Songwriter Profile: Sarah Hudson On “Dark Horse” & The Art Of Creation
Sarah Hudson casually dropped one of the best EPs of the year in April. An ambitious collection inspired by the big blue, Songs From The Sea showcases the creativity and songwriting craft that have earned her a reputation as one of the industry’s most reliable hitmakers. After all, Sarah’s on a roll. The witchy diva had a hand in writing Katy Perry’s chart-conquering “Dark Horse” as well as Iggy Azalea & Rita Ora’s multi-platinum “Black Widow” and Justin Bieber’s streaming smash, “The Feeling.” She has also penned songs for Nicki Minaj, Charli XCX and Erika Jayne.
I recently caught up with Sarah to ask about her journey from budding early ’00s pop star (never forget “Girl On The Verge”) to songwriting goddess. The “Gypsy Girl” singer explained how it was a natural progression for her and opened up about her creative process. She also revealed how “Dark Horse” came about and confirmed that she’s working on Katy’s new album. Other topics of conversation include Real Housewives, side-projects and channeling spirits. Get to know the woman behind the hits below.
I still remember Naked Truth. Oh wow. That was such a special time for me because I truly believed I was going to be this super pop star. I signed to a major label and I made this crazy pop record for three years with all of these incredible writers and producers. Right before the album was supposed to be released, the president left and all of the acts got dropped and my album was never officially released. It was so devastating because it was really set up to be this big moment for me but I just got fucked.
I feel like that’s a really common story. It really is. At the time, it was the most devastating moment of my life, but now it’s like I know I absolutely needed it to become as strong as I am today. It just gave me a tougher skin, you know? And more motivation to succeed and prove myself in this “industry”. It’s definitely been a cathartic journey since then.
Have you listened to any of those songs recently? Sometimes I do. To this day I love the song “Naked Truth.” It was such an honest lyric; like a piece out of my diary. There’s a ballad on there called “Unlove You” which I am so proud to have written to this day…its like a perfect pop ballad to me. Ashley Tisdale actually ended up cutting it after I was dropped.
Looking back on that, has it been a decade now? It’s been literally over a decade. I think it was 2004, maybe? So insane. Time is an illusion.
How do you think that stuff holds up? It feels very early ’00s production-wise but I mean some of the songs, if you give them a little facelift, could absolutely hold up in my opinion. It was an extremely well crafted pop record and I worked with some of the best at the time, like Desmond Child, Eric Bazilian, Shelly Peiken, Mark Hudson, Billy Mann etc. They really taught me about the craft of songwriting. I also had a great A&R woman, Joanna Ifrah which helps so immensely in making a great record. It is sadly, a dying art form.
When did you discover you had this talent for songwriting and decide to focus on that more than the artist side? Well, I come from a family of musicians. My dad’s a songwriter, producer and artist, so I was surrounded by it. I started singing when I was like 3 and writing kooky, little songs when I was 9 or 10. I started “professionally” pursuing music maybe when I was around 21. I got my first publishing deal as an artist at 21, got signed to a major label a couple years later. After that I was in a band for about 5 years. I did the whole artist thing so intensely, and then as my band was like fizzling out, I met a singer/songwriter named Ferras and began writing with him for his project.
It was the first time I ever really wrote for another artist besides myself. He was signed to an independent label and we ended up making an entire record together for him at the time. I was like, “Oh shit, I actually kind of like writing for other people.” It gives me a moment to step outside of my own essence and jump into somebody else’s. One thing led to another and I met other songwriters and producers and I started doing more sessions, etc. I just naturally fell into that world and I had been hustling my band so hard for so many years that I was like, “You know what? I’m going to chill for a second and work on other shit.”
What was your first official cut for another artist? My first official one was Ashley Tisdale’s “Unlove You.”
What came after that? I really concentrated on my band Ultraviolet Sound after that. I did co-writes/features for DJ’s like Kill The Noise, Brillz, Tommie Sunshine etc. Then honestly, “Dark Horse” was the cut that really changed my life. I just saw this Billboard article that it’s in the 100 songs of all time. Like, number 1 is “The Twist.” How fucking insane is that.
When you know you are writing for somebody else, how do you get in the frame of mind to channel their energy? Well, when I’m in the room with an artist, even if they aren’t necessarily a songwriter, I ask about their life, what are they feeling in this moment, etc. I try to step inside of their world and pull out lyrics from things they say, how they feel and really just try to get to know them as a human being. If they’re not in the room or its just a writing session between writers, you have to use your imagination and pull from your own experiences and inspirations.
Are the best songs the most effortless? I think so. I mean, sometimes you really have to hunker down and work on a song until it feels right but for me personally, yes, they’re effortless. I’m big on connection with spirit and the divine. I believe we are channels and the messages just flow through us. Let it flow through you and do the math later.
Have you ever written a song and not wanted to give it away? For the most part, no. I adopted this attitude a long time ago that we’re all artists (songwriters, singers, performers, etc.), so it’s a piece of all of us no matter who the vehicle is that is translating it to the world. So I never really felt overprotective of a song. There are definitely songs that I write that I think only I can pull off, for sure, but I do my best to write and release.
It’s time for the “Dark Horse” conversation. It really is such a little piece of pop magic.
How did that song evolve? It was literally a dark horse. I’ll never forget it. Katy and I had known each other on and off for years from just both being in music, and we had become pretty good friends at this point. I was at my fiancé’s show — he’s the best DJ/producer in the universe — and Katy texted me at like 11pm that night and said, “What are you doing tomorrow?” and I was like, “I’m going to go to Markus’ birthday party, why?” and she said, “Why don’t you come to Santa Barbra and write with me, Luke and Max!” I was like, “Um, okay DUH!”
When I got there, they already had the track going and I just remember being like, “FUCK YES this is so dope!” Katy wanted to do something different, a little magical and eclectic and since I’m a witch, it was right up my alley! We wrote the song in like 4 hours; it was truly channeled. I remember when she was putting down the vocal, I was sitting there telling myself, “Girl, if anything, just remember this moment. If this song doesn’t do anything, just remember you’re sitting here with Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Cirkut and Katy Perry, and she’s singing a song that you guys wrote together!”
I really tried to stay present in that moment because it was almost like an out of body experience. I drove home that night thinking, “I hope it makes the record.” Cut to it being her biggest song ever. The coolest thing was, they put it out as a contest thingy with “Walking On Air” and the fans had to vote for which song they would get first before the album, and “Dark Horse” won. And from that very moment, just like a dark horse, it crept up the charts. It was a life changing experience.
Was “Black Widow” from that session as well? It wasn’t from that session but it was another writing session we did during that time in New York.
Was that originally intended for Prism? She was just doing a bunch of sessions with the intention of let’s write songs and see what fits for the record and what doesn’t. Someone had an idea of Iggy Azalea being on the verses and then Rita Ora singing the hook and it really became such an instant hit. And right after “Dark Horse,” so that was pretty unbelievable for me.
After you had the two punch of multi-platinum singles, how did that change your standing in the songwriting community? I feel like it just opened so many doors. I met so many new people. I got put into all these new rooms and honestly heard from a lot of people that I had been hitting up for years and never heard back from. And trust, I don’t forget that you never called me back before now, hunny. I was still the same person, with the same talents but now I had two massive hits under my belt. It changed my life.
I listen to that Erika Jayne song all the time. Oh my god, “Xxpen$ive!” Haha, that’s amazing. My manager was like, “They asked if you wanted to work with Erika Jayne… you don’t wanna do this, right?” I’m a huge Housewives fanatic, so I was like “Um, YES hunny, this is a pop culture dream come true!” I knew I needed my queens with me to write it, so I immediately hit up Jesse Saint John and Ferras, and we worked it the fuck out for Ms Jayne. She showed up in this gorgeous bright pink super tight dress, bright pink heels, diamonds everywhere, we were gagging. It was so much fun, she is such a queen.
Is there a song you look back on and don’t think is 100 percent right? Honestly, no. I feel so blessed and so grateful to be able to do what I love for a living and it’s weird because when “Dark Horse” and “Black Widow” happened, it was like nothing changed other than just my opportunities. I’ve been doing this my whole life and I’ve always known my destiny is to create, inspire and be a muse. Everything is as it’s supposed to be and there’s nothing I would change.
Are you working on the new Katy album? I am!
Can you say anything about it? It’s going to be amazing, that’s all I could say.
Do you think you’ll have one of the singles? That would be dope, but I honestly don’t know. Either way, I am so proud of the work we have done together. She is a goddess.
“Chained To The Rhythm” is great. I love “Chained To The Rhythm.” Katy’s a really powerful voice for our generation and I think that that song is more impactful every time you listen to it. She’s a real artist and a real artist constantly steps outside of the box and makes you question yourself and your comfort zone. I think that it was a dope, bold move, and it’s an amazing pop song.