Songwriter Sean Douglas’ job is just like yours — except his office is the recording studio. And his co-workers are stars like Jason Derulo and David Guetta.
“People imagine songwriting to be this free-floating, magical process, but I take a very workmanlike approach to my job,” Douglas says. “You’re writing poetry, but you’re also thinking, ‘How many seconds to the chorus?’”
Douglas, AB ’05, who graduated with a degree in anthropology, is on a hot streak. His hits include “Talk Dirty” and “Wiggle,” performed by Derulo; “Hey Mama,” performed by Guetta and Nicki Minaj; “Heart Attack,” performed by Demi Lovato; and “Levels,” performed by Nick Jonas. He’s also worked with Meghan Trainor, Timbaland, Florida Georgia Line, CeeLo Green, Fifth Harmony and Madonna.
“During the sessions with Madonna, I was the most nervous I’ve ever been for anything,” says Douglas, who helped write the lyrics and melody to the ballad “Ghosttown” for her album Rebel Heart. “I couldn’t believe it was happening. But you settle in, and after an hour, you’re just talking to another songwriter. Then someone walks in with a tray of fresh sushi, and you’re like, ‘Oh right, I’m here with Madonna.’”
Douglas returned to Washington University this past spring to speak to undergraduate students at the Career Center panel, “Making It in the Music Industry.” Joined by booking agent Matt Adler, Octone Records founder Ben Berkman and Columbia Records executive and Washington University alum Isaac Green, AB ’96, Douglas discussed how, after many mistakes and bad breaks, he got to the top.
“An element of delusion is important,” Douglas told students. “If I would have known how far away success really was, I would have quit and said, ‘This is crazy.’ Finally, things are coming together.”
‘Hello, Michael Keaton’s son’
Indeed, the past year has rocked for Douglas. “Wiggle” and “Talk Dirty” ruled the airwaves and the dance floor. He married Rachel Bartov, BSBA ’05, a fashion executive who graduated from the Olin School. And he became an Internet sensation when his father, Michael Keaton, won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy for his performance in Birdman. During his acceptance speech, an emotional Keaton told 19.3 million viewers, “My best friend is kind, intelligent, funny, talented, considerate, thoughtful. Did I say kind? He also happens to be my son, Sean.” Cameras panned to a dashing Douglas.
The moment generated dozens of headlines and one hilarious tweet: “Oh, hello, Michael Keaton’s son,” actress Mindy Kaling tweeted to her 4 million followers.
“It was super weird,” Douglas says. “I was shocked and amused by the response, but mostly I was overwhelmed by pride in my dad. I was so happy for him.”
Douglas says his father and his mother, Caroline McWilliams, who died in 2010, shared their passion for music with him. He grew up listening to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, Billy Joel’s Cold Spring Harbor and Michael Jackson’s Bad on the stereo and taking piano lessons. Douglas drifted away from music, but when his best friend in high school started a band, Douglas was all in.
“I couldn’t play anything so I was the DJ,” Douglas says. “This was back when scratching was still a thing.”
By the time Douglas arrived at Washington University, he was determined to be a musician. He analyzed albums like the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection and practiced scales in campus rehearsal rooms. Later, he formed the band The Hatch with classmates Jess Macht, AB ’05 (anthropology); Todd Rubin, AB ’05 (environmental studies); and Austin Schumacher, AB ’06 (psychology).
“This was my goal: If someone came to Washington University and asked, ‘Are there any bands on campus?’ I wanted people to say, ‘The Hatch,’” Douglas says. “Of course, they might follow it up with, ‘And they suck,’ but at least they would have thought of us.”
The band, named after a line in a Tenacious D song, played dozens of student parties, campus events and gigs at Cicero’s and the now-defunct Red Sea. Meanwhile, Douglas decided to major in anthropology because, well, why not? Maybe there is a better major for aspiring songwriters, but Douglas couldn’t think of one. He certainly didn’t want to major in music.
“I know a lot of people who have a classical education in music, and there are good reasons to make that choice,” Douglas says. “But I love that I was an anthropology major and got this broad liberal arts education. It informs how I think about people and cultures. It gives me points of reference that maybe other writers don’t have. I think that matters when you are trying to write songs that appeal to a broad spectrum of the population.”
After graduation, The Hatch moved to New York, appeared on the Fox flop The Next Great American Band and produced an album. No one cared — fortunately.
“We were slightly delusional: ‘Hey, labels, we’re ready for you now. Just give us the budget and marketing,’” Douglas recalls. “The songs got attention, but there was this, ‘Well, we’re not sure you’re the greatest frontman in the world.’ In the midst of this, my manager, to keep me busy, gave me some writing to do. A week or two into that I was like, ‘This is me.’ I’d write an R&B song one day and then write a country song the next. I loved it.”
Funny without being a joke
To Douglas, a good song is a lot like a high school essay. There’s a thesis, i.e., the chorus, and subtopics with supporting examples, i.e., the verses.
“Everything comes back to thesis,” Douglas says. “Not that the structure has to be that regimented, but I like to know what I am saying. Country writers are really good at that, and I try to apply that lyrical discipline to pop music.”
Though Douglas’ songs are as sonically diverse as the artists who record them, his lyrics share a cheeky wit.
“I’m a big fan of R. Kelly and Randy Newman, who are united in that they can both write a very funny song that is not a joke, which is a very fine line to walk,” Douglas says. “‘Wiggle’ and ‘Talk Dirty’ are fun exercises in that. People may describe the lyrics as dumb, but there are thoughtful layers there that many people probably haven’t noticed. It makes me feel a little better about corrupting our youth.”
And what does Douglas’ dad think about his bawdy lyrics?
“He’s happy for hits,” Douglas says. “A couple songs down the line, he might be like, ‘Let’s refine that.’ But right now, he’s just happy I’m working. He was maybe sweating it a couple years ago when it was unclear if I would have any success in this. It’s funny: My parents told me I could do anything but go into the movie business, and I picked an industry that’s even more unpredictable.”