Like most sullen teenagers growing up in the nineties on a diet of Alanis Morissette, Dawson's Creek and Prozac Nation I'd often write incredibly bad poetry, peppering the overly detailed prose with scrawled drawings of eyes or, you know, other such things I assumed were giving people an insight into my very soul. The thought of being able to translate my own experiences – people, like, just didn't get me, you know? – and use them to create something for someone else just didn't enter my field of vision. Perhaps it's because of this that I initially assumed being a songwriter was a solo endeavor, and that personal pain had to be bled onto the page in order to feel authentic. Obviously this is complete solipsistic nonsense and the glorious churn of the songwriting cogs in pop hit factories teeming with geniuses has shown that when you translate the personal into the universal true magic happens. But how easy is it to do that? How do songwriters alchemise their own experiences into pop gold for others? How much do they rely on instinct, or their senses, to get into a headspace that means they're not writing for themselves, often when writing for themselves is also part of their job? Most importantly, where do they keep all the cute phrases that come to them when they're in the bath?
Hannah Robinson is one of UK pop's biggest songwriters, knocking out gold-plated hits for Kylie and Say Lou Lou, as well as co-writing one of the greatest songs about the music industry, Rachel Stevens' Some Girls. For her, senses, specifically smells, can help transport her back to a place that can fuel her ideas. “I co-wrote a song called Anthonio with Annie and Richard X. I remember right at the beginning of the session Annie spotted a bottle of aftershave near his desk. It smelled pretty bad, but instantly got us talking about the kind of person that would wear such a scent.” [For clarity, Hannah says Richard protested it wasn't his]. “We discussed holiday romances, shared stories and came up with a song that was evocative of a love found on holiday.” Another song for Annie, Songs Remind Me Of You, came from the idea of how a smell or a taste or a touch can crash head on with the memory of a song. For Fiona Bevan, who co-wrote One Direction's UK chart-topper Little Things alongside Ed Sheeran, smells are paramount. “Smell is a very powerful thing – I can be walking down the street and smell someone's perfume or cologne and it can take me back to a moment in my childhood or something that happened when I was a teenager. The same is true with music itself. You could hear an organ sound and it can immediately make you think of a certain song from your past. I think we can be transported very quickly. It's not a logical thing your mind is doing, it's a physical thing almost.”
Obviously there are amazing songwriters who sing songs that aren't just about themselves. Not everyone is as obsessed with themselves as teenage me was. But writing for others is about putting yourself in other people's shoes, even if the core inspiration is based on your own experience. “I am a voyeur in the truest sense,” says Anita Blay, aka Cocknbullkid and songwriter for the likes of Little Mix and Neon Jungle. “I spend most of my time people watching. I think it's just part of my make-up which is pretty handy for songwriting. By default, when I'm writing with or for other artists I steal a lot from their experiences. You unwittingly become a therapist. Often, I'll go into sessions and ask them to tell me what's going on with them in their personal lives and usually they'll be quite open. The job is to turn that into a resonant piece of music.” Australian songwriter (Leona Lewis, Little Nikki) and artist Emmi takes people watching as a springboard for something more experimental: “I love autobiographical movies and documentaries and I tend to take a story or a feeling or just an idea of something that may have happened between two people and translate that into a new fictitious story in my mind.”
Occasionally, the job of the songwriter is to filter down their own experiences to give the song an emotional core that perhaps wouldn't have been there otherwise. “Sometimes you’ll work with someone so young they’ve never even had their heart broken, so you have to delve into your own memory file to help with the emotional side,” says Hannah. “Occasionally I compose songs, gathering ideas from my experiences, friends' experiences and the artist’s experiences, I guess even exaggerating sometimes. You want to end up with an interesting story after all.” The same goes for Bevan, who alongside songwriting sessions for others also releases music under her own name. “It can be quite hard to write with someone who's been sheltered, so it's about translating the scenarios they are familiar with into something universal or tangible. If you're working with someone who's never been in love then it's perhaps about writing about that yearning.”
Nowadays, with music obsessed with authenticity, major labels will often ask that the artist is in the songwriting session even if their input is minimal (to reiterate, this is fine by me; so much of pop music's brilliance comes from the delivery of the song). So how does a songwriter go from just meeting someone to knocking out a massive sad banger about love or whatever? “If I feel some disconnect to the subject I'll talk really informally with them, go get a coffee and step away from the song for thirty mins,” explains Anita. “Usually you've written the song in that time, without realising. A lot of lyrics I've used in sessions have been words or sentiments that have happened in natural conversation. It's always a lovely moment when that happens.” For Hannah, those special moments can also be eked out by being emotionally honest from the start. “If we’ve never met before then I’ll offer something to the table first, putting myself out there. Sometimes half of the first day can just be chatting and sharing stories. It’s like doing the groundwork. I have to brainstorm first before we do anything, then you have the song right there in front you, you just have to piece it all together with a melody. I am quite happy to offer my experiences too, but they must feel connected to what I’m saying for it to be included on the song.”
Even my brief sojourn as a part-time poet, diarist and all-round Dawson Leery taught me that you have to be in the right mood and frame of mind to make beautiful, epoch-defining art. It turns out this is also the case when it comes to songwriting for others, an art-form that's all about reading energies. The worst thing a songwriter can do, for example, is waltz into a studio expecting to write a banger and be confronted with an artist who's in a ballad frame of mind. Or whose cat has just done something weird. “I barely walk into a studio with plans these days, says Emmi. “Sometimes someone’s cat can do something funny and we all laugh and someone says something quick witted and I write it down, and that’s the title of the song. They’re often the best ones. But sometimes it can be much more cerebral than that.” “Energy is important in the studio,” agrees Hannah, who takes on the role of studio hype woman. “If I dip in energy I can feel the artist dip too and vice versa. It’s part of my job to keep the ‘vibe going’ as it were. I used to make the mistake of preparing ideas for a certain type of song in a certain genre, but sometimes the artist would arrive with a completely different idea for how the sessions going to go. These days I usually start from scratch and feed off them.”
So songwriting for others requires a complex mesh of skills. You need to be open to inspiration from any and everything, including smells and senses. You'll need to bring your own experiences to the table but not overshadow your subject. Sometimes if said subject is a bit wet behind the ears then you'll need to draw on your own experiences, so be ready for that. Most importantly, it's a collaborative effort so don't, like young me, be too self-obsessed. Oh, and perhaps most crucially, always write down those random phrases and ideas that bubble up when you're shopping/on the loo/watching First Dates. “I'm constantly writing down phrases and ideas and concepts,” says Fiona. “I write songs in quite a visual way, like imagining what that scene would look like if it were a movie. I'm quite cinematically driven, if that makes sense.” “My phone is filled with notes with random phrases, titles, concepts, fully-formed and half-formed verses and they're often very disjointed,” laughs Anita. “I'll sometimes use a concept from one page and piece together a line that works with a line I wrote a year back on a separate page. I just need two strong lines to start and that's enough for me to develop that into a song.” Emmi, a self-proclaimed goldfish vis-a-vis memory, sometimes forgoes a pad or a phone completely. “Phrases can come to you at the most random times and they go so soon, so you have to learn to record ideas fast and however you can. I’ve literally written a thought into the steam in my mirror when I got out the bath.”