The LA-based couple– songwriter Melanie Fontana and producer Michel “Lindgren” Schulz – have orbited K-pop long before it became the global phenomenon it is today. Having worked with Western artists like Dua Lipa and Cheat Codes, the duo have been regular hit-makers in K-Pop; working with leading groups such as Girls’ Generation and f(x) as well as solo acts like Tiffany Young and Hyolyn.
Most recently, having worked with the likes of BTS and TXT, Fontana and Lindgren have established themselves as an aspirational duo who saw the spark in K-pop far earlier than many others. Speaking to EUPHORIA., we get to know the couple as we delve deep into their first memories related to K-pop, the elements of surprise that make K-pop so unique, the backstory behind the melody of “Boy With Luv,” and much more.
From working with artists in Western music, then moving to K-pop. What was the biggest change you had to get used to? Focusing on the melody rather than the lyrics. Everything we write in English is more or less replaced by Korean lyricism, so instead of focusing on the words, we’ve learned to hone in on the notes because that’s what ends up sticking in the end. Melodies are a universal language and learning to make our music more melodic-driven has been the biggest change.
I think it’s important to understand each individual act’s distinct musicality in K-pop. From a production perspective, you need to get a grip on that individuality so you’re not pitching the wrong sound to the wrong band.
So far what K-pop acts have you worked with aside from the more publicized BTS and TXT? Who else would you like to work with in the future, both in Asian music and global music? We’ve worked with acts like Everglow, IOI, AOA, Tiffany Young, f(x), Girls Generation. So we’ve worked with many acts! Who we’d love to work with? Ellie Goulding, Lauv, Justin Bieber, Black Pink, TWICE. We could go on and on. I’ve had the honor of working with people like Britney Spears, The Chainsmokers, Justin Bieber. I’d love to do more together with them, while Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato, and BLACKPINK are both bucket list artists for the future.
You mentioned that you’ve had to learn the distinct sound of each Korean act you work with. What does this process of learning to distinguish each act’s unique sound entail? Lots of practice and listening hard. You need to dig deep into an artist’s catalog before you start writing a new track for them. You can’t make history without knowing history so you need to understand what they are referencing and understand their influences. For example, TWICE is so much more J-pop influenced and you need to take that fact into account when you write for TWICE.
Is there anything you’ve particularly taken from your work in K-pop and weaved into music outside of it? Yes, I’m no longer afraid to use intricate and interesting melodies. K-pop, in the beginning, was almost show tune-esque; so many pieces and parts of music sown together into a tapestry of a song. Through my work in K-pop, I’ve learned to bring separate pieces of a song come together in harmony. Whereas when I was writing only for Western artists, the music was sort of one-dimensional. The song took you on a journey, but it was one with a clear beginning and end. Now, I’m not afraid to take listeners on a bit of a roller coaster with my music even in English-language music.
A good example of how our work in K-pop has influenced our American music would be Dua Lipa’s “Good In Bed.” That chorus leans very much into the 2015 Girls Generation soundscape. This track is something we’d written as a song for K-pop acts five years ago, but we’ve been able to bring it outside of that.
When did you first discover K-pop? For me, it was probably the mid-90s. My dad was a bassist and he used to tour in South Korea and bring back records or merch. I was under 10 years old, but I remember always knowing that there was a massive music industry to be discovered there. Fun fact: the first-ever email I wrote was to a Korean label executive!
My first time was far later. In between 2007 and 2009, when a friend came up to me and asked if I’d heard of a group called the Wonder Girls. After that my first visual experience was watching “Run Devil Run,” from Girls Generation. I was already in the music industry at that point but I remember thinking, “how do I get involved with that?!”
Being part of two worlds of music like this, what stands out to you most about K-pop? Fandoms are so central to K-pop. For example, when BTS drops an album it’s less about them and more about the fans; they drop it and say “we’ve been working on this for you.” The songs may be personal in nature but they are never self-indulgent. At the root of it, they are thinking of their fans when they make music.
That’s rarely the case in Western music, where the artists are more creatively selfish. There is nothing wrong with that; they just make music that focuses more on themselves and their experiences rather than the fandom. But in K-pop, it tends to be “this is what I think might help you.” The fans reciprocate as well. I get so messages on Instagram, talking about how BTS helped them in their lives. I’m sure there are fans of Western artists who also feel the same way, but they rarely as vocal or supportive about it.
Fandoms are very important in K-pop as you said, similarly, mystique and surprise are huge elements in the Korean music-making process. Have there been times where you have surprised by your own music – in K-pop – when it dropped? To be honest, we have no idea who is getting featured on a BTS single until it releases. The biggest surprise to-date was the Halsey feature on “Boy With Luv.” Same with SIA, we found out on the day that SIA would be on “ON.” More often than not we are on the receiving end of the surprise and mystique, alongside the fans.
Getting so much support from these fandoms, and breaking all these records with your music. Do you feel pressure to continue delivering music that fans connect with? Oh my god, yes! I try to ignore that feeling because that could very well be the demise of whatever song I’m working on. So I try to do what feels good in the moment, I let the emotions come in and then I let them go so I can actually work. It’s a crippling feeling to have to beat what you’ve done in the past. But by being pressured you’ll hamper your own creativity! We do doubt if we can help make another song that would break another record, but if we let go of the pressure then the answer is HELL YES!
On that positive note, what’s one fan comment that made you smile recently? I got a comment that read, “ I’m a fan of your producing, and I love how you make music, express yourself and connect with others. I’m interested in making music too, and I was wondering what it was like to work in the entertainment industry.” She asked for some advice on how to break into the industry, and it made me happy because this is exactly why I do what I do, I want to be able to encourage people to take the road less traveled and follow their hearts. It’s all attainable! The fan comments that really touch me are the ones that are ambitious or aspirational. People send me voice notes of beats or samples. Some are really good, and I think we even connected one of them to a production company in Korea.
Since you mentioned it, how do you break into the K-pop industry? In the beginning, it was 90% luck and having the 10% ability to groom that blessing with your talent. With me, I went to Sweden to write English music and while I was there I was introduced to two producers who worked in K-pop. They connected me to someone else, who then connected me to a writing camp that focused on writing music for Korea. The ball began rolling from there. I had luck but I’m proud to have had the ability to prove myself and hang on for as long as I’ve been able to.
You went to a writing camp, you said, so is writing for Korean music very different from writing other kinds of music (besides the language)? It’s just writing a song that sounds just as good in English, as it would it Korean. It’s writing something that’s good enough to play to someone who speaks English and have them enjoy it. But also evoke the same reaction from non-English speakers.
We never neglect the song’s lyrical integrity. We write our K-pop songs in the same way as any other music. We know the lyrics we’ve written aren’t likely to make it into the final version. But we know it’ll end up as something even better and more meaningful to the artist in the end. A great example of this would be Hyolyn’s “You Know Better,” we co-wrote it WITH her and initially it was written like a sad one-night-stand song called “Stay Tonight.” She took that home and came back with Korean lyrics and concept that was so much better.
Clearly, you have had so many memorable moments in your career! What would you pick out as the biggest highlight? Having Dua Lipa in this room right here where we are talking from was very memorable. Singing on SNL with BTS, my favorite group of all-time! That was the best day of my life, it might just be equally special or a little more special than my wedding! There were definitely more people there than our wedding! We’ve had so many incredible experiences. For me, every time I hear a track we’ve worked on playing in places like hotels or when my wife slapped me awake after finding out Halsey was on “Boy With Luv.”
What’s next for you? We’ve got some things we can’t tell you about because of the element of surprise, but they are really cool! We’ve got stuff coming out both in the States and in Korea. We hopefully have something with Cheat Codes, coming out soon.
What’s one question no one asks you in an interview you wish you were asked? Nobody really ever asks about how long it takes to write a song. They don’t ask about how an idea for a song came together. I wish people asked about how we put a song together. For instance, with Everglow’s “Bon Bon Chocolat” we really didn’t know what direction we were going with. He worked on the instrumentals with a friend and I wrote all the lyrics walking around our pool. A lot of people focus on the producers in music but people rarely ask a writer how they wrote a song. Where were you when you wrote it? How were you feeling? What was the background?
So what’s the best/most memorable backstory you have about how a song came to be? I love the story of how we finished up “Boy With Luv,” which was the first song we finished with BTS. We were finalizing the pre-chorus melody one night. We finished up around 10 pm and thought it was done, they’d take it. Or at the very least they’d give us feedback a few days later. So, decided to watch some TV before turning in, but as soon as we sat down they asked if we had another idea.
Our studio and house are only separated by a wall but we don’t have a door to walk between both because we like keeping work and life separate. So we turn off the TV, walk around the outside of the house to the studio, switch on everything, send another idea in and go back home. We think “we nailed it,” but this happened four times before we got there! It was 2-3 am by the time we were done, but it was worth it!