Songwriter Savan Kotecha on Playing It Straight for ‘Eurovision’ Songs

When it comes to comic songs at the Oscars, writing a tune with a satirical edge has generally not been the key to the Academy music branch’s heart. For the most part, the only ostensibly funny numbers to get nominated are from family films, like “Man or Muppet,” a rare winner, from 2011’s “The Muppets.” Narrowing it down to musical wit aimed at adults, in films populated entirely by humans, the contenders have been fewer, although there have been famous examples, like “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” from “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” two years ago or, infamously, “Blame Canada” in 1999.

Rare as the phenom is, 2020 brought some superior satirical numbers that stand a decent chance of being nominated, including “Husavik (My Hometown),” the song sung by Rachel McAdams and Will Ferrell’s Icelandic characters in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.” The closest comparison among awards nominees of the last couple decades might be “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” from “A Mighty Wind” — another song that plays it fairly straight amid a spoof. But “Husavik” does tip its hat ever so slightly to its comedic context, once a mention of whales threatens to add a smirk to the earnestness.

Variety spoke with hit songwriter Savan Kotecha, who executive-produced the soundtrack for “Eurovision” and cowrote that climactic song with Rickard Goransson and Fat Max Gsus. Kotecha, famous for many non-film smashes like the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” and much of the Ariana Grande catalog, is an American with a Swedish wife who spent 15 years living in her homeland and has move back recently, so no American-born hit crafter could know the milieu any better.

VARIETY: Are you enjoying being able to be back in Sweden during the pandemic?

KOTECHA: Yeah, and we’re going to be here sort of for the foreseeable future. I’ve always loved Sweden, so it was time. It was eight years in L.A. going full-on with work, and my wife was not loving L.A. and the kids are 8 and 5 now, and we didn’t want to raise them there if we could help it. So we figured, “Let’s just go back to Sweden and try it here.” And a lot of my collaborators are here anyway, so it works for work, as well.

We’re interested in the art of writing a song for a comedy that treads the fine line between comedy and earnestness, like a lot of “Eurovision” does. The music in particular treads a fine line. With “Hasavik,” was there was a quotient of how much you could kind of hint at humor, but still have it seem realistic? What sort of balance were you striving for?

To be honest, I know Eurovision very well, because my wife used to force me to watch Eurovision before when we lived in Sweden for 15 years. So to me as an American watching Eurovision, all the songs felt comical back then, for the most part. But the Swedes, I remember, took it really seriously, and that’s what we kind of wanted to do. When I watched Eurovision, it always felt like the English lyrics were sort of Google-translated into English. And some of them were ridiculous, obviously, in general. But we wanted to make the melodies really, really strong. That’s a great thing about Eurovision. You know, you take away the lyrics, you take away maybe the over-the-top production, and he structure of the songs and the melodies are really, really good. So I thought, okay, if we’re going to do this, we need to make the melodies fantastic.

And then for how I approached the lyrics, it depended on the character. I treated each character like an artist, like if I was going to go in with a big artist. So the script had a lot of answers for me, as far as who Lars and Sigrit were, and Sigrit’s arc and what that should be and what she should be saying. Because that’s the moment where she’s confessing that all she needed was him, and he wanted this big world and she went along with it, but really she would have been fine with just him. And there were a lot of conversations with (director) David Dobkin about that and what she should be feeling. We knew with that one, we wanted it to feel earnest. We knew Will (Farrell) would bring the comedy into singing the echoes in the second verse. But it felt like with this one, the moment was all about what she was feeling and her really expressing herself.

And then for the other songs, you know, yeah, it was like, you know, “Less Talk” and “Mind of Love,” it was in my mind, what would a Russian character be saying that’s overly macho and covering something up and trying too hard to be macho? And there were a few other songs (dictated by) the script, like “Coolin’ with the Homies” and stuff like that. But we wanted to make every song like it could win Eurovision for real.

The big song gives itself away just a little when it gets to the line “Where the whales can live because they’re gentle people.”

Exactly. That’s what I love about it, because it was honest to what Sigrid was about. There’s that place in that movie where she says to Lars, when they’re giving the parking tickets out, “Why would you leave?” and you see the whales flying over (the surface of the sea) We wanted it to feel like this is who she is. She loves where she comes from. She’s proud of it. She’s not trying to prove anything.

You were okay with not accentuating the comedy, outside of, like, the rap songs.

We didn’t want to offend, I mean, Eurovision is such a huge thing. It’s so much bigger than the Super Bowl there. We didn’t want to make Eurovision fans feel we were making fun of Eurovision. But it was a comedy. So, like with the Google translating and things like “Double Trouble” and those songs, we kind of just turned it up a notch when we went into the lyrics. It was definitely a challenge to figure out the balance. But also, I think when you focus on melodies, you can get away with it. Because even with big pop songs, like “I Want It That Way” and those kinds of songs from that era, those songs don’t make any sense. The melodies are so good, you focus on those, and then if you’ve listen closely, you’re like “Wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense!” And that was a part of what we wanted to do: If the melodies were good enough, then we can get away with lyrics being ridiculous, and no one’s gonna really notice unless they look into it.

I feel and I hope that Eurovision fans feel like it’s a love letter to Eurovision, in a sense. Because it is a pretty amazing thing, the contest, watching all the countries come together – and they can’t vote for their own country… I’ve been lucky to have a lot of big songs in my career, but being a part of this movie and the joy that it’s brought a lot of people, and the sort of notes that I’ve gotten, especially during COVID, when people needed to laugh, it feels like it’s made people laugh at the right time, which was nice.

Did you have experience with writing humorous songs before?

I mean, in the studio, most of my songs, the first-draft lyrics are ridiculous. [Laughs.] That’s where you get it out of your system. It was kind of fun not to have to pretend you’re cool, writing cool lines for these cool artists.

If this gets nominated for an Oscar and gets a slot on the telecast, it would be great if, instead of Will and Rachel McAdams, they brought in Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper to perform the song, to give it some extra gravitas.

That would be amazing. Who knows? It would be funny to do something kind of wild like that with it. So many artists hit me up about that song in particular, like “This one is actually really awesome!” And it became a hit in a few countries, which was kind of fun. I think in England, it went to No. 29 on radio, and in Iceland and Sweden it stayed top 5 on iTunes for a while. In Sweden you could really see how many people enjoyed it here. In Iceland they actually have the “Ja Ja Ding Dong” bar that opened up.

Have you had any of your superstar clients call you up saying, “Write me a ‘My Hometown’… without the whales”?

Without the whales! No, not yet, but we’ll see, you never know.

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