Since breaking through with BTS’s ‘Dynamite’, David Stewart has been making his mark on modern pop music with hit after hit.
During the first Covid lockdown in 2020, while some of us were working on our breadmaking skills, songwriter and producer David Stewart was in a bedroom at his parents’ home in London. He was working, over Zoom, with frequent collaborator Jessica Agombar, on a track to be sent for consideration by K‑pop band BTS, who were looking for their first English‑language single.
BTS were already an international phenomenon. They didn’t have fans, they had the Army: a legion of diehards who kept track of all things BTS. If they embraced a song, it would be career‑changing for all involved. Naturally, every songwriter in town was going for the gig, as Stewart was well aware, but his years in the trenches meant it didn’t faze him. “Jess and I had been working for six years consistently before that, writing four times a week, every single week, so it was just another day at the office. We didn’t put pressure on it; we never thought ‘Oh, we’re writing something for BTS and it’s going to change our lives! What are we going to do?’ That’s why I think it ended up working, ultimately, because there was such a free‑flowing, normal, easy thing to it. I will forever be grateful for that song.”
The turnaround time from writing to approval to release was lightning fast. Released in August 2020, ‘Dynamite’ broke every record there was to be broken. All the modern pop metrics — streams, views, plays — hit the billions. It spawned a genre of dance covers, where elaborately styled fans performed choreographed routines to the song. George Clooney did a reading of the lyrics for W magazine, playing along with one of the year’s biggest pop culture moments and echoing what everyone was feeling: it’s been a rough year, but this is a real moment of fun. Not bad for a track created in a bedroom, on the simplest possible setup. “It was just a laptop with Pro Tools, a set of ADAM Audio monitors, and a UAD Apollo Twin interface — that’s it.”
Crafting a good pop song is hard enough. Consistently crafting big, impactful, uptempo bangers like Stewart has done is a different matter altogether. As songwriters will tell you, if they’re being truly candid, reaching for those minor chords and riding the swell of emotion to a crescendo can feel easier. When asked if he’s always gravitated towards the kinds of songs he’s become known for, Stewart puts it down to his early years in music. He started out as a live drummer, playing with a band that supported Simply Red on tour across the UK. He then joined the British rapper Example on tour as a guitarist, playing over 600 shows with him and getting a first‑hand look at what it took to keep the attention of a crowd of any size. He recalls, “Example was playing to 30 people at first, and eventually headlining arenas, so I got to see an artist’s rise to superstardom, and during that process I witnessed what it’s like to be in the best live act in the country at the time. No‑one could follow us, because from the word ‘go’ it was just energy, energy, energy.”
Going even further back, the seeds of keeping an audience engaged were planted when, as a young boy, Stewart watched his father, the Scottish entertainer Allan Stewart, perform. He recalls, “Everything was based on ‘How do we graph an act? How does it [keep rising] rather than staying still?’ So the ebbs and the flows of a show have always been something that’s piqued my interest and is [reflected in] the way I make music: it’s very impactful, uptempo, fun, and joyous, and it’s going to evoke some kind of emotion out of you, whether you like it or not. It’s what makes me excited.
“I love chapters in music. I’m a little bored of very linear music that doesn’t grow. I want each chorus to grow, each new section to grow. I’ve learned this from playing live and watching a lot of shows, and I like to embed it into my style of production. The big, in‑your‑face, impactful, tempo‑driven record is naturally what I do and the more I do it, the more I start to understand what that is. By that last chorus, I just want your face to be melting, because everything’s happening at that time!”
Another pivotal experience for Stewart was the two years he spent in Atlanta as part of a development deal, working with Ludacris’ team. “It was the most incredible experience because I really stuck out like a sore thumb. I went over there as an R&B artist at the time and got to work with some incredible people who came from totally different walks of life than me, who had a whole different perspective on things. I’m used to getting up early, going to the gym at six o’clock in the morning and being at the desk by nine o’clock. Our studio time in Atlanta started at 10 o’clock at night sometimes! You have to acclimatise to the situation you’re in and work that room rather than going, ‘Well, this is what I do, and that’s what I do.’ I think it was really important that I succumbed to the process; it’s a much more aggressive mentality out there and I loved it. I learned so much about vocal production and it was just such an amazing experience for me. Sometimes I was lucky enough to be able to stay in hotels but I often slept on people’s couches; it was my time to really learn the ropes and understand what it was like to be a musician on the grind.”
The artist deal didn’t work out, but with all that experience under his belt, Stewart set about writing and producing songs, incorporating a variety of techniques he has since become known for: big choruses, ear candy, live instruments, rhythmic vocals, and even key changes, which largely disappeared from pop music in the ’90s. He approaches songwriting like an athlete, putting in the hours with the active work of songwriting as well as setting aside time regularly to listen to contemporary music. “I do a lot of listening. You want to keep up to date with what’s going on, things like slang in pop culture, or what people are saying now. I don’t really lean into that kind of stuff, but it’s good to have a grasp of it, to know that we can reference things that are modern, or culturally appropriate. Like anything, it’s about doing it over and over again; doing your reps is always going to be the thing that makes you better at it.”