The comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, turned out to be a rare bright spot when it came out on Netflix last July, as a pandemic-ravaged world embraced the movie’s charm and silliness as it quickly became a world-wide phenomenon. Largely aided by the immense popularity of the real annual singing competition that it honors/spoofs, the film relied heavily on original music and performances that felt and sounded authentic to the Eurovision aesthetic, loosely and affectionately known as kitschy Europop.
But there is something beloved about this wacky, crazy and often quite campy show, and Ferrell, who learned about the contest from his Swedish wife, wanted the movie to be not only a comedy, but a love letter. Director David Dobkin called on one of the top pop songwriters on the planet, Savan Kotecha, to serve as the Executive Music Producer and to guide each song to pop perfection. Kotecha has written for all the biggest names in popular music, including The Weeknd, Ariana Grande, Ellie Goulding, Usher and Katy Perry, and was the perfect person to corral a group of songwriters to create original songs that sound like they could actually be performed in the Eurovision extravaganza.
But it is the one song that breaks from the upbeat pop dance track that has gotten the most attention. The soaring and moving ballad, “Husavik (My Hometown),” featured at the end of the film, is the song that’s gotten the most attention of all, and is the one that is not only on the Oscar short-list for consideration for Best Original Song, but is widely considered the front-runner to win.
I had a chance to talk to Kotecha and his “Husavik” co-writers, Rickard Göransson and Fat Max Gsus not only about how the song came about, but also about all that Oscar buzz, how Kotecha feels about one of his songs being the most-memed moment of the Super Bowl halftime show, what makes Will Ferrell cry, and how a fake pub song became the feel-good hit of the summer. “PLAY IT!!”
Catherine Springer: Savan, you’re from Texas, did you know what Eurovision was when you were growing up?
Savan Kotecha: No, I didn’t. I went to Sweden for the first time when I was 19 or 20. Part of that trip was during Melodifestivale, and I remember I wanted to work that day, and people we were working with were like, “no, we’re not working tonight, it’s Melodifestivalen, and the winner goes to Eurovision!” They had to explain it to me, and they forced me to go with them, and I saw it at a restaurant, and I was like, “what the hell is this?” [laughs] The first few times I was like, what is this—I didn’t want it to influence my writing. And then after a while, I was like, oh, okay, it’s pretty incredible. You just have to not take it so seriously and just have fun with it.
CS: Rickard and Max, you’re actually European, so tell us a little of the European perspective of Eurovision, especially in Sweden, where you’re both from.
Rickard Göransson: Yeah, like Savan just described, it’s a big part of our culture over there. This crazy thing, Eurovision. [laughs] And I think that’s what Will [Ferrell] saw in all this, too, that it has something to it, that, obviously, can be very comical, but it’s also serious, in a way, because the music is good.
CS: Max, what about you?
Fat Max Gsus: Yeah, it was an obvious thing that happens every year. It’s really present in everyone’s lives. The children especially love this contest in Sweden, so, every year in school, around the time of Melodifestivalen and Eurovision, the kids are running around on their breaks, singing those songs. It’s really integrated in the culture.
CS: It’s not just a Scandinavian thing, all of Europe is involved, from Portugal to San Marino. Even Australia participates, which I will never understand. I don’t think we’ll ever really understand the rules, right, but that’s beside the point…
RG: It’s free health care, that’s the rule!
CS: Right! Speaking of Will, he wanted to make a love letter to the competition. So as far as the songs go, they had to feel authentic for the competition but they also had to fit in the satirical aspects of the film, right? Savan, as the Executive Music Producer and co-writer of many of the songs, what was your approach to find that perfect sweet spot for the songs?
SK: Will, [director] David Dobkins and I spoke quite often about it. We didn’t want to make fun of the contest because it’s a serious thing for a lot of people, so we wanted to pay tribute to it. For me, musically, it was about making sure the melodies especially were really great. If you think about Eurovision songs, as ridiculous as the production can be and the staging and costumes and sometimes the lyrics could feel like they’re Google-translated into English, the melodies are usually pretty strong. So I felt the approach was really less aimed to win Eurovision with every song, but to at least make the melodies as good as possible and then lyrically we can have a little bit of fun.
CS: What makes the perfect Eurovision song?
RG: I believe there’s a format, length-wise, they’re only allowed to be a certain length, which kind of forces you to build it in a certain way, so things need to happen, a lot of information quick, so to speak. For us, who write pop songs, it’s a formula that’s been used before, in a way.
CS: Savan, you’ve worked with top artists in the world. How was the approach different in writing songs for this then you would for, say, Ariana Grande?
SK: Well, you don’t have to think about radio or any of that boring stuff. [laughs] You didn’t have to think, is this cool, is it forward-thinking, you know what I mean? There was already sort of a format there with Eurovision. Especially with “Husavik,” we all sat down and explained to Rick and Max the theme and what the characters were feeling. It was really all about treating each character as an artist, like if Rachel McAdams’s character heard this song, she’d think, this is what I’m going through–and then she’d come into the studio as an artist to say, “I’m in love with this guy, but he just wants to win this competition and doesn’t see me.” You would write this song in that way. You’d obviously still have the whales and stuff in there, of course, because that’s funny. Even with Lemtov’s song, “Lion of Love,” this is what he would be thinking, in my eyes. All the answers were in the script.
CS: How did you come to pick Max and Rickard to work on this song with you?
SK: Well, they are immensely talented.
FMG: Thanks, man!
SK: And they also came up with this fantastic idea. And we sat down and discussed what it should be or what it should feel like and everything they brought to the table was incredible, and they just delivered.
CS: Max, did what did you know that you were working on something special when you were working on the song?
FMG: Definitely. Absolutely. I really, really, really wanted to get it right. I wanted to really pour my heart into something and make something that, if it goes well, would go on to live in this world for a long time. I really wanted to make something special like that. Kind of like Fire Saga’s journey in this movie, it’s something I could relate to in my life because I had a period in time where things just really weren’t going my way and I was trying really really hard, and then this opportunity to be a part of this thing came along to write something that’s beautiful and comes from the lake of your soul. It just resonated with my own life story, coming at a time when I had felt rejected, a lot of ideas that I had, people weren’t really hearing what I was trying to convey, and then Savan came with this proposal that I felt was so like, I don’t know, honorable and cool to do. And it turns out it was fairly easy, it just came and it felt really special, so yeah.
CS: Rickard, what about you, did you know there was something special here?
RG: Absolutely. I mean, what I usually try to go for when I write music is to create an emotion or a reaction. And I think, like Savan said, given the story, it was a great opportunity to see the serious side of Fire Saga and give them a song that would have a deeper meaning. And, yeah, there were so many things that fell into place and writing it and working with Max again and then Savan, is always a pleasure. But I definitely felt like we had something special.
CS: Eurovision also finds a way to bring each country’s culture to the performance and song. Tell me, is there anything specific about Iceland or its culture that you wanted to put into the song?
RG: I don’t know if you’ve actually seen photos of the real town, Husavik? It’s like the whales in the movie, they actually jump in the ocean there and it’s a very brilliant, pure place. I still haven’t been, but now I obviously definitely have to go there and check it out.
CS: Was it actually filmed in Husavik?
SK: Yeah, they filmed some of it there.
CS: Tell us about this supposed mythical Icelandic thing, “the speorg note”? Am I saying it right?
SK: Yes! In the script, they described it as a magical note that no one can hit that will touch the whole world if you can hit it. Only the most special singers can. David just the other day told me that, originally, that scene at the end was going to be shot at the common, because they didn’t know that they would have a song like this that really earned the emotional moment. And when the song sort of all came together, they changed the ending to make it an emotional ending. Originally, there were guys who were going to hit this note and something funny was going to happen, like the audience—I don’t know if I’m allowed to say, but I’ll just say it—the original plan from what I remember was that everyone in the audience was going to orgasm during this one pure note…
SK: …as this song would be touching everyone with the emotion. Will was saying that, during that scene, that he just kept crying, and the audience just got up and started cheering every time, and David had to tell the DP to tell everyone they can’t get up and cheer, but every time they would shoot, the audience wouldn’t listen, they just would all get up—they all were so emotional about it.
FMG: I didn’t know that! That’s fantastic.
SK: Yeah. I would say what mostly inspired the song is her story, her journey. Like Rickard said, you look at pictures of Husavik and it feels like the song, and the chorus, and the chorus lyric. It’s a pure civilization, and that, to me, is what a lot of Scandinavia is, so quite pure, you know? It hasn’t been completely tainted by greed and extreme capitalism, you know what I mean? This general feeling of being ethical and wanting to do the right thing and they care about true happiness rather than how it looks to the outside world, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.
CS: Let’s talk a little bit about Rachel McAdams and her incredible performance. I know you blended her voice in, but the song is mostly sung by Molly Sanden, right?
SK: Yeah, we blended her and Rachel where we could. And yeah, Rachel was incredible. It was also magical that they both had a very similar timbre to their voice. Remember the scene in the hotel where she is playing the song?
SK: That’s all Rachel. And you totally believe that that’s the same vocal as the full version. She was incredible.
CS: Did you have to write the song for Rachel or did she happen to fit what you had already written?
SK: It was written. Obviously, there was the speorg note and those big notes were molded with Molly. But, luckily, the chorus worked with Rachel.
FMG: We didn’t have her notes, we didn’t know what exactly her vocal range was, but it worked out really well. I don’t remember where we had to change keys or anything.
SK: Yeah. Definitely Molly took the lead of the song for the vocal, but we definitely get Rachel in there with Molly where it fit. It was great, they did a fantastic job.
CS: I would be shot if I didn’t ask you about “Jaja Ding Dong,” which has taken on a life of its own. It’s an original, even though it sounds like it’s a classic Icelandic pub song.
SK: Yeah, I mean, I have to give credit to [songwriters] Gustaf [Holter] and Christian [Persson], really talented writers who were recommended to me. They tried a few different things and went back and forth, but they nailed it, I was super impressed. The goal was to make it feel like something you’ve heard before, and it’s been fun to watch it take a life of its own. And there’s actually a JaJa Ding Dong bar in Husavik now! It’s been so fun. I mean the whole thing has been very different than just having a hit song. To be a part of this has been just a blast.
CS: I also want to ask you about the song-along, which everybody loves as well. How did that come together, was it easy to get all those past Eurovision stars together?
SK: That moment is all David Dobkin. David is actually the one who wrangled all that together. From what I understand, it was a challenge. Everyone was happy to do it and the audiences seem to love it but that was definitely the David Dobkin sort of masterful stroke of genius, you know where he was like, “how about this!” and he wrangled them together. He deserves all the credit.
CS: And Savan, we have to call you out, as you actually performed the vocals for the song “Coolin’ with the Homies,” even though an actor [Christopher Jeffers, playing Johnny John John] lip syncs the song in the movie. But those were your abs, right?
SK: Yeah. I almost got the gig to perform on screen in that part. David literally called me and said, listen, you might have to fly to London in March to shoot “Coolin’ With the Homies,” because it’s between you and a younger guy. And he called me the next day and said, “We went younger.” [laughs]
RG: There’s always the younger guy, right?
SK: Exactly. That one was so fun to do. I did it with one of my best friends, [collaborator] Rami Yacoub, and weirdly it’s my kid’s favorite thing I’ve ever done, and they still ask me to sing it in the car. My son, even just today, I walked into the room as he was doing online school and he was like “Volcanoes on my chest, Just like I’m Kim West…”. [laughs]
RG: I love that.
CS: The soundtrack for the film is already nominated for Grammy, for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media. The Grammys are being held on March 14 and the Oscar nominations are the next day on the 15th. What would an Oscar nomination mean for you guys? You know it’s got a good chance.
RG: Well, that would be incredible. A big honor.
CS: Rickard, you’re a member of [Carolina Liar], a pretty successful rock band…
RG: That was before I started my songwriting career. That was a long time ago!
CS: Ok, but how would it feel to join the ranks of Springsteen, Prince, Trent Reznor and Lady Gaga if you won an Oscar?
RG: Wow. I mean, I don’t know where to begin. It would obviously be unreal on so many levels. It would be amazing if the song would be recognized for what it says and it’s amazing that we have a shot at it, and that’s all I can say. I just hope that people love the song and love the movie and the emotion, and what it created and what it did for the film. I have always have been a big Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams fan. It’s kind of funny how the universe comes together sometimes, having an opportunity to work with them and being on the shortlist for something with Will Ferrell’s name on it, it’s an amazing feeling, obviously.
CS: And Max?
FMG: What an Oscar would mean?
FMG: Well, I haven’t won yet, so I don’t know…. [laughs]
CS: That’s true, that’s true. I don’t want to jinx it!
FMG: It’s definitely going to rattle the…well, I’m sure it’s going to mean something in my hometown, of 30,000 people, Karlskrona [Sweden]. But I literally have no idea what it’s going to mean outside of myself. But it’s still so surreal and unread to me. I’ve never won, or been nominated for any award before, so it would be indescribable.
CS: A word that comes to mind for me when you say all that is poetic, the fact that you come from a small Scandinavian town and that you could bring home some glory for yourself to your hometown with this song that is a love letter to a small Scandanavian hometown. That’s beautiful.
Savan, lastly, I have to say, I don’t know if winning an Oscar would be as great as the moment you’ve already had this year with your song “I Can’t Feel My Face” from The Weeknd being the most-memed moment of the Super Bowl half-time show. How did that feel?
SK: Oh that was fun. Yeah. He’s such a special guy. And since that song was a few years ago as well, it’s nice to see it come back like that. It’s really great. Yeah. It’s a trip right now. It’s all a dream. From where I came from, a traditional Indian family in Texas and no one wanted me to go into music and now all this stuff has happened, it’s humbling. You just feel sort of blessed through it all and so anything at this point is gravy, you know. But this movie felt really special, and the fact that it came out during a time when the world needed a smile, that’s the sort of legacy for me of this movie. That it gave the world a smile during a pretty dark time.