The Women Behind The Songs: Ester Dean Fun, fearless and freethinking, Ester Dean's vivacious personality comes across in her work. The songwriter has written hits for Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry.
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The Women Behind The Songs: Ester Dean

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The Women Behind The Songs: Ester Dean

The Women Behind The Songs: Ester Dean

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(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PITCH PERFECT 2")

ESTER DEAN: (As Cynthia Rose, singing) Creole Lady Marmalade.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

You might recognize Ester Dean from her role in the "Pitch Perfect" movies. That's her singing. The Oklahoma native has also lent her voice to the animated films "Ice Age" and "Rio," and she's a Grammy-nominated producer. But her greatest success is in songwriting. She's written chart-topping hits for artists such as Beyonce, Drake and Kelly Clarkson. Meredith Ochs has her story as part of our series The Women Behind The Songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DROP IT LOW")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Drop it; drop it low, girl. Drop it; drop it low, girl.

MEREDITH OCHS, BYLINE: No one likes that person at a concert who sings along with the band to the point of distraction, but that's how Ester Dean got discovered by a man behind some of the 21st century's biggest pop hits, Tricky Stewart. She cracked the Top 40 in 2009 with her song "Drop It Low" and started writing and demoing songs for major artists. This is Dean singing the demo version of "What's My Name?," which she co-wrote and which Rihanna took to number one on Billboard's Top 100 chart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S MY NAME?")

DEAN: (Singing) Not everybody knows how to work my body, knows how to make me want it. But, boy, you stay up on it. You got that something that keeps me so off balance. Baby, you're a challenge. Let's explore your talents.

OCHS: Dean's voice is her instrument, and her musical gift is summoning melodic hooks. She's one of just a few of what's called a topline writer. She goes into the studio and listens to completed instrumental tracks. Then she divines a melody and sings it over the music over and over and over and over until it feels like a hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S MY NAME?")

DEAN: (Singing) Looking for a guy to put in work on, oh, oh.

OCHS: She's been doing this in one way or another all her life. In grade school, she kept paper notebooks filled with lyrical ideas, making up songs and singing to help her cope with life as the youngest of five kids raised by a single mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICKI MINAJ SONG, "SUPER BASS")

OCHS: Now she keeps notes on her cellphone, pulling out bits of phrases and working them into songs. Fun, fearless and free-thinking, Dean's vivacious personality comes across in her work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPER BASS")

NICKI MINAJ: (Rapping) Back coupes up, and chuck the deuce up. (Singing) Boy, you got my heartbeat running away, beating like a drum, and it's coming your way. Can't you hear that boom, badoom (ph), boom, boom, badoom, boom bass - he got that super bass - boom, badoom, boom, boom, badoom, boom bass? Yeah, that's that super bass.

OCHS: If you look at the credits of almost any contemporary pop song, it's kind of like reading a list of ingredients in processed food. But no matter how many people she's sharing the credit with, Dean is known for being a superb collaborator who can deal with big music industry egos. She knows when to take the lead in a session and when to help someone else turn their thoughts into a hit. Dean says that Katy Perry already had the concept and title for this song, but they volleyed ideas back and forth until this happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIREWORK")

KATY PERRY: (Singing) Baby, you're a firework. Come on; let your colors burst. Make them go, oh, oh, oh. You're going to leave them falling down.

OCHS: Dean says her songwriting is partly about fantasy just like writing lines for an actor. Her lyrics aren't profound, and they're not supposed to be. They're there to carry the melody and connect it to the rhythm, to create something so catchy that you can't get it out of your head and to give you a 3-minute escape from your daily grind. So the next time a song on the radio makes you feel happy or emboldened or anything at all, remember that Ester Dean might be the one who's grabbing your attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF KATY PERRY SONG, "FIREWORK")

OCHS: Because it isn't just about the singer. It's also about the women behind the songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S MY NAME?")

RIHANNA: (Singing) Oh, na, na, what's my name? Oh, na, na, what's my name?

SHAPIRO: Our music critic Meredith Ochs is the author of several books, including "Rock-and-Roll Woman."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S MY NAME?")

RIHANNA: (Singing) Oh, na, na, what's my name? Oh, na, na, what's my name? Oh, na, na, what's my name? What's my name? What's my name?

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