He has gone all the way from fronting gold-selling Auckland pop-punk act Goodnight Nurse through to producing and co-writing hits with some of the biggest stars in the world, including Lorde, Taylor Swift, Khalid, and Imagine Dragons.
Little was first inspired to play music by the southern Californian punk scene, which included acts such as Blink-182, NOFX, and Lagwagon. In 1998, he saw some of these bands play the Warped Tour in New Zealand and noticed that they were more interested in having a good time onstage than playing perfectly, which made forming his own band seem possible.
Within a couple of years he had formed the pop punk band Goodnight Nurse with his friend Jaden Parkes on drums.
By then, Little was undertaking a diploma in contemporary music performance at the Music and Audio Institute of New Zealand (MAINZ), while Parkes was at university. They found bass player Paul Taite, who had only been playing bass a few months, via an advertisement on the stairs to University of Auckland student bar Shadows.
The trio came together in 2001 and soon found themselves riding a new wave of interest that had come via US acts such as Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance. Their sound was too mainstream for student radio and it took time for commercial rock radio to take an interest, so they built an audience through playing shows. In 2004, they took part in the Boost Mobile NZ Schools Tour, which saw them play 120 times over five months (they later did the Rock The Schools tour in Australia as well). The school gigs not only tightened up their live show, they gathered an audience support base which led to them signing with Festival Mushroom Records (FMR).
Goodnight Nurse’s first single for Warner, ‘Taking Over’, reached No.19 on the NZ charts.
However, a day after the deal was done, FMR was taken over by Warner/WEA. Fortunately one of their main contacts at FMR, Ashley Page, stayed on and ensured that their music remained a priority (Warner was largely being run out of Australia). Page first started working in the music industry at Mushroom in the UK and would be a supportive presence throughout Little’s career.
Goodnight Nurse’s first single for Warner, ‘Taking Over’, proved they had a real fanbase and reached No.19 on the charts. They recorded their debut album, Always and Never (2005), with CaptainHook from 48May. His knowledge of the pop-punk sound helped to shape it and the album reached No.5. Buoyed by two further Top 20 hits, ‘Our Song’ and ‘My Only’, it was later certified gold.
After a couple of years pushing the album, they started writing a new collection of songs before Taite announced he was leaving. Goodnight Nurse regrouped as a four-piece with the addition of guitarist Sam McCarthy and bassist Rowan Crowe. McCarthy already had a good grasp of Pro Tools so was able to record demos for the group, though Little eventually found he needed to take on some of the production work himself.
“I was constantly hassling Sam to record demos of songs that I’d written. It got to the point where I was writing too many songs and he had a life of his own to get on with, so I figured I’d buy some cheap gear and start teaching myself. Sam showed me a few tricks and I progressed pretty quickly just by recording constantly and learning as I went.”
Goodnight Nurse recorded their next album, Keep Me By Your Side (2008), in Australia and the band members were credited as co-producers, mainly for their planning and arrangement contributions. The album repeated the success of their debut, reaching No.5 on the charts. From the outside the band were riding high with support slots with international acts, including Fall Out Boy and OneRepublic – but within a year of the album’s release, the band were at an end.
Gradually the members of Goodnight Nurse were drawn in new directions. Jaden Parkes took some songs that hadn’t made the band’s last album and used them for a side project called Like You Crazy. Around the same time, Sam McCarthy formed Kids of 88 with an old school friend (Jordan Arts), which gave him a chance to focus more on programming music electronically. Little became involved after hearing an early version of their song ‘My House’.
“Sam had made a demo of half the song. I heard it and immediately said, ‘I’m coming over and we’re finishing this up today.’ We were all pretty notorious for starting ideas and not completing them, but I knew that one was too good not to finish.”
Little co-wrote and produced almost all the songs on Kids of 88’s debut album.
In order to release the song, they set up their own label, Dryden Street, in collaboration with Ashley Page, who also became manager for Kids of 88. ‘My House’ was the label’s first release and reached No.3 in 2009. Little co-wrote and produced almost all the songs on Kids of 88’s debut album, apart from one written by McCarthy with Jaden Parkes. The second single, ‘Just A Little Bit’, reached No.11, which laid the groundwork for their 2010 album Sugarpills to hit No.2.
Meanwhile, Little realised he needed a new way to support himself through his music.
“I was a new dad, freaking out! We had our first kid, Lila, in 2008. It’s hard enough to make a living in music when you just have to support yourself, let alone a family, so I was doing acoustic covers gigs while we were still doing Goodnight Nurse. I wasn’t enjoying that at all. Then Sam and I started writing songs for TV commercials and had quick success with that. The first thing we pitched got picked up and I realised I could stop doing the covers if we could do one of those every couple of months.
“Spurred on by that, I got even more heavily into the recording side of things. If someone asked ‘can you do a country song?’ I’d say ‘yeah, totally.’ Then I’d hang up and think ‘oh my god, how do you do a country song?’ Or if someone said ‘we need a dubstep song for this commercial’ I’d be straight on YouTube looking up how to make a dubstep song. So I had to upskill really quickly because I was doing a million types of music on the go.”
Page encouraged Little to set up his own studio, Golden Age, in Morningside, Auckland. He signed on as Little’s manager and helped him sign to the publisher Sony/ATV through their office in Australia. Having his own studio meant Little could begin producing tracks with other acts, such as local pop star Dane Rumble and Australian singer Timomatic.
Kids of 88 put another album, Modern Love (2012), into the Top 20 but effectively disbanded the following year after a deal with a major label in the US fell through at the last minute. Little had already moved on to his next project, one that would take him to a worldwide audience.
In December 2011, Little had his first writing session with 15-year-old singer/songwriter Ella Yelich-O’Connor, soon to be known as Lorde. She had been signed to a development deal by UMR and had spent the previous year working with various sound engineers and songwriters around Auckland to find a songwriting partner. Little remembers their first meeting, set up by Page.
“He’d seen her perform at a school talent quest a few years earlier and was adamant we should work together, just to see what would happen. I hadn’t heard her or met her at the time. Up to that point I hadn’t done a lot of co-writing with people who weren’t friends and to be honest the idea of writing songs with a 15-year-old seemed a bit weird. But as we all know she’s one of a kind and any worries I had were gone as soon as I met her. It’s crazy to think about it now, that we clicked the way that we did.”
‘Royals’ became a massive international hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100 in the US for nine weeks.
The pair took advantage of the time off Yelich-O’Connor had during the school holidays to work intensely on music. Initially she would bring in lyrics with no melodies and they would work them up into songs in the studio. The result was the Love Club EP which would introduce Lorde to the world, racking up 60,000 free downloads via her SoundCloud account before UMR decided it was time to begin selling the EP commercially.
‘Royals’ was released separately as a single and became a massive international hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100 in the US for nine weeks (eventually being certified diamond for 10 million in sales), while the EP made No.23 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
It also hit No.1 in the UK, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, and New Zealand. If that wasn’t enough, Lorde and Little won a Grammy Award for the song in 2014, while at home it was awarded the 2013 APRA Silver Scroll.
Meanwhile, Little and Lorde had spent over three months (from April to mid-July) working on an album. Little’s production was understated and seemed to draw more from hip hop than modern pop (in keeping with the subject matter of Lorde’s lyrics). For example, on ‘Royals’ there is initially just an echo-y electronic kick drum beat and a snare beat that sounds like finger snaps. In the chorus, a low bass line provides the first hint of a melodic line within the backing track and this slowly grows to a warped synth line by the end of the song, playing off against the multi-tracked backing vocals provided by Lorde.
Lorde’s second single, ‘Tennis Court’, proved that her first hit single was no one-off fluke, reaching No.1 in New Zealand and breaking into the Top 20 in Australia. The writing process on this track reflected how their writing partnership had developed over time. Little had written the verse music first – a simple synth line and an electric blip in place of a snare – before coming up with a vocal melody for it.
“In the beginning all our songs started with her lyrics. ‘Tennis Court’ was the first time I came up with a vocal melody that she then put lyrics to. As we went along, we discovered new ways of writing songs together. We were both getting better and learning, so we became less limited as we found ways to approach things from different angles.”
‘Tennis Court’ was completed when Lorde came up with a chorus melody to go with it and the emptiness at the start of the track made it all the more satisfying when the full beat and synth line of the chorus kicked in. Their approach to ‘Team’ was even more minimalistic and Little initially thought it might limit radio potential.
“That song just has a really different structural approach to your typical ‘single’. It starts with this weird a capella section with this strange time signature that transitions into a verse and then doesn’t appear in the song again. At the time I loved the song but I didn’t think there was any way it could be a single because of that intro. But maybe that was what made it stand out as well.”
In fact, ‘Team’ was another amazing success, reaching No.6 on the Billboard Hot 100. Buoyed by these tracks, Pure Heroine followed ‘Royals’, becoming an international smash hit (No.3 on the Hot 100 in the US and No.4 in the UK).
The sound that Little and Lorde had created soon had a number of imitators, which discouraged Lorde from repeating herself too closely. On her second album she worked primarily with US producer Jack Antonoff.
Nonetheless, an old song that Little had written with Lorde ended up being unearthed by Lorde and Antonoff, resulting in Little getting a co-writing credit on the first single off her next album, ‘Green Light’. It was a Top 20 hit in the US and another APRA Silver Scroll winner here in 2017. He also provided production work for another track, ‘Supercut.’
The resulting album, Melodrama (2018), was another huge hit, reaching No.1 in the US and No.5 in the UK. Little’s low level of involvement in the project wasn’t a problem for him, since he now had more work than he could keep up with, starting with a New Zealand band he’d met back in the early days of Lorde’s success.
Joel Little first met singer Georgia Nott when her band The Peasants won the Smokefree Rockquest final in 2011 and were given free recording time with Little and Jaden Parkes. The band released just one single before breaking up. Georgia signed a deal with Little’s manager, Ashley Page, and he arranged for her and her brother Caleb to record with him once school was over – under the name Broods. The pair signed to Dryden Street, which was good timing – the label now had good reach throughout Australasia after signing an exclusive distribution deal with Universal in 2012.
Broods broke through with their track ‘Bridges’, which gained traction via their SoundCloud account when they uploaded it in October 2013 (Lorde also tweeted about it, just at the moment when her album had gone top 5 in the US). Just over a year later, Broods released their debut album, Evergreen
It would be easy to put this success simply down to Little repeating the approach he had taken with Lorde and riding the coattails of this former success. However, the songwriting approach with Broods was quite different since both Georgia and Caleb were more likely to bring along chords and musical parts for songs they were working on, rather than constructing them in the studio with Little. There was undoubtedly more of a pop feel to these songs when compared to the sparse hip hop underpinning of his songs with Lorde.
One Broods’ song features a melody written by Little’s second daughter, Emmie, who was four years old.
Little co-wrote and co-produced on Broods’ next album Conscious (2016) which fell just outside the US top 50 (while hitting No.1 in NZ and No.2 in Australia). One song features a melody written by Little’s second daughter, Emmie, who was four years old. During the writing process for the song ‘Worth The Fight’, Emmie kept interrupting Little to sing her own idea to him. After interjecting three times, Little finally took a moment to listen and realised it could actually work quite well, so showed it to Georgia. It happened to fit the lyrics she had been working on, so was included in the final version.
Little: “We got a TV synch for it and Emmie made $600. She doesn’t even know about it, but we’ll give it to her one day when she’s old enough to know what to do with that much money.”
Broods decided to try a new approach on their next album, Don’t Feed The Pop Monster (2019), so only worked with Little on two tracks. In the interim Little had reached a level where he was working with some of the top artists on the US scene.
Joel Little’s association with Lorde meant he was suddenly in demand as a producer and he visited the UK to take part in a few writing sessions there. The first big name artist he worked with after Lorde was UK singer Sam Smith. The pair wrote the song ‘Reminds Me Of You’ for the bonus edition of Smith’s debut album, In The Lonely Hour.
Little visited Los Angeles a couple of times. During these trips he wrote with leftfield pop duo Priory (‘Weekend’) and Swedish singer Elliphant (‘One More feat. MØ’). Both tracks did impressive numbers online, racking up Spotify streams of 30 million and 12 million respectively. The vast contrast between these artists showed that Little was open to working with any acts whose music seemed like a good fit. However, he later turned down a few writing session offers, some with high profile acts.
Around this time, Little visited Australia to work with Daniel Johns (ex-Silverchair) and they also held sessions at Golden Age in Auckland. The resulting EP, Aerial Love, reached No.21 on the Australian singles charts.
In 2014, Little moved to LA to make himself available for any further opportunities that might arise, but the first two projects he worked with there were for artists from downunder: the second Broods album and the debut album by Australian Jarryd James, who was also signed to Dryden Street. Little worked on over half the tracks on James’s debut album, Thirty One (2015), and among them was mega-hit ‘Do You Remember’ (No.2 on the Australian Charts and over 100 million streams) and ‘Give Me Something’ (37 million streams).
Little’s biggest break of the year was having two songs he’d co-written/co-produced with Ellie Goulding appear on her 2015 album Delirium which went to No.3 in both the US and the UK. Little’s tracks weren’t singles, but showed he could write successful songs with the top tier of international pop acts. He was now making a decent living from music, though it was unclear whether he would ever again have hits on the scale he’d had with Lorde.
Songs released in 2016 did nothing to change this picture – the second album by Broods, another Australian hit with Jarryd James (‘1000x feat Broods’), and a song (‘Imaginary Friend’) on Tove Lo’s album Lady Wood, which went to No.11 in the US.
‘Young, Dumb, and Broke’ reached No.18 in the US and went on to break one billion streams.
But Little was about to have his biggest year yet. He started 2017 with the song ‘Young Blood’ by Noah Kahan, which matched a mellow acoustic-guitar feel with subtle electronic backing. The recording sessions gave Little a chance to get back into playing guitar, bass, and keyboards. ‘Young Blood’ not only broke Kahan as an artist, but went on to surpass 50 million streams, as did his subsequent track with Little, ‘Sink’. The biggest track Little produced for Kahan (along with New Zealander Sam de Jong) was ‘Hurt Somebody’ which came out in 2018 and went double platinum in Australia, while also surpassing 200 million Spotify streams. Little subsequently produced all the tracks bar one on Kahan’s 2019 debut album, Busyhead.
Kahan wasn’t the only young act that Little helped to break in 2017. Canadian artist Ruth B wrote and recorded the entirety of her debut album Safe Haven (2017) with Little and it broke into the Canadian Top 20. At the same time, Little had been working with 19-year-old US singer Khalid, resulting in three co-writes on his debut album, American Teen. The pair had met before Khalid’s first song had gone viral on SoundCloud and initially worked together with topline/melody writer Talay Riley.
Little recalls: “We’d pretty much finished for the day. We’d been working on this really dark ominous song and were about to pack it in when Talay said ‘let’s just quickly try something a little more upbeat.’”
He hurriedly came up with a beat then put some chords over it and within a half-hour they had written the majority of the track, ‘Young, Dumb, and Broke’. The song reached No.18 on the US Hot 100, went on to break one billion streams and was certified 6x platinum. Little had two further co-writing and production credits on the album (‘8teen’ and ‘Therapy’) which reached No.4 on the Billboard 200.
Another equally high profile track was ‘Whatever It Takes’, written with Imagine Dragons. The song came from a few days of songwriting with singer Dan Reynolds at their studio in Las Vegas, which also led to ‘Birds’ on their subsequent album. ‘Whatever It Takes’ reached No.12 on the Hot 100 and even more impressively was No.3 on the biggest radio chart in the US, the Mainstream Top 40. This led to astonishing streaming figures with over 600 million streams on Spotify alone.
At one point, the three biggest albums that Little had worked on all occupied the upper end of the Billboard 200 in the same week, setting him up for an amazing feat. On 7 July 2017, Little had co-writes on three albums in the top 15 of the US charts – Imagine Dragons’ Evolve at No.2, Lorde’s Melodrama at No.13, and Khalid’s American Teen at No.14. All three albums were nominated for Grammy Awards in 2018, though none of them took out their categories.
Little was now in the top rung of music producers in the US and working with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Kesha, Shawn Mendes, and the Jonas Brothers. However, he kept a connection with New Zealand through Page 1 and Dryden Street, which led to him working on the track ‘Nothing To Regret’ by Robinson (100 million streams and counting).
“I just heard the demo of it and could hear the potential in the song and how it could be made to sound like a big tune, so wanted to be part of it.”
Around this time, Little wrote with one of his teenage idols.
“[Australian singer] Amy Shark was in the studio with me in LA and she said she was going to meet Mark Hoppus from Blink-182 the next day because he was doing a guest feature on her album. I said ‘Tell him that I love him and wouldn’t be where I am today without him.’ Then he emailed me and just said ‘hey man, let’s hang out.’ So we ended up getting a coffee, then got together and wrote songs. That was the only time I’ve been really genuinely nervous in LA – meeting one of my heroes. Nothing came of the songs but man it was fun. He was everything I hoped that he would be, so it was awesome. It couldn’t have been a more satisfying experience.”
Meanwhile, Little was working on one of his most startling collaborations, for a project that had to be kept secret. It all started when he met Taylor Swift backstage at a Broods concert in the US. He caught up with her again in New Zealand during her Reputation album tour here and was able to take his daughters backstage, as he told Billboard:
“I have this amazing photo of my daughter in tears of joy meeting her backstage at the concert. Once we got to know each other a little I think we realised we could probably write some good songs together, and a few weeks later she asked me to come to New York to work.”
Little couldn’t announce that he’d been working with Taylor Swift until the project was released.
Little co-wrote four tracks for Swift’s next album but it wasn’t until release day that he could even announce that he’d been involved with the project. Lover (2019) raced to No.1 in the US and UK and three of the tracks Little contributed to became top 30 singles in the US – ‘ME! feat Brendan Urie’ (No.2 and 57 million YouTube views in the first 24 hours), ‘You Need To Calm Down’ (No.2), and ‘The Man’ (No.23). During the week of 7 September 2019, all three were in the top 30 of the Hot 100 at the same time.
Some of Little’s recording sessions with Swift were captured for her Miss Americana documentary. A song the pair had worked on, ‘Only The Young’, was used for the film’s end credits. The lyrics discussed Swift’s (unsuccessful) attempt to help win her home state for the Democrats – in particular her sadness at the thought that her young fans who helped out with the effort might be disillusioned by the political process. Little thought the content of the songs needed some children’s voices to carry the message, so he brought his daughters in to sing backing vocals on the track.
Despite working successfully with one of the biggest pop stars in the world, he was still surprised by just how inescapable some of his co-writes were. While on holiday in Europe in 2019, he heard songs he’d worked on playing in the background in Spain, Italy, and the UK.
“When you’re just walking around living your everyday life, you’re generally not thinking about your songs at all. Something comes on the speaker in the corner of a shop and you think ‘oh that sounds familiar.’ Then you realise – oh, that’s one of mine. It’s crazy.”
Little retained his interest in working with younger stars who were still on their way up. This led him to new collaborations with Bishop Briggs, Gracie Abrams, and Lennon Stella. Back home, he also took part in the NZ Music Producer series, which allowed him to share advice with young New Zealand songwriters and producers.
When it comes to songwriting, he says that he’s driven by the same instinct that got him started in Goodnight Nurse.
“I still just love making songs. The reason I wrote songs when I wasn’t making any money is the same reason I’m making songs now – that feeling you get when you make something you’re excited and passionate about. It’s hard to beat that feeling.
“I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been times where I’ve done things because I thought they’d be successful, but they’ve always turned out terribly. Those songs either just never came out or they died a quick death. My success has always come through working with artists whose work I genuinely love and because we’ve tried to create something special.
“When I wake up each day I still think ‘this could be the day I create the best song I’ve ever written.’ It could still be out there for me. Usually at the end of the day, I think, ‘oh well, it didn’t happen today, but tomorrow could be the day.’”
Joel Little has continued to work regularly with NZ acts throughout his career as a producer, collaborating with Robinson, Brooke Fraser, and Indi. He also produced the charity single ‘Team Ball Player Thing’ which featured various All Blacks singing alongside NZ musicians Lorde, Broods, Kimbra, The Naked and Famous, Jason Kerrison (Opshop), Matiu Walters (Six60), and Dave Dobbyn.
Joel Little's mother Trish Scott was a founding member of 1970s Auckland punk band Suburban Reptiles, playing rhythm guitar as "Sissy Spunk".