Interview with JOHN GORDON, songwriter of the Eurovision Song Contest 2010 winner - Nov 1, 2010
“I don’t see a problem with foreigners writing for different countries in the Eurovision Song Contest. It shapes and sharpens the competition.“
For a long time The Eurovision Song Contest has been celebrated more for its kitsch entertainment than the quality of the songs themselves, with the winning ‘best song in Europe’ usually failing to make much of a dent on the mainstream charts. But a change is now in the air. Recent winners - most notably Lena Meyer-Landrut’s triumph this year with ‘Satellite’ (No.1 Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Finland) - have enjoyed huge chart success across Europe, and the success has heightened the competitiveness, seeing nation entrants ever more determined to find a great song to represent them. As such Eurovision is becoming a contest for songwriters.
With song entries for Eurovision 2011 event now being submitted, we speak to the co-writer of ‘Satellite’, John Gordon, about how a Dane co-wrote Germany’s winning entry, the impact the win has had on his career, and his involvement with Switzerland’s hope for 2011.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m writing with some Danish people. We’re writing for the publishing and that always involves a lot of artist searching.
You were originally a performing artist as part of the band Steam but then decided to devote yourself to songwriting and producing for other artists. What inspired the change of career?
With Steam we had a lot of good gigs going on here in Denmark but I wasn’t too good at being on stage. I found out pretty fast that what I really loved was being behind the scenes - being in the studio, writing songs, building a song, creating …
Do you remember your first cut?
Let me see … I think my first cut was with a Danish band called Michael Learns To Rock, which was pretty huge here back then. I also had a lot of smaller cuts in different parts of Europe.
How were you first introduced to the publishing side of songwriting?
I was contacted by Iceberg Publishing in Denmark after we played in Steam.
What type of deal was it?
I think it was a two year period we made back then. Iceberg set up a deal for me where I was sub-published by EMI. I’ve been there since.
Based on your experiences how would you advise an unpublished songwriter to approach publishing?
Everything is a bit different today I think. You can actually do it yourself if you have the courage and want to put in the hard work.
But being with a publisher is a good thing because you get a lot of people working for you - you get a lot of networking, a lot of connections to other publishers, other writers. So if you don’t have that networking, publishing is a good idea, but if you do then a lot of people do it themselves at their studios or wherever they are.
Would you ever consider starting your own publishing?
… Not at the moment.
There’s a lot of work involved in publishing - there’s a lot of mailing, phoning, keeping the network going, and if you have to do that yourself and also write songs, it can be a pretty big job.
But of course, it can be done, and I wouldn’t say I haven’t thought about it but I haven’t done anything about it so far. So maybe in the future, you never know.
How do your projects usually come about – for instance, does you publisher book you writing sessions or send you to songwriting camps?
Yeah. Actually it’s as simple as that. There’s a lot of camps going on. And it could be crossovers, it could be Universal camps, it could be EMI camps … Sometimes they have closed camps for only EMI writers, but a lot of the time they spread it out to a network and invite people from different publishers.
You meet a lot of people there - which is the whole point of it of course - and when you meet people there you just keep the contact, and then you will go with whoever you really click with.
I have a steady group of people I write with lot - the people that are closest to you, that know you and what you stand for - but it’s still always good to get out to camps too.
Can you explain what actually happens at a songwriting camp?
You’re a bunch of people - it could be 20 – 25 people - and whoever is in charge of it divides you into groups of, let’s say, three people. So, you have a writer, a top-liner, you have a producer, and you have a lyricist - a producer and a lyricist could be writers as well.
Sometimes you work for two days with the same group, and after two days you switch groups - so you get to meet other writers, write new songs. That goes on for a week, and at the end you’ve probably written four to six songs.
How do you find the experience?
I’m used to working with people I know, which I sometimes think is a bit easier, but, yes, normally it does work well for me - you get new influences, you see new ways of writing and people have different angles into writing a song. It’s always good for inspiration.
Your songs have featured as TV show themes and film title songs. Is it the publisher that is responsible creating your licensing opportunities?
Yes it is.
Do you have any involvement in what songs go where?
Sometimes I have. When they send us out the list for which artist or whatever is seeking songs, they always ask if we have any idea of which songs would be a good match for those. So lots of times the writers are involved in where they go. And other times we don’t - sometimes they just put it out if they think they have a good hunch on which song will fit.
But normally a publisher would have a couple of hundred songs from one writer, and therefore it’s easiest to ask the writer which song would fit this one, so we don’t have to go through the whole catalogue every time.
The ability to write a good song is obviously key to any songwriting career but what other skills and characteristics have you found important in making a success out of it?
Well, first of all, being a nice guy helps. I think most of the writers I meet and most of the people that make it are very nice people - easy to be around, hard workers.
To be a bit humble - have a bit of distance to yourself, be a bit ironic about yourself. Be a decent person, that helps because you meet so many different people, writers and artists, and if you’re an asshole I don’t think you’ll last long [laughs].
It’s obviously a necessity for networking. Going back to that subject, what’s involved on your part in developing your contact network?
Well, camps for one really extend your network. If you’re a young writer in your twenties you don’t have the same network, but as you get older your network becomes very wide. And through the years you always pick out a few – five, ten, fifteen people – you go back to.
Are you actively seek potential artists or songwriters to collaborate with on social networking sites?
Yeah, that happens a lot.
Sometimes at the camps the artist is there - they come out and put a vocal on it or give us input if it’s the right direction and stuff like that.
Sometimes the publisher will say, “This guy or girl needs a song and they’re interested in co-writing.” Sometimes you actually have the artist there, which is a big advantage of course.
A songwriter recently told us that if you want success in other countries you have to collaborate with songwriters in those countries. Would you agree with that based on your own experiences?
Well, I have to, don’t I? [laughs] That’s how it happened to me. I started out in the UK, and that’s where I meet a lot of different writers outside of Denmark.
From the very beginning I started out writing for and with people in other countries - from the UK and US. I haven’t done much in Denmark actually.
So how did you first come to meet the American Julie Frost (HQ interview) and then start collaborating together?
We were introduced through my publishing, and she was sent over by a guy we knew in Chicago where she lived at the time. We met in London for a co-write and instantly clicked, and we’ve been writing together ever since.
We were supposed to co-write stuff for Julie, for her album project, and then wrote so many songs. The songs we didn’t think fit her at that time we’d send to the publisher so they could put them further in the system. And that was over three years ago.
Can you explain how you wrote the song ‘Satellite’ together?
It was Julie’s idea first. She had an idea for a song, sent it to me with just a guitar and a rough vocal, and I wrote on it too, changed a few things here and there, wrote a middle eight, and then we finished it together.
Julie is behind all the lyrics on that song. I didn’t write any lyrics on ‘Satellite’.
So why did you think it would be good for Germany’s Eurovision hopes?
We didn’t [laughs]. The song is over three years old now. And when we wrote it there was some interest from the US for it. But sometimes it goes like that, you have a lot of interest and then they put it on hold and it lies there for a couple of years.
Who in the US was interested?
Well, it was meant to be for a girl, who is maybe releasing it in the US later. So I don’t think I can say it right now.
She is a well-known singer?
No, she’s an upcoming artist, but she’s at a well-known company. I think back in the day, when they were interested in the song, they had their doubts it was the pass for her, but now since it’s been proven a hit song they’re very interested again.
Okay, so how did a song written by a Dane and an American come to be submitted as a potential German Eurovision entry?
All of a sudden three years later my publisher, Iceberg Publishing, thought it would be fun to send it to Germany for the Eurovision.
They sent it to Valicon, which is a big producing place in Germany, and a guy called Brix (André ‘Brix’ Buchmann), and those two were the main persons behind the story of how it came in. And I guess they sent it to that Eurovision thing in Germany.
Were more people involved putting the song up?
Iceberg, and I think EMI had of course also something to do with it.
What was the original aim for that particular song?
Julie and I wrote a bunch of songs - when we wrote that song it was just one out of ten, fifteen songs we wrote. We didn’t have anyone particular in mind for the song - it was just a song that came up fast, and we thought it was fun.
But instantly the publishing - both her publishing and my publishing - were very happy for the song, but there weren’t any specific artists involved at the time. Initially when me and Julie started out we were writing for her album so all these songs we wrote were kind of meant for her.
What was your impression of the Eurovision Song Contest at that time – was having a song featured ever an ambition of yours?
It wasn’t. People are very divided in what they think about Eurovision, and it’s the same in Denmark. I’d never sent a song in for the Eurovision – I’d never really thought about it. And again, this song was never written for the Eurovision anyway.
Why do you think a song like ‘Satellite’ was so enthusiastically received all across Europe?
Well, I think it’s a combination of a few things. First of all, I think it’s a fun little song and maybe it doesn’t sound that Eurovision-like like they normally do.
I also think that Lena Meyer-Landrut has a lot to do with it. She was very different - very quirky, very fun.
And also she didn’t put up a big show - there wasn’t a lot of air machines or anything going on - it was just her on the stage. I think everything fell in place that night and that’s why it did a good job.
What effect has the success of the song had on your own career?
Well, I did pretty okay before, maybe not that good you know [laughs], but of course it had a big impact. All of a sudden everybody knew who I was. There was a lot of fuss here too with the media and a lot of interest in who I was.
And of course, as you may remember, Denmark did pretty well at the Eurovision too. So there was a lot of writing about the fact that, as a Dane, I was writing a song for Germany, and that the Danes were in there and also doing pretty well, bla bla bla … [laughs].
It did a lot of good for me and still does - I get a lot more inquiries for stuff to write for different people from many different countries.
Like with last year’s Alexander Rybak's ‘Fairytale’, ‘Satellite’ has had a huge impact on the mainstream charts across Europe. Do you think it’s a sign that Eurovision is reconnecting with popular music again?
I think it is. It’s changed a lot in the last couple of years and I kind of like it again – it’s a bit more fun. It’s a bit more relaxed, and not so pompous, not so serious. That’s how I felt when I was in Norway – it was a very relaxing experience.
Back in the day it was very one-way songs, but now it’s opened up to more different kinds of songs, and special songs for that matter.
You have a hand in one of Switzerland’s biggest hopes for Eurovision 2011Sarah Burgess. Can you tell us how you came to be involved in the writing of this song?
Well, that song is a year old now. It wasn’t intended for the Eurovision either, it was actually written with a Danish girl here, Lene Dissing, for Sarah Burgess’ album. We had her over here a year ago just to write different songs with her and see if we could find a direction for her. So that’s basically how we wrote that song. But maybe because ‘Satellite’ won and I won [laughs], they submitted that for the Swiss.
It doesn’t sound like a typical Eurovision song - it wouldn’t be out of place on the Billboard Top 10.
Well, no, it could be. I only just recently heard that it was admitted for the Swiss. So, it’s pretty new for me too.
Who contacted you?
That was Oliver Meyer from Switzerland.
There’s been some controversy in the run up to Eurovision 2011 about Malta now allowing foreign songwriters to submit songs. As a foreign songwriter for Germany, what do you think about this - do you think there’s a danger of the contest losing its local diversity and becoming homogenised or do you think such measures are needed to improve the quality of songs and make it a truly influential contest?
Things are different today – I think it’s okay for foreigners to write for different countries. I wouldn’t mind if it was a foreigner writing for Denmark. Actually the Danish song was written by Swedish writers …
So no, I don’t see a problem with that. I think it’s good for the music. It shapes and sharpens the competition and I think you get better writers at the end of the day, and everybody learns from it.
You say you’ve benefited and continue to benefit from your Eurovision success but obviously you don’t want to be typecast as a Eurovision songwriter so how do you move beyond that?
Initially I thought that’s probably what I’m going to be recognised for – but thinking about it, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I mean, it is a good song so I don’t know why I should be running from it.
It’s just another song used by another artist. The next time it could be something completely different. So the development of what I’m doing will stay the same.
What’s in store for the upcoming year?
I’m doing what I did before, I just write a lot of songs with a lot of different writers and artists, and there are some good projects right now for different artists, which I probably shouldn’t talk too much about because you never know how it goes. Things can change all of a sudden, but it looks promising. So, I have a lot of work. I’m not bored.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Online promoter DIck Huey on how to market artists using the blogosphere
Read On ...
* Julie Frost on writing the Eurovision winner with Gordon
* Susan Boyle and Pussycat Dolls songwriter Wayne Hector on writing ballads
* Hannah Robinson, songwriter for Ladyhawke and Annie, on taboo lyrics
* Rising songwriter Nicole Morier on writing with Britney Spears