Songwriter Spotlight: Borislav Milanov

In 2016, Bulgaria notched its best result at the Eurovision Song Contest to date, finishing fourth with “If Love Was a Crime.” The song was co-written by Borislav Milanov, a Bulgarian songwriter based in Vienna. Milanov returns to the Song Contest in 2017 with three songs: Kristian Kostov’s “Beautiful Mess” for Bulgaria, Tijana Bogićević’s “In Too Deep” for Serbia, and Jana Burčeska’s “Dance Alone” for Macedonia.

Before becoming a songwriter, Milanov played soccer for Rapid Vienna. But he said, “Music was my passion and I just started doing it.” In a short amount of time, he has found success as a composer. The first song he sold was Krista’s “Tova, koeto iskash,” which was a top 10 hit on Bulgaria’s singles charts in 2008.

Eurovision was a draw for the aspiring songwriter. He said, “I always have been [a fan], so this stage was very attractive for me from the very beginning of my career.” He had a chance to enter the Song Contest in 2011 when he co-wrote “Na Inat” for Poli Genova. “I know Poli for many years, and she just asked me to do it, because she wanted to do Eurovision then.” Genova went on to win Bulgaria’s national final.

Because they had success together before, it would seem natural that Genova would again call on Milanov when she returned to the Song Contest in 2016. But in fact, it was Bulgaria’s broadcaster BNT that reunited the artist and the songwriter. “BNT contacted me back then to submit a song, because they have been searching for songs from selected composers all across the world. And that’s how it happened,” said Milanov. “The truth is that this song was not meant for Poli, but she managed to make her own. I’m also very thankful to BNT for their management of the project because they did even the impossible to execute it in the best possible way.”

It is a bit of luck that Milanov ended up with three songs at this year’s Song Contest. “In Serbia, we … sent a proposal to RTS, and I’m happy they liked it,” he said. “In Macedonia, I have good relationships with the local broadcaster [MRT] as I was involved in their entry in 2015 as well.” (Milanov’s booking and production agency Symphonics produced Daniel Kajmakoski’s “Autumn Leaves” and also handles bookings for Blackstreet.)

“In Bulgaria, I contacted the music label Virginia Records who manage Kristian Kostov and then we started working on the project. After we had finished, we submitted a song for the internal selection of BNT, and we were selected.”

Coordinating with three different national delegations has its challenges. “[The] three projects differ significantly – not only as artistic features but also when it comes to organisation of the collaboration,” said Milanov. “In Bulgaria, for example, it is an incredibly complex thing, involving many parties, different funding – both public and by external sponsors. It requires a lot of time and discussions until we reach an agreement on every detail. But at the same time, we can rely on a large and great team combining the know-how of BNT, Virginia, [and] Symphonics.”

“Beautiful Mess” is one of the bookies’ favorites this year and has generated a lot of buzz from Eurovision fans on social media. But Milanov engages in the online discussions on an as need basis. “I follow the reactions through the communications team of BNT who do this for me and analyse the whole feedback,” he said. “Every week I get a report [on] what’s going on and if there is an important issue to address or if there are questions to answer on my own.”

Milanov co-wrote “Beautiful Mess” and “If Love Was a Crime” with Sebastian Arman and Joacim Bo Persson, both of whom he met living in Vienna. He and Persson also worked together on “In Too Deep” and “Dance Alone.” Collaborating with other songwriters demands flexibility, said Milanov. “It depends on the circumstances and it’s case by case. We use the Internet, but also we meet in person, because we have to make the recordings and other arrangements.”

Working with other songwriters gives Milanov a lot of creative flexibility. “There are cases when I come up with an idea for a song, and then I’m searching for other composers to develop it and vice versa.” When asked what challenges arise in collaborating, he said, “There are always problems connected to logistics and communications, but as a whole, I can’t say there is a major obstacle that will make me think to stop doing team work. It’s essential for the success, I think.”

Songwriter Spotlight: Jonas Thander

jonasthanderLast year, we had the chance to interview Eurovision-winning lyricist Charlie Mason for our website, which got us to thinking that we’d like to do a regular feature interviewing the songwriters, who are the under-appreciated lifeblood of the Eurovision Song Contest.

We weren’t trying to make an annual feature, per se, but there you go.

This year we’re shining a spotlight on Jonas Thander,  who with Beatrice Robertsson co-wrote Donny Montell’s “I’ve Been Waiting for This Night,” Lithuania’s entry for the Eurovision Song Contest 2016. His credits as a songwriter, producer, and arranger include work for Arianda Grande, Demi Lovato, Jessie J and Pastora Soler. He also arranged the horns for and played saxophone on Taylor Swift’s massive hit “Shake It Off.”

Thander says the music of Stevie Wonder motivated him to become a songwriter. “The melodies, lyrics, his musicianship and the emotions that comes with that” inspired him to follow his career path.

Like Charlie Mason, Thander began selling songs and meeting collaborators through a website that connected songwriters with publishers. The first song he sold, “TV or Radio,” was to Sergey Lazarev, Russia’s representative at this year’s Song Contest.

Since then, he has collaborated with a number of songwriters and artists from around the world, which requires a lot of flexibility. “I do it in all ways possible. Sometimes alone, writing lyrics, melodies and producing,” he said. “Sometimes via Skype, sometimes five people in the same room. Sometimes just singing out loud in the bathroom…”

Thander has worked with Donny Montell before, and he and Robertsson had Montell in mind when they wrote “I’ve Been Waiting for Tonight.” He said, “We knew he was looking for a song to compete with in Eurovision.”

When asked what he thought of the Song Contest, he said, “I like it a lot. It’s a great party and a chance to get Europe together for one night. As a kid I used to sing along to Johnny Logan’s ‘Hold Me Now’ looking in the mirror.”

Thander has some experience with other big pan-European events. He had the opportunity to write the music for the opening ceremony of the 2013 UEFA Women’s Euro. “I got the mission to write and produce for the Women’s Euro through an old musician friend of mine,” he said. “It was a challenge but I had a clear vision from the start how I wanted it to sound like.”

When asked about Sweden’s dominance at Eurovision and in pop music worldwide, Thander said, “I guess we’re in a big flow at the moment. Success brings more success.” He added, “Younger people get inspired by older songwriters and producers and the hits keep [on] coming.”

Charlie Mason Chats About Collaboration, Translation, and the Impact of Winning Eurovision

Photo courtesy of Charlie MasonCharlie Mason is an American lyricist best known to Eurovision fans as one of the writers behind  “Rise Like a Phoenix,” the winner of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest. His career includes songs for Eurovision and for artists like Miley Cyrus, Ashley Tisdale, Eric Saade, and Danny Saucedo. This year, he has provided the words to two Eurovision songs: Maraaya’s “Here for You” for Slovenia and Bojana Stamenov’s “Beauty Never Lies” for Serbia.

Charlie got in touch with us to promote Ricardo Autobahn‘s sweet remix of “Beauty Never Lies” and we took the opportunity to talk with him about how he got started and how he does his work.

He began his lyric writing career by collaborating with German musician Dirk Homuth, who he met through a now-defunct website called LyricalLine. Dirk started to use his lyrics so much that, Charlie said, “eventually, he formed a band and called it Almost Charlie so that I could in a way be a part of it (even though I don’t sing or play an instrument).”

He came to Eurovision through another collaborator, Kristian Lagerstrom (who co-wrote Anna Bergandahl’s “This Is My Life” with Bobby Ljunggren). “He’s a big fan,” Charlie said, “and his enthusiasm was contagious. And even if it wasn’t, how can you not love Eurovision? That would be like saying ‘I don’t like music.’ It just doesn’t compute.”

Because he is based in New York, Charlie will often work with his collaborators solely through email. “I’m pretty sure there are some co-writers who think I’m just a blip in their computers that every so often spits out a new lyric.” He also said, “[Dirk Homuth and I] were just going back and forth about a lyric today, in fact. He was aggravated that there were only so many rhymes for the word ‘all’ I could pull out of my ass!”

He has had a steady partnership with Raay from this year’s Slovenian Eurovision act Maraaya. In an interview with the website Eurovision Ireland, Raay and his wife and fellow Maraaya member Marjetka Vovk said they were fans of his song “L’amore è femmina” (Italy 2012). In addition to “Here for You,” Charlie worked with Maraaya on their single “Lovin’ You.”

Raay and Charlie first teamed up to write “My Way Is My Decision,” a single by Slovenian skiing legend Tina Maze. Charlie said of the song, “…it’s one of the rare times that I think I was able to impress my dad. He was watching skiing on TV — the Olympics maybe? — when she happened to come on, and they played a snippet of the song. So I got to say, all casual-like, ‘Oh, yeah, I helped with that song.’ Totally random.”

We asked Charlie about the artistic challenges of translating a song into English. “It depends on whether the assignment is to translate the song with the meaning intact — which means finding new phrasing to say the same thing in English — or if I have free hands to just write a new lyric with a new theme to the existing melody.” He added, “And I don’t mind very specific tasks. If someone says, ‘Can you make this a song about a panda that has an allergy to ice cream?’ I will find a way.

“What’s trickier sometimes is correctly ‘hearing’ the syllables in the original language to write a lyric in English. When I don’t recognize words in foreign tongues as words, it’s sometimes hard for me to tell where syllables end, what’s an ad lib like a ‘whoa’ or a ‘yeah,’ and what’s a crucial syllable. So I often make a mess of that, at least at first.”

In the case of “Beauty Never Lies,” Charlie worked closely with Bojana Stamenov to translate Vladimir Graić and Leontina Vukomanović’s song. “Bojana and I talked about what she really wanted to say with the song, what was important to her, and I just went from there. It just so happened that it was a subject that, for better or worse, I could really relate to,” he said. “So I just tried to write the lyric in such a way that Bojana was delivering the message that I wished I — and all the rest of us who doubt our worth — could take to heart.”

When asked about how his win at last year’s Eurovision has impacted his career, Charlie said, “I’d love to say that as a result, I wake up every day to find new texts from Kylie Minogue and Eric Saade clamoring for new songs from me. But it really hasn’t changed my career very much, if it all.”

On the other hand, there could be benefits to being a known songwriter at Eurovision. “Hopefully, the win will draw some extra attention to Bojana and ‘Beauty Never Lies,’ because between her thunderous voice and Vlad’s powerful melody, it deserves that attention. And who knows? I could still wake up tomorrow to find those Minogue/Saade texts!”

(Picture courtesy of Charlie Mason.)