Revealed: Musicians Dish On The People Who Inspired Their Hit Songs
The greatest songwriters get their inspiration from real life. Behind every great love song is a real love story. It just so happens that when you’re famous, your love story also involves other famous people. These musicians went on the record and spoke about the inspiration behind some of the biggest hits. From Taylor Swift’s exes to strangers meeting boy banders in the middle of the night, these are the real-life people behind the song.
“Smile” – Jay-Z
Jay-Z has had a massively long career and throughout, he’s sung about more than a few beautiful women (hello, Beyoncé!). One of these gorgeous women happens to be his mother. That’s right — Jay-Z is a total mama’s boy!
Gloria Carter actually collaborated with her son on “Smile,” a track from 4:44, his 13th studio album. She contributes a spoken word outro, while Jay-Z raps about her struggle living as a closeted lesbian.
In an interview, Jay spoke about “Smile” and admitted he always knew his mother was gay. “But we never spoke about it,” he said. “Until like recently now we start having these beautiful conversations and just really getting to know each other. We were always good friends but now we’re really great friends.”
“The Heart Wants What It Wants” – Selena Gomez
Selena Gomez’s mom isn’t thrilled about her daughter’s budding conscious re-coupling with Justin Bieber. The couple’s on-again, off-again relationship seemingly ended for good in 2014 (amidst Bieber’s bizarre fist fight with Orlando Bloom). But 2018 is a new year, and Jalena is in full swing yet again.
In an interview with Ryan Seacrest, Gomez admitted she penned “The Heart Wants What It Wants” about the bad boy she can’t let go.
“Everybody wants to form their own opinions anyway. I think the biggest problem I had this year — even with [Justin] and on his side — is identity,” she said about the song.
“I Knew You Were Trouble” – Taylor Swift
Swifty made a remarkable career writing scathing songs about her exes. Billboard charts have no fury like a woman scorned. It would seem like the man who scorned the songstress the most was ex-One Directioner Harry Styles. Swift penned a number of songs about Styles on her album 1989, but one of the most biting is “I Knew You Were Trouble.” The lyrics detail a self-centered playboy who never loved “anyone or anything” and left Swift on the “cold hard ground.” Poor, baby girl!
Swift all but confirmed that Styles was the subject of this scathing song at the 2013 BRIT awards. The singer was asked if the song was difficult to play, and she replied, “Well, it’s not hard to access that emotion when the person the song is directed at is standing by the side of the stage watching.” Turns out, Harry Styles was standing by the side of that stage.
“Malibu” – Miley Cyrus
Younger Now saw Miley Cyrus return to her roots. You know, back before she stuck her tongue out, cut her hair, and twerked all over Robin Thicke at the MTV VMAs. She didn’t just return to her Disney-approved sound – she returned to her former flame, Liam Hemsworth.
In 2013, in the midst of making her risqué Bangerz transformation, Cyrus called off her engagement to the Hunger Games star. At the time, the couple shared a home in Malibu, which is not-so-coincidentally the name of Younger Now’s lead single. Three years later, the couple got back together and Miley penned the song with the heartfelt lyrics, “I never would’ve believed you if three years ago you told me I’d be here writing this song.”
“They’re going to talk about me if I come out of a restaurant with Liam. So why not put the power back in my relationship and say, ‘This is how I feel’?” she told Billboard.
Prepare to be moved by this next story. It’s a tearjerker.
“Tears In Heaven” – Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton simultaneously made the entire world cry when he penned the Grammy-winning hit “Tears in Heaven.” Though the song was written for the Rush soundtrack, the emotions behind it make it one of the most heartbreaking songs to ever grace the Billboard charts.
Clapton penned the song about the heartbreaking death of his four-year-old son, who fell from the window of a 53rd-floor apartment building in New York City where he lived with his mother, Clapton’s ex-girlfriend Lory Del Santo. Clapton arrived at the apartment moments after the tragic incident.
“When I try to take myself back to that time, to recall the terrible numbness that I lived in, I recoil in fear. I never want to go through anything like that again,” he wrote in Eric Clapton: The Autobiography.
“Perfect” – Ed Sheeran
Ed Sheeran managed to craft a perfect wedding song when he wrote “Perfect.” Though millions of single girls dream a song that sweet would get written about them, the lucky girl is none other than Sheeran’s fiancé Cherry Seaborn. Seaborn and Sheeran are childhood friends which makes the deal even sweeter.
Sheeran’s song was inspired by a wild night with Seaborn at James Blunt’s home in Ibiza. “We got really hammered and took our shoes off and danced on his lawn and then jumped in the pool,” Sheeran said. “And then the next day I was like, ‘that’s a cool story,’ so I put it in a song.” If that’s how the couple is on a low-key night at their friend’s house, we can’t wait to hear about their wedding.
Next, Gwen gets really personal.
“Used To Love You” – Gwen Stefani
In 2015, Gwen Stefani announced that she was divorcing Gavin Rossdale after nearly 13 years of marriage. Stefani allegedly discovered that the Bush singer has a three-year affair with the couple’s nanny when she read explicit texts that were accidentally synched from Gavin’s phone to the family iPad. Stefani later penned the heartbreaking song “Used to Love You” about the couple’s split.
“The song was not written that long ago,” she said. “Like, I want to say maybe a month and half ago, which is crazy. I had been writing, writing because my life blew up. Everybody knows that my life blew up last February. I’d just been dealing with that. Unexpected. I was going along thinking that was going to be the rest of my life and it’s not. I don’t know what happened. I’ve always wanted to write music so desperately because doing it is one thing that really validates me for myself.”
“Still Feel Like Your Man” – John Mayer
Whose man is John Mayer still feeling like? It sure isn’t Taylor Swift. The singer-songwriter penned “Still Feel Like Your Man” about Katy Perry. The couple had an on-again, off-again relationship, and finally parted ways in 2015. Even though that was three years ago, Mayer admitted to The New York Times that he doesn’t have a whole lot else to draw from when it comes to writing love songs.
“Who else would I be thinking about?” he said. “And by the way, it’s a testament to the fact that I have not dated a lot of people in the last five, six years. That was my only relationship. So it’s like, give me this, people.”
“Carolina” – Harry Styles
Harry Styles didn’t write “Carolina” about anyone on his star-studded list of ex-girlfriends. The boy band survivor-turned-actor actually penned it about a stranger he met on a wild night out whose name happened to be none other than Carolina.
In Styles’ documentary Behind The Album, he came clean about the subject of the song. “To have been part of a moment that means something to someone enough to write a song is a huge compliment,” he said. Carolina later found out that she was Style’s muse when her dad saw him performing the song on The Today Show. Lucky girl!
“The One That Got Away” – Katy Perry
“The One That Got Away” is a heartbreaking tale of love lost. The song is both relatable and uniquely Katy Perry, detailing a relationship brimming with teenage emotion, pangs of wistful regret and matching tattoos. Perry finally admitted the subject of her heartfelt song was actually Josh Groban.
In a live-stream promoting her album Witness, she told host James Corden that Groban was her surprising muse. “No, he’s not in there,” she said while listing which of her exes were best in bed. “But I do want to say, people are like, who is ‘The One That Got Away’ about? That’s Groban. He’s one of my good friends.”
In the past, Groban admitted that he almost dated Perry. The pair walked the line of boyfriend-and-girlfriend but never quite made it all the way there.
“Praying” – Kesha
The story behind Kesha’s “Praying” is heartbreaking. She wrote the gospel-tinged balled about her alleged abuser and former producer Dr. Luke. In 2014, Kesha brought forward a formal lawsuit against the producer and record label-owner accusing him of psychological abuse, sexual abuse, and rape. Though Kesha ultimately didn’t win her court case, she did get an emotional new single that landed her a Grammy nomination.
“I have channeled my feelings of severe hopelessness and depression, I’ve overcome obstacles, and I have found strength in myself even when it felt out of reach,” she wrote. “The song is about coming to feel empathy for someone else even if they hurt you or scare you. It’s a song about learning to be proud of the person you are even during low moments when you feel alone. It’s also about hoping everyone, even someone who hurt you, can heal.”
Kanye dishes about a painful loss in this next one.
“Only One” – Kanye West
Kanye’s collaboration with Paul McCartney is an emotional one. According to his wife Kim Kardashian, the song makes her cry “every time.” It’s no wonder because the lyrics are absolutely heartbreaking. Sung from the perspective of Dr. Donda West, Kanye’s mother who died at the age of 58 after undergoing plastic surgery, the lyrics beg the rapper to tell his child North about her late grandmother (“I just want you to do me a favor, tell Nori about me”).
Kanye later spoke about the song in a press release. “My mom was singing to me, and through me to my daughter,” he said. Kanye’s mother was his mentor, confidante, and best friend, and her loss was something the singer never fully recovered from.
80s fans will remember this next one!
“Uptown Girl” – Billy Joel
Billie Joel’s song “Uptown Girls” has long been rumored to be about either supermodel and actress Christie Brinkley or Elle MacPherson. It turns out that the truth is somewhere in the middle. During an appearance on The Howard Stern Show, Joel admitted that the song was about a number of women including Brinkley and MacPherson.
“They didn’t get the whole story. They got part of it … I wasn’t even dating Christie when I started writing the song. I was dating Elle [MacPherson],” he told said. Brinkley later told Stern that Joel admitted he was writing a song (“Uptown Girls”) about her before they properly met and she didn’t even know it.
“Goodbye” – Avril Lavigne
Avril Lavigne was writing “Goodbye,” the last track on her emotional 2011 album Goodbye Lullaby during a difficult period in her life. She starting working on the tracks in 2009, right before the news of her split from husband and Sum41 frontman Derek Whibley surfaced in the media. Lavigne had been with Whibley since she was 17 years old, and the song had almost a decade of feelings behind it.
“I had a really hard time singing it,” she admitted. It’s a really hard thing to sing when you’re right about to cry! It was that real. My voice is shaky in it. I don’t know if I’ll ever sing this song live.” Though Whibley helped Lavigne produce a number of songs on Goodbye Lullaby, she wrote and produced “Goodbye” alone.
“With You” – Jessica Simpson
Jessica Simpson’s song “With You” became an anthem for her relationship with boy bander Nick Lachey. The song was released during the peak of their reality show Newlyweds, and the music video showed the couple playing around in a mansion and reminiscing about the series’ most memorable moments. The too-sweet lyrics are iconic: “cause with you/I can let my hair down/I can say anything crazy.” Indeed, girl, you did say some crazy things (i.e. that whole Chicken of the Sea debacle).
Though it’s hard to tell whether Simpson explicitly said the song is about her now ex-beau, she cried while performing it on the CBS Early Show shortly after the couple’s divorce. Those raw, unbridled emotions and the fact that she cast him in their music video is all the evidence we need.
John Legend’s muse is no surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less sweet…
“All Of Me” – John Legend
John Legend and Chrissy Teigen pretty much define “couple goals.” When Legend isn’t busy gloating about how wonderful and amazing his gorgeous wife is, he spends his time writing adorable songs about their relationship. Legend’s emotional song “All Of Me” is undeniably sweet with lyrics like “You’re my end and my beginning / Even when I lose I’m winning” and proves Teigen is one lucky gal.
Legend gushed to Billboard about how Teigan is, was, and probably always will be his muse. “Having somebody who knows me so well and knows what it takes to push me creatively is really important,” he said. Can’t we all have a John Legend, please?
“Something” – George Harrison
“Something” is arguably one of Harrison’s sweetest love songs. The lyrics “there’s something in the way she moves” are so relatable wistful. It turns out this super sweet love song is about a love more epic than we could have imagined. Harrison wrote the tune about Pattie Boyd, his wife of 11 years.
Boyd met Harrison while they were shooting A Hard Day’s Night. He later revealed to the model that the song was just for her. “I remember him playing this melody quite a lot, and then some time later, he wrote lyrics for it,” Boyd wrote in her memoir Wonderful Tonight. “And I didn’t realize until after he’d recorded it and he told me that he’d written it for me I was thrilled. I couldn’t believe it. It was wonderful.”
“Shout Out To My Ex” – Little Mix
Little Mix singer Perri Edwards penned the scathing, tongue-in-cheek jam “Shout Out to My Ex” about her ex-fiancé Zayn Malik. The biting hit referenced a relationship filled with terrible love making and totally faking it, but it was pretty uplifting overall with lyrics like, “You made my heart break and that made me who I am.”
“When people go through break ups, you automatically want to hear really sad songs,” Edwards told E! News shortly after her split from Malik. “You want to listen to [Toni Braxton’s] “Un-Break My Heart” and have a little cry, get a tub of ice cream out. We just thought, you know what? Women need to feel empowered. Everybody needs to feel empowered after a break up and we feel like this song can relate to everyone because everybody’s had and ex.”
“It’s You” – Zayn
Perri Edwards wasn’t the only to write about her gut-wrenching breakup from fiancé Zayn Malik. Malik also had his own story to tell. The former One Directioner penned the song “It’s You” about his former flame.
“There’s a song on the record called ‘It’s You’ which is to me, I can tell, a real center-piece for the album. Vocally, certainly,” he told Beats1 before adding, “It’s about the break-up of your relationship, clearly. It’s one of the more obvious lyrics in that song, but yeah. It’s the situation that you’re in, depending if you can be that person or not with the people that are around you.”
“Diplomatic Immunity” – Drake
Drake never distinctly confirmed his relationship with Jennifer Lopez when rumors started swirling in 2016 – but most of us knew a little bit better. They were totally a couple, and Drake all but confirmed the rumors in his new song “Diplomatic Immunity.”
In the song, Drake claims “2010 was when I lost my Halo / 2017, I lost a J. Lo” (i.e. good old Jenny from the Block). Though Drake never officially commented on his relationship with the singer who’s 17 years his senior, the couple posted pretty affectionate photos on Instagram. These lyrics are just about as good as an outright admission.