MTV/Julia Panek

Pop Stars, Songwriters, And The Space Between

Bebe Rexha, Tove Lo, MNDR, and Noonie Bao talk about how they’ve navigated the middle ground of the music industry

For one chilly night in Everett, Washington, it’s 1982 again. Simon Le Bon, the lead singer of Duran Duran, is energetically working the crowd at the city’s Xfinity Arena. Clad in all-white denim, Le Bon has a mob of stilettoed female fans screaming at his feet, forming a sea of vintage t-shirts and bangle-heavy hands. Audience members murmur about how they hope the band sticks to its older, most popular material, but they shouldn’t worry. “Are we getting hungry?” Le Bon asks the audience, as if he were delivering them a tiny little cake in the palm of his hand, and the first bubbly notes of “Hungry Like the Wolf” fill the arena.

Founding member Nick Rhodes, however, is noticeably absent from tonight’s performance. Due to health problems, the keyboardist had to stay back in England for Duran Duran’s latest North American tour. In his place is the pop artist, songwriter, and producer Amanda Warner, who performs as MNDR. Since the late ’90s, Warner — known for her synth nerdery and ear for indie-pop hooks — has built herself into a go-to touring player for bands big and small. She played the upright bass in professional jazz trios; was the bassist in Hole for a day, right before the band called it quits; and joined Yeah Yeah Yeahs for a spell in the early 2000s. Gig by gig, she’s carved a space where she can thrive in the modern music industry, making music on her own terms on the side and crafting name-brand pop in studios outside of the spotlight.

Growing up in North Dakota with a musician dad who built a modest four-track reel-to-reel recording studio in their basement, Warner says she pretty much always knew she was going to be a musician. She spent her youth in the middle of rural America, mail-ordering krautrock records like a self-described “real freak,” and ended up in Portland, Oregon, in her late teens. There she formed the IDM group Triangle in the early 2000s, who would get laughed at onstage for using laptops. The band continued until later that decade, when Warner secured a publishing deal through Songs Publishing, which represents a couple hundred artists and producers (their biggest current clients include The Weeknd and Major Lazer). Soon an A&R rep at the publishing firm took notice of Warner’s talent: Somewhere in the DIY, off-the-wall synth music she was making, the company saw an opportunity for her to enter the world of mainstream pop.

“I was doing music, like, everyday,” Warner tells me a few hours before she takes the stage with Duran Duran, running her hands through her curly, red, short hair, her voice edged with a Valley Girl–esque fry. “I was either putting on a show, playing in three different bands, or touring.” We’re sitting in the arena’s spacious backstage cafeteria as band members and the crew move in and out to grab food. At one point a crew member comes up to Warner to suggest that she check out a cheap mini–pipe organ someone saw in a thrift store in Everett. “I had zero experience in mainstream music or with record companies,” she continues. “[My rep] was like, ‘Why don’t you just try it out?’ And that was all it took. I was like, Fuck yeah, let’s do this, I’m going to move to New York right now.

After moving to New York in 2009, Warner started writing songs for artists like Kylie Minogue and Sean Paul, as well as working with Lady Gaga writer Fernando Garibay. It was a period of marathon writing sessions to get over 100 songs done by the end of the year. “I would work from from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., and then I would go to another studio that I knew always started late and I would work there until 2 a.m.,” she says. In 2012, she released her debut studio album as MNDR, Feed Me Diamonds, a piece of synthpop perfection whose house- and electroclash-inspired tracks were influenced equally by Patty Hearst and Marina Abramović. The musician who prided herself on her noise music background and early electronic experimentation was now making bona fide pop music for herself to critical fanfare. But it also threw Warner for a loop: As someone who writes songs, produces, can play any instrument you throw at her, and has her own pop career, the line between her own artistry and her professional songwriting work was often anything but clear.

“In the industry you’re either an artist or a writer or a producer — they have to have these names so they know who’s doing what in the studio,” Warner says. “I didn’t know this, so I would go into sessions thinking, Oh, we’re gonna write a song for Britney Spears, and I’d go to a producer with my [completed] songs. It would become a very confusing Who’s on First situation — they would be like, ‘Wait a minute, are you an artist?’ And in my mind I’d think: We’re all making something, aren’t we all artists?

The songwriter who spins her career into stardom is a cliché that goes back to pop’s earliest decades. Carole King and Dolly Parton both began as successful professional songwriters in the 1960s before starting their own solo careers, for example. Up until relatively recently, though, the majority of pop idols, from Britney Spears to Katy Perry, were served songs that had been crafted in studios by older men. That’s changed in the last few years, as the professional songwriting community has become startlingly more diverse. And while great songwriters like Max Martin and Peter Svensson still provide a solid stream of hits for pop stars, you’ll also see Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee writing for Beyoncé, Tinashe for Jennifer Lopez, or Charli XCX for Selena Gomez. Whether you’re an alternative producer just trying to survive in the industry or a singer who aspires to Top 40 stardom, once you prove you can write a big hit, you’ve essentially set yourself up for a successful career in music, with or without a side order of fame. And if you want to be a working musician, the more you can diversify your career, the more doors will open for you.

When she was discovered by BMI talent scout Samantha Cox at age 15, Bebe Rexha wasn’t exactly interested in songwriting as a career. The raspy-voiced, Long Island–raised singer, now 27, has only in the last year broken out as a solo artist with her hit “No Broken Hearts,” after garnering extensive writing credits for Tinashe, Iggy Azalea, and Selena Gomez. When Cox met Rexha, she played the would-be star music by artists like Kesha and Lady Gaga, who both wrote their own songs, and told Rexha that she needed to start doing the same. So Rexha landed in some songwriting classes — a teenager among people in their forties — and tried to learn how to write a hit. “I didn’t think about how much work it would be,” Rexha says, who soon found she loved writing songs. “I grew up in the era of Britney Spears, where artists had songs written for them, and you got up and sang them. That’s how I always thought it was.”

Her early songwriting and production work landed her high-profile features with G-Eazy (she penned and sang on his biggest hit, “Me, Myself & I”) and David Guetta (“Yesterday” and “Hey Mama”), which in turn sent her career into overdrive. Getting those calls can be a crucial intermediate step from songwriter to star; depending on lead artists’ budgets, sometimes they’ll keep songwriters on a track if they think they’re the best fit (or, anecdotally, if they can’t afford a bigger name). And songwriting experience can confer valuable advantages later on in an artist’s career. “I’ve been in the room or watched artists walk in who don’t write, and you can’t figure out what they really want,” Rexha says. “It’s weird to me when an artist comes in and the label says, ‘We want him to sound like Chris Brown,’ but he says he wants to sound like Sean Paul. There’s a huge disconnect — it’s like we’re making a product.”

Even once a professional songwriter has a toehold in the industry, though, it can still take a long time for their songs to get placed, if at all. “It’s always a song that makes me say, ‘Oh, huh, that one?’” Warner says, laughing. She offers an example: Two years after writing a song called “Warrior” for R&B duo Lion Babe, Warner ran into their singer and found out that the song was now British EDM act Snakehips’s newest single, and also a soundtrack to a Pantene commercial. “These are songs I wrote years ago, and I like when it’s a happy little surprise,” she says. “Because sometimes when I think a song is too much of a hit, it never goes.”

Tove Lo, 28, is one of Sweden’s most exciting recent pop exports to break in America, but she started out as a working songwriter. She knows the trials and tribulations of getting those first big hits placed, especially when she was working with assigned producers rather than artists directly. “First you have to write a song you all love, and then the publisher’s gotta love it,” she says. “They send it to the label, who also have to love it, and then the manager’s gotta love it, and then the artist has to love it. The artist records it, and then it gets on the album — or maybe it doesn’t. You have all those steps where it could go wrong.”

The singer (full name Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson) had been performing her music around Sweden after a short stint leading the rock band Trembletree when a Warner Chappell publishing rep offered to sign her as a songwriter in 2011. “I was kind of a bit of a mess back then, so I wasn’t taking it that seriously,” she says. “But once I got there and signed my contract and went into the studio and started writing, suddenly I realized, Whoa, this is for real — but I was also scared, because I didn’t want to give away all my songs in that way.”

At the time, Nilsson was doing just fine as a songwriter. Industry titans Max Martin and Shellback had recruited her to join their songwriting collective Wolf Cousins as a topline writer, creating the melody and lyrics of songs for artists like Icona Pop, Girls Aloud, and Lea Michele. “When I came into the songwriting world, I thought, This is amazing, you can just write every day and your time is your own,” she says. “But the one thing I really did miss was performing.” Once she’d signed with Warner Chappell, Nilsson kept writing and recording her own material on the side, saving her best songs for herself, like the fucked-up, party-girl anthem “Habits.” The song, self-released in 2013, ended up being so popular that Universal came calling to sign her as an artist. The next year, she released her debut album, Queen of the Clouds, and toured as an opener for Katy Perry.

For some artists, this is the dream. “I never thought of myself as a songwriter,” Rexha tells me. “I was just an artist writing songs, and they just happened to get placed.” Tove Lo, though, says she found it harder to move out from behind the songwriting curtain and into the spotlight. “I remember going in thinking everyone knew exactly what they were doing but me,” says the Swedish singer, whose second album, Lady Wood, is out later this month. “All of a sudden, you’re asked all these questions about yourself that you haven’t thought about in any way. I wasn’t used to talking so much, especially when it came to my looks and talking about my style. I was like, ‘I don’t know? Does it matter?’”

Warner recalls facing similar challenges when avenues for her solo career opened up. When she began releasing songs in the mid- to late-2000s, pop music looked completely different than it does today. “There were no left-of-center pop artists — no Lorde, no Grimes,” Warner says. “I was told I could either choose to be like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, or Kesha.” Managers told her she should change her name because it was too weird and get into the studio with Dr. Luke if she wanted to shoot for major-label success. But Warner took a different route: She threw some tracks she and her longtime songwriting partner, Peter Wade, were working on up on Myspace and eventually got signed to the DIY label WonderSound. “I fell into doing my project, and I love MNDR, but I think with other artists who have a career, you have to have a really strong sense of branding,” she says. “And I think with me, I had a good idea of it, but I got really sidetracked by the industry, and there was just no one to reflect off of.”

Noonie Bao, 29, is facing a similar crossroads right now. “Maybe I should be more egotistical,” she says, when I ask whether or not she wants a big solo pop career like Tove Lo or Bebe Rexha has found. “But really I just want the songs to come out. I care way more about songs than me.” Bao, another Swedish songwriter and producer, is known to a small cult of fans for her work writing with alt-leaning pop stars like Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen, and MØ (as well as for her signature bright-red hair). Both Bao and Warner mention to me that at times, feeling paranoid that their own singing voices are “too indie” and are keeping hits from being placed, they’ll hire more palatable singers to voice their demos. “Then it works!” Warner says.

For many artists, the power of becoming a professional songwriter today is just being able to survive as a musician, whether it’s a stepping stone in the path to a pop career or a side gig to a less commercial music pursuit. When she started, Warner got, in her words, “totally shitty press” for writing pop songs for other artists. “I remember getting one clip that said I was a shitty Lady Gaga rip-off,” she says with a laugh. But today, artists like Dev Hynes or Rostam Batmanglij can easily make that transition to acclaim.

In an industry where music beyond the 1 percent of pop is increasingly devalued, it’s a smart bet for working musicians to write and produce songs for the bigger names in the business. “I really diversified myself so I could be the artist I want to be,” Warner says. “You kind of have to always remix, DJ, produce, write songs, and just be really flexible to bring in a wide range of revenues for yourself.” And if you want to get there, it’s going to take work. “You don’t just sign someone off of their voice anymore,” Rexha says. “I bought Pro Tools and Logic and saved up for years. I think that’s the vibe now — you have to figure out how to create music and put it up, because if something is great it will get millions of views.”

All the musicians I spoke with for this piece recall having some very lean years along the way to their current success. Rexha describes playing a demo for the eventual Eminem and Rihanna hit “The Monster” for a label rep, desperately hoping to place it, and having only $200 in her bank account. “It’s taken 10 years to just really live off of [songwriting] and pay my rent,” says Noonie Bao, who worked jobs cleaning Paris music studios and being a tennis instructor in addition to her publishing deal. “For me it’s been a long struggle, thinking maybe I’m not meant for this, eating whole meals from tuna cans sometimes, but I’m finally in a place where I’m really happy.”

“It takes time — like, years — to really make money off of songwriting,” Warner says, who now has a home studio frequented by clients ranging from Brooke Candy to Tinashe. “People who come into songwriting that don’t have an artist’s career, I don’t know how they do it.” Because Warner is also MNDR — an artist with a proven track record — she gets to be in certain rooms with certain producers that a songwriter with less name recognition might not make it into. Her features on a song, as well, cost more money because she’s also an artist. “Me and Noonie and Tove have it a little easier than, like, ‘Todd from Sony Publishing,’ who’s just a killer songwriter, but is not an artist,” she says.

But isn’t the industry kind of like a snake biting its own tail? Aspiring name-brand artists can finance their own music on the side through songwriting, but to make real money as a songwriter, you have to already be a name-brand artist.

“It’s tricky, but you just have to put in those hours,” Warner says. “Artists who want to get into songwriting, I want to say, get into it! It’s awesome — just know that it’s really hard. You have to write even when you don’t want to write. To be constantly writing, sometimes I hate it. But you just have to DO it. It’s like going to the gym or something. You just gotta keep doing it.” She pauses, thinks about it, and laughs. “Sounds like a prison.”