With a career spanning two decades, Swedish pop songwriter & producer Rami Yacoub has consistently proven to be a top hitmaker. He has written and/or produced hit singles for many of the biggest pop artists, starting in 2000 with Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. Since then, he has collaborated on hits with Pink, One Direction, Nicki Minaj, and most recently, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande.
Currently based in both Los Angeles and Sweden, Yacoub is known for creating strong, memorable melodies along with modern, cutting-edge productions. He is also an expert at song structure, and he’s often brought in to help finish and perfect a song and the recording.
Yacoub first had success around 2000, when he teamed up with legendary writer/producer Max Martin on several hits. He co-wrote & produced the #1 hit “It’s Gonna Be Me” for NSYNC, the global hits “Oops…I Did It Again” and “Stronger” for Britney Spears, and “Shape of My Heart” for the Backstreet Boys. Then in 2006, he co-wrote (with Martin & Dr. Luke) a Top 10 hit for Pink, “U + Ur Hand.”
Following his work with Martin, Yacoub teamed up with hit songwriters Savan Kotech and Carl Falk to write & produce two hits for One Direction. They created the group’s breakthrough hit, “What Makes You Beautiful” (in 2011), plus their Top 5 hit, “Live While We’re Young” (2012). Also during this period, Yacoub co-wrote & produced Nicki Minaj’s Top 5 hit, “’Starships.”
Then in 2014, Yacoub co-wrote & produced Ariana Grande’s hit “One Last Time,” from her multi-platinum album, My Everything.
Most recently, Yacoub has worked closely with Lady Gaga, and they co-wrote (with BloodPop) six songs for her 2020 album, Chromatica. Impressively, one of these songs was “Rain on Me,” which became a #1 hit for Gaga & Ariana Grande. Notably, Yacoub helped Gaga and Grande for this hit single.
In addition to his artist projects, Yacoub is involved with Swedish audio company Dirac, which has pioneered various sound optimization technologies for headphones, home theatres, cars and more. Their Dirac Live Room Correction system is designed to minimize a room’s impact on studio sound and ensure the best possible acoustics.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Rami Yacoub. He talks about his early hit with NSYNC, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, and he discusses his recent work with Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande.
Here’s the video of the #1 hit “Rain on Me” by Lady Gaga & Ariana
Grande, which was co-written by Rami Yacoub.
DK: I read that you’re from Sweden. How did you get started as a musician and songwriter?
Rami Yacoub: I was born and raised in Sweden, where all songwriters come from (laughs). There’s gotta be something in the water (laughs). It wasn’t really an aspiration or a dream of mine when I was a teenager. I listened to a lot of music, but back then I mostly listened to heavy metal like Iron Maiden, AC/DC and Motley Crue. I started playing instruments with my music friend because we were kind of rockheads. We wanted to be two guitar players that were banging together onstage just for fun. So we ordered two acoustic guitars from this little catalog…it was about $30 per guitar. My friend’s guitar arrived after a week, and while I was waiting for mine, he had a broken guitar with two strings. So I started to play the bass notes on that, and my guitar never showed up. So I ended up playing bass. Then we started a cover band and I was the bass player.
We did that for a handful of years, until we started buying some equipment to record our band. We bought a sampler, a little synth, and our interest in music grew that way. After four years, we started doing remixes for radio stations and jingles. Then we got some attention, and we started working with an American artist called Lutricia McNeal. We did a cover of the Barbi Benton song “Ain’t That Just The Way,” and that was my first production. It was a number one hit in Europe. So that’s how it all started.
DK: Early in your career, you co-wrote several hits with Max Martin in Sweden. How did you connect and work with Max Martin?
Yacoub: Stockholm is very small. Obviously, I was well aware and impressed with Max Martin and (Swedish writer/producer) Denniz Pop, who was like our godfather; he taught Max everything. And I had my own production studio, and we had a mutual friend who introduced me to Max. So I went over there to play some of my stuff. At the time, I had a song on the charts, so Max knew about me.
I played him some stuff and he liked what he heard, and at that time Denniz was unfortunately sick with cancer (he died in 1998), so he couldn’t work as much. So Max needed help to pull through some stuff, and have a working horse. And I guess I was that horse.
Here’s the video of One Direction’s hit “What Makes You
Beautiful,” which was co-written by Rami Yacoub.
DK: I like your song “It’s Gonna Be Me,” which became a #1 hit for NSYNC. Can you tell the story behind that song?
Yacoub: There’s a funny story with that song. I remember NSYNC was coming over to do records with the whole team. I really wanted to write something for NSYNC, so I wrote a song with (hit songwriter) Andreas Carlsson who was part of the team. Then I played it for Max, and he was like, “There’s something there. Let’s make it better.” At the time, we were going back and forth to Key West (Florida) where we rented a house.
We started to fix the song that we played for Max, and he was doctoring the song. [Usually] he’s really good at that, but the song got worse and worse; it didn’t get better (laughs). Four hours in, Max was like, “Ah shit, I think I made it worse, didn’t I?” And we were like, “Yeah.” I thought the song was lost because I didn’t know what happened to it.
At that moment, I went into the kitchen to make some coffee, and I started humming the chorus melody of “It’s Gonna Be Me.” I remember it clearly (he sings the hook melody, which sounds like the rhythmic dripping of coffee from the machine). And Max was like, ‘What are you humming?” And I was like, “What do you mean?” He said, “The hum that you just did.” So I hummed it again. He thought it was a great chorus, so we finished that song in Key West based on that hum.
DK: A few years later, you started working with One Direction. How did you connect with them?
Yacoub: I worked with One Direction with my ex-partner Carl Falk and Savan Kotecha. Savan was on the X Factor show in the UK, and we’re close with Simon Cowell. As you know, the guys in One Direction came from X Factor, auditioning as solo singers. But they never really made it as solo back then. So Simon Cowell put them together to be a boy band, and Savan was close to them and brought them in for me and Carl to work with.
We had this idea…we couldn’t go back and do One Direction like the Backstreet Boys, so we make it more guitar-based pop. And Carl was an amazing guitar player. So that’s how we started working with them. They came in, and we did the first record, “What Makes You Beautiful.”
Here’s the video of Nicki Minaj’s hit “Starships,” which was
co-written by Rami Yacoub.
DK: “What Makes You Beautiful” is such a classic hit with a great chorus. How did you and the other writers write this song?
Yacoub: Savan (Kotecha) is amazing with lyrics, and he wrote this song for his wife (Anna). He had a piece of the song, and we were gonna finish it. We started writing the song—we finished the chorus but we couldn’t get the verses right for a couple days. So we started to move on to another song, and we had this new song, which had a bad chorus but amazing verses. So we took those verses and put them into “What Makes You Beautiful.” It was kind of a puzzle, and that’s a good trick to do sometimes. We would write something else…to unlock what might work for the first song.
DK: As a songwriter and producer, what do you feel are your strengths? Is it writing the melodies and creating the tracks?
Yacoub: Melodies are my strongest thing, and structure. I really work through a song…we make it the best it can be. If you have something that can be a diamond, you work through it. With melodies and structuring a song, I try to see the whole picture. I might say, “You don’t have a chorus, but your prechorus is amazing. So let’s move that to the chorus.” I’m good at hearing the whole of the song and packaging it and the melodies. Usually when I write songs, I’ll start off on a guitar, or a keyboard, and then I make it very simple. I find a good chord progression and I might add a bass to it. Then I’ll sing a few takes through the whole song, what could be the verse and chorus. Usually, I get the whole song that way melodically.
DK: More recently, you collaborated with Lady Gaga on several songs for her Chromatica album. What’s it like to be writing with her?
Yacoub: That was amazing—she’s such a special artist. I got invited in through Bloodpop, who executive-produced her record. They were about seven months in and they had a lot of songs. And I came in to doctor the songs…to help fix the songs. I picked out three or four songs, and helped worked with the melodies and structure. And then Gaga heard the changes and loved it. We clicked and finished these songs, and we started writing some new songs. It’s amazing to work with her. There are moments when an artist gives you goosebumps and she’s one of them. I can’t speak more highly of her.
Here’s the video of NSYNC’s #1 hit “It’s Gonna Be Me,”
which was co-written by Rami Yacoub.
DK: Last year, you had a #1 hit for co-writing “Rain on Me” by Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande. How did that song come together?
Yacoub: That was one of the songs from the song pool [that Gaga and BloodPop] had. As it was it was in pretty good shape. Then Bloodpop said that he would like to have a feature on it, so we were thinking hard. And I’d worked with Ariana before and she loves Gaga, and I knew Gaga spoke highly of Ariana. But they had never met. So we rewrote the second verse to fit Ariana. Then we reached out to Ari, and asked if she was open to doing this song with Gaga. And Ari just flipped, and I connected both of them and they met in the studio, and it was beautiful to see. It was a match made in heaven.
DK: Currently, are you collaborating with other artists for their new projects?
Yacoub: Yes. I have two cuts on Justin Bieber’s new record (Justice), and one on 24kGoldn’s record (El Dorado). And right now I’m working with Ava Max, Normani, ASAP Rocky, Charlie Puth and Tate McRae.
DK: In addition to your work with artists, you’re also involved with the audio company, Dirac. Can you talk about your work with them?
Yacoub: I have this nice investment company in Sweden, and I told them, “Find something that I can relate to. I love music and I love video games.” They got back to me and said, “We have this amazing company, Dirac. You should meet the founders and see what they’re doing.” Then I met with them and fell in love with it. It’s a room correction solution (Dirac Live). It minimizes the room’s impact on the sound.
To build a perfect studio, it costs a lot of money. You build a room, and wherever you are in the room, you want to hear the perfect sound. Most studios don’t have that. [The music] sounded good, as long as you were sitting in front of this screen and we’re sitting still. So I got connected with this guy (from Dirac) that came in and he measured the studio room. He said, “I can help you out with your bass traps in the room to make it sound more tight.”
Working with Dirac helps you in the mixing process, because it allows you to hear things more clearly but removing any colorization from the room. It delivers a true and honest sound. It measures the room and the speakers you have, and it simulates you working in a perfect studio. It eliminates all the flaws you have in the room. So it improves the studio acoustics and enhances the sound accuracy, and it gives you a tighter bass and improved staging and it has clarity. The Dirac software compensates for the nuances in each studio.