Ivor Novello awards 2015: 10 tips from nominees on how to write a hit song

"I think everyone has a song or a story worth telling," says Clean Bandit

Emily Jupp@EmilyJupp
Friday 15 May 2015 11:16
Clean Bandit, photographed at Rowley Way - South Hampstead
From Left:   Milan Neil Amin-Smith (Strings), Grace Chatto (Strings), Jack Patterson (Bass, Sax, Decks) and Luke Patterson (drums).
Clean Bandit, photographed at Rowley Way - South Hampstead From Left: Milan Neil Amin-Smith (Strings), Grace Chatto (Strings), Jack Patterson (Bass, Sax, Decks) and Luke Patterson (drums).

"Prepare yourself for infant mortality rates: 49 out of 50 of your children will die. You have to make yourself very hardened to that fact."

Eg White, one of the UK's most in-demand songwriters and the creator of top 10 hits sung by the likes of Adele, Florence and the Machine, Maverick Sabre and Will Young isn't totally optimistic about the process of songwriting. Apparently, it takes a lot of time and effort to create an ostensibly simple song and for every "Chasing Pavements" or "Leave Right Now" there are hundreds of songs that are left for dead, strewn on the studio floor, never recorded, never seeing the light of day.

White used to be in a band called Eg and Alice that made clever, subtle, intricate, romantic, critically-acclaimed music that no-one ever listened to. The duo's 1991 album 24 Years of Hunger was lauded by Q magazine as one of the best albums of the 20th century, yet it failed to chart.

Since, White has gone on to consistently make hit after hit with some of the biggest names in British pop music, winning an Ivor Novello award for Best Song in 2004 (for Will Young's "Leave Right Now") and then again for Best Songwriter in 2009.

Next Thursday is the 60th anniversary of the Ivor Novello Awards. Getting an Ivor is a huge mark of recognition for any songwriter. When Lily Allen famously scooped three in 2010, including Best Song for her single "The Fear", she gave a tearful acceptance speech about finally being taken seriously by the industry.

Lily Allen performs at the O2 Academy in Glasgow

"This song is so much about feeling so lost... it has made me feel quite found all of a sudden," she said. The Ivors will once again shine a spotlight on the songwriters and composers who contribute so much to British music next week, but, unlike Allen, these figures usually work in the background and are usually overshadowed by the personalities who sing their songs. But according to White, that's a good thing.

"In some way you don't know if the song is any good until the singer stands up to the mic and sings it; when the person singing is fired up by the light of the song... The physical joy is in the recording. That's why Rihanna is so brilliant, she's like a mum shouting at her kids, she's so passionate and some singers have that emotional freedom that we all want to hear. That's what I'm always desperately after, it's like a diving board or a rocket and it launches the song. But it rarely happens."

White works with singers to try to draw out their story, so that when they sing, the lyrics will feel personal to them. "I've learnt that it's far better for it to be the singer's story the hard way," says White, "I'd rather it be their story than mine, so I am looking outwards not looking inwards."

But can anyone come up with an award-winning song? The simple answer is no. "The joke is that everybody should be doing it," says White. "All young people who have a proper job and aren't able to own a property have something to say and so they should all be writing songs for free now that you can produce something on your laptop with free software." Unfortunately not everyone can sit down with a singer over a cup of tea and come out two hours later with a hit.

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"I ran a 40-minute songwriting workshop at Latitude festival and a professional journalist was in the audience and his lines were great, his melodies were good, what came out of it was he had an aptitude for it but many people haven't."

But if you think you might have an ear for a good melody and a knack for an interesting line, plus oodles of dedication, here are the tips from the industry hotshots on how to write the next No 1.

Dig deep

"It's about trying to be as honest. I want to be affected by it personally because otherwise I can't expect anyone else to be," says Andrew Davie from Bear's Den, who is nominated for the first time this year for an Ivor. He's up for Best Song alongside Hozier's "Take Me to Church" and Ben Howard's "I Forget Where We Were". "The way I work is by trying not to close off too many doors," he adds.

Andrew Davie (left) and James Napier during the nominations announcement for this year's Ivor Novello awards

Don't be too radical

"Its bloody dangerous to write a song that's too new," says White. "No one gets it when we push things further. The internal world language of feelings is very impoverished so you have to venture outside of that into the external world of feelings where the language is richer, but I've tried to incorporate the world beyond that and it just doesn't work."

Don't be too rigid

Jimmy Napes is nominated this year for two Ivors for "Rather Be" performed by Clean Bandit and Jess Glynne. He also won a Grammy this year for Sam Smith's "Stay with Me": "I like to think about a concept of a song first and it's almost like therapy, you just sit around with the singer and drink tea and be very English about it and eventually someone will say something worth writing a song about."

Heartache sells

"We don't have songs about the structure of carbon," says White, "because largely songs are written for people aged 18-25 and the biggest thing that happens to that age group is romance and break-ups and that's what popular music is aimed at."

Keep it real

"I'd want to know really about what you're feeling," says Napes. "I'd want to know where your life's at with your relationship, your past, your mum, your dad, really personal stuff. I really want to understand what you're made of. It's quite a brave thing to do, you know, you've got to really put yourself on the line."

Just do it

"You have to start somewhere" says Napes. "That's what my dad told me. The more you stare at a blank page, well, that's the worst you can do and it will paralyse you."

Don't write about politics

No matter how strongly you feel, putting politics into a song won't make for a winning formula. White says: "Just yesterday I tried it with a marvellous singer who was so depressed by the result of the election and it just doesn't ring true these days because a more subtle hardship has come up in its place than in previous decades and that kind of poverty is harder to write about."

'Rather Be' - Clean Bandit

Isn't it ironic?

"You are making subconscious decisions all the time when you write and one of them is, "is it ironic or is it not ironic?" says White. "I love that complexity of songwriting but what you still want it to appear incredibly simple. Songs like "Perfect Day" are lying songs. You listen to it once and hear it as a beautiful song and then later discover all that love and beauty was an ode to crack. You find the alternative reading undermines the first so thoroughly that it adds more to the song, as well as taking something away."

Say something that everyone understands, but that hasn't yet been said

"What we're trying to do is pluck out of the air something that everybody knows is there but they don't really see it until they hear it sung," says White. "It's brilliant being surprised by something you already know. You know when it's a crappy day and then something happens in the music and it transforms everything for a couple of minutes. It doesn't often happen, maybe every year or every couple of years."

Don't give up

"I think everyone has a song or a story worth telling," says Napes. "You could pick anyone in the world and they will have an amazing story and if they were with the right person to bring that out, then definitely they could write a song."

The 60th anniversary Ivor Novello Awards take place on Thursday 21 May in London

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