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Carl Falk Interview: the Avicii hitmaker on friendship, grief and the songwriting process
Carl Falk was one of the main collaborators charged with completing Avicii’s posthumous TIM album, after his tragic death in April 2018. Falk has also written hit songs for One Direction, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, and many more.
Hi Carl! Thank you for taking the time out to talk today. Being a songwriter with the immense number of credits you have, it often means you’re drafted in to write one or two songs that will then be part of a larger project or album. Do you prefer having the freedom to follow your inspiration and write whatever you want to write, or is it more rewarding to write a song for an artist that you think will fit into a particular theme and a wider project?
It’s different each time. Of course, for me it’s a bigger challenge to be part of an artist’s career, especially if you’re able to be a part of it from really early on, because it’s more fun thinking about developing the sound of an artist. Asking ‘what should we talk about’, ‘what’s the production going to be about’ - that’s more of a challenge, but it’s also fun. It also depends if you already have a song that you want play somewhere, or if you’re writing from scratch with the artist in the room. The fun part is the challenge of doing something you haven’t done before. With One Direction, for example, it was just five guys and we had to draw the line of what should this be, where should we go with this, how should it sound…There’s reward in the satisfaction this gives you, and it feels much larger when you’re part of something, rather than just writing one song for the artist.
What was it like getting to help create One Direction’s sound and direction, especially considering how huge they quickly became?
Writing with One Direction happened a long time ago, and so much has happened since we started. But it’s also really a big reward to write something and you see that so many people can relate to the songs. Especially having people send messages saying 'we played this at our wedding’, ‘this has helped me go through my depression or break-up’, 'someone passing away’…That’s satisfying, because it means something to someone else. For me, you write something and you have no idea what it will mean to people - it’s just a song, you know? But some become closer to your heart, while others you think ‘this was a well-written song, but it doesn’t mean that much to me’.
My dad and I’s favourite band is Zac Brown Band, and it’s crazy because ‘Broken Arrows’, which you wrote with Avicii and which features Zac Brown Band, is the first time I’d ever heard of them. Especially on Stories, there are quite a few Country/Bluegrass tinged songs. What inspired this radical fusion of two seemingly disparate genres?
Tim’s (Tim Bergling’s aka Avicii's) taste in music was really specific. That kind of music - Folk, Bluegrass, Country - with those kinds of melodies and notes, it just fitted his taste. So I learned after a while that this is what he likes. I would play something and he would say “It’s good, but…” and I would say, “I know you want to countrify it!” You can hear it even on ‘Broken Arrows’ on the drop, it’s such a Tim melody. He always wanted to be a songwriter, he always wanted to challenge his writing as well as his production. That kind of music meant more to him than the pop stuff. But also, I thought the interesting, genius thing was his way of turning songs into hits. He could take a song like ‘Broken Arrows’ and then he would do his thing with the arpeggio in the beginning, and his effects - swooshes, kicks, bass - and it became unique, because he turned it into an Avicii song. The other writers and I would think ‘okay, now we’ve got the song', and we’d give it to Tim, and two hours later he would have destroyed it and turned it into another song! He’d say, “I think this verse isn’t right”, and we’d all be thinking , ‘but we thought it was great the way it was!’ Part of his process was to turn them into his own thing, I think that was a genius combination.
‘Sunset Jesus’, another song from Stories, is incredibly uplifting and inspiring. Is ‘Sunset Jesus’ a real person? What’s the story behind this?
It was this guy that we saw on Sunset strip in Los Angeles. He just walks around dressed as Jesus. With ‘Sunset Jesus’, a few songs turned into one - the verse is from one song, the chorus is from another, and the drop came from something that Tim brought. I remember coming in with the intro riff, and he was like, “that's genius!”. Its like ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. He got so inspired by the whole concept of the Sunset Jesus. That guy probably had a life spent wanting to be someone else, he was probably a great musician or a waiter, but he was walking around dressed as Jesus. Tim got so into that vision of telling that story.
The themes in TIM, Avicii’s posthumous album, are significantly darker than his previous projects, with even things as small as there being cussing where there hasn’t ever been before. When you were working with Tim on this album, was this new direction something you talked about?
I’ll tell you the story, and I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this. It was a strange thing, the whole process of doing that album because in hindsight I realise that Tim had a vision, it was like he was writing his memoirs or a book. He was talking a lot about nirvana, depression, and love, and you could tell he wanted to tell a story. The way he was coming up with lyrics and concepts, I think me and the other collaborators were like, ‘Ok, great, that’s what you want to do’.
He wanted to do a darker, slower tempo to the songs, to challenge himself. He was talking a lot about World music, because he was saying, ‘I want this to be Avicii 2.0’! He said they don’t have to be uptempo DJ songs, they should be darker. We were listening to a lot of different stuff for inspiration, and early on, we were like, ‘Ok, we’re gonna break the Avicii rules with this one’. I mean, if you listen to the lyrics on a lot of the songs, especially ‘Fades Away’ and ‘Ain’t A Thing’, they were Tim’s own words. It tells the story about a person, and at first we just thought ‘what a great concept’. But when [Tim’s suicide] happened, we were like, 'Fuck, this isn’t just a great sounding song, it’s a story about someone actually wanting to say something'. In this case, it’s Tim. Because when you create lyrics, they are usually just made up to make the melodies shine. Sometimes you tell a story, but sometimes it’s just a pop song - and that’s what I was thinking with these ones. Then all of a sudden we were looking through the lyrics thinking, ‘Shit, this is personal’. I could tell that he had a vision and a mission with this album. It’s strange to realise that after someone passes away.
He was so inspired, and he said to me, “This is the first time in five years that I’m inspired to write music”, and then I remember he called me two days into the sessions saying, “I crashed, man. I gotta take a couple of days off and meditate and chill”. And I was like “Dude what happened?” He was like, “It’s nothing”. You could tell he was going through a lot and thinking a lot. He took a few days to get back into album mode after that. But at the same time, generally, I have to say it was the first time in a long time that I’d seen Tim loving music so much, with no distractions.
Does listening to TIM give you a sense of closure, or is it painful to be reminded of what was supposed to be the exciting next chapter in Tim’s career?
Now, it’s a positive memory of a dear friend. But also, personally, when I started I was like we’re going to make this album together. At the time, I was working with Tim and we were going to produce the songs together. [After his death], I was listening by myself in the studio and I remember just thinking, ‘What do I do with this? Who am I to change something?’. I can’t change something when I have a coproducer who’s not there. I was looking at the songs on my computer, listening to them, I’d play a new bass, delete it and think, ‘Ah, shit, I can’t do this. I gotta go home’. After a few weeks I was like, ‘I’m done’. But after a while, I thought, well, if Tim would’ve been next to me he probably would’ve done this or that, and I used things we’d worked together on in the past. It would always have been partially Tim and partially me, and slowly I was justifying me changing it myself, and I was like maybe this isn’t so bad. A lot of sounds I used were from a folder of sounds that Tim gave me or from old Tim songs. I did my research really, really, really well, and I was very careful not to ruin the sound by being influenced by the wrong things. Once I got rolling, it was so much easier. I got to a point where I thought, ‘This is really good, because I haven’t disgraced it by taking influences from stuff I know Tim wouldn’t like’. I enhanced it, rather than changed it.
"I have to say it was the first time in a long time that I’d seen Tim loving music so much, with no distractions."
You’ve talked before about Tim’s “melodic language”. Listening to ‘Bad Reputation’ and ‘Ain’t A Thing’, it almost sounds as if the vocalist is presenting one story, and the music acts as a response to the lyrics. Is this intentional?
It’s almost like the melancholic feel comes from the words and the vocals. But a lot of times with Tim, he was really specific about his voicing and chords, and the message and the tone of a song would end up being different. But still, the ground DNA of the songs came from his previous ‘world’. I think it would’ve been too much if it took on more of a Bon Iver feel, because you need that signature Tim feeling. His sound is the drums and the arrangement and the effects and sweeps. That had to come in there because it’s what makes the song fit. Those things had to be added, that was one thing we had to have in there. Sometimes it was like two worlds meeting. You can feel him through the album.
‘Fades Away’ closes TIM, and when I first listened to the album I was disappointed it didn’t end on a more optimistic note. But after a while, I realised that ‘Fades Away’ is the perfect way to end the album. The real-life story didn’t have a happy ending, and ‘Fades Away’ captures this sense of regret, but there’s also a sense of peace in there.
That wasn’t supposed to even be a song. I just realised when we had a listening meeting, playing this to Tim’s father, Klaus, I said that adding live strings creates something haunting and almost naked about the song. Back then the chorus was the verse and we didn’t have anything, and I played some strings to it, and he was like, “That’s beautiful. I love that”. So when we did the song, it had a long string outro - this long reverb out at the end. And we would talk about it and say, ‘Either this is the last song on the album, or we delete it and don’t use it at all’. It’s such a powerful moment to end on - ‘Don’t you love how it all, it all just fades away’ - and it echoes out into the air. You can’t have that on song nine, it doesn’t give it justice. It’s the end of something, and it became the ideal way to conclude the album.
You know better than most the mental health struggles Tim went through, and the documentary that was released underlined that these were the result of the insane pressures of touring and the music industry. Tim’s family set up the Tim Bergling Foundation to shine a light on mental health struggles that stem from the pressures of the music industry. Having worked with numerous high-profile artists, what do you think are the first things that need to be changed about the way the music world works, in order to help ease the pressure and expectation on artists?
It’s such a big question to answer, but it’s better if I speak for myself. For me, and also the things I could see with Tim. First of all, he had a lot of outside pressure to be everywhere all the time, and to satisfy everyone - when the only thing he wanted to do was be in the studio eating cheeseburgers. That amount of pressure is impossible to handle, and then you have to try and make deadlines on top of that. You think, ‘I’ve got an early flight tomorrow, but if I work on the plane and skip sleeping…’ You become this machine. If you also put the creative stress on top of that, which I know a lot of people have from experience. You get new artists and established artists being stressed about not being good enough. You have to have some kind of balance there. I have my work which is super important, but I also have my family, friends, parents, and everyone else. If I’m working hard in the studio, there’s someone to tell me, ‘You know what, just come home and have dinner’. It gives me the balance of realising, ‘I know the song’s really important, but it’s not the end of the world’, and that's helped me.
Tim could stress over a song, he'd work 72 hours in a row without eating. I could see this person is falling apart, he’s not feeling well, he’s taking all kinds of stuff to stay alert. That becomes a vicious circle. Especially as an artist, where you have to think about your brand, etc. - I don’t have to think about that as much because I’m a songwriter, not an artist. But seeing that person fall apart from outside pressure and his own pressure to always be better, it’s just an evil circle when you get into that. I think it’s important to take care of small things like, ‘I didn’t have to work 24 hours today’, and to find other things to satisfy you, because you can get so caught up in music. Especially now with everything moving so fast and so much music being released, and the artist can be thinking ‘that last song didn’t get enough attention’, etc. It’s impossible to keep up with that if you don’t have some kind of balance to it.
Definitely, and I think that can be applied to any job, not just music - finding a balance is so crucial.
Also, that comes from listening to your body and its signals. I’m still bad at that when I’m really into something, because it feels like nothing else matters. You have to listen to the signals early on, like ‘I’m not eating’ or ‘I’m not sleeping’. Talk to someone. Talk to the guy in the studio, whoever it is. It’s so easy to be in your own little world and bubble, and to think 'I’m superman, nothing will stop me’, ‘I will become the next big star’…whatever it is, you spend so much time on something and you crash because you haven’t slept or eaten. Listen to your body, and do that all the time.
One of my favourite songs ever, even though it wasn’t ever released as a single, is Jason Derulo’s Rest of Our Life, which you had a hand in writing. It’s such a sweet, feel-good song. Did you and Jason work on it in the studio together, or did you write it and send it to him? How did it come about?
Jason came to the studio in Sweden for a week to just work and do different stuff. It was one of four or five songs that we did, and we just thought this one feels good. He liked it, and the label liked it. We talked a bit before about how sometimes it takes a long time to create a song, and sometimes like with ‘Rest of Our Life’ it's really quick, and it turned out to be a great song. A few songs have been similar - One Direction’s ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ just happened like that as well.
"You have to listen to the signals early on, like ‘I’m not eating’ or ‘I’m not sleeping’. Talk to someone. Talk to the guy in the studio, whoever it is."
It must be hard not to get attached to a song once you’ve finished it. Not to name names, but do you ever give one of your songs to an artist, and then you hear their version and think ‘Oh no, they’ve ruined my song!’
A lot of times if you have control over the song the whole way, you can at least finalise it and work on it and tweak it and turn it into something you’re really happy with. A lot of the time, you do chords or a melody and send it to someone else and it becomes this whole other thing you weren’t expecting. For me, of course, I've had it a couple of times when I think, ‘What the fuck is this?’. You often feel very precious about your songs, like, ‘It’s good the way it is!’ I can still get like that. But the key thing I learned is that all feedback is useful feedback. If you don’t like it, why not? Is there something I can change to make it better? That is an important state of mind, to know that if you tell me my song sucks, I want you to tell me why. It’s a better way to approach it if they say, ‘I think you should change this because this will make it a better song’.
Lastly, what are you favourite three songs with an inspiring theme or message about mental health?
1. Fades Away, Avicii
2. Unwell, Matchbox Twenty
3. Shake It Off, Florence + The Machine
Check out Carl Falk’s ‘Behind the Song’ videos for Avicii’s TIM below:
'The Story behind 'Ain't A Thing'' - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkAy8Mft3zY
'The Story behind 'Bad Reputation'' - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owNYq6cZfVA
'The Story behind 'Fades Away'' - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amDIOXaAauw
Learn more about the Tim Bergling Foundation here.
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