Interview with STEVE BOOKER, songwriter and producer for Duffy, Alexandra Burke, Nadine Coyle, Alesha Dixon - Mar 8, 2010
“I decided to get much more involved in the production side of things. I thought that was probably the strongest way of making sure your songs got cut.”
Roles as a folk rock singer-songwriter, a Nashville songsmith and a top-liner ‘gun for hire’ in LA gave Steve Booker the experience and finely-honed skills needed to establish himself as one of the UK pop’s most successful and in-demand producer-songwriters. Having garnered awards for his work with soul pop megastar Duffy, Booker has gone on to work with Alexandra Burke, Alesha Dixon and, most recently, Girls Aloud’s Nadine Coyle on her eagerly awaited debut.
In this interview Booker talks to HitQuarters about the creative process behind Duffy’s ‘Mercy’ and Alexandra Burke’s ‘You Broke My Heart’, his long road to the hit parade, and how a call from Simon Cowell can turn a song upside down.
Would you say there was a breakthrough that established yourself as a songwriter?
It’s got to be Duffy, hasn’t it? I was living in Los Angeles for about seven years until I came back and met Duffy. Over there I was existing by writing country music and working in Los Angeles, but more top-lining than actual proper songwriting.
Duffy was unknown at the time so how did you two get together?
I met her completely by chance. She bought the flat I was renting here [in London] when I was living in Los Angeles. I was angry to hear that somebody was buying it. She came around when I wasn’t there and saw my girlfriend and they got chatting and she was like, “Oh, I’ve finished my album …” and my girlfriend said, “Steve has been doing Jack Savoretti,” and said, “Oh, I love that!” The next thing we had a little appointment.
When she first walked in and put a couple of things on - ‘Warwick Avenue’ and another song - it was pretty obvious she was world class.
You say she had already completed the album when you two started working together on ‘Mercy’ and ‘Stepping Stone’?
Everyone tells me now that ‘Rockferry’ was pretty much done, but I don’t think Duffy felt that way. She’s very intuitive, and I think she was the one person who knew she was missing that big song.
What was it that inspired the decision to go for a classic 60s soul sound in an effort to get that big song?
What happens with me is that I like to interpret people when they first walk in, and then we sit and talk for a while. And you don’t have to be around Duffy very long to get a 60s vibe from her.
How did you begin working on the songs together – did she have some lyrics ready waiting?
The way that she works is she has all these ideas you can hear her singing around the house and in the shower. Other times she sits in a chair and just looks at the ground and says, “I’ve got these,” and she sings about five or six different starts. It was like suggesting directions that we could go.
We did ‘Stepping Stone’ first. With that she wanted us to first to do it completely Supremes and up-tempo, because she was desperate for an up-tempo song and I thought that was the one. But the next day she came in and said, “No, let’s do it in a different way.”
And then we thought, “Okay, what other ideas have we got? Is this the up-tempo we’re looking for?”
With ‘Mercy’, in my mind all I had is a picture of ‘Ready Steady Go!’, the 60s show, all black and white. I wanted them out in a club and all of a sudden this song starts and it all goes black and white, and then everyone goes crazy to this 60s song, and then it all go back to normal again afterwards.
I had that picture and I was trying to sing something - one of her ideas - that could go in that direction. I don’t remember really what happened in the next two or three hours apart from just bashing away on everything.
When you are writing together do you spend any time discussing the lyrics and the themes of the songs?
We didn’t talk much about what the songs were about. Maybe we talked about the personal side of ‘Stepping Stone’ a bit. She’s very open about these things. With ‘Mercy’, it was pretty obvious what that was about. It was a personal experience and you can’t mess with that stuff. Girls have to write that - I don’t try and pretend to write for a twenty-year-old girl.
Going back to the start of your career, what do you think was key in finding your own musical vocabulary as a singer-songwriter and then professional songwriter?
It all came about very strangely. I was a bass player in a few bands and every time they had success the singers would go a bit nutty. So, I decided to become a singer myself.
I shut myself away for two years and didn’t listen to any music at all. I taught myself to sing and to play and bought a little tape recorder. I don’t really know where the songwriting came from at all. Every line was made from free little thoughts about something that had just happened to me that day.
I never really had any influences, although I was completely crazy about Robbie Robertson and records that U2 were making. I loved those things but in the actual songwriting it was extremely personal to the point where I don’t think anyone understood what those songs were about.
But things developed. By the time I got working with Keith [Reid] that’s when I started collaborating. But I didn’t collaborate at all for the first album (‘Dreamworld’). And then I went to Nashville to start writing the second album (‘A Far Cry From Here’) and fell in love with co-writing.
At this point were you still set on writing songs for yourself or wanting to move towards writing for other people?
I was writing for myself, but I was also enjoying the idea of being a songwriter. I was writing songs that the people that I was writing with thought were going to be for me, while at the same time I was trying to get into what they were doing.
As you were US-based and wanting to write for other artists, was your songwriting adapting to American genres?
I think things were landing sort of mid-Atlantic, some pretty strange hybrid songs that weren’t much use to anybody.
Was there a turning point in finding your feet as writer for other artists?
On Stevie Nicks’ last record she did a thing with Natalie Maines (‘Too Far From Texas’) and that got me to a point where I knew where I was. Rather than straight country, it was a slightly rockier thing. I thought, why don’t I go to Los Angeles and where I would be surrounded by really good people and know what to write for.
I was writing top-line for the Lindsay Lohans as a ‘Gun For Hire’. It took me about three or four years to actually work out what I had to offer, which was actually me not trying to be American.
When you eventually returned to the UK, you took another career turn by taking on production responsibilities …
Once I got back here I got a studio and decided to get much more involved in the production side of things. I thought that was probably the strongest way of making sure your songs got cut.
So you now have your own studio in London?
Yes. I had a writing room here for about five years, but now I’ve taken on a unit, another place next door and the live rooms. I work here with a guy called Jon Kelly, an amazing engineer and producer who made my first album and we’ve been friends ever since. He did Kate Bush and Paul McCartney and The Beautiful South.
You said earlier that you fell in love with co-writing but since becoming a producer is that something you don’t do so much anymore?
Not so much. Although I was just on the phone with Wayne Hector (read the HitQuarters interview with Hector here) - I worked with him yesterday and that was a pleasure. We had a couple of days and worked together with Pixie Lott. We had a little bit of time to ourselves as well just to jam around some ideas. It was great - I could do with three or four great top-liners that I can call on.
Last year with Alexandra Burke and Westlife, I didn’t really have any songs so I was just cutting songs that I’ve written with other artists that hadn’t worked out. I didn’t actually have any songs on a label apart from my old catalogue from America.
There aren’t many Wayne Hectors around unfortunately. He said, “Please come back and do some more.” I don’t write songs to pitch very much. It’s nearly all artists.
So as someone that now mainly writes alongside the artist you’re not setting out to write classic hits that could be performed by almost anyone, but instead you’re writing for the artist?
If I’m in a situation where Wayne [Hector] walks in and it was just the two of us, then I’m sure we would try and write a hit. But I haven’t done sat down with a songwriter and tried to write a hit to get covered for about a year. I’m much more inspired when I got the actual person sitting in front of me, whether they can write or not.
As someone who has now been well recognised by the music industry – winning a ASCAP Writers Award and Ivor Novello award for 2009 - what do you think your name on a songwriting credit now represents?
I would really like to think that it stands for cool hits [laughs]. It never used to be. When I first came into writing songs for the people that would suit Natalie Imbruglia, I was always writing the weird song on the album. But now I’ve got a real hankering for trying to write great songs on the official radio for cool artists.
What do you think it is you bring from your own songwriting background to a song?
Experience. And I like to bring the unusual to the lyric. Because I’m getting more known as a producer, a lot of the time these days, I’m more of a fixer than a songwriter. I don’t sit with two acoustic guitars and write a song very often.
I’d just get something started and then turn around later and say, “Well, look. I don’t think that section works.”
I like to think I help the artist write when, maybe, they didn’t know they could or they didn’t know how well they could write. I try and fill in all the gaps. If they don’t write lyrics, I’ll write the lyrics and then of course they get a very unique song because I bring this new book of lyrics in [laughs].
How do your projects usually come about?
Amazingly, at the moment people just call up and say, “We have somebody we would like to come down and play you,” or somebody might talk to me about another artist that they like as well and I might have a look into that. I don’t usually go after things, I wait for people to come along. I suppose I know more people than I realise.
One recent project is ’You Broke My Heart’, a cut for Alexandra Burke’s debut album ‘Overcome’. Can you guide us through the creation of the song?
I wrote that with Niara Scarlett and Pixie [Lott], and it was one of those things where I hadn’t met either of them before and they just popped ‘round. While they were all having a cup of tea and chatting outside in the kitchen - and Pixie’s mum was here too - I thought, “Well, I’ll just get started then.” [laughs]
I did all the music before we got started because otherwise they would have walked in and we all would have been talking about it and discussing.
I did the track completely within half an hour to an hour while we were all there, and then we also jammed around.
I tried to leave them to it. Niara is a really good writer, and so I left her with Pixie to come up with the girl content. And then I kept on listening out and saying annoyingly, “How about a bit of this?” So, we got through it, but then Simon Cowell got involved [laughs].
The song was actually originally called something else, it was quite different by the time we finished it with Pixie. Then Simon wanted to change it. He didn’t think it paid off very well. He rang up and said, “I think you should call it ‘You Broke My Heart’,” and then I made that the pay off. And by that time, after two months of working on it, I thought, “Okay I’m going to make that work.” And a couple of days later I gave it back and everyone was happy.
So A&R and managers do sometimes give directions on how they want their artists’ songs to turn out?
Yeah, they do, but I’ve got to say I’m pretty much left alone - definitely to start with, and definitely since ‘Mercy’. People want to see what I’m going to come up with.
I’ll have a meeting and say, “What’s the brief?” and then they all say, “Let’s see what you do.”
I worked with a young guy recently and we came up with some fantastic things and the label were all excited. They then came down to play me the other stuff they were cutting to make sure that with future songs I knew what it’s going to be fitting in with.
It’s been reported that you’ve been helping Nadine Coyle with her debut solo work - what have you been working on?
We’ve actually already done some stuff. She came in with a lot of stuff on GarageBand that she had been doing out in LA. I was hoping to get out there for a couple of weeks and go into the studio, but I couldn’t go.
So, finally we had a week here and she had a lot of starts on GarageBand that were great. She was singing her songs to loops, and then I took the loops out and rewrote the music from scratch to her ideas. And then I had a couple of other songs that I tried her on.
We’ve been talking about having some proper time to actually write properly and I’m sure we do that later on this year.
What kind of sounds can we expect to hear?
With her starts, they were very pop, and I liked them a lot. We had a lot of fun with those.
Because she’s got such a belting voice, I tried a couple of things where she could really belt. They were mainly a little bit retro but I think by the time we spend some more time working on them I think it’ll probably develop into something else and I’m not quite sure what it’s going to be yet.
What's she like to work with?
She’s absolutely fantastic. She’s lovely.
How about Alesha Dixon, another girl group singer that’s now forging a solo career?
Yeah, Alesha is great - another lovely girl. Talented as well, really driven. She was here when all that nasty stuff was going on over here with Strictly [Come Dancing] and the press were a little bit mean about her, but she’s a lot stronger than she looks.
We worked on the first album on a track and the next time she came in on a track (‘Shake’) that I’d done with Paloma Faith. That was really a great track, but Paloma’s people thought it didn’t work for her. Alesha had her eye on that song for quite a while and so I said to the Paloma people that Alesha might be interested they were quite happy. Now we’re just discussing starting work on the next record.
Are you settled back now in the UK working with British artists and do you have hopes or plans to work with US artists?
I want to start things up in the US. There are a couple of things that came through this week. I did a Noisettes thing and that was for an American label.
I have my head down here working so much that I couldn’t really care that much about America, but there are some great artists and I’m starting to realise I need to start calling up and saying, “Excuse me, I would quite like to do that.” I’ve got to see if anyone answers my phone calls or not [laughs].
What would be your advice for upcoming producers in how to present themselves and take that next step to a professional level?
Well, I think it’s all to do with hard work. There’s two different kinds of people in the business, aren’t there? There are the people who are the go-getters and there are the people who just have the talent and just keep their heads down and just do it until it happens.
I remember years ago, a famous manager guy said to me, “Obviously, you’re going just work hard until it just happens or you’re going to die poor.”
I think you hear some great music that has come from people who have just kept their heads down and just work incredibly hard. And within Logic you can develop a sound where you don’t need to do anything else.
I did Duffy’s record on my laptop. It was only after I’ve got paid for her record I could afford to buy a proper computer really. I used to heave my laptop backwards and forwards between here and America.
Your music is your demos and then one day your demos are called records. It’s a very fine line.
Are young upcoming producers banging your door?
No, not really. A few people enquire on MySpace, but I don’t know any more than anyone else. Generally speaking, I think we’re all in the same boat and there is no reason why anyone can’t do exactly the same. But people have to remember it’s about the song. It’s always about the song.
What’s your secret for that successful song?
You just have to do it a lot. When Duffy walked in everything came together, everything I’ve ever learned - all the American stuff joined together with the stuff I’ve learned on my computer.
It was all the experience of songwriting as well. To be able to recognise when to step back and not walk all over a song. A lot of new artists that I’m hearing are overproduced to quite a big extent, because everyone tries to prove themselves a little bit.
I wouldn’t know where you draw the line, but you want to sound great and you want people to know it’s you but at the same time you want the groove and the song to come through.
What are you working on right now and is in store for you for the upcoming year?
Well, I don’t book very far ahead. I’ve just worked with Pixie. Alesha is coming up. There are some new discussions with Duffy and Nadine.
There’s a fantastic new artist called Bluey Robinson, who’s signed to Sony, and we’ve just done a couple of tracks. I’d like to do some Noisettes but I heard on the radio that Shingai [Shoniwa] might be doing some stuff on her own. And Dave Gibson, I’m doing some stuff with him.
I try and keep things a bit open and I’ll wait for that phone to ring. There’s usually something that comes in every day.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Next week: SXSW creative director Brent Grulke on how to use the festival as a career springboard
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