9 Things I Learned About Making Great Music at a Songwriting Circle
Lessons from some of the world’s top talent in pop, rock, and jazz
Last Friday night — a revelation.
Perhaps that's an overstatement, but it was certainly exciting, eye-opening, and entertaining. The talent behind some of the world’s most popular music (Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”, James Blunt’s “You're Beautiful”, Paolo Nutini’s “New Shoes”, and more). On stage. Sharing their stories.
So, for those like me (uninitiated), here’s the format: a songwriting circle. This is where/when musicians congregate to unravel & unpack the ideas that shaped their songs. Unbeknownst to me, this is a time-worn tradition around the globe: from Nashville to London, New Orleans to Havana & Berlin.
The result — wonder, respect, humility & connection.
They brought together lyricists with a unique talent for weaving words poetically, composers with a flair for hooks & melodies, and vocalists with star quality to share how teams of songwriters work together professionally to write stunning music. Incredibly, these artists then performed those songs live in their own (usually unheard) voice, exchanging the stories behind them.
It would impossible to cover the extensive richness of that experience, you’ll have to make your way to the next circle for that honour. But, what follows is a brief reflection on interesting recurring themes (particularly for aspiring artists) that were a hallmark of an evening of optimism — as these good people reminisced on the past, & looked to the future, with infectious reverie.
Lesson 1: Don’t underestimate luck
Lesson 2: No one can really tell what will work/connect
Lesson 3: Keep creating. Keep sharing
The first story we’ll touch on here that epitomises the themes above is that of a very special surprise guest with gravitas: the wonderful Jamie Lawson. The tale behind his global hit song Wasn’t Expecting That is multi-tiered and glorious. Jamie is Irish, and he was (at the time) a touring unsigned musician playing gigs around the country. He even once played alongside Ed Sheeran. So our unsigned Jamie Lawson writes a beauty — and records a video of it on YouTube. The video goes viral and gets picked up by a local radio station, who play the tinny YouTube video on air. Things then proceed to go crazy, especially in Ireland (he knocks Adele off the top spot in the charts!) Game on. With all the buzz and attention behind the track record executives at Atlantic fly him over to New York to discuss the potential for a worldwide release.
So far, so exciting. The problem is that the executives pass on the opportunity, and the song fades away — heartbreak. Meanwhile, Jamie continues to gig, touring small towns around the UK to share his music. Turns out the very same Ed Sheeran, who by now has started to make a few waves of his own, remembers him years later, and invites Jamie to tour with him as a support act. He then offers to re-release the track in Australia under a newly minted record label of his own. Sweet irony of ironies — this label is backed by none other than the same Atlantic executives that passed on opportunity in the first place. The song goes to Number 1 in Australia, across Europe, and cements Jamie as a star.
The second story that exemplified these themes was the astonishing genesis & journey of the song Too Close by Jim Duguid and Alex Clare. As “broker than broke” musicians, this duo has a track they are proud of and believe in. Months of work in writing, composition, production and mastering this song culminate in a release which is listened to by absolutely no-one. The song does nothing. They forget about it and move on. Three years later, Jim receives a call and none other than Microsoft want to use it to feature in a commercial for Internet Explorer 9. Someone listened. Next thing you know: cue top-ten hit status in multiple countries, double platinum sales, Brit Award, the works! Incredible. Even more so given the huge difference this makes to Jim’s life, the visible emotion of this performance moves us all.
Jim, with characteristic Scottish charm, goes on to share songs we recognise from the much loved Paolo Nutini debut album These Streets. A drummer first, singer second (his words), this was a masterclass in great songwriting energising a track with minimal production and/or backing e.g. his performance of Last Request. It was most apparent on the hit New Shoes, inspired by childhood trips to the shops with his Nan, who would proceed to try on every shoe in the shop — before opting for the first pair they’d set eyes on! Sporting a pair of bright red kicks himself (Bye Bye Blues!) & with sparse percussion on the frame of the guitar, the track shone through with remarkable personality.
The third story is about Jeff Cohen, the utterly wonderful multi-award winning songwriter, producer, and publisher. He was on the fast track to success as an executive at BMI before deciding to make a go of full-time songwriting at the age of 33. A serious illness provided the necessary courage to forge a path into writing music. What was especially moving in the stories that he shared were the two songs that had an impact on an individual level out in the world:
1. Crazy for this Girl: a pop-rock track that gave a fan the gumption to pluck the courage to ask out a girl he really fancied. At a gig, this fan was later able to introduce Jeff to this girl — now his wife! This is a song beloved by Princess Diaries & Dawson’s creek fans the world over. Sung by Evan and Jaron, this was a U.S. Billboard top 5 hit that propelled Cohen into writing for lots of hit shows thereafter.
2. In Her Eyes: In a touching tale, we also learned of a lady in Australia whose husband was suffering from dementia. Despite the loss of precious of memories, one morsel he continued to remember until death was this song, for which she was eternally grateful. We felt the love on this one, especially as Jeff is also — as a result of matching the song with the artist — able to introduce his proud mother (speechless) to Josh Groban at a concert.
Lesson 4: Work with anyone
Lesson 5: Be inspired by anything
Lesson 6: Listen intently
Sacha Skarbek’s humility on this evening was something else — particularly given a career that has merited both Grammy nominations and double Ivor Novello recognition for his obvious talents. On the piano, we were treated to a monsoon of musicality. None more haunting than the co-written track he shared of Gavin James’ called Bitter Pill to Swallow. Played with pomp and poise, spines tingled as Spotify playlists across the room were immediately updated. Two stories really resonated with the themes above.
The first from an early stage in Sacha’s career. We got a real taste of the stereotypical struggling musician's existence: bills due, car sold, apartment up for sale, a string of disappointments, and no one to work with a result. Unable to piece together anything significant, Sacha ends up writing with a wayward artist, who had been a military serviceman in a past life. That track changes their lives. Of course, you’ve likely now twigged this was none other than James Blunt with his worldwide smash You’re Beautiful from the multi-platinum debut album “Back to Bedlam”.
OK, now we’re talking. With success behind him, huge stars now begin lining up. And the promise of these high-level partnerships incentivises Sacha to move his young family to LA, to be in close proximity to the action. So, first writing sessions scheduled with CeeLo Green (!)….stood up. Second writing session booked in with Beyonce (!)….cancelled. Things begin to unravel & fall apart. Hemorrhaging money and time, and unable to spark any real magic, Sacha is forced to go from high-end recording studios to a Japanese learning center. He is set up with an unknown writer at the time: Mozella. She arrives in tears, wrought with distraught about the latest twist and turn in an abusive relationship with her partner. They forge a quick and lasting personal connection. With deep empathy, active listening, and reflection on the potency of those powerfully charged emotions they turn that experience into the hallmark single of Miley Cyrus’ “Bangerz” album: Wrecking Ball.
The stunning Sarah Darling, who celebrates the number one album in the UK country music charts this week, wowed this audience with her vocal prowess. Undoubtedly a well-versed performer, we were treated to four wonderful songs from her album, “Wonderland.” She is the epitome of this theme of drawing inspiration from all the corners of our lives. Speaking candidly about marriage to a British husband, we learned of the moment that romance was brought to fruition with a dream trip to Paris (a childhood dream of Sarah’s). Her song Montmartre paints a picture of exactly why, with the most vivid and stunning imagery interwoven by dreamy song smithing.
We felt the burdens of living far away from home in the song Timelapse. A track born from the sensation of life moving far too fast around us/her, living in a different country, and the all-too-familiar sensation of missing all the people you care about growing up and growing old: birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, all the good stuff. Fantastic track. Finally, Wasted, which deserves a mention both for its tender subject matter and inspiring delivery. After living with a close connection with an alcohol problem, Sarah recounts her experience beautifully.
Lesson 7: Simple is effective
Lesson 8: Fail often
Lesson 9: Stay humble
As a casual listener I, like many, am typically relatively ignorant of narrative in music. Lyrics flood past, in blurs of sound, with the only things truly sticking is the melody/hooks/chorus. And that is as it should be — sometimes all we want is the groove and the rhythm to shake and dance to.
On some rare occasions, a songwriter is able to connect so vividly that we cannot help but be enveloped by the message their songs convey. Songs like: Fast Car by Tracy Chapman, or Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper and Rob Hyman spring to mind. The magic really starts to happen when stories we relate to, or can empathise with, shine through. And on this evening that is exactly what happened. It was an honour and privilege.
So, go forth & collaborate. I’ll be seeing you at the next songwriting circle!