Interview: Martin Sjølie

Martin Sjølie - songwriter producer

Pianist, songwriter and record producer Martin Sjølie is fast gaining a reputation as the go-to songwriter for Scandi pop success.

Perhaps best known as the main collaborator behind Norway’s pop starlet Maria Mena, his latest triumph has been with Sigrid: a 20-year-old fellow Norwegian whose pop stomper Don’t Kill My Vibe has been streamed more than 20 million times on Spotify.

Co-written with Sjølie, Nylon described it as ‘the ultimate millennial empowerment anthem,’ while Sigrid has described how the song came about as a result of a prior session with songwriters who didn’t take her seriously.

Born in Norway, Sjølie says he ‘grew up in church’ playing piano and conducting choirs. ‘That got me into music,’ he explains.

Surrounded by jazz, gospel and pop, he decided as a teenager that he wanted to be a producer and songwriter. A three-year course at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts cemented his ambition, and he went on to work as a touring musician for Norwegian artists including Marit Larsen – one of the country’s biggest singer-songwriters.

One of Martin’s first studio roles was assisting producer David Eriksen, where he worked with pop acts of the day including Rachel Stevens. Since then, he’s written and produced songs for artists all over the world.

His recent work in the UK reads like a who’s who in British pop, with cuts for Sam Smith, Ella Henderson, Charlotte OC, The Wanted’s Nathan Sykes and RAYE all stacking up.

With an ever-growing list of credits, we had a chat to find out how he got to where he is today…

How did you get started with songwriting – was it always an ambition of yours?
I grew up in church and would play piano and conduct choirs. That got me into music and into playing. I think the songwriting and producing part seemed really tempting quite early on. I decided probably around the age of 14 or 15 that that’s what I wanted to do.

What were you listening to growing up?
Pop music, really. I had lots of older siblings so there was lots of jazz and gospel music around and some pop music as well. I’m the youngest of four. My sister was really into the David Foster productions of the eighties, like Chicago and Earth Wind and Fire. My brother introduced me to James Taylor early on and that stuck with me and still does. James Taylor has been a huge influence.

What other songwriters inspire you?
I still think Jimmy Webb is an incredible writer, Randy Newman’s a big hero of mine. It might seem there’s a long way from that into the kind of pop world that I’m working in now, but I think it’s good to know the originals.

What was the first song you ever wrote?
Probably an instrumental piano piece at the age of eight or nine because I was living in Norway and English wasn’t my first language.

You studied at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA) – how was that, especially coming from Norway?
The most important thing for me about those three years was probably going away from home. Something happens when you move away from home and you decide to focus all your time on getting good at something, in an environment where you can practice loads.

What attracted you to Liverpool?
I guess LIPA has a really good PR department! Out of all the universities in the UK, that one came out on top. There had been a few high profile people in Norway who had gone there like Kate Havnevik and Lisa Stokke who was in Mamma Mia!

The best thing about those three years was being part of that community of students. I had some amazing teachers, Mark Pearman [aka Gary Marx – founding member of The Sisters of Mercy] who was an incredible songwriting teacher and Ian Gardiner who’s an incredible arranger.

What were your impressions of the Liverpool music scene?
This was between 1999 and 2002. Liverpool was pretty dead back then to be honest, there wasn’t much of a scene. But I believe that has changed a lot since then. It was made European City of Culture in 2008 and I think that led to a lot of resources coming into the city. I worked with a lot of urban artists when I lived there; rappers and singers from the area and there was some real talent. But it definitely felt like we were on the outskirts.

Don’t Kill My Vibe has been streamed over 20 million times now on Spotify. Did you get a feeling that it would be a massive hit?
It definitely felt like it came easy and that is usually a good sign. There was a surplus of ideas, it kind of got to the point where we had written the verse and the chorus and when we were doing the middle eight, we still had so many hooks on our dictaphone – it was just a matter of throwing them all in there.

What advice would you give to aspiring songwriters and producers?
I think it’s really important to surround yourself with other talented and driven people. Anyone who’s young and wants to make it in the music industry shouldn’t be afraid to be an assistant and brew some pots of coffee and be a runner for a bit. Being in the room with seasoned, experienced people is better training even than going to school.

What’s your starting point when you write?
These days, the idea always comes from a set of chords or sounds that are interesting. Usually, someone in the room will start to throw ideas out and sooner or later, someone will say something that’s actually good. And that’s when you have to be on it and go ‘yeah that one! That’s cool. Remember that!’ and then you can start building.

One of your first studio roles was assisting David Eriksen, where you worked with pop acts like Rachel Stevens. How do you think pop has changed since then?
Technically there’s a lot of ways that songs have changed and they still do all the time. Last year it was all about the ‘drop’ and the vocal hooks, and now it seems to be shifting back to something more organic. It seems like there’s more real songs with real choruses, as opposed to just a pre-chorus with a drop attached to it.

What are you enjoying at the moment?
I’m really liking Julia Michaels’ singles. Astrid S is another Norwegian who’s really amazing. She’s got a song out called Think Before I Talk. I think that’s a really good example of a really well written song, truthfully produced – and no drop.

What’s coming up for you?
In the next couple of weeks I’ll be working more with Sigrid. I’m also working with Aurora, a writer called Shun and another Norwegian girl called Emma Jensen who is really exciting.