The former As Tall As Lions frontman shares his tactics for writing and producing great songs with an It-List of pop artists.
Whether you're an emo fan, a pop fan, or both, you probably know Dan Nigro's music. Since his band As Tall As Lions split up in 2010, the Long Island songwriter and producer has worked with a Who's Who of pop including Olivia Rodrigo, Sky Ferreira, Alexander 23, Conan Gray, Carly Rae Jepsen, Kylie Minogue and many, many others.
Interviewed for our Songwriter Saturday series by Alyssa Cotsalas, Nigro gets candid about his transition from earnest frontman to in-demand pop collaborator, and drops knowledge about how he uses his own experience in front of the mic to push the artists he works with to new creative heights.
Surface What You Love
When Nigro produced Olivia Rodrigo's debut, Sour, "one of the first songs that we wrote from scratch together [was] 'Favorite Crime,'" Nigro says. "We wrote it so fast and also so nonchalantly where I literally picked up the acoustic guitar, and the guitar that you hear on the record is the demo acoustic guitar that I just recorded that day... When we sent it into the label, everyone was like, 'cool, great, yeah.' No one said, 'Oh, we don't like it.' And no one was like, 'Oh my God, this is incredible.'"
"Before 'Driver's License' came out, [Sour] was going to be an EP, and 'Favorite Crime' was not one of the selects," he recalls. "But as soon as 'Driver's License' came out and Olivia decided that she wanted us to make the EP into an album... I asked Olivia, 'What do you think of 'Favorite Crime'?' She's like, 'I love that song.' We were like, 'Oh wait, so we all love this song, but no one vouched for the song when we made it.' And then all of a sudden it became like a really important song for the record."
Draw a Map
"I love people bringing ideas to me because I love sitting down at the piano and figuring out what the chords are," Nigro says. "What is the mood? Is this a fun song? Is this a sad song?... I just love mapping out those pieces based on the words of the song."
"I played in an emo band, so I have those sorts of emotional references as well. So I can help navigate like, 'Oh yeah, that's a great concept. And that would be great with drums like this, or that.'
Understand the Politics
"A lot of it's really political," Nigro explains of writing songs for others. "A lot of it is very much who you know. And I feel like a lot of it comes down to who's friends with who."
"Music is so subjective that a lot of people can't actually tell what's going to be a great song. I think there's a big difference between a great song and a big song."
"When I first started writing songs [at] 14, 15, 16, I'd always felt like writing a song," Nigro says of his early days. "Once we got signed, I started to feel the pressure. I always felt like the best songs that I made were the ones that actually just came naturally"
"But then there [would] be spells between like two, three months where nothing would come. You start to realize that's a problem. You need to push yourself to write songs, even if they're not good," he says. "It's okay to not stop yourself from writing a bad song, because sometimes those ideas will lead to great songs, but they'll start as something that really isn't that special in the beginning."
"I literally tell my artists that I work with sometimes, 'You need to be more annoying. You need to annoy me more,' he shares. "Once somebody asks me enough questions [I'm] like, 'Oh, I got to do that. You're right.'
"I get like 50 DMs a day from kids asking for advice. And I'm like, 'I don't even know how to say it other than you just gotta keep trying. The people who are persistent, ask everybody, and send a million demos out to A&Rs, those are the people who eventually make it happen."