The first session at Blast focused on creativity and was hosted by Sam Burt (TICE Music Mentor/ Border Scout) who was joined by Marty Longstaff (The Lake Poets), Wayne C. McDonald and Dex Nicholson (the ILLIONNaires).
The workshop started with a tour of Blast’s impressive studio space and adjoining rooms, as newly managed by Lisa Murphy. Sam then introduced the session as a unique chance to focus purely on the craft of songwriting, aiming to broaden the horizons of the audience into new genres with advice and insight into the industry as well as the chance to work on real and current industry pitches.
Wayne and Dex are production and songwriting duo the ILLIONNaires and work primarily in urban genres such as hip-hop, RnB and pop. As producers they work to ‘evolve’ a track, with Wayne as the self-coined ‘vibes’ man and Dex on the technical and instrument side.
Their role involves attending sessions with artists to develop their sound, though they often go into meetings ‘blind’, having no idea who they will be working with. Where they know the artist, they do their research online and select jobs based on the artist profile, passion projects and potential profit. With limited time, they must ‘hit the ground running’, with pressures from publishers to create hits. Dex pointed out how crafting lyrics can be the slowest part of songwriting thus topliners, who focus on main melody and lyrics, are their ‘safety net’ to keep the momentum of sessions going. Even with tight deadlines, Wayne reminded us that it is still important to have breaks to reignite creativity.
The audience were curious to know if the pair always finish songs in a day, to which they admitted that though they often do, with such a short window of opportunity with the artists, sometimes they are unable to. Rather than scrap these tracks, unfinished work can be collaboratively finished with other artists, though it can be a long time before ideas are picked up again, finished and pitched. Wayne candidly critiqued contemporary song writing for its recycling of average tracks as album fillers as this prevents albums having a high level of consistency. He went on to neatly summarise that you know a track is going well when everything clicks into place, it is simply instinct. Indeed, only finished and polished tracks can compete in the production world.
Another strand of their work is from America, where work is sent online and collaboratively finished with many producers. Sam wondered if this meant songs were spread ‘too thinly,’ however Wayne pointed out that it is better for them, both financially and for experience, to have some part of the work rather than nothing at all. Dex added that whilst face-to-face sessions are always preferable, it is more practical and rewarding to work remotely as he relishes new briefs as a ‘puzzle to be solved’.
‘What a difference a day makes!’
The duo told us anecdotes and played us examples of their music, for example, their work with a group of four young rappers, one of whom was a singer. At the time, the group were part of a thriving grime scene in East London but did not have a solid direction with their own music. With interest from various labels, sessions with the ILLIONNaires and other producers aimed to determine their direction. Wayne explained to us how difficult it is to warm up the artists in the session and the first day created a song out of kilter with their overall vibe, named ‘Beautiful World’. The next day, Dex managed to create a totally new feel by experimenting and layering sound which the group were able to freestyle over, creating a way more aggressive tune. Without their initial song not working, they would not have been able to create the totally different track that got the group signed. This song also created a whole roster of new work for the duo, with other artists seeking this sound.
Wayne and Dex were full of useful, practical advice and encouragement for our audience in the closing section of their talk. Advice that stood out included the need for persistence and to knock on doors, as opportunities rarely fall into your lap. Wayne gave us his classic quote ‘networks are your net worth’, and applauded the internet as having made the world ‘a smaller place,’ as it’s easier than ever to reach the right connections. By researching and targeting your communications you can achieve your goals. With this being said, they both recognised that this is not easy and stressed the importance of building a reputation first which comes hand in hand with crafting your practice.
Marty Longstaff, otherwise known as The Lake Poets, introduced himself as a songwriter, artist and teacher. Indeed, he was not always in the industry as Marty trained to be an English teacher but was always interested in writing. From 2012, he was inspired by reading a Guardian series of books that analysed the work of great lyricists. Previously he had an inflated, godlike perception of songwriters but soon began to realise this was not the case. Thus he started his career making music from his bedroom, progressing to gigs and finally recording an EP at Blast. This EP was his calling card and in 2015 he got a publishing deal from BMG, which has taken him to Nashville and LA.
The masterclass began with an acoustic performance of one of his biggest records ‘Your Face,’ written at Blackbird Studio in Nashville. It was wonderful to get a behind-the-scenes look at the song’s creation, as Marty shared with us how he wrote the song at the request of his publishers for a happy song. Focusing on the raw emotion of missing his girlfriend, he described it as having pure and honest lyrics with pop sensibilities in the structure. Despite the self-confessed simplicity of the song lyrics, it really resonates with audiences and the experience taught him to be less stressed about the song writing process, as well as the confidence to write to a brief, something he had not experienced before having being DIY and independent previously. Overall, this initial experience led him to approach his publisher to write for other people.
Marty gave us an insight into writing for others both in the UK and America. In Nashville, there is a strict co-writing approach, with a limited time frame. As an English teacher previously, he is lyric-driven and rhyme focused, however he praised country artists there as being on another level, inspiring him to work harder. In co-writing sessions, he pushes himself to go in blank, rather than preparing song ideas, as there is a real buzz when creating something totally new. The work in America has made him adapt, particularly to Americanisms, as usually he sings in his own accent and is locally focused in terms of themes.
Not all of his work comes via publishers, in fact much derives from local commissions, interacting with his local background, as he was born in Sunderland. Through this work, teaching in the community is still his focus, as he mentors a talented group of young songwriters at Pop Recs in Sunderland. Projects about social change and songwriting have emerged from this type of work, as he worked with youth groups to create ‘Brexit: The Musical’.
Marty finished his session with a wealth of advice for songwriters, such as a savvy use of songwriting apps on his smart phone. Also to keep creativity flowing he will use stream of consciousness to get out all of his ideas. Overall, he encouraged us to get out there, get our voices heard and to meet other writers to collaborate and keep our skills sharp. Ultimately, immersing yourself with passionate people inspires you. Also, making a record can help establish your reputation and keeping yourself active on social media, an admittedly tough challenge, is key to connecting to audiences.
Afternoon session: songwriting to pitch
The afternoon session was totally practical. 14 talented songwriters were given two and a half hours to create a song to pitch. The briefs were real and current requests from two of the biggest publishers in the world – BMG and Universal. They covered a huge range of genres from country to EDM, singer-songwriter to pop. Participants were put into 5 small groups, all with people they had never met, reflecting a situation often encountered in professional writing sessions. Blast Studio was the ideal venue for this exercise as they opened out all their rooms for day, which led to a really comfortable and relaxed atmosphere for what was a very challenging task.
Our guests the ILLIONaires and Marty circulated around the groups offering their advice and generally helping to guide the songs, so that they were both better songs and also staying on pitch. By 4.30pm there were now 5 finished or nearly finished songs that were performed and recorded, with our guest songwriters providing encouraging feedback. We had pitches for Keith Urban, James Arthur, Clara Mae, Birdy and Mahalia. The newly formed writing partnerships are now well prepared to finesse their new songs, produce them up and possibly pitch them to the publishing companies that were looking for songs.
It was amazing to see what the local scene has to offer and how when given a tight time limit how people who have never met can come together and create such a quality body of work in a few hours. All the participants were thrilled to get the real-world insights into the songwriting world in the morning session and for those that stayed for the afternoon it was an exciting opportunity to work on live briefs. Hopefully a number of new creative partnerships have also now formed. Also it now seems that what can feel like quite a disparate collection of songwriters is now so much better connected. We are now pondering if this can be the start of something more regular as there is clearly a wealth of untapped talent out there.