Sean Douglas, Michael Keaton's Son, on Writing for Madonna & Downplaying His Family Ties
“It's funny that I'm even in the conversation — it’s not my award!” says the 31-year-old songwriter, who enjoyed a breakout moment at the Golden Globes.
"My best friend is kind, intelligent, funny, talented, considerate, thoughtful… Did I say kind?" Michael Keaton asked during his Golden Globes speech on Sunday night (Jan. 13), fighting back tears while accepting the Best Actor in a Motion Picture Comedy or Musical award for his comeback role in Birdman. While many in the audience and millions at home tried to decipher who Keaton was talking about, the 63-year-old star clarified: "He also happens to be my son, Sean. I love you with all my heart, buddy."
The speech was one of the ceremony's most heartfelt moments, and has since gone viral, accruing 100,000 views on YouTube in a little over 24 hours. Meanwhile, a quick Google search of Keaton's son Sean Douglas -- who the camera cut to during Keaton's tribute -- put two and two together for a lot of pop culture junkies: Douglas is actually a successful pop songwriter, with credits on Top 40 hits like Jason Derulo's "Talk Dirty," Demi Lovato's "Heart Attack" and Fifth Harmony's "Sledgehammer," among many others. Because of his last name (Keaton was born Michael Douglas and changed his surname early in his career), few were aware that Douglas had a famous father before Sunday night; the revelation inspired lots of #MindBlown Twitter hashtags and profiles on Douglas from Buzzfeed, ABC News and the New York Daily News.
"I don't go out of my way to not talk about it, but I maybe downplay it a bit," Douglas told Billboard on Monday. "That's sort of the way I was raised, to keep things separate, I guess. [The attention] is mostly fun, because I'm just so happy for my dad. It's a lot of friends and family reaching out and saying it was a great night, and everyone's so proud of him. It's funny that I'm even in the conversation -- it's not my award!"
On the phone from Los Angeles, Douglas comes off as exceedingly humble (one of the few adjectives his father did not use to describe him on Sunday night), and it's clear that many in the industry are just as surprised at the 31-year-old's family ties as the general population is.
"I knew Sean for a while and we'd work together a couple times a week, and I didn't know," says Aton Ben-Horin, the director of global A&R at Warner Music Group, who worked closely with Douglas on Derulo's smash "Talk Dirty." "I found out through somebody else, six months after meeting him. He's very low-key about it."
While his father stayed busy starring in big-budget flicks, Douglas played in bands in high school and at Washington University in St. Louis, often serving as his various groups' principal songwriter. One of his bands started attracting major label attention, and while a deal was slowly being finalized, he asked the group's manager if he could try his hand at co-writing for other artists during the downtime.
"I did a couple sessions like that and it just clicked," Douglas recalls. "I realized I could write all these different genres. One of the problems I had in the band was that one morning I'd wake up and want to write a country song -- another morning, I'd want to write a rock song. I realized that I can do something different everyday. And writing for Demi [Lovato] or Jason [Derulo] is like having the greatest megaphone in the world -- you say an idea into it, and it comes out as the perfect performance on the other end."
Douglas signed a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell in early 2012, and started scooping up opportunity in the mainstream pop world. "Heart Attack" was his first Top 10 hit as a songwriter, to be followed by "Talk Dirty," Derulo's "Wiggle" and work with artists like the Backstreet Boys and Hilary Duff. Douglas spent part of last summer in Ibiza with David Guetta, living in the superstar producer's house and working on tracks for his recent album, Listen.
"He's very versatile," says Ben-Horin of Douglas. "It's rare you find a writer that brings multiple elements -- he plays piano, he plays the guitar, and could produce if he wants to. He does great vocal melodies, great lyrics, and to top it off, he's got an amazing energy that he brings to sessions."
The recent high-water achievement for Douglas was working on "Ghosttown," one of the songs featured on Madonna's upcoming Rebel Heart studio album. The songwriter says that the song, which was released along with five other Madonna tracks following a demo leak last month, was written in three days after Madonna personally requested some studio time.
"She liked 'Talk Dirty,' actually, and so they put me and [co-writers] Jason Evigan and Evan Bogart in with her and we had this great session," says Douglas. "I was incredibly nervous for obvious reasons, but she showed up, was super personable and was ready to work. I basically checked it off my life bucket list."
Douglas says that Keaton and his mother, the late actress Caroline McWilliams, never pressured him into following in their Hollywood footsteps. "I think they saw how hard acting and entertainment can be, so they said "You can be anything you want.' And of course, I go and pick the one industry less stable than theirs," says Douglas with a laugh.
However, Douglas says that he and his father deeply appreciate each other's artistic works and constantly support each other's professional accomplishments. As Keaton continues an impressive awards season run -- an Academy Award nomination for his Birdman turn will likely come on Thursday (Jan. 15) -- Douglas is enjoying a career peak of his own, with more writing projects in the works for artists like Derulo.
"I'll be talking to my dad and he'll say 'How it's going?' And I'll go, 'Hey dad, I got this new song coming out. It's gonna be a big single!' He'll say, 'Oh great, what's it called?' I go, 'Uhhh, it's called "Wiggle"!'" says Douglas. "It's just a funny conversation to have with your parent. But he's always been incredibly supportive, and he's just thrilled that it's working out. I possibly am more excited than he is about the Golden Globe, and he's probably more excited about me having a hit or two than I am."