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Oscar-nominated ‘Eurovision’ songwriter Savan Kotecha got started in Austin

By Omar L. Gallaga
Special to the American-Statesman
Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in "Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga."

“He would stay up all night and write songs. He would go to South by Southwest and start putting songs on everyone’s windshields. We didn’t want him to go into music, we wanted him to go into medicine or engineering.”

That’s Shobhna Kotecha, the Austin mother of Oscar-nominated songwriter Savan Kotecha, describing her son and his achievements since he was a Westwood High School student in the 1990s.

Things worked out with music, and instead of practicing medicine or working for a engineering-heavy firm like IBM, Savan will instead this week be part of Sunday's 93rd Academy Awards, helping put together a pre-recorded performance of “Husavik (My Hometown),” the nominated song he wrote for the Netflix movie “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.” The performance will be filmed in the actual town of Húsavík, Iceland, that the song is based on.

Savan Kotecha, who has had a long, incredibly successful career writing hits for Ariana Grande (“God is a Woman,” “No Tears Left to Cry”), One Direction (“What Makes You Beautiful”) and Ellie Goulding (“Love Me Like You Do”) among others, says he’ll be staying home on Oscar night; home is in Sweden where he lives with his wife and two children.

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His mother Shobhna says her son slept on floors in Sweden as he learned to be a songwriter from other successful composers and lyrics masters. “It’s a miracle,” she says now, “he succeeded by working hard.”

Austin360 spoke to songwriter Savan Kotecha by phone in anticipation of the Oscar ceremony. Here’s an edited version of that conversation:

Austin360: What's this week like for you leading up to the Oscars?

Savan Kotecha: There’s been a lot of press for the last two or three weeks. At the same time, you know, I'm working on another film, a couple of other TV shows and films that I've sold that are in development. And then I've been helping with this performance and “Husavik,” which has been a lot of work. But it's going to turn out amazing.

Savan Kotecha has a long and successful career writing hits for Ariana Grande (“God is a Woman,” “No Tears Left to Cry”), One Direction (“What Makes You Beautiful”) and Ellie Goulding (“Love Me Like You Do”) among others. He now lives in Sweden but grew up in Austin and is nominated for an Academy Award for one of the songs in "Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga."

Was “Eurovision” what brought you to Sweden in the first place?

No, no. I signed my first publishing deal in late 1999 and it was during that whole Backstreet Boys/Britney Spears era. And I was living in Austin at the time and I was sort of like the loser in my parents’ house while all the other Indian kids went to college. When I signed my first publishing deal, (publishers) were like, you know, we want to send you to Sweden because all those big hits back then were written by the Swedish guys. So I ended up going there and coming back and forth and going to London a lot and I ended up living in Sweden for like 15 years. And I met my wife while I was living here. After the (success of) One Direction, after that whole thing exploded, I went to L.A. and we had two kids. My wife was like, “I'll give you like six to seven years in a place with guns. And then I want to come back to Sweden.” She gave me eight years.

I guess Texas wasn’t an option.

We love Texas, but it wasn't an option. There were so many great things happening I couldn't say no to. And luckily, so many hits came out of my brain, but it was a lot of sacrifice for my family. We decided it's time to go back and luckily around that time, before we moved I was working on “Eurovision” and I knew that I wanted to transition into film and TV development and do things on the media side, do soundtracks and stuff. So it just sort of all worked out.

Apart from gun culture, what are some kinds of the lifestyle differences?

It’s very safe. The education system is really great, the health care system is really great, but I think there's a better work/life balance. It's a country that takes care of its people, so there is less of this sort of greed and chase for things. It’s more about family and friends and living a happy, balanced life if that makes sense. Even though I work a lot and work hard and all that, I don't feel the sort of pressure around me that you have to be consumed by work 24/7.

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The songs in “Eurovision” have to work comedically in the film, but they’re also genuinely good songs. How did you balance making songs that didn't sound too much like parody?

I was around people with that sort of in their culture, that grew up around Eurovision Song Contest. One thing when I noticed when I was living in Sweden watching Eurovision was, you know, if you strip away the sometimes over-to-top production and the crazy costumes and sort of Google Translated lyrics, the melodies for most of the songs are really quite good. And that was sort of the saying I held on to ... "OK, if we can make the melodies really, really strong and as bulletproof as we can make them, then you can do anything around it, and it will feel like a real, genuine good song."

We wanted to be respectful of Eurovision and really treat it like we were entering the contest. We didn't want to make fun of it.

What are your Oscar-night plans?

I decided to stay in Sweden because I wanted to be with the kids and my wife. The Oscars were kind enough to send a Swedish television crew from the TV channel here that shows the Oscars. They’re going to have a satellite truck parked outside, and so when the award is up myself and one of the cowriters in Sweden as well will show up at the trucks and we'll watch through the monitors. So we'll have a direct feed into the awards. I’ll set my alarm to wake up in the middle of the night to turn on the show and put on a tuxedo. I promised my kids that I'd attempt to wake them up.

A Will Ferrell comedy on Netflix is not what most people would consider an Oscar contender. Did you all feel something special was happening as you were making the film that might transcend the silly-comedy genre?

There were whispers as people started hearing the songs. I've gone through awards season before with the Ellie Goulding song "Love Me Like You Do" (which was nominated for a Golden Globe). But when the movie came out, I just constantly got emails and texts and phone calls, more so than whenever I had like a really big hit on the radio. I got really heartfelt messages from people.

The movie was out in June last year. It was a scary time for the world. I think it brought people a smile on their face. It gave people a laugh when they really needed it the most, you know, and just out of pure sort of coincidence, this song in particular, is really a song about reminding him that the fundamentals are what matters. We all got reminded that it's our health and our loved ones and it's our home that really matters. I think the song hits those themes and the movie does as well.

How young were you when you started writing songs?

I was always into music, but when I started writing, I was literally living across the street from Westwood High School. We had just moved to an apartment while my parents were looking for a house. And my sister had a Yamaha keyboard poking out of the box and looking at the boxes, I just took it out and plugged it in and it just sort of messing around on. Every night, I just started coming up with the melodies. And then I would start doing that in choir class or during lunchtime hours, instead of eating lunch.

I would go to the Westwood choir room and I just started jamming on chords and coming up with songs. And then after a while there was a crowd around me and then that became lunchtime. And I put together a boy band with my friends in high school and we performed at school events.

What was your boy band called?

Oh God, it was called Forte.

Are you still getting a lot of attention from people for “Eurovision"?

It's been a lot and it’s lovely. Most of my song ideas come from TV shows and movies. When I started off, I wrote songs from character's point of view. I'm from a very traditional Indian family, like I wasn't allowed to have a girl over at my house. It was Texas in the '90s, girls wouldn't date you if you were Indian. I remember I would live vicariously through the characters on “Dawson's Creek”: I would write songs from like Dawson's point of view or Joey's point of view. I'm a pretty boring guy in general, so I have the opportunity with the film to really write from a character's point of view. To get recognition for that and for my co-writers (Fat Max Gsus and Rickard Göransson) is really special and very different from a big hit song, for sure. 

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