One of the most successful pop songwriters of the past 20 years explains her work-ethic and no-nonsense approach to Songwriting
ongwriter Cathy Dennis is one of the most successful British women in the music industry today, with a string of hits to her name. She co-wrote (and was often involved in the production of) such hits as Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head (the top-selling song of the Noughties), Toxic which Britney Spears took to Number One in the UK Singles Chart in 2004, and I Kissed A Girl for Katy Perry.
Dennis first came to the public’s attention as a pop star in the 1990s after she was spotted by manager Simon Fuller singing with her father Alan’s band at the Norwood Rooms in Norwich, now a bingo hall. As a solo performer, her debut album in 1990 Move To This gave her three US top 10 hits. Two more albums followed, but towards the end of the 1990s she moved into song writing.
Initially working on acts being put together by Fuller, such as S Club 7, Dennis ended up co-writing a string of hits including Have You Ever, Reach, Two In A Million and Never Had A Dream Come True. Since then her songs have lit up the charts on a regular basis and won her a clutch of Ivor Novello songwriting awards.
Cathy gave this interview to Songwriting shortly before giving a talk, organised by music writers group BASCA and The Institute Of Contemporary Music in London, to the next generation of songsmiths.
How did you make the transition from solo artist to songwriter?[cc_blockquote_right] ONCE I GET MY TEETH INTO SOMETHING I’M LIKE A BULLDOG – MY TEETH LOCK [/cc_blockquote_right]
“I had a strange epiphany, I got a bit lost. I was just not sure if I could carry on being an artist… and could not be an insurance clerk again [Dennis briefly worked for Norwich Union]. I knew I could write songs. I felt I had been given a talent and felt if I didn’t use it, it would be a sin.
“I initially got involved when S Club 7 was being formed… and luckily those songs did well. I found I could be a vocal producer too. I didn’t let go. Once I get my teeth into something I’m like a bulldog, my teeth lock.”
Do you think successful songwriting is something which can be taught?
“I think you don’t need to. I think you can shape who you are as a writer. You have to be prepared to knuckle down and put in the hours and really commit to what you want to do. The one thing that did help me was studying to be an actress [at the Actors Centre in Covent Garden]. I think that helped me visualise my thoughts. I could always feel things but when you can visualise a thought, that’s what helped me more than anything else”
How do you get down to the business of writing a song?
“Sometimes the inspiration is out of necessity. They have high expectations of you. You really don’t have any choice, the creativity is flowing whether it is forced or not. I found it was a discipline I could teach myself. I could turn on the imagination when I wanted to.”
Almost all your songs have been co-written and some of the biggest names come to your door wanting your input. Did you have to learn the art of writing with a partner and the art of compromise?
“It took me a few years to get it right – I don’t really like tip-toeing around people – it’s not really who I am, I like to be unapologetic with my ideas. I got there in the end. The most important thing is knowing there’s a line and you have to make sure you don’t cross it. Yes, I have crossed it, I have the attitude that you can’t control every situation and even when you have the best intentions things don’t always work out the way you want it too.”[cc_blockquote_right] ‘TOXIC’ WAS SHEER TORTURE. I BEAT MYSELF UP FOR SEVEN DAYS, NOT SLEEPING [/cc_blockquote_right] [Dennis says that when working with one pop star, after just a day songwriting she called her agent to say she wouldn’t be going back for a second day… but she’s too discreet to say who it was]
“Sometimes when you are working with an artist and they don’t know what they want to say and you don’t know what you want, your job I to try and lead them somewhere. Some you can lead them up a garden path and they will run into a hedge and that’s the end of the session.”
One of your biggest hits was Can’t Get You Out Of My Head. How did that song emerge?
“That was another example of not really knowing where we were going in the session, me and Rob Davis [ex-Mud guitarist]. It was organic, we didn’t try and do anything contrived, so when something did spark we were both able to embrace it and jump on it and go with it. I thought the song is very ‘left of centre’ for pop.”
How about Toxic – was that different?
“That was sheer torture. I beat myself up for seven days, not sleeping. The melody came first, then I had this puzzle of trying to fit words to the right number of syllables. It was really weird. I kept writing and then re-editing myself again, and again, and again. The boys in the studio [producers] Bloodshy & Avant, and Henrik Jonback in Sweden, said: ‘Are you ready to record yet?’ And I was like: ‘No, I have to go back again.’
“I would start writing another song with them and in my spare time go back to the hotel room at night and start sweating all over again trying to work out what was wrong with it. You know it’s a huge indulgence to be able to keep on going until you feel you can let go of it. But I feel I got there in the end. I’m happy with that one.”
How do you feel about being a successful woman in a still very much male-dominated music industry?
“I would definitely like to encourage other woman to be at the forefront. There is no reason why we can’t be. There are some really great writers around at the moment such as Adele, Emeli Sande amongst others. It’s a really encouraging time for women and I think that’s interesting.”
In case you haven’t heard Cathy Dennis’ and Rob Davis’ mammoth hit from 2001 recently, here’s the original iconic video for Can’t Get You Out Of My Head…