How To Be A Songwriter with Ella Eyre
We listened as the pop singer shared her songwriting tips with the Guardian Literary Institute at this summer’s Camp Bestival
Ella Eyre’s big break came when Waiting All Night, her collaboration with the drum & bass group Rudimental, was released in April 2013 and reached No 1 in the charts. The song also went on to win the British Single of the Year award at the 2014 BRITs. But although it was Eyre’s rich vocal which lent the track much of its appeal, she hadn’t written the lyrics and was appearing as a singer only. For the BRIT School educated songwriter this wasn’t enough.
So for her solo work, Ella has ensured that she has contributed to the writing as well. Other collaborations have followed, including DJ Fresh’s Top 10 single Gravity, and she has written songs for artists like Sigma and Ann Sophie (the German Eurovision contestant for 2015), but her main focus is now her own career as an artist and performer.
Ahead of the release of her debut solo album, Feline, Ella dropped into the Guardian Literary Institute tent at Camp Bestival to answer questions from host Arielle Free and an eager, and incredibly youthful, crowd of songwriters who wanted to pick the brains of one of the UK’s freshest talents…
Your first focus wasn’t songwriting, was it? You were a swimmer originally, were you not?
“I’d been swimming since I was six, when my Mum chucked me in a pool. I had a lot of energy as a child so she wanted to make sure that I would go to sleep at night! I was doing that and I was a dancer as well. I wanted to swim in the Olympics but then I found out that my ears are really sensitive. I couldn’t train as I was getting ear infections. I had to quit swimming and I started doing drama so I actually started out doing musical theatre first, shows like Bugsy Malone. That’s when I learned that I loved performing in front of an audience.
“I’ve always really enjoyed English and I’ve always had a little book where I’ve written down the thoughts in my head, but I never really knew what it was for. It wasn’t until I was about 16, when I met my managers and they asked if I wanted someone else to write for me and I said, ‘I want to have a go at writing myself’. So I wrote for about a year with various producers all over the country. I went to Sweden as well, as they have some amazing songwriters out there, and I learned about the kind of artist I wanted to be and what I wanted to write about. As a teenager, you think the whole world is against you and you’ve got lots of things on your mind – my writing came out of that.”
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
“Yes, it was awful. All my friends remember it as well, it was called I Can’t Breathe and it was a dubstep dance track. It wasn’t actually that bad. I think I’ve written worse songs since them, but I don’t think any of you are ever going to hear them.”
I read somewhere that you’d written songs for artists all round the world, is that correct?
“I wrote the German entry for the Eurovision this year but I didn’t know until someone tweeted me saying, ‘this song was written by Ella Eyre’ and I was like, ‘no it’s not.’ Then I saw the performance of her singing it and realised I did write that song! I went back through my emails and at some point I’d given permission for this girl to sing the song. It’s cool, but it came last.”
Did you enjoy the BRIT School or did you find it hard?
“I loved the BRIT School. I think the best thing about it was that you were surrounded by so many like-minded people, but nobody wanted the same dream – I think that’s the beauty of it. You learn to work with people rather than against each other. My lighting designer, who tours with me now, was at school with me at that time. I went there as a musical theatre student and came out as an artist, kind of. I didn’t necessarily learn how to be an artist at the BRIT School but I learned a lot about sportsmanship and working together.”
You met your manager there too?
“Kind of. My singing teacher knew my manager and passed me on because at The BRITs they don’t let students start working with labels, they’re quite protective.”
Do you think that’s a good way to be, rather than pushing you forward at such a young age?
“I think people mistake the BRIT School as somewhere that can make you famous. It’s not that at all. Whenever labels approach the school they literally put their arm out and are like ‘no’. That’s where people get it wrong: they assume that you go there to be famous, but there are so many other successful students that have come out of the school, successful dancers or lighting designers who you wouldn’t necessarily know because they’re not in the public eye.”
What is your process? What inspires you to write?
“It depends what I’m writing about and what mood I’m in. I’ve got this book that I’ve written in for years – scribbles, drawings and doodles. I tend to find that the more frustrated or stressed I am about a situation, the less I make sense, so when the thought is slightly clearer in my mind I’ll go back to that book and find things that I’ve written down, that I’ll draw inspiration from and I zone into that mood.
“I wrote a lot of songs on the bus when I was on the way from school to home, just because I’m a bit of a people watcher and I like to make scenarios up about things that are right in front of me.”
You’ve got your debut album coming out – are the songs on there from years gone by, or are they recent?
“When I started the album, I didn’t know anything about what I wanted. It’s been a massive experiment and I see my first album as me discovering who I am and what I want to write about. I started writing when I was 16 and I’m 21 now. The way that I would deal with a break-up when I was 16 is incredibly different to how I deal with a breakup now. So for me, this album is like listening back to a diary, in a way. It’s quite amazing to listen back to certain songs and be like, ‘Aw, did I feel like that?’”
How would you describe the album?
“It’s called Feline. There’s not a song on the album called Feline, it’s just a consistent thing I’ve always had to do with cats. My logo’s a lion, people say I look like a lion because of my hair, and I just felt like it was an accurate start for me. The album is essentially about relationships that I’ve had over the last few years – it could be a boyfriend or it could be family. I’ve tried to write these songs in quite a vague way because I don’t want people to feel like they’re listening to my problems. I want them to feel like they can relate to them and it’s somebody else who has felt the same way that they have, because that’s the kind of music that I listen to.”
Have you ever struggled with your own confidence when songwriting? Have there been times when you’ve had writer’s block or not felt confident about what you’re putting together?
“All the time, especially when you’re in album-writing mode and you’re writing every single day. It’s quite a lot to consistently draw inspiration from essentially nothing every day. So I get writer’s block all the time. If I get uncomfortable or feel like nothing’s coming, I just stop and go and have some fun and do something to take my mind of it, because I’d rather it be genuine and come from a place that isn’t made up.
“I remember once, when I was in Sweden writing Comeback, we couldn’t get the chorus right so we went off and played tennis and came back. Then we got halfway through the chorus and then went off and had sushi and then finished it. It’s all about making sure that you enjoy the writing process. I don’t want to ever fall out of love with writing, so I want to make sure that I enjoy it at all times.”
Did anybody just want you to be a singer, or have they always supported you being a singer and a songwriter?
“Everyone’s always supported me, I’ve never been forced and no-one’s ever suggested anything to me that isn’t something I’d want to do. I think it’s because they’re scared of me! I’ve always been very direct with my label and my managers. I’ve always said what I don’t want, and what I do want, and I think that was the most important way to start really, because then from the outset nobody’s confused about how it’s going to go down. So it just meant that most of the time I got what I wanted.”
Do you think collaborations with other artists have helped your writing?
“Definitely. When I started writing, I didn’t really know what I was writing for. I didn’t have any fans at that point so I didn’t know anything. I was so naïve in the industry. When I started touring with Rudimental I was only meant to be doing it for a month, but I ended up being on tour with them for seven months and I learned a lot about an audience, knowing what songs work and the kind of reaction that I want to get back.
“I learned that I want to be interactive and communicate with an audience. I didn’t just want to stand with a mic singing and expect them to listen. I want them to sing back, to dance, to feel something. Most of the songs I’d written up to that point were not like that. I found that I never learned anything about the songs I was writing, until I put them in front of an audience.”
Do you see your BRIT Awards performance with Rudimental as a turning point for you?
“I guess in a way it was a turning point. I’d been on tour with them for so long and we’d done that song a million times. We didn’t perform it any differently to how we were performing it on tour, so when people were going, ‘That was amazing,’ I was like, ‘We do that every day!’ I went to the BRIT School and you get to go to the BRITs as part of the school trip one year. So to be there two years later, on stage performing, and then to win a BRIT for that song as well, was an unbelievable experience.”
Do you remember your first performance on your own with your own material?
“Yeah I do actually, I was supporting Bastille at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. That was the first solo gig I did… and you’ll never hear any of the songs in that set again!”
Were you very nervous? Do you get nervous?
“No, I don’t really. I just enjoy it, especially when you’re in front of an audience who don’t really know who you are and don’t really care. I see it as a challenge and I see it as, ‘You don’t who I am, but you’re going to know who I am by the end of this show!’ I just want people to enjoy themselves and to have fun, and I want them to go away saying, ‘Wow! That was great.’”
Do you have any tips for songwriting?
“Play your songs to people and get constructive criticism. Whenever I’ve written a song and I think it’s really great, I still like to ask other people what they think and what their opinions are.”
Did you ever have an idol or an inspiration to be a songwriter?
“Yeah I did. I grew up listening to Basement Jaxx, Lauren Hill, Gnarls Barkley and Michael Jackson. I’ve always just love their writing, especially Michael Jackson’s. It’s always very honest. I’ve never really idolised somebody enough to copy them but I’ve been inspired by some of things that they write.”
Is emotion a big part of your songwriting?
“Massively. I always find that I’m more driven to write a song when I feel really strongly about a situation. All of the songs on my album have been when I’m really emotional about something; it could be anger, it could be sad, it could be happy, but definitely emotion is one of the most key points for me when it comes to songwriting.”
When you’re writing a song do you ever stop and just start again?
“All the time, I think when you’re with producers that you’ve worked closely with you sometimes just get lost In a moment and then realise that it’s not very good. But actually more often than not you come back to it a couple of days later and think it’s actually pretty good and then you start again.”
Do you ever get attached to songs? Is it hard to let them go?
“Yeah, I have been attached to songs in the past. There’s a song on the album called Home and I wrote it really early on in my writing career and I always loved the chorus. It was a song that I’d forgotten about and then when I was finishing up the album and going through my old catalogue I listened to this song and really loved it. It felt really personal to me but the verses weren’t quite right, so I went to another writer and was like ‘you know me better, let’s try and do something with this’ so we scrapped all the verses and started again and I love it.”
Do you know who to go to when you have issues with your songs?
“Generally I like to do it on my own and that’s sometimes the problem. When I’m stuck in my head it’s quite hard to filter what’s good and what’s not and so I have a handful of people that I trust and that I can go to. I’ve never been afraid to ask for somebody’s opinion and ask for a bit of help.”
Is that a big tip for songwriters: be confident enough to ask for help?
“At times I’ve almost been too proud to admit that it’s not any good and I need somebody to tell me.”
Do you ever use imaginary words?
“I don’t think I’ve ever done that, because I write about things that are personal and things that have actually happened to me. Maybe I’m just not creative enough to make up words.”
Did your acting experience help with your songwriting career?
“Definitely, because I think as an actor you’re taught to embody a character and an emotion. When I’m on stage and I’m singing the songs that I’ve written you have to get into that mode. Someone once said to me ‘if it comes from the heart it goes to the heart’ and I use that all the time in terms of my writing and in terms of performance. I feel that if people can believe what you’re saying then half the job’s been done.”
Do you think if people don’t have that then the audience can see through it and aren’t interested?
“Yeah, it’s also the case with artists that don’t write their own songs. You can tell it’s not something they relate to and it’s not something that has come directly from them.”
Have you got any tips for buskers?
“I’ve never done any busking, I’ve never been brave enough. I really admire buskers that just stand in front of an audience and sing. It’s always amazing. I’ve always found that when you make a song your own you make it something unique. If the people listening know what the song is but it’s different to how they’ve heard it then usually you’ll catch someone’s ear just because it’s unique to you.”
What was your favourite song to write?
“I think my favourite song to write was probably Comeback. Not just because it’s explicit but because I was having quite a hard time when I wrote it and it’s one of those songs where I was fighting back and it made me feel better. It’s the kind of song you fightback and say ‘nah I’m not going to take this’ and hopefully people related to it in that sense. It was great to write because it was good to get off my chest.”
Did anyone battle against the explicit word?
“Yes and no, they battled against it because obviously it had to go on radio but I think anyone who heard the song knew that it was appropriate. Even my mum, who doesn’t like me swearing.”
How long does it take for you to write a song?
“It varies. It depends how I feel that day, what it’s about and what mood I’m in. It also depends who I am working with. I wrote Even If in 45 minutes, but Home I wrote in a year, so it really does vary. There is no method to writing a song, that’s what I think anyway.”
Do you like to be in control of your music videos as well as your songwriting?
“I’m quite controlling as an artist and I don’t just see myself as a songwriter. It’s about the song, it’s about the band and the kind of person you’re portraying and the people you’re inspiring. I take everything seriously when it comes to my videos, in terms of what I’m wearing and things like that. I like to get the director’s ideas but generally they’ll come back with an idea and I’ll change the entire thing, but it’s a good start. I like to get other people’s opinions especially if they know what they’re doing.”
Do you start by writing the chords?
“Again it varies. I think more often than not it starts with chords. On Even If, the producer I was working with had these chords ready before I even arrived. We were sat by the piano and I pretty much sang the entire song as we played through them. Sometimes the lyrics might come first, there’ll be something I’ve written in my book and I’ll be like ‘I want to do something with these words’ and then I’ll sing to a melody. It’s just so random, I don’t work in a certain way it just depends how I’m feeling.”
Did you always know what sound you wanted to have as an artist?
“No, I still don’t have any idea to be honest, the beauty of writing is that you can experiment and I’m young enough that I can do that, but I think my voice is quite soulful and I’ve always wanted to go down that route. Then when I collaborated with Rudimental I went down that route and I think I’ve just written things that I’ve been feeling inspired by at the time. I was named after Ella Fitzgerald so I’ve always listened to her. My album has ended up being quite eclectic in a sense of the styles I’ve been inspired by over the years.”
Who would you like to work with in the future?
“I would love to work with Mark Ronson, I’m a huge fan of his and I love his stuff. I love his stuff now and I love his old stuff as well and I just think it would be a really cool collaboration to see what we could come up with. I’ve met him a couple of times, in fact the first time we met he thought I was the runner for the studio because I went up to his room and said ‘I’m going to get some sushi does anyone want any?’”
Does sushi help your creative mind-set?
“I think eating is important, you’ve got to fuel the brain and sushi is one of those things that is good for you and does that. My cats don’t get any of my sushi, they get tinned food and that’s it.”
What kind of music do you like writing the most?
“I quite like the uptempo stuff just because it’s a bit like having a little party in a box in the studio. It’s a lot of fun.”
How do you start your songs?
“I don’t know to be honest, sometimes it will be a lyric, sometimes it will be the chords, sometimes there’ll be a track already made and I’ll just write on that.”
Do you think appearance matters?
“I think the way you carry yourself matters more than appearance. I always found that the less clothing you wear, the less anybody’s really listening to the lyrics. Being confident is the most important thing. If somebody’s making you wear something you’re not confident in, it’s going to show. I think it’s far more interesting for an audience to see someone with confidence who believes in themselves than it is for them to see somebody who looks all right in a bra. It’s all about the music that you’re listening to, that’s what we’re here for at the end of the day. I want people to listen to the music that I’m making and I don’t want to detract from that.”
Have you ever had pressure put on you to wear certain outfits or be hypersexualised?
“I wouldn’t know because I’ve never accepted it. If anyone’s ever said ‘what about this?’ I’ll just say no.”
When did you decide you didn’t want to be an actor and you wanted to be a singer instead?
“I don’t think I ever decided really, I’d still like to do some acting to be honest. It’s just the path that I ended up taking. I really enjoy singing and I really enjoy being in front of an audience. I don’t think I chose one over the other, it’s just the way it ended up and I’m very lucky in that sense.”
Did you recognise that you had a powerful voice at an early age, or is it something you’ve had to train up? Did your mum hear you singing in the shower and tell you to get up on that stage?
“Not really. My mum has always been very supportive of me but she wanted to make sure that I had options for when I was old enough to make decisions. When I was a swimmer I was very driven and was naturally competitive at sport, then I was a dancer and I think my mum was just happy that I had an interest in anything! Singing came later, I used to be a drummer, I was a drummer before I was a singer – not a very good one, but then I was in choirs and stuff. In the school choirs I never got picked for the solos and so it just didn’t occur to me that it would be something I’d end up doing. I loved doing it but it didn’t feel special in that sense.”
If you could have a superpower what would it be?
“I’d like to fly because then I wouldn’t have to be on my tour bus for 12 hours at a time.”
Have you ever written a song that’s not to do with your emotions?
“No I don’t think so, not directly. There might be a song that’s less emotive than others but no I don’t think so.”
Who’s been your favourite artist to collaborate with?
“Oh that’s such a mean question. I’m gonna say DJ Fresh just because he’s such a weirdo, such a strange man, but in a really sweet and genuine way. The way that came about was that he tweeted saying ‘Do you want to come and work in the studio?’ and so I drove up to Oxford, wrote a song with him in a day and it ended up being his next single. I just think getting to know somebody in such a short space of time was quite a nice scenario, and he’s lovely and he’s really fun to work with.
“I performed it with him twice but it’s part of my set now. I’ll have to invite him on stage with me. He actually tweeted me yesterday saying ‘You don’t love me anymore’, he’s just needy.”
Is it easy to think of ideas for songs?
“Not all the time, but I think that’s why I’ve got that book that I write in because if I’m ever feeling like I don’t know what I’m going to write about I can always go back to that and see if there’s anything I can draw inspiration from.”
What’s your favourite song that you’ve ever written?
“Probably Even If, because I feel like it’s the most vulnerable, most personal and the most open I’ve ever been in a song.”
Is it hard to perform a song like that on stage?
“It was, but I’ve done it quite a few times now. It is quite a sad song and every time I used to sing it I’d end up crying by the end, so I had to rein it in and try and get through the song.”
Have you ever gone on stage and then had a distraction and stopped singing?
“Probably, I don’t know actually. Maybe, but I probably styled it out by making up some words. The amount of times I’ve forgotten my own lyrics onstage is quite amazing and it’s getting more and more embarrassing because people know the lyrics better than I do now. I think one time I was distracted when the crowd were so loud singing back the lyrics.I just had to stop. It was so amazing to hear that many people relay something that you’ve written. It’s such an incredible feeling.”
Has there been any particular highlight in your performing career?
“I think Glastonbury. I played there last year and I played again this year. I was playing The Other Stage, and I don’t know who I clashed with but I was just amazed at how many people came to the show. It’s Glastonbury and there are thousands of people there and it’s such a huge festival. I was just so flattered and complimented by how many people came and were singing along and dancing.”
Your mum came with you, did she camp?
“She did. She was like ‘Can I stay on your tour bus?’ and I was like ‘no’. There wasn’t space to be fair. She went for the whole weekend with her mate and she camped with the punters and had a right old time.
“I can’t remember the last time I pitched up a tent. I’ve done my festival years, I used to go every year to about three or four and so I think I’m over the camping thing to be honest.”
What is the hardest song you’ve written?
“I think the hardest song I’ve ever written was probably Gravity actually, with DJ Fresh, because I didn’t like it. To be completely honest I didn’t really like the song until I heard it after he’d finished producing and all that because it was so rough. We wrote it just with some piano chords and then said ‘I love it’ and I was like ‘whatever’ but he sent it back a week later and I was like ‘wow that’s cool’. I think it was the hardest one for me to write because I didn’t know if it was any good or if I wanted to continue with it, but I pursued it and I’m glad I did because it’s really cool.”
How long do you think you’ll stay in the music industry for?
“I hope forever. I’d like to think that it will be a long time. Even if it’s not being an artist and just writing. I never want to get a job where I’m not writing music and I’m not inspiring other people to write as well.”
What would you like for Christmas?
“I’m a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to Christmas, my mum will hate me for saying that but I’d like to go away to a hot country and forget that it’s Christmas to be honest. But what I’d really like for Christmas is another cat! My cats kind of live with my mum all the time now, because I’m away so much it isn’t fair. They already liked her more than me anyway, she’s got a garden and that’s the difference.”
Do you have a place where you prefer to write your songs?
“Maybe at the time I have a place where I want to write but not really. I like to be comfortable. I think the most important thing for me is to be surrounded by people that inspire me and know me very well and understand the kind of artist that I am, so wherever that may be.”
Where did you get your inspiration for the Together music video?
“I got sent loads of ideas and I didn’t like any of them and I had a day to put together a music video that made sense. Because the song is about unity and it’s about coming together with a friend and having a good time I wanted the video to be genuine so I flew my friends out to Barcelona. The people in the music video are my friends they’re not actors. We just had a really fun weekend driving round in a VW van and stealing stuff . We didn’t actually steal stuff.”
Has anything ever gone wrong before you were about to record?
“Not really. I think the only thing that’s ever gone wrong is health. It’s one of those things that you have to remember which is really important. In the height of it all, when everybody wants to have you somewhere, you have to remember that your health is the most important thing and that going out every night is not appropriate and that eating the right things is also really important.”
Ella Eyre’s debut solo album, Feline is out now on Virgin EMI Records. For more about Ella, visit ellaeyre.com, for further information on Camp Bestival go to campbestival.net and The Guardian’s music coverage can be found at theguardian.com/music