Hallelujah, she’s glorious! And Slovenia’s Ana Soklic is also a very smart woman, having surrounded herself with a top-flight team of collaborators for her Eurovision 2021 song “Amen”. We spoke with her co-writers — the songwriter Ziga Pirnat and lyricist Charlie Mason — to get the tea on how they helped our girl shine.
You’ve both worked with some incredible artists — from Conchita Wurst to Rihanna to Barbra Streisand. What about Ana Soklic stands out to you? Why did you want to write for her?
Žiga: Ana immediately caught my attention when I heard some of her performances on YouTube and realized what an extraordinary vocalist she is. Her potential was huge, and I was certain she could reach the very top. What I didn’t realize was that it would happen so quickly! Our first two collaborations both ended up with a win: the Jury Awards for best performance and song at the 2019 Slovene Song Festival (Slovenska popevka) and just five months later – the victorious performance of “Voda” at the Slovenian national Eurovision selection (EMA). And the rest is history…
Charlie: Concurring with Žiga, which is always a good idea, I can answer in two words: that voice. That’s the kind of voice you can go a whole lifetime waiting to hear, much less get to write for. As I got to know Ana a little, though, I also wanted to do justice to her passion. I wanted to make sure she was singing words that didn’t just sound nice but had as much power and depth as she does.
Žiga, what was your starting point for this musically? Was it a sound or perhaps a word? And what was the process for composing it?
Žiga: It was actually quite intertwined from the start. Ana had written a bunch of resonant words – both phonetically, meaning they were easy to sing, as well as emotionally, meaning she felt a certain attachment to them. We then started improvising at the piano and tried using different words with different melodies. That way we came up with a lot of great ideas and ultimately went with what now sounds like “hallellujaaaaah”…
Charlie: Amen to that!
When Ana put out the call for songs, she encouraged songwriters to go a little wild and not feel they had to give her something like “Voda.” Did this inspire you in any way?
Charlie: I came in sort of in the middle of the process, so that’s more of a question for you, Ž.
Žiga: Definitely. Ana is a versatile singer who excels in many different genres. Bojan and Ana experimented a lot and tried different styles throughout the years. We continued on that path when producing potential Eurovision material and were ultimately split between two very different possibilities: a soulful, gospel ballad with a strong “American” flavor or an intimate, emotional ballad in Slovene, not unlike “Voda.” So we ended up with two quite different demos which we sent to the RTV Slovenia for consideration by the juries.
How many versions of the song were there? Or was the journey from demo to final product quite quick and easy?
Charlie: I… don’t know that I can count high enough to guesstimate how many versions there were. Do you remember, Žiga? You had to have worked on even more of them than I did.
Žiga: A bunch! Once we had the demo with the dummy lyrics completed, we sent it to Charlie along with many ideas, lines, on what we wanted the song to be about. There were many, many versions while sending the lyrics back and forth between Charlie, Ana and me. Musically, the bridge as it stands now was way different in the original version; I completely revamped it for the final production. We were also testing versions with different key changes and without it. Finally, there are now different versions in terms of the final production and structure – one is the extended version which is also included on Ana’s EP “Born to the Fight” and contains the a cappella choral part which you can hear in the credits part of the official video.
This year the rules allow performances to include pre-recorded vocals. “Amen” includes a gospel choir — was this deliberately included to make the most of the rule change? Did the gospel choir guide the direction the song took or was it added later?
Žiga: Gospel is probably one of Ana’s favorite soundscapes. And getting the chance to perform a song with the backing of an epic American gospel choir — one made of the best studio singers in Hollywood, no less, vocalists who have been featured on the records and tours of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Christina Aguilera, John Legend… Ana says this is her greatest dream come true and still finds herself asking if it really happened.
Are there any interesting details about the actual recording of the song?
Žiga: The main recording session took place at the legendary EastWest Studio 1, where some of the most celebrated albums in music history have been produced. I believe in the last decade over 120 Grammy nominations went to music recorded at EastWest, more than any other studio in the world. If you ever compete in Jeopardy, you know now the answer to “What do ‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra and ‘Amen’ by Ana Soklič have in common?’” Haha.
We’ve heard Lady Gaga gave her blessing to this project in some way? Can you elaborate?
Žiga: Lady Gaga has also produced some of her projects at Studio 1 – for example, music from A Star is Born was recorded there.
Charlie: The rumor is that the very mic that brought her creations to life in Studio 1 was used again in “Amen.” And it was good…
Žiga: Right… Also, Tony Maserati, one of the best mixing engineers in the world who is behind most of Ms. Gaga’s hits, mixed “Amen.”
Charlie: ”Ms. Gaga” — ha. I always tell Žiga I’m sure “Ms. Gaga” heard Ana sing the demo and was so overwhelmed, she gave Tony the OK to work on “Amen.”
Žiga: Haha, Lady Gaga, Ed Sheeran, Selena Gomez, Gwen Stefani, Jennifer Lopez and all the other A-list clients of Tony.
Charlie: Yeah, there was a whole petition, I’m sure. OK, we’ll stop being dorks now.
Charlie, at what point were you brought in on the song? Were you presented with a final musical composition to start writing to? Or were you there from the beginning as well?
Charlie: By the time I came in, the composition was largely done. There were still tweaks here and there afterwards, but nothing drastic. Or at least nothing drastic that wound up being in the final version. Haha.
The song has a strong theme of perseverance. But many people say it also has a strong religious message — from the choir to the phrases “amen” and “hallelujah” to embracing the light. Charlie, you wrote the lyrics — is this a religious song?
Charlie: Yeah, I’ve heard that a lot. And I guess if you’re just giving it a cursory listen, it might sound like it’s a religious song. To me, though, it isn’t and never was. When I was brought on, the lyrics were already begun, some of them set in stone. And I knew that we’d be using the choir. So the song was always going to have gospel overtones. But the melody told such a clear story, all I had to do was write it down. That first verse, the melody is so heartbreaking to me. It’s that feeling of being so dispirited, you can’t even raise your head. You’re too defeated to even hope anymore. And as it goes along, the melody challenges that feeling, Ana’s voice challenges that feeling… She’s like this muse reaching out a hand to you when you’re at your lowest, and then of course, the chorus just explodes in defiance and celebration. It’s like a reward for finding the strength to take that one more step when you think you can’t. And by the time the chorus is done, you’re reminded — hopefully — “Yeah, everything may suck, but it’s OK. I got this.”
Žiga: “Amen” is also an affirmation used in all Abrahamic religions so we knew even those who would want to confine themselves to a strictly religious interpretation could hardly narrow it down to Christianity only.
To what extent did Ana’s personal struggles inform or shape the lyrics?
Žiga: This is probably something Ana would be able to answer better. I believe every artist’s, songwriter’s expression, style, work is a reflection of themselves, their personal story, be it straightforward or at a more metaphorical level.
Charlie: Ana, Žiga and I talked a lot about the lyrics, looking at them through different lenses. We all knew that a basic listener might say, “Oh, church song” and just dismiss it. Between the choir and some of the words, which are common to more than one religion, there was no way around that. But anybody who cuts a little deeper into it will, I hope, find that it’s about rising up against whoever or whatever is oppressing you and finding the strength to not just survive in this uncertain world but thrive in it.
By the way, how are all of you even collaborating? Is this all via Zoom? I’m assuming travel options were limited!
Žiga: Zoom, FaceTime, telepathy, you name it!
Charlie: What no one knows about me is that I’m just a disembodied head. I only exist in the computer.
Charlie, what’s it been like since winning Eurovision 2014? Did it open a flood of new opportunities?
Charlie: I’d love to say yes, but um… no. Eurovision is pretty clique-y, I’m sure you know, and I’ve always been sort of an outlier. I’m not one of the cool kids that everybody goes to every year when they want a new Eurovision hit — even though I have a whole catalog of them waiting to be unleashed. I generally have to virtually knock on doors myself, or those doors don’t get opened. Maybe I’m harder to find than I think? I have no idea. Anyway, “Amen” was a rarity in that I was recommended for the project by a past collaborator.
When we talked to you in 2015, you said you’d never been to Europe. Have you made it over yet? Will you be in Rotterdam this year?
Charlie: Alas, no. It’s very hard to get enough time away from my day job. I’m not sure I’d fit in with the cool kids, anyway. I’m a terrible schmoozer. Just ask Žiga.
Žiga: We were actually hoping to meet Charlie in Rotterdam! Maybe you could help me convince him/his boss? Repeat after me: “All work and no play makes Charlie a dull boy.”
Finally, what do you hope people will take away from your song and Ana’s performance in May?
Žiga: Just yesterday, I heard three very different reactions to “Amen.” One was something in line with “I’m a Christian and feel such deep emotion when listening to this song. This is what religion should really be about.” The other one was “I’m an LGBT+ person and totally identify with these words – don’t hide in the dark, be yourself, despite the scars and bruises that come with it.” The third comment was from a professional musician and referred to listening to the recently released karaoke version and discovering so many fine details, little bits of ear candy they didn’t even realize were there in the full version. Thousands or millions of people discovering all these diverse, unique layers in there… That is the most rewarding part of the job, and I wish for as many people being touched by the song or a part of it as possible.
Charlie: I hope the song relights some fires that might have burned down to just embers and reminds people how strong and resilient they are. Life has sort of worn us all down right now, I feel like. I hope the song will help pick a few people back up and make them feel like they can handle whatever BS gets thrown at us next. As for Ana’s performance, I hope people will get to have the same experience that I did when I heard the earliest, barest demo, just this sense of “wow” and awe at the way her amazing voice inhabits Žiga’s melody and rises into the stratosphere.