Photo: Graham Wolff
Annika Wells On Writing For BTS, Her Advice For Singer/Songwriters & The Secret Value Of Making People Mad
Annika Wells' songs have been breathed by artists that 99% of us could only fantasize about working with — including the titans of K-pop, BTS. And the 25-year-old got there not by trying to appeal to everybody at once, but by entertaining herself first and foremost — and trusting that the right audience will find her in the end.
"My favorite art is art that's made somebody mad. It means you're saying something new," the Angeleno tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom with a grin. "It's not like I'm trying to weird people out, or not not trying to weird people out. I'm saying exactly what I'm thinking and somebody somewhere is going to resonate with it."
"I would rather make one person's favorite song than 100 people's song they put on in the background when they go about their day," she adds.
For most musicians, unbending devotion to unfettered expression might leave their work unheard in the catacombs of Bandcamp. But Wells cultivated a large audience by dealing in universal concepts, like getting over heartbreak and taking a bite out of life. This applies not only to her work with BTS and Steve Aoki ("The Truth Untold"), the Jonas Brothers ("Like It's Christmas") and BAYNK ("go with u"), but her mouthy, personality-first singles under her own name, like "F**k Being Sober" and "Love Sucks."
Read on for an in-depth interview with Wells about how she entered BTS's orbit, why pleasing everyone is a no-no for artists and why finding success in the music business means "pounding down every door" until one swings open.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you talk about your songwriting process, as opposed to your performing process?
I've written for people like BTS, ILLENIUM, Hailee Steinfeld, Maggie Lindemann — a lot of people in the pop sphere. Songwriting has always been my original love. Since I was about eight years old, I've been writing music and have always known that's what I wanted to do. I absolutely love writing for myself and I also love helping other people's stories come to light. Songwriting in any capacity is my passion.
Writing for BTS sounds intense. What's that like?
I actually didn't write with them in the room, especially because they're abroad most of the time. Boy bands and girl bands' schedules are absolutely insane. It's pretty hard to get in a room with them. That session was actually a quick song in how it came about.
I wrote this ballad with one of my friends I went to Berklee College of Music with. He texted me that morning and was like, "Come join this session! Come over to my friend's place!" I was like, "Sure." We ended up writing this song about this unrequited love he had. We all loved it and the song sat around for six months.
Nobody was really picking it up. It's really hard to write a song for a pitch. Nobody was taking a bite. And then, out of the blue, one of the people we wrote it with, their publisher [made a series of connections] and got the song to BTS. [When we heard] BTS wanted to cut it, we were like, "What! That's crazy!"
It ended up being this collab with Steve Aoki and the song did incredibly well. It was such a cool surprise! I didn't get the opportunity to work with them in person, but it's funny how these opportunities all come about. You never know when something big can happen!
Do you write on a piano? On a guitar? With a digital audio workstation?
All of the above. I started writing on piano. I took classical piano lessons for about 10 years and that has always been my principal instrument.
But I've been actually writing on guitar recently because I don't know the instrument that well. I've never taken lessons. I feel like with piano, I always overthink it because I know the instrument so well. With guitar, there's room for me to play something wrong and have that mistake be cool. So, it's been fun to write for guitar recently.
Besides BTS, who else have you written for lately?
In the last year, it's been difficult, obviously, to collaborate. I've gone back to working with some people. I've been working a bit with Chloe Lilac, who's an amazing independent artist in New York. I have some stuff coming up on BAYNK's new album. Obviously, ILLENIUM and I are always collaborating. I actually had my first in-person session yesterday, which was so much fun because I'm fully vaccinated. I'm excited to finally get back into this.
What about the songs you write for yourself? Do you delineate between the two when you write, or is an Annika song just an Annika song?
There's definitely an indescribable aspect to it when it feels like me. The music I put out as myself is so deeply personal, and it's kind of the difference [between] "Am I going to tell an absolutely true story today or am I going to put on my imagination hat?" Not necessarily to make something up, but to connect to a real-life experience and tell a story that's not exactly my own.
How would you describe your voice as a songwriter?
My voice, I think, is kind of quirky. "Abrasive" sounds like too abrasive a word, but I think in some ways, it kind of is.
I want to peel back this veil of what we're supposed to say. Trying to look cool or trying to not embarrass myself. I just want to say what the f*** is on my mind. What I'm actually thinking. It's more about saying what I actually want to say rather than thinking about what the audience wants to hear, and inevitably, an audience does come out of the woodwork that wants to hear that.
My favorite art is art that's made somebody mad. It means you're saying something new. Somebody's getting pissed off by it. It's not like I'm trying to weird people out, or not not trying to weird people out. I'm saying exactly what I'm thinking and somebody somewhere is going to resonate with it.
I would rather make one person's favorite song than 100 people's song they put on in the background when they go about their day.
Which songwriters are you checking out lately?
Julia Michaels has always been a favorite of mine. I've been obsessed with her and Justin Tranter since I was in high school. I remember my mom somehow found an article about Justin Tranter and was like, "You need to hear about this guy! You're going to love him!" I became obsessed with their writing style. I love how Julia started this new era of speaking so colloquially—those talking lyrics.
I also love Coldplay. Chris Martin has inspired so many melodies and also piano voicings. I absolutely love their voicings and how they use these pop chords, but if you actually look at the inversions and structures, it's really complex but they communicate in a way that's so accessible.
Anyone from, say, the '50s through the '80s?
My favorite album of all time is Ella and Louis. That one absolutely stabbed me in the heart. That's the first record I ever bought. Before I even bought a record player, I bought that record and carried it around with me for, like, three years. It's so scratched by now that I need to get a new one since I've listened to it literally hundreds and hundreds of times.
Do you have any advice for younger writers?
My one piece of advice I always go back to in terms of finding opportunities or getting people to hear your music — or generally finding success in the industry — is to get creative with the avenues you're trying.
The ways I've always found success have been because I've not just knocked on every door, but pounded down every door. Nine out of 10 times, the door's not going to open up! But then one out of 10 is going to open up. If you're the one person who's actively pounding down every door, you're going to be the one who gets through it.
Just try every avenue. Try something weird. Try something people aren't thinking of doing. Just get creative with how you look for opportunities and you're going to find something.