These days, artists have about five seconds to get people interested in a song before they skip to Spotify’s next recommendation. It’s worth paying attention to the first five seconds of BTS’s “Dynamite,” then, a song that instantly broke streaming records when it was released last summer and earned the band their first Grammy nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. Right away your ears are hit with Jungkook’s crystal-clear falsetto, laid over pared-back synths, as he introduces the song’s hook: “’Cause I, I, I’m in the stars tonight / So watch me bring the fire and set the night alight.” The beat kicks in and there’s no going back. You’re going to listen to the whole song, probably more than once, and, after that, it will be stuck in your head all day. Don’t resist. It’s a platinum-certified bop in six countries. It’s more than worthy of three minutes of your attention.
What’s the secret to the song’s success? Well, there’s the fact that BTS are currently the biggest boy band in the world, of course, but behind the songwriting is British duo David Stewart, who also produced the track, and Jessica Agombar. Both are artists who veered towards behind-the-scenes songwriting later in their careers – the former having toured with Example, the latter having been a part of girl band Parade – the pair have been collaborating on music for years, writing hits for the likes of the Jonas Brothers and Hailee Steinfield.
So, when word got out that K-pop megastars BTS were on the hunt for their first all-English single last year, Stewart and Agombar sprung into action and in a matter of days hit the nail on the head with their first attempt at writing the band’s next hit. The rest, as they say, is record-breaking music history. Now, to celebrate the song’s Grammy-nominated success, GQ talks to Stewart himself to find out exactly how they did it.
GQ: Congratulations on the Grammy nomination for “Dynamite.” What was your initial response when you first heard BTS were looking for their first all-English song?
David Stewart: At the start of the year, Jessica and I had another hit with “What A Man Gotta Do?” for the Jonas Brothers. That opened up a lot of doors in terms of people coming to us, rather than constantly having to go out and be reactive to things. I was out in LA with Jess to see the Jonas Brothers perform the song at the Grammys last year, funnily enough, so there’s a video of BTS in the crowd dancing to the song, which was a really weird, matrix moment.
Once we got an idea of what they were looking for, we really just put our heads together. I’m quite good at working to a brief. If there’s a clear goal, I always find it quite easy to hit the target. The brief was kind of open-ended. It just needed to be uptempo, fun, not take itself too seriously, almost a bit like Bruno Mars. That’s naturally my pocket, that’s kind of what I do. I had a conversation with one of my managers and he said to me, “You should go back, re-listen to some Jamiroquai and see if you can take any inspiration from that.” I did and then, about three or four days later, we delivered “Dynamite” and we hit the bull’s-eye straight off the first shot.
That’s a quick turnaround. Which came first, the music or the lyrics?
It’s always different. Sometimes you can start with a title, sometimes you can start with a melody. In this specific case, we started with a chord structure and a bunch of mumbles. Even though the lyrics are still kind of off the wall, a bit weird and wacky, they were originally much more weird and wacky. They weren’t originally quite as PG as they are now. We had to tailor them to what was correct for BTS. That was how it started and the song was initially called “Mr Dynamite.” We ended up looking at the phonetics of the song and changed the hook from “So call me Mr Dynamite” to “Light it up like dynamite.” Sometimes you can write a song backwards like that, sometimes end up at that bit first. Often, the way that songs come about is you work on the melody and the cadence first before the actual lyrics, unless, like I said, you have a magic title, in which case you sometimes write the song backwards, or the song almost writes itself, in that case.
“Dynamite” must be one of the catchiest songs of 2020. What’s the key to writing a song that people will remember for the rest of their day?
God, if I really knew the answer to that I would be absolutely swimming in it. Simplicity is the key, really, and a good title. Because of the way the streaming is, you have to capture people’s attention very quickly. There are 100 zillion other things I could think of, but I would say simplicity and catching people’s attention quickly is quite important. I’ve always been a big chorus guy. I am good at doing an understated chorus, but what I’ve always loved is a big, in-your-face chorus, hence the key change at the end of “Dynamite.” There’s nothing subtle about that.
How did you make sure you captured people’s attention quickly in “Dynamite”?
Even if we weren’t in the Spotify era, that first line of the song is super important. In fact, that’s something that Example taught me. He was like, “That first line is so key, because it just grabs you straight in.” But then there are also little tricks that you can do, such as making sure that you’ve got ear candy coming in every four bars to keep the listener inside the song. With “Dynamite,” we did the Beatles’ method, which is to start with the chorus. That way, you’re instantly hooked in. Before you’ve even got to a verse, you’ve already heard half the chorus anyway. It’s kind of designed to seep into your brain straightaway.
How did BTS’s record label originally respond to the song?
It was silent for a bit. But we had a shared link and we could see them playing the song over and over again. Just from experience, if someone likes something they often do play it over and over and it gets passed around the team and all that kind of stuff. Weirdly, there was another song that we’d written and I got called about two weeks before and was told, “I think they’re going to use that one.” That was quite exciting, but I didn’t get my hopes up. Then two weeks later, my manager forwarded on an email from Ron Perry, the head of Columbia Records, saying, “Yeah, it’s on and we need to get this thing moving because we want to shoot the video ASAP.” It became real when Ron FaceTimed me. It was just the break that I thought I was going to have with “What A Man Gotta Do” at the start of the year. Even though that was a hit, it didn’t do what “Dynamite” was going to do. Ron was pretty confident that it was going to go to No1. You hear that from someone you go, “OK, cool.” Until it really happens, it’s not real. It was pretty crazy, as I just had an offer accepted on a flat that I now live in and I was thinking, “Oh, my God, I just need one little thing to come in to help me not worry about paying off the mortgage for the flat.” Three days later this came in.
How long was it between you writing the song and it being released to the world?
We wrote the song and sent it to the label late March or early April last year and then the song came out in August, which actually is pretty quick in music. I’ve had songs that have come out four years after I’ve written them. The only tricky bit was getting the lyrics right. There were about five lines that we had to change. But, again, we got it done quite quickly, because we kind of knew exactly what we needed to do and we gave them lots of options. The vocals were the next piece to get done. I received 173 vocal stems from them, which is… a lot, to say the least. Then there are also all my backing vocals in the song as well, so there’s probably 200, maybe 250, vocals in the whole thing. You probably won’t even hear them, but they’re all in there tucked away.
What has the response from fans, the BTS Army, been like?
Absolutely insane. I’ve never seen anything like it. The morning before the song came out, they found out who had written it, so Jess and I, our Instagrams, Twitters and everything just went absolutely berserk. I tweeted something a few weeks ago and it had something like 75,000 retweets on it – bear in mind, I’m not really a Twitter person at all and I don’t really tweet much. Their fans are the most incredible fanbase you could ever ask for really.
This piece was originally published in British GQ.