Anne Preven '86 (Singer / Songwriter)
By Sara Melson '90
Anne Preven '86 wrote her first song in the tenth grade, as part of a creative-writing assignment. "I got encouraging feedback from my teacher,” she recalls, "even though I forced my cousin to write the lyrics, and I borrowed the chord progression from a Neil Young song.”
At Harvard, Anne was actively singing, but not songwriting. She sang in (and for one year was musical director of) THE OPPORTUNES, performed in a cabaret-style show called MOOD INDIGO, and was an occasional guest vocalist in a friend’s band. She didn’t actually write another song until after she’d graduated Harvard and was living in New York. "A friend I sang with in college, who had graduated two years before me, basically called me from the real world and said, ‘Avoid a regular job at ALL cost.’ So we formed a little band, and after getting terrible songs from an ad we had placed in the Village Voice, I decided I would just write the songs myself. I got a hold of a little Casio keyboard and a simple recording setup, and went to work.”
A friend in New York heard one of Anne’s early song attempts and put her in contact with someone at BMI in writer/publisher relations. He set her up on some meetings that eventually led to a publishing deal and her first record deal. She describes both as "disastrous… all a good learning experience, but I would not have described my career at that point as healthy!”
She moved to LA, where her publisher introduced her to Scott Cutler, a young but already successful songwriter. The two hit it off and decided to start a band. The band, christened EDNA SWAP, got its first record deal with East West/Elektra by playing a "mini show” in Scott’s living room for A&R executive Sylvia Rhone. "We would pretend to break a string after the third song” laughs Anne, "because we only knew three songs. We did everything backwards. We became a proper band after getting signed and didn’t really play our first full live show until after we had turned in the record.”
EDNA SWAP's audiences were electrified by the willowy-yet-powerful lead singer, with her smoky, sultry voice, and by the explosiveness of the performances, which were charged with physical and emotional energy. The songs were hooky and unforgettable, but Elektra was not pleased with the more alternative direction that the band wound up taking. As quickly as the band was dropped from Elektra, they were snatched up by Chris Blackwell and signed to Island Records, making their second record in the Bahamas at famed Compass Point studios. That record led to tours with NO DOUBT, WEEZER, FAILURE, and BETTER THAN EZRA, among others. Preven and Cutler made one more EDNA SWAP record for Island before shifting their focus to songwriting and producing, which began demanding more and more of their time.
Anne describes the ride that she and Scott Cutler took together on their first major hit, "Torn,” sung by Natalie Imbruglia. Anne and Scott had written "Torn” on a trip to London that the two had taken right before putting the band together. Before the Imbruglia version came out, the song had been covered by a few other European artists, with relatively under-the-radar success, so the two writers had assumed that nothing much would come of this new cover, or that it would be only a regional hit, as the others had been. But this version turned out to be a big hit in the UK and Europe, and then came to America shortly thereafter, with tremendous momentum. "We were equal parts excited and horrified. So happy to hear a song we had written on the radio, and yet of course it was mixed, because our band was struggling to get any radio airplay at all. In the end, ‘Torn’s’ success was a life-changing event, and it provided a whole new career for me and for Scott as songwriters, even though it led to the destruction of EDNA SWAP.”
The mega-success of "Torn,” which spent fourteen weeks at the top of the US airplay chart and went on to become one of the most performed songs of the decade, led to subsequent songwriting collaborations with Madonna, Sinead O’Connor, Katy Perry, Beyoncé , and Miley Cyrus, among many others. As for her writing process and method of inspiration, Anne says, "I do it (write) any which way I can. I find it much easier if there is a title or a concept to begin with, but sometimes that concept comes from hearing a great piece of music. I keep notebooks and computer files filled with ideas, and then browse through them with a particular artist in mind, or when I’m listening to a track. It’s unrealistic to expect pure inspiration to strike at the exact right hour on the right day, so it’s very helpful for me to write down ideas as they come any time of day or night, and then plug them into a songwriting session.”
"Listen” written for the film DREAMGIRLS, turned out to be another major milestone for Anne, winning a host of honors, including a Golden Globe nomination, a Critic’s Choice award for Best Original Song, and an Academy Award nomination. "We had done some movie songs over the years for Randy Spendlove from Paramount,” says Anne. "He asked us to try writing a song for another spot in DREAMGIRLS with the original Dreamgirls composer, Henry Krieger. They really needed a showstopper for Beyoncé in the second act, an emancipation anthem for her character…The director felt it was a pivotal scene for her, and the song had to reflect her transformation from beaten-down protegé to in-control independent thinker. We decided to take a crack at it. I had the idea of it being called ‘Listen’ before there was any melody or music, and we sat at the piano and just wrote it. It changed a lot from that first version, but the spirit remained the same. It was an endless job, because so many people had to sign off on it, from Beyoncé and her Dad, to David Geffen. The demo singer was pregnant when we started, and had a four-month old child at the last session she did for us. Then there was a lot of angst and drama around the Academy Award potential, because they had changed the rules about how many writers could be nominated, and we had too many, but we petitioned the Academy, and Beyoncé graciously took her name out, since she had a smaller percentage. It was fun and surreal getting dressed up and going to all the parties and the Golden Globes and Critic’s Choice Awards. Nerve-wracking, but super fun.”
Her busy professional life is now balanced with the equally demanding role of Mom to two adorable kids, Max (7) and Violet (3). As such, she’s had to learn to do some delegating. She’s now shepherding eight talented writers and producers, who are building their own careers at the publishing company that she founded with partners Cutler and Josh Abraham. Check Your Pulse Music Publishing, or CYP, has churned out four number-one hits in the first two years of its existence, including Katy Perry’s "California Gurls” and "Teenage Dream,” Taio Cruz’s "Dynamite,” and Neon Trees’ "Animal.”
"Nowadays I split my time between writing sessions and the publishing company,” Anne says. She’s at the helm of a successful operation that has given rise to new talent writing hit songs of their own, and as she puts it, "that has been very gratifying to watch.”
Anne Preven was a judge and a prize provider for Harvard ROCKS 2011.