Interview with CHRIS BRAIDE, songwriter for Pixie Lott, Clay Aiken, Diana Vickers, JLS - Aug 30, 2010
“I hate it when writers sit in a room and say, ‘Right, I have a scenario - I’m in a bar and my girlfriend has just left me.’”
Having achieved renown in the UK as a top drawer songwriter-producer, collecting credits for an enviable array of No.1 artists including Cheryl Cole (UK No.1), Kylie Minogue (UK No.1), JLS (UK No.1), and Westlife (UK No.1), Ivor Novello and ASCAP-winner Chris Braide is now decamping to LA to devote more of his talents to the US market, and capitalise on kudos he earlier garnered by penning Clay Aiken (USA No.1) mammoth sellers ‘This Is The Night‘ and ‘Invisible‘.
On the eve of his westward expansion, HitQuarters talks to Braide about his first break in the USA, creating meaningful songs for pop reality shows, recent writing sessions with Diana Vickers, JLS and Pixie Lott, and career beginnings that saw a homeless 16-year-old taken in by future collaborator and songwriting legend Cathy Dennis.
You’re currently in the process of moving to Los Angeles. Are you heading over there to devote more of your talents to American artists?
Absolutely. And to do the same job as I do here [in the UK]. Use all my contacts here, but just spread my wings a little bit.
Was it prompted by anything in particular?
I don’t know, really - just a feeling of wanting to expand. I was signed as an artist at Atlantic in the late 90s, and I always had a great time there when I was on tour in those old artist days. I always loved America, and I think my music has always felt a bit more ... international.
What is it L.A. has to offer you as a songwriter-producer?
Well, there’s some fantastic people there. I have an American manager [Tim McDaniel], who’s one of the best managers in the business - he manages John Shanks, Rick Nowels, Billy Steinberg …
I’ve been in the business since 1990 professionally, and that’s twenty odd years beavering away in the UK. So I’m 35, it just feels like a good time to do this.
You’re relatively unusual for a British songwriter in having achieved considerable success in the USA, how did you first get your break over there?
I was signed to East West Records here as an artist, and then Atlantic Records saw a show I did here and vice-president Craig Kallman signed me in New York. So I started going there and toured America with Jewel and people like that. So, then it was like, I really like this place. And people always seem really receptive.
Then I had a big hit with Clay Aiken called ‘This Is The Night’, it was #1 American Idol, and it was followed up then by a song called ‘Invisible’, which was a huge record on American radio. It all started to happen from there really, late 90s/early 2000.
As someone that’s established a very successful songwriting career, aside from songwriting talent, what characteristics do you think are important in pursuing a career as a songwriter?
I’ve heard a lot of people along the way say, “I really fancy doing what you do.” They’re talented, but they haven’t got that … You have to be a worker, you have to be passionate, and you have to be prepared for serious disappointment, on a daily basis almost.
I’ve seen things absolutely bombing the charts, and I think, there’s no way that should have bombed, that’s one of the best songs I’ve written. And then other things that you didn’t think much of go to #1.
Be prepared to absolutely knuckle down - maybe you get a shortcut occasionally, but it doesn’t last.
What was it that first inspired you to start writing songs?
It was always a natural thing. All the artists I loved when I was a kid - Lennon/McCartney, Difford and Tilbrook from Squeeze, Andy Partridge from XTC, all those great English songwriters - all wrote their own songs and had a style. I’ve never thought about it - I’ve always just sat at a keyboard and started playing chords and singing melodies.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
Yeah, the first proper song was called ‘Funny Five Minutes’, and I wrote it with my brother when I was about 14. It actually ended up on a record that I made, which Mick Hucknall produced. I still like it actually - it’s got a sort of charm about it, a naïve charm.
When was it you decided to pursue a career as a songwriter for other artists?
When I decided not to be an artist anymore really. Because my record release at East West didn’t take off like I’d hoped.
I remember being at Mercury Records with Steve Lillywhite - this was my attempt to get a third record deal, and I’m 28 and still up for it - and he wanted to sign me, but then said something along the lines of, “Let’s just keep writing for a few months and get some more songs together.” And I remember saying to him in his office, “Do you know what? I had enough of this! I’m not going to be writing any more songs. Either put that out or shove it!”
I thought, it’s a bit of a headache this, because I’d made really great records but nothing happened with them because of bad management or whatever. It’s hard to keep going back and trying to better the records. I decided I loved being in the studio more than being on the road.
What didn’t you like about non-studio side of being an artist?
I never loved the whole “on the road/being away from home/sitting in a hotel room in Oslo alone doing a phoner talking about your favourite colour” part of it. Although I do love getting on stage - I do it with Trevor Horn now in this outfit we’ve got called Oz.
While producing my solo album Dave Stewart said to me, “It’s great this, isn’t it?” I was like, “This is amazing!” And then he said, “But when the record is finished, then it gets hard.”
One of my heroes, Paddy McAloon from Prefab Sprout, makes records in his home studio, and he’s got about five albums that have never been released. And when one journalist said to him, “Why do you keep making albums and then never put them out?” he said, “Because the legwork involved with actually flogging it to the public is just so hard.” [laughs]
So when you started on your new career path, did you start out by sending out songs to various A&R, making use of contacts you’d built up as a solo artist?
Yeah, all the time. In fact, ‘Funny Five Minutes’ was covered by Sarah Brightman and that was the first thing that ever happened and gave me an idea that the songs that I was writing for myself as an artist were commercial and had something universal about them. You can’t imagine people covering XTC songs because they’re so avant-garde and strange, but my songwriting has always been quite direct. It’s not subversive or odd, they’re just classic pop songs.
How would you advise a young songwriter to achieve that first rung on the ladder - say, if I’d written a few really good songs that I want other artists to sing, then what should I do next?
I had someone do work experience for me recently and he asked me, “What do I have to do to get to your level?” I said, “How many songs have you written?” He said, “Four.” And I told him, “If you go for a meeting and play those four songs and they hate them all, what are you going to play then?” You’ve just got to keep writing! And don’t be arrogant. Don’t think you’ve written your best things because you never have.
As a songwriter, what would you say your own career breakthrough was?
I think my career breakthrough was getting my first publishing deal at Zomba when I was 16 because that opened up the world to me.
I come from a small town in the middle of nowhere, near Liverpool, and music was literally just an acoustic guitar in a shitty old working men’s club. You know, age 15, singing Frankie Goes to Hollywood covers [laughs].
The deal with Zomba - leaving home, buying a second hand car and driving to London - was the beginning really. The first place I ever lived in London was actually at Cathy Dennis’ house. She’s one of my best friends and really helped me, because we were both signed to Polydor as artists, and I was literally sleeping on any old floor I could find, and she asked me, “Where are you living?” And I said, “Nowhere.” And she said, “Well, I’ve got a spare room and you can stay there as long as you want.” I’ll never forget that.
Writing ‘Anything Is Possible’ for the winner of the first UK Pop Idol was quite a coup. How did the opportunity come about?
Simon Fuller was putting Pop Idol together and he loved ‘Have You Ever’, the song that Cathy and I wrote for S Club 7 that had been a big hit, and ‘Say Goodbye’, their final single.
Considering I’m not managed by him, Simon has always been very supportive of me. He said to Cathy and I, “Look, I can’t think of anyone better to write this first song than you two. Have a go and see what you come up with.”
“We sat in Cathy Dennis’ house and wrote it at her baby grand piano in her front room, and recorded it on a little Dictaphone. We played it to Simon and he loved it. I remember Cathy calling me and saying, “You won’t believe this, but that little song that we wrote in three hours is selling 100,000 copies a day.”
How do you even begin to write a song that is potentially a Pop Idol ‘winning song’ - were you both thinking we need to compose a song that somehow manages to be both triumphant for the winner and inspiring for everyone else?
Yeah, exactly. Like you say it was triumphant, and big and emotional, but I always try to make songs work outside of whatever they’re written for.
The American Idol song, ‘This Is The Night’ is a good example of that. It was written after 9/11, and there’s a line in it, “Every kiss is a kiss/you can never get back”, and it’s about saying, to whoever you love out there, just appreciate them. So it works on different levels, but it worked great for that show because obviously ... the winner, the night …
I do enjoy writing songs to a brief. If someone says to me, “We need an advert for a bank. Write a song about a bank.” I can do it, but I don’t love those songs as much as the ones that I’ve written from the heart.
For me the difference between ‘Anything Is Possible’ and ‘This Is The Night’ is that ‘Anything Is Possible’ was written as an assignment - we did it because we’re professional. ‘This Is The Night’ was written from the heart. It was a beautiful song that Simon [Fuller] heard and said, “This is perfect for that!”
You’ve also been working together with Cathy recently in writing with Pixie Lott …
Yeah, we’ve just written three songs for her new album … or the repackage.
How do you approach a session with a singer/songwriter?
It depends really. The three of us just sat in a room and I just start a track – I start from a beat or play some chords. Cathy and Pixie really like to have a track to start writing melodies over the top, and then the lyrics - and build it like that.
It’s different for everybody really. I just wrote and produced two tracks for JLS’ new album, and two of the guys came in to write. Rather than start from scratch with three people in a room, I just try to get a skeleton of a song together before they arrive to be certain we have something to get our teeth into.
So I had a skeleton of a song together with gaps and missing lyrics and things, but essentially the vibe and idea were there. They really liked it fortunately. If they’d hated it then it would have been a different story. And it was easy; I started at 10 o’clock Saturday morning and at 19:00 we’d done it, finished, and it’s on the album.
A superb recent track by yourself is Diana Vickers’ ‘The Boy Who Murdered Love’. Can you talk us through how that track was written and recorded?
A similar way actually. I’d got a skeleton of a track I’d started in the morning and already had the “Shot, shot, shot, shot, shot like a bullet” idea and the title. I’d literally had the title lying around for years. There was a song I’d always loved by ABC called ‘The Night You Murdered Love’. I always felt that was a fantastic title for a song. I suppose it was inspired by that, even though I don’t think I was consciously thinking of the ABC song.
I remember lying in bed thinking, Diana is coming in and they need a single. I felt the “Shot, like a bullet” thing was a great hook, and then I thought I could use “Shot, shot, shot, shot, shot, like a bullet/You’re the boy who murdered love”. That works perfectly. She loved it and totally got into the spirit of it, and helped finish the lyric off. We’d sometimes bounce ideas back and forth, and it was all kind of quite theatrical, you know, “And the roses change from red to black.”
Do you find it easier writing together with the artist because in getting to know them you have more things to work from?
I like writing with the artist because it’s more interesting. I like writing with other songwriters, but then it’s a bit like, “Who we’re doing this for? What’s this for? None of us are artists here!”
Once you’ve got the artist in the room it’s like you can make the record as you go. I never do demos, I always produce tracks as if they’re going to be on the record. It’s a different mentality. As a kid, when I had 4 and 8-track machines, I’d always tried to make them sound like records. So, when you got the artist in, you’re halfway there - you’ve got the voice on the track. As soon as the voice is on the track I say, “Aha! I can see this now.”
Also, with somebody like JLS or Diana or whoever, you can write in a more interesting way. I could never write ‘The Boy Who Murdered Love’ with another songwriter and pitch it for lots of artists because it’s too obscure, too strange. When the artist is there and they’re a bit quirky then it’s more fun. It’s like, “Let’s write a song about flying swans.”
If I was trying to write a single for a new girl group or a boy band that I don’t know a great deal about, what would be a good place to start? For example, for the girls, would something sassy and streetwise be a safe bet?
I’ve written stuff for The Saturdays and each time the songs have been quite classy and acousticy. I wrote the title track ‘Chasing Lights’ on the first album, and one of the reviews said, “This is the stand out track because it doesn’t sound like the rest of the record.” [laughs] I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but they were saying it sounds more adult and more acoustic and compared it to Natalie Imbruglia.
Everything I do I just try and make it have some sort of substance, so it lasts, so it’s not just a throwaway thing. I always want to look back in ten years and go, “That still sounds great.”
For the up and coming songwriter, would listening to what’s big in the charts at the moment be helpful?
Absolutely. Somebody once told me, “Never stop listening to the radio. Once you stop being plugged in, you lose touch.” Even though I don’t actually go out and buy new records, I’m searching all the time. I see things on iTunes and Spotify, read magazines - I’ve got the radio on constantly in the car when I’m driving somewhere. Even though I might be just flicking constantly, you need to absorb it.
What things should I not be doing when writing to pitch - for example, should I avoid too much minor key melancholy?
I don’t think so! I love melancholy. My first album is called ‘Life in a Minor Key’, so that should explain that [laughs]. I mean, some people would say that a lot of my style is in the A-tree, but it’s not downbeat. Melancholy can be epic.
I just did a track with these two new guys signed to Atlantic called Domino Go!, and it’s all minor key, but really epic and it makes you feel good. It’s called ‘Legendary’, and it’s going to be huge.
If I’m pitching a demo to labels then regardless of type of artist or style, is it always wise to stick to your basic guitar-vocal or piano-vocal in order to get the song across most effectively?
Unfortunately not. All the time I think, that’s a piano-vocal and it’s really strong, but unfortunately it’s getting harder and harder to present things in a simple way now. They almost have to be mixed and mastered at Abbey Road for people to even think about doing it. It’s a crazy situation because a song is a song, and if it’s a great song it can be produced any way, but unfortunately people need it on a plate now. It’s a bad habit we’ve all gone into.
If you are writing for artists and are searching for inspiration, where do you tap into? Do you draw on experiences and feelings from your own life?
When you lived for 35 years, you’ve had a bit of experience of love and disappointment and happiness [laughs], so I definitely draw on real things now. Particularly when I’m doing my own stuff, it’s all about real things, and I like to get it off my chest that way, and I always encourage artists to write like that, even if you’re 18. You must have been heartbroken, so use it!
I hate it when writers sit in a room and say, “Right, I have a scenario - I’m in a bar and my girlfriend has just left me.” I cannot write like that. You made it up and it’s just nonsense. Let’s write about something real. It’s always better, it’s always more emotional, and emotion is the one thing that a song needs, whether it’s happy, sad or whatever, otherwise it won’t work.
Is it right that you are involved in the writing for Cheryl Cole’s upcoming album?
I wrote a song on ‘3 Words’ called ‘Don’t Talk About This Love’, and that’s a very emotional song. She said to me, “I really relate to this.” And I don’t know if it had something to do with her personal situation at the time, but …
So how did Cheryl come to hear and then record the song?
I got a phone call from her A&R guy at Polydor, and he said they’d heard this song I’d written with Nikola [Rachelle] Bedingfield, Natasha’s sister.
Nikola was trying to be an artist but it didn’t work out, and so she knocked it on the head. But all these songs she’d written with me were still lying around, and one of the labels was Polydor. They’d heard Nikola’s song, thought it was fantastic, and remembered it, and called me and said, “Look, I really want to do ‘Don’t Talk About This Love’ with Cheryl. Can she come down and stick a vocal on it?” So Cheryl came down to my studio.
Not to be corny, but it just almost sounded like Cheryl had written it, and that was because she really related to it lyrically.
How do your projects usually come about?
My wife, Olivia, runs my day to day in the UK , the diary is constantly being filled up with interesting things. Tim McDaniel is my manager, and we've been working together since February. Mel Redmond and Janice Brock at my publisher Sony ATV are incredibly supportive. All in all I am very lucky to have a great team and because I’ve been writing and producing for twenty-odd years now, I’ve started to get a reputation – especially in the UK. People know they can trust me, they know I’m not going to turn in a piece of old crap. Some songs are better than others, but I’ll always deliver.
What other artists have you been working with and are you due to work with?
Domino Go! is the most recent one - they’re an Atlantic band. I’m working with Sarah Harding next week from Girls Aloud and that’s really exciting. She could be really big.
I’ve also been doing this strange little project with Trevor Horn, which is so odd and off the wall, but a lot of fun. It’s very like a very old school album.
I’ve also just written and produced an album of my own stuff, but under the pseudonym Hello Leo. That’s really exciting and I’ve got quite a lot of people interested in it. It’s a synth pop album, and the whole concept is that it’s meant to sound like it was made in 1980, because all the bands that influenced me like Buggles, New Musik, M, Graham Parker, Sparks, Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys … all those one guy at mic and one guy at synth duos. I just thought I’m going to do my own.
When will you be setting up camp in LA?
I’m just finalising my visa now, so it should be end of September/beginning of October, fingers crossed.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: The songwriter spotlight trio concludes with 'Evacuate The Dancefloor' songwriter Allan Eshuijs
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