What started off as a tune sung in the shower one July ended up as an Ariana Grande Christmas classic
As far as holiday anthems go, Ariana Grande’s Santa Tell Me has earned the status of a modern Christmas classic. The song was written the same year that songwriter-producer Savan Kotecha and collaborators like Max Martin and Ilya Salmanzadeh co-wrote several hits of Grande’s such as Problem, Love Me Harder, Bang Bang, and Break Free. Kotecha initiated the festive track when a summertime spark of inspiration came to him in the shower. He soon sent Ilya an a cappella recording of Santa Tell Me, and the two fine-tuned it before working on lyrics with Grande. Santa Tell Me was then released four months later in November 2014 and has endured as a well-loved Yuletide tune up there with the very best of the genre.
The song reached the No 1 spot on Billboard’s Holiday 100 chart in January 2015 and has spent a total of 13 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Additionally, the track was ranked 13 in Billboard’s 2022 list of the 100 best Christmas songs of all time. It was also the only selection among the top 25 that dropped in the 21st century. Santa Tell Me is one of the most listened-to holiday tracks of all time on Spotify, and reached over 700 million streams in November 2022.
Here, nearly a decade after its debut, Kotecha reflects on writing Santa Tell Me alongside Ilya and Grande…
“As a crew, it was just this energy and this feeling. I always used to get ideas in the shower. I think we must have been talking about a Christmas song, me and Ilya. We thought it would be funny because he’s Iranian, and I’m Indian – we were like, ‘That could be funny if we wrote a Christmas song.’ I think that he was in Sweden at the time. I know it was in July. I was in the shower in LA and it just came into my head. I have the voice note somewhere. I just stepped out of the shower, got water all over the phone and I recorded it. I don’t know if that was the first voice note, but I said, ‘Hey, Ilya, check this out as a Christmas song … for Ari,’ or I got out of the shower and recorded it again.
“Then I sent it to him, and he loved it. And that was our flow, usually: I’ve got a chorus and he’d have this amazing sonic landscape for it. So then he sent me back chords to it, I was in the studio the next day, I think, and started working on verses. I was just alone working on verses and then sent verses back to him, and we made some tweaks. And then Ari came into the picture, and we just did it.
“It took a few days to write it and get it right, but during that time – especially with Ariana – we were on fire. So it was one of those, ‘It would be great if Ariana had a Christmas song, right?’ And everyone was like, ‘Yeah!’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, we should do a Christmas song.’ Then everyone was on board. There you go. That was it. There were no roadblocks at the time, really. And it’s amazing how it’s just lasted. Ilya always said it as well. He was like, ‘This is going to be one of the best modern Christmas songs ever, I bet you.’
“I don’t remember how long [it took to write]. I remember working on the verse melodies for a few days, then Ilya sent me some chords and we did a bridge. It was a few days of sleeping on it and then tweaking melodies and then being with Ari. We tweak lyrics and all that kind of stuff. But it was a good flow.
“During that time we were spending days and days on each song anyway, so it was just the same kind of timeline. It wasn’t as bad as Side To Side [from Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Women album] or something like that, but it was a few days and a good flow. And that’s the important thing, I think, for other writers. I’ve been blessed with my career and I’ve always had these sort of angels on my shoulders – whether it’s Simon Cowell in the early part of my career, or Max [Martin] or Ilya, people like that. Surround yourself with people with good taste, especially good song taste, who are also honest and who contribute.
“We all help each other, contribute with each other and trust each other. If somebody walks in the room and says, ‘Oh, you know what? I’ve been hearing that through the walls, that chorus – you should try this with that,’ no one’s going to be like, ‘No, it’s my song!’ Everyone is like, ‘Oh, let’s try it.’ Because the goal is [for] the song to be as good as it could be. That’s a really important thing because I know in this sort of everyday LA writing world, people are so protective of their splits and all these kind of things, and [they think] ‘I don’t want more people on the song.’
“I always tell people, ‘It’s all about the song being the best it can be.’ Because if it’s the best it can be and it works, everybody wins. If it’s not and you have 20 percent more, it’s not going to do anything, so that 20 percent is worthless. Wouldn’t you rather be a part of an amazing song that does something? And you learn from every song you’ve had. You learn from the flops, and you learn from the big ones, and that’s a really priceless thing.”
“I remember Ari made Santa Tell Me onesies for us, which I still wear at Christmas. It’s just wonderful. I’m a huge Christmas guy. In my place here in Sweden, we do a lot. We go crazy inside and outside, I build a whole Santa’s workshop and kids come from the neighbourhood, and it’s a whole thing. So it’s just wonderful to be a part of something like that, that you hear every year.
“Every year it gets bigger and bigger on Spotify, which is so wild to us. We always joke around with the rest of the guys in the studio because every year we end up with the biggest hit from all of our guys. It’s been really fun to watch and be a part of and so amazing if it’s a part of people’s holiday season.”