“Make it as catchy as possible” – Dsign Music on writing some of K-pop’s biggest hits

Last week we introduced a new series of articles profiling successful K-pop composers in the run up to our new podcast episode, ‘What Makes A K-pop Hit?’. In our first interview with Swedish composer Erik Lewander, we noted that many successful K-pop composers come from Scandinavia. Today we offer further proof of this with a profile of one of the most successful non-Korean independent song publishing companies working in K-pop: Norway-based Dsign Music.

Dsign Music burst onto the K-pop scene in 2009 with their massive hit for Girls’ Generation, Tell Me Your Wish (Genie), which caught the Korean public’s attention for both its catchy chorus and memorable leg-kicking dance (choreographed by the equally accomplished Rino Nakasone). 

Since then they have become one of SM Entertainment’s most prolific collaborators and were involved in many of their artists’ biggest hits including singles for EXO, Red Velvet, Amber, Jonghyun and BoA. They have also worked extensively collaborating with other songwriters particularly Will Simms who they worked with on I Got A Boy and Wolf (and who we will be profiling in upcoming weeks). Most recently they co-wrote EXO’s latest single Love Me Right.

They’ve also written for Lee Hyori, Spica, Chocolat, Boys Republic and other artists outside of SM.

Aside from K-pop, they have worked on tracks for many popular artists in other parts of Asia including Taiwan’s Jolin Tsai and Japan’s Kumi Koda. They also used their knowledge and experience to bring a bit more of a real K-pop edge to many of the tracks featured in Nickelodeon’s recent K-pop inspired series Make It Pop.

The company was formed in 2006 by Robin Jenssen, Anne Judith Wik, Nermin Harambasic and Ronny Svendsen and they have since taken on a number of songwriters from all over the world, operating in Seoul and Los Angeles.

They spoke to us about their experiences writing K-pop, working all over the world and what it’s like to work directly with the artist.

Your original base is in Norway so how did you initially get into working on songs for  Korean artists?

It was our Universal Music Publishing Group publisher Pelle Lidell who turned us on to the Korean market. He played us a couple of songs from the biggest acts at the time and we were instantly hooked. The sound of K-pop was something we had never heard before. It was so colourful and catchy and crazy so we knew we had it give it a try.

You since expanded to studios in Seoul and LA. Is it difficult to manage so many people in different parts of the world?

Well, it is of course time consuming but it is something we love to do! It’s our passion in life. And of course as we are surrounded with so many talented people, it makes the work flow really well. We have signed a lot of songwriters in the US, Korea, Japan, Scandinavia that we mentor. There’s a lot of creative brainstorming and exchange of ideas so we always feel inspired.

You’ve been working with SM Entertainment for a number of years now. Has your relationship with them changed in that time?

Well it started with Genie and then just went on from there. We never expected that they would pick so many of our songs and that we were going to work so closely together on different projects! We have become closer and closer over the years and we are so grateful to be involved with such professional people. They really opened doors for us.

You hold fairly regular songwriting camps with SM and others. What do you do at those and what’s it like to have so many creative people all working together?

We get briefs from SM on which of their acts are looking for songs and what type of songs they would like and we divide into groups of 3-4 people, go into the studio and start writing from scratch. It’s great! So much crazy creativity bursting together. Magic really happens!

More recently you’ve been working with artists like Jonghyun and Amber co-composing their own work. How’s that and is it different from the normal process?

It’s always great to be in the room with the artist. That way you get instant feedback on what you are creating and you can custom make a song to fit perfectly for the artist. We really get to bond and friendships are made too!

Most of your songwriters are not Korean. How do you get around that language barrier when it comes to lyrics? Do you write the songs in English or with no lyrics at all?

We write all the songs with English lyrics and then they’re adapted by a Korean lyricist. They usually keep some words in English from the original, particularly the main hook in the song.

Do you have a track you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of?

Genie will always be close to our hearts because it is the song that really opened doors for us! Also Wolf is really awesome and of course I Got A Boy which won the Youtube Music Awards.

What is it about the music you write that works so well for Korean idol groups, do you think?

That’s a hard question. We really work hard on every song. We try to make it the most catchy we possibly can, laced with beautiful and fun melodies that stick in your head. We are not afraid to rewrite the songs to fit the artist even better. “Kill your darlings and leave your ego at the studio door” is our motto.

What does the future look like for Dsign Music? Do you have plans for the rest of the year?

We are doing a lot of different things. We plan to continue working close with our Korean partners, writing more great songs and writing with the artists. We are putting up a musical and writing one more later this year. Busy, busy but that’s the way we like it.

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

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