Jessica Agombar knows exactly what it feels like to thrust into the global spotlight and hear your song booming out of speakers everywhere you go. Only these days, the former member of British girl group Parade is the one writing the songs, and BTS are singing and dancing to her grooves.
Agombar and frequent collaborator songwriter/producer David Stewart are the dynamic duo behind the K-pop group’s No. 1 smash “Dynamite.” She tells Billboard that the process of writing the song was all about capturing the South Korean superstars’ irrepressible energy and enthusiasm in 3:45 of concentrated joy.
“I’m so open to allowing an artist to speak their truth… it’s not about me, but about the artist feeling as comfortable as they can,” says Agombar. The songwriter has had an epic run this year, with credits on the Jonas Brothers’ “What a Man Gotta Do” and Hailee Steinfeld’s “I Love Yous,” as well as songs by Griff and Lennox and upcoming tracks with Stewart for Rita Ora, songs for the next album from Hamilton star Anthony Ramos and new Republic Records signee Claudia Valentina.
Agombar is a native of East London — home to such grime superstars as Dizzee Rascal and Wiley — and before she plunged full-time into songwriting, she spent several years in the mid-2000s five-member British girl group Parade, after kicking off her showbiz career with a bit part in the 2009 British comedy St. Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold. The group landed a pair of singles in the U.K. top 40 (“Louder,” “Perfume”) in 2011 before splitting two years later.
“It was an amazing, incredible experience, but if I’m being honest it was a massive crash course in the music industry,” says Agombar. She credits her stint in the group with making her realize her heart really lay in writing songs and staying behind-the-scenes: “When the group disbanded it was like a huge weight was taken off my shoulders, and I knew what I wanted to do.”
She threw herself into songwriting, putting in more than her 10,000 hours during seven-day-a-week sessions, during which she began working with fellow up-and-coming songwriter/producer David Stewart. “David finishes my sentences for me… having a partner like that to collaborate with is invaluable,” she says of her frequent songwriting collaborator, explaining, “I will start a melody and David will finish it, or I’ll start lyrics and David will finish the concept.”
Billboard spoke to Agombar about her telepathic connection with Stewart, as well as the whirlwind process of writing “Dynamite.”
What is the process when you and David write together?
With David I feel like we’ve got the same work ethic, the same positive energy and we want to work with incredible artists every single day for the rest of our lives… Sometimes with creatives it’s a very up-and-down job and David was on exactly the same frequency as me — as in, “Let’s get in, let’s get the job done, let’s have the best day.” I think that’s what draws us together. We laugh the whole day whilst working. It’s the best fun, it’s not a day job at all.
What is the division of work? Do you both play music, write lyrics?
It’s pretty much all together. I’m not a producer — so David produces the music, he plays piano chords, drums, guitar, he’ll definitely coordinate the music — but when it’s melody and lyrics, it can literally depend on the day, the mood of either one of us. I might come in one day with a concept because I watched a Netflix series and was very, very inspired — or David might start singing a melody and I go, “You know what? That lyric goes incredible with the melody you just sung.” We’re lucky we completely collaborate on all ideas.
I read that BTS put out word this year that they were looking for their first all-English language song. Where do you start as a writer when you hear that? There are a lot of factors there: the language barrier, the pressure of following up on their success. It feels like a heavy creative lift.
It came from [Columbia Records CEO] Ron Perry and our publisher Tim Blacksmith at Stellar Songs, who said they were looking for the first English-speaking single. Me and David thought to ourselves, “What would they need to say right now to uplift the world? It needs to be energetic, fun, hopeful, positive and just like a huge ball of energy.”
I think we needed it at the time as well because it was lockdown, there wasn’t much going on, nobody really wanted to do sessions. Me and David always say we have a telepathy, because we’ve worked together for so many years. We know what the other one’s thinking, and we often do say exactly the same thing at exactly the same time. And we said exactly the same for this song: it needs to be an explosive ball of fun.
And I think that’s what we delivered to Ron Perry… it was amazing how quickly [BTS’ management company] Big Hit got back, so BTS obviously loved it. We were like, “We’ll tweak or change anything that doesn’t suit the boys,” and we went back-and-forth and did a couple of tweaks of the lyrics — and they said, “We absolutely love it and we’re going to get the boys to cut it straight away.” Which of course was incredible, and I was flabbergasted. I didn’t actually believe it until they confirmed it and I saw the artwork, because I just didn’t want to get my hopes up. We completely and utterly tailored it for the boys.
From the time you first started working on it, how quickly did it go?
In credit to everyone involved, our publishers at Stellar got straight on to Ron Perry, who knew exactly what he wanted and is the most unbelievable and communicative A&R… back and forth, texts. We had him on FaceTime and … [vocal arranger/producer] Jenna Andrews was vocally producing the boys. She was on FaceTime with us, we were tweaking the lyrics with Big Hit A&R. “Is this the vibe the boys want?”
Me and David were so hellbent on getting the single — because we felt so, so passionately that this was going to be great for them — [that] everyone worked 100 miles an hour. From start to finish, it all happened within a couple of months. Which is mad, because I’ve had other songs that have sat around for years… I mean the song with the Jonas Brothers was kind of the same. I thought it was really, really quick as well, but that took about six months to come to fruition. Looking back now that seems like an age in comparison to what happened here.
Do you remember what the first kernel of the song was, what got you two started on it?
“It needs to be explosive” — and obviously explosive then became “Dynamite.” Any kind of word like that… I’m always thinking of fireworks, or “Firework,” because I’m a massive Katy Perry fan. I just wanted anything high-energy. It wasn’t a particular lyric, it was a bundle of ideas: explosive, fireworks, dynamite, party, fun, energetic, worldwide takeover.
I went on Twitter and checked all the fan tweets from the ARMY — and I’ve never, ever come across a fan base like BTS’ fanbase. They’re absolutely incredible, they’re like this huge, huge family. I wanted that essence, like a worldwide gang could sing this song and it would be like world domination. We’re all singing something positive and uplifting at this time and I looked at all the tweets from them and I thought, “Wow, the fanbase are literally doing the A&R, the PR for this band.”
So it just had to match the energy of everything surrounding BTS. It was less a line than a feeling. The BPM had to be quick, we have to have horns, it has to be uptempo.
Because it’s in their second language, what factors did you have to keep in mind that you might not otherwise consider?
I didn’t worry, because they sound incredible — and as soon as we got the vocal back we were like, “Wow.” Their vocals are so clean. They all can sing, every single one of them have got amazing voices.
I was more worried about being culturally respectful of them… me and David kept saying, “If they wouldn’t say that we’ll take it out.” We had a few lyrics in there where we were like, “I don’t think that they would say that,” so we tweaked it. And they were like, “That’s much better — much cooler, friendlier.” Being the first English single was such a massive thing, so we really needed it to be different. And I think we did the job basically, which is what I wanted people to say about it: It’s summer, positive and uplifting, at a time when we need it more than ever.
What was the group’s first reaction to it? Did they have any personal notes?
To be honest, there were not that many notes other than “keep it really cool, really young, really fresh, energetic, just happy and positive.” With some of the lyrics, me and David were like, “There’s no way they’re gonna sing that.” And I think they come back and tweaked a few lyrics. There wasn’t like specific notes from them… [because] we overthought it so much, and were so careful speaking to Ron Perry, that I felt like we delivered in the first or second time delivering it to them.
That’s amazing, because it seemed like a heavy lift, songwriting-wise.
Yeah, it was a big responsibility and that’s why we took whatever they said so seriously. There were a few small tweaks: “Make it more friendly, fun, more playful.” Because we had done it straight away, and didn’t push back and be like, “This lyric must stay the same,” I think they were so, so open.
How long did it take to write the music and lyrics?
I think to get the initial song without the tweaks, it was like one day. We went for lunch, had some pasta, we had a coffee, came back and then, yeah, it was done.
For the initial session you two were in the studio together for a day, but then the rest was over Zoom?
Yeah, I think so. To be honest, I think the bulk of was actually written over Zoom call, but because we’ve got telepathy, me and David, and we work together so much, it was just easy, really, really easy. Yeah, we finished the song over a Zoom call. Bloody hell!
And then you hit the top of the Hot 100 Songwriters Chart recently, which was a first for both of you. Safe to assume that was a highlight of your summer?
Billboard No 1, for sure. Me and David wrote “What a Man Gotta Do” for the Jonas Brothers — and that did huge amounts, that was everywhere. They performed it on the Grammys this year, I was lucky enough to fly to L.A. to see the performance, it was incredible.
But, honestly, this is just a moment that I will never forget. It’s actually life-changing. It’s a dream come true. I know that sounds so clichéd, but just seeing the stats and the figures and the records that they’re breaking humbles me, to know that I’m doing the right thing for a creative and a songwriter. And after putting in the 15 years or work it makes it all worth it for sure. I’ve not had a moment like this. I mean I don’t know how I’m going to have another moment like this. Yeah, I’ve ruined it for myself!
Watch the “Dynamite” video below.