Max Martin Collaborator Ali Payami Shares Stories of Writing Hits With Katy Perry & the Weeknd
On a quest for her next hit, Katy Perry knew she was in the right hands. By her side on one particular day in the studio was fellow pop star/songwriter Sia and Max Martin, one of the most successful people in music history. Also in the room? Ali Payami.
“I don’t know if I accidentally played a riff or if it were on purpose,” Payami recalls of this specific session. “But they liked it and we started writing on that. We spent a long time on the melody and lyrics and when that was done, we spent an even longer time on the production.” The fruits of their labor wound up being Perry’s latest smash “Chained to the Rhythm,” which broke the one-day streaming Spotify record for a female artist and wound up being her first Billboard Hot 100 top 10 single since 2013’s “Dark Horse.” For Payami, the success of “Rhythm” is just the latest coup for the Iran-born, Swedish producer who is enjoying a charmed career as Martin’s right-hand man with a litany of seismic hits under his belt.
It’s an ironic career for Payami, considering he enjoys keeping a low profile and shies away from the press. “It’s great, I love it,” he tells Billboard in a rare interview, referring to the fact many of his songs, from Ariana Grande’s “Love Me Harder” to The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” have gone on to become monster hits. “But when a song is released, I kind of release it also. I don’t follow up with these songs once I’m done with them. For me, when a song is out you can't really do anything about it having do well or not. You do your best and move on.”
As a child in Sweden listening to everything from Dr. Dre’s The Chronic to Nirvana, he soaked up as many different genres as he could. “I was 10 when The Chronic came out and even though I had no idea what they were saying I loved how it sounded.” His interest hit a new level when he laid eyes on a mixer that belonged to one of his brother’s friends. “The first time I saw it, I was like ‘Wow.’ It spoke to me. All this stuff grabbed me and never let go.”
From there, Payami started up a career DJing around Sweden, first for school parties and continuing through his twenties in the local club scene. (Despite, Payami says laughing, “all Persian parents want[ing] their kids to be doctors and lawyers.”) It was an experience that wound up making an impact on him. “DJing played a big part in what I do now; the mentality of it and the love of both new and old music. When you play something and see people’s reactions when they hear it... It really affected me.” However, DJing was never the ultimate goal. While working the clubs at night, Payami had to get second jobs to support himself, including a short-lived gig as a telemarketer. “It was weird,” he notes. “I loved DJing, but what I didn’t like was being the center of attention.”
It was during this time Payami crossed paths with Julius Petersson, then an A&R for Warner/Chappell, a major coup considering the publishing house gave him a cash advance. “It allowed me to not have to work on anything else but music, so you can eat but also concentrate on what you want to do,” he laughs. “Julius was such a visionary. He believed in not just me, but a lot of people who are very successful now.” It was through Petersson that Payami met Shellback, another mega-successful Swedish producer, which eventually thrust him into Max Martin’s orbit. Before long, Payami began collaborating with Martin. “He’s been doing this for so long that you learn something new from him every day,” Payami says of the notoriously reclusive producer who’s become one of the most successful names in pop music history. “He’s not only amazing and talented the way everyone knows him, but he’s also a great guy. It’s not just music; you learn so much about life, how to collaborate with people, and how to be open and not let egos take over the room.”
Despite the fact Payami admits he rarely listens to the radio (“I walk to work”), his collaborations with Martin over the past three years have been a ubiquitous part of the pop radio landscape, his first of which came in the form of the Ariana Grande/Weeknd smash “Love Me Harder.” “I remember sitting in a studio in L.A. and me and (fellow songwriter-producer Peter Svensson) were just playing around. A few days later, he showed me this voice note with a part of a melody that we had played, and we tried to recreate it. From there, the whole thing came together. (Songwriter) Savan (Kotecha) came in with more melodies and lyrics, and then after that the Weeknd did his thing.”
It was another song Payami worked on for The Weeknd that wound up cementing him as a pop superstar. “I was sitting in a room with Savan, Abel (Tesfaye, The Weekend), Max, and Peter.” The group had been working for a few days and had already made the Michael Jackson-inspired “In The Night,” which wound up becoming the fourth single from his 2015 sophomore album, Beauty Behind the Madness. “I had been listening to some modern, disco-y influenced tracks and we started jamming. It was very natural; there wasn’t a moment like, ‘I have an idea, let’s do this!’ It just came together.” The song they wound up creating was “Can’t Feel My Face,” which later hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and scored two Grammy nominations for record of the year and best pop solo performance. “It’s a very simple song,” says Payami of the smash. “It’s not super advanced.”
Perry’s “Chained” is his latest chart hit, though Payami characteristically not paying attention to its commercial reception. Instead, he’s continuing to hit the studio and is currently in L.A. working on an undisclosed (no doubt high profile) project. “I like to put in about 12 hours a day (in the studio) at least,” he notes. “But it’s always on my mind. What’s that line in ‘Hotel California?’ ‘You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave’? I can only speak for myself, but there must be something psychologically wrong because it’s really an obsession you can’t let go,” chuckles Payami. “Sometimes when you make a song that’s not quite there yet and you can’t figure out what’s off about it, you can’t sleep until it’s solved. It doesn’t leave my mind until it’s done.”
Perhaps that’s why Payami says he values the quality of working on fewer tracks above the quantity of having an immense backlog. “For me, there aren’t thousands of songs that are waiting around,” he points out. “I like concentrating on fewer songs and try to make them as great as possible.” Energizing him is the fact he says he learns something new every day, which he doesn’t think “is ever going to stop. Let’s say you’re a scientist, who are some of the most brilliant people on the planet. They never go into a situation thinking they know everything. They always question things, and that’s how the world progresses. They experiment and don’t care about always being correct.”
And how does Payami know when a work-in-progress has that special quality to become a smash? “If it feels good in the room and everyone loves what’s going on, you go with that. Whatever else happens is out of your hands. If other people wind up liking it, that’s amazing. If they don’t… Well, at least we liked it.”