How to write a One Direction song: Behind the curtain of the songwriting process

Hit writer for the likes of One Direction, Westlife and Nicki Minaj, Wayne Hector was honoured with the Ivor Novello for International Achievement today

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In his 25 years as a professional songwriter, Wayne Hector has written songs for the likes of One Direction, Jess Glynne, Westlife, Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears, Pussycat Dolls and Olly Murs. His first number one was Peter Andre's ‘Flava’ in 1996. Today he was presented the Ivor Novello for International achievement. Here he talks about the songwriting process. 

Becoming a professional songwriter I was in an R’n’B vocal group called Rhythm N Bass quite a while ago. We were signed to Epic Records. We never really hit the big time, but I’d co-written a few songs on the album, which led to me writing for other people afterwards. 

First song I wrote my first song when I was nine. Prince Charles and Lady Diana were getting married and my sister and I wrote a song for the wedding; I remember singing it to my mum. I was learning piano at the time, but I got more into poetry at school which I suppose was the basis for me writing songs. 

Shyness Like a lot of creative people, I wasn’t a super social person and music was always my way of communicating with people. I think when you find it harder to talk to people and then you discover that they appreciate something that you do, you go "OK, this is how I communicate with the rest of mankind", and a lot of your focus goes into that. 

Songwriting For me now, it is about me and maybe two other people just getting into a room and using live instruments. Some days we’ll sit around the piano or somebody will have a guitar, some days we’ll start with a title. Every day is a little bit different, but most of the time it’s like a jam session. 

On writing One Direction’s "Steal My Girl" [songwriter] Julian Bunetta and I were sitting in a room and we’d split in two teams; [songwriters] John Ryan and Ed Drewett were in another room working on ideas and John was playing the drums. I was singing a bunch of ideas until out of the blue I started “everybody wanna steal my girl” and we wrote along that line. Then we put the melody together and put words to it. After we’d finished we spent about an hour dancing around the room singing it. That’s always a good sign: I tend to be of the opinion that if most of us in the room aren’t jumping up and down, then we haven’t written a special song. As a professional writer, you understand that if you’re not excited about it, the chances are that other people are not going to be excited by it either. A lesson to any up-and-coming songwriter is it isn’t about writing a song a day. 

On working with One Direction There’s a lot of stuff, especially on the first album, that we wrote with them. They’re actually pretty good writers themselves. Niall’s a really good guitarist. He came to the studio with a guitar riff and we all went "that’s great, let’s start with that", and Niall and I sat there and put a lyric together. He went off and played it to all the [One Direction] boys and they loved it. "Temporary Fix" made it on the album. One Direction are lovely guys, we have a lot of fun and I think everybody in the room’s a stickler for coming up with something that’s the right kind of song – catchy. They’re always excited, always a little bit crazy. The Fifa 16 on the Playstation gets a bit competitive. 

On writing Jess Glynne’s "Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself" We were in with the TMS production team and I think Ben Kohn was playing some chords on the piano. We’d been talking a lot about the way that people are feeling in general. I think life gives you the sense that if you don’t have a lot of stuff maybe you’re not as successful as you should be and that song was about not being so hard on yourself. 

What makes a hit For me it’s a great concept and a great artist. I look for the tone of voice. Tone is king in music – if you look at all our legendary artists, they have one thing in common: you can recognise their voice within three or four seconds of a song starting. Adele has that. The very second she starts singing, there’s almost a physical force in her voice, it’s something unique and I think it’s human instinct to respond to that. If you work with talented people, you’re more likely to get those great songs and talented people inspire you to write to your best ability. 

Best song I’m proudest of "Flying Without Wings" for Westlife because [songwriter] Steve Mac and I wrote that for our wives. We were talking about all the things that were most important in our lives and it’s still my favourite. We were sat down in Steve’s studio discussing the title: what are the things that make you feel like that? At that point we hadn’t become parents so it was our family, friends, and the potential for children.

Stevie Wonder My dream would be to write a song for Stevie Wonder, which is very hard seeing as he writes most of his own music and brilliantly so. I’m still on the Stevie Wonder chase. I love Stevie Wonder because I grew up listening to his music – my dad was a massive fan and so from a very young age I was bathed in Songs In The Key Of Life and his other albums and it’s a big part of my path. And John Denver – at the age of five I turned "Annie’s Song" on and even now that’s still one of my favourite pieces of music as it’s such a beautiful melody. 

Songwriting inspirations Prince was probably my favourite of all time – as an artist, writer, producer and performer. He’s probably the singularly most talented artist I’ve ever seen and heard. Also Burt Bacharach, David Bowie, John Denver; there are so many people and it changes all the time.

Biggest inspiration My mum has been my biggest inspiration. Corny, but true. When we were growing up, my mum had three jobs and worked insanely hard until she retired. That work ethic, understanding that in order to have success in life, yes you need to have opportunities open up to you, but if you’re working hard, then that success that you could find tends to be long term. I’m definitely of that idea that once you become successful you actually have to work harder to maintain it. 

Fame and fast cars My manager Jackie Davidson taught me what to do with your success. I think a lot of times people in the music industry aren’t educated in terms of how to solidify and sustain their life once they’ve had success. Success is just an opportunity – it’s not the end of the journey, it’s just part of the road. I talk to other artists and songwriters about it and explain why it’s so important to put yourself in a place to make music all your life. Rushing out to buy fancy cars – I understand the urge for it, especially as someone who didn’t grow up with a lot of money, but it’s much more beneficial for you long term and your ability to maintain a career as a songwriter if you invest in your life. I’ll always say I won’t respect you if you buy a car before you buy a house. 

Hearing my songs on the radio It’s amazing – as good as it felt the first time it ever happened. You’ll still be in the back of a taxi and a new song will come out and you’ll tell the taxi driver "can you turn this up, this is my song". Or the first time you go to a show when the artist performs your single live and there are 60,000 people singing the song. It’s electrifying. I’m in Dublin at the moment and I was in Brown Thomas on Grafton Street and Changing [by Sigma featuring Paloma Faith] came on and I looked around thinking "this was me!" I’m grateful for the fact that I’m still excited about it, because it’s the only way to keep a career going. You have to love what you do. 

On writers block That’s just your mind telling you it needs a break. A lot of people say "carry on, write through it, break through that wall". I don’t believe in that at all. If your leg is in need of a rest, you stop running. Doing more on it will injure it further. For me it’s the same thing with songwriting. Your brain tells you that you need a break and the first thing you do is stop and take time off. And when it’s time you’ll start write songs again. 

On emerging from the shadows I think I’ve always sought the background more than anything else. I like the fact that I can have this wonderful life making music and not having the additional pressure of being a known entity and, having watched how that affects other people’s lives, I think I’ve got the better end of the deal. 

The Ivor Novello award for International Achievement This is the award that I’ve always wanted. Anybody that knows me knows I’m fiercely proud to be British; I love my country and I’m grateful for what I’ve been able to achieve in it and this, as a writer, is the pinnacle of the awards that you can receive. I do feel incredibly honoured.