The Chainsmokers' go-to songwriter, Emily Warren, on keeping pop's gimmicks back in 2001
The Chainsmokers make pop songwriting look easy. The group's leads, Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall, have built a veritable empire out of irresistible melodies and simple electronic dance breaks, but the credit doesn't belong to the duo alone. Much of the songwriting prowess that drove their recent Memories ... Do Not Open onto the charts and their name into headlining slots at Made in America and Germany's Global Citizen Festival, belongs to one of their key collaborators, Emily Warren.
The 24-year-old songwriter has writing credits on four of the Chainsmokers' songs on their latest album, a best dance performance Grammy for her writing contributions to the Chainsmoker's single "Don't Let Me Down" and an uncredited vocal on their Billboard top 10 hit "Paris." She's earned a reputation for herself as an open and honest collaborator, working with Shawn Mendes, Little Mix, Fifth Harmony and Sean Paul.
Now, as Keri Hilson and Sia before her, she's ready to make that fateful move out from behind the boards and into the limelight, debuting her first solo single "Hurt by You" on Friday. Warren has been hyping it all week with her "Write on Track" Spotify series, interviewing some of her former collaborators and helping audiences get used to the idea that she's not just a muse, but an artist with her own identity. She's aiming for her music to hit on deeper themes and emotions than the "conceptual" songwriting that's defined chart-topping pop since the early '00s, as she phrased it.
A week ahead of her new song's release, Mic spoke with Warren about the path she's taken through the industry. She touched on the Chainsmokers' reputation, comparing the legacy they're building to Andy Warhol's, and their detractors, comparing Deadmau5 to President Donald Trump. She also shared her thoughts on the ongoing Dr. Luke v. Kesha battle, having worked with Luke as a member of the Prescription Songs publishing company.
Some conversations, she says, are too serious to play out on Twitter and through sensationalist media headlines, where most of the drama has taken place.
Mic: Let's start with the new single, "Hurt by You." What inspired that cut?
Emily Warren: So that came from a conversation I was having with the two guys I did it with, who are my close friends Nick Bruce and Scott Harris. I was kind of in the early stages of my relationship and we were talking about how in my life, besides maybe my grandparents, most relationships that I've seen end kind of badly.
People get divorced, or people cheat on each other, and how much that affects what I was thinking about and how much was making me fall in love with this person. It's like, I know what the odds are, I know what's probably going to happen, and how poisonous that is when you're trying to fall in love with someone and holding yourself back.
That song is kind of a reminder that being vulnerable and opening yourself to being hurt is actually what it takes to fall in love with someone. So that's what that lyric means at the end of the chorus: "I hope you don't hurt me, but if you do/ It'd be worth getting hurt by you."
A lot of times in pop writing, the pop industry has this reputation of being sort of a glorified assembly line, the way people harp on writing camps and stuff like that. Do you feel that's a fair characterization of the way the industry works at the high levels?
EW: I think that's fair in a lot of ways, honestly. A lot of times when I'm in a session with an artist and I'm like, "What's going on with you?", they're taken aback by the question. They're always like, "No one ever asked me that." I think there's been, especially in [Los Angeles] — because it was working so much during the early Katy Perry days and Kesha, that kind of music that's so conceptual, and that was so popular — it's taken a long time to go back into writing about real emotions and real situations.
That's something I thought, listening to Katy Perry's new song this morning. I feel like it's a little difficult for some of the people that are coming up in the world that you're talking about, to adapt to the changing tastes. The songs that we're seeing go to no. 1 are not songs that you'd ever imagine going there in 2001.
EW: It's so funny. We were just listening to "New Music Friday" and I had the same thought. It's a harder sell for something that's so conceptual, with so many gimmicky lyrics. I believe people want to feel something now with music. It can't just be catchy and rhyming.
What do you credit that to? What's sparked that change?
EW: I'm not totally sure. One of the things I feel has changed that is Spotify, just in the sense that people are deciding what songs get popular versus music just kind of being shoved down your throat, like you're just hearing it a million times on the radio until you're like, "Okay, okay, I like it." Things have to change. That era was great while it lasted, but it's just kind of being phased out.
Also, at least from my perspective, there's so many things going on in the world right now that need addressing from a musical standpoint that it's irresponsible to write a song that's just a silly concept that has nothing to do with anything.
I'm on tour with the Chainsmokers right now, and we've been talking a lot about what's in the news and how we consume it, and how you see something terrible happen but there's a screen between you and this thing, so it feels kind of abstract. And how there's so much information and so many terrible things happening that are boiled down to a headline or a tweet or something, and we can't even feel anything from it. In that sense, whether or not you're talking about an issue, which sometimes can come across as preachy or heavy-handed — it's about talking about your relationship with it, how you feel about it. I'm trying to be a part of a movement where more and more of this kind of thing is talked about, and less catchy, hooky lyrics for the sake of lyrics.
Talking about the sea change in pop and that people are going to change what you're going to do — that's obviously something that's been in the undercurrent of the pop conversation for a really long time. I feel it's particularly present in the way that female artists are treated. I'm thinking of Alicia Keys telling people that she had to show more skin, or Camila Cabello leaving Fifth Harmony. You have seen so much of the industry behind the scenes, does that surprise you? How does this fit in with your understanding of the industry?
EW: It's so crazy. Most of that stuff comes from a label or an A&R, being like, "Here's what you need to do to sell records." And it's nuts because throughout history, that kind of A&Ring and that kind of pressure on an artist never really worked. The best artists are those who are most intensely themselves. You can tell when someone's been told to wear less clothes or told to be a part of something they don't want to be a part of. It's crazy, but it's not surprising.
I know you signed with Dr. Luke's Prescription Songs back in the day. Obviously he's been wrapped up in a lot of controversy lately for the pressures he was allegedly putting on Kesha. What have your interactions with him been like? Have these stories about him surprised you?
EW: I mean, I wasn't around when any of that was going on, but my experience with Luke is that he's amazing and extremely supportive of all of us.
It's funny, this somehow touches on everything we've talked about so far in the sense that, that whole issue was a lot of headlines and tweets and not a lot of people looking into the issue and trying to understand it before taking a side, which is a lot of what we're talking about now with Drew from the Chainsmokers. Just a lot about how everyone was so willing to jump on the bandwagon of hating that album before they even listened to it. It's just a funny thing to deal with.
I definitely have nothing but nice things to say about Luke. I think that whole thing is a shame and it's been blown way out of proportion, but yeah.
Have you followed the Kesha case? What have your thoughts about it been? Do you think there's merit to anything she's said?
EW: Um, I have. I've never met her, I only know Luke, and I just know that a lot of people before the case, before, when she had testified that nothing had ever happened — no one was talking about that. They were only talking about the original accusation. And that to me was what was upsetting about the way the whole thing went down. No one bothered to look into it. Rape is a really serious thing to talk about. I obviously have only spoken to Luke about it. To me, I just think that's something that shouldn't have been dealt with on Twitter. It's too serious of an issue.
On the Chainsmokers: There are a lot of people out there who are unwilling to give their music a chance, for whatever reason. What's your experience working with them? Do you feel the way they are in person matches the reputation that they have online?
EW: Not at all. That's what's actually still shocking about the whole thing. I've worked with a lot of people, and out of everyone, they're just good people. Even the fact that I'm singing on tour with them, when I've never been on a tour before, they just are so good at including everyone who's involved, and they treat everyone like their best friend.
It's also so crazy the way their music's been criticized because it's also honest and different. The fans love it, but the critics have decided this album is bad. Like they've listened to it one time and they've already made up their mind about it. I know for a fact that Drew is writing all these songs as true stories, producing and writing and performing and singing and playing guitar and DJing. It's like so weird when you see this show and you read the articles, it's like something does not connect here.
I've actually learned a lot about all of this just being around them during this time. They don't really seem to be upset about it. We just watched this documentary about Andy Warhol, because there was a lot of similar things that were going on his career, just in the sense that people were slamming his art and saying it was stupid, and he was feeding it to the masses, which is really similar to a lot of things people are saying about the Chainsmokers' album.
The latest headline I've seen is Deadmau5 claiming the Chainsmokers used a "ghost producer." Is that bullshit?
EW: See, that's what we've been saying this whole time, like with the Luke stuff and all kinds of news stuff. It's like, Deadmau5 tweets that and it's like Trump — people will just take it as fact.
They're definitely not ghost producing. I've sat in the room and watched Drew produce stuff. Or I saw someone famous from an old rock band saying that Drew was lip syncing on [Saturday Night Live] and Drew was definitely not lip syncing on SNL. I was in rehearsal and I performed with them and it's like "Why?" People can just say that and then just decide he's lip syncing, or oh, he's got ghost producers. It's crazy what's happening now, and how much research people don't do, and how you don't need facts to back anything.
Mic has ongoing music coverage. Follow our main music hub here.