April 3, 2017
Bush Hall, Shepherd’s Bush
“I think we saved the best to last!”
London’s Institute of Contemporary Music Performance (ICMP) is known for music education delivered by industry professionals, supported by liberal access to studios and and practice rooms. More than that, it offers students the opportunity to perform with and learn from working musicians.
The ICMP songwriters’ events are a chance for students to showcase original material in the presence of household name performers at a real venue for a paying audience. The packed crowd at Bush Hall for the Americana special included several rising stars of the genre; Worry Dolls, The Honey Ants, and Two Ways Home (who run their own monthly songwriters’ session, The Round Up). This particular round was special both in name and nature as one of the leading lights of the contemporary British Americana scene, Ben Earle of The Shires, was the featured guest. No pressure!
The round was opened by ICMP tutor, and singer-songwriter in her own right, Sophie Daniels. The students are clearly in good hands as her bio is impressive (she had me at ‘worked with Kelly Clarkson’)
She opened up with Saving Up For a Rainy Day, “the first in a trilogy of songs about rain.” Hannah Rose Platt joined in with beautiful high harmonies, showing a level of familiarity with Daniels and her work that would soon become clear.
When Daniels’ turn came round again, she delivered a devastatingly powerful song about her daughter. Daniels acknowledged the deeply personal and tragic nature of I Can Love You From Here, but felt that it was important to be open and honest in songwriting; “we ask our students to be brave.”
Daniels explained that Kaity Rae, one of the night’s performers, had previously begun an unofficial tradition – to write a new song for the occasion. Daniels accepted the challenge, performing No-one Can Outrun The Rain for the very first time.
Hannah Rose Platt
Platt’s name is a byword for excellence when it comes to songwriters’ rounds. If you see her name on the bill, you know it’s going to be good. She’s an ICMP graduate (class of 2010), which is why she knows Daniels so well. Platt was, of course thoroughly supportive of the student performers as she knew just how they were feeling.
She gave cautionary advice to her successors: think twice before writing a song where all the choruses are different as it’s harder to remember! Of course, Platt delivered new single Chanel and Cigarettes effortlessly despite it’s non-standard structure. It’s a song that she started writing as a child, although it’s become “a little more adult – I didn’t write about this stuff [alcohol and adultery] when I was ten!”
Platt discussed her songwriting style, explaining her preference for “story songs, character songs,” usually written in the third person. Nevertheless, she delighted with two excellent first person narratives, Checkmate and the 1954.
First year Conor Dunmore looked as nervous as he’d have every right to be, given that he was performing after his lecturer, in the midst of accomplished performers, in front of actual Ben from The Shires! Yet none of that showed in his performance.
In fact, he had the crowd laughing from the get go: “I’m gonna start with a little sob story. I’ve been fighting the hardest battle of my life – man flu!” His first song, Don’t Call It Misery, had a Hotel California cadence. In sound and lyrics, Dunmore showed a maturity beyond his years.
Later, he gamely performed a song that had developed from a songwriting challenge – “a simple story” about an embarrassing accident (of the bathroom kind, to put it delicately!)
Sharman’s work with Ward Thomas is gaining her a deserved reputation in the industry, and her advice came from the perspective of a professional songwriter. She explained what it’s like to co-write here and in Nashville.
When she previewed Morning, she admitted “I’m desperate for it not to be on the shelf.” It was perfectly crafted; back in the 90s it could easily had made it on to a Dawson’s Creek soundtrack. Those were the days!
Several of Sharman’s illustrious co-writers were in the room, including Worry Dolls. She surprised Liv Austen with a request to join her for Miss Nobody, about a woman who discovers her partner’s infidelity when “she came upon a party that was only meant for two.” A cracking performance of spirited song.
Rae spoke of the impact that travelling to Nashville had on her songwriting, especially after attending the rounds over there: “we saw all the hits as they were originally written.” Up In Smoke shows the impact of that hit of inspiration.
It was hard to believe that Rae counted as a student performer because she’s already a mainstay on the live circuit; she was recently the featured performer at a sold-out Nashville Nights. Even The Shires’ Ben Earle was intimately familiar with her work, and was effusive about her talent throughout the show. He specifically requesting It Is. “That song kills me,” he explained.
Yet, Rae *was* still a student. This round was essentially her swansong in the final weeks of her degree. She acknowledged the impending transition to ‘the real world’ with trepidation: “I’ve got no idea what I am going to do as a proper adult.” Her trajectory was perfectly clear to everyone else in the room given the quality of her vocals and lyrics, and the ease with which she led the audience in singing Growing Up.
As if he needed any introduction, Daniels reminded her students that Earle’s band, The Shires, hold the record for the fastest selling debut album of any UK country band. Earle confessed that he didn’t come from a country music background. “Discovering country kinda changed me…I’d always been trying to write country songs without knowing it.” He suggested he’s more on the Americana end of the spectrum; the ‘jeans and girls’ preoccupation of bro country is “not really me.”
One consequence of being a relative newcomer to country is that he’s not a veteran of the songwriters’ round scene. He marvelled at the intimate, classic round layout that had been laid on at Bush Hall – “this is so Nashville right now!” He even admitted to nerves: “as I’m talking all the lyrics are leaving my head!”
You wouldn’t know it. Stripped down versions of Up All Night and Statelines [“this song, it changed everything”] fit perfectly with the format. It surely must have been inspiring for the students to take in the electric atmosphere as the entire crowd sang along.
Earle was an inspired choice to mentor budding songwriters and performers because he’s lived the ups and downs of the industry. He signed a publishing deal aged 14 but lost everything when he faced a £3,000 tax bill he couldn’t pay: “they took my piano.” He impressed upon the students that “the majority of artists get dropped, it’s kind of a horrible truth.”
He was unexpectedly sanguine about his own experience; he found that losing his way, musically and financially, took him back to basics in the best possible way: “It was really good for me – I absolutely loved the hard times.”
It was, of course, a happy ending in Earle’s case. The Shires’ rise was rapid: “it scared the shit out of me!” So fast, in fact, that he didn’t even have time to work his notice period before signing the record deal, so he came back from Nashville to a few more weeks of selling mobile phone contracts!
Songwriting was the subject at hand and Earle had plenty of tips. They ranged from the specific – “if you can’t write a middle eight or you don’t want to, just repeat a bit of the first verse” – to the overarching – realise that your songs may “become other people’s.”
Not just literally, as in when writing for others, but figuratively as fans embrace them and claim them. He used an example from his own experience – Sheryl Crow changing a key lyric when performing live “drove him crazy.”
At times, Earle’s advice tended towards the whimsical: “thoughts meander – you wanna write a song about peanut butter and you write a song about cats.” He was often funny and quick-witted: “Burning question?! I’m not a doctor!”
However, he got serious where it mattered, warning students to be aware about the risks of drugs and alcohol. See this Rolling Stone Country long read for veteran artist Marty Stuart’s take on the subject.
When it comes to the mechanics of songwriting, Earle stressed that writers must discover what works best for their style and personality. Co-writes are on-trend these days but they’re not for everyone: “a lot of people don’t enjoy the experience.” It might mean spending a full hour discussing song titles, or coming away from an intense period of collaboration with nothing of use. Without naming names, he alluded to an “awful song for someone big written with someone huge.”
The warts-and-all approach was both refreshing and informative, all underpinned with Earle’s obvious love for music: “I know it sounds wanky and artisty [but it] transcends any barriers – music can move you.”
Earl’s most important words of wisdom were perhaps the simplest: “actually finish a song! It’s better to have something finished than a great idea.”
It seems like Ben Earle has caught the songwriters’ round bug! He and bandmate Crissie Rhodes will be back at Bush Hall on July 19 with Jeff Cohen, Nikhil D’Souza and Kerri Watt. Full details and tickets here.
Information about upcoming ICMP Songwriters’ Circles is posted on their Facebook group. Visit the ICMP website for information about the courses they offer in songwriting, vocals, production, music business, and playing instruments; there are evening classes and summer courses as well as undergraduate and masters degrees.
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