Story by Nick Krewen | March 16, 2017
Decades before Jenson Vaughan became known as a hit maker for Madonna, Britney Spears and currently, High Valley, the Dartmouth, NS, native was in the dark about the artistry it took to write a song. So he plucked one out of the air.
“I formed a little a capella group,” says Vaughan, recalling his high-school years. “And because of my jazz background, I knew how to arrange and understand music. Before long, somebody told us that we sounded good, and we should do our own music. None of us knew any songwriters, and it never occurred to us that we could do our own music.
“So I told them I’d write a song for us. I went home that night, sat down and literally from my mind – no instrumentation – I started piecing together a voice and a chorus, lyrics and melody. I didn’t think anything of it. The next day I showed it to them, and they were all shocked. And then I thought, okay, if they can’t do that and I can, then maybe I have some inherent skill.”
Strangely, it still took some years before Vaughan, who co-wrote the Grammy-nominated and JUNO-winning “This is What It Feels Like” by Armin van Buuren and Trevor Guthrie, embraced that skill. After he graduated from high school, he re-located to Las Vegas for a year and formed a folk-rock band with fellow songwriter Jason David, playing small cafés for a year before setting his sights on Vancouver. “My older brother lived there, and I didn’t want to go back to Nova Scotia,” Vaughan explains. “I wanted to continue my adventures and learn new things.”
“It was a grind and a gradual process, and not settling at a certain level, but just wanting to continue to improve.”
At the age of 26, Vaughan officially became a late-blooming songwriter. He set up a MySpace account and uploaded a few of his songs to see what people thought. Aside from positive feedback, Vaughan received offers from some individuals willing to place songs for him, telling him he could make money. “I was, like, ‘Oh, tell me how that works!’” Vaughan remembers. “I started building a network of people who taught me the process. As soon as I realized I could turn that skill into the reality of a career, I dropped everything else. It was a 100 percent commitment: it just took me a while to realize that I could do it.”
He spent five years in his Surrey basement, woodshedding his craft, working on numerous projects. “I had some little dance cuts here and there before my success really took off. But at that time, any little taste of success seemed like a monumental achievement to me,” he concedes. “I had never achieved anything – just teeny little things here and there – maybe a song that came out in Italy, and then I just built it from there.
“The one that really clicked the most was with Steve [Smith] and Anthony [Anderson] of SA Trackworks in Vancouver, a songwriting production team,” says Vaughan. “In 2009, they brought me in to do a song called “Take Your Hands” for a Japanese group called Tohoshinki. We ended up getting the cut, and it sold something like 350,000 copies. To me, that was insane. My first royalty cheque there might have been $8,000 or something like that. When I first got $70, I couldn’t believe it. I thought, if I can make $70, I can make $700, and so forth. It was a grind and a gradual process, and not settling at a certain level, but wanting to continue to improve.”
Although Vaughan was hungry for success, he stayed patient and eventually signed with Patrick Moxey at Ultra Music Publishing. “I think I held off for the right deal,” he says. “It wasn’t long after that I got a track from Benny Benassi and I wrote a tune that ended up getting placed with Madonna. And he introduced me to Armand van Buuren’s team… Those things really enabled me to leverage further, on all fronts.”
For the No. 1 U.S. dance and global hit “Girl Gone Wild,” Benassi, the Italian DJ and record producer, initially sent the track through Moxey to Vaughan. “I added lyrics and melody, sent it back, and they loved it,” Vaughan recalls. “Then two weeks later, I got a message from Patrick saying, ‘M likes the song.’ I was like, what is that? And then I thought, wait a minute… He can’t possibly mean Madonna. That’s how I found out.”
Since then, Vaughan has contributed to songs by DJ Antoine (“Bella Vita,” a Swiss chart-topper); Steve Aoki (“Delirious (Boneless)”); Era Istrefi (“BonBon”); Omi (“Hula Hoop”); Kelly Rowland (“What A Feeling”); Britney Spears (“Til It’s Gone”); and most recently, High Valley’s new “I Be U Be” single, as well as the anticipated comeback single for Taio Cruz, “Signs.” Vaughan claims that his co-writes have accumulated global sales of an estimated 10 million.
As a writer, Vaughan says he often creates on piano. “I write lyrics and melody,” he says. “I also arrange music. I just don’t typically fully produce the songs. But I do often write on piano, and sometimes on guitar. At the beginning I was writing more on guitar, even though I’m not a great guitar player. Sometimes, I’ll just hear some melody or arrangement in my head, and I’ll write that way.”
Vaughan says in a typical situation, he’ll receive instrumentation from a producer, or he’ll start the song himself. “I’ll write the melody or the lyrics to the producer’s submission,” he explains. “Or I’ll essentially get the song written, then send it to different producers, find the production I like the most, and use it to shop around.” As his stature as grown, Vaughan has been able to work directly with the artist, or the artist’s production team, to help develop the arrangement and the recording. “I’m pleasantly surprised with how things are turning out,” he admits.
Constantly on the road, collaborating at song camps around the world, Vaughan says he has no shortage of work. He’s currently writing with Drake producer Boi-1da, and also with Tiesto; plans to write and record a jazz album with Matt Dusk; runs his own JV Records out of Toronto; is working on a joint publishing venture with Patrick Moxey; and has even released his own single, “Gonna Be Yours,” in Spain.
“There’s this constant gnawing at me on the inside, that I need to create,” Vaughan admits. “And it’s not really something I need to go outwardly for: I have no shortage of inspiration from within. If I’m taking too much time away from it, I feel like I’m not living up to my potential when I’m not writing, because I feel it inside. It’s like a painter who constantly has to paint, I guess. I need to write almost every day.”