'I'm an insecure songwriter deep down': Max Martin on making his 1st jukebox musical, & Juliet

Max Martin’s new musical, & Juliet, weaves his biggest hits into a feminist reimagining of Romeo and Juliet. In a rare career-spanning interview, the Swedish songwriter and producer joined Q’s Tom Power to take us deep into his process.

In a rare career-spanning interview, the pop mastermind reflected on nearly 30 years of his biggest hits

Swedish songwriter and producer Max Martin in the Q studio in Toronto. (Christy Kim/CBC)

Click the play button above to listen to Max Martin's full conversation with Tom Power.

You may not recognize his name or his face, but Max Martin is responsible for some of the most influential pop music of the last three decades, including hits by Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and the Weeknd.

"I'm a studio rat, you know. I'm basically in a basement all day — all year," the reclusive Swedish songwriter and producer said in an interview with Q's Tom Power.

Martin boasts the third most No. 1 singles among writers on the Billboard Hot 100, behind only Paul McCartney and John Lennon. While he rarely gives interviews, his latest project — a jukebox musical called & Juliet — has coaxed him out of his "life in the shadows."

"There's a lot of people involved in this show, depending on this show to be, you know, successful," he said. "If I can do something to help, [that] kind of trumps that feeling of hiding a little bit.… I don't want to let people down, basically."

Featuring Martin's music and written by David West Read (a writer and executive producer for Schitt's Creek), & Juliet reimagines Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and explores what would have happened if Juliet didn't die at the end of the story. It recently had its pre-Broadway North American premiere at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre, where it runs until Aug. 14.

While he's achieved massive success helping other artists realize their creative visions, Martin said his collaboration with Read brought out some insecurities.

"I'm an insecure songwriter deep down," he told Power. "I mean, David West Read is a genius. You know, you have him, like, looking at it — it felt, I don't know.… But hey, he did a great job. The way he sort of used the songs is a miracle to me — the way it actually sounds, to me at least, like the songs are actually written for the show."

I was very clear that you have to go to the theatre and even if you haven't heard one song you still, you know, you're supposed to enjoy the show.- Max Martin

Martin said handing over his impressive catalog for a jukebox musical was a nerve-racking experience. The most important thing to him was that it had a great story that didn't involve him or the artists who originally performed the songs.

"I'm not going to sort of be negative about other so-called jukebox musicals, but sometimes it feels like [the songs have] been sort of shoehorned in," he said. "But I was very clear that you have to go to the theatre and even if you haven't heard one song you still, you know, you're supposed to enjoy the show."

Max Martin in conversation with Q host Tom Power. (Christy Kim/CBC)

Having started his music career in 1993, Martin has been cranking out hits for nearly 30 years. From writing Spears's debut single ...Baby One More Time to Perry's hit Roar and the Weeknd's Can't Feel My Face, he's enjoyed a kind of longevity that's rare for writers in the music industry.

"A lot of these songs are very old to me," he said. "A lot of the songs have been with me for such a long time. So you know, it's hard to hear them as new compositions in that way.… That, to me, has been the most, sort of, exciting thing for me to see those songs come alive again."

The longest-running gap when Martin didn't have a hit song was from 2000 to 2004, when producers like Pharrell Williams shook up the sound of pop music.

"I found myself thinking, that's all bad music, and what we were doing was the, kind of, good music, until I realized that … the world has moved on and we're actually making — to simplify it — the bad [music], the non-relevant or whatever you want to call it," he said.

To get a new perspective, Martin started spending more time in the United States. When his daughter got chickenpox on a flight to New York, he and his family were confined to their hotel room for two weeks, which resulted in him learning how to play guitar. The first thing he wrote with the guitar was the riff for Kelly Clarkson's 2004 hit Since U Been Gone.

"If you listen to that song, it's like two notes. You know, it's not very complicated," he said with a laugh. "But it kind of automatically brought me back to being naive again, by default, because I didn't really know how to do it. So it just turned out to be, like, this great move in a weird way."

Martin said the evolution in his songwriting style is evident to him when he watches & Juliet, but he prefers to look forward rather than back.

"I can hear this other tone in the music," he said. "It's almost like I've eaten from the apple and I know things now. So you know, it would be hard for me to write a Backstreet Boys song [now] like I did back then."

As a songwriter and producer who prefers to stay in the background, Martin said one of the most amazing things about creating a musical is that it's given him the opportunity to hear about the impact his music has had on people.

"It kind of dawned on me; all of these things, all of these stories that I get to hear … where people were like, 'Hey, I went through this — it was really hard. And I listened to this song, and it really helped me,'" he said. "That's, like, mind-blowing. But it's not until now that I kind of realized it."

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Vanessa Nigro.


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