This month Sodajerker sit down with Miranda Cooper, a key member of the smash hit songwriting and production team Xenomania
oining our friends at Sodajerker this time is one of the UK’s most influential and successful songwriter-producers of recent years, Miranda Cooper. Working alongside Brian Higgins, as a vital member of Xenomania, she has played a key part in writing many hits, including four number ones: Round Round and Hole In The Head for The Sugababes, as well as Sound Of The Underground and The Promise with Girls Aloud.
Cooper’s career in music began in a completely different guise, as a backing dancer for both Dannii Minogue and Gina G. Thankfully her songwriting talent came to the forefront and after an unsuccessful spell as a member of pop duo T-Shirt, and then as a solo artist under the alias Moonbaby, she established a partnership with Higgins at Xenomania which would go on to shape the sound of much of the Noughties.
The Xenomania process is a collaborative one with many different writers working together on each track. This way of creating music has given the collective a distinctive style, with each song containing many complicated elements, yet still remaining utterly catchy and packed with hooks. It’s a method which needs further examination, and our podcasting pals are on hand to do just that.
Do you tend to be responsible for a particular element when you write?
“Mainly it’s melody and lyrics and also the vocal production. I’m basically a control freak, so I would be twitching if somebody did something a tiny bit different. Mainly it’s melodies and lyrics, but also being there whilst the record was being made and the music’s being done, pitching in with some ideas. I actually found it quite weird when I did some work away from Xenomania, to suddenly just be a topliner. Basically you’re a hired hand – you do your bit and then you go away.”
[cc_blockquote_right] THE SUGABABES, I REMEMBER DEFINITELY BEING A LITTLE SCARED OF THEM! [/cc_blockquote_right] We always thought there was a different approach between an act like Girls Aloud and then the Sugababes. Would you say that you had a different attitude when you write for different acts?
“It was definitely a policy to consciously give them different sounds. The Sugababes, I remember definitely being a little scared of them. They were more involved in the writing at that stage than Girls Aloud were. Generally the main hooks would come from us and then they would do their verses and that’s where you got so much of their identity. They also had more of an urban feel than Girls Aloud would. I remember the second album that we wrote with them, they were supposed to come down to Xenomania and I think they just basically said ‘we don’t want to travel that far, can we do it in London?’ So Brian had said a hotel because sometimes we used to go to hotels to write. We literally turn off our phones and hole up for three days, but often abroad. The next thing we were booked into The Dorchester, which is such a random place to be and it was just carnage because I think Heidi had just got a Pug. You weren’t allowed dogs there, but she managed to smuggle it in.
“With Girls Aloud at that point, Sound Of The Underground was much more of a punky feel, probably more guitar led at that point as well. We kind of thought of ourselves as a bit of the band, so the essence of Xeno was Girls Aloud. They were our creative muses and, therefore, a lot of the stuff was written by ourselves. They got more involved in the writing as time went on, but we were probably all a little bit guilty of having an inner pop star desperate to get out of Xeno.”
You seem to have developed quite a lot of strategies at Xenomania for new ways to come up with ideas. Are there lots of methods that you’ve got? Any that you can describe?
“A lot of the songs have come out of a tiny place, a seed of an idea. Round Round was a beat. Biology, that was just the little piano hook at the beginning, but I remember it probably took two years to work out how to come out of that intro, what it would go into. The Promise, that track was ready to go. Brian was so sure it was going to be a huge hit that we literally planned the day that we would be writing this ‘number one’. I think that was obviously when we’d had a lot of success and we were very confident. With Something Kinda Ooh he was thinking of doing a bit like a Too Funky George Michael vibe, which was actually how it started off, but then it ended up something very different. He always has a vision, he knows exactly what he’s doing before we do.
“There’s also a serious amount of quality control all the way through. So we’ll have a group of all sorts of artists, all songwriters, writing hooks on the same track, which is incredible. The great thing about having time at Xeno – which is something I really took for granted until I worked elsewhere – is you can come back to things the next day or the next week. I’d have all my song lyrics and ideas written down as we’ll try them on multiple tracks. You’re looking for that moment where you go ‘ah, the sweet spot’ and try to keep that lovely creative, romantic vibe for that day. Brian had no worries choosing melodies from wherever they came from. He didn’t mind if it was the person making tea in the office – if they came up with something, which they often did, that would be used.
“The final piece of the puzzle is the artist coming in and really it’s then down to is it a hit vocal or not? It’s completely performance activated, even if we had a chorus that we knew was amazing and we loved it – if the artist didn’t sound good on it, it didn’t matter, it would have to be shelved.”
In your daily life do you often find yourself writing down interesting words and phrases that you can store up and use in songs later?
“Yeah, I’ve always done that from the beginning and I feel so much stronger as a writer knowing I’ve got this arsenal of random words or concepts. Obviously now that I’m a mum I’m not lying about eating chocolates and reading magazines so much so it takes an effort to do it, but it’s so worth it. It just means you don’t end up writing the same song all the time. I will keep using a lyric that I think’s fantastic, I’ll keep using it until I get the right melody on it. I had Sweet About Me written down, I had Can’t Speak French written down. Other ones, The Promise was literally just me going ‘la la la la, la la la la la’ and then thinking ‘my lord, what can this be?’ but I think it really helps. It just gives you a bit more fuel to know what you’re writing about. The only thing is that sometimes quite a few concepts would work and make their way onto the records, which would be then a little bit of a challenge to try and make them all make sense together.”
[cc_blockquote_right] I FEEL MORE HUNGRY NOW THAN I DID SIX YEARS AGO [/cc_blockquote_right] You’ve had some really established collaborators like Pet Shop Boys and Kylie do they all have their own ways of working that you adapt to or is it more about them experiencing your approach?
“I think, for anyone who comes down to Xenomania, it works if they’re absorbed into the way. We’d had Franz Ferdinand down and we’d worked with them on a record for The Live Lounge which had been brilliant and everyone had had such a lovely time that they asked Brian to work on their album and it didn’t quite work out, mainly because I think we considered ourselves a bit of a band and obviously two bands or two Xenomania’s it wasn’t gonna work. So we agreed to just mutually admire each other from afar. We got the phone call from Pet Shop Boys and Brian just said ‘it’s going to be the same situation it’s not going to work’ so he said we’ll get them down, it will be great to meet them and chat to them anyway but we will have to tell them no, but they said ‘No we’ll put ourselves in your hands, we trust you’. It was amazing, they hadn’t really collaborated with anyone before, but it is a magic place Xenomania, every room filled with young people making music.
“That’s one policy – bringing in young people as Brian and I aren’t out in the clubs raving it up anymore. So I think it was lovely for them to be surrounded by really hungry young people. I think it’s extremely inspirational to them and they were brilliant. I mean their stories were awesome for a start and to be in a situation where I was having to say to Neil ‘no Neil, come on we can do something better than that’ just thinking ‘oh my gosh this is terrible to be saying this to such a legend’. They were fantastic, they would sing their melodies along with Brian and myself and if they didn’t get used they didn’t get used but they felt like they’d really expressed themselves and I think it was a really wonderful album as a result.”
Are there things left that you’d still like to achieve as a songwriter?
“Yes, I look back and see our run of hits and run of success that we had, and I’d love to do that again. Probably when I was in it I took it for granted a little bit. I was also probably guilty of thinking that it would go on forever and ever and I remember when people were saying ‘you have your ups and down’. I was saying ‘yes, yes, yes’ but absolutely not believing it and now I realise you do have your ups and downs.
“I’d love to have success in America. That’s something Brian and I are both very keen to do, so we’ve got our eyes slightly focussed there. To be able to break our own act would be wonderful and also I’m writing a musical, which is actually a lot harder than I thought it would be. I thought I would simply be able to just not edit you know all the stuff that you have to edit when you’re writing pop music. I thought that I’d just be able to merrily indulge my guilty pleasures and that would be enough but I’ve realised that there’s a lot more to it but it’s really, really fun and it’s going well. I’m not going to say too much about it, in case I jinx it, but I find it a real challenge. But I feel more hungry now than I did six years ago or something, which is good.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 60 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 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 70-minute interview with Miranda Cooper – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.