Leah Haywood on songwriting for Selena Gomez, Blackpink & Justin Bieber

After the success of her 2001 album, Leah, bolstered by her Top 10 single, We Think It's Love, Australian record producer, songwriter and singer Leah Haywood moved to L.A in 2002 with dreams of breaking America. Fast forward to the present day and she’s instead made a name for herself as a hitmaker for artists including Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Blackpink. She shares her “rags to riches” story…

“I always had planned to be an artist, and although I haven’t stopped doing that, I did fall into writing for other people,” shares Haywood from her home in L.A. 

“When I moved to America, it sort of fell into my lap. I did move here originally to keep pursuing the artist thing because there were a lot of labels that were interested in signing me, so that was the path I saw for myself. Then things took a turn, and I just let it happen. For the next 15 years, I ended up writing for other people.”

Born in New Zealand, Haywood grew up in Perth, Australia, and as well as breaking into the charts at home, she was invited by Max Martin to record backing vocals for Celine Dion’s 1999 hit That's the Way It Is while working on her album in Sweden – “Right place, right time,” she grins. 

The move to the States was a risk; Haywood and her then-husband (and still professional partner) Daniel James started up Dreamlab, a production and songwriting company, and times were tough – they sold demos on Craigslist just to make ends meet.

“We did whatever it takes,” she recalls, “because there was never a plan B. I knew that music was my path in life, so I'm like, ‘Okay, you're gonna have to hustle and grind to make ends meet while you're waiting for opportunities.’ In life, the minute you have that approach – great things happen. 

"You’ve got to be like, ‘I'm willing to do whatever it takes; I gotta get in there and get my hands dirty,’ – you're not being a diva about it. I started doing Craigslist demos for 250 bucks a pop.”

I started doing Craigslist demos for 250 bucks a pop. It was rags to riches.

Here’s where her luck changed. One such Craigslist demo reached a well-known dentist in L.A. One of his patients was TV composer Mike Post (known for his TV theme music for various shows including Law & Order), who heard the demo while getting some work in the surgery. 

He went on to sign Haywood and James and asked them to pick one of three artists from his roster to develop. The act they chose to back were teenage sisters Aly & AJ, leading them to co-write and co-produce their debut single Rush, as well as producing eight tracks on their record. To date it has sold in excess of a million records worldwide.

“Mike said, ‘I want to know who wrote and produced this,’” Haywood recalls. “He got us into the studio, signed us and gave us a check each for 60 grand – 120k right there. That was a life changing moment. He flew us to New Orleans on his Gulfstream jet for Jazz Fest. 

"It was rags to riches. We were like, ‘What just happened?’ We went with Aly & AJ and we did a three-song demo for them that got them signed to Hollywood Records, and then went on to produce the majority of the record and co-wrote Rush and In A Second. That was their first top 40 hit in America, and ours,” she smiles.

Music's in an interesting spot right now; we're transitioning out of sad girl vibes.

With that under their belts, they were on their way, soon welcoming Disney Channel stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens into their studio, who at the time were getting started with their respective solo music careers. However, the studio wasn’t quite finished, and instead of a vocal booth, both singers had to record takes in a closet.

“Bless them! I can't I still can't believe we made them do it,” she laughs. “We had a great house, but we didn't have a proper studio built and we were like, ‘Really sorry, but we've got some sound baffles in the closet. Can you just pop in there please?’ They didn't care. They didn't give a rip! It was fine. 

"Honestly, people at the top…she trails off. “It's the people that aren't quite there that are the nightmares,” she discloses. “The people at the top are usually great to deal with.”

Selena is one of my favourite people in the business. she gives everything in the studio.

Her collaboration with Gomez went from strength to strength, with Haywood co-writing and producing numerous tracks for the singer and actress since then, including six songs on her second studio album, Revival.

“We caught her early in her career,” she says. “That's honestly a great time to catch an artist because you ride the wave with them and then you have this special bond because you came up together. She's one of my favourite people in the business. She's very transparent. 

"She's a real sweet person, and she gives everything in the studio – she doesn't hold anything back. She's not private…I mean, I'm sure she may be a little more now,” she corrects herself. “But when I've worked with her, she's been pretty open about what's going on in her life and very keen to explore that lyrically. I really appreciate an artist that can trust you with those details.”

people that aren't quite there are the nightmares. The people at the top are usually great to deal with.

Since then, Haywood has written and produced hits for Hudgens, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Nicki Minaji, Fifth Harmony, Katy Perry, and more recently, South Korean girl group phenomenon, Blackpink on their global smash, Lovesick Girls – written by Haywood, Brian Lee, Teddy, 24, Løren, Blackpink’s Jisoo and Jennie, in addition to R. Tee, David Guetta and Danny Chung, with production handled by Teddy, 24 and R. Tee.

Lovesick Girls peaked at number two on the Billboard Global 200 and number one on the Global Excl. U.S., becoming Blackpink's first number-one hit on the latter chart. The song was certified Platinum in South Korea and its music video garnered 61.4 million views in its first 24 hours, becoming the sixth biggest 24-hour debut for a music video at the time.

Messed Up Girls became Lovesick Girls; it was a little edgier – they definitely toned it down.

“They’re dominating it. Killing it! Brian Lee and I were writing to a David Guetta guitar riff in APG Studios several years ago and we wrote this song, Messed Up Girls, which became Lovesick Girls,” shares Haywood of the song’s origins. 

“Years later, Blackpink heard it and wanted to develop the song, so a lot of it was changed. Musically, it's quite a complex song – they have a lot of different sections, so it's very different to the way it first came out. I can't remember the original lyric, but it was a little edgier, so they definitely toned it down a bit. 

"They made it their own and created a whole narrative around it. All these sections, other than the chorus, they basically flipped on its head. They did their own thing with it, but I was stoked. I got the call a week before the song came out, and they were like, ‘It's the single.’ Those moments are always very exciting.”

In April 2022, Haywood and James were nominated at the Grammys for their work on Justin Bieber's Justice album track, Off My Face for their production and songwriting efforts.

“We didn’t write that one with anyone in mind,” she shares. “It was me, Dan, Jake Torrey, and Tia Scola that wrote it together. It was another one that kind of rolled out. That was a song where I brought in the concept; I had been thinking about how I loved the idea of ‘off my face,’ which is an Ozzy term meaning very drunk. 

"I loved the polarisation of ‘off my face, in love with you’ and ‘out of my head, into you,’ so I brought that lyric and Jake started playing the riff on the guitar and the melody just flowed out of him. It was written in about an hour – a super quick session where we tracked the guitar, got the vocal down – Jake sang the demo, his voice is incredible.”

we pitched Off My Face to every man & his dog! There were no bites on the song.

Despite coming together very quickly in a frenzy of inspiration, the song remained unclaimed for a year.

“I feel like we'd pitched it to every man and his dog! There were no bites on the song. About a year later, Jake’s publisher, Benjamin Groff, (who actually used to publish me at BMG) sent the song to Scooter [Braun], who sent it to Justin. Justin freaks out, and we get a call asking for the stems because he’s recording it tomorrow in the studio. 

"It was one of those random moments where the right song lands in the right lap at the right time. It's a song on his record that stands out because his record has a certain sonic songwriting quality; I think they wanted a little curveball thrown in there and we happened to have the right song for it. It was pretty wild.”

Haywood’s second studio album (and first under the ‘Haywood’ name – “I definitely wanted to disassociate from baby Leah; it’s obviously a much more mature record and I've evolved a lot since then,”) Pressure on My Heart, was released in July 2022. It had long been a goal of hers to make an entirely self-produced and self-written album.

“I'd had a sound in my head for a long time and I didn't quite know how to put it together,” says Haywood. “But I knew that I had this vision of a record I wanted to make. I had actually tried a few years earlier; I had the bug again, to do the artist thing – and it was premature. 

"The timing wasn't right. I started making tracks but I couldn't get the lyrics together; I didn't know how to write my own story. I probably had to go through a few more things in life to figure out how to put my story on paper.

I didn't know how to write my own story. I had to go through a few more things to figure out how to put my story on paper.

“At the right time, I started getting the hooks and the lyrics – it was coming naturally. Not one song on that record was me blocking off a day on the calendar to write for the Hayward project – the songs would come to me. It felt very inspired – I don't want to do anything for my own artist project that isn't coming from a place that isn't inspired; I don't want to see it as a grind,” she points out. “I don't want to see it as a laborious thing, I want to see it as my greatest passion in life. If it becomes work, then I'll just stop.”

As someone who’s been writing chart-toppers for the best part of 20 years, Haywood offers her thoughts on current songwriting trends:

“Music's in an interesting spot right now,” she muses. “I feel like we're transitioning out of sad girl vibes. From the early 2000s up until five to seven years ago, songwriting was very structured, melodies were repetitive, hooks were very clear. 

"I think we got into a very stream of consciousness style of writing; it almost went back to Alanis Morissette with this sad girl, emo pop-driven thing, but I feel like we're coming out of that now. People are loving live instruments on records now; there's a little bit more of a rock lean coming back, which I love. I think it's in a transitional process; I don't think the new wave has come yet. 

"We're coming out of something and going into something else. You can be pretty experimental these days – if it's a well written song that people connect with, it can cut through. I don't think that there's one way to do it. Anything can take off.”

Rihanna is an all time dream for every single songwriter. It's the golden standard.

In her studio (long since boasting the inclusion of a proper vocal booth), Haywood uses Genelec 1032 nearfield monitors when producing tracks before sending off to a mixer.

“I love the Genelecs,” she enthuses, “they're beautifully polished and well rounded speakers. They're really good, very hype-y and are good to showcase songs on. I have Yamaha NS10s as well, which are more of a raw speaker. 

"With those, you know this is as bad as it's gonna sound, you know? You kind of hear what it would sound on the radio, I think. Then the Genelecs are beautiful and open between the tops and the bottoms with a really nice, crispy top end and a good sonic separation.

“I like to create a bit of a wall of sound and then pull things out and produce like that,” she shares. “Then I send it off to mix and say, ‘This is this is a reference song of how I want it to sound.’ Then get it back and listen on the Genelecs and the Ns10s and see where it's all sitting. 

"Different speakers can bring out different sounds – something will really pop out on one set of speakers and be buried on another set. I listen to even more situations than just those two speakers: I take it to the car, I listen on my EarPods. If I have a little mono speaker lying around I’ll play it on that just to see how everything translates because people listen to music in different ways. 

"I listen straight out of my iPhone to see what's popping up because a lot of people will listen just on their iPhone, so I’m getting the full spectrum to know how it's translating. Then I can determine what mix changes need to happen.”

Genelecs are beautiful and open between the tops and the bottoms with a really nice, crispy top end and a good sonic separation.

In terms of an artist she’d love to write for, Haywood shares her top picks:

“My dream collab would be Chris Martin or The 1975. I'm very drawn to male artists. I love the Annie Lennox masculine energy kind of thing. Obviously, Rihanna is an all time dream for every single songwriter in the business. I think Benny Blanco said one time, ‘The world does not have enough room to hold all of the songs that Rihanna didn't cut.’ Honestly, the amount of times I walk into a session and it's like, ‘Let's do a Rihanna pitch…’ I don't even bother doing that anymore,” she laughs good naturedly.

“It's just not going to happen. It's literally the golden standard for any songwriter to get a Rihanna cut. For me though, the biggest moment a songwriter can have is breaking an artist with a song. That's the golden nugget right there because it's not easy to break an artist. Whereas if you've got a massive icon cutting a song of yours, it comes right out of the gate with all of the exposure you could ever need to make it a hit, and it's most likely going to do okay.

“The bottom line is, anybody can have a hit with the right song,” she shares as a parting thought. “It doesn't have to be an A -lister. I like staying open to working with people that are bubbling under the surface and ready to have that moment. If you can give them that moment, that's what every songwriter dreams of.”