Sarah Aarons never wanted to be a performer. But she loved writing songs. (Supplied: APRA/Amanda Ratcliffe)
A few years ago, Sarah Aarons was in a hospital bed in Melbourne, looking over old photos on her phone.
The 22-year-old has dealt for years with an autoimmune disease. It affects her daily, she says, and leaves her tired and in pain.
One photo was of Maree Hamblion, an A&R rep at the publishing house Sony/ATV. The two had been working together since Aarons, a burgeoning teenage songwriter, sent her some compositions over email.
“I think I had already thought about it, like, this songwriting thing, I think that’s a job,” Aarons says.
In hospital, her doctors told her the illness may limit other career options. Looking at the image of Hamblion, she thought: OK, I don’t have a choice.
“I have to do well enough that if I am in a wheelchair one day, they will build a ramp to a studio to get me in it. That was always my goal.”
Aarons, now based in Los Angeles, calls that difficult period a “turning point”. It has fuelled her recent rise to the upper echelons of the pop music world.
You might not know Aarons’ name, but if you’ve been exposed to commercial radio in any way in the past three months, you’ve probably heard her work.
The Melburnian, now a gun-for-hire in the world of international pop, recently hit a career high-water mark: she helped write Stay, by the artists Zedd and Alessia Cara. It’s held the number one position on the US mainstream Top 40 charts for the past five weeks.
“That’s just crazy, it’s absolutely bizarre,” Aarons says. “I have to keep reminding myself I wrote it.”
Aarons has been quietly toiling away on songs for other artists since approaching Ms Hamlbion four years ago.
“To sign a writer from an MP3 demo email is very rare,” Ms Hamblion told The Industry Observer website. “Sarah had no contacts in the industry and just sent an unsolicited demo to my inbox.”
Aarons had been singing and writing since she was a kid, but never liked performing, a fact that nearly led her to abandon music altogether.
She started thinking about songwriting after hearing of the success of Sia Furler, whose career in the US, under the stage name Sia, was bolstered by her work for other artists. (Furler co-wrote the Rhianna hit Diamonds, among others.)
“I don’t ever have to dress up, or wear anything I don’t want to wear, or take any photos,” Aarons says. “These interview are really rare. I have always wanted to be in the background. And I only really went back into doing music when I realised I could stay that way.”
The people behind your favourite songs
Many of your favourite pop songs are either collaborations or written by professional songwriters.
“It’s, generally speaking, a group effort,” Bernard Zuel, a longtime music critic for Fairfax Media, says of the process in pop music.
Sarah Aarons (R) during a songwriting workshop in Auckland last year. (Supplied: APRA/Amanda Ratcliffe @shootsbands)
“The idea of getting the best bang for your buck with a pop song means nailing so many different elements now. It’s not a case of allowing things to work organically; there is no faith in organic songwriting at the top end of pop music.”
It’s pretty much always been that way, Zuel says. Bob Dylan and The Beatles, pop royalty who wrote all their own work, were exceptions to the rule. Generally, it is — for commercial reasons — a production-line type of approach.
“Nobody can really be sure that anything in particular is going to work,” Zuel says.
“But if you can bring in enough people with good skills, you presumably multiply the chances of the song being a successful one. It’s about reducing the risk of failure.”
Denny Burgess, a former member of Australian rock act Masters Apprentices and now the chairman of the Australian Songwriters Association (ASA), says there are a growing number of local songwriters getting their tracks used by international acts.
“Now, because of the internet, obviously, and instant rapport and instant feedback, they are doing much more of this from their bedroom,” he says.
Mr Burgess says many enter tracks in the Australian National Songwriting Contest. “Winning the competition gets you a certain standing in the singer-songwriter world. It’s very prestigious; they get to send their songs to more prominent people for inclusion on albums.”
The evolution of a chart-topper
Stay came together quickly. Aarons was in the US briefly last year and had a day booked in the studio with another songwriter and two producers.
“I’d just listened to that new Bon Iver album, and he does a whole song on vocoder,” she says. “And there is a Kanye [West] song that’s on vocoder with Bon Iver as well. And I was like, ‘what if we just wrote a chorus that was only on vocoder?’ Then 10 minutes later we had the whole song pretty much.”
She had already returned to Australia when she got word of a fight over which artist would get to use it. Zedd, a German producer, won. He got Cara, a Canadian singer, to redo the vocals, which Aarons had originally laid down as a guide. The result is a career-defining moment for all involved.
Aarons is unsure how much she’ll earn from the success of Stay, which has gone platinum in Australia according to the Australian Recording Industry Association, meaning sales of the song have exceeded 70,000. It peaked on the charts here at number three.
“Different people have thrown different numbers at me,” she says. “I know it’s definitely a lot less lucrative than it used to be, because of streaming and everything — physical sales nearly don’t exist anymore. But I have no idea.”
Zuel says songwriting can be lucrative — particularly if a popular track is later licensed for films or advertisements.
“If you were on the last Taylor Swift album, or the Adele album, or the Ed Sheeran album — or even, in an Australian context, [working with] Guy Sebastian — you’ll do pretty well.
“And if you can produce two or three of those [songs] a year, you’ll make a very good living.”
Richard Mallet, head of revenue at the APRA AMCOS, the organisation that distributes royalties for artists, says that, for a song like Stay, there are many factors at play: how many writers are credited, what kind of publishing deals each has, and in what countries the song charts well.
“Having said that, Sarah is one of a new guard of songwriters whose success, for the first time, will be fuelled by subscription streaming services as much as any other media,” he says.
“She’s one of our great international success stories and a role model in more ways than one.”
LA is the ‘melting pot’
For Aarons, the song’s success right now just means job security. She can keep doing what she loves to do.
She is settling into LA, having moved about six months ago. (“My visa got granted the week after Trump was made president. I got many messages saying ‘are you still moving’?”)
It’s not 100 per cent necessary to be based in Hollywood, she says — she’s written songs in her bedroom in Melbourne and emailed them to contacts in LA — but it makes things easier.
“The majority of artists, internationally, will come to LA at least once a year to write,” she says.
“And it’s just such a melting pot thing. Even if you look at Stay, for example: every writer on it isn’t from America. Zedd’s German, Alessia’s from Canada, Noonie [Bao, songwriter] and Linus [Wiklund, producer] and Anders [Frøen, producer] are from Sweden, and I’m from Australia, but we wrote it in LA.”
Aarons is one of a few Australian songwriters finding success in that part of the world. Alex Hope, who worked on Troye Sivan’s breakthrough debut, is there, and Aarons has been collaborating with Harley Streten, AKA Flume.
She admits to feeling a “pull” back to Australia, where all of her family lives. “I come home for doctors, which is unfortunate, but also fortunate,” she says. “It’s like a good excuse to come home.”
Ultimately, she loves her job. “And being here means I get to do it every day.”