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Q&A on songwriting camps with LEO CHANTZARAS, songwriter at BMG - Aug 1, 2011

“Co-writing is how it works in the songwriter’s world. It’s hard to find a song released these days written just by one writer.”

picture What’s better than one great songwriter? Two great songwriters!

It’s all about the co-write in the world of professional songwriting. So how better to produce some top quality songs than by bringing together an array of top quality writers from around the world for an intense burst of co-writing? If all goes well the result should be an impressive assortment of new songs to pitch, and what’s more the writers will have improved their craft through writing with other talents, and also broadened their contact network. That’s the idea behind the songwriting camp and the reason camps are an important event on the calendar of any professional songwriter.

To mark the founding of the new Black Rock Songwriter Camp, which is now accepting applications for its first event in October, we ask founder, BMI songwriter Leo “Freakchild” Chantzaras, about what’s actually happening at Black Rock and, in the process, learn more about songwriting camps and their significance.

What are the main advantages for a writer in attending a songwriting camp?

First of all they get to write with a wide variety of people in a short space of time, something that would otherwise involve a lot of travelling combined with much higher costs. They can also make new contacts for future writes.

With our camp in particular, they get a strong pitcher for the songs they’ve written at the camp, besides their publisher, manager or themselves – namely us. We don’t want any share on that, it’s just an extra service we offer.

You are inviting 25 writers from the UK, US, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Germany to your new Black Rock Songwriter Camp. Why these specific countries?

These are the main spots when it comes to internationally successful songs. I don’t mean there are no great writers coming from Spain, Greece or Bulgaria, for example, it’s just that in the last 15 years hits coming out of these particular countries made it really big all over the world.

Just look at the biggest writers and producers right now - people like RedOne (HQ interview) from Sweden, Stargate from Norway, DEEKAY from Denmark and then all the high-class writers from the US and the UK.

Another phenomenon is that the further south you go, to places like Greece, Italy etc., the less co-written songs you find. I’m Greek and I’ve checked with other Greek hit writers and it just seems they never co-write. They might use a lyricist but that’s it. Writers from the countries chosen are always co-writing.

Can you explain how you choose which songwriters to invite to the camp?

I try to choose writers that are highly professional, know their craft and have had international releases. To have a camp with a high quality you need to have writers that have proven they can do it.

But that doesn’t mean we’re not inviting new writers/producers too. With some it might be immediately obvious they are top notch in what they do, and although they might not have broken yet it’s just a matter of time before they do. I simply judge them from what I hear.

Of course some of the high-class people we have that have won Grammys and Ivor Novello awards don’t need to be judged by myself - they have proven themselves enough.

What makes an ideal camp participant?

An ideal participant is someone who respects other writers, someone who’s able to connect with people. There’s no point having someone come here thinking they’re a big shot that knows more than anyone else. Big hits or not, they can still be wrong.

You need to be open and be able to take a criticism, such as when your idea isn’t good enough. Of course, it’s much easier with people that have attended camps in the past and have experienced a lot of co-writing situations. Such people are not difficult to find as co-writing is just how it works in the songwriter’s world. It’s hard to find a song released these days written just by one writer.

There’ll obviously be many songwriters at Black Rock that will have never met before. As a good rapport between writers is key to a successful co-write session, do you do anything to encourage the writers to start building relationships with one another or just leave them to it?

I usually leave them to it, simply because it’s all professionals and they really don’t need someone like me telling them who to connect with. Of course we’re gonna have a meet and greet moment at the camp and everybody will be given information on each of the other writers, but other than that it‘s just mature people that can do this on their own.

The Black Rock camp is situated in the idyllic surroundings of the Greek island of Santorini. What is the advantage of this kind of working location rather than, say, a studio in downtown New York?

Just have a look at the location and you have the answer right away! It’s located on one of the most beautiful islands in the world, a place where you see the ocean from the vocal booth. I mean, how much more inspiration can you get?!

Of course, you can have a great vibe in New York too, but if you take a break in New York you sit in the studio and have a coffee or you go to the food place next door. Here you go outside and the ocean is there in front of you, and all around you everything is quiet.

Can you tell us what will actually happen over the week in terms of the scheduling of the day’s activities both in the studio and out?

The camp starts with the arrival day on the 16th of October. This will be the meet and greet and introduction day. Then we have the five days of writing. The day starts at 10:00am and ends at 20:00pm, with a lunch break at a beautiful tavern close to the studio sometime in between. Of course, if some writers are in the mood they can write the whole day.

There will be three groups with four people and four groups with three writers every day. After the sessions we have different options, either to go outside or stay in the studio location - because actually the whole studio is also a residence with a playroom and nice chill out areas. Plus we have arranged to go for a dinner at a high-class restaurant.

Are there any guidelines for the songs being written? For instance, will the writers be composing for certain artists or publishers, with their own subject, stylistic requirements etc.?

We will have briefs from around the world and probably some A&Rs attending. But if a team wants to write for whoever then they are free to that.

Can you just give us an idea of the kind of details a brief would contain? Would this be much like one of our leads at SongQuarters where you specify genre type, tempo, and suggested soundalikes?

Yeah, it will be kind of like what you are doing with SongQuarters. We will talk to our worldwide A&R network and ask them to give us their recent briefs. Plus we plan to have A&Rs at the camp to talk about their recent projects, whether in person or through a Skype call talking directly to the writers.

Is there any kind of song assessment? For example, at the end of the day do you all listen to the songs that have been composed and offer feedback?

Yeah, we might do that but keep it for the last day of the camp.

What actually happens to the songs once they have been written?

Once the songs are written it’s up to the producers attending to finish the demos. When that is done I will ask for copies to start pitching the tunes.

How are the producers chosen - are they included as part of the 25 invited?

We will have producers invited too - they will be part of the 25 people invited. They will be all high-class guys with a fantastic sound. Usually in camps like this those guys will either bring tracks with them or start from scratch at the camp. And then they finish the demos off when they get back to their place.

What for you would make this songwriter camp a successful one?

First of all I want everybody to have a good time, secondly, I want great songs out of the camp, and then finally I want everybody to get back home with a feeling that this is something worth doing again. I’m sure we can achieve that because it’s really all well planned and ready to go.

In terms of your own experience, what was your own first songwriter camp and how did that come about?

My first songwriter camp was a Universal Publishing camp in Germany. It was a great experience for me and I had a few cuts from songs written there, so I can really recommend writing camps. I was invited because my partner back then was with Universal.

What’s been a particular highlight of your involvement with songwriter camps?

My highlights have been numerous. One is that I’ve got to work with great people who I have written songs I used to listen too. Then of course getting songs placed was a highlight too. And last but not least, I really don’t want to miss out on the great conversations you have at the camps. You meet great people and sometimes even make friends for life.

Finally, how can songwriters get in touch to find out more about the Black Rock Songwriter Camp?

If they are on Facebook they can go here and ask to be added to the closed group. Other than that anybody can send Leo an email with the subject “Black Rock”.

interviewed by Barry Wheels

Read On ...

* Leo Chantzaras on needing more than good songs to break through
* Danish songwriter John Gordon on his experiences at songwriter camps
* What's involved in starting your own publishing company
* Leo Chantzaras presents a blog on the realities of being a professional songwriter