Behind the scenes: Feed The Fire songwriting retreat
Reporting back from a creative weekend at a country house in Somerset, with thoughts from the organiser, coach and participants
Feed The Fire is a new songwriting retreat that took place at The Grange, an idyllic country house in Somerset, across a weekend in mid-September. The organiser Ben Jolliffe very kindly invited us down to meet the participants and see for ourselves exactly what it was like. As it happened, we had already met the coach – the experienced topline writer Emily Phillips who featured in Songwriting Magazine’s Spring 2015 edition – but it was still fascinating to see how she mentored a group of five inexperienced songwriters and to get involved in the process.
Rather than writing the typical review of the retreat, we thought it would be far more insightful and interesting to share the thoughts of the organiser, the coach and some of the participants themselves, as they reflect on a wonderfully productive and inspiring weekend of songwriting…
“I wasn’t expecting to take part this time but I did and I loved it. I’ve always loved music and although I’m not a musician, I can sing a little and I do write poetry. I was amazed at what you can do in just one day in a team with a great teacher. Once you get that first jolt of energy from a phrase or a chord or a beat, it’s almost as though the song writes itself, attracting whatever it needs to come to life – people to sing it, instrument to play it, inspiration to feed it, even food! That’s not to say it’s effortless. Emily is a taskmaster and she wants to get the best of a song, so you’ve got to go for it, but she’s also very supportive and full of great suggestions. Actually, she gets input and ideas from everyone, whether they’re experienced songwriters or beginners.
“What surprised me is that, because beginners come with no preconceptions about what will work and what won’t, they can have killer ideas, often from the smallest inspiration – in a little snatch of a tune, maybe, a memory or a phrase in a newspaper or a magazine. In fact, that was one of the best lessons from the weekend. Once you open your eyes to places you might find inspiration, the ideas come thick and fast. In the week after the course, I scribbled something down every day.”
“I’ve never been a so-called mentor before, so my opening gambit to them all on the Friday night was, ‘You can’t teach songwriting.’ And that was the premise on which I was building this weekend, in my head, so it was almost the ‘undoing’ of a mentor. My actual aim with these unknown people, in advance of the session, was to stimulate and get them to trust their intuition. Thankfully, all five of them were open books, they were all musical and they were all open to suggestion. I did stress to them all: it’s not really about the quality of the song, it’s about the process. Therefore my aim, in the short time we had, was to make sure that the ideas were kept moving and fertile, and not to scrutinise too much.
“The other box that was ticked was that they all had a starting point. My tactic was to leave them to it for the first half-hour, and all the groups came up with a reason to write a song and a feel for what the song could be. Therefore it wasn’t a case of hardcore teaching, I just stepped in to take those ideas to fruition, which isn’t dissimilar to what I do in my sessions. I did say that you can start any which way, but be aware of tempo, title and feel, and to respond and encourage each other. So I gave them a few basic tools, because you can really struggle when you don’t know where to start. The sky’s the limit and you can faff around for a couple of hours if you don’t know what to do!
“So it was about teaching them what it takes to get a song written and recorded in a day – that it is down to work. They were responsive to that, and hugely appreciative, and that buoyed me up. From my perspective, as a songwriter, it was so nourishing and encouraging to have all these punters who appreciated it, so it was a two-way, mutually supportive situation.”
“I wanted to improve my skills with songwriting, and also learn new ways of getting inspiration. Everyone was so lovely and supportive, the place we stayed was beautiful and I gained a lot of information about the industry as well as how songs are written on the first night. I got a much clearer idea of how to structure songs and my confidence has increased massively. Ultimately, I learnt that no idea for a song is pointless or stupid and writing a song takes a lot of time and patience.”
“I liked Ben’s outline concept for a weekend of songwriting in a fun, social, homely way. I expected a bunch of people banging a tambourine along to folksy tunes, but the participants were all soulful peeps with stories to sing. Emily Phillips is a force of nature, Ben and Honor were consummate hosts, and the venue was perfect. I co-wrote two lovely songs, slept deeply, ate ambrosia and undid my belt a notch or two. We learnt that the creative process responds well to a time constraint.”
“I’ve always fancied writing a song and this seemed like a good opportunity. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the songwriters in the initial billing seemed very well qualified and the vibe felt good! My first impressions were that Emily was an inspiration who really knew her stuff and that the food was going to be great! I couldn’t believe I wrote a song. Against all the odds – working with strangers, writer’s block, total lack of experience, nerves! – it came together, thanks to Emily’s professional help and Ben’s encouragement. I also worked with Emily to try to bring some lyrics I had previously written to life; now I have something I’m working on at home and feel really proud of. It took the mystery out of songwriting and showed me that… it’s possible! I’m hoping to finish my song and attend any follow-up courses.”
Words/Photos: Aaron Slater
The next Feed The Fire retreat will be a one-day course back at The Grange on 25 November 2017, costing £150 for expert tuition with lunch, dinner and wine included. For more details and to book, visit: feedthefire.me