Interview with FRANCESCO GALTIERI, songwriter for Il Divo, Mark Vincent, Altiyan Childs - May 28, 2011
“As an Australian songwriter no one could believe that I got a cut with Il Divo. That's what's great about working with Syco - it comes down to the song and how good it is for their project.”
The lifestyle may be very agreeable but being based in “out of the way” Sydney, Australia can put you at a disadvantage in terms of pursuing an international songwriting career. That’s why songwriter Francesco Galtieri’s already impressive coup of getting a song accepted by Syco Music head Simon Cowell for one of his premier acts, the operatic pop vocal group Il Divo (US & UK No.1), and recorded as the title track of their #1 album ‘The Promise’, seems that much more astonishing. What’s more Galtieri is a self-published, self-managed writer.
We talk to the Australian songwriter about Sweden and its melodic gifts offering a bridge into the western music world, what’s involved in managing your own songwriting career, and how Simon Cowell delivered on The Promise.
You began songwriting at a very early age. What was the point when you realised the art of song was your life?
It was in 1988 when I heard ‘The Look’ by Roxette on the Australian Top 40 programme, Video Hits. I wasn’t even in the room, I just heard the opening riff and thought, ‘What the hell is that?! That is brilliant!’ It lit a spark inside me, and from then on that was it.
Did you then undertake any musical training or songwriting classes?
Not at that time. I was 10. My father played guitar and so initially he taught me how to play and it progressed from there. Later I undertook music at high school and university.
It was a quite a musical family. My parents listened to a lot of music, and the ‘subconscious’ training came from listening to music of all different styles, everything from José Feliciano, Cat Stevens, Bee Gees to ABBA, Air Supply, AC/DC and The Beatles.
I think songwriting is something you’re born with. It’s a craft you can improve on and develop, but I would say ultimately that there has to be something innate.
Do you remember the very first song you wrote?
I was about 14 or 15 when I wrote my real first song. It was called 'You Took My Heart'. I spent nights writing with a guitar, and slowly progressed to piano and to then programming and eventually producing the full tracks.
Did you always see yourself primarily as a songwriter or did you have aspirations as a performing artist?
I have never ever wanted to be an artist. I have the worst singing voice in the world. It’s always purely been about songwriting - the craft, the skill and the reason one melodic phrase can grab you and make you feel so good!
How did you actually set about pursuing a songwriting career?
I studied music at school, and then I went to university and completed a triple major music degree. I thought I would spend my whole life trying to get a job at Sony - naively, that was my ultimate goal - but working in the studio at Sony Music was actually my first employment.
At first I was drawn more towards the production and audio engineering side of music, but fairly slowly I found that it was actually the songwriting itself that attracted me the most. So I made a plan to save all the cash I could to fund myself and keep that budget going even when I left my day job.
How did you come to leave Sony and make the move into professional songwriting?
I felt a real calling and felt uneasy every day that I wasn't pursuing what I truly loved in life, and so I made a decision and went with it.
I had been songwriting on various projects part-time since I left university, but I didn't feel that was good enough - I had to devote myself completely and focus all my energies. The first projects were catching up and finalising my own song ideas and demos that had been sitting around for a while.
What was your major breakthrough as a songwriter?
The first major breakthrough was probably writing the official track for PlayStation 2's launch in Australia as well as working with a few independent artists here in Australia. In terms of international success, it was definitely Il Divo.
How was the Il Divo song ‘La Promessa/The Promise’ written together with Jörgen Elofsson?
The song was written on opposite sides of the world with Jörgen in Stockholm, Sweden and myself in Sydney, Australia.
Jörgen had this great melodic idea and we went from there. I was given a topline melody with a very basic track, which I was asked to fill out with great lyrics. Because I have an understanding of melody - being that I primarily write both melody and lyric - I was able to make the words fit and ring true.
The words are in Italian. Although you’re an Australian you have an Italian background, so this obviously helped in the song composition?
I can write in Italian easily because of my upbringing, but it also felt very natural because of the style of music, which I relate to well. My mother was very much into the romantic style, plus I’m very much influenced by David Foster, Diane Warren (HQ interview) and Walter Afanasieff among many others, and so I knew what to go for.
Has the Italian influence affected your songwriting in any other ways?
That’s come in handy with my writing – it’s great for interpreting and translations, which I get many requests for. I’ve actually done the official Italian translation for ‘It Must Have Been Love’ by Roxette. That was a great thrill for me.
But understand that there’s writing song lyrics in Italian and then there’s your average speaking - they’re two entirely different things. Listening to Italian pop music, ‘Musica Leggera’, growing up definitely helped.
Can you detail how you actually tailored the writing of the song for Il Divo and how it then came to be chosen for recording?
From the onset the song was always intended for Il Divo. The lyrics were tailored specifically for them, with special words or musical phrases added that would relate to the essence of Il Divo. It was presented to Simon Cowell [at Syco], along with some other tracks, smack bang in the period when they were looking for new album tracks. Simon and the guys loved the song.
We then got news it was being recorded, which was great, but until you see the release in store, anything can happen, anything can go wrong, but fortunately this time it was meant to be. It ended up that they loved the title ‘La Promessa’ and it became the title track on ‘The Promise’.
What do you tap into for your songwriting inspiration?
Everything around me. For lyric ideas, I might hear or read a line or phrase and think 'There's a song!' I believe that songwriters have sensory receptors, and these floating ideas filter down to each of us. At times, I have melodies that present themselves in my head out of nowhere, almost like they are sent to you. Other times I'll be playing around on guitar and find a cool chord progression.
Then you develop the idea, and get to the technical craftsmanship of ‘no-this-doesn’t-work-there, I-need-to-change-this’, and basically you work off a gut instinct as well as skill.
Is there a ‘Francesco Galtieri method’ of composition?
Although I’m always trying to develop and change the way I write, I generally start with the melody. I've written complete songs in one go while driving or they can take months to finish. Of course it can depend on the specific project and the artist you’re writing for, and that's when you might approach the writing in a different way.
Do you have a preference for writing solo or with other writers, or artists?
I don’t mind either way - whatever is best for the song. If I’m writing on my own and get stuck, someone else can come along and add real value. Ultimately, I like working with other writers when they can take my idea to a new and better level.
I like to write for artists. That can present a bit of a challenge because many artists like to be involved with their songs, however, if I do write on my own, I’ve found that when you pitch for something, if they like it they’ll take it.
You work in a variety of genres ranging from power-pop to classical, Rock and electronic. How does the approach differ in writing a song in a more classical field than in say pop or rock?
Probably the biggest difference is the lyric. There are just certain words that lend themselves better to different styles, as with music phrasings. With the power-pop and bubblegum styles, which I absolutely adore, you can have more fun with the lyrics, such as with words that don’t really make sense together and phrases that you wouldn’t normally hear combined.
The instrumentation obviously makes a difference, but there is no rule against having guitars in classical or strings in power-pop. You can also make a classical track into a rock song if you want it to. I'm a huge fan of contemporary country music as well. Writing in the country genre is a favourite of mine - the songs have great stories and the drums and guitars always sound great.
In comparison to working with straight pop acts, is it easier to work with artists like Il Divo or Mark Vincent because you don’t have to keep up with the latest trends?
Yeah, in that sense definitely. But you do find that writers that work in the latest trends do still want to get on these classical albums, and the popera albums as well. Taking Il Divo as an example, in terms of physical sales and considering their market, they’re one of the biggest bands in the world.
Classical music will always be around and ballads are timeless. Having said that I am happy working with the latest trends as well. As long as there is a real melody with great structure so that I can actually consider it 'a song', and it’s not just one word repeated with 20 different effects over a beat.
You’ve written lyrics and composed music for the track ‘Lying In The Silence’, which was recorded by Australia's newest opera voice, Mark Vincent. How did that come about?
He won Australia’s Got Talent, and having worked with Sony in the past, I emailed the CEO of Sony Music Australia. I was put in touch with the A&R team and they loved the song.
I had the song ready - it wasn’t written specifically for Mark. I’d written it for my wife’s grandmother, who had passed away at the time, and I just felt that Mark would relate to it given that he had lost his grandfather. It deals with energy in the universe and a higher power that connects everything.
You’re currently writing with a Swedish team. Who are they and how did you come to start working together with them?
A few Swedish teams actually. One is a trio named Play Production. They are fantastic. It came about as the result of an organised writing trip to London and Stockholm. I met up with their publisher and we were put in contact. We have worked on few projects together.
As you said earlier, you’re original inspiration was the Swedish pop-rock band Roxette so, aside from Italian inspirations, the Swedish melodies must be a significant influence?
The Swedish element is what has heavily guided me. I would say that the Swedish melodies are what resonate with me the most, and many people who hear my work say I am 'super-melodic', which is a great compliment. Generally the Swedes are very successful with their melodies - from what I’ve read and heard, it goes back to the folk songs of the past – and you see that with ABBA, Roxette, and even Lady Gaga with RedOne (HQ interview). That’s pure pop and I call it ‘genius melody’. The intervals just ring so well, sound so true, and feel so right. It's that melody that stays with you, and can be instantly recalled even when the song is not playing. It's all in your head!
I was so emotional when I heard Britney’s ‘…Baby One More Time’ for the first time that I had to pull off the freeway. It was pop perfection, and I knew it was Swedish based somehow.
How do you find it pursuing a international songwriting career based in somewhere as “out of the way” as Australia?
As an Australian songwriter no one could believe that I got a cut with Il Divo. Even now there are publishers in Australia that are like, ‘How the hell did you do that?!’ That's what's great about working with Syco - it comes down to the song and how good it is for their project.
Geographically it can be difficult sometimes, but in this day and age, with technology and travel, I don't regard it as impossible. I don’t really have a local or worldwide publishing deal because I’ve self-funded myself for so long and become so familiar with the workings of it all that I just take care of that myself.
You don’t have a publisher?
I have sub publishers but I own all my publishing, under the label '3 Minute Art'. I license out my copyright or get a sub-publisher when need be.
How did you learn how to manage your own publishing?
I understand the business side of songwriting from reading lots of books and putting it into practice. Having done a degree which included music business and law also helps. I got graded a distinction for that class so I’m on top of that side of it.
Can you explain what’s involved, as a songwriter, in managing your own publishing?
Lots of time, research, paperwork, legal fees and negotiation!
What are some of the advantages and disadvantages for you?
The advantage is that you have a clearer picture as to what is happening with your property. You can get answers more quickly and, of course, you are able to negotiate better percentages.
The disadvantage is that you lose time on the creative side of things. You have to wear two hats, which is both good and bad.
How do you go about pitching songs?
There’s a few different ways: word of mouth, publishers/sources who email me with industry listings and then just by knowing the artists. I find the best way is to keep in touch with A&R departments all around the world. It can involve investigative work sometimes, and it sucks a lot of the time, but I do like the hunt and then the whole process when it pays off.
To present your material, MP3s are the way to go.
Would you consider signing a publishing deal in the future if the right opportunity came along?
Of course - if the right publisher came along then I’d be happy to negotiate.
Do you have the support of a manager or other representative?
No. I’ve had management offers, and I haven’t been happy with how they’ve turned out. So I just deal with it myself.
What is it you’ve not been happy with?
I just find it more efficient at the moment to handle it directly instead of having a 'middle man'. Having said that, I am open to management.
How does the Australian music business/songwriters scene differ from the US or Europe?
I would say there’s a big emphasis on bands and solo acoustic acts. You've got the solo singer-songwriters and the live band/pub scene. In terms of everything else, it’s all influenced and modelled on the US or UK markets. In face, on the pop side, many Australian artists have their tracks written by overseas writers from these markets.
How do you decide which songwriting sessions or camps to ones to go to?
If it fits in my schedule and I deem it worthwhile, I attend. I also check if there are other writers I can relate to and work with. I try to mix it up if I can.
How do you find the experience?
Sometimes they’re great - sometimes you leave with something that you’re absolutely happy with - but sometimes you feel that you’ve compromised a little bit too much, and you think that a track should have gone in a different direction.
All in all it’s great to collaborate, but I do very much enjoy writing on my own.
But in your line of work, it’s essential to collaborate?
I'd say for the most part it's essential to a point. Not everyone needs to collaborate to finish a song. Look at Diane Warren! Collaboration aids in the expansion of contacts as well as being a powerful force on the creative side.
How do you choose your projects?
Basically, I write all of the time. I write for myself for the craft of songwriting first and foremost, and I have a database of songs. I then apply those tracks to an artist that I think might suit them. For example, I’d written a power-pop track called ‘Goodbye Honey’ and I pitched it to a Swedish power-pop singer named Caroline Larsson and they loved it immediately. She’s currently #17 on the charts (Album charts/’Me And I’), and I believe it will be released as a radio single. I also like it when certain projects choose me.
How do you record your own demos – do you have your own studio?
Yes, I have my own studio. I record and produce everything in house, play all the instruments and bring it up to a level that demonstrates the idea of my song. If it then needs improvement, changes or development I make it happen. If I have to pay for instruments I can't play, I find great players or vocalists to add those elements.
Which artists are you currently working with?
As we talk, I have a hold with the current X Factor winner in Australia for their second album. I did have a couple of tracks on hold for Il Divo’s upcoming album but unfortunately it doesn’t look like they will be used this time around. They did love the tracks though.
I’m also working with a fantastic singer from Australia named John Stephan. He has a phenomenal world-class voice. We are long time collaborators as we have worked together musically since we were at school. We don't even need to communicate verbally when we're writing/recording, it's all via ESP! It was him that first introduced our abilities to Mr. Elofsson and we have all since jointly worked together on more material. Combined, we make a great team between the writing, singing and production.
Are there any artists you would like to work with?
In terms of stylistic influence on me, I’m a fan of true vocalists. So, for me, probably the pinnacle of an artist to work with or write for would be Céline Dion. I have so many perfect songs for her. There are many writers I would like to work with too - Steve Mac and Wayne Hector, for example, I think we have similar influences.
What advice would you give aspiring songwriters to pursue a professional career?
All I can say is that you really need to love what you do, even if it means carrying on another job you hate to support yourself. This industry is extremely competitive - it’s cutthroat, volatile and fickle, especially at the moment, with the power of home recording and independent releases. But if you really truly believe that you have what it takes, and have something to offer, then go for it! If you have that calling, like I felt I had, then follow it. Sometimes you happen to break through all of the pool of talent that there is.
How should songwriters approach the music industry and best showcase their material?
There are so many different ways to approach the industry. There are people who accidentally fall into writing songs for others and then there are those who pursue it for a lifetime. I would say work with your strengths and align yourself with people who appreciate your skill. In this industry you need to work well with the contacts you have, you need to work with people that you believe in and vice-versa.
There’s a lot of falsity, and a lot of relationship building that just falls apart, but it’s very important to be true to yourself and keep up the pursuit. For songwriters, I would say nothing else can showcase your material like a great audio demo.
What’s in store for the rest of the year?
I took 10 months off recently to help look after our first-born baby and in that time I stored in my brain and recorded to my phone a multitude of ideas, both lyrical and melodic, so I guess I'll be going back and finishing those off. I've also got a writing trip planned for the second half of the year. After I left Sony around 2006, it’s been full-time songwriting, pretty much day and night.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: Jason Flom on Jessie J, Black Veil Brides and the rebirth of Lava Records
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