‘I thought, what would Prince do?’ How we made Bleeding Love by Leona Lewis

<span>Photograph: Gary Clark/FilmMagic</span>
Photograph: Gary Clark/FilmMagic

‘It came out a year after I won The X Factor. I was worried people might have forgotten me, but the song became so huge I still can’t explain it’

Leona Lewis, singer

I was doing gigs and studio work, anything to get a record deal. At one point, I won a national karaoke competition held by Yates’s Wine Lodge. The prize was £10,000 and it was like a pub version of The X Factor. So when a chance at the real thing came along, I was ready to try that as well.

I auditioned singing Eva Cassidy’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. My cousin had just passed away, so I sang it in her memory and poured everything into it. Progressing through The X Factor put me in this weird bubble: hardly seeing family or friends and already being recognised in the street. I was 19, came from Hackney in east London, and winning the final seemed a pipe dream. When it happened it felt like an out-of-body experience. After winning, I had to sing for Clive Davis. I kept thinking: “This man launched Whitney Houston!” She was one of my all-time heroes.

Simon Cowell mentored me, picking songs and arrangements. We had a few disputes but he shared my vision of who I wanted to be. When I did a showcase gig in LA, I was so nervous I was sick – then I had to go on stage and perform. I vaguely remember meeting songwriters and producers, but I know exactly how I felt when I heard a demo of Bleeding Love. I thought: “This song could have been written for me.” It had a Prince vibe and I just kept playing it over and over.

Ryan Tedder, who wrote the song, is a great producer – as well as being the lead singer of OneRepublic. So whenever he said, “Why don’t you try this?”, he was able to actually sing what he meant. I could relate to the song because Ryan can write like a teenage girl. Just before Bleeding Love, I had had a really bad breakup. I thought of that while I was singing.

The song came out a year after I won The X Factor. I was worried people might have forgotten me, but the show had such a high profile back then – and YouTube was blowing up, too. The song became so huge [topping the charts in 35 countries] I still can’t explain it. Bleeding Love just seemed to connect with people – and they wanted to hear it again and again.

Ryan Tedder, songwriter and producer

In my 20s, I wrote and produced for Jennifer Lopez. After that, the phone didn’t stop ringing. I actually wrote Bleeding Love for the American singer and actor Jesse McCartney. I’d done a couple of hits with him and he wanted to try something different.

Whenever I don’t know what to write, I ask myself: “What would Prince do?” I was in my apartment and started playing organ chords. Even the song’s distorted drums are Prince-like. I soon had the verse, the melody and the opening lyrics: “Closed off from love, I didn’t need the pain / Once or twice was enough, and it was all in vain / Time starts to pass, before you know it you’re frozen.” I’d been thinking about When Doves Cry or Nothing Compares 2 U. I wanted to write a song that was about love but devastating, so thought about breakups that had crushed me in college.

I finished the song with Jesse and we came up with the phrase Bleeding Love in the studio. I thought it was the best song I’d ever written, but I got a call from Jesse’s A&R man telling me it wouldn’t make his album. “I don’t personally think the song is a hit,” he said. I was furious and thought: “Either he’s wrong or I need a new job.”

Two months later, I was at Leona’s showcase at the Beverly Hilton alongside every writer and producer in the business. I was an up-and-coming nobody, but the moment I heard Leona’s voice, I thought Bleeding Love would be perfect for her. Simon Cowell and Clive Davis both loved the version I’d done with Jesse, so I re-did it with Leona and spent days crafting the strings. People told me that halving the tempo in the middle broke all the rules of songwriting.

I sent the finished song to Simon and he said: “I guarantee I’m going to deliver you a UK No 1.” It reached No 1 in the same week OneRepublic did in the US with Apologize – which I’d also written. I’d done another song with Leona at the same time, called Take a Bow, which would have been a single if Rihanna hadn’t released a track with the same title. The only thing better than having a gigantic No 1 with a new artist would have been having two.