Interview with TOM NICHOLS, songwriter/producer for All Saints, A1, Kylie Minogue - Sep 26, 2001
"Write with people that already are successful. Their name on it helps you get signed, published and ultimately helps you get the cuts."
Tom Nichols is a songwriter/producer based in the UK, managed by Gary Davis and Stephen Budd. Tom wrote the No.1 single 'Black Coffee' performed by All Saints and has also written and produced tracks for A1, Kylie Minogue and more. He is currently writing for Hall & Oates, Tom Jones, HearíSay and S Club 7.
How did you get started in the music biz and what has been your route so far?
I just developed into a writer. Iíd played drums at school and had good fun doing that, but I never studied music. I left school at 18 and got a place at an art school. At the same time the band I was in had some interest from a record company who gave us some development money. I guess we were a bit like a boy band, a bit like Wham.
Pretty soon all the people we'd been put with were songwriters and producers and I found that I wasn't really getting in to do the creative stuff, which was what I wanted.
I also realized that these songwriters and producers had a pretty good life. They seemed to make loads of money, didnít have to work long hours and got lots of holidays. So, I went to be a backroom boy and started writing.
It took two or three years before I got any interest or any cuts. A couple of years ago I was picked up by a manager called Gary Davis and he developed me into a songwriter very well. He helped get my first No.1 in the UK, "Black Coffee" by All Saints.
Which have been the important events for you that has led you forward?
Getting cuts, thatís what makes the difference. And itís amazing what a difference it does make. The moment ĎBlack Coffeeí got released, the phone just started ringing and didn't stop. The difficult part is obviously getting that first cut.
The way I found to get into it was to write with people that had already been successful. Which is a bit naughty really, because you kind of use their name to get into the front door. Their name on it helps you get signed, get published, and ultimately helps you get the cuts. By working with these people you learn very quickly how to write a hit song, which is very difficult and not an exact science. I wouldn't profess to be able to do it every single time, but working with successful people gives you that insight.
I just made sure I was in the right place at the right time. I got a really good lawyer who helped introduce me to the right kind of writers I should be working with. Thatís how I got a major foothold in this business.
Was it tough in the beginning to get peopleís attention?
Very tough. Itís almost impossible. You have to work really hard and meet the right people. A lot of people spend a lot of time writing and producing their songs, but to be honest, that is less, in my opinion, than 50% of it. The important part is knowing the right kind of people.
I believe that a lot of songs end up on albums are not as good songs - or I believed that they were not as good - as those I was writing at the time, but the fact that those people were in the right place and knew the right A&Rs, heads of record companies and even the artists themselves, thatís why those songs were getting taken and are getting taken. Itís being in the right place and knowing the right people.
What is the story behind ĎBlack Coffeeí?
It was written for another artist signed to my manager Garyís own label. Her name is Kirsty Roper. Gary was looking for a major record label to take her on and he went to London Records and played the song to the head of London, Tracy Bennett. Tracy didn't want to sign Kirsty but did want the song for All Saints as the second single after ĎPure Shoresí.
We went back and forth for a few months, not sure if it was going to get cut, and then William Orbit produced and it just ended up sounding fantastic. The demo was actually completely different to the outcome.
So I owe a lot to the All Saints and to Tracy Bennett at London. They are a large further reason why I have a career because suddenly when that song was released, the opportunities that you get, certainly in the UK, but also Europe-wide, are absolutely huge. You just get asked to write on so many more projects than you were before, and you get priority on those projects as well.
Which styles do you write and produce in?
I like stuff which is slightly left of centre, not completely mainstream. Obviously it is still very commercial, still everything you hear on the radio, but I prefer to do something just slightly out of the ordinary. It is always pop music, but various. I also find that more and more in the last few years, what the radio is playing is less mainstream pop and more quirky pop music.
Do you write both music and lyrics?
Yes, I do both. I mainly write lyrics and melody. I also often write the song in itís entirety.
Do you write specifically for artists or write in general?
I hardly ever sit down and just write a song. In fact I can't remember the last time I did that, because of the constraint of time. Usually I get asked to work on some project. I've just been in Sweden, in Stockholm, working with Anders Bagge on Hall & Oates' new record for Sony US. Usually, you get a call from the A&R, the manager or whoever, who ask "would you like to get involved in this project"?. I'm just starting to write for Vanessa Amorosi, a huge Australian star at the moment. Stephen Budd who co-manages me, gets all these kinds of ins, and I met Vanessa's manager last Friday who invited me to write for her. So now I sit down and write specifically for her or co-write with her when she's in London.
Which instruments do you play?
I play piano and keyboards and guitar and drums, none of them incredibly well, but I play them all well enough to be able to produce them. I usually get other players and other programmers involved in the production, if I'm not co-producing with somebody who already does that. I usually like to keep the overview, keep the focus, and have other people playing on the record.
Do you have your own studio?
No, and I have no interest in having one either. I prefer to work in other people's places or hire commercial studios.
Which advice would you give aspiring songwriters in terms of songwriting itself?
It depends what you want to achieve as a writer. If you want to make a lot of money, then learn how to write commercial 3,5 minute pop songs. The best way of doing that is simply by listening to a lot of commercial 3,5 minute pop songs.
Stick in the genre you think you know best. A lot of good writers can do a lot of different things, but it takes a while to be able to write in different styles. Itís difficult and itís hard to maintain your focus. But in terms of the writing, itís just a question of doing it.
In terms of succeeding, itís difficult to be commercially successful if you're not writing mainstream music because usually those acts write themselves. To write for bands like Travis or Coldplay would be impossible because they always write their own tunes. So most of the people in my situation are writing very commercial radio driven pop music.
What do you think is important to think about when one goes into a co-writing situation?
To know what you're writing for and to be aware of what the other person brings to the party are the most important things. If you're writing with someone, you want to make sure they are better at the bits that you're not so good at. So for me, who's very strong lyrically and melodically, I look for people that are strong in programming and tracks. I never work with another top line person. There are plenty of amazing ones out there; Wayne Hector, Cathy Dennis, but I rarely end up working with them because we do the same thing.
What would your advice be to an aspiring songwriter who wants to showcase his material to the music biz, how should he/she proceed?
Make sure that on the first CD you show anyone you have songs co-written with people that the person has heard of. Or that you have an artist they have heard of performing one of your songs.
Obviously thatís an ideal situation, but if you don't have that, make sure that you've co-written with people that the industry at large would have heard of.
But before that, make sure you get a really good lawyer. A good lawyer can introduce you to the right A&Rs, even more so than a good manager. A good music business lawyer is worth his weight in gold. Some one that can get you through the door.
Can you offer some words of advice to unsigned songwriters, with regards to publishing contracts?
Hold of for as long as you possibly can. Never sign the first publishing contract that is presented to you, itís usual that the first deal you get is not the greatest in the world. Have a very good lawyer and listen to him and his advice. Some deals you're going to sign to get you through the front door, to help you get more work, which is fine. Just try to sign a deal that doesn't go on too long, so that if you have success, you can get out of it reasonably quickly and then sign a pretty good deal.
Do you have a publishing deal?
I'm signed to Universal through a sub-publisher called Good Groove Songs, which is my managerís publishing company. I've been signed for about a year and a half. My situation was that he already managed me and decided that he liked to publish me and offered me a deal which I signed.
In what ways has the publisher helped you?
Gary went into a sub-publishing deal with Universal, and itís been incredibly helpful, because Iím working with Willy Marson who's the creative director at Universal UK. He is certainly the best A&R publisher that Iíve ever met, he is absolutely brilliant. Willy and Jamie Campbell at Universal are instrumental in hooking me up with the right people to work with and also help me to get the songs cut.
What do you think about the songwriters situation in the music biz, what is good and what could be better?
I think itís very strong. For the first time songwriters are in a situation that if you have a really amazing song, if you can hook yourself up with the right A&R, you can ask for pretty much whatever you want in terms of co-producing it and being involved with other tracks on the album.
Itís obviously a benefit if you can produce as well because A&Rs love to be able to hear a nearly finished demo and just ask you to put the artist's vocal on it and finish it off. I don't think A&Rs in this country are so keen on finding a song and then finding someone else to produce it. It does happen, but I think its happening less and less because there are more and more production teams that are able to deliver a finished product to the record company.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Hearing the announcement on the radio that my song is No.1. My friend Peter Cunnah, who is also a No.1 writer, brought me congratulations immediately and just said welcome to the club, itís a very exclusive club, enjoy it. I'm very honoured to have had that success, very pleased and very proud. And thatís probably my best moment so far.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would have people being a little more honest with the deals they do. Management deals, record company- artist deals, publishing deals. If you're a young writer/producer there's a huge risk that you will be sucked into a deal that is not the best deal you could have signed at the time, and I guess I would have people being a little bit more honest about that. I think people that have been in the industry a long time, take advantage of those that haven't been in the industry for so long. I think I'd have people act with a little more honesty and morality within the industry, I think thatís the one and pretty much the only thing I'd change. I think itís a fantastic industry to work in and I'm very pleased and proud to be able to work in it. Itís a great job to have, we get paid for doing a job that we do for nothing anyway, you know when I get up I would make music every day, if I was earning no money or millions.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
Probably, exactly the same thing that I am doing now. I have no interest in having a publishing company, being a publisher, a manager or anything like that, I just love to write. I think I will pick the projects I do a little more carefully than I have been able to up to now. I love to write, to produce, to be involved with artists. Just continue doing what I'm doing, I have no other aspiration than that, just to be as successful as I can be, and to make some music that hopefully will be played in 30 years time, which is very difficult to do, but I hope that thatís what I'll be doing in 10 years time.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman