Interview with JO PERRY, musical director for Stooshe (UK Top 5) - May 30, 2013
“Find someone you’re really passionate about. Write songs for that artist, develop it, and then shop it. That’s been the best and most successful route for me.”
Jo Perry has been a performer in a girl band and a professional songwriter for other artists, but it was when she created and developed her own band, Stooshe (UK Top 5), that she found her true calling and with it huge success; after signing to Warner, Stooshe’s first two singles have been Top Five UK hits and their debut album has just debuted inside the Top 10.
Perry now runs her own company developing acts and in this exclusive interview with HitQuarters, she reveals how bad experiences and disillusionment prompted the move away from writing to order and into creating music she was “really feeling”. She also explains why she chose a small indie publisher over a major, and offers some great advice and home truths on developing your skills as a songwriter.
What first inspired you to write songs rather than just perform them?
I used to stand in front of my elder brother’s stereo and practice by singing along to Mariah Carey and Lauryn Hill. I was really inspired by the harmonies and runs, or vocal ‘acrobatics’, as people call them.
And then when I was 12 or 13 I just started writing songs. I didn’t know what I was doing until I met somebody who had written stuff before and told me how to structure a song. Once I had that I just kept writing and writing.
I tried performance and it wasn’t for me. I’ve never really been a show off, so I found it really hard to perform and feel comfortable with it.
You originally performed as part of a girl group that attracted label and management interest. Why didn’t that work out?
Loads of reasons. I don’t think the songs were good enough. The label wasn’t sure about the vision and the direction. We let other people steer us in one direction and then when we decided we’d gone down the wrong path we didn’t really know how to handle it – because we were all 19 or whatever.
What was the name of the group?
It was called Smoke 2 Seven. Don’t check it out! [laughs]
After the group you took time out to work on your production skills and build your own studio. What made you decide to do that?
By the time we parted ways I’d realised that I was happiest in the studio and that’s where I wanted to be.
So I decided to try and learn how to use Logic, and went to the guys that we’d wrote some of the songs for Smoke 2 Seven with and said: “Do you mind if I sit in the studio with you?” So I sat next to the engineer and asked things like ‘How did you do that?’ and ‘What did you do there?’ And he taught me the basics of Logic.
After that I got some money together and bought a studio and set it up at home. I then started producing tracks and stuff from home.
What are the advantages for songwriters in learning how to record and produce their songs as well as write them?
It’s a huge advantage because you can be 100 per cent self-sufficient. If I’ve got an idea and it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, I can just go into my studio. It’s a lot harder when you’ve got to rely on other people to record.
I don’t really produce that much anymore because I’m lucky in that I get a lot of great tracks sent to me that are just so much better because I work with some really talented people. I can then go and record a song whenever I want with a really nice track that’s fully produced.
How would you advise a songwriter to start learning more about how to produce their music?
As a songwriter the most frustrating thing is hearing stuff in your head and not being able to get it out. So to be able play an instrument to a level where you can write songs on it really easily and be able to find the chord that you want to go to without having to try fifteen different ones is a massive benefit.
Secondly, I’d advise learning how to use Logic. I mean, you don’t have to learn it inside out. You don’t need to go to school to learn how to use it because a lot of it is common sense and they’ll just teach you the long ways of doing stuff when there are short cuts to a lot of things. If you can cut/copy/record/paste then that’s all a songwriter really needs.
How did you first get involved in writing songs professionally?
The producers (Gareth Young, Darren Terao, Morten Schjolin) we were working with on the girl band saw us when the girls were in the studio and said: “Do you want to come in and start writing on other stuff?” And I was like: “Yeah, I’d love to.”
But even then, rather than writing to a brief, I was only working on stuff that I was really passionate about. Sometimes I don’t agree with what an A&R is doing with an artist and so I would rather work on something that I feel is right for that person. I’m not always right so that’s why I like to develop my own stuff.
At that time did you have management or anyone else helping you with pitching songs and making contacts?
No, I didn’t. I’ve always followed my instinct, and I didn’t really feel like I’d met anyone that could do right by me, and no one well established enough to think, yeah, this is the thing.
But what I ended up doing was signing a really bad publishing deal, and that person was pitching songs to me. I knew I was never going to get anywhere with him but it was the only way I could survive and pay my bills and stay in the music industry.
I’d actually found a really good job earning great amounts of money but I gave it up after four months for a really crap publishing deal because I was so depressed going to work every day, wearing a suit, when all I wanted to do was music.
What advice would you give up and coming writers on how to approach the business? For example, if they’ve written a good batch of songs then what should be their next step?
If you’re able to write great songs on a piano or guitar that come across well then you should be able to send them to anyone and people will pick up on it.
I know myself, it may take me three or four weeks, but I will get around to listening to something, even if it’s only ten seconds – and a lot of A&Rs have said that to me as well. You just never know what’s out there, so you do have to give things a chance. You feel it within the first ten seconds of listening to it whether it’s going to be an amazing song or not. So if you write and you’re that good then you will get discovered.
But if it’s not working then the best thing to do is to find someone that you’re really passionate about and write songs for that artist, develop it, and then shop it. That’s been the best and most successful route for me.
How did you come to sign with Razor Boy Music Publishing and what convinced you that Fredrik Olsson was the right publisher for you?
I’d been negotiating a deal with Warner [Music Publishing] in New York for a long time. At that point I was managed by Danny D, who manages Stargate with Tim Blacksmith.
I was in a production company with my partner and Danny had heard about us and come down to show us an artist. I played him some of my stuff and he was very impressed with how diverse my writing was, so he took me to Warner in New York, as that’s where he was based.
But US deals are very different from UK deals, and a lot of commitment was expected; they wanted me to move over there and I’ve got children and stuff here and so was like: “I can’t commit to those kind of things. All I can do is commit time to do sessions and I can come out for trips, but I can’t live in New York right now.”
At the same time I was chatting to Fredrik (HQ interview) and he was saying: “When are you going to sign with me?” I said: “When are you going to offer me a deal? I’ve been negotiating a deal with Warner for nine months and it’s really doing my head in. So if we’re going to do this, let’s just bash it out over dinner.” And that’s exactly what happened. I flew to Sweden and met him and Anders [Bagge] (HQ interview). Anders showed me around all the ex-Murlyn studios and I was really blown away. I stayed for a couple of days and wrote a few songs with them.
By the end of those two days, we were basically negotiating the deal. We turned it around really quickly because we just knew that we’d work well together. I could have still signed this New York Warner deal but my gut was telling me that Fredrik was the person to go with. I just wanted a clean slate and to be in control. Fredrik came at the perfect time and both of us followed our gut. He gave a great deal to a writer who had nothing and no name. I have huge amounts of respect for him as he took a big risk with me.
Is that right that it was a Swedish manager named Mattias Røsmark that introduced you to Fredrik Olsson?
Yeah, that’s how he heard about me. I was working with Jason Gill, and I think Mattias mentioned me to Fredrik, and then Fredrik went: “Okay, I’ll try her out, let me talk with some of my producers.”
What are the advantages for a songwriter in being signed to a small indie publisher over a major?
A lot more attention and they’re a lot hungrier. Fredrik is hungry to make his publishing company do well. He’s on commission rather than a wage and so he knows the more he places for me the more money he’s going to earn himself. So he’ll be on my back. Whereas I think major publishers are very much like: “Let’s sign a million things and focus on the ones that are writing hits all of the time.” But even then hit makers can often be off the radar and left to their own devices as they are pulling in sessions themselves.
Sometimes you need developing by someone with a good set of ears. Rather than someone just saying: “That’s not a hit,” you want someone who can give you real feedback: “Okay, when the verse melody comes in it almost sounds almost like a harmony. Try taking it down a bit …” or “A rise in the second half of the chorus would make this a hit ...” etc. Someone who gives you really helpful advice that you understand. It’s kind of A&R for writers.
The advantages of being with a small publisher is you get more advice, more attention, and you get somebody who is really passionate about utilizing what time they have with you. Fredrik always has time for me.
Can you explain what your songwriter-publisher relationship actually involves?
This is why I really love Fredrik so much, because we can be really honest with each other. He’ll say that he’ll put me in this session and that session. And I can say when I’m not feeling a particular artist. It doesn’t matter to me whether someone’s huge – well unless it was Beyoncé when I would definitely be there – there are certain acts that I’ve been offered to work on and I’m like: “There’s no point me being in that session because I won’t be able to deliver on it, so it’s not going to make me or you look good.”
Fredrik would say how it’s a big priority, that it’s at this label, and this guy is on it. But I’d be like: “Yeah, but I’m not feeling it.” And he’d accept it.
I’m developing two other acts now and he’ll just tell me to get on with it and not that I need to do what he tells me. He trusts me to work on the right things.
With Stooshe, what made you want to create your own girl group rather than just write songs for various artists?
Because I’ve tried writing songs for artists and had a few bad experiences where they’d go: this lyric is not right, that lyric is not right, and we don’t like the demo singer. So I’d go into the studio, get a new singer in, re-record it and change everything, and then after all that they’d say it won’t get on the record anyway. And I’d be like: Why am I doing this?! Especially when I don’t like the changes I’m making.
I just felt like I wasn’t really getting anywhere quick enough. I admitted to myself that maybe I wasn’t the kind of writer that just can go in a room and write on any project. Maybe I’m the kind of writer that needs to work on stuff that I’m really feeling.
The thing with Stooshe is that it’s put me in a box as an R&B/Pop/Motown writer so I seem to be a ‘go to’ person for that. My other acts are so different: Ella Chi is leftfield and Only The Young are Country/Rock/Pop with hints of R&B. I like to be diverse but it’s up to me to prove I am with my own acts, as otherwise the industry will put you in a box.
What was your original concept behind Stooshe?
Well I thought, what would I want to do then? I’d want to put together a girl band; I’d create the urban Spice Girls, the soulful Spice Girls. I’m really into R&B pop soul; I love that vocal production, I love the ad-libs and stuff. If I can find a band that can do those things then I’m going to have so much fun working on it.
It was so much fun to go to work every day, it didn’t feel like work. That’s how writing songs should feel. It shouldn’t feel like a job or a chore to write, it should feel natural. I mean, me and Stooshe would sometimes spend a day doing harmonies on a chorus just because we could.
When you’re younger it can be exciting to be in situations where an A&R likes your song but needs to change this and change that. And you do everything you’re told because you just want a Beyoncé cut.
But then you start to get really disheartened when it doesn’t happen. After having done everything you’ve been told to do, you think the song’s great but they’re still like: No, it’s not quite right. It ends up really getting you down and then begins affecting your writing. You start feeling insecure and that you’re just not good enough.
I thought, I didn’t give up an amazing job earning loads of money to feel down. I do this because this is what I love and so I need to have fun doing it. When you listen to the Stooshe record you can tell how much fun we’ve had making that record.
How did you set about putting the group together?
My friend was a style advisor for Topshop, which a big clothes store over here, and her job is basically to personally shop for people. I told her that I didn’t want to put an ad in The Stage – which is a paper with ads for all the people who want to get into the creative industry – because I didn’t want people that want to be in the music industry, I wanted people that are stars but don’t even know it.
All week she’d be going up to people saying: “Can you sing or rap?” Yeah, a little bit. Okay, can you phone this person? Every single Wednesday for like nine months I auditioned like ten to fifteen girls. It took me nine months to find those three.
I just wanted stars, and I wanted to feel as that every member of the group was a solo artist in their own right and they all had their own thing.
What did you learn from the experience with Smoke 2 Seven that helped you in developing Stooshe?
It helped me to make them realise how important each other was, and that because they’ll be with each other 24/7, they needed to almost go beyond friendship and into a kind of sisterhood. The only thing I can’t control is their relationships with one another, so they need to focus on that and let me worry about everything else.
When I was in my band the other two would always argue and I was always the piggy in the middle, and so I wanted them to all be equal.
I told them that when they weren’t in the band they can go off and do their own thing, but when they’re together they have to remember that it’s a business. I kept instilling in their brain that no matter what we do and how great their team is around them, they’re the foundations of the project, and so if they start crumbling then the whole house will come down.
How did you manage to generate such a strong interest in a brand new act?
I didn’t go to anybody until I felt so confident in the project. So confident that I’d walk into meetings almost with an attitude of, I don’t care if you like it or not because I know it’s fucking amazing.
I’d spent so long finding them and developing it before I went anywhere, even before I took it to the producers, Future Cut. The girls were developing every day; doing routines in the studio, practicing on the mic, on their live performance in the studio, on their studio performance … So by the time I went to people, it was solid and it was good.
And because I’d kept the girls out of the industry, their attitude wasn’t one of desperation; it’s wasn’t: we really, really want to do this. It was like: we’ve been having a laugh in the studio for a year and had fun with it and this is what we’ve got. Sign us if you want to sign us and if you don’t think it’s right then don’t. I think that attitude attracted people.
I had also shot a video on the girls which had 100,000 views in a week. That was a great showcase without having to do one.
How did Warner get involved in the project?
Everyone knew about us in the industry. Darren [Lewis] and Tunde [Babalola], who are Future Cut, went to a Warner party and saw Christian [Tattersfield] and just said: “Can we show you this project?” And then he called me in the next day, heard the songs, said they were hits, and we got to the office the next day and literally turned the deal around in like three days.
You wrote all the songs together with Future Cut. How did you meet them initially?
I was working on another artist called Tanya Lacey, who’s signed to RCA, and she had a session with Future Cut that hadn’t gone very well.
So we wrote this song together that she then sang to the boys the next day but they weren’t really feeling it. When she told me I was like: What?! It’s amazing.
I really believed in it and so I took the backing track from Tanya Lacey to my studio and recorded the whole song and then sent it back to Future Cut. They said: “Oh we really like this song.” I said: “It’s the same song Tanya Lacey sang to you, it’s just been recorded properly!” And they asked me to come in for a meeting.
We got on really well, and I asked them if they had anything else because I was developing a group. I sat in their studio while they went through tracks and I was like: Can I take that one? Can I take that one? I ended up getting ten tracks from them and six of them are on the album.
What was the inspiration behind the second single ’Black Heart’ and how was it written?
The inspiration was my ex boyfriend, who was really bad news. He used to do a lot of bad stuff to other people. My dad absolutely hated him, they didn’t even make eye contact when they spoke to each other. He said he was a bloody monster. But I just told him: “I know he’s really messed up, but I love him. I can’t help it. I’m an idiot.”
I always said to my ex that if you can be so selfish, your heart is likely to be black. You just have no love in it at all, it’s like a shrivelled up raisin.
It was actually a joke between us.
So I started writing Black Heart over a track at Future Cut and it came so quickly. I didn’t really realise how good the song was until I was recording it in the vocal booth. When I then sent it to Stooshe, Karis [Anderson] phoned me up crying because she’d been through a really abusive relationship just before she was in the band and she was saying: “I’m in tears. This is the best song ever written.” And that’s when I knew: Okay, this is going to be a good song.
And then unfortunately Christian was like: We need to release this now, which was a wrong move. It means a lot to me that song and the guy that I wrote it about will know it’s about him, 100 per cent.
Stooshe have been an immediate success. What have been the key factors in their instant impact?
I think the key to the right product is a brand that is clear, concise and consistent unconsciously – and great music. I mean, an act ultimately does boil down to the songs. And you’ve got to have great songs that appeal to a wide audience.
Plus the girls are superstars. They’re amazing live; natural performers without any choreography.
Can you explain what your company The Qworks does and why you set it up?
I set it up to develop acts. Stooshe was the first one, and then I took on this solo artist called Ella Chi. And then met some really great producers through her that are very diverse.
So now I have in-house producers there. I have two new artists, and also Stooshe work out of there as well. I’ve got two studios running and also a PA system and mirrors up on the walls so that people can watch themselves perform. It’s a base to develop artists and acts basically.
Can you reveal anything about the new acts that you’re currently developing?
Only The Young are a mixed group – two white boys, two white girls. I wanted to create a sort of British Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift is like the biggest artist in the world, and I love the way she had fun with pop and still maintained a certain amount of credibility. So I wanted to find an act that I could write fun pop songs with but there still be an element of cool. Kids in the UK go from being 8 years old to 15 years old literally overnight, so it’s about creating something that appeals to young kids but that older kids still think is cool.
There are elements of the Beatles in OTY too. Myself and Tom, Dick and Harry are having real fun writing it. Personality wise they are crazier than Stooshe – if you can believe it.
Ella Chi has a million influences and a very epic sound– she’s really out there but her voice is very distinctive. She’s amazing live. I’m just trying to develop her and give her a more of a commercial base of pop songs and hone her in. Some of the stuff was a little bit too left of field and so I’m pulling her more into what will work on commercial radio. She’s such a great writer, some tracks I have just A&R’d.
She’s doing a single at the moment with Columbia, which should be coming out soon. It’s kind of happening too early for me, but she is definitely ready, even if I’m not.
What are your upcoming plans?
With Only The Young we’re nine or ten songs in. That’s happened really quickly because they’re really competent writers themselves. As three of the four members play instruments we can be writing like three songs at the same time when they’re in the studio.
The sound and direction is very clear, I wrote a song for them with Lindy Robbins and we were done in 45 minutes. I think it’s the quickest song I’ve ever written but then Lindy and I work so well together.
So what I usually do is sign people to me and then develop it and then get help when it’s ready. So I’m just negotiating co-management with CAN Associates. They do a lot of celebrities, and they’ve just took on this guy called John Black to do the music division part of it. They’re great with branding, merch, endorsements and those kind of things. They’re great at cutting out the middleman and earning more money for the act, which in turn earns more money for everybody else.
Will the release of ‘London with the Lights On’ – be an exciting moment for you?
Oh my god, yeah, I can’t wait. I’m so excited. A long time coming …
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Fredrik Olsson on why small publishers are best for young writers
* Why is Sweden such a strong force behind the scenes of modern pop?