Smerz on writing ASAP and producing for NewJeans
Just over a year ago, NewJeans made their surprise debut with the suitably titled single Attention.
Shortly after, the K-pop five-piece’s self-titled New Jeans EP dropped and since then they’ve been on a continually meteoric ascent – only bolstered by the club-fuelled pop of their recent release Get Up.
Made up of members Minji, Hanni, Danielle, Haerin and Hyein, NewJeans channel an energy akin to 90s and 00s girl bands complete with impeccable choreography and iconic music videos. Their music purveys a nonchalant coyness with lyrics about first love, cute crushes, self-acceptance and friendship, the sound mixing incandescent, saccharine pop with R&B and Baltimore club beats. On Get Up, the club-adjacent motifs are brought even more to the fore: opener New Jeans is a self-assured 2-step bop, whilst Super Shy is driven by laid-back d’n’b and buoyant Jersey club.
These sounds really fall into place when you know the songwriting crew involved in the creation of Get Up. Alongside NewJean’s long-time producers 250 and Park Jin-su, for their second EP the South Korean group enlisted names from Copenhagen’s music scene, among others. This saw Erika de Casier, Fine Glindvad and Smerz take part in a studio session that happened in the Danish capital back in January this year. The latter of the three, Smerz – aka Copenhagen-based Norwegian duo Catharina Stoltenberg and Henriette Motzfeldt – are known for their mesmerising, slinking experimental pop that straddles dusky club beats and sparse, spectral productions. They also host a monthly NTS show within which they play everything from classical composers to euroclub bangers.
Following the recent release of Get Up, we caught up with Stoltenberg and Motzfeldt to talk about the experience of collaborating with NewJeans, producing EP closer ASAP and what else the pair have in store.
How were you first approached to work on NewJeans’ Get Up EP?
Catharina Stoltenberg: We simply got this email where they asked us if we wanted to join a songwriter-producer camp in Copenhagen, where they were gathering some Copenhagen-based artists but also people from all around the world.
What was that studio session in Copenhagen like?
CS: Really impressive, we’ve never done anything like it. Normally with everything we do, we almost only work as the two of us. So everything was very new: you’re gonna come in and write songs with others. Everything’s going to happen in one or two days. We basically just got there, there was food and snacks, and [everyone] was put into different groups with producers and songwriters, but they mixed it up a bit. Then you just wrote the song before lunch and had lunch. And then you wrote another song after lunch. It was kind of amazing.
You were working with Erika de Casier and Fine Glindvad, musicians you also already knew. What was it like working with people you know from the Copenhagen scene on this big K-pop project?
Henriette Motzfeldt: It was actually quite fun and quite liberating. Erika de Casier and Fine Glindvad – who were in the studio with us for ASAP – they are some of our very good friends. And we’ve actually never made music together before. I think this way of doing it, it felt very low stakes somehow, because it was outside of us and our music. So we could play with it in a different way.
Can you tell me a bit more about this difference?
CS: Mainly the fact that someone put you in a room and gave us almost no direction – which was nice, [they just said] that it should be finished before lunch. You just have to get going and then you get hold of some of your spontaneous output, which is maybe more difficult when you work on your own stuff. I can hear a lot of all four of us in that song in a very charming way. You just need to say yes to stuff. And when you work together, you need to say yes to everything. So it’s this very positive atmosphere.
I read that ASAP came about as a result of a beat you made towards the end of the session. What was the process of creating that track?
HM: It was the afternoon and we were heading out [of the session] in a few hours; it was the last day. The main producer for NewJeans, 250, had sent lots of loops that we could use as a starting point, which was the only direction we got because then we could get inspired from that. So then there was a synth loop that we used, we made the beat from there, and then Fine and Erika wrote melody and lyrics on top of it. It was a very new experience being the producers while someone else was writing because you have to be so fast. You always need to be one step ahead where we’re choosing this sound and this beat because that will fit the melody they’re making [in that moment]. And they also need to hear the music while they’re making it, so you have to navigate pressing play and trying to produce. It was kind of a confusing process.
CS: It was very confusing! And I think we were all quite surprised when we listened to it afterwards.
Is there anything from the experience that you learned and are incorporating into your own work together?
CS: A lot, it was a learning experience for us. Since, we’ve been actively going to the studio and just going for it, making a song and not stopping, to see what comes out. So thanks to this camp, we’re using that process a bit more. It reminds me of how we made music some years ago when we started, some of the sounds and the rhythms and the aesthetics and the producer style. It also reminded me of a lot of what I really enjoyed about the music that we made some years ago, which we will also bring more actively with us into the future after this camp.
How does it feel now to have the NewJeans project you worked on out and see this amazing reception it’s getting?
CS: It’s a different world for sure but it’s also a bit recognisable. It still feels like this small song that we made together with our friends. Of course, you see NewJeans performing and it’s crazy. What’s fascinating is this fun link between the four of us and this new world, which I wouldn’t have thought of myself.
HM: And that feels strange. We also thought that we were going to go back and forth a lot with the production and stuff after we delivered it. But it’s exactly the production of the song we made that afternoon. So that also contributes to this feeling, our own immediate process in this world.
@newjeans_official Tik tok tik tok tik tok 🎶 #NewJeans #뉴진스 #NewJeans_ASAP #NewJeans_GetUp #Time_to_NewJeans ♬ ASAP – NewJeans
Were you K-pop fans before working on Get Up?
CS: I never listened to it before but I really like this EP – I think that’s something new here and there’s this casualness of the process. It was like very, ‘yes, let’s go. This is the track. Let’s use it’. They managed to preserve the immediate feeling of a lot of the songs, which gives a natural energy. And that’s something I really like about this EP.
NewJeans, and this EP particularly, blend K-pop with 90s and early-00s sounds and aesthetics. Was this a factor you consciously focused on, or did it come about naturally in the process?
CS: Because we had to work so fast I think we went back [mentally] to where we started as musicians. Back then, we used to listen to a lot of footwork and these types of genres. Without thinking specifically about it, some of those aesthetics with the use of elements and rhythms – and this half tempo, fast tempo switch and vocal samples in this very sparse world – reminds me of that footwork world that we used to listen a lot to some years ago. I guess that kind of found its way through because we connected some of the loops or some of the aesthetics to that world. We just listened to ASAP [again] now and in a very weird way it reminds me a lot of Speakers R-4 by RP Boo. In many ways it’s not similar. But there’s this weird connection and I guess some of that came through.
There were three songs from our early work that I thought of after we made ASAP – You see?, Blessed and Girl. It reminded me of them without realising before we wrote the song.
"It was a learning experience for us. Since, we’ve been actively going to the studio and just going for it, making a song and not stopping, to see what comes out" – Catharina Stoltenberg
Between the two of you there’s such a closeness and fluidity to how you work together and you’ve obviously been making music as a pair for so long. How do you approach collaborating with others?
CS: It’s all about listening. Of course, being in a room with those two and Henriette and me, that’s easy because we’re friends. So we can quite easily tune into some common language where it’s easy to listen.
HM: Also dividing the roles, that clearly was an advantage. It was a bit fluid, too. But as a starting point, it was like: ‘we are the producers, you are the songwriters’, and then you kind of go from there. That was a nice way of concentrating and finding each other when you haven’t collaborated before. You know this drawing game where you draw a head and then you fold the paper and then another person draws the next part of the body? It’s a bit like that, because we made some production and then they just have to trust them.
Who would your dream collaboration be?
CS: Rihanna. Producing a track for Rihanna.
I love that, manifesting this for you. Aside from collaborating with NewJeans, what else have you been up to?
CS: This songwriter camp kickstarted another project which will be released soon. We went to this cabin and tried to use the same energy. I’m not sure if we can talk about it more now, but it will be released soon. And then we just announced a choir project that will be premiering in Oslo.
Can you tell me more about the choir project?
CS: It’s a fun link because it’s both choir and production with a lot of drums and the drums has some again, stretching it a bit, footwork aesthetics in this sparseness of it and the energy of it. But here in a completely different world.
HM: It’s a combination of eight voices. And then digital sounds, a very sparse world, as you say. Combining some classical music cliches with more electronic music cliches.
CS: We’re going to put up the sheet music for choirs to use. So I hope some choirs will test out the material. We are working on our main project too but we’re not sure when that will be finished, it’s in the process.