Rising Pop Artist Duncan Laurence Talks About His Breakthrough Hit “Arcade,” His Debut Album And His Songwriting

Duncan Laurence
Duncan Laurence
(photo credit: Paul Bellaart)

Three years ago, Duncan Laurence was a young singer/songwriter based in the Netherlands who had yet to become widely known as an artist. However, thanks to a song he co-wrote called “Arcade,” he was about to start a musical journey that would establish him as a global talent to watch.

It was in early 2019 that Laurence was encouraged to enter the famous Eurovision Song Contest. He decided to perform his song “Arcade,” and it was so well-received that he ultimately became the Eurovision 2019 Winner. Notably, Laurence signed with Capitol Records and released “Arcade,” and the single began making its gradual run to success in Europe, and recently in the U.S.

A special song like “Arcade” is a striking example of how one song can launch an artist’s career. The growing popularity of “Arcade” has given Laurence the opportunity to record and perform his full collection of songs, and showcase his soulful, expressive singing voice and his piano playing.

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Duncan Laurence, who tells what inspired him to co-write his hit, “Arcade.”

Last November (2020), Laurence released his debut album called Small Town Boy, which contained “Arcade” plus 11 other songs. Due to the growing interest in “Arcade” and his album, Laurence has recently released a Deluxe Edition of the album that contains three new songs (“Stars,” “Sad Old Me” and “I Got You”).

In the U.S., “Arcade” entered the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart three months ago, and it has moved up to a high of #58 so far. The single will likely move much higher up the chart, particularly with the release of a new version of the song that features rising American artist, FLETCHER. She contributed a new verse to the song, and she sings it with power and emotion.

Laurence, who lives in Amsterdam, grew up in the small town of Hellevoetsluis in the Netherlands, and learned to play piano at a young age. When he was a teenager, he began to write songs, and later he tried out for the fifth season of the TV show, The Voice of Holland, and he made it to the semifinals. Although he was pleased to become a semifinalist, he realized that he wanted to pursue a career as a singer/songwriter, rather than sing cover songs.

Here’s a video of Duncan Laurence performing his hit, “Arcade”
(feat. FLETCHER).

It was soon after that Laurence was inspired to write  “Arcade,” and he wrote the song with Will Knox, Joel Sjoo and producer Wouter Hardy. He quickly knew that “Arcade” was a special song, and when he posted it online, he was encouraged to enter the song in the Eurovision Song Contest.

After Laurence won Eurovision with “Arcade,” the song got an additional boost when it went viral on TikTok. From there, the single became popular on YouTube, and debuted on the Spotify, Apple Music and Shazam charts.

Duncan Laurence Interview

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Duncan Laurence. He tells how he got started in the music business, and how the success of “Arcade” has launched his career. He also discusses his album Small Town Boy, and the new songs on the Deluxe Edition.

DK: Congratulations on your hit, “Arcade,” which is moving up the charts in the U.S.

Duncan Laurence: Thank you. It’s been amazing. It’s been going up since it made the Hot 100 chart about 11 weeks ago.

DK: I read that you’re from a small town in the Netherlands. How did you get started with music and writing songs?

Laurence: I always loved playing piano and other instruments, and I would listen to the radio and play on keys what I heard. Mostly, I would play the organ that was at my grandparents. I used to stay over at my grandparents a lot, since my parents were getting a divorce. I was playing that organ for a long time, until I switched to playing piano. And my other grandparents would rock & roll dance to Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones. I saw what it did to people, and I fell in love with the feeling of being happy. Maybe because my parents were divorcing, there was a sad period going on. And then when I went to school, my whole school career I was bullied, so that was again a very negative and sad period.

But I started to play piano, and everytime I played piano in my room, I felt so happy and comfortable. It started to be a safe haven for me, and I started to write songs because I found it was the best way to express my feelings. So that’s how I started, just by taking all that negativity from school, and bringing it home and writing songs on my Yamaha keyboard that I had, and just did it.

Here’s the lyric video of Duncan Laurence’s song, “Stars.”

DK: You were a semifinalist on The Voice in Holland TV show, and later you won the Eurovision Song Contest with “Arcade.”  Can you talk about your early years, leading up to winning Eurovision?

Laurence: First of all, I did The Voice because I was 18, and I wanted to get to know people in the music industry here in the Netherlands. I thought that might be a good way to do it. I had been studying at a conservatory, and I felt like it was too theoretical for me. I wanted to perform…I wanted to be in the industry. But after doing The Voice and stepping out of the program, I was like, “This is not for me—doing covers is not for me. I want to write my own songs.” I’ve always had this passion for songwriting and telling stories. So I decided to step back a little, and go into the studio and write with people.

I started to write with Wouter Hardy, who produced “Arcade.” During that period, I was playing the piano and thinking…What is my sound? How can I make sounds and productions around that cinematic world that I loved? So that’s when I started combining things in my own way, and figuring out who I was as an artist and a writer.

Then a couple years later, my coach from The Voice called me up and said, “Hey, you just uploaded your song ‘Arcade’ in our dropbox—I love this song. Do you have any plans?” I said, “I want that to be my first single.” She said, “You need a platform for it—will Eurovision fit? And I was like, “Yeah sure…let’s try it.”

DK: You wrote “Arcade” with other writers. Can you tell the story of writing this song?

Laurence: I was studying at a pop music conservatory in the Netherlands—it’s called The Rock Academy. It was an amazing time…I felt a freedom of finally being able to not only express myself, but express myself on a stage in front of people and new friends. So I really was “the small town boy in the big arcade” (quoting the lyrics). And now I was in a big city and I could fall in love for the first time, and find out who I was as a person and what music I wanted to make. Then in a room with a piano, I started writing about a story that I had in my mind for years.

Here’s the video of Duncan Laurence’s song, “Love Don’t Hate It.”

When I was younger, a friend of the family passed away unfortunately, and she was quite young still. She had divorced recently when she passed away. And she longed for the love of her life, to say goodbye to her before she passed away. But he never did. So that was a tough story that was stuck in my mind, and I wanted to write a song about it. That’s how I started the foundation of “Arcade,” and after that I took that foundation—that skeleton of Arcade—to different people. I took it to Will Knox, who is a great songwriter from London, and then I took it to Joel Sjoo who’s a great pop writer from Sweden. And then I took it to Wouter Hardy, who is the producer of the track and we finished it together. So it’s had a journey already, and now it’s having an even bigger journey, traveling through Eurovision to the Billboard chart. It’s amazing.

DK: In the U.S., your new version of “Arcade” with Fletcher is getting a lot of airplay. How did you connect with her?

Laurence: Fletcher and I have the same great team that we work together with. We’re both signed at Capitol Records, and I was visiting L.A. and Capitol for the first time, so I was still in shock that I had a new music family that was well-known around the world. At the Capitol building, I met with my A&R person and he said, “I also work with this great other artist, Fletcher.” And ever since, I was intrigued by her vibe—the person she is and the wonderful strong woman she is. I said that if I ever get a chance to work with her, I would love that. Then she texted me out of the blue. She said, ”I would love to work together, and would it be a good idea if I wrote my own verse for ‘Arcade’? We could make it a duet.” And I was like, “Well, I’ve been singing that song for one-and-a-half years now, so you’ve got to convince me, because it’s my song.” Then she sent over the files with her verse in it, and some ad-libs at the end which sounded amazing. I was blown away. I was like…I want to do this. So I dived into the studio and I recorded some extra ad-libs at the end, too. It melded together so well, and I’m so proud of it. And I can’t wait to meet Fletcher, because we’ve actually haven’t met in person because of Covid.

DK: Last year you released the original edition your album, Small Town Boy. Besides “Arcade,” what are some of your favorite songs from the album?

Here’s the lyric video for Duncan Laurence’s song, “Yet.”

Laurence: One of my favorite songs on the original album is “Sleeping on the Phone,” which is a song I wrote with my fiance (Jordan Garfield) when I was staying in Los Angeles. I was having to travel back to the Netherlands and it was in the middle of Covid. I was asked to perform last May (2020) for an alternative show for Eurovision, so I had to go back, and we knew we were going to miss each other. So we wrote “Sleeping on the Phone,” just to remind each other that even though we were in different time zones and being miles apart, we still love each other and we want to get each other through these rough times. So it’s a very special song that I listen to myself a lot, to get a little bit of strength in these weird times in the world.

DK: On the new edition of your album, you’ve released three new songs. Can you talk about these new songs?

Laurence: Basically, we wrote the songs on piano at home, in the past year during Covid. We recently moved to a place outside of Amsterdam and we just started to write songs. “I Got You” is a cool song because we worked together with Bram Inscore, a producer who I’ve been wanting to work with for a long time. We wanted to write a song which was about, “Hey, do not worry…I’ve got your back. I’ll do whatever it takes to be with you.” The first half of the song is kind of a major feeling, and then at the end it turns into a very minor, dark feeling. We wanted to represent this phase that we went through with Covid, where we had to be apart from each other, and still be in our minds.

“Stars” is a track that I wrote, based on other stories that I heard around me. It was about in the end, we are all human, and we are all achieving this dream and we’re climbing, and we’re going through periods of ups and downs. But when we reach that top, will the view be worth it? That’s always the question that you have in the back of your mind.

The last one is “Sad Old Me,” which is a song that was originally meant for the original album, but since we wanted to make it a little better, we decided to keep it for the deluxe edition. Basically, we had this vision of someone who is constantly wearing a mask and trying to be happy…almost like a clown in a circus. He tries to be happy and entertain everyone, but deep inside he’s very unhappy. And we were so triggered by that visual, that “Sad Old Me” rolled out within minutes.

DK: This summer you’ll be playing shows in the Netherlands and in Europe. Can you talk about your upcoming tour?

Lauence: It’s going to be amazing. I already did a European tour once (before Covid), and it was such a great experience having my own tour for the first time. And with the new tour, just having that knowledge in your head how it’s going to be, having the chance to show all those people what I’ve been doing the last two years. I’m very excited to feel the energy of people again, and to perform songs and hear people sing along. So I can’t wait to play at festivals and tour again. I live for that feeling, and I live for writing songs and performing my songs. And I do believe that after this rough period where we couldn’t have any live music, it’s going to be even more special.

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima