The biz’s brightest new talents tell their stories
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As Taylor Swift notes on her big comeback tune: “I’m the only one of me, And baby that’s the fun of me”. That's not something being said in too many songwriting sessions nowadays.
Swift, of course, has always maintained her unique voice, even when writing songs with others. But for other artists, that can be more of a struggle, as co-writing credits continual to spiral in the pursuit of those elusive streaming smashes.
Music Week’s annual survey of the number of writers on the UK’s biggest hits, revealed in this week's special Hitmakers print edition, shows that 5.34 is now the magic number needed to score one of the biggest singles of the year. More pertinently, the higher up the chart you go, the more writers you need: the Top 30 hits were written by an average of 6.7 people, too many to fit in a cab home after the session.
Both those numbers are up sharply on last year, but there are signs 2019 might finally see that trend going into reverse. True, there were only three 100% songs on the 2018 chart – Ed Sheeran's Perfect, Dennis Lloyd's Nevermind and Freya Ridings' (pictured) Lost Without You. And some songs boasted sky high numbers of credited writers: Anne-Marie's 2002 names 18; Drake's Nice For What 22; and Travis Scott's sample-heavy Sicko Mode no less than 30. That's enough for two rugby teams, FYI.
Some songs boasted sky high numbers of credited writers: Anne-Marie's 2002 names 18; Drake's Nice For What 22; and Travis Scott's sample-heavy Sicko Mode no less than 30
But a new breed of writer-artists, from Ridings to George Ezra, Billie Eilish to Tom Walker, are also showing that you can have success with songs created by just one or two people.
None of those artists fit the generic pop template, which may be why their work is connecting with people on a level beyond a single hit. It remains the dream for every label to break artists rather than just songs, so you do wonder why quite so many resources sometimes get dedicated to diluting those artists’ vision. Throw in the proliferation of featured artists and it gets ever harder to cut through the noise.
Furthermore, the way streaming playlists function often seems to make hits converge to similar sonic templates, whether consciously or sub-consciously. The trend towards more distinctive UK solo voices has surely been born out of a desire for less cookie-cutter pop music, and, significantly, seems more driven by radio – still willing to take a chance on an artist – rather than the DSPs.
After all, in a business where standing out has never been more important, why choose to get lost in a crowd? You’re the only one of you. And while that’s the fun of you, it might also be the key to your success.
* To read Music Week's full, exclusive analysis of this year's co-writing numbers, see this week's special print edition, available now, or click here. To subscribe and never miss a vital music biz story, click here.
“The only person I’ve been completely blown away with recently is Billie Eilish. She’s phenomenal and I really like the idea of that [songwriting] relationship between her and her brother [Finneas O’Connell]. It’s got elements of Feist, but wrapped up in a completely subversive way, which is blowing me away.” Crispin Hunt, songwriter and chair, Ivors Academy
“I think he’s incredibly underestimated. His songs touch something, lyrically, he addresses subjects that are incredibly personal and well executed, and incredibly melodic. He is underrated and I’m surprised he doesn’t get more airplay. There are a lot of layers – you can take away from it what you want to. Stop This Train is a great song, Gravity’s another.” Annette Barrett, MD, Reservoir/Reverb
“Stevie Wonder is my favourite living songwriter because he’s so prolific and so consistent. From a young age he was writing and didn’t realise how amazing he was. He’s just incredible – every single song, the emotion, the way he can play. He can’t even see and he’s playing better than everyone else in the whole world. I think it’s that that made me want to learn how to play as well. Ribbon In The Sky, it’s just the beauty of it – the love in it that you feel. That’s why everyone has it at their wedding – you can just feel the beauty and truth in what he’s saying. And he’s always writing these songs about specific people – which is why they feel so real.” Camille ‘Kamille’ Purcell, songwriter/artist
“My favourite songwriter is Kendrick Lamar. He paints a picture with words.” Lil Nas X, artist
“Diane Warren – her writing credits say it all. Aerosmith, Celine Dion, Cher, Rihanna, Bon Jovi, Michael Bolton, Meat Loaf, Kiss, Pet Shop Boys, Mariah Carey, Alice Cooper, Eric Clapton, Roy Orbison, LeAnn Rimes, Lionel Richie, Tom Jones, Tina Turner are just a selection of artists she has written for. It’s probably easier to put a list together of people she hasn’t written with. She’s been writing hits for decades and she’s still writing hits.” Andy Copping, executive president of UK touring, Live Nation
“It’s a tough one to decide on the best living songwriter. I would probably go with Bruce Springsteen but I thought about it and, while he is like no other and his influence will be felt for many years to come, I wonder whether his best writing is ahead or behind him. Also, when you look at that generation you have so many living legend options. To make it a bit easier and more forward-looking I will take my pick from the new generation of great writers who have already made their mark and are likely to blossom even further in the years to come. So, I’ll go with Bruno Mars. He’s brilliant and unbelievably gifted and, while he has already written many songs that will likely be covered by many artists in the future, I somehow think his greatest song is yet to come. He makes me believe in pop music. I am sure his What’s Going On moment will come and then he’ll truly cement his spot next to Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton, Robert Smith, Springsteen and all the all-time greats.” Albert Schilcher, VP, talent and music, MTV International
“I have been a massive fan of Bob Mould for years in all of his incarnations from Hüsker Dü, to Sugar to his solo material. His aesthetic, storytelling and even his sexuality have set him aside as a pioneer coming through the ’80s USA hardcore scene, whilst now reaching almost power pop with an album released recently. He has always been at the coal face of guitar music and continues to be so. As a bit of a curve ball, I would like to honourably mention Mike Duce – possibly viewed as a mere whippersnapper, alongside more heritage luminaries mentioned in this piece, but I believe he holds a valid place, being able to traverse a number of genres, whilst writing uplifting, witty, intelligent, pop rock for Lower Than Atlantis. Like a millennial Morrissey, with a more positive outlook.” Julie Weir, label head, Music for Nations
Mark Sheehan & Daniel O’Donoghue
“It’s probably going to surprise you but I like The Script as songwriters, I think they’ve had some absolutely first-class songs. They are crafted in the way that old-fashioned songs used to be crafted, so there’s a storyline and it’s often a storyline that a lot of people can often identify with. With a lot of pop, writers are expressing emotions which their audience are feeling but can’t express – and The Script do that very well.” Keith Harris, manager and chair, UK Music Diversity Taskfore
LP (Laura Pergolizzi)
“I’m really into LP, she writes such joyous pop both for others and as an artist in her own right. Her breakout hit was Lost On You  – check out her vocal range, it's a big, powerful, emotional song, and she’s got an ear for really catchy, groovy hooks that are edgy and cool. But she had spent 10 years honing her skills writing big hits for Backstreet Boys, Christine Aguilera and Rihanna, including Cheers (Drink To That). She’s big in the US and most of Europe, it’s time she became huge here too.” Vick Bain, former CEO, BASCA
“I would always say Carole King, but I think Dolly Parton is someone who doesn’t get put at No.1 on that list enough. People just automatically assume she hasn’t written everything herself because of what she looks like. My favourite story about Dolly Parton is that she wrote Jolene and I Will Always Love You on the same night. It’s fucking outrageous but it’s true! I love Jolene, I’m such a fan of rhythm being a character of music – that song is fantastic.” KT Tunstall, artist
“Influence-wise, he’s ploughing the same sort of furrow that we’re in at the moment; Scott Walker, Lee Hazlewood, the great torch song writers of the ’60s. His lyrics are fantastic, his melodies are fantastic and it’s really classic stuff he’s drawing from. Personally, I prefer his Last Shadow Puppets stuff to the Arctic Monkeys, because it’s more melody-driven and more epic-sounding. Arctic Monkeys lyrics are brilliant and they’re an excellent band but, in terms of what I listen to, Last Shadow Puppets are more in that area.” Siobhan Fahey, Shakespears Sister
“Jason Isbell is a master wordsmith. He’s smart, and has a way of painting the world in his own spectrum of colours. And among his peers, he is the only one that I’ve seen lately that has been consistently able to murder anyone and everyone with words. His Grammy Award-winning song Vampires is a fine example.” Lzzy Hale (vocals/guitar, Halestorm)
“I’m really a big fan of Aurora. I’ve been writing a lot with her, she’s been such an inspiration to me as well as a collaborator. Her recent song The Seed is all about climate change and it’s a powerful, fierce call to arms. It’s uncompromising, she’s not backing down – Aurora’s a force of nature, she’s wonderful. She’s also just full of love. I’m really excited to see what she does next, she’s extraordinary.” Fiona Bevan, songwriter
“I am genuinely enthusiastic about the music of John Grant, who I first heard at Glastonbury maybe three years ago when he was performing on the John Peel Stage. I was absolutely struck by it and now listen to him all the time. I hate the fact that he’s an ASCAP member, but he’s brilliant.” Robert Ashcroft, CEO, PRS For Music
Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus
“When I worked at Polydor, I had the absolute honour of being ABBA’s point person, so I got to work with them on a few occasions. I know they’re not making records now, but they’re very contemporary. Mamma Mia! has opened them up to a whole new audience. I worked on so many different campaigns for ABBA Gold, the slightest thing like Madonna doing Hung Up [which sampled ABBA], and you could take the record back to No.1. There are new people coming into it all the time because they’re just the most timeless songs. Considering Björn as a lyricist when English isn’t even his first language, the meaningfulness of their songs is incredible. The way they record and write harmonies, they’re absolutely the benchmark for every pop writer.” Peter Loraine, founder, Fascination Management
“He’s the greatest young one. I work with Fred and he’s a young songwriter who has the ability you need in the modern world which is to write it and produce it at the same time. Usually, that can be done by a team of people, but he’s one of those rare people that can do it all as one. A lot of his music is still to come out, but he did a great job in helping George Ezra’s Shotgun, and really, the best is yet to come.” Ferdy Unger-Hamilton, president, Columbia
“Why? His CV… I mean… Just before I met him, I said to my friend, ‘We’re about to meet music’. To me, if you were to ask anyone what music is, it would be like him, he’s gone into every genre, he’s touched every style you could think of. I don’t think anyone will be able to come close to what he’s done.” Samm Henshaw, artist
“Randy springs to mind first. He’s just such an intelligent, fascinating, gifted songwriter and storyteller, satirist, poet, genius… For me, he’s top of my list.” Lauren Laverne, DJ, BBC Radio 6 Music
“She is so good. She’s really out there right now. She wrote lots of songs on Ariana Grande’s latest album and she has a lot of hits out there now. When I’ve had conversations with her about how she works with artists, it’s so important to her that every song she writes is specially made for an artist. She really loves to get to know you to make the perfect song you want to. Especially for me, she’s great to work with. She’s my favourite.” Glowie, artist
“She is fantastic, I love her. I’m a bit bored of all the co-writes going on, it’s really lovely to hear artists just wanting to tell their own stories and use their own words. Jade was in session on my show and she talked in detail about all her life experiences and how she’s used music to tell her story, and it’s quite cathartic for her, I think, because she’s been through quite a lot. And that helps other people. When she stands on stage and sings some of those songs, she says it takes her breath away and makes her quite emotional on stage, because of what she’s singing about. But that’s wonderful, that’s the power of music, you’re going to help a lot of other people through your words.” Jo Whiley, broadcaster, BBC Radio 2
“His ability to conjure unique moods and worlds is unparalleled, from glorious New Order-style synth pop to ominous noir-inspired soundtracks. He is also an absolute paragon of independence and I have huge respect for what he has accomplished with the Italians Do It Better label.” Paul Reed, CEO, AIF
“He has such an incredible discography and catalogue of hits, and he always maintains musicality, credibility and class.” Fraser T Smith, songwriter and producer
“His songwriting career has encompassed numerous genres, languages and instruments, from Super Furry Animals’ eclectic mix of genres encompassing Beach Boys harmonies, to indie pop, to techno, to Neon Neon with Boom Bip. Their second album, Praxis Makes Perfect, focused on the life of Italian left-wing publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli and was turned into a theatre production with actors from the National Theatre Of Wales. Rhys’ trilingual [English/Welsh/Spanish] solo songs have showcased his wide range of songwriting talents, telling engaging stories including the 15-minute long Skylon! which tells the story of a hijacked plane. They cross genres and subjects and engage audiences through multimedia from films, to books, to interactive apps, to orchestral performances. If that wasn’t enough, he’s also collaborated with songwriters including Gorillaz, Brazilian artist Tony Da Gatorra, Mogwai, Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse.” Annabella Coldrick, CEO, Music Managers Forum
“He is one of my favourite songwriters of all time. I’m all about melody, I love a really big, strong swooping melody and he’s the king of melodic songwriting. His songs aren’t wildly complicated, but the way he picks out melodies is just brilliant. His songs are so intensely emotional. I just love it.” Dave Rowntree, Blur
“I’m in awe of Max Martin, he’s a melodic genius. He’s also a production genius and is brilliant at finding the right people to work with. He doesn’t just churn stuff out, he seems to be very careful about what he works on and that’s fantastic. He hasn’t made many bad records, that’s for sure.” Guy Chambers, songwriter
“Right now, Steve Mac is really in the groove. Ed Sheeran turned me on to him years ago, but now I’ve seen what he’s done with Chvrches and a few others. So he’s a guy that I give a lot of credit to. I’m an old-fashioned guy, though, give me Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, singular songwriters – those are my favourite type of songwriters. But you have a few today, Johnny McDaid from Snow Patrol is an A-plus songwriter. Diane Warren is still a force of nature. Those are people I really respect in the scene right now.” Daniel Glass, founder/president, Glassnote Records
“Steve Mac is definitely up there. He’s got acute awareness of what works as a single and can appeal to lots of people. He’s done it for years and his track record speaks for itself.” Ben Coates, general manager, Relentless Records
“A poet, a painter of people, weaver of words and an inspiration. She is able to make us feel recognised and recognise ourselves and the world around us with new light. A one-off. Thank you Kate.” Lucie Caswell, CEO, Featured Artists Coalition