Inspired by the photos of NHS nurse Hannah Grace Deller, Chris Difford put some of his songwriting pals to work
We all find inspiration in different places and what works for some writers won’t hit the spot for others. Sometimes though, a creative spark is so powerful that it’s shared far and wide, simultaneously igniting a multitude of minds. One such spark comes in the form of the photos taken by Hannah Grace Deller, an NHS nurse working on the frontline throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hannah’s photos caught the attention of Squeeze legend Chris Difford, who gathered together a gang of writers and asked them to come up with songs influenced by what they saw (and felt) when looking at these pictures. The result is Song Club, an album of songs written by Nick Heyward, Graham Gouldman, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Judie Tzuke, Kimmie Rhodes, Judith Owen and more. Coming full circle, proceeds from the record will go to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Foundation COVID-19 Support Fund.
Here, the songwriters walk us through 10 of the album’s tracks…
WORKING ON THE FRONT LINE BY JESSIE & THE LEONARDS
Kate St. John: “Neill MacColl and I wrote the song to give frontline NHS workers a voice and to show solidarity. The words and sentiments come directly from nurses’ accounts of their experiences in Covid-19 wards. Lyrically, we decided to portray this within the arc of a day from start to finish. We used repetition, rhyme, and the musical arrangement to build up the tension.
“Despite the serious nature of the words we wanted the music to have a groove and be uplifting. There’s a release in the chorus backed by a sense of camaraderie and ‘mustn’t grumble’ in the words. The spoken section, performed by nurse Hannah Grace Deller, is a diatribe towards the government for not meaningfully recognising the huge contribution of frontline NHS workers and not protecting them financially or literally with enough PPE.
“Once written, Neill did a guitar/voice demo and it was sent out to the band (remotely), to build up the arrangement. Drums, bass, pedal steel. Jessie Buckley did the main vocal. Neill and I overdubbed guitars and keyboards respectively. Backing vocals went on last.”
FOR US BY JUDIE TZUKE
Gregor Philp: “A very happy collaboration for me and I hope Judie (Tzuke) too. We had Hannah’s photos to potentially inspire a song. Now, that could be liberating or it could create a block while rushing to try and sum it all up in three minutes! Judie had the idea to let me do the music and she would try to write some lyrics and melodies. I had played a couple of ideas to her over Zoom and she reacted to one simple repetitive chord sequence that I worked up into a track once I’d heard her beautiful melodies. We needed a middle eight (bridge) so I wrote some chords and lyrics that Judie loved and that was the song.”
FIND A WAY BY SARA DOUGA & GREGOR PHILP
Gregor Philp: “Well! This was fun! I know Sara (Douga). She’s from Louisiana. She takes you by the collar and away we go. We had the thought at the start that we wanted it to be inspiring and hopeful so the lyrics try to beseech us all to carry on in the face of despair, which time and time again we always seem to do. It’s all stranger than we can imagine so it helps that we kicked up some dust with a Bo Diddley hambone beat to help it along.”
SUNDAY BY JULIA FORDHAM
Julia Fordham: “The thought-provoking and inspiring images of the frontline workers captured so beautifully by Hannah Grace Deller triggered in me an idea about those of us at home on the backline who were all bumbling along during lockdown where every day had started to merge into the next. With no work and therefore no income, nowhere to go and nowhere to be, every day started to feel like Sunday.
“The melody and lyrics came to me at the same time and I started singing the first verse and chorus out loud and then excitedly grabbed my guitar and started finding the chords and rhythm and completed the song.
“I then went to a local studio near my house in Topanga, California with my guitar player Colin Ryan and laid down our two guitar parts to a click track. We had our masks on as did the engineer and it was so surreal trying to keep six-feet apart. Recording during Covid-19 was quite a curious challenge and humorous dance. Luckily there was a big control room. I entered the vocal booth with disposable gloves on and took off my mask and sang a few takes.
“We then sent our tracks to my lifelong musical backbone and producer Grant Mitchell in the UK and he put together a gorgeous arrangement for the song. I am honoured that Sunday is on the fabulous and eclectic Song Club album.”
CODE SUNSHINE BY KIMMIE RHODES
Kimmie Rhodes: “One day, during the early days of Covid-19 lockdown here in Austin, Texas, where I live, I phoned a friend who was in a local hospital due to complications with his chemotherapy. He said he kept hearing an announcement over the loudspeakers that said, ‘Attention hospital staff– Code Sunshine… Code Sunshine.’
“My friend finally Googled the hospital’s codes and found out it was the signal that a Covid-19 patient was about to be released from a special quarantined wing of the hospital. ‘Code Sunshine,’ meant to come to the wing to applaud in celebration for the departing patient as the Beatles song, Here Comes The Sun played in the background.
“I said, ‘What a great song title!’ The next day I suggested it in my Zoom writing session with Kevin Savigar (keyboard and programming in Los Angeles) and Gabriel Rhodes (in Austin) and we pooled our various talents to produce the recording from the isolation of our various studios via online transfer of files.
“By the way… my friend with cancer recovered and is in remission now! I sent the track to him as a get-well gift.”
INVISIBLE SMILE BY BETH NIELSEN CHAPMAN
Graham Gouldman: “This was a song that Beth (Nielsen Chapman), a long time writing partner, and I had almost completed during a writing session some time ago. When Chris approached us to write something for the album this came to mind. We wrote a new lyric and Beth came up with the perfect title. She recorded her parts in Nashville and I added mine in London. A great transatlantic collaboration.”
I SEE YOU BY GRAHAM GOULDMAN
Graham Gouldman: “I wanted to write something that gave a sense of urgency. I’d had the opening guitar riff for some time but never found a home for it until I started writing the melody. I got the first line, ‘No matter how long the night the day is sure to come,’ from a sign posted on a gate that I saw whilst out walking. I wrote a lyric that I hoped would reflect what our wonderful nurses and carers might be thinking and feeling. When I’d finished the song I realised that I See You also has another relevant meaning, (ICU).”
IF IT WASN’T FOR YOU BY WILLIAM REES
Steven Smith: “When I, along with the rest of the world, was going into lockdown and we saw how Covid-19 had affected the population of Italy, here in the UK we were preparing for the same. When Chris Difford showed us the raw photography of Hannah, herself a nurse, we saw a deeper look that the NHS and all the frontline workers were so vital in all that was needed to keep us safe. The first lyric that came for the song was the opening line, ‘Bills keep coming, trains keep running,’ and the song began to flow…”
William Rees: “What struck me about Steve’s opening lines as well as his chorus lyric, “If it wasn’t for you,” was how open it was. I liked the idea that what we were writing could be a song to show support for the NHS as well as a love song that could live and find listeners beyond the pandemic. With this in mind you’ll find specific moments within the words that speak of the crisis and the need for our doctors and nurses but also phrases and lines that give an impression of a world that in many ways has gone astray. Hopefully we’ve made a true picture with this song and one with an underlying message of the importance of human connection, endeavour and love… if it wasn’t for you.”
REHASHTAG THE WORLD BY RUBY DEW
Ruby Dew: “I was introduced to Song Club by my music collaborator Pete Wild. I felt honoured to be working alongside well-known artists and a bit apprehensive at first but everyone was so warm and encouraging that they quickly made me feel at ease.
“My writing process for Rehashtag The World began with looking at Hannah Deller’s Instagram wall, then chatting to her on the phone and hearing what she’s been going through working as a nurse. I noticed Hannah’s pictures included photos of climate change and Black Lives Matter marches as well as the Covid-19 crisis. To try to find a positive aspect to a bleak situation, I had in mind the image of a phoenix rising from the ashes and that sometimes things can only improve when they have got into such a bad state that people demand change for the better.
“I noticed how the rainbow has risen to be a symbol of gratitude and hope during the pandemic, as well as being used by Greenpeace since the seventies on their ship the Rainbow Warrior, so I wanted there to be a rainbow at the centre of my song. I like to believe we can make the world a better place through positive action and this seemed like something I could do to encourage that.
“My vocals and guitar were accompanied by my school friend Felix Jesse Blue’s brilliant double bass playing and Pete’s son Ruben Wild’s stunning drumming. Awesome electric guitar riffs added by former Mystery Jets member, William Rees are the cherry on the cake.
“Finding a recording studio was difficult due to Covid-19 restrictions. So we rehearsed in Pete and Ruben’s garage until Pete arranged that we could record at Christchurch Studios in Bristol. It was the only recording studio open in Britain at the time. It was expertly mixed there by Andy Jenks. The whole album was then professionally mastered at Abbey Road Studios.”
ALL ASHORE BY CHARLIE WOOD
Adam Levy: “I co-wrote All Ashore remotely with Charlie Wood. He lives in the UK; I’m in the States. We were inspired by Hannah Grace Deller’s photo of a Nursing Associate named Andrew. In the photo, Andrew is looking out the window of the hospital. There are boats below, and the colours around him are oceanic, so Charlie and I decided to go with an ocean/storm metaphor.
“He sent me four lines that felt like a strong verse opening, and the title All Ashore. I expanded Charlie’s start to a few verses and a potential chorus section. After a couple of refinements back and forth via email, Charlie set our lyric to music and sent me a demo of him playing the piano and singing. I was totally bowled over. Our little poem had become an epic song.
“I’ve co-written many songs, but not many remotely like this. Without Hannah’s photo and Chris Difford’s gentle guidance, this song would’ve never happened. I’m glad that it did, and so grateful that I could be part of this project that speaks so powerfully to our current collective crisis — and those who are on the frontlines fighting it every day.”