The Women Behind the Boy Band: 'Map of the Soul: Persona' Songwriters Talk BTS' Chart-Topping Album
BTS made history again this week with the news that their latest album Map of the Soul: Persona, released on April 12, topped the Billboard 200 album chart. Their latest No. 1 album, is the South Korean septet’s third in just under 11 months, a historic feat that aligns them with the likes of Future, the Beatles, and the Monkees, who have all previously achieved three No. 1s in under a year. The album continues to break records, and its lead track “Boy With Luv,” which features Halsey, became their highest song to date on the Hot 100 singles chart, where it landed at No. 8.
An album full of meaning for both the group and their fandom, known as ARMY, Map of the Soul: Persona draws inspiration from Jungian philosophy and classical mythology, and takes the listeners through the intimate exploration of self and artistry.
Along with BTS and Halsey, over 20 songwriters participated in creating the seven-track album. Though the most high profile person to lend a hand to Map of the Soul: Persona was Ed Sheeran, who co-wrote “Make It Right,” the album is noteworthy for the prominent role female songwriters took in working on it. Since its release, six of them -- all but Halsey and Adora -- spoke with Billboard about their roles in being the women crafting the sound of the biggest boy band around.
Here’s what they had to say, in order of the songs' placement on the tracklist.
Melanie Fontana on “Boy With Luv,” talking the morning after appearing with BTS on Saturday Night Live: When they sent me the beat for “Boy With Luv,” I think they said they wanted this song to be the single. At first I was like, “Okay, cool. You know what you want. The beat is cool. But how do you know the single is going to be the single? Do you have an idea of what you want? You already have a vision in your head?” To me, it’s very opposite. Usually the song comes first and then the track can kind of be edited. But with Big Hit [Entertainment], the track comes first and then the topline gets edited, the lyrics and the melody. So they sent me it. I put a verse, I put a pre [hook], I put a rap, I put a chorus. And then they came back and were like, “Can you fix the verse? Can you fix the pre-hook? Can you actually scrap the pre-hook all together? Can you add to the verse? Scrap the pre-hook, and do a brand new chorus.” And I did it, and then they came back and were like, “Send us the stem [files]. We’re going to try writing on it and recording it.” And then we just let it be. And then I found out on Grammy Sunday, when their A&R was in L.A. with them cause they were presenting. I found out that day it was going to be a single. Apparently they already had Halsey on the song, and they didn’t tell me. I just wrote for them.
Performing on Saturday Night Live was the highest high point I could ever imagine. I spent a lot of time crying happy tears this weekend. Just bursts of emotion. I was literally broke, flat broke, when I moved to L.A. and I had nothing going on, I knew nobody. So I feel very proud of myself and accomplished.
A thing I noticed about the guys is that they’re really grateful. When I said, “Hey, thanks for having me [perform on SNL],” they were like, “No, no, no. Thank you for saving our song with your beautiful melodies.” I was like, “Wait…” We got to talking, and RM was like, “I was listening to some of your lyrics and I thought they were so cool so I just didn’t change them, I just left them.” It was the “Listen, my, my, baby” and “Oh my my my, oh my my my/ You got me high so fast” parts.
Emily Weisband on “Boy With Luv”: My part in this is very strange. I’ve always been a big fan of BTS. I was clued into them about six months ago. I’ve seen every video, I’ve listened to all the songs. They just radiated with creativity and talent. So I was already a huge fan of them when, three months after I heard about them, my sister, who manages me, said, “Have you heard about this Korean boy band BTS? Their company wanted to send you a track and have you put some melodies on it.” I was like, “How did they hear about me?” She had no idea. They emailed one of the girls at the publishing company I’m signed to. I have no idea how they heard of me, because I’m not really in the pop world. I’m a Nashville songwriter, so I’m not really in the pop world as much as maybe some other writers on the record are. I’m a country writer. So it was really random. But they sent me the “Boy With Luv” track and I put some melodies on it, back in January.
The first 50 seconds of the song or so, the first verse into the chorus, is a big chunk of stuff that I sent them. Then I got a text like two weeks ago saying, “Congrats on being on the new BTS single” and I had no clue. I didn’t hear the song until it came out, because they had just used some of my melodies on the song that I had put on the track and sent back to them. I was like, “What, are you kidding me?” And I didn’t know Halsey was on it before it came out and I saw the teaser and I heard the track. When the song came out, my publisher called me and was like, “Go listen! It’s just what you sent them.” And it was, just with some Korean lyrics over it. I had just put random words in there that fit the melody, because I knew that if they did use the melodies they’d put Korean lyrics on it so I didn’t pay as much attention to the words for this. It was crazy.
Being a Nashville writer, being in the room every day digging into lyrics and that whole thing, it was a super-weird experience for me, in a good way. There are so many ways to make music now with people all over the world who you haven’t met, so it’s just really cool. The fact that we all feel the same things from across the world is just mind blowing to me. I’m just so grateful that they wanted to make it their own and put their words into it.
Candace Sosa on “Mikrokosmos”: I’m feeling good. I mean, BTS always does it and does amazing, and the ARMY are the ones who keep it going. Yeah, we help with the music but they’ve got such a big platform and they’re amazing at doing what they do. We were sent a track and basically I went over to [DJ] Swivel’s house. We just came up with as many melodies as we could for the entire song and we sent it back. They used a little snippet of ours for the end part [hums] and then like the “na na na”s. Basically, our part finishes out the whole song.
Basically, my experience with BTS happened through Swivel. I was actually still living in Michigan while now I live in L.A.. About two years ago, I had “Euphoria,” which was a different song at the time. It was supposed to be my song. I reached out to Swivel on a whim because I couldn’t get the mix right and I was just like, “I know this guy is a big producer, mixer, engineer, so let me just reach out.” Being me, that’s what I did at like 3 o’clock in the morning and he responded pretty instantly. I didn’t even expect him to see my message but he heard the song and we were talking back and forth via email, and basically he just liked the song as it was already and wanted to just improve it. So then I handed over the stems, and that’s what became “Euphoria” after he got his hands on it and brought Melanie [Fontana] in. He had the connection through The Chainsmokers and that’s how he got in touch with BTS and they chose it, so that’s how it all started for me. Honestly, it’s crazy. I watch interviews and performances with them from time to time, and it’s just so surreal. It’s weird because obviously I’m not BTS, but we helped with the writing and to see them perform and to see the reactions from the audience and to know I’m part of that, it’s hard to fathom. It’s hard not to cry sometimes.
Krysta Youngs and Julia Ross on “Home”:
Youngs: It’s just really satisfying getting a placement with a band I love and really respect. I got invited to a [songwriting] camp in Korea in April by my sub-publisher Fuji Pacific. When I was there, I met a ton of different A&Rs at a ton of different labels and was writing for a ton of different projects. One of the A&Rs that I met, I just really liked her a lot and we kept in touch. Julie and I went back to Korea for an SM [Entertainment] camp in November and she wasn’t there but we had been keeping touch on Instagram, and when we got back she reached out to me and was like, “Hey, do you want to write for our two acts?” And I was like, “Yes.” She was like, “I’ve moved over from [my former] label to Big Hit, and I’d love to have you do it.” I think it was 7 in the morning when I got that DM and Julia was still sleeping. I literally was like, “Wake up! We’re going to get a BTS cut.” And she was like, “What??” And then it happened.
Ross: We had written another track for one of their artists and we are super-big into manifesting and speaking your reality as you see it and as you see your feature. So we did meditations together before we had our sessions and we’re just kind of on the same wavelength. We wrote the song for their other artist and then we got the email, “We want you to write for BTS.” And both of us were like, “Omigod, this is exactly how we saw it happening.”
Youngs: I work all day, everyday, and never go out. But one night there was a Grammy concert somewhere in L.A, and we were standing outside waiting to get into this venue and I was looking at my Instagram. And the A&R rep had messaged me and she was like, “You guys got the cut.” So we found out like a month ago [in February].
Ross: I thought she was joking.
Youngs: For me, I think BTS are a band that thrives off of being honest and they pour their heart and soul into everything, and I think that was something that was very attractive to them [about our songwriting]. Because whenever I write, and I know Julia’s the same way, it’s really authentic. It’s something that comes from a feeling or a goal, if that makes sense.
Ross: That song is about the BTS ARMY and it’s such a beautiful thing to watch. On Twitter, on Instagram, I feel like we’ve been introduced to this new family. They’re so loving, and so supportive of BTS, and songwriters. Like the purple heart thing, it’s about love, and trust, and loyalty, and sticking together, and it’s the coolest thing because they do.
Youngs: I tweeted this the other day, that I think the American music industry could really learn something from the way that they treat songwriters and how much they respect and value what we do. And, not only that, but that they take the time to tweet and post on Instagram about us. It’s so refreshing, and we feel like we’re part of a bigger family.
The way the #BTSARMY respects SONGWRITERS is incredible! I think the American music industry could learn a thing or two from these amazing fans ------ Thank you @bts_bighit we are humbled by your love!— Krysta Youngs (@KrystaYoungs) April 12, 2019
Dyson on “Home”: Long story short, I’ve known Big Hit since 2012. They actually flew me out to Korea at the beginning of my songwriting career. BTS didn’t even exist then, I was writing for another artist of theirs [former BTS labelmate Jo Kwon]. They’ve been an incredible label this whole time. I reached out to them and was like, “Do you need any songs?” They sent me a bunch of tracks, and we’ve been doing that for about a year and a half. They send me tracks about every week to write on. They sent me two tracks for this. Or I think it was actually the same track, rather, and I wrote two different ideas on it. So I wrote two full songs and they picked the chorus-- they actually used a lot of my melodies on it, which I’m super stoked about. They just told me, “We love your melodies, it’s going to be in the song.” And “Home” exists now. It’s a song for the fans, and I think that’s pretty incredible. It’s just awesome that a fanbase can be so powerful. I think that fans worked so hard for them, it’s an honor to be a part of this.
It’s kind of cool as well because I started writing for K-pop stars in 2012. I’ve written for a bunch of artists and it’s just really cool to have kind of stuck to it. I’ve written for Jo Kwon, I wrote pretty much his whole album. I’ve done [music] for Girls’ Generation, I’ve done Red Velvet, I’ve done Ryeowook from Super Junior, I’ve done a bunch. I did “Drunk in the Morning” for him recently, and it’s probably one of my favorite songs ever written. My first ever cut in the music industry was for Girls’ Generation in 2011 [“Bad Girl”], and that set my path accidentally. Everyone was like, “Why K-pop?” and I was like, “Because I love K-pop.” I think I can be as free as I want to be. And seeing it now have such commercial success in America and other parts of the world, it’s such a wonderful feeling, you know? It’s been really good to me. I can’t fault it.