The Story Behind 'Heroes,' The Song That Won Eurovision 2015 for Sweden

Mans Zelmerlow
AP Photo/Ronald Zak

Mans Zelmerlow representing Sweden celebrates after winning the final of the Eurovision Song Contest in Austria's capital Vienna, Sunday, May 24, 2015.

The annual contest takes place in May, but the A&R process is a year-long endeavor.

For the 197 million viewers who watched the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest live in 40 countries back in May, the competition is appointment viewing, taking up three nights of television in the form of two semi-finals and a grand finale. But for those working behind the scenes, music’s biggest night in Europe is a year-round event, with the search for the next winner beginning immediately after the lights go up.

Warner Music Sweden’s A&R manager Robert Skowronski, whose main mission is to find songs every year for Melodifestivalen, the Swedish heat to choose the country’s Eurovision entry, began looking for a winning 2015 tune for the label’s Måns Zelmerlöw in June 2014.

Speaking to Billboard, Skowronski described the process: “I go around to studios in Stockholm and [all over] Sweden, taking meetings with producers. I listen to songs and see if they have anything. After a few weeks, they send me demos. It takes a long time to find the right song.”

In September 2014, Skowronski received a song called “Heroes” from songwriter Anton Malmberg Hård af Segerstad, who wrote the tune with the husband-and-wife team of Joy and Linnea Deb. “First time I heard it, I thought it was a good song but I didn’t think it was the best thing I’d ever heard,” says Skowronski. “I had to listen to it a few more times. I called Anton and said, ‘It’s a good song but I’m not sure which artist would fit.’ I sent it to two artists and they turned it down. They didn’t feel it was right for them. I went to the studio for a meeting with Anton and Li and Joy, and we said maybe Måns could do it.”

Segerstad had an immediate reaction. “I was skeptical at first, because to me Måns wasn't the right guy for the song, judging by the style of his earlier work. But I was so wrong. After the demo he made that day, we just knew that it was something big. It was a match made in heaven.”

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After Segerstad and Joy Deb produced the song, changing one of the hooks in the chorus -- says Skowronski: “It’s quite a hard song to sing because it’s low in the verses; you have to find the right pitch" -- the next step was to submit the song to SVT, the national public broadcaster in Sweden, for consideration for Melodifestivalen. But there was a catch: two songs with vocals by Zelmerlöw were submitted to SVT’s Eurovision producer, Christer Björkman, who liked both compositions. “In the end Måns decided to go for ‘Heroes,’” says Skowronski. “Christer and his team were very happy. That was in October.”

Over a thousand songs are submitted for Melodifestivalen each year. In 2015, only 28 songs were going through to the four quarter-finals. Segerstad explains, “We knew that with Måns we had a good shot at qualifying. His name attracts voters of all ages but many people in the business didn't rank the song very high, and in Melodifestivalen it's all about convincing in under three minutes.”

When the 28 songs chosen for Melodifestivalen were announced, “Heroes” was among them. “It’s hard for people outside of Sweden to understand how big our local selection is,” says Skowronski.  “It’s very important for the music industry. Some of our top-selling artists and hits come from that world. Last year we had a huge hit with Ace Wilder (“Busy Doin’ Nothing”). It was the 10th best-selling song in Sweden that year. So even if you don’t win you get a chance to have a big hit and be able to tour for a year. If you want to do commercial music in Sweden, it’s the biggest scene. The finals are watched by four million viewers. We have nine million people living in Sweden so almost half the Swedish people are watching.”

On March 14, “Heroes” won Melodifestivalen and thus became Sweden’s entry to the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest, fulfilling Zelmerlöw’s dream of representing his country in the annual competition. Now, “Heroes” was one of 40 songs in the pan-European contest.

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The Swedish delegation headed to Austria in May to participate in the ESC. “Before I went to Vienna I thought [the winner] would be Italy,” says Skowronski. “When I watched the show I was sure that Russia would be the biggest competitor. And when they took the lead by 16 points I was sure that we wouldn’t make it.”

Segerstad was sitting in the on-camera green room with Zelmerlöw and Bjorkman as Russia’s “A Million Voices” by Polina Gagarina seemed to build an insurmountable lead. “Many of us, including me and Måns, started to hang our heads,” says the songwriter. “I think we gave up for a while. But Christer whispered to us: ‘Just you wait. Soon it's time for Belgium, Germany and Finland to vote.’ After so many years of doing this, he knew exactly what countries vote for what countries and how many points go to whom. Slowly it turned around, we got higher and higher points, and Russia got lower and lower. After a while we passed them and the arena went nuts! Everyone was screaming ‘Sweden! Sweden!’ and rooting for us. Even our friends from the Russian team started to cheer for us. It was truly a magic moment.”

Skowronski credits the victory to the entire team behind “Heroes,” including Zelmerlöw and his manager, Helene Wigren; fellow Warner staffer Calle Rydberg, who is the label’s A&R manager for Zelmerlöw; Warner’s Eurovision project manager Camilla Bjering von Zweigbergk; choreographer Fredrik Rydman, who created Zelmerlöw’s on-stage live performance and graphic designer David Nordström, whose creative vision resulted in the much-talked about clever animation that surely helped win votes for the song. “It’s one of the best-looking performances ever in Eurovision,” Skowronski opines.

“Heroes” was the sixth song from Sweden to win Eurovision contest, which has been running uninterrupted for 60 years. Only Ireland has more victories, with seven. The Swedish winning streak began with “Waterloo” by ABBA in 1974, breaking the band beyond Sweden’s borders. Zelmerlöw also was a border breaker after his triumph, as “Heroes” topped six European charts and went top 10 on 15 more.

Now Skowronski, along with his colleagues from other labels and music publishers, are hoping they have the winning entry for 2016. The deadline has already passed to submit to SVT and the six-week run of Melodifestivalen begins Feb. 6, 2016 in Gothenburg and concludes with a final in Stockholm on March 12, 2016. Whoever wins the national contest will then be the hometown entry when the 61st Eurovision Song Contest is held at the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm on May 10, 12 and 14, 2016.