Ariana Grande's 'Sweetener' Producer Breaks Down Its Key Tracks: 'This Is a Career-Defining Album'

Ariana Grande
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for MTV

Ariana Grande (center) performs onstage during the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall on Aug. 20, 2018 in New York City. 

After co-executive producing Ariana Grande’s 2016 release Dangerous Woman, Savan Kotecha saw a shift in her approach for her fourth project Sweetener, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 this week. “This is a career-defining album for her, because it shows that she’s an artist willing to take risks and put her heart on her sleeve in her music,” says Kotecha, 39, who has worked with Charlie Puth, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. With four credits on the project including singles “No Tears Left to Cry” and “God Is a Woman,” he explains how their collaborations for Sweetener materialized.

You worked with Ariana in the past. What’s it like for you two going into a new project?

We’re really close, me and Ari. We’ve had so much success together, all of us, between me, her, Max [Martin], Ilya [Salmanzadeh], we’ve had success. Her and I especially have a bond, a creative bond that she would agree with. She was working with Pharrell [Williams] a lot and said to me, she said, “I’m going to work with Pharrell on this album, is that cool?” I said it’s awesome. She said, “I’m going to be playing with new sounds and stuff like that.” I said, great, call me whenever you’re ready to get in. She called me and said, “Alright, I’m ready!” We sat down one afternoon in the studio and her and I just talking and listening to music, we listened to a lot of stuff we liked and areas where she could go and she played me other Pharrell stuff, which was great and had those really cool vibes. And then she gave a lot of ideas and thoughts that she had.

She said she wanted to start a song slow in the way that [Gloria Gaynor’s] “I Will Survive,” like it starts like a ballad and turns into something different. All these things were in my head. We sat down, me, her, Ilya and Max, and spoke a bit. She went through all this pressure she’s been through and we had to figure out a way for her to say what she wanted to say and say how she was feeling in a song, because there’s a lot of weight on especially that first look. She was so strong and had so many ideas this time, and she was like, “I want it to be positive and talk about positivity and love. I don’t have any tears left to cry.” We were like, that’s it! That’s the way you say it! There were so many lovely, magical moments, but it was amazing. I feel like I watched this pop star turn into this true artist and her songwriting developed in extraordinary ways and it was a great experience. Every songwriter in their career, they’re blessed if they can find even just one artist who’s their creative muse and someone they can collaborate with on a certain level. She’s definitely been one of mine. It’s always great when she wants to come back. So yeah, that’s kind of how we started. “No Tears” was the first thing we did.

With pop stars, you never really know what’s going on behind the curtain in terms of songwriting, to the extent that the audience doesn’t know how much of a stake artists tend to have with their own songs. But it sounds like Ariana was very involved. What was the process like with “No Tears Left to Cry” and how did she contribute in that capacity?

She gave us her idea of starting with a ballad and we started talking about lyrical content. One day, we started coming up with sonic and melodic ideas and she came in the next day and we kind of just… “So maybe these chords, something like this?” We just all heard it together. It was super collaborative, she was the driving force behind all of the songs, really.

With “God Is a Woman,” that was originally demoed by Camila Cabello. Why did it feel like a good fit for Ariana?

Once in a while, you have a rough idea of a song or a chorus. In this song in particular, I had a chorus idea and a title idea and a melody. I just needed to figure out where it should go. We tried it out in various different ways, just rough and when things just don’t feel like this is the right thing, you just kind of move on. Unfortunately, one of those, we felt like... But we knew that the melody was something special and it was like, who is the vehicle for this concept? It was the last thing we did. At the time, Ilya had tried a couple different track ideas and came up with this track idea to the melody, it was just so banging. We were thinking, maybe this could be a rapper, because who would be able to say and carry a full song about saying god is a woman? All credit goes to Ilya, because it didn’t almost occur to me with Ari, because we were writing everything from scratch with her so I didn’t even know if she would be interested. We were like, let’s give it to Ari and see if she wants to finish it with us and we can give it to a rapper.

She wasn’t writing with us, she just came to hang, because she was going to have the label meeting to play the album two days after. We were like, are you interested in hearing something for a rapper? We played it for her and she just lost her shit. She said, that’s not for a rapper, that’s mine, I’m taking that. She went home and started writing lyrics and came back the next day and we finished it up. When she started laying down [sings] “God is a woman,” it all became alive. Sometimes, the right idea has to find the right home, and it found the right home.

You worked with two other songs on the album, “Breathin” and “Everytime.” “Breathin” looks like the next viable single, as it was No. 1 on iTunes.

We all thought that was a special song when we did it. I think everyone reacted and thought that was, as far as the big pop moment, it felt like something truly special. Again, this is Ariana saying, “Hey, I want to do something like this.” She was having a day and without going into too much of speaking for her, the lyrics speak for itself. When you’re having one of those days where things are too much. She opened up as a writer and wrote this honest lyric about how she was feeling in that moment and it became what it was. It’s so fun, because when you release albums, you have your favorite songs. You don’t know if that one’s going to connect. You could see from the data, it’s gone insane. That was a really special time and a special song for the moment we wrote it. We spent a couple of days on it but in the room when everything was done, everyone came in the room like, what is this? This is amazing! It’s fun to watch it get that kind of reaction.

One of the reasons that song seems to stand out is because it’s that big pop moment that fans are traditionally used to. Had she played you what she’d done with Pharrell at that point?

Yeah, she played a few things we thought were cool. We can’t try and be him. Strategically for Ari, she I think was, again not to speak for her, but when we were talking, she knew she was going to have those records to push things sonically, and she knew she needed things for her pop audience and pop fans. She knew that there was going to be people who want those songs as well. The Ariana Grande big pop numbers. I think the way she was able to do it this time, which is full lyrical honesty, adds another layer to those pop songs. It’s not pop fluff -- these are honest songs. “Breathin,” “No Tears Left to Cry” and “God is a Woman” is a statement. That was really important to her. She wanted to make sure that everything had meaning and honesty and truth to it.

Sweetener feels like a chance for her. It’s a big experimental record for a pop star of her caliber. Why do you think now was a good time for her to take that initiative?

I think it's all a personal thing for artists. She’s a true artist and she wants to challenge her audience and push the limits of things. Even in her past repertoire, if you go back to the time when “Problem” was released, everyone expects someone like a singer like Ariana, for example, to sing this huge, big hook and dropping it into a whisper is itself a risky move. Doing a reggae song like “Side to Side,” putting The Weeknd on “Love Me Harder”… She’s always had a bit of pushing the limit a little bit, and this time, she sonically felt that she needed to go somewhere different and challenge the pop audience and take her fans on a journey and it’s the music she loves to listen to. I think she’s earned that. She’s had enough hits in the world in the last few years. When artists have hits like that, of that magnitude, they earn the right to take their fans somewhere else. It’s perfect timing for her to do that.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 25 issue of Billboard.