A Conversation with Songwriter and Secret Genius Nominee Ali Tamposi

Ali Tamposi, a songwriter nominated for Spotify’s annual Secret Genius Awards.

Tonight, Spotify will host the first-ever Secret Genius Awards, a new awards show celebrating a (relatively) unsung group of music heroes: songwriters and producers. To celebrate, we called up one of those heroes, Ali Tamposi, one of the most exciting songwriters of her generation.

Tamposi began writing songs at age 14, and she made a splash with her work on Kelly Clarkson's 2011 smash "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)." She’s since helped craft the melodies and lyrics for hits like DJ Snake's pleading Justin Bieber collaboration "Let Me Love You," and Camila Cabello and Young Thug's sultry "Havana," among many others. Her vivid lyrics and effervescent toplines have helped define the sound of pop in recent years, spicing up radio-ready beats with vocal lines that showcase stars' personality and panache.

We spoke with Tamposi in advance of tonight’s Secret Genius Awards, where she’ll rub elbows with legends like our Legendary Honor Award recipient Rick Rubin, Greg Kurstin, Benny Blanco, Ricky Reed, No ID, and more. Tamposi is nominated in the Female and Dance categories.

Spotify for Artists: What was writing "Stronger" like? Ali Tamposi: I had just gone through a breakup. "Stronger" was really fueled by some personal heartbreak, and the overflow of emotions that I was going through at that time. We didn't really even have any intention of writing it for Kelly Clarkson—we just were set up in a session to write a song. Months after the song was crafted, we heard that Kelly loved it and wanted to record it. It just really happened fast from there—Greg Kurstin produced the record, and it was released.

At that point, I was in the major leagues. It was a life-changing experience. But I also don't think that I had enough experience in LA, as a songwriter, to really maintain the momentum, and I had to go through a few life experiences before I really knew who I was.

Then, about three years ago, I was put in a session with [fellow Secret Genius Awards nominees] Andrew Watt and Brian Lee. In that first session, we wrote "Let Me Love You." The three of us have really stuck together since then—we've been on a journey together.

Feeling comfortable with your collaborators must allow you to kind of play around and take more chances too. Absolutely. The three of us couldn't be more different than each other, but that's where the magic is. We have a deep understanding of our strong points, and it does allow us to be innovative, and to reach for other styles that we wouldn't typically go for. It's strange: personality-wise, from the outside in, it doesn't really make sense. But when we're all in a room together, it just clicks.

You did a session with Selena Gomez [who provided vocals on the Kygo collab and Secret Genius nominee "It Ain't Me" and Marshmello's "Wolves," both of which were written by Tamposi]. How does bringing in the person who might be singing the song alter the writing process? I haven't done much writing with her, but I enjoyed the small amount that I've done because she was very honest and open to different ideas. She's extremely skilled as a writer, which is really refreshing. For me, working with any artist is [fruitful] when they're able to be open and honest, and talk about the personal things that they're going through. I hope that in the future we'll do some more writing together. She's an extremely brilliant young woman, and it's always easier to get the direct story from the artist.

How did Camila Cabello's "Havana" come together? We were in a session with [producer] Frank Dukes, Camila, and Andrew Watt. Frank had put on the "Havana" beat, with the piano, and the chorus just came out—it was effortless, it was almost like we knew the song prior to writing it. And then Young Thug came in on the second verse, which is awesome, 'cause I'm such a fan of his—he's one of the most genius melody writers there is. I don't think that anyone really knew at the time how big this record was going to be. I believed it. I felt it—I think all of us felt it when we had written the chorus.

You mentioned you loved Young Thug's vocal melodies—which other songwriters, particularly melody and lyric writers, do you really admire? Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill album is just so brave and bold. Stevie Nicks is exceptional. Julia Michaels' style is really captivating. It's such a hard question. I'm a massive Kendrick Lamar fan, a Young Thug fan. I love Cream. Neil Young. I could go on and on.

What has your involvement in the Secret Genius program been like? It's been great. It's really refreshing to have a company with as big a platform as Spotify to pioneer the movement for recognizing songwriters, and giving the songwriters a voice and the ability to tell their stories. I feel extremely grateful to be recognized at all by them—they've been so supportive of my songs, and my journey. I've been starting to build a close relationship with a lot of the people that work there, because I just think they're so brilliant. It's great that they're shining a light, for a change, on the people behind the scenes.

If you had to give up-and-coming songwriters advice, what would you tell them? Keep the faucet running, and write as much as you can. And there's so much power in collaboration; it's important to find your community and your group of people that you enjoy collaborating with, because the journey will be so much more enjoyable when there's success that you can share together.

By Maura Johnston

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