Behind the Music: Interview with Girls’ Generation, BoA and f(x) composer, Erik Lewander

Having a Korean composer write all your songs has become so passé in K-pop.

In the last few years, entertainment companies have increasingly turned to talent from outside of Korea to make hits for their artists. As in all things K-pop, SM Entertainment led the way with this but now labels of all sizes are choosing to work with international producers. A lot of these composers come from Europe. Particularly, they come from Scandinavia, an area of the world known for its love of melodic and dance-friendly pop music.

One Scandinavian publisher which has worked extensively with K-pop artists is Sweden-based company, The Kennel. They have created tracks for various acts including Girls’ Generation, VIXX, Super Junior, and 4Minute just to name a few.

Recently we had the opportunity to chat with Erik Lewander, one of The Kennel’s co-owners and the mind behind f(x)’s Rum Pum Pum Pum, Girls’ Generation’s My Oh My! and BoA’s Copy And Paste amongst others. He told us all about his process, how working with K-pop artists is different from working with artists from other parts of the world and what it is that makes K-pop such an interesting genre of music for international composers.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I started as a kid playing a lot of guitar in several bands but as I grew older I got interested in sound design for movies and commercials so I worked on that for a couple of years. But then a company asked me to do music for a commercial. I made an attempt and they really liked it so I got to do more. That led to me starting a company to produce music for commercials but also start writing music for artists. That was the start of becoming one of the part-owners of The Kennel which is the publishing company I am at today. We started writing for different artists and it all developed and word got spread and now I’m writing for several artists.

You’ve done a few tracks for K-pop artists. How did you get into that?

We got in contact with SM Entertainment and we started collaborating with the different writing camps. They actually came to Sweden to meet us and run a writing camp and we also flew to South Korea and had a camp there. There were several camps.

How is working on K-pop different from the other kinds of music you’ve been involved in?

With K-pop you never know what’s going to happen especially in the session because the structure of the songs is usually… it needs to keep the interest of the listener so a lot of stuff needs to happen which is a bit different from making just a regular pop song. You need more elements, both in the track and also in the melody. You can’t be too weird or out of the box with K-pop songs either.

You’ve worked on lead singles for f(x), BoA and Girls’ Generation. All those artists are known for their dance routines. Is that something you kept in mind when you were producing the songs?

I haven’t really thought about the similarity between them but usually it’s good to have rhythms that are danceable because the choreography needs to match the song and vice-versa. So it’s good to have danceable elements.

SM Entertainment are very international when it comes to music production. Is that different from other things you’ve worked on or is that just the music industry nowadays?

That’s usually how I work. Meeting people from all over the world. It could either be that you work with the artist and then it all depends on what direction that artist wants to go in. Or it could be just a random session where you don’t have any artist particularly in mind and then it ends up being what you felt like writing that day. Or it could also be a writing camp for a special artist where you get briefs and leads for that artist and then you really try to interpret what the label wants, what they need, what the artist wants and then also what they’ve done before so you get an idea of where they’re heading.

Have you ever worked with the artist in the room?

For other artists, yes, but not a single K-pop song I’ve written was born from the process of having the artist in the same room.

So what’s the production process for that like then? Do you send the company the finished track and then they produce it with the artists’ vocals?

Yeah. Well, there are different ways. You can write a song and then it actually takes several years before it finds a home but if it all goes well they take it immediately and then you submit the files to the recording studio and they do their recording. If they don’t reproduce the track, you take all the files and you can mix it there or they mix it after getting all the music files from me as the producer. And then they’ll do the final mix and stuff like that.

What makes K-pop unique?

I think they’re flirting with all different kinds of genres. They’re always looking for a unique touch. Something with lots of different hooks. Because of that, I think they break new grounds by trying different things and blending different genres. They make it quirky. Sometimes it creates a great song and everyone loves it all over the world because it’s new and fresh. That’s because I think, as I mentioned before, you want to keep the interest of the listener so you try different crazy stuff and sometimes it all matches and it becomes a worldwide hit.

Do you listen to a lot of K-pop?

I can’t say that I continuously listen but I do listen to get inspired. I like the genre. It’s fun. There’s a lot of fun elements and good hooks.

What makes K-pop so fun to listen to?

Energy. Energy is a good word to describe K-pop. Even in the slower RnB-type songs and ballads, there’s still this energy that makes you attracted to the song.

How do you know if you’ve made a hit?

I think when you’re in the writing process you never know. I mean you can love the song but it’s actually when you realise it’s going to be released as a single by a major artist like Girls’ Generation, SHINEe or f(X) that you realise “This is probably going to be massive!”

Do you want to work on more songs for K-pop artists in the future?

Absolutely. It all depends on opportunities. I’ve been locked up doing music for a TV series for over a year so I haven’t been focusing on that market but I’m always open to working on more K-pop.

If you want to hear more of Erik’s thoughts on the K-pop creation process, he will be featured in our upcoming podcast episode ‘What Makes a K-pop Hit?’ to be released in the next few weeks.