Not that Kotecha was plunging into the city’s fabled music scene: “I was such a pop guy. I never went downtown.”
Instead, at his suburban high school, he found a choir teacher who instilled in him a love of writing music. Despite any real training, it came easily. “I’m not really sure why. I was never a great musician, but I felt I had a knack for writing songs,” he remembers.
“Never heard of Kotecha? You’ve likely heard some of these: Ariana Grande’s “Problem,” Usher’s “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love,” Maroon 5’s “One More Night,” Britney Spears’ “I Wanna Go,” and The Weeknd’s “I Can’t Feel My Face.””
This set him on a quixotic career path. “I naively thought it would work out even when family members and teachers told me I was crazy,” he says. Kotecha would take a music business course and record home demo tapes, which he sent out unsolicited. He would also hit surrounding hotels during SXSW, passing out his music to anyone with a badge, until the hotels tossed him out.
Like everyone else trying to break in, Kotecha had star fantasies, which were dashed quickly. “An A&R guy at Jive Records got a hold of one of my crappy sounding demo tapes,” he recalls. “He called and said, ‘Your writing is great, but you’ll never be an artist,’ and I just accepted that. I don’t know why … it just made sense to me, so I gave up the dream of being the first Indian pop star and focused on developing my craft.”
Years went by, and finally, he was offered a publishing deal with BMG. The company sent Kotecha to Sweden, home of Cheiron Studios and pop wunderkind Max Martin, the Swedish songwriter and producer whose string of #1 hits is only surpassed by Lennon and McCartney.
Though he went willingly, his early years in Sweden were lean ones. Kotecha worked long hours (“I don’t even remember my 20s or early 30s outside of being in a studio”), and slowly started meeting influential people who would later launch his career, including Simon Cowell, and eventually, Martin himself.
His breakthrough came when American Idol winner Carrie Underwood performed his song “Inside Your Heaven.” “I remember watching a stream of the Idol final late at night in a studio, he says. “And I was so broke I was eating beans out of a can. But I knew that things would change after that.” They did, as the song became Kotecha’s first #1 record.
Once he found himself collaborating with Martin, it was eye-opening: “His attention to detail and how he can step out of the song and see what’s missing, his knowing the difference been just ‘good’ and ‘great’ and how to get there.” All of these things made huge impressions on Kotecha.