What I learned from…Part 1
(My first radio session on Tom Robinson’s 6 Music show in, I think, 2006)
I am just putting the finishing touches to the next album. In the meantime, I was thinking about a recent article I read about how a lot of pop records are made these days. As you know, multiple songwriters are involved behind the scenes helping the singer / artist to create a hit. Often, these people will be those that were formerly in the limelight. Look up Dan Wilson (previously of Semisonic) who wrote Someone Like You with Adele, Joel Potts (Athlete) who wrote a lot of George Ezra’s debut, and more recently Jamie Hartman (Ben’s Brother) who wrote ‘Human’ with Rag n’ Bone Man. Often with the really big names like Rianna, there will be a songwriting camp with loads of songwriters all collaborating with their ideas to come up with a hit. I have been asked a few times to collaborate but have never really liked the idea. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just that I enjoy writing songs on my own. The initial writing process and then playing live are my favourite bits of making music. I don’t think I would trade that experience for success. However, one thing that cannot be denied is the influence that all the people I have met over the years have had on my music. I feel like as I get older I am getting better at writing songs and performing them. I had a chat with someone at a recent gig in Milton Keynes about that. When they last saw me in 2008 I was nowhere near as confident as I am now. So, I have learned on the job and it’s taken me a while to find my feet and to figure it all out. But, I have got to where I am now (in terms of confidence of performance and songwriting) as a result of a lot of hard work and having soaked up a huge amount from a lot of people I have met on the way. Who are they? What did I learn from them? Well, sometimes I have got to know people properly, or just watched them perform when I have supported them at their gigs, or it could have been a quick passing meeting. I am going to start off this series of blogs now, which may end up going on for a long time(!), and I am going to call them ‘What I learned from…’. The first one is below:
What I learned from…Tom Robinson
(Tom Robinson, live)
In 2005 or so, when I first decided to not play in bands anymore and to concentrate on songwriting and then singing those songs, I made my first album at home on a shoe string of a budget and self-released it. I didn’t have a manager let alone a label or anything like that. I made the album, then decided on a first single. I looked up how to release a single, researched the timelines for release, set-up a digital distribution arrangement, built my own crap website, booked some gigs and made a list of the people I thought might review it or play it on the radio. The song I chose as the first single was ‘This One’s for You’. I hand-made about 100 promo singles with white lables stuck on CDRs and printed on my home printer. I hand-made some compliments slips. I bought a guillotine to make the edges neat. There was paper all over the desk and cuttings all over the floor. I went to the post office with my list of names and addresses, took my place in the queue, held up the pensioners collecting their weekly packages and sent my hopes and dreams off in a load of jiffy bags. I persuaded a few blogs to review it, which was a good start. I also got some play off Jim Gellatly on XFM (who will be the subject of another blog) and then I got an email in from Tom Robinson’s producer at BBC 6 Music, Dr Adam Hudson, saying they loved the song and they were going to play it. It was unexpected but exciting. They later asked me to come in for a live session.
I was nervous at the session because I hadn’t done that many gigs on my own by then. I had just played a few open mic nights to a room of those with similar aspirations, to polite applause and a backdrop of drunken banter. But the session went pretty well all things considered. Tom Robinson was lovely to me and to the string quartet that I brought to the session. He said that a load of big bands that come by don’t seem to make any effort and he and his team really appreciated the fact that I had gone to some length to be there with a string quartet and our own special arrangements of the tunes. Afterwards, I had a quick chat about it all with him and I realised that putting in effort is clearly transparent and if you do that it will be appreciated. After we were off air, Tom mentioned that he and his family were going to be in Edinburgh in August taking in some of the Edinburgh festival. I said that if he was we should meet for a drink. I emailed him subsequently and he emailed back and we arranged to meet up. We met up at a flat that they were staying in and we had a chat about music and how I made my album. Tom talked to me about how he just knew when he wrote ’2-4-6-8 Motorway’ that he had written a hit. It wasn’t contrived it just happened. He said when you do that, when you create that song, you will just know it. As he talked about it I imagined him with his acoustic guitar and a notepad putting the song together. Tom and his wife took me to see a Henry Rollins show and afterwards I met Henry Rollins briefly (he gave me a military ‘GOOD TO MEET YOU SIR’ and a bone crunching handshake). Tom and Henry knew each other well from way back. A couple of years later I was playing at the Wychwood Festival and bumped into Tom again. He knew where I was at with my second album (with the volume of musicians coming through 6 Music I wondered if he would have forgotten me). But he had played ‘Once More I’m Put to the Test’ a couple of times and he said ‘what you need to do Alex, is write an ‘American Pie’. He had a point. I would love to write a Babylon, a Somebody I used to Know, a Human, an American Pie, or a Driftwood. But writing a simple, non-cheesy, cool, catchy pop song is difficult. When I have deliberately forced it, tried to write a ‘hit’, it’s sounded exactly like that – that I have tried to write a hit – and not actually written one. It’s been crap. So the song has been binned. Writing the perfect 3 minute pop song is like a puzzle I can’t quite solve. But Tom Robinson gave me confidence, he gave me a break, he was kind and generous and he sparked a determination within me to try to write better songs, which is still there as I try to finish off this fifth album.