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Interview with SACHA SKARBEK, songwriter for James Blunt, Carrie Underwood, Jason Mraz - Jul 13, 2009

“When we finished writing [‘You’re Beautiful’] we looked at each other and went, ‘Wow, actually that’s pretty good.’ But we certainly didn’t think, ‘There’s our big hit!’”

picture With two Ivor Novello awards, a Grammy nomination, and songwriting credits for Jason Mraz (US Top 5 & UK Top 10), Duffy (UK No.1 & US Top 5) and James Blunt (US & UK No.1) – not least a co-writer credit for international megahit ‘You’re Beautiful’ - under his belt, songwriter Sacha Skarbek cuts an impressive figure in the industry.

London-based Skarbek sat down with HitQuarters to talk about the mechanics of collaborative songwriting, the difficulties of writing in the country music style, and the genesis of ‘You’re Beautiful’.

You’ve recently been in the songwriting hub of Nashville working with Carrie Underwood. Was it easy for you as a Brit to adapt to what is a very American style of music?

Lyrically it wasn’t the easiest thing, and I still struggle with it. I think on the one side not being a part of that scene gives you a more universal approach on what you write when you’re there, but having said that you also don’t necessarily understand what the people that listen to country music want to hear, and what their every day lives are like and what affects them.

But the great beauty of writing songs is writing one that moves somebody from Nashville to Japan to Australia to where ever it may be.

As a Nashville outsider, why do you think you were chosen to write for Carrie?

I think they were looking for a different influence. It was an exciting session - I worked with a very talented Nashville writer (Ashley Gorley) on it. So it’s myself, Ashley, and then Carrie. And you have to get to know each other fairly quickly.

Can you walk us through what would happen at a typical writing session?

As a writer on it, you would usually try to prepare some ideas - you don’t want to go in there empty handed. Then you just throw a few of these ideas out there and see whether any of them are getting liked or not.

In this case, we only had two days, but we managed to write three songs. That comes from being prepared, but also how much you’re prepared to be flexible - you have to be able to move with your ideas, you cannot have them set in stone.

If they love your chorus, OK great but the majority of the time that isn’t the case - you’ll be there and going, “OK, that’s great, but that’s not so good.” And then between you, you’re all trying to refine it. Sometimes you get to a thing whereby you say, “Shit, we have to scrap this. We’re not going anywhere. Take a 10 minute break.” And then come back in and say, “OK, how about this idea?”

As someone that has worked a lot in collaboration, not only with artists but other top songwriters – including Greg Wells (read the HitQuarters interview with Greg here), Kara Dioguardi and Craig Wiseman - do you prefer writing together than solo?

I enjoy both processes. When you get the opportunity to write with another great songwriter and things work there’s nothing more exciting. You feed off each other’s energy. You’re quite synchronized - it becomes almost like a dance. I recently worked with Jason Mraz, and the speed in which he was able to come up with lyrics and the way his mind works was a really refreshing and interesting experience for me, and I found that I learned an enormous amount from sessions like that.

But it doesn’t always work. I have a couple of very close friends that are very successful songwriters, but for some reason the chemistry never seems to work in the songwriting department.

How for example do you write with Craig Wiseman?

With someone like Craig, he’s Nashville through and through, and in a Nashville way, you don’t sit in a studio, you sit in the office. And with him I developed a friendship and chemistry so we could write in his office, or we could sit in his car or we could go and sit in a park or anywhere, because we’re so happy together, we understand and know each other’s fortes.

One of the other things about it that is really key when you’re in those situations is honesty. I’m fortunate enough to work with these incredibly successful and talented songwriters, but you can’t be intimidated by that. You have to be as honest as you can when you’re writing a song and leave all your egos and stuff at home.

James Blunt has said that you gave him his education in the art of songcraft - what important lessons in songwriting do you think James picked up from you?

When James and I first started working together although he had enormous potential - a great ability with lyrics and turn of phrase - he didn’t necessarily have all the songcraft - the understanding of how arrangements work or of how hooks are important and how they work. So not just the technical side but also in how to get your message across - when to make things simple and when to allow a little bit more imagery. I think that was what I was able to offer him at that stage.

How did you first come to work with James Blunt?

I met James in 2002 – two years before he had a record deal - through my publishing company. The assistant that was working for us who had gone to school with James introduced me to him.

At that time James was still in the army. So we found a bit of time in between his duties to start co-writing a bit together and I helped him to set up a band and get things moving. And then when I was working on a record out in Los Angeles he came out to work with myself and another guy. And slowly we developed it and started knocking songs into shape and writing new songs - one of those was ‘You’re Beautiful’.

How was the song written? Was it as simple as, for example, Blunt writing the lyrics and you the melody and chords, or more intertwined than that?

In this instance, he came in first with the title and with the approach of the chorus. What we did then was one of those fortunate and relatively painless songwriting things where we sat down and I had some chords and ideas for the verse, and from there he pretty quickly adjusted what he had in his melodic idea.

We then put down the verse, and the chorus managed to just literally slip in behind it really effortlessly. And I think that’s due to James being very prepared with that specific idea that he wanted to do, but also his ability to move and not be too rigid with it. So when we move stuff around and try to pinpoint a hook, he was very good at being able to adapt to that.

The majority of my contribution was the music side of it with elements of melody where we were just honing what would be the right one, and sticking to a couple of key hooks rather than making it too complicated.

When it was complete was it one of those instances where you immediately heard a hit?

No, we didn’t think that – partly because at that time stylistically singer/songwriters were fairly out of vogue. When we finished writing it we looked at each other and went, “Wow, actually that’s pretty good.” And we felt it was quite smooth and we were almost thinking, “Are we being a bit lazy here?” But we both went, “No, no … That’s it. It’s cool.” We certainly didn’t think, “Oh, here we are. There’s our big hit!”

What do you think it is about the song that has touched so many people?

I think the lyric that James had with it. It’s a very simple lyric, but it has two or three different meanings to it. Although there’s a slightly dark element to the song, on a whole it’s quite a sweet pop song.

Also its honesty as well. It’s the way it was delivered by James and the song itself – a very straight up honest song. With all great songs I think, that’s a key part of it - I think that’s what stands out.

As you clearly work so well in collaboration, are you able to define what it is you bring to a composition? Is there a Sacha Skarbek style?

I think one thing that I do find very important in when I’m writing with artists is allowing the artist to speak and to breathe. So I think it’s key being able to allow the artist to come out within the song, but at the same time you have to try and use your experience to steer the ship in the right direction. Make sure that you’re writing a song that encompasses what the artist is, but that also has the potential to be a successful song, a successful copyright.

Do you stick to basic song structures like verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus?

No, no, no. The arrangements and structures are there actually to help you out so that you don’t get too confused while your creative mind is working. But if you can run without it and you just let things naturally go, that’s the ultimate.

With regards to your musical background, how did you find your own style as a songwriter?

I think it takes a while to find your own style and your own approach to songwriting. Certainly for me – I came from a classical background, and then went into jazz, and I found my way through different genres of music. I think they all overlap with each other, but you eventually use little bits from each genre, and then put it all together in a melting pot.

How did you approach the business with your songs in the beginning?

I came from a session musician background. I then set up a small publishing company with Alan Edwards - who runs The Outside Organisation - and another guy called Dave Woolf. I started to work on my own songs but then also started to sign acts and work with acts that I thought were good and develop them. That was probably the start of my songwriting career. I also still played in a few bands and went from being the MD of the band to then also becoming a bit of a co-writer with some of the artists.

How did you take that leap to a professional level?

All songwriters to begin with are struggling in some way, and you work away and work away and then hopefully one day you get that break and that can lead you into the next stage of things.

What would you consider your break as a songwriter?

I had a No.2 hit (‘Body to Body’) in this country (UK) (and a No.1 in a few countries) with an artist called Samantha Mumba. That was pretty unexpected. As a songwriter you write lots and lots of songs and it’s not always the ones that you think of as your best bits of work that become the successful ones.

You’ve not let your success as a songwriter overshadow your work in developing acts, which you still actively pursue under the Deamon Productions banner. Why are you so committed to this aspect of your career?

Pretty much from day one with the starting of that publishing company, I’ve always been interested in developing acts.

In the current state of the industry, I think it’s very hard for artists to be developed at an early stage, bridging the gap between coming out of your bedroom, and grabbing people’s attention and fulfilling this potential. If you’re going to try to get a record deal now you’re pretty much delivering a finished product to a label. Far too often, the seed is taken out of the ground too early. It’s not been given that chance to ripen.

What I like to do, and what I’m interested in, is bridging that gap - allowing artists to try and fulfil some of that potential to see whether they can stack up to the next mark.

If you’re going to try and create something new and innovative and exciting, sometimes it doesn’t work straight away - it needs to be bred, it needs to be nurtured a little bit. Plant the seed, water it, and slowly watch it grow. And I think there’s enough of that going on, and so for me I find that a very important part of my career.

What would be your advice to an aspiring songwriter wanting to reach a professional level?

It changes depending on just my mood of how good my days have been or not. Sometimes it’s like, “Dear God, don’t do it!” And in other times it’s a wonderful thing being a songwriter …

When starting out, it’s one of those instances where you have to listen to advice and people’s criticisms in order to hone your own craft. You have to begin to understand, “OK, why is it not working? Why is it not getting the response I’m looking for here?” But equally music is a very subjective thing, so you can get too bogged down in trying to tick too many boxes and trying to please too many people.

I think the key for me would be to find a few people that you trust. I come from a relatively large family that were all into music. So I’m quite lucky, I can go to my sister and say, “What do you think of this?” And she can be quite rude back for me and go “That’s crap,” or “Now I quite like it.” I play things to my wife and brother, and I have a few professional people that I can play it to.

That is when your publisher can come into it. And I think if you can surround yourself with a team of people that you trust, and then you can respond to their feedback, and you can respond in a positive way and in a pro-active way.

As songwriter with the experience of having set up their own publishing company, would you recommend this to a writer?

I think that depends on their situation. If you are relatively self-contained, I think yes. If you need help with exposing your songs and pushing them, an experienced publisher may be of use.

Outside of the studio you’re also a keen mountain climber – have you discovered any similarities between mountaineering and songwriting?

[laughs] I think that the mountain climbing is a great journey. It’s no quick fix - it’s a long journey that teaches you to push yourself both in a physical and mental capacity. Songwriting doesn’t have the physical side of it, but it’s definitely has the mental side - you need confidence, you need to have ability, you need to have your skills. And it’s a rollercoaster - things don’t always go well. You’re always learning to adapt to your terrain. You’re going to adapt when you’re in songwriting sessions and in the mountains. You’ve got to adapt to failure, you’ve got to adapt to success.

What will be your next challenge in the mountains?

Touch wood, we’re about to have a child, so I think my mountain climbing is off the agenda for the next year or so. But I was very lucky to do a ski-tour called The Haute Route, which is a sort of Alpine thing and one of the last things I did in April. And then when I get back in, I’ve got a mountain I want to climb in Patagonia.

And in the studio?

I’m very excited about some of the developmental acts that I’ve been working on. I’m working with a young Russian girl from St. Petersburg called Sasha Ryabinina, and she’s very exciting. And another girl called Mimi Love. I’ve been working with my brother Stefan on a band called Double O Zero, and they’re about to have a release out in the States.

I love the bigger artist stuff, but I have to say that the ones that I get really excited about, because I feel like I nourished it and brought it along, are the developed ones.

Interview by Kimbel Bouwman

Next week: The Professional Demo Review panel tune their critical ears into three new pop tracks

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