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Songwriter.

Article from International Musician & Recording World, March 1985

Hooklines and singers analysed by Jim Betteridge


The second of a new series this month covers songwriting

Paul Bliss and Australian Steve Kipner (below): "There are no set rules."

Almost everybody has, at sometime, been moved by a song. It may have been Barry Manilow's ever so sensitive rendition of I Made it Through the Rain, or Motorhead's Overkill; the effect is largely the same, it touches some fundamental personal resonance, and that's it. The process is totally irrational.

For most people a good song conveys so much more than words can alone, more than just a tune. Yet there are no objective rules that can be applied in consideration of a song's merit; a computer couldn't guarantee to detect a potential chart success. It's rather like humour: a line either works, or it doesn't.

For the songwriter, this fact is both the good and the bad news. That each new day could see 'The Big One' spring forth from the fingertips is a source of continual hope; but at the same time there can be no guarantees.

The Songwriter's Craft



So how do great songwriters write their great songs? Do they know something we lesser tune-smiths don't or is it simply by some god-given default — a gift?

Englishman Paul Bliss has seen some considerable success as a songwriter, although mostly in America, with his biggest credit being as the co-writer of Olivia Newton-John's massive US hit, Heart Attack:

"For me it's the old adage of 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I have to sit there day after day sometimes, playing around with chords and ideas. I'll almost always start off with the music because I'm more of a musician than a lyricist. For me lyrics are a chore, they usually take me an age and what often happens is that I get bored with the music before I finish the lyrics and the whole thing gets thrown down the tubes."

One of Paul's writing partners is Australian Steve Kipner, who has also found America to be the better market. Steve has been responsible for various hits and album tracks for artistes such as Al Jarreau, America, Diana Ross, Dolly Parton, Laura Brannigan, Olivia Newton-John... the list is long and impressive. I spoke to him recently at his Californian home — how did he approach the task?

"I don't really have any rules about that, I use both guitar and keyboards, and work with whatever comes. It can depend on who I'm writing with; with Paul for instance, he's such an innovative keyboard player that I might just work with putting melodies over what he's playing; there are really no rules."

There are no secrets to be had, then, no qualifications outside of what you write. So, if you have an 'I didn't really write it, I just made it up', complex, don't worry; that's what everybody else is doing too.

So who's to say that the content of Baz's ballards is any greater or lesser than that of some HM Krangg? Everyone, and no one; and A&R men.

Record Company or Publisher?



Most A&R people suffer from perennially bad press and terminal insecurity; the rate of turnover is frightening. If the scent of success eludes those supposedly discerning nostrils for more than six months or so, they're back on the outside looking in again.

For the Um & Ah department, publishers are the first line of filtration — if a tape comes recommended from a respected publishing house, it'll be listened to; if it comes with the pile in the post, it will still get listened to eventually; or so we're lead to believe. A member of EMI's A&R department told me.

"We recently built up a stock pile of over 600 tapes here in just a few weeks. After making a huge effort to go through them all we found only a couple which were of any interest at all. It's a great deal of effort for little reward, and so we will more often than not go to the publishers first, although that doesn't only mean our own publishing department. I would advise any unestablished songwriter to get a publishing deal first."

Paul Curran of Chappell's publishing:

"We very rarely make appointments with people, and prefer it if they send the cassette in. We get between 50 and 75 a week, and they do all get listened to eventually. I'm afraid most of them are rubbish and get a standard letter. We don't need songs that sound like the Police or U2, that type of act writes its own material. The type of songs that get covered are up-tempo, three minutes long, with a good hook and an R&B-ish feel. Tina Turner's What's Love Got to Do With It? is a good example; other artistes were also interested in that song."

Other A&R/publishing people might advise you to press for a personal appointment, although none of them wants his name next to such a comment for obvious reasons. They all stress that they are continually on the lookout for good material and that it really isn't the closed shop that many people think it is.

Demo Quality



Here again, there are two distinct camps of thought. The more musical publishers like to pride themselves on being able to hear a good song in a bad recording, others say they want to hear a quasi-master. In my experience, no-one will give a bad recording the time of day, and the, 'I like it but I need to hear a better demo', refrain is an all too common form of procrastination.

Steve Kipner: "I'm at the stage now where I can send a lot of my songs straight to the artiste or producer concerned, and they will generally expect near-master quality. It's no longer any use for me to knock out half-a-dozen songs on a tape and hope that someone will like a couple of them; anything I put out has to be right, and so I spend a lot of time and effort over each one.

"Working on my own I reckon to take about three weeks to write, arrange and record each song. I use mainly an Oberheim system which includes an OB8 (synth), the new Expander, a DMX (drum machine), and a DSX (sequencer); plus I also have a DX 7. Because I can MIDI them all together using a sync pulse, I only need to record the vocals and guitars on the multitrack, and hence I only need an eight-track machine. Many of the ideas that make the demo work will be used on the master, and so I record all the sync data onto cassette so that when the track is mastered, I can hire in exactly the same equipment and reproduce most of the track exactly. Otherwise it's very easy to lose the original feel".

At home Steve uses a 24 input Soundcraft with an Otari eight-track, and it's clear that in the same way a good quality four-track machine could produce very acceptable results.

In most cases being a songwriter is actually a rather solitary existence. It's one of the least glamorous positions in the business, and no substitute for being a Rock star if that's what you really want. On the other hand, if you prefer being more your own person, working largely by yourself at your own pace in your own space (Hey, California), it could be a better bet; and if you're successful, also more lucrative. Certainly, most of the successful writers I spoke to seemed to be having a pretty good time.


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Sapphire and steel strings

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Publisher: International Musician & Recording World - Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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International Musician - Mar 1985

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Feature by Jim Betteridge

Previous article in this issue:

> Sapphire and steel strings

Next article in this issue:

> Strawberry Ripples


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