Pink's 'What About Us' Songwriter Explains the 'Alchemy' Behind Her Bold New Single
"She doesn't really inch forward, she leaps with kind of abandon into the fire and does it so beautifully that you have to go with her," says Johnny McDaid.
With Pink's new single "What About Us" the bold pop star kicked off a rollout of new music that will culminate with her seventh studio album, Beautiful Trauma, on Oct. 13. And in her doing so, it was not with any trend-chasing obvious hit, it was with an utterly personal-feeling plea that could be perceived as addressing anything from a turbulent relationship to the current political climate.
Since, the song has soared onto Billboard's Adult Pop Songs radio airplay chart at No. 18, marking the highest debut of Pink's 22 career entries on the list and the highest debut by any song on the chart since Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" set a record No. 9 on Sept. 6, 2014. "Us" also arrives on Pop Songs at No. 34. (Both latest charts cover airplay in the Aug. 7-13 tracking period, according to Nielsen Music.)
That unclear question in the song is essential to its brilliance, says Johnny McDaid, who co-wrote the song with Pink and his frequent collaborator producer Steve Mac. Though McDaid would not discuss the specific meaning behind the song, he described the "alchemy" behind its creation and explained to Billboard that the message was very much something that "revealed" itself over the threesome's time in the studio together.
The sessions that spawned "What About Us" marked McDaid's first time working with Pink, but with nearly a decade of working behind the scenes now the Irish-born former Vega4 frontman is a seasoned professional (though he refuses to call it "work"), having most notably previously collaborated intensely with Ed Sheeran on such hits as "Photograph" and "Bloodstream," among others.
McDaid spoke with Billboard about what went into crafting the song with Pink -- née Alecia Beth Moore -- the brilliance she brings to the studio and the clarity of her vision for the song's life from here on out. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Billboard: Did you have any idea that "What About Us" would be the first song off of Pink's new album when you guys were working on it?
McDaid: I have a thing that every songwriting session that I go into, it's such a sacred space and I don't ever think about what a song is for. It's really just about allowing it to happen and be whatever it decides to be. It tells you, or tells the people that are there what it should be. If you go in with a kind of prescriptive attitude of, you know, 'This is going to be or should be a single,' then I think you probably limit its potential.
Do you have any other songs on the album?
This is the only one from the sessions that made it onto the album, but we wrote some other songs a few days prior to that, which I thought were really, really great and certainly the process was really important. Often that is the case, where no song that you write is a mistake and no song that you write isn't important, because it alters everything you do after it.... So for me the fact that the other songs aren't on the record, they were still important to have written, because we wouldn't have gotten to 'What About Us' if we hadn't written the ones before it.
So when you guys first getting together are you sharing influences, things you're into, or is it just kind of understood you get in there and get to work?
The best kind of writing collaborations that I've done are always conversations that lead to a song. Bob Dylan once said that the song is in the room, when you walk in there, you just have to find it. You just have to put a butterfly net into the sky and pull down whatever comes and look at it and say, is this what I want to say? And I think this was very much one of those sessions. Alecia's got so much to say and she says it really profoundly. So really it becomes a case of shepherding home whatever message reveals itself in the room. So we of course shared influences and a lot of stories and anecdotes and we talk about family and we talk about friends and we talk about our lives and then, out of that, comes an idea -- it was already in her, it just needed to be revealed.
What can you tell me about those conversations that led to the song, or the meaning behind it?
Explaining what a song is about is kind of a dangerous thing for me, because it takes away the possibility of a song becoming whatever it is to somebody that listens to it. From my perspective the creation of it is about looking into yourself, interacting. It's like alchemy, you know, you interact with the person there in the room and you -- these things, these ideas come out and what the ideas are for Alecia are probably different to even the person hearing it. And that's the beauty of her, she really allows people to receive her music the way they do. She doesn't take it personally. Whatever way they react to it, she has a very secure sense of self and writing with someone like that is a real joy.... Alecia doesn't hold back. Her heart is so open, her heart is giant and it makes our life as collaborators not just easier, but really joyous.
And sometimes when you're writing a song you don't know what it's about until it tells you. Often I'm involved in a songwriting session where I come away from it and I listen to it later and I think, 'Wow, that was actually what was being said?' Because I'm receiving it in a different context from where it was created.
More technically, what was the song's starting point and how did you guys develop it?
Working with Steve Mac is always a master class in pop music. Steve is a wizard when it comes to crafting pop music. He and I together work really well, because he will always fight for the connected simplicity of... It's not simplistic at all, it's simple in the sense that, as Einstein said, it's as simple as it can be and no simpler than that. Steve really fought for the chord changes in the song to be almost like a mantra, you know, that they musically just repeat and repeat and repeat to give Alecia the stage to weave the melody into a place where it would soar into this incredible, epic celebration and the unity that comes from it.
It's a fun thing to get challenged by the limitation like that, actually -- those limitations end up increasing the heat and the fire of the song. And Alecia was not just not resistant to it, she was really excited by that: The repetition in the song, the idea that it would become almost like a heartbeat as it just got inside you and became integral when you listened to it. You didn't have to think. That was very important. And I love the question in the song; the fact that the song is a question, it's not an instruction. I think more questions, less answers, because all of us are looking for answers and we think that that's the end of everything and it's not. The questions are where the heat and energy is. We need to question more and I love that the song's premise is a question.
Are there any other songs that you've kind of employed that repetitive technique on that we might know?
What, like all of them? [Laughs] Well, you know, working with Ed, he was a great teacher for me in crafting songs where repetition is the palette, is the place that you work from, because he often thinks about how a song will appear live and how it works live and so he creates these sort of looping sections. So often when I'm working with Ed we'll create a looping section and we'll take it as far as we can. We'll bring the song melodically and lyrically to its limit, or as far as we can push it within the confines of having a repeated chord sequence.
You mentioned comparing it to a heartbeat in that way -- are these terms that you're using in the studio when you guys are talking about it, or is it just more kind of like, way to discuss it after the fact?
We may have had that feeling in there when it was being created, but I think it's more of an after-the-fact thing that actually it does kind of pulse like a heartbeat. One of Steve's brilliant production techniques is to not put too many things in so you're not distracted from the core. In this case, I don't want to be distracted from Alecia's voice. We wrote the song and recorded most of it on the same day and it was blinding to hear her walk up to the microphone and sing the song; she owned it. She was in it, she believed it, I believed her. I know when I get those goosebumps that something really special has happened and she's one of those incredible singers that when she goes to a microphone and opens her mouth you go, 'Ah, that's why I have been interested and been a fan, because you have this incredible ability to believe yourself and to make me believe you.'
Are there any memories from the session that stick out in your mind about what it was like working together?
I laughed so much in that session. The three of us were. Most of the time it was laughing and it almost feels vulgar to call it work, because it didn't feel like it at all. For example, I was trying to get Steve set up with my sister to take her on a date and Alecia started to help out and sort of every other line she would throw in a little lyric that said something like, 'And now you need to take Johnny's sister out on a date.' She's very funny and a lot of it is lighthearted in that sense.
We're just human beings in a room and the intention of it is this is about Alecia, this is about her and it's about her opening up to saying something. And that's a really vulnerable thing to ask someone to do: To come in with two veritable strangers and to reveal your heart and to take whatever you create together in there and then to make that manifest in the world and everybody gets to hear it. So a lot of the session is just being human and getting to know each other and getting to know where it might go and then trusting to inch forward into that. What was really interesting about Alecia is she doesn't really inch forward, she leaps with kind of abandon into the fire and does it so beautifully that you have to go with her. It makes it feel really constructive and creative.
Now that the song's out and it's going to have a life of its own but your work on it is done. Are you able to say what you're most proud of on or about the song at this moment?
To me, just hearing that it exists in the world, hearing that it will be heard... I was talking to a songwriter friend of mine about how amazing it is to get to work with an artist who then goes out into the world and sings this song every night; they give a song the life. But you get to be in vitro with the song, where you are around at its conception and then the artist has to raise it, take it out into the world and parent it and look after it and bring it to their fans every night. It's a really incredible honor to even be around whenever the idea is born. So for me just knowing it's on the radio, knowing it's in the world, knowing that Alecia's going to be singing it is pretty amazing.
There was one other thing I loved that she was doing. She's a visionary, so when she was writing the song, she was imagining colors of light that she might use in her stage show. She was imagining this, she was creating a picture of it and it really helped me visualize where it might go dynamically and lyrically, because it was being imagined as the song was being written: 'This is how I could present that, this is what it would feel like for me to sound and sing that line, this is the feeling back I would imagine I'll get from a crowd, people that are all there together in communion with me.'
That's really cool. I never really think about people anticipating that part of things while they're focused in the studio, but I guess she would have have a sense of what's going to happen afterwards because she's been through it.
Exactly. And the fact that they even talk about it while it's being created, it's like this... Again, it's being revealed. As the sculpture gets revealed, by removing bits of marble and you start to see the picture of it, then they are already beginning to say, 'This is how I'm going to bring this to the world. I believe that this is something that I can take to the world and take beyond this.' Because, really, that's what they do. When I walk out of the room, my experience of it is a memory, my experience of it is the past, but the song goes on, way beyond my involvement and her love of the song and her giving the song life and energy goes way beyond my time in that room. It's hard work, I respect it so much.