LOS ANGELES — DreamWorks Animation released the feature Trolls last November, but the film’s positive vibe could be felt months earlier, when the song "Can't Stop the Feeling!" was released as a single and music video back in May. Justin Timberlake, who voices one of the film’s lead characters, Branch, also executive produced the movie’s soundtrack, which included co-writing "Can't Stop the Feeling!”. To say it was one of 2016’s biggest hits is no exaggeration, as it reached #1 in well over a dozen countries.
The track is now nominated for an Academy Award in the “Music (Original Song)” category. Timberlake, who performs the vocals, shares co-writing credits with Max Martin and Karl Johan Schuster (aka Shellback). Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, he talks about his creative process.
You’ve had much success as a recording artist. How did you approach the creative process for this film’s soundtrack and specifically for "Can't Stop the Feeling!"? Were you given a directive by DreamWorks?
“I have never written a song under that type of pretense. Usually, if I go and work on music for an album or something like that, I go in with nothing in my head (laughs). Then, I let it all open up and try to stay out of the way. With this, it was so different. I was already on as being the executive music producer. We had all these other big pop songs that we were covering, so with this song, we really wanted it to aspire or attempt to be up to par with those songs. It had to unite the two lead characters and it also had to unite this whole tribe of Trolls, this whole tribe of Bergens. And to do that, it needed to bring home the message that the movie was trying to lay out for young people, which was, that happiness is a choice and is within all of us, and you can access it whenever you want.
“So it needed to do all those things, but it needed to specifically ‘move.’ They wanted a lot of action with how the characters were moving. I knew that I needed to make it move, for lack of a better term. I knew that it needed to have some tempo and groove to it, so it was all those things mixed into one four-minute song.”
The Trolls are happy, adorable-looking creatures. Did the look of the animation influence your tempo and instrumentation?
“We knew that it couldn’t be dark. The first key that unlocked anything for us [was], I am looking at all these different genres of pop songs that we were covering in the movie — ‘Sound of Silence,’ ‘September,’ ‘True Colors’ — and I think I was feeling that the movie itself — the look of it — feels ‘psychedelic’ and ‘disco’ to me. I felt like, you know what, we haven’t really covered disco? Which, by the way, I feel is a very underappreciated genre of music. I think ABBA has some of the greatest songs, honestly. So that was the first key — like a ‘modern disco pop’ song. And that’s when we started messing around with bass lines. And the bass line sort of became the runway that we were able to take off on.”
What was the writing arrangement with Max Martin and Karl Johan Schuster (Shellback)? Were you all in a room together with different instruments, like a bass or keyboard?
“Oh yeah. It’s all of that at the same time. It’s kind of like a tornado. The process for me, when I work, is that it doesn’t have to be a certain process, like, let me give this to you and you take it away and then bring it back. It’s very collaborative. It’s very off the cuff. To me, the more loose you can make those sessions, the better everything comes out.”
Where was this all taking place?
“We are at Max’s studio — Max and Johan and myself are at Max’s studio.”
In Los Angeles?
How far along will you develop a track before you show it to someone? Was there an approval process, or did DreamWorks trust you as an artist?
“I like to bring it pretty done, and everyone can sort of have their opinions on it. For instance, we tinkered with some lyrics for the movie version that aren’t in the soundtrack version. There are two different lines that are even more specific to the story.”
Are you hands-on when it comes to the recording process in terms of gear, digital audio workstation, etc.?
“I am familiar with pretty much all of it. I just don’t really like to be ‘on’ the computer (laughs). I feel like it takes me away from being creative. Instruments and vocals — that’s where I like to live. Max is actually pretty adept at engineering because he’s done it for so long. We used Pro Tools.”
With some many outlets for a song like this — radio, iTunes, theatrical — were you thinking about a multichannel mix?
“It’s all of the above. We had to mix it for radio first. Once we got done with it, I think we got really excited. Everybody got really excited about putting a song out early. So we had to mix it for radio, mix it for iTunes separately, and then there was obviously a theatrical mix, but DreamWorks had someone who was doing the sound mixing on the movie, so I just came in and approved little things that I thought should come up or down. Sound engineers on movies are pretty adept.”
Are you looking to get more into filmmaking or directing?
“I think I am always looking for new things that inspire me, clearly. I have always wanted to direct as well. But I think everything in its right place. I am enjoying that after years of working in both fields — film and music separately — that there’s more opportunities for them to come together at the same time, because I enjoy both.”
Are you looking forward to Oscar night?
“It will be fun.”