Oak Felder on Alessia Cara’s Unusual Breakthrough Song
The How I Wrote That Song limited series gives music fans a front-row seat for conversations with songwriters behind some of the biggest hits of yesterday and today. You’ll learn the stories behind the songs from the people who wrote them. New episodes will be released every other Monday through December 12. How I Wrote That Song is produced in partnership with Beasley Media Group, XPERI (HD Radio), and BMI.
Warren “Oak” Felder is one of the most successful writer/producers that you’ve never heard of. He keeps a low profile, and doesn’t have a sonic imprint that identifies songs as his productions. But his discography includes songs by Chris Brown, Nicki Minaj, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, Ariana Grande, Britney Spears and Demi Lovato, among others. In this excerpt from our conversation, he discussed the journey in taking Alessia Cara’s first single, “Here,” to number one.
He worked on the song with his occasional songwriting/partner Andrew “Pop” Wansel. They both had different ideas for a sample that they wanted to use in the song: Pop wanted to use Issac Hayes’ “Ike Rap II” from his 1971 album Black Moses, Oak, meanwhile, wanted to use Portishead’s song “Glory Box”… which samples “Ike’s Rap II.” Oak told us the whole story. Check it out below, and beneath that watch or listen to our podcast episode with Oak.
“You know, sometimes they are projects that you come across, that people have tried, people have made an attempt to do things… and just nothing gets off the ground. And that doesn’t say anything about the artists themselves and whether or not they’re viable.
But most of the executives involved, the production companies and the other label people and management people, and there’s all these other people that are kind of involved and they’re telling me, ‘We want her to sound like Lorde meets Taylor Swift.’ And so in my mind, I’m rolling my eyes a little bit because I’m like,'”OK, you want her to sound like the two largest artists out here.’
I understand shooting for the Moon, though, because a lot of people can only see things in those terms. But my response to them was, ‘Oh, I’m so glad you said that. You know what? I was striving for mediocrity today, but since you said that, now I’m going to try to give you a big hit!’
And so the whole week we’re in and she’s playing us, these different songs that she’s partially written and we’re kind of picking the ones we like the most. ‘Here’ was the first one we picked. And they immediately shut us down and they said, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no. This one’s a little too weird. We have this other one that is a smash: ‘Seventeen.”
So, I sat down and did the production and finished writing it with them, and when you listen to that production, it very much does sound like a Taylor Swift meets Lorde production. It’s a great song. I love the record. And so during the week, that’s pretty much how it progressed.
Saturday rolls around all the executives take the day off. So now it’s me. Sebastian Kole, Alessia Cara, and Pop was with me that day. I’m like, ‘Let’s work on ‘Here.’ Let’s just do what we want. I got the perfect sample for this. It’s a Portishead song.’ Pop is like, ‘No man, that ain’t it! I got this other sample, it’s an Isaac Hayes record [‘Ike’s Rap II’ from Black Moses].’
Now, mind you we’re saying this to each other without actually playing the samples. So we go back and forth about it for about 20, 30 minutes until Pop plays the Isaac Hayes sample, I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, this is Portishead!’ I had never heard Isaac’s version up until that point, I’m ashamed to say. And Pop had never heard Portishead. So he’s like, ‘Oh my God: we came up with the same sample at the same time for this production!’
Then we did the track. We cut that record and we almost kind of hid it after we did it. It was like, ‘Let’s put it away, because we might get in trouble!’ That’s almost what it felt like. Did another week [in the studio] with Alessia, recording other songs, including ‘Scars to Your Beautiful’ and everything else that was on the first album. And then when it came time to pick the single from what I understand, I think the label really wanted to go with ‘Seventeen,’ because they were very focused on that record and Alessia kind of put her foot down, and said, ”Here’ needs to be the first record.’ The label pretty much said, ‘OK, we’re going to go with your recommendation.’ And that song had a nice, beautiful, slow climb to number one over the course of almost a year. It eventually got to number one, I was so proud of that fact.”