The award-winning songwriter and frontman of The Feeling talks to the podcasters about his knack for crafting “annoyingly catchy” melodies
Joining Simon and Brian for their 89th episode is an Ivor Novello-winning singer and songwriter who for 10 years and counting has served as lead vocalist and frontman for one of the most successful UK bands of the last decade, The Feeling.
Dan Gillespie Sells was born in London in 1978 and attended the famous BRIT School in Croydon, which of course has been a breeding ground for an impressive array of musical talent for many years. Other alumni include Amy Winehouse, Adele, Katie Melua and Jessie J. It was at the BRIT School that Dan first met Feeling bassist Richard Jones. Moving in the same mid-90s musical circles were drummer Paul Stewart and siblings Ciaran and Kevin Jeremiah on keys and guitar, respectively.
Taking their name from a Parisian bar, they signed to Island on the strength of their demos and released their debut album Twelve Stops And Home in the summer of 2006. Taking its stylistic cue from classic melodies and harmonies of 70s guitar-pop and soft rock, it was a phenomenal success, yielding four hit singles and peaking at No 2 in the UK Album Chart. The band was also the most played act on UK radio that year and won the 2007 Ivor Novello Award for Songwriters Of The Year.
Their second album, Join With Us followed in 2008 and entered the album charts at No 1. Their third, 2011’s Together We Were Made, was their final release on Island Records, but were snapped up by BMG, returning in 2013 with their most critically acclaimed record to that point, Boy Cried Wolf.
This episode was recorded as Dan’s band released their eponymous fifth album, to great acclaim from press and public alike.
One of the things we love about your songs is how you pluck out melodies that seem classic and familiar, somehow, even though they’re new. Do you spend a lot of time choosing the notes or do they arrive catchy?
“I just don’t put it in the song unless it’s annoyingly catchy! If it’s not, it just doesn’t go in. Because I feel like songs should have a generous nature. If it’s not providing me with that sweetness of a strong melody, I’d rather it not be there.”
You don’t shy away from using the full range of your voice on a lot of songs. When you’re writing, are you conscious of using keys that work best for singing?
“What I tend to do is write in keys as uncomfortable as possible, as it makes me go to different places. I think, five albums in and 20 years of writing songs, it’s quite easy for your voice… I never wanted to be one of those writers that the voice falls into the same traps all the time. I think, if you do that thing where you change a key, you start writing in E♭ and your voice goes to a funny place, because you’re in a key you don’t normally write in. I push my voice into uncomfortable places because I write melodies that continue to be fresh.
“It’s like with instruments: if I get stuck on the piano, I pick up a guitar and start playing with a funny tuning. I’m almost trying to trip myself up all the time, because otherwise you become quite automatic – you start having a box of tricks and, unconsciously, become boring. I’m really terrified of that happening.
“Playing in keys that my fingers don’t like, so I’m struggling, is like being a beginner again. You write really good songs when you’re a beginner because you’re so limited – it stops you going down those ‘chops’”
Where do you write, typically? Is it there in your studio?
“Yeah, just in here. I’ve got a piano and I sit there and write, most of the time. Occasionally I grab a guitar, and actually our fifth album was written on the guitar way more than the piano, and that was a deliberate thing. I’d done the whole fourth album sitting at a piano and I wanted to go somewhere different – I didn’t want to write another ‘breaky-uppy’ album. It got me into a different head space – you just write differently on different instruments.”
How far into the process do you go, before you show the songs to the band?
“That completely varies and it depends when the band are here. If they’re hear and I’ve literally come up with something that morning, and it might just be a couple of hooks, I’ll go: ‘Okay, let’s jam it.’ Or it can be a whole song that I’ve finished and hadn’t had a chance to work with the band, and I’ll go: ‘Okay, here’s a song that’s kind of finished. You boys know what to do… One-two-three-go!’ Sometimes we have these jam sessions where we’ll play and it’s nonsense – it’s normally really prog-y and stupid, and we’re really expressing in a free way and sometimes we don’t even play the correct instruments – and out of that often comes a little nugget, like a weird groove or a strange twist on the normal chords. Or a melody, which I’ll go away and finish that as a song, and then bring it to the band… So all of those ways of working have been fruitful over the years.”
Are you typically writing words to fit a melody that you’ve written, or will you sometime draft pages of words?
“Normally, a line that’s strong will come with the lyric. I’ll kind of sing a melody and words will come out with it. That’s often what happens, then I have to go away and build the rest of the lyric, and that takes a longer time – that’s the last thing that gets finished. But the actual melody can be a problem if you come up with a melody without any words. Sometimes I’ll get a great hook and there’s no word attached to it, and then I’m like, ‘Oh now I’ve got to try find words that are going to be good enough to go into this melody!’ If it didn’t just come then, I really struggle with that. There are still melodies I have that I love and I’m really into, but because they didn’t come with the words attached already – it didn’t come out in one go – I really struggle, because nothing ever feels right. That dummy lyric you get stuck with, sounds brilliant but doesn’t mean anything.”
I take it, you finish the lyric before you start recording with the guys?
“It depends. With this latest album, because of the nature of the way we recorded it, which was all live in a room, we had to know the songs inside out and I had to have the lyric finished. But, with previous albums, no I’ve got as far as the whole song being recorded and there’s that last bit and last verse where I’ve been, ‘na-na-na,’ on the guide vocal and I’ve got to finish off that lyric. It’s the last thing that goes down normally, and I’m penning it, literally as the boys are going, ‘Come on, get on with it!’”
Do you write down titles and keep them in a notebook, or something?
“I have started doing that. I never used to, only because I’d lose the notebook and it would be pointless – I’m really useless at losing things. But now I’ve got the iPhone, it’s got the little Notes thing and I can make notes of things. I’ve always kept things that I’ve heard people say on the bus, or sometimes I ‘miss-hear’ things – words that don’t normally go together. I remember those, or different turns of phrase. I live in Hackney, East London and there are people from all over the world here, and all different uses of language.”
Is it just as easy for you to write up-tempo songs as it is to write ballads?
“Yeah, I’ve always found both easy. Some people say that ballads are really easy to write and it’s true, but good ones aren’t easy to write! Anyone can write a crap ballad, but anyone can write a crap any other kind of song. Ballads get judged less harshly and people feel more comfortable writing ballads because they know that.
“For some reason, happy music gets such a hard press and a tough reception because it’s up-tempo. But I think the mopey, sad, quiet music isn’t judged as harshly, and I think that’s the case of minor music versus major music. If you write a song in a major key, you’re opening yourself up to more criticism than if you write a song in a minor key. I think that’s to do with snobbery within music: middle-class music critics who find difficult music more to their tastes, than up-tempo, joyful music for the common people. A great pop song is a great pop song and I don’t care whether it’s up-tempo, down-tempo, fast, slow, difficult, off-key, on-key… It’s the musical establishment that tries to make these rules and it’s often to do with class. Escapism in art, with films and music and everything, often gets quite harshly judged – people who write sci-fi novels will never get taken as seriously as people who write difficult, historical fiction.
“I’m pretty passionate about it because I think music should be judged on an emotional response to what it feels like when you hear it, and that’s it. Anything beyond that, I think, is not really valid.”
Most of your songs have massive choruses as well. Do you hear that kind of scale when it’s just you at the piano?
“I don’t mind if they get really epic, or if they don’t. The band chooses how far we go with it. My main concern is that, even if it’s done gently or stripped down, the chorus feels like it lifts on its own. If when we’re playing it, everyone just goes massive on it, then that’s kind of what we go with. All the arrangement stuff is very much by accident, with all five of us playing together, discovering it ourselves.”
Your ability with a melody is quite well-known and that was apparent from the first album – that had more hooks that a cloakroom, didn’t it?
“Ha, ha, I hadn’t heard that one! Yeah, maybe… I have a thing where I try to forget things as well, so I’m not one of those people who goes around recording everything I do. I don’t know whether they’re hooky unless I’ve lived with them for long enough and they keep coming back.”
Looking back to those classic hits like Fill My Little World, is it the same sort of writing approach that you take now?
“Yeah, except for those ones I was more ‘demo-y’ with them. I used to write with really bad drum beats that I’d do with a really bad piece of software, and put some chords down, then make a little groove, and then I’d write the song. I don’t do that so much anymore. Now I tend to sit at the piano and that all happens in my head, and I let the boys take a bit more control with The Feeling stuff now.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 90 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo, Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Paul Simon, Ben Watt, Justin Currie, Willy Russell, Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 53-minute interview with Dan Gillespie Sells – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.