Meet the 23-year-old Melbourne writer behind the biggest pop song in the US
You may not have realised it, but there is no escaping the work of 23-year-old Melbourne songwriter Sarah Aarons. Her name might not be familiar to you – unless you still buy CDs and read all the liner notes – but her songs are constantly bookending the radio ad breaks on both sides of the Pacific.
With what will later signpost the beginning of her mainstream recognition, her US Platinum-selling co-write ‘Stay’ for Zedd and Alessia Cara has spent three weeks at #1 on the Billboard Pop Chart.
It’s also #1 on the US pop radio airplay chart, has reached #1 on iTunes charts the world over and came in at #16 in TIO’s Aus Radio airplay chart last week.
Incredibly, ‘Stay’, which peaked at #3 on the ARIA chart, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Aaron’s songwriting catalogue – as the charts will discover over the next 12 months. In a little over four years since signing to Sony/ATV Music Publishing, she’s penned tracks for, and shared studios with, some of the biggest stars in the business, including Flume, Demi Lovato, MØ and many more that she can’t actually name due to the strict NDA that comes part and parcel with the gig.
So, how did Aarons go from studying Media & Communications in Melbourne to living in LA and booking in co-writing sessions at Jay Z’s Roc Nation?
“[Doctors] were like, ‘Well, you’re going to be dealing with this your whole life, you probably can’t work a normal job.’ And that was terrifying for me at the time, especially being in Australia, because that’s like, ‘Oh shit there goes every option of a normal job’.”
Aarons has autoimmune disease. Chatting to TIO over the phone from her home in LA, she says it was one of the factors that made her decide to “do something incredible” with her life.
“It’s a disease that effects your whole entire life and it’s going to get worse. I was kind of like, ‘Screw that!’” she says, sounding every bit as cool as her resume suggests. “If this thing I can’t change is going be so huge in my life and I literally can’t do anything about it. All I have to control is what I do with my life – that’s all I have control over. So, I’m just going to run at it as hard as I can, and see what happens.”
Proving Sia’s accomplishments stretch far beyond her accolades, Aarons says finding out Sia was behind Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’ was an ‘ah-ha’ moment.
“It had just become public that that was a job [Sia] had, other than being an artist – and that blew my mind. I went into this wormhole of like, Diane Warren, one of the biggest songwriters of all time, and Julia Michaels, and all these incredible people,” she adds.
“I realised all my singing awards from when I was a kid, were songwriting awards. I won a $3,000 songwriting grant when I was 11 or 12. […] I was like, ‘Oh crap! That’s what I’m supposed to do. I can sit on a couch all day [due to her illness], and I can do it from whatever location. This is perfect. I have to do this’.”
As the Joint Head of A&R at Sony/ATV Maree Hamblion soon found out, Aarons’ tenacity is matched only by her talent. When Aarons found out all her favourite songwriters were tied to Sony/ATV (Sia, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift) – and that Hamblion herself had signed the likes of Jarryd James, The Veronicas, DNA Songs and The Presets – she was the first person Aarons sent a demo to.
“She was this incredible woman that only signed shit that she thought was great,” gushes Aarons. “And she didn’t give a fuck what anyone else thought about it. If she liked something, she’d sign it, and just had this crazy success. She was the woman to know if you want to be a writer in Australia.”
“I listened to the first demo and loved her lyrics,” says Hamblion. “The track was very ordinary but with her vocal and lyrics the demo just stood out. I called her and asked her to keep sending me songs, I wanted to see what other tracks she was working on and to see how interested she was in songwriting, and Sarah kept sending me MP.3’s on a regular basis.”
Following regular emails to Hamblion, including demos Aarons had self-recorded, Sony/ATV’s storied talent scout finally reached out and offered her a spot on an APRA AMCOS-run writing camp in Sydney.
Using the money she had earned babysitting, Aarons flew to Sydney and landed a session with Eskimo Joe’s Kav Temperley and Thirsty Merc’s Rai Thistlethwayte. The resulting track, one of Aaron’s favourites, hasn’t been released, but it was the reason for her signing to Sony/ATV.
“I look back and all my best and favourite songs may not have even come out,” says Aarons. “Yet. It’s always yet. But, they got me into a session. Like, someone heard it and got me a session because of that song. It’s the reason Maree signed me.”
Good news travels fast in the local music industry, and it wasn’t long before other publishers caught wind of the then 19-year-old wunderkind.
“I got emails from all these people,” Aarons remembers. “I didn’t meet with any other publishers, I met Maree once, and I was just like ‘This woman is the one, I don’t want to weigh people up against each other, there’s something about this woman.’ She cared about me before anyone else did. And she’s absolutely changed my life.”
“To sign a writer from an MP.3 demo email is very rare,” admits Hamblion. “Sarah had no contacts in the industry and just sent an unsolicited demo to my inbox.
“Sarah is a very rare songwriter as she has no interest in being a recording artist, she is happy to feature every now and then, but her true love is songwriting and having her songs cut by other artists. She has a determination that is rare to find and she is more than happy working seven days a week with two sessions a day without complaint, she is a magic unicorn!”
After months of sleeping on a friend’s mattress at their place in Sydney so she could spend days writing for Sony/ATV, Aarons penned a track specifically for a DJ from the comfort of her Melbourne bedroom. The track, ‘Keeping Score’, was given to Drew Carmody, aka LDRU, who wanted to release it as his first single.
Ironically, despite Aarons’ desire to shy away from the limelight, her first radio hit was a track she performed on. “He came down to Melbourne, I met him and I was like, ‘Cool, who’s going to sing it?’ and he was like, ‘You’.”
To get her to lend her honeyed vocals to the song, even under the moniker Paige IV, Carmody actually had to convince her it wouldn’t become a mainstream hit.
“He was like ‘Don’t worry, it’ll only be on triple j’,” Aarons recalls. “And then it got added to Nova and all the other radio stations, and then it ended up going in the Top 10 on the iTunes chart, getting nominated for Song of the Year at the ARIAs and all that bullshit – which is incredible don’t get me wrong. But I was mortified.”
Aarons’ understanding of what she was capable of developed fast. It wasn’t long before she was back in Hamblion’s office relaying her ambition to relocate to the US.
“I was very supportive of Sarah’s move to LA,” says Hamblion. “There is just not enough projects for a songwriter to work on in Australia.”
Aarons says she stayed in “the most terrifying Airbnb’s you will ever see if your life” while on her initial 90-day visa, back when she barely knew anyone in LA. But just like back on home soil, it wasn’t long before her work did the networking for her.
“When I went back to LA, everyone knew who I was before we even started writing,” she says. “The first guy I worked with when I went back said ‘I cancelled on someone else today to work with you’.”
Aarons is one of a few female Australian songwriters to take the jump to the US. Writers like Alex Hope (Troye Sivan, Broods), Vassy (David Guetta, Tiesto) and Starley Hope (‘Call On Me’) have all relocated to the US, where opportunity isn’t capped.
“It’s just such a small pool to pick from,” Aarons says of the Australian songwriting market. “There are about five successful producers to pick from or something. So if you don’t like the style, you’re stuck.”
“[…] In Australia there’s a huge divide between triple j and mainstream radio, and you’re frowned upon for being all one and not the other, but you’re not allowed to be in the middle,” she says. “As a writer, no one knows if you’re triple j or mainstream – I do both, and no one would ever know that. And I think it’s really exciting in Australia when people try to cross over and it’s really exciting when they do; because I think that’s a divide that doesn’t need to happen.”
Aarons’ is fast becoming one of Australia’s most successful songwriter exports. As ‘Stay’ enters its third week at #1 on the Billboard Pop chart, her co-write of Cosmo’s Midnight’s ‘History’ holds the record for the most played track of 2017 on triple j (source: J Play).
According to Milly Petriella, APRA AMCOS’ Director of Member Relations, she’s setting a benchmark for local songwriters with global aspirations.
“Sarah has grown from a young unknown writer in Sydney to holding her own in international studios with some of the world’s biggest names – in less than two years!” she says. “We’re hanging off every new release at the moment, excited to be a part of Sarah’s phenomenal success. APRA AMCOS is all about developing and supporting the next generation of songwriters and opening up international markets to Aussies.”
Speaking with Aarons, it’s clear her experience in arguably the songwriting capital of the world hasn’t been a beautiful string of collaborative connections and hits that just roll off the tongue – although the bones of ‘Stay’ were finished in an afternoon. When asked about whether rumours of the cutthroat industry were true, Aarons offered this:
“I’ve had this happen before: ‘I’ll get you in a room with Rihanna!’ But most of the time it’s bullshit. I think if you’re not sucked in by fake promises and stuff, and you meet someone and see that they’re genuine, you’re probably better off […] I’ve cut it down to about 10 producers who I work with and who I love, there’s never a problem.”
Aarons is not your average hit-maker. She’s uninterested in rubbing shoulders with high-profile artists and industry figures, and even less interested in writing with people based on their song credits. Looking at a few of the globe’s biggest songwriting luminaries – Sia, Max Martin, Diane Warren et. al – all of them seem to carry modestly reticent character traits similar to that of Aarons.
“A lot of people go to events and do the hand-shaking stuff, but I don’t really think it works,” she offers. “Instead of getting industry drinks or schmoozing, I would say ‘Hey, let’s go write a song.’ So while everyone else is just shaking hands, you’re actually making something beautiful.”
If you write or perform your own songs you can find more information about APRA AMCOS at apraamcos.com.au
This article originally appeared on The Industry Observer, which is now part of The Music Network.