As much as we like to glamourize it, this whole music thing is hard. Record sales are in the toilet and constant touring is a recipe for an early grave, not to mention the toll it can take on your personal life. So what’s an indie rocker to do when they need a little extra scratch? Write a pop song. A new clutch of artists are finding success behind the scenes, reaping the financial benefits without the hassle of stardom.
Here are ten glossy pop songs written (or co-written) by indie artists. We’ve stretched the definition of “indie” in a few cases, but each is a case of a songwriter writing for a noticeably more mainstream audience than their own.
Big Boi, “Shoes For Running” (Wavves’ Nathan Williams)
Although he’s best known for weed-ridden guitar rock, the Wavves mastermind has shown a penchant for production work; check out the densely layered sonics of last year’s Afraid of Heights and his instrumental side-project Sweet Valley. Still, his inclusion on Big Boi’s 2012 record, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors is a bit outside his usual distortion-soaked comfort zone. “Shoes For Running,” penned by Williams and Afraid of Heights producer John Hill, was originally supposed to just be a Big Boi track, but somewhere along the way Williams ended up guesting on the song, too.
Simple Plan, “Can’t Keep My Hands Off You” (Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo)
The Weezer frontman’s displayed a serious infatuation with pop songwriting on recent releases, even if those excursions have led to some of the nerd-rockers weaker material. Nevertheless, Cuomo slipped into the studio with perpetual platinum punks Simple Plan to knock off “Can’t Keep My Hands Off You.” Cuomo even makes a brief cameo in the second verse. It’s certainly no “Buddy Holly,” but come to think of it, this is probably better than half the songs on that last Weezer album…
Sum 41, “We’re All To Blame” (Fucked Up’s Ben Cook)
The Toronto-based artist and producer certainly has his hands full; while not playing guitar in Fucked Up, Cook found a home for his songwriting talents in disparate music projects like Marvelous Darlings (RIP), Young Guv, No Warning, Yacht Club. But that didn’t stop him from ghostwriting tracks for CanRock pop-punks Sum 41 and pop-rock stars Hedley. For Cook’s hilarious take on his side-gig, listen to the final audio clip in this NOW interview.
Taylor Swift, “The Last Time” (Owen Pallett)
Owen Pallett has always been one to share his talent; he was just nominated (alongside Arcade Fire‘s William Butler) for an Academy Award for his work on the soundtrack to Spike Jonze’s new film Her. But in between sessions with The National, Arcade Fire and Franz Ferdinand, Pallett snuck in some orchestration work on Taylor Swift’s smash album Red. (He also did some arrangements for Linkin Park‘s last album, if you can believe it.)
Wale, “TV In The Radio” (TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek)
TV On The Radio’s sonic mastermind is well known for his work behind the boards for indie rocking friends like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Liars. Then there’s that wait-that-actually-happened? Tom Waits cover record he made with Scarlett Johansson. But Sitek’s hands down weirdest collaboration has got to be the two tracks he produced for Wale on Attention Deficit, the Washington D.C. MC’s bid for major-label stardom. Along with helping out on album opener “Triumph” he also contributed the beat to the K’naan-assisted and appropriately-titled, “TV In The Radio.”
P!nk, “Trouble” (Rancid’s Tim Armstrong)
While the Rancid singer/guitarist strikes a tough guy pose with his Mohawk, spiked leather and tattooed everything, Tim Armstrong has found surprising success writing tunes for female pop stars like Skye Sweetnam and P!nk, penning eight tracks for the latter’s 2003 record Try This. It’s actually not that hard to imagine Armstrong singing “Trouble” with Rancid.
Lupe Fiasco, “Little Weapon” (Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump)
Unlike the other artists on this list, Patrick Stump did make a stab at pop stardom himself with his 2011 solo album Soul Punk. Before that, though, Stump hooked up with Lupe Fiasco on his much loved album The Cool. Stump produced the track “Little Weapon,” and also contributed some vocals. Obviously the Chicago MC liked what he heard, returning the favour on Stump’s “This City.”
Nikki Yanofsky, “Cool My Heels” (Ron Sexsmith)
Ron Sexsmith is renowned for his songwriting prowess despite never having had an actual bona fide “hit” of his own. Everyone from Rod Stewart to Michael Buble have covered his tunes, yet Sexsmith appears to have avoided embracing full-blown pop songwriting. He did however pen the track “Cool My Heels” for Nikki Yanofsky’ post-Olympics attempt at crossover stardom, Nikki. Friend and fellow Torontonian Feist also contributed the track “Try Try Try” to the record.
Christina Aguilera, “Beautiful” (4 Non Blondes’ Linda Perry)
While a thousand karaoke renditions of “What’s Up?” have obscured their legacy, 4 Non Blondes were at one point considered a part of the nascent “alternative rock” movement in the early ’90s. But frontwoman Linda Perry really made her mark in the new millennium as an in-demand writer-for-hire. Perry was the woman behind mega-hit “Get The Party Started,” which elevated P!nk beyond second-tier Britney wannabe status as well as Christina Aguilera’s American Idol audition standard, “Beautiful,” amongst many others.
Ke$ha, “Dirty Love” (Iggy Pop)
Mr. Pop has been the recipient of some pretty great songs in the past from the likes of David Bowie. So it makes sense the the O.G. punk would pay it forward. That still doesn’t fully explain how Iggy ended up singing, writing and influencing the overall sound of Ke$ha’s album Warrior. Specifically, he co-wrote and appeared on the track “Dirty Love,” although not in the song’s accompanying video (given that Ke$ha strips to her skivvies in the clip, perhaps this was a wise move for a guy in his mid-’60s).
Ke$ha was also reportedly working on collaborative record with The Flaming Lips around this time called Lipsha, however the album was scrapped. You can get a sense of what might have been on the track “2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)” from the Lips’ collaborative LP The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends.