talk Dirty.” “We weren’t even sure about what to write ’cause the beat was funny, it was so like, ridiculous – it’s an amazing sample,” he says. The song begins with a sample of the Balkan Beat Box song “Hermetico,” ballasting with a sassy brass line. “In hindsight, once something becomes a hit, it seems so obvious,” he says, “and then all of a sudden you’re like of course that was it. But at the time it was so odd-sounding and weird.” They kept writing, and laughing coming up with lyrics, but the melodies seemed to work. A&R’s began to bring other people in to listen as they were working: “There was this mounting sense of like, something is happening here,” he says.
With numerous chart-toppers, hearing his own songs out in the world seems inevitable. “I was with some writers who are all in from LA and they had never been to Nashville, so we went down to Broadway and did some of the bars,” he says. “We’re in Tootsies and it was like a Tuesday night so it was kind of dead, and we’re just hanging out having a beer and they start playing ‘Die A Happy Man.’ That’s cool, when it’s in random situations like that.”
It’s a feeling he’d do well to get used to. With his high-caliber hooks and lyrical dexterity, smart money is on a Sean Douglas smash.