How pop genius Max Martin shaped the modern music soundscape

By Karl Quinn

Swedish songwriter-producer Max Martin at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne on March 8, 2023.Credit:Eddie Jim

I’ve brought two recording devices along to the hotel room where I’m chatting to Karl Martin Sandberg, the Swedish hit-machine better known as Max Martin. It’s my belt-and-braces strategy, I tell him, just in case one of them fails.

“Oh, I totally get that,” he says. “I record all my ideas on my phone, and I lost it on my birthday a few years ago – it was before I figured out the whole Cloud bullshit. I had like three months of ideas that just disappeared and I was devastated for weeks. So, I’m with you.”

It’s not a competition, but if it were, Max Martin would win hands-down. If I lost my recording, it would be annoying and cost me whatever story I had planned. A lost Max Martin idea might mean millions in foregone earnings.

At 52 years of age, Martin has more Billboard No.1s to his name as songwriter (25) than anyone but John Lennon (26) and Paul McCartney (32). As producer, he has 23 No.1s, the equal most with George Martin, the Beatles’ legendary producer.

When giants meet: Ed Sheeran dropped in to visit his old mate and occasional collaborator Max Martin and the cast of & Juliet in Melbourne this week.

It’s a remarkable winning streak: the first of those chart toppers came in 1998, the most recent in 2021. Along the way, he’s helped craft the sound of Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Backstreet Boys, Taylor Swift, The Weeknd and many more. Along with a cohort of fellow Swedish songwriter-producers, he has reshaped modern pop music itself.

Martin is in Australia for the launch of the local production of & Juliet, the stage musical built around his astonishing back catalogue. But, he says, “it’s important to point out that most of the songs I didn’t write by myself. There’s a lot of people involved who were kind enough to give me the permission to use them in the show.”

Collaboration, he adds, “is everything to me. It’s the No.1 reason why I’m still around.”

You could read that as a mark of the man’s modesty (which seems genuine) or merely an acknowledgement of the way modern pop music works. Composition is often a disparate affair, with people contributing a beat, a line, a tweak of a chorus, from whatever bedroom studio in whatever corner of the world they might occupy. Sometimes, it’s also about artists actually sharing a studio and workshopping an idea until it clicks.

“Songwriting is different every time,” says Martin. “It’s not like there’s a certain way you do it – it’s very different to different people you work with.”

He does have a preferred type of artist though. “I like working with people who have a vision. It’s hard for me to work with people these days that come in and say, ‘Oh, I can do anything, whatever you want to do’. You’ve got to give me some rules! It’s almost more creative when you have a lot of rules.”

Martin has had eight #1 singles with Katy Perry and four with Taylor Swift.Credit:Getty

Typically, Martin starts by humming into his phone. “If the idea comes from me, which is not always the case, it always starts with the melody, even before I sit down with the instrument.”

He has frequently credited the Swedish public education system for giving him the building blocks of his career. “I did go to music school for a minute, for a year,” he tells me, “But it was an amazing year – that’s where I learned a lot of my basic chord progression theory and music theory and the reading and all that.

“I used to be good at it, but not any more,” he adds. “But in my work now, we don’t really do it.”

Martin has such a calm demeanour it’s hard to imagine there being too many arguments in the studio. But, he admits, “a little friction can be amazing to the process. I think compromise sometimes is a great thing”.

He didn’t always feel that way. In 2015, The New Yorker‘s John Seabrook wrote that Martin, who dropped out of high school aged 17 to become the frontman of glam-metal band It’s Alive, records demos of all his original compositions and “is known to insist that the artists he works with sing his songs exactly the way he sings them”.

Seabrook claimed that in researching his book, The Song Machine. “I got to hear an actual Max Martin demo, for … Baby One More Time, when a record man who had it on his phone played it for me. The Swede sounded exactly like [Britney] Spears.“

Martin claims to have lightened up considerably in recent years. “In the beginning, I was very, very hard on myself that it needed to be exactly the way I heard it in my head,” he says. “I’ve learned that, you know what, there are five different ways of doing it, and they’re all great. It doesn’t have to be exactly that way.”

He checks himself as he hears an echo of The Backstreet Boys’ hit in his assertion. “Now I’ve started quoting my own songs.” He allows a little chuckle.

Martin resists the idea that there’s a formula to a great pop song. “In a perfect world, I think it all starts from inspiration.” But he does concede that having some go-to moves can be extremely useful.

“At some point during the creative process, you’re gonna hit some kind of bump where you’re like, ‘Oh, we don’t know what to do’,” he says. “That’s where you might have some techniques, just to open another door, so you can continue being inspired, if that makes sense. I have technical tools for that. But if you become too technical about it, that’s when you lose the inspiration. Because usually the mistakes and stuff, that’s when it becomes interesting.“

I met Martin three times over the course of a few days and on each occasion, he evoked the idea of himself as “an insecure songwriter”. On stage at a press call for the show, someone asks him why he’s insecure, and he points at himself and says “look at this”, as if his appearance – which is perfectly fine, by the way – explains everything.

With choreographer Jennifer Webber and director Luke Sheppard at the opening night of the Australian production of & Juliet.Credit:Sam Tabone/Getty

It doesn’t, of course. But the idea of insecurity as a driving force just might.

“I guess it goes back to when you’re a kid and you do a drawing at school, and if you have someone to show it to you want to show it, and then you get insecure, ‘is it good enough?’ It kind of works, to me at least, as something to thrive to be better, to not wanting to let people down.

“It comes from a lot of negative feelings, I guess you could say, but if you use them right, it can be something beautiful in the best case. I think a lot of creative people can relate to that.”

There are 30 of Martin’s songs in & Juliet, covering a period of almost 30 years of his craft (only one was written specifically for the stage). They’re deployed for narrative purposes in the show, or for character development, and fairly often to comedic effect. Certainly, they’re used in ways he could never have envisaged when they were written. So, I wonder, has revisiting them in this way revealed them to you in a new way, or perhaps revealed aspects of yourself you didn’t realise were in them?

At first he’s a little flummoxed by the question, going to the standard response of how “grateful” he is that the songs are getting a second chance, especially those (few) that were not massive hits. Then he adds that he’s “honoured” to be part of something where “you see all these different kinds of people represented on stage and the story is about second chances and love in all shapes and forms”.

“Does that answer the question,” he asks.

Some of Martin’s earliest songs were written for the Backstreet Boys; six of them feature in the show.Credit:AP

Sort of, but not really. I’m wondering if you’ve discovered anything about yourself as represented in the songs, like maybe “I’m an optimist”, or “I’m a pessimist”, or “I believe in second chances”.

“I believe in second chances,” he agrees, before applying himself more diligently to the task (Max Martin may not particularly enjoy doing interviews, and has generally tried to maintain a degree of anonymity throughout his career, but credit where it’s due: once he’s on that couch with you, he’s genuinely onboard for the exercise).

“People tell me I have a sad face,” he says eventually. “I get a lot of people asking, ‘are you OK?’, and it’s just, well, this is the way I look. So there’s the feeling of melancholy [in my music].

“Even if it’s a happy song, there’s always this dancing-with-tears-in-your-eyes vibe going on,” he adds, warming to the theme. “And so I’ve been thinking about that a little bit, wondering where that comes from. It’s almost like for me to like it, it can’t just be happy-go-lucky, there has to be some kind of sadness involved.

“I don’t want to compare my music to ABBA – that’s rude because they’re amazing – but I feel like you hear it in ABBA as well. Maybe that’s a typical Scandinavian state of mind, I don’t know. You can’t be too happy; you have to be some kind of sad. Does that answer your question?”

Martin’s first chart-topper was with Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time in 1998. Credit:Patrick Demarchelier

It does, Max, it does.

ABBA, of course, looms over modern pop music, and the role of Sweden in it, to a huge degree. It’s almost as if they did something to the Swedish creative DNA, and whatever it was, it has gone on to infect the rest of the world.

“What ABBA did was they showed the way, if you’re talking about international success and thinking outside the borders and all of that stuff,” he says. “You need role models, and with ABBA, you could see, ‘Oh, you can actually do that, that’s amazing’, and then you get inspired by that.”

But it’s not just about ambition, he adds. It’s about craft, too.

“The way they wrote is just unbelievable. The thing about ABBA is it sounds simple but … there’s like 1000 chords, different keys and stuff. But they made it sound easy, which is really, really hard to do.”

The success of ABBA globally – and especially in Australia – has had a lasting impact of the Swedish music makers who followed, says Martin.Credit:Heilemann

Many of Martin’s contemporaries must surely say the same thing: he’s made writing hit pop songs look easy, though it’s incredibly hard to do.

I know it’s like asking which of your children is your favourite, but if you are remembered for just one of those songs, which would you want it to be?

“Hopefully, more than one,” he says, smiling.

He pauses a second, allowing just a hint of that Scandi seriousness to creep in.

“You want to be a good person, that’s the most important thing,” he says. “If someone remembers the music, great, that’s awesome. But, it’s all about spreading positive vibes.”

& Juliet is playing at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne. Details:

Find more of the author’s work here. Email him at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin.

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