Interview with PETE WILKINSON, manager and producer for Amy MacDonald and songwriter for Paolo Nutini - June 15, 2009
“It really was a guy with little experience and a girl with no experience, trying to conquer the world - and they had a bloody good shot at it!”
Amply demonstrating that talent and hard work alone still carry a major clout in the music industry are Amy MacDonald and Pete Wilkinson. MacDonald is the young Scottish singer-songwriter who has enjoyed phenomenal international chart success – No.1s in 8 different countries, and 2.6 million records sold and counting - and Wilkinson the songwriter and novice producer-manager who – with wife and songwriting partner Sarah Erasmus – has helped realise her enormous musical potential.
London-based Wilkinson talks to HitQuarters about discovering Amy and helping turn the unknown Glaswegian teen into a fully-fledged chart sensation, salivated over by the big four major labels. And for those hopeful artists inspired by their triumphant partnership, he also offers advice for future fledglings wanting to be taken under the wing of his and Erasmus’ Melodramatic Records.
How did you come to discover Amy MacDonald?
Sarah [Erasmus], my wife, and I are songwriters and we managed to get a small publishing deal with Warner Chappell that led to success with a young man called Kristian Leontiou. From that we worked with Paolo Nutini, and I very was lucky in that I wrote the title track, 'These Streets', with him.
So I was beginning to get a small profile in the industry, but more importantly I was 'in', and I'd always promised myself that if I ever got into the industry properly, I would try and do some serious damage.
It is incredibly hard to sustain a decent living as a songwriter unless you're a Bryan Higgins of this world. So I thought, if I find an artist that doesn't write then I'll write the album for them, and try and get a record deal and start a production company.
So I placed an ad in the NME and The Stage for a 'new record company' - as I thought people aren't going to understand the term 'production company' - and it said, “all singers and songwriters send in your demos”. Amazingly, I got 500 responses. Amy's view on that was because the ad was in colour – so the extra £30 for colour seemed to really work!
I went through these 500 demos with a friend one night – we started at around 11pm and finished, quite drunk and exhausted, at 7am the next morning. Out of those we got 20 we thought were quite interesting. We wrote to them all and invited them to come to a rehearsal room. Then throughout that day I was thinking, this isn't working, they're not very good - shouldn't I be at home writing songs? And then Amy marched in.
What was your first reaction?
My friend, who was playing 'Miss Moneypenny' ' for the day, said, “This is Amy, She's 17, she's flown down for the day from Glasgow with her parents.” I thought, my god she's wasting her money and I'm wasting mine! I was feeling quite guilty. Then she sang two songs, which were 'This is the Life' and 'Mr Rock and Roll', and I was literally aghast.
I said, “Amy, who wrote those songs?” And she said, “I did.” I said, “No, you didn't,” giggling, hoping she really did. She said, “I bloody well did!” I told her she was extraordinarily talented, and the moment she sang those songs I remembered her voice and the hooks, which out of 500 was a very good sign. She appeared to have these hit songs and was almost ready to go. I very quickly re-evaluated my status in all of this - obviously I'd set up the production company and my intention was to be the producer if anything happened, but in terms of songwriting I wasn't needed at all.
So what steps did you take next?
We went up to Glasgow a few weeks later to see her play live, sat down with her parents and explained who we weren't, instead of who we were. Fortunately they had heard of Paolo Nutini, and they'd heard of Kristian Leontiou, so we had this frank conversation about what I was trying to achieve with their daughter.
We spent about 8 or 9 months recording demos in the bedroom studio at home. We played a couple of songs to my publisher Warner Chappell and they went absolutely nuts.
Within a day I had a call from Warner Brothers records, saying they would offer on the project the next day. So at that point my lawyer, Kieran Jay, and I instantly decided to start getting the music out there quickly and ‘press the button’ so to speak. I went for a few meetings with the contacts I did have - one of which happened to be Jason Iley at Mercury - but within a week of that meeting we had offers from all four major labels.
We could have easily had nine or ten offers if we had pursued more, but we knew that the people we were talking to were the right people. So we negotiated, and signed to Mercury/Vertigo. We were very fortunate – or canny – in that we signed to the managing director and the head of A&R. So understanding a little bit about business, I knew we weren't going to be left in the corridors somewhere or forgotten about. I knew Amy would be a priority.
And the rest is history. We made the album in a little studio called Soho Studios. And here we are now three years later with 2.6m albums sold - kind of astonishing really. It really was a guy with little experience and a girl with no experience trying to conquer the world, and they had a bloody good shot at it!
Was the album recording an easy going experience?
As my first experience of producing a whole album it was a pretty terrifying experience. But as Amy and I just had a total rapport from the moment we met, and our love of music was very equal with bands and sounds that we liked.
The moment I started laying down piano and drums underneath her guitar and vocals we both just found ourselves nodding at each other every step along the way.
The rapport between you two was clearly important to the success you achieved. Do you think then that you would have been able to take someone to the next level who was equally talented but not so well matched?
Being the eternal optimist I am, I would have given it a good go. Now having been a manager and producer for the last three years, I think if we didn’t have an extraordinary relationship it would have ended the day after it started.
But we instantly hit it off. As soon as she walked in the room we sort of gave each other a cheeky smile and she felt like my little sister. Then when I met her parents her mum whispered to me privately, “She really likes you Pete”, and I said, “Well I really like her - she's a great kid”. So we're very lucky – our relationship is mainly based on a love of music obviously, but also bad humour, comedy, singing awful songs on tour buses and things like that.
As well as producing her music, as her manager did you help shape her image and public profile?
Very little, For example, I took Amy to a rehearsal room a few times on her own, and put her in front of a microphone getting her to say hello and goodbye and all of that. One day, I actually took a camcorder and simulated a CDUK interview, which I thought she would hate me forever more for doing, but she took it in really good spirits.
The moment she spoke into the camera and answered the questions, I remembered again how extraordinarily intelligent she was, and that she would never be stuck for an answer. She's got bags of personality, and plenty of opinions, so I really wasn’t worried.
We did a photo shoot and things like that to take round to record companies. The golden rule that I stuck to was the three best songs, a batch of good photos, and a biography. And again, the biography wasn't that difficult to write, and it was a fairytale story of “girl sits at home, girl picks up dad's guitar and appears to be a genius”. And suddenly she had every label in town running after her.
Was there a conscious decision to present her with a band behind rather as a solo performer?
I thought fairly early on that if I present Amy without a band, we may give the impression that if it's just going to be her and her guitar forever more, then does the world really need another Eva Cassidy?
So we got a band together, actually acquiring members from previous projects I’d worked on and worked the band around Amy.
You say one of the first things you did was putting her down in front of a camcorder – how early on was that?
Before I left permanently to be a songwriter, which was I think 2004, I was at Vodafone. I managed to have this awful duel-life of writing songs every night and every day at the weekend, and also managing this rather stressful sales and business-development-based career at Vodafone, which I didn't really want to do for the rest of m life.
I desperately wanted to make a living out of music, but it wasn't forthcoming, but because of my experience with Vodafone and various other businesses I had worked at before, I knew from day one this was a business plan - a project that we were to take very seriously. So I sat Amy down and went through how the industry worked, how publishing worked, what distribution meant, how people end up going from obscurity to being number one, the difference between album and single sales, and all of that – so she was really prepared when she started doing things like international showcases or showcases for MTV etc. She had a good feel for why we were doing all that stuff. I was just very open and honest with her and always am.
So how did you actually secure the deal with Vertigo?
I'd had the meeting with Jason Iley to offer my services as a songwriter, because I didn't really know him at all, and my one contact at Mercury had left by then. And to his credit, Jason was prepared to see me, which I now understand was a very kind thing to do because he is the president of a very large record company, and gave up an hour to meet these part-time, two-bit songwriters from Surrey who claimed they were going to take over the world.
And it just so happens it was the day before Warner Chappell had passed the demo on to Warner Bros, who had said we're in if you're interested. So I obviously mentioned it to Jason at the end of the meeting and I sent him the tracks on email, and within ten minutes he was on the phone salivating, saying, “Pete, she's unbelievable. Bring her in”.
And so Amy and I put on a showcase for everybody at the Bedford. Nobody could make it other than Nettwerk Management - as I was in no way intending to be Amy’s manager, as I didn't have the experience and wanted to focus on writing and producing. Anyway, their spies got straight back to Peter Leak (read the HitQuarters interview with Peter here) in LA – Dido's manager at the time – to say this girl has got it. I’d also contacted Peter directly the week before not knowing if he’d even take my call. That obviously helped, but what I had to do was take Amy round to all of these offices with her guitar, just like in the old days, and Amy sat there and sang the songs to them. They were all blown away and instantly interested. I think they could hear the songs on the radio just as I could.
As regards your role as Amy’s manager, how involved are you with her on a day-to-day basis?
First and foremost we are a total partnership, with Sarah as co-manager as well, and therefore we don't tell Amy what to do. What we do is constantly discuss and consider, and take considered decisions as a team.
And so on a day-to-day basis we probably do more than most managers. It’s a pretty non-stop job, and Sarah and I like to be at as many shows/events as possible, so there's almost certainly one of us at most events. And again, that's because we see she is a young lady that needs the support network around her and we want to make the whole experience as pleasant as possible rather than saying, “There's the tour bus, see you in six months.”
So I don't see the word 'manager' as hierarchical in this scenario. I'm here to manage Amy’s business affairs, but ultimately she's the boss. So she knows what she wants and what she doesn't want, and she knows when people are lying to her within two seconds. I'm very honest and so is she, and that's why it's worked. We've been painfully honest and stuck very close. We've tried to remain calm, we've had our moments but have quickly made up, and we crack on. It's a very stressful business.
Is that the general Melodramatic Records approach?
I would say, but Melodramatic doesn't have any other artists with major labels at the moment. I'm in the process of presenting two acts to labels at the moment, so I'm very hopeful that will soon change. We're not in the financial or structural position to put out records ourselves - I really see myself as a middle man between artists that want help and development – be it production or songwriting and getting them to a business stage of securing a deal.
Is it fair to say you'd keep an ear out for any type of music as long as it had a little crossover appeal?
Real music is important to me - if I think the magical X-factor is there somewhere then I'm kind of interested. And I think a good combination is obviously the skill of the musician/singer or writer, but also crucial to me is the right sort of person. There is no time in this busy business for egos, particularly before anything has happened.
I've met an awful lot of young singers, some of whom are outstanding and great people, and some of them who come in the house, and within an hour you think, “Please leave my house.” Some of these kids think they're gonna be the next Beatles and that's it. I tend to try and weed out the egos and the troublesome people.
I work out the people who are serious about it, who understand it is not easy and that very few artists get a record deal. And also, they have to understand it takes time. When they're young and enthusiastic, they want to do it tomorrow, which is difficult.
Apart from having to explain that success won't be – if it comes at all – an overnight thing, what else do you find you have to explain to artists?
I think having been that kid myself who was sending off demos and starting bands, I understand how heartbreaking it can be, and how emotionally attached you are to it if you're a real artist. So the biggest thing to me is helping them understand the psychology and emotion of what we're trying to achieve, and that if it doesn't work it's not the end of the world, and there's no need to jump off a cliff.
Looking at your MySpace page there appear to be a lot of approaches from young artists – is there an approach you favour, or are you just happy with the CD in the post?
That's my favourite approach - a CD in the post. There's an address on the Melodramatic website. We're always looking for new talent - a CD, a photo preferably, and that that's kind of it. We don't need biogs and all of that because it's as brutal for me listening to a demo as it was for Amy MacDonald meeting all these labels. You stick the CD in, and within 60 seconds you heart is racing or it's not – simple as that really.
And I suppose you listen to every one do you, just in case?
Absolutely! I've heard of people making those mistakes before. I have a friend who will have to remain nameless, who has been a manager in the business for many years, and he can count the number of demos he's got in the garage of bands that are now famous, that he didn't get round to listening to, or didn't get back to, and one or two of them are extraordinarily well known, so I regularly tease him about that! [laughs]
Interview by Bill Code
Next week: Publisher Roger Murrah lays down some home truths about cutting it as a songwriter in Nashville
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