Sodajerker presents… Eg White
The podcasting-songwriting duo speak with the “quintessential professional songwriter” whose list of collaborators include Adele, Tom Odell, Kylie and Duffy
he professional songwriter is something of a mystery to the casual listener. Locked away from the searing light of publicity, the precise nature of what they do is the domain of the backroom. As questions inevitably arise, our friends at Sodajerker were fortunate to catch up with one of current the premier professional songwriters, Eg White, who provided a window into his craft.
Having initially intended to become an architect, the ‘master pop craftsman’ Eg White, born Francis Anthony White, is now an Ivor Novello award-winning songwriter, musician and producer. His collaborations have included Adele, Will Young, Kylie Minogue, James Blunt, James Morrision, Duffy, Florence Welch, Rebecca Ferguson and Tom Odell, and his success has seen him take the writing credits on two UK No 1 Singles, as well as a host of songs to have featured in the Top 40.
Coming from a family of classical musicians, he took up the piano at the age of four and then went on to feature in the bands Yip Yip Coyote and Brother Beyond, which featured his brother David. In 1991, he released the critically acclaimed, ‘lost classic’ album 24 Years Of Hunger as the duo Eg & Alice, featuring Alice Temple.
By the late 90s and following his moderately selling solo album Turn Me On, I’m A Rocket Man (1996), Eg had begun moving behind the curtain, writing for and with other artists. It was in this role that Eg truly thrived and in 2003 he achieved global success, as the writer behind Will Young’s breakout hit Leave Right Now. Since then he’s gone on to achieve enormous success and explains here what it takes to be a successful pro songwriter.
You represent the quintessential professional songwriter. Are there particular attributes that are required?
“There are two things you need: mainly persistence – waiting for luck to be with you – and the other is flexibility. There will be some people who can, will and need to write the whole thing; words, lyrics and melody. Normally I provide a lot of thinking about the chords. Sometimes I work with people and they really do need lyrical help and I can’t help them. Some people have a lyrical style that I can’t get behind and then I just have to find a way of supporting them in getting to their end goal. Other times I’m just with the person and waiting for a story to come from them that we can make into a good song.
“It’s just such a variable process and how it works really depends on the individual. Sometimes you need to be quiet and watch, and sometimes you need to be able to recognise you’re just waiting for one of you to feel that spark, that moment where you know something is right. Being able to accept both roles and adapting from one extreme to the other has really been helpful.”
How does a typical writing session go?
“I’m normally busy until 11:00 or 12:00, so I’ll start at either of those times. If we haven’t met then we’ll probably talk for an hour and I’ll try and figure out what they like, why they like it and whether they’re resonating to music for musical or emotional reasons. Then we’ll try and imagine what sort of shape the thing might take, by listening to a few things they’ve done, and we’ll talk and find a theme that we want to make lyrically.[cc_blockquote_right] WHEN YOU FIRST MEET SOMEONE AND HEAR THEIR STORIES, THERE’S A LIVELINESS TO YOUR RELATIONSHIP [/cc_blockquote_right]“We’ll work until 18:30, unless something’s really going wrong and then I’ll make it until 19:00. But it doesn’t go beyond that, unless they’ve come from America and they’re really famous, which doesn’t often happen. I say all this, but when I look at this formula I realise that, probably most of the tunes that did really well weren’t written according to this and were just some blind panic really!”
So when you sit down with a new artist for the first time, would you typically have some ideas up your sleeve just in case?
“Probably not. If I do get ideas, I put them in to my phone. Sometimes, if I’m with someone, we’re an hour in, and neither of us are saying anything that’s particularly interesting to the other one, I might have a look at my phone and say ‘well here’s something’. It might be a snatch of music, a couple of lines or a theme, but I won’t come in with that as a starting idea.”
Some songwriters feel that it’s really hard to get into a room with a stranger and bare their soul to them. Can we assume that co-writing is not an awkward experience for you?
“If anything, I have the opposite experience with co-writing. Sometimes the hardest thing is when I’ve worked with someone and it’s really clicked, we’ve really nailed something, and then we reconvene and it just doesn’t work. Then we have to try to rediscover that excitement we had, when we each showed each other our best side for the first time. When you first meet someone and hear their stories, there’s a liveliness to your relationship and sometimes it can be hard to get back to that first flush of feeling. Then it becomes about trying to find solutions to these problems.
“I’m starting to realise now that pop music truly is music for young people – not exclusively, but predominantly. The current Radio 1/Radio 2 split, where the former is for young people and the later is for people over 26, really emphasises this. There’s a very strong cultural valency for music targeted at young people and I’m aware that I’m shooting myself in the foot by trying to find new solutions to writing pop songs, when the old ones are really good. It’s about remembering that I just have to get fresh with myself and remember what it was like to hear music for the first time.”
How does the collaboration work for you when an artist comes to you and they don’t need music, just guidance, like with James Morrison? Did he bring a song like Wonderful World and have you shape it with him?
“With Jim, the first song we wrote together was song about his dad, who died shortly afterwards and what a hopeless father he was. It was a really beautiful song, not a pop song but one we both really liked. Entering into our second session together, we’d had precisely no feedback on that song and we then wrote You Give Me Something. That second session was a really hard day, but there was one song that had a wonderful chord progression and I was determined to try and make something of it. So I said ‘I’ve got these ingredients, I’ve got a brass part and a chord sequence and we just need to try and bring it together’. We floundered about all day and then Jim said he had this pretty, kind of funny tune, and he sung me the verse of You Give Me Something.
“But it was completely inverted in two ways. He wasn’t saying you don’t do all this stuff, he was saying you do all of this stuff. It was just this straightforward love song, so it kind of needed to be turned around and needed to have some bitterness. So I said, ‘Denigrate it, attack these lovely things that she’s doing, put them down,’ and the chords changed. He was playing straight chords, so I said lets mess them up. I suppose I was trying to subvert the tune and then, by a miracle, it fitted the chord sequence that I had in my mind for the chorus.
“So we really wrote that together, we really did collaborate. Maybe I was playing esoteric chords and he was playing straight chords, but the melody was all him and, when he came to sing it, the excitement was his and that’s the only thing that really matters. When you stand up at microphone you’ve either got something, or you haven’t.
“Sometimes if I run too far with a set of ideas and they’re my ideas and not theirs, they get in front of a microphone and I go ‘Bugger, they had no idea what we were going on about!’ Sometimes I’ll get to the moment of truth and realise that it’s just not there.”
You’ve worked with a lot of vocalists. Do they tend to take control of the top line and lyrics and leave the chords to you? Or is each person different?
“Some do. With Duffy and Warwick Avenue, the verse was completely her. I’d never met her before and she was working with a friend of mine, Jimmy Hogarth. I went to Jimmy’s house to work with the two of them. She said that she had this idea and just sung the verse and the melody and lyrics completely as they were. It it sounded like a Marvin Gaye-type number and I said, ‘What happens if we just play the bassline like this?’ and played it on an electric guitar. At that point, we needed a chorus, so the three of us went and wrote it in a room, and the middle eight we just knocked off at high speed.
[cc_blockquote_right] SOMETIMES IT FLOWS EASILY AND NATURALLY WITHOUT YOU GETTING IN THE WAY, OTHER TIMES YOU HAVE TO WAIT AND WAIT [/cc_blockquote_right] “Adele completely writes her own top line and lyrics. For Chasing Pavements I gave her a chord progression, which wasn’t a terribly good one, and I’m thinking ‘I’m really serving her up some crap here.’ But then she sung that lovely melody and I said ‘y=Yes, we’re back in business!’ The title was entirely her own and she wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, but thought that it was just about going back to someone’s door again and again.
“Florence is really quick. I was lucky because I caught her at the end of the songwriting process. We worked on What The Water Gave Me. I just gave her this chord sequence and she just ran with it. Even if it didn’t sound as though she knew what she was doing for the first 10 minutes, she really did know.
“Sometimes it flows easily and naturally without you getting in the way, other times you have to wait and wait and hope and fail and get things wrong. And if you’re really lucky, you succeed, but normally you don’t.”
How about emerging artists, like Rebecca Ferguson (who emerged with Nothing’s Real But love), is that another kind of collaborative process?
“With Rebecca, there was a really pretty song that I had, and her A&R guy Nick Raphael thought she should sing. So we met up and she sang the song very well, but it felt like we hadn’t quite got it. Then she came in for a session and Nothing’s Real But Love was the first thing that we wrote. The whole business about standing in queues was her and I was the one that pushed the issue of disenfranchisement. It was a really fun and quick song to write – two or three hours maybe.
“From that point onwards though, I realised what an amazingly good writer she was and I wouldn’t put in the seed idea after that. She would come in and say ‘I’ve been sitting on a station platform and thought of this’ and she’d get her phone out and she would play these heartbreakingly beautiful two lines. Then we’d build a tune around it, which led to songs like Shoulder To Shoulder.”
Your album 24 Years Of Hunger, which you recorded as Eg & Alice (with Alice Temple) sounds like it has a real Prince influence, specifically Sign ‘O’ The Times. Would that be true?
“Definitely. There’s a massive Prince influence on that record. There’s also a track that has a Steely Dan influence and one that sounds like a Lenny Kravitz record. Prince at that time was fantastic. I remember in the summer of 1985 staying at Alice’s house and we all got the behind-the-scenes tapes that Prince was letting out from his vault. All that stuff is common property now, but getting it on cassette was so much more vibrant than hearing it in a nice clean CD version. That period of his, ’81-88, what a run! Fluidity, brilliance and economy. I’m still really in awe of all of those techniques. Recently, someone told me the way that he got his drum sound was that everything was run through a Roland drum box. So I went and bought one and realised that, no, that wasn’t how he did it. £58 up the spout!”
With over 50 episodes under their belt, internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Liverpool-based duo Sodajerker. Established in 2012 by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M. Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 45-minute interview with Eg White – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them via www.facebook.com/sodajerker or www.twitter.com/sodajerker, or download the podcasts from iTunes.