Interview with HANNAH ROBINSON, songwriter for Ladyhawke, Christina Aguilera, Rachel Stevens, Annie, The Saturdays - Dec 21, 2009
“A true artist will have a clear idea of what they want to say and it's up to me to get on the page in a way that reflects their image and attitude”
In-demand songwriter Hannah Robinson has been behind some of the decade’s smartest, sharpest and most celebrated pop records, including Ladyhawke’s ‘My Delirium’ (Top 10 Australia & Top 40 UK), Rachel Stevens’ ‘Some Girls’ (Top 3 UK) and Annie’s ‘Chewing Gum’, sometimes with able assistance from pop production maestro Richard X. Teetering between alternative and mainstream, she has also written songs recorded by The Saturdays (UK Top 3), No Angels (No.1 GER), Sophie Ellis-Bextor (UK No.1) and Saint Etienne. Her position at the pop vanguard was recently confirmed by Christina Aguilera recording ‘My Delirium’ for her eagerly anticipated new record.
Robinson talks to HitQuarters about writing with Richard X, the anonymity of songwriters, fitting taboo subjects into lyrics, and is quizzed on how the sexually suggestive ‘Some Girls’ became a charity single.
In the interview we recently did with Richard X he said you had a lot of involvement with the Ladyhawke album but it isn’t obvious as you don’t get much recognition for what you do. Is that just part and parcel of being a songwriter?
Yes, I think it can be part and parcel of being a songwriter. In my case, when I started as a top-liner I didn't come from an interesting songwriting background. I didn’t have any past artist career or even any formal training - I just enjoyed writing and had a passion for it. If there was more of a story I might get recognised more.
Is the lack of recognition something that bothers you or are you happy staying out of the limelight?
I am more than happy to stay out of the limelight - I leave that side of it to the artists. Now and again I'll receive a heads up, and it's always appreciated. My main satisfaction comes from hearing my work on the radio.
So what actual involvement did you have with the Ladyhawke album – were you actually writing together with her?
‘My Delirium' and 'Dusk Til Dawn' were written on our first and only session together. Everything came together quite quickly. At the time Pip (Ladyhawke) had just landed off a flight from New Zealand and so was feeling insanely jetlagged. It was this simple concept that lead to the idea for 'My Delirium'. The lyrics for both tracks just came from brainstorming the ideas we had.
Is it restrictive writing for an artist that has their own distinctive image and attitude?
I always find this works best because then you get a sense of what the artist is about. A true artist will have a clear idea of what they want to say and it's up to me to get on the page in a way that they're happy with and that reflects their image and attitude. They have to feel comfortable and above all feel able to sing it like they mean it!
You’ve also recently written songs for Saint Etienne and Annie – is there a difference between writing for more alternative artists and more mainstream pop like The Saturdays and No Angels?
I didn't actually collaborate with Saint Etienne - 'Method of Modern Love' was a pre-existing track that they covered. I am a fan so was more than happy for them to cut the track. The same applies for 'No Angels'. I have a back catalogue of songs that are available, and they took a song called 'Misguided Heart'.
Richard and I mainly wrote specifically for Annie. We had a very clear idea from the start as to what Annie could and should do, and that resulted in the song 'Chewing Gum'.
I think the line dividing alternative and mainstream music is beginning to blur. We've seen some great and individual artists making it high into the charts this year - La Roux being a great example.
You’ve written several songs with Annie now, including three singles - why do you think it is you’ve built up a strong and successful relationship with her?
We were all on the same wavelength and had similar music tastes, so whether it was a collaboration or a song written specifically for her, Annie was always pleased with the outcome.
How does it normally work - do you write to order, or write your own pop ‘standards’ that you hand out to people?
I do a little bit of everything. But I mainly write alongside the artist. It's essential you get their ideas, personality and vocal on the track even at the demo stage.
Where do you find your own inspirations? Do you ever write from personal experiences?
Inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere! I find it more fun to write about other peoples lives rather than my own. I've been writing for years now, and 'myself' got boring a long time ago!
Would you say your songwriting affected by musical trends in any way, or do you find that the same themes are always relevant however much the music changes?
The themes remain the same just the language used to express these themes changes slightly over time.
It seems you write almost exclusively for female performers – is this through preference or just how you’re approached?
I have in the past mainly written for females yes - that's just how it’s happened. However, I've been working with predominantly male artists this year, and I've really enjoyed it.
That’s right, you’ve been working alongside Richard X with the Swedish group Sound of Arrows – has that been a successful experience so far?
It's too early to say, we've only written one track and I haven't yet heard the finished product. However, I really enjoyed the experience, they're lovely guys with a huge talent.
How did you originally get involved in songwriting? I would guess you have a background in singing judging from your appearances both on the Carl Cox track ‘Give Me Your Love’, and as a regular backing vocalist on many of your tracks …
My journey into songwriting was quite a long one. University brought me to London which was the start and as I said before I've had no music or vocal training so the only way at the time to find work was by answering adverts in the NME and Melody Maker for session singers. I vividly remember leaving Uni thinking, "Right, what do I wanna do!?"
Singing was the only thing I truly loved, so I thought I'd go for it. After countless disappointing and truly embarrassing auditions, I finally found some work covering songs and backing vocal work in Italy, this led to other backing vocal sessions in London for more established artists, working with different producers, and ultimately meeting my manager which finally led to me securing a publishing deal.
How did you first meet Richard X and start working together?
Richard’s publisher and my manager thought we'd hit it off ... We did.
What makes it such a successful partnership? As Richard seems to have very defined ethos about his music, is it that you share similar ideals about what makes great pop music?
We share very similar music tastes and tend to get obsessed by the same records, and I think, most importantly, we share a similar sense of humour.
I feel creatively uninhibited when I'm around him. When my ideas are decidedly average he isn't afraid to tell me and vice versa. We don't hold back.
Richard seems very happy to display his influences on his sleeve. Who are your own particular inspirations?
We both share a love of pop and pop culture, and we do tend to spend half of our sessions discussing the latest releases and videos before doing any work!
There are lots of great female top-liners, but none I think are as great as Cathy Dennis. She's a true inspiration. I don't think she's ever written anything I haven't enjoyed. Her melodies are infectious and she's mastered simple and effective like no other.
Can you explain how you and Richard collaborate together? For example, does Richard compose the music and you focus on the lyrics and melodies, or is it more intertwined than that?
It can slightly vary each time, but on the whole Rich does the track, I come up with melody ideas and we both work on lyrics. Some producers don't touch lyrics but Richard has great suggestions.
Do you record demos for your songs together and send these out to people?
Sometimes we do. The best example of this being 'Some Girls'. That song was written on our first ever session together. We clicked instantly.
What was the genesis of ‘Some Girls’?
Richard played me a few backing tracks that day and I loved that one instantly. I knew it had something. I don't think it would be appropriate for me to divulge too much info about this song, as its based on someone in particular and about a very specific subject!
We didn't have a performer in mind at the time as it was our first ever collaboration - we just wanted to write something we both liked and have fun with it.
As a song with rather sexually suggestive lyrics, didn’t you find it rather surprising that it was chosen as a Sport Relief charity single?
I was rather surprised, yes!
It’s a familiar aspect of pop songs in how casual listeners only hear a song on a surface level – they might sing the lyrics without not really knowing what they’re actually singing. Does this inform the way you write lyrics in any way? Do you use words for their sound, for instance?
I do choose words for their sound because the melody and lyrics combined have to capture their audience and feel natural. You know when lyrics feel right, they just fit. When you're singing along to a song it doesn't want to feel awkward or clumsy.
Even more importantly though, they need to mean something and have depth. Interesting imagery and use of language can grab the listener. I guess a combination of simplicity and complexity strikes the perfect balance.
How about subtexts – are consciously finding ways to sneak them into songs?
I will use subtexts where appropriate, usually where the subject matter is taboo and I want to get the message through in a subtle and indirect way.
One of my favourite examples of this method really working is Robert Palmers' 'Addicted To Love'. On the surface it would appear to be a song about a love affair, when allegedly it’s about a love of narcotics. Rumour has it the song was originally called 'Addicted to Drugs'.
As well as being huge commercial success, ‘Some Girls’ drew a flood of critical plaudits. Did it open doors for you and lead to more interesting offers?
You'd think it would and on a certain level it did, but if I'm being honest I get more interest and work offers through the more alternative artists I've had cuts with such as Ladyhawke and Annie. It begs the question, if we'd have had success with 'Chewing Gum' for instance with a more mainstream artist would it have had the same kudos?
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm currently working with Sound of Arrows, Sophie Ellis Bextor, Cock n Bull Kid and B-Uniques’ new signing Emil.
Interview by Barry Wheels
Next week: Interview with award-winning songwriter Dave Berg
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