Up until a few weeks ago, you could count the people I had written songs with on one hand and the songs we had written on two. After my visits to Nashville in 2014 and 2015 – which were responsible for half of that output – I decided to explore further the possibilities of collaboration. So it was somewhat serendipitous when I was invited on a songwriting retreat organised by The Songwriting Academy. The deal was you spend a week in a secluded village in the Andalusian hills of Spain with 30 other songwriters, being mentored by 5 experienced and successful songwriters – and write songs with each other; what’s not to like?
An atmosphere of excitement and nervousness emanated from the café in Malaga Airport as the retreat participants assembled round a gaggle of guitars. Introductions were made, complete with potted histories of how each one ended up there.
An hour later, we were drinking sangria around the pool in the Moorish village of Los Castillejos, which had been lovingly renovated by its owner Paul Sluiter over 20 years.
After supper, the guitars came out and a sing-song of well-known covers ensued, many of them being performed by Rob Nicklas whom we christened the “Juke-box” as he seemed to know every popular song ever written since 1955.
Day one: The next morning, the sessions started in earnest; writing teams of twos and threes were sent to various locations around the village. Each team was assigned one of the mentors to support, advise and cajole as the song took shape.
My partners on that first day were two young lasses named Chloe Reynolds and Nicole Roberts. The former was feisty and confident, the latter a little shy (although by the end of the week she had found her voice and was belting out the songs she had written with gusto).
We spent an hour or so finding out about each other and we each played the last song we had written.
Then we settled down to the business of the day. Chloe told us the story of a friend of hers who had died of cancer but who, in the time from being diagnosed with the illness to finally succumbing to it, had lived her life to the full. Chloe wanted to honour her bravery with a song that advocated embracing life. But the song would also have to be about death – a tricky subject to write about without being mawkish and full of platitudes. After Chloe suggested the opening line of “I had a friend, she passed away, I think about her every day” we settled on a title of Before the Lights Go Out with its double meaning – that moment at the end of the day when you think about what you have done with your day, and the bigger picture of what you have done with your life.
I think Chloe struggled at times to write such a personal song with two strangers but the objectivity that Nicole and I brought to the table, and the calm reassurance from our affable mentor Jez Ashurst (who has written for Leona Lewis and Little Mix) that we were on the right track, saw us through. By the end of the day we were happy with the final song.
At the end of each day (after a wonderful al fresco meal in the village street) the songs are debuted with acoustic instruments in a playback session in the village hall. Before the Lights Go Out went down very well – but such is the camaraderie and support in the room that all the songs are well received. Standout song for me that first night was one written by Alison Rily, Emma Ballantine and Sophie Jean Kim called The Flower Seller, which portrays how flower sellers, whom we hardly notice, can touch so many lives with their wares, helping us convey so many different emotions “lilies for the grave, and petals for the bed”. Day one and the bar had been set very high.
Day two: I’m again with two ladies. Alison (who co-wrote The Flower Seller) who is one half of Buxton-based band Sea Shaped, and Izzy Cox Chaparro, a livewire singer from Dusseldorf, Germany. The brief for the day: the song must contain some gibberish in the lyrics – for example, do, do, dos, whoa, whoa, whoas or some such nonsensical words. We settled on Ay, Ay, Ay for a song called Just Talking. Izzy sang lead, Alison played guitar, and I played acoustic bass, with the pair of us singing harmonies. It’s not the greatest song ever written but it’s a nice little pop ditty and the girls were tremendous fun to work with.
As I was making my way back to my house, I passed the house where Nicole was rehearsing with her co-writers Jo Foulkes and Gulli Francoise. I absolutely loved the song they were singing a cappella (with a little percussion). I offered to play cahon for them and they said yes. Prison Skin became my favourite song of that night. I felt honoured to be on stage with these powerful ladies and their energetic performance. When this song is a big hit, I will dine out on the fact that I was there at its birth.
Day three: My name is called out; I’m to write with Chris Neil and Kim Richey. There is a sharp intake of breath from the room. “You lucky bastard,” says my housemate Martin Wardley. Of my two new writing partners, the former has produced records for Celine Dion, Rod Stewart, Sheena Easton, Aha and Mike and the Mechanics as well as being a successful songwriter. The latter is a successful artist in her own right, being Grammy-nominated, and has written for the likes of the Dixie Chicks and Trisha Yearwood.
I went to my room to collect my guitar and gave myself a pep talk in the mirror. “You can do this!” I told my reflection. I needn’t have worried. Chris was an absolute gentleman and a great raconteur. Kim was funny and self-deprecating; by the end of the week, the pair would be adored by the whole group.
For me, the session was a master-class in songwriting collaboration. There were no egos in the room, there was much respect and courtesy but nothing was too precious. Neither of them was happy to settle for the first line that came along, always looking for something better. Chris’s phrase: “I’m looking for something with a bit more edge,” has stayed with me. He told me that in writing sessions in Nashville, when someone comes up with really good line, the other writers point at the door and say: “get out!” I’m pleased to say he gave me several of those that day. The brief was ‘beautiful’. We started thinking about things we found beautiful. I related that the most peaceful I’d ever felt was sitting on a beach in Ireland watching the waves crash on the shore and offered up ‘Waves crash on an empty beach’. Chris said, “No, it should be: ‘Waves crash on an Irish beach’; that’s the ‘edge'”. Kim sang the most beautiful melody, somehow sad and uplifting. Several times the song changed direction and we were happy to let it find its own path. In the end Wind the Clock is the story of someone looking back on moments in their life that they shared with someone special who has gone but whom they know they will see again.
It was an honour and a privilege to co-write with Kim and Chris.
There was no playback session that evening. The entire group de-camped with PA system, electric piano, acoustic guitar and bass and various bits of percussion to the village at the top of the hill and took over the patio of the local bar. We sang the night away playing covers old and new. The only exception was having mentor Ian Dench sing the song he wrote for EMF in the early nineties – Unbelievable. It just so happened that at that point I was on bass and the insanely talented Scott Fleming was on guitar. Both of us had paid our dues playing in cover bands. Ian turned to us both with his guitar and was clearly about to show us the song’s riff. Scott put up his hand to halt Ian, saying: “It’s alright, Ian – we’ve got this!” And indeed we did, but I thought it was a mark of Ian’s great humility to not expect us to know it. The original song has a rap section in it. A new totally off-the-cuff one was provided by vocal powerhouse Charlene Michael. It was a wonderful finale to a very fun evening.
Day four: A day off. And believe me, some of us needed it. Sleep-ins, sun, swimming and siestas were the order of the day.
The group assembled after supper to perform the songs from yesterday. On Wind the Clock, Chris sang lead with occasional harmonies in the verse and pre-chorus from Kim; I joined in on the chorus. Both Chris and Kim played finger-picking acoustic lines and I played bass. I think the song went down well but I was just so pleased to share a stage with Chris and Kim that I hardly noticed the reaction as the performance passed far too quickly. I probably grinned inanely the whole way through the song.
Day five: I’m paired with my housemate Martin and the beguiling Lizzy. While Martin and I look like worldly, been-through-the-mill frazzled and worn singer-songwriters, Lizzy, or Elizsabeth to give her her stage-name, looks like a bonafide pop star. If Nick Drake and Kate Bush had a love-child, it would look like Lizzy.
The brief was ‘quirky’. Martin had an idea for a song which was about a scornful, bitter woman. There was nothing sweet about this lady – she was said to be ‘sugar free’. And there was our title. I came up with some chords in a minor key and we were up and running. After an hour or so we thought we had the makings of a good song. Our mentor that day was The Songwriting Academy head honcho and all-round good egg Martin Sutton. We played him what we had of our song; in a very affable and caring way, he tore it to shreds. He loved the title and saw the possibilities of a song with that title being used in a TV advert for a sugar substitute such as Canderel (have I just made that up?) but not with the bitter and twisted narrative we had devised. He suggested trying a different tack as we could always go back to what we had. After we spent a couple of minutes sulking like recalcitrant school kids being told their algebra homework wasn’t up to scratch, we knuckled down to the task at hand. I banged out a funky rhythm using a chord progression in a major key and Lizzy sang a melody using the phrases we’d assembled from Martin’s notes. The new song was the complete opposite of our original effort. It was light and breezy with a positive message told from the woman’s perspective; she didn’t need her man’s sweetness anymore – from now on she would be ‘sugar free’. We played it to mentor Martin. “It’s a hit!” he beamed.
The playback session couldn’t come quickly enough for us. The great thing about playing songs to a bunch of songwriters is that when they hear what they think is a good line or hook you can feel the energy in the room rise. And Lizzy’s delivery of the vocal has a kooky carefree attitude that totally sells the track. Over the course of the week I hadn’t heard Ian Dench swear. His critique consisted of: “It’s hooky as fuck!” (and he’s written for Beyonce!). Jez said that if he heard it on the radio it would be one of those songs he’d wished he’d written. Wow!
After the session, Lizzy, Martin and I had a little back-slapping, did-that-really-just-happen get-together moment and agreed that Sugar Free was worth pursuing.
About six beers and an hour later, I bumped into my co-writer Martin out on the village street. If I were only allowed one memory from the retreat it would be of the grin on his face as he stumbled towards me. He told me that the positive comments that had been made to him about Sugar Free had totally made his week. I said I’d drink to that. So we did. Several times.
Day six: I thought the day would be something of an anti-climax but I was wrong. Before the writing teams were read out, all of the mentors told how they got started in the business, and Kim Richey was persuaded to sing a song. I asked her to sing my favourite song of hers – The Absence of Your Company – which she did, and it was truly amazing.
I was paired with Italian singer-songwriter Valeria Pozzo. I was pleased with this as I had been watching and enjoying her contributions and performances throughout the week. There is a vibrancy and an honesty to everything she does. Earlier on in the week she had written a song about leaving Italy and her family to pursue a career in London which had struck a chord with me but from a different perspective, that of a parent sending their offspring out into the world.
The brief was: ‘anthemic’. We started with the idea of a song with the theme of ‘going for it’, ‘being unstoppable’, along the lines of Starship’s Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now or Queen’s We Are the Champions. We jotted down some phrases and I played a chord progression I thought would be suitable. However, my inbuilt cheese-ometer was ringing loudly. Jez came in the room to hear how we were doing. As I picked up my guitar I told him of my reservations. He listened intently. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s a bit cheesy. Got any other ideas?” I said I did. What I wanted to say was, “I’d like to write a song about a father saying goodbye to his daughter as she goes off into the world”, except, I couldn’t speak. The words wouldn’t come out, my eyes welled up, and I started to blub. Valeria knew just how I was feeling and she started to cry. Jez looked at the two of us and joined in. “I don’t know why I’m crying” he sobbed. Once I had pulled myself together enough to communicate the idea, Jez said, “This sounds like it’s a much better song. It’s real!”
We set to work; after a couple of hours and a few tears we were happy with God Knows I’m Gonna Miss You. Both Valeria and I were emotionally drained by the writing process. The first verse tells of dropping a loved one off at an airport. The listener probably thinks it’s a break-up song. Verse two reveals the father-daughter relationship. My favourite line is in the middle section “From the schoolyard to the boarding gate – where did that time go?”
Our original intention was for Valeria to sing the second verse from the daughter’s perspective but she vetoed this, thinking the song was stronger sung from just the father’s point of view. She is wise beyond her years.
At the playback session, ours was the last song of the night and the last song of the week. I was worried that I might not be able to keep it together during the performance, as I had yet to do so in rehearsal. Somehow I did, but it was a close call.
The reaction from our peers was immediate; there were tears rolling down many faces, which is a fine accolade, but my favourite comment was from mentor Martin who singled out the schoolyard to boarding gate line. It was a fantastic end to a fantastic week.
To be in the company of so many talented songwriters, hear the fruits of their labour, and to witness the camaraderie and mutual respect shown to one another has been so refreshing in a business that is often portrayed as cutthroat. To be there at the birth of songs, friendships, and potential writing partnerships has been a humbling experience.
There are now 60 more songs in the world that didn’t exist before we all arrived in that Spanish village. The reality is that many of them will be forgotten, some will get recorded and sit for all eternity on a digital shelf, some might get played live on a stage somewhere, but maybe, just maybe one of them…