Secrets of a hit songwriter

Although not well known to the general public, the improbably named Eg White who is one of the UK's leading songwriters. He co-wrote two of last year's biggest, most soulful and universally loved pop hits, with Britain's shining new female stars: Duffy's 'Warwick Avenue' and Adele's 'Chasing Pavements'. And you will find Eg's name in the credits of songs by such chart staples as Will Young, James Morrison, James Blunt , Take That, Joss Stone, Pink, Kylie Minogue, Beverly Knight, Natalie Imbruglia, Sam Sparro and Daniel Merriweather. He won an Ivor Novello award (Best Song 2004) for his inescapable Will Young torch ballad 'Leave Right Now.' He has his own solo album, 'Adventure Man', out now on Parlophone, and very good it is too.
Due to space constrictions, the piece in today's Telegraph is brief, but Eg is a fascinating character, who struggled in the margins of the music business for many years before suddenly finding his song skills in demand. These days, if you are a solo artist signed to one of the UK's leading record companies, chances are you will have been sent round to work in Eg's rather shockingly cramped and untidy basement studio beneath a nondescript, terraced West London house. What Eg does is central to the kind of mainstream pop music we all hear, so I thought it would be interesting to expand on today's feature with some of our discussions on songwriting, manufactured pop, the future of the music business ... and the truth about those collaborations with Adele, Duffy and Amy Winehouse.
Do you know when it's a hit?
Eg: Yeah, you totally know. I know when it's a hit, I know when its borderline, and I know when it's a total loser. I don't write that many hits, that's the truth. I think all the hits I have written have actually been hits. Mostly it fails. Out of forty songs only ten are going to be good, and only one is going to be a killer. The others, they are not embarrassing, they just don't get over the wall. And that's that, they just lie there in a slightly messy pile
Tell me about 'Leave Right Now', which is the song that changed everything for you
'Leave Right Now' was written at the most desperate time, two years in to a three year deal with Universal records. I had written loads of songs with loads of people and precisely nothing had come of it. I got asked to write a Christmas single for Gareth Gates and spent five days trying to do it and dug myself into total despair, I just couldn't get the balance between cheesy and interesting, everything sounded shit. And round about two o'clock on the last afternoon of this designated period, I collapsed into complete depression. And by four o'clock I had 'Leave Right Now' completely written. I don't really know how or why and I don't remember the process. It was sheer desperation, Friday afternoon, a wasted week, a couple of wasted years. I had been thinking about it all week: Mariah Carey, she sings high notes, and she holds them. That's what I'm thinking: 'You go up, you hit the chorus and you fling everything you ****ing can at this thing.' It wasn't a Christmas song, but I remember thinking this is quite good.
And then?
And then no one would take it. Ronan Keating was going to do it, but did he ****. It sat around for a couple of years until (Pop Idol svengali) Simon Fuller suddenly hears it and goes 'It's a hit, it's a hit!' My manager played it to him, and apparently he was dancing around the swimming pool in the South of France going 'this songs a ****ing hit!'. So Will recorded it with (producer) Steve Lipson, next thing I heard it was on the radio. And my first impulse was 'Christ, it's flowery, it's pink, it's terrifying, it's got everything in it, the Mike Samm singers, Jesus, that's another one dead!' Within five days it had gone in at number one and that was it. It was like a little switch quietly went up on my career.
Now you are one of an elite group of songwriters that every record company send their artists to write with.
I became one of the London whores, one of the people on the circuit.
Do you really think of yourself as prostituting your talent?
No, of course not. I see myself in a role whereby I'm using my musical knowledge to work out what the artist wants to say and help them say it. The job is not to write a song for them. My job is definitely to help them find a way forward in writing that really satisfies them. I'm trying to work out where their weaknesses are. Maybe I can pick up those corners, fill in the gaps of their knowledge, just technically. But the wish to say something is theirs and I'm trying to fit in around it.
I find it a disturbing trend in modern music that a record company signs an artist because they like their voice and their songs, and then immediately send them off to these old pros who already know how to construct radio friendly pop songs. Why not let them develop naturally and find their own unique way?
That's an interesting question. That's getting close to the whoring thing, isn't it? I think they are trying to speed up the process. If you go back to early Springsteen, his first two records famously stiffed. They're fantastic records, but nobody bought them. Then 'Born To Run' suddenly kicks off big. But, of course, these days no one would ever get those two chances at complete commercial failure. That was the story when artists were being paid five per cent royalties, records were selling for a lot of money and they were selling shit loads of them. Nowadays artists get a quite healthy chunk of the take, records are selling for practically no money and not many are being sold. A part of me thinks its appropriate for record companies not to cut artists a huge amount of slack, cause they haven't got that slack anymore. So there's a commercial side to why it might be justifiable that they come to people like me who are trying to make this process faster and more reliable. But what I really do not want to do is put words into people's mouths. It feels as if there are certain parts of the communication that must come from the artist. I might be editing it and distilling it but it is something they want to say.
Can you tell how much is you, and how much is the artist?
The two big hits I had last year, I probably didn't contribute a single word to, 'Chasing Pavements' and 'Warwick Avenue.' You can tell I had a contribution because of the orchestration and the chords and the atmosphere, but in terms of fundamental story, tune and vocal delivery, its all them, both songs. Adele came in, she said, 'I wanna write a big hit, slushy ballad a bit like that Goo Goo Dolls song'. I said 'You came to the right man, let's nail it.' Adele, she is a singer, just the best. She's got a killer tone but so much more. It was really an honour to take her vocals. Brilliant but raw. As a manifestation of the control of human energy, its as good a thing I have ever seen. She's special.
Is that the norm?
Apart from those two, the only person that happened with before was Amy Winehouse. She was just so far ahead of me on the lyric, I didn't even need to worry about not being there. It was a killer, but it never got used. But mostly, I've pretty much had the feeling that they were running with it at least as fast as me, if not faster. I'm not making this up. I'm not saying these people are really good cause I am some celebrity ****-licker. These people are really good. But so are most people given the sense that they will be supported, and that the technical bits of songwriting that they may not naturally be able to do will just be quietly filled in.
There was a time, before The Beatles and Bob Dylan broke up Tin Pan Alley, when you would have been writing songs for singers. Now you write songs with them. These days everybody claims to be a singer-songwriter, even manufactured girl and boy bands. Do you think it matters who writes the songs?
Writing is seen as key. The only place where it isn't is dance records. In terms of stuff that gets played in cars, people seem to feel its very important that the singer originates the material.
Is this about giving the audience what they want, or giving musicians the respect they crave?
I don't think the audience cares so much at first. I don't think they've turned against Will Young cause some of the key songs weren't written by him, and I don't think they've warmed to him more cause some of the key songs were written by him. But once they have the record, once they are in, I think their capacity to feel they are forming a lasting bond with the artist does need them to feel the artist is involved in some central way with the writing.
Is songwriting a team sport?
It's most interesting with groups, where there are formulae whereby a group will be good. The stones is the classic example where you've got two guys at the top fighting it out (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards), and the rest of everybody pinning the thing down and making sure it functions. It's true of U2, it was true of The Beatles. For every more or less healthy top quality group, there's a fight, a creative struggle going on for supremacy. I think you've got to have an ongoing fight, you've got to have somebody upsetting the apple cart. I'd quite like to work with more groups. Something happens when you've got a group, the big old rhythm, whereby everyone pushes something forwards, the group activity, the mojo, the 'we're guys together, cocks up the front' kind of thing. But there's this whole white male thing, especially with groups, that you don't work with outsiders, it implies a kind of loss of masculinity.
Maybe that is what you are doing for solo singer-songwriters?
Maybe you're right. Now its legit. I'm The Edge! Maybe I'm coming in to provide an upsetting force, to say 'it doesn't have to be done that way, it can be done this way too. I'm not going to give you complete dominance of expression. I will challenge you, in order to make your expression more compelling and convincing'.
But the big question is are these people authentic talents, or are they pop stars masquerading as serious artists? After the success of David Gray, every record company had to have singer-songwriters, but as opposed to signing awkward, scruffy, offbeat talents like Gray, they immediately went out and signed the youngest, prettiest boys and girls they could find with the best voices, and then stuck them in with you and your cohorts to create a manufactured version of the singer-songwriter.
It does make you wonder how extreme and interesting and valid a communication can be got when there is a levelling of the process in this way, I agree. I would like to be somebody who is asking for the extremes and getting them, rather than coming in to make a straightforward pop record guaranteed to get on radio. At the moment, things are very open to make a record that's quite extreme, and it might get played on radio if its likeable and compelling and convincing. I never get a sense that I would blunt off an edge that appears in a room.
I worry that this small group of writers and producers is creating a homogeneity to mainstream pop. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy that if you've got Eg White, you've got a hit. And that in itself blocks out the possibility of anything unique occurring
I have this hope that with the financial destruction of the music industry and the capacity to make music for very little money on computers, we would see a big change. The stuff in this studio used to cost a fortune. A tape machine used to cost forty grand, back in a time when you could buy a nice house for forty grand. That's just a tape machine. The process has become so democratised. Now two grand is going to buy you a tape machine, a mixing desk, the whole shebang, all in a programme on your computer. My hope is that as the amount of money that can be pulled out of the system falls, and the amount of money it takes to get into the system falls, then people are going to start making really radical, self-expressing music with no hope of it selling shit-loads for high royalties. And with that selfish drive is going to come a complete opening of the barriers, and new sounds hitherto undreamt of are going to appear. I want that to happen.
It might do you out a job
It might. It really might. It might be good too. It might get me to up my game. The human imagination is pretty limited, I desperately need to hear new ways of doing things in order to shake up my own capacity.