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BMI's How I Wrote That Song panel offers a glimpse into the magic of hitmaking [Video]

February 17, 2011 |  5:50 pm

The songwriters behind smash hits from Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, Britney Spears and Beyonce discuss how they wrote the hits at a roundtable event.


It came as a bit of a surprise to see the line of eager last-minute ticket buyers and attendees stretching down the block outside West Hollywood’s Key Club on Saturday. Although Cee Lo Green, Seal and the Neptunes’ Chad Hugo were inside, they weren’t performing. Instead, they were talking songwriting along with lesser-known, behind-the-scenes hit authors Bonnie McKee, BC Jean and Claude Kelly during BMI’s How I Wrote That Song panel.

The writers behind the sticky hooks and melodies that reigned in pop and R&B sat down with Grammy-winning producer Dallas Austin and BMI Vice President Catherine Brewton for an in-depth discussion on the particulars of their respective hits.

Cee Lo’s big year was capped off with the success of his Motown-esque “ ... You,” which won for best urban/alternative performance Sunday. 

But the Goodie Mob frontman told the packed house that he “never took [himself] too seriously as a producer,” because he is “more of an idealist,” and even offered up a hearty chuckle when asked about writing and producing “Don’t Cha,” the underperforming Tori Alamaze (she used to sing backup for OutKast before trying an unsuccessful stint as a solo artist) single that was then repurposed as the debut single for Pussycat Dolls.

He’s been asked an exhaustive amount of questions about the bitter “ ... You” (which also got a clean-edit release as "Forget You") from critics wanting to know who the song is about, and said the song grew out of frustration from trying to complete his latest album.

“It took me about three years to do ‘Lady Killer’ –- against my will,” Green said. “The story line is fictional, but at this point I was ready to say ... you, ... all of y’all. It was always ... you. I did it to be ridiculous. It was meant to be spiteful.”

Kelly, who helped Fantasia score her first Grammy with “Bittersweet,” has also written hits for Britney Spears (“Circus”), Miley Cyrus (“Party In the USA”) and Kelly Clarkson (“My Life Would Suck Without You”). He says the key to being able to home in on the emotions of the diverse range of divas he writes for is, well, becoming them.

“It gets me in trouble when I say this, but I can imitate anyone once I meet them once,” he said. “You have to be selfless. For me, there are [a few] type of songs: I love you, I hate you, let’s party and heal the world.”

Kelly doesn’t spend all his time channeling the opposite sex. He is enjoying finally seeing the release of Michael Jackson’s “Hold My Hand” and the success of Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” –- a song, he said, that came out of a complete accident when asked if he had four hours to spare in the studio with Mars.

“We spent two hours clowning, being complete ...” he said and then laughed. “Bruno finally says, ‘I just wanna write a song about how I’d do anything for a girl and she treats me like crap.' I went in the studio and did the demo, heard nothing, then heard it was on the album. Then heard it was a single. That’s when I thought maybe I should hear the song.”

McKee had the biggest year as a songwriter out of anyone on the panel. Though her debut album, “Trouble,” didn’t work out (“I was heartbroken,” she said about the failed project), she said becoming a songwriter has rejuvenated her to try another stab at being a performer.

She is responsible for two of Katy Perry’s latest hits, “California Girls” and “Teenage Dream,” Taio Cruz’s club staple “Dynamite” and Spears’ comeback single, “Hold It Against Me.”

Working with Perry proved to be the easiest, she said.

“We’re kind of a dream team. Katy is an amazing writer,” McKee said. “When we got together, it worked –- we are both lyricists. ‘California Girls’ at first was gonna be [singing to the tune of the single] ‘je ne sais quoi.’ But we couldn’t figure out the second part.”

The panel took questions from the packed house, which was heavy on aspiring songwriters and producers, asking for advice on how they too could succeed.

“The only way you can make it is if you get addicted to music,” Kelly said.

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy

Video: Songwriters chat with Pop & Hiss

Bonnie McKee

BC Jean

Claude Kelly

Cee Lo Green

Photo: (L-R) Recording artist Cee Lo; Claude Kelly, Seal, Chad Hugo, Bonnie McKee and BC Jean attend BMI's "How I Wrote That Song" panel at Key Club. Credit: David Livingston / WireImage.

Video credits: Gerrick D. Kennedy / Los Angeles Times