From pop-punk frontman to big-name producer, Joel Little’s musical career has followed a rare trajectory. A new Audioculture feature traces his path – here are a few of the highlights.
The early years
Joel Little’s introduction to the New Zealand music industry came as the frontperson of pop-punk band Goodnight Nurse in the early 2000s. After releasing three albums and achieving considerable local success, the band announced an indefinite hiatus in early 2010, with guitarist Sam McCarthy soon afterwards co-founding electronic duo Kids of 88 with high school friend Jordan Arts. Having shared Goodnight Nurse’s production duties with McCarthy, Little became involved with the new band after hearing an early version of their song ‘My House’.
“Sam had made a demo of half the song. I heard it and immediately said, ‘I’m coming over and we’re finishing this up today.’ We were all pretty notorious for starting ideas and not completing them, but I knew that one was too good not to finish.”
The song reached number three on the New Zealand singles charts, and Little would go on to co-write and produce all but one of the songs on Kids of 88’s debut album Sugarpills, which peaked at number two. In the meantime, however, he’d realised that he needed to find a new way to support himself through his music.
“I was a new dad, freaking out! It’s hard enough to make a living in music when you just have to support yourself, let alone a family, so I was doing acoustic covers gigs while we were still doing Goodnight Nurse. I wasn’t enjoying that at all. Then Sam and I started writing songs for TV commercials and had quick success with that. The first thing we pitched got picked up and I realised I could stop doing the covers if we could do one of those every couple of months.
“If someone asked ‘can you do a country song?’ I’d say ‘yeah, totally.’ Then I’d hang up and think ‘oh my god, how do you do a country song?’ Or if someone said ‘we need a dubstep song for this commercial’ I’d be straight on YouTube looking up how to make a dubstep song. So I had to upskill really quickly because I was doing a million types of music on the go.”
2011: A royal union
In December 2011, Little had his first writing session with 15-year-old singer/songwriter Ella Yelich-O’Connor, set up by his longtime friend and manager Ashley Page.
“[Page] had seen her perform at a school talent quest a few years earlier and was adamant we should work together, just to see what would happen … Up to that point I hadn’t done a lot of co-writing with people who weren’t friends, and to be honest the idea of writing songs with a 15-year-old seemed a bit weird. But as we all know she’s one of a kind and any worries I had were gone as soon as I met her. It’s crazy to think about it now, that we clicked the way that we did.”
The first output of their partnership would be 2012’s Love Club EP, which saw the public introduction not only of Lorde, but also of her soon-to-be-enormous single ‘Royals’. The track saw an international release in mid-2013, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks and reaching #1 in New Zealand, the UK, Canada and a host of other countries.
As ‘Royals’ blew up, the pair continued to work on Lorde’s subsequent full-length album Pure Heroine. Follow-up singles ‘Tennis Court’ and ‘Team’ proving that her first hit single was no fluke, but despite reaching number one in New Zealand and cracking charts internationally, Little had initially thought the minimal approach of the latter might limit its radio potential.
“That song just has a really different structural approach to your typical ‘single’. It starts with this weird a capella section with this strange time signature that transitions into a verse and then doesn’t appear in the song again. At the time I loved the song but I didn’t think there was any way it could be a single because of that intro. But maybe that was what made it stand out as well.”
Little first met Georgia and Caleb Nott when their high school band The Peasants won the Smokefree Rockquest final in 2011, with their prize including free recording time with him and Jaden Parkes. That band didn’t last, but the two maintained their working relationship with Little, as he co-wrote and co-produced on that duo’s first two albums as Broods: 2014’s Evergreen and 2016’s Conscious.
The songwriting approach with Broods was quite different to that of his work with Lorde, since both Georgia and Caleb were more likely to bring along chords and musical parts for songs they were working on, rather than constructing them in the studio with Little. During the writing process for the song ‘Worth The Fight’ from Conscious, Little’s then four-year-old daughter Emmie kept interrupting her father to sing her own idea to him. Realising that it could actually work quite well, he showed it to Georgia. It happened to fit the lyrics she had been working on, so was included in the final version.
“We got a TV synch for it and Emmie made $600. She doesn’t even know about it, but we’ll give it to her one day when she’s old enough to know what to do with that much money.”
Joel Little, hit maker
In 2014, Little moved to LA to make himself available for any further opportunities that might arise. He worked with a range of established and rising acts, including Sam Smith, Ellie Goulding, Jarred James and Tove Lo, but by far his biggest post-Lorde break came from his collaborations with young American singer Khalid. The pair had met before Khalid’s first song had gone viral on SoundCloud, and their first in-studio collaborations were also with songwriter Talay Riley.
“We’d pretty much finished for the day. We’d been working on this really dark ominous song and were about to pack it in when Talay said ‘let’s just quickly try something a little more upbeat.’”
Little hurriedly came up with a beat then put some chords over it and within a half-hour they had written the majority of the track, ‘Young, Dumb, and Broke’. The song reached No.18 on the US Hot 100, went on to break one billion streams and was certified six times platinum in the US. Little had two further co-writing and production credits on Khalid’s debut album American Teen, which would eventually reach No.4 on the Billboard 200.
Taylor Swift and beyond
Little’s relationship with his highest-profile collaborator began backstage at a Broods concert in the US. He caught up with Taylor Swift again in New Zealand during her Reputation album tour, as he told Billboard:
“I have this amazing photo of my daughter in tears of joy meeting her backstage at the concert. Once we got to know each other a little I think we realised we could probably write some good songs together, and a few weeks later she asked me to come to New York to work.”
Little co-wrote four tracks for Swift’s next album but it wasn’t until release day that he could even announce that he’d been involved with the project. The album, 2019’s Lover, raced to number one in the US and UK, with three of the tracks Little contributed to becoming top 30 singles in the US – ‘ME!’ feat Brendan Urie, ‘You Need To Calm Down’ and ‘The Man’. Despite his huge and ongoing success, though, Little says that he’s still driven by the same instinct that got him started in Goodnight Nurse.
“I still just love making songs. The reason I wrote songs when I wasn’t making any money is the same reason I’m making songs now – that feeling you get when you make something you’re excited and passionate about. It’s hard to beat that feeling.
“When I wake up each day I still think ‘this could be the day I create the best song I’ve ever written.’ It could still be out there for me. Usually at the end of the day, I think, ‘oh well, it didn’t happen today, but tomorrow could be the day.’”