Here's how you make a hit song.
Take a guitar sample from a 1960s Brazilian jazz track. Pair it with notes from a nursery rhyme, performed on a xylophone, of course -- nothing's more rock 'n' roll than that. Take the restrained musical arrangement and match it with emotionally complicated lyrics. And make sure the guy singing the song has a stage name that's hard to pronounce.
If you'd have shown up at a major label with a pitch like that a year ago, you would have been laughed out of the room.
And yet "Somebody That I Used to Know," an oddly beguiling breakup song written and performed by Australian pop artist Gotye (pronounced "GO-ti-yay") from his third album, "Making Mirrors," (released stateside in late January) is the biggest song of the year, taking Gotye to places he couldn't pinpoint on a map -- such as, he admits in an interview, Milwaukee.
"But I'm keen to come to a new place," he added in a phone interview.
Universal Republic heard about Gotye in August when the label's co-president, Avery Lipman, was looking into British pop singer Jessie J's performance in Australia and noticed "Somebody," a song from an artist he'd never heard of, was doing well on the charts.
Rob Stevenson, the label's executive vice president of artists and repertoire, gave it a listen at Lipman's request and was instantly "intrigued."
"But what tipped me over was that my 6-year-old daughter came in from the other room and wanted to know what the song was," Stevenson said. "That's when I said, 'OK, there's something special here. If this song was this good and this fresh and was equally appealing to me and my 6-year-old daughter, I knew it was going to be a big song.' " Seven days later, he was on a plane to Australia to make a deal with Walter de Backer, the Belgium-born musician known as Gotye.
So how did "Somebody That I Used To Know" become a song seemingly the entire world seems to know? Gotye, Stevenson and Dave Adams, program director for Milwaukee top 40 radio station WRNW-FM (97.3) recently dissected the song and circumstances that made it such a huge success.
The lick that started it all: When he came across a simple, two-note, two-second guitar sample from late Brazilian composer Luiz Bonfa's 1967 song "Seville," Gotye recognized "a hypnotic quality" and a "melancholy" nature to the guitar notes not found in Bonfa's swinging original.
"The first line of the ['Somebody'] lyrics ('now and then I think of when we were together') were prompted by that guitar sample," said Gotye, 30. "To me, the guitar notes reflected different relationships with people I've had in the past."
Nursing the sound: With Bonfa's guitar in place, Gotye added the melody from nursery rhyme "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep," which he felt brought a "measured, naive musical quality" to the track.
"Maybe it would have been a little too cute or silly to have something so childlike," Gotye said. Yet he felt it was an appropriate representation for the disintegrated couple in his song who "would not be able to solve all the emotional confusion."
"Don't ask me why, but the rhythm for me, at a gut-level, made me think, 'Yes, this is the hook throughout the song,' " Gotye said.
Substance from subtlety: "A lot of records are very bombastic and in your face," Stevenson said, but given Gotye's less-is-more approach with the song's musical hooks (which include some spare acoustic guitar lines and percussive beats, and wordless vocals at the climax) "Somebody" stood out.
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