Graham Reid | | 7 min read
The annual APRA Silver Scroll award acknowledges excellence in songwriting, so at Elsewhere we modified our Famous Elsewhere Questionnaire and tailored it to be specifically about the craft of songwriting for this year's five finalists.
Here is the winner, Brooklyn-based Stephanie Brown for her song Everything to Me which she performs as Lips.
The first song which really affected you was . . .
There was a ritual that was endured by my family every year. On the first day of December, my mum would carefully lift a small vinyl covered cassette-filled case from underneath the stairs, unlock the clasps, and unleash on us a rotating soundtrack of Christmas music that filled our house incessantly from dawn till dusk and would not halt until the last day of December, and sometimes even into January if she felt so inclined.
My brothers and I would invent friend dates, offer to run the lengthiest of errands, anything to escape the torture of interminable carols. To be fair, she would occasionally add a new title to the bounty... “Abba does Christmas” made a guest appearance one year (and inexplicably went missing the next). But for the most part these tunes were of the traditional nature; Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red etc.
There was one reprieve however, one soothing sonorous balm of a song that stood out amid the whirl of chimes, synthesized harps and choruses sung by a mixture of adults and children: a song from the compilation “A Very Special Christmas vol 2”, the green one with the Keith Haring cover.
It was a song by Charles Brown called Merry Christmas Baby. On hearing this song I became (for 3 minutes and 2 seconds) my mothers daughter, I was transfixed... I stole back to my room with this aural treasure and listened, rewound, listened, rewound, over and over again.... I could not get enough. From the opening piano licks, the brushes caressing the snare drum, the warm muted tones of the upright bass... this song had so much space in it you could dream a dream and be back in time for Charles’s next lyric. Years later I realized why “Merry Christmas Baby” had affected me so much... it was the first time I ever heard the blues.
Your first (possibly embarrassing) role models in music were . . .
I don’t really have any that come to mind, I started out as a keyboard player and there weren’t really any other girl keyboard players around that I knew about. I’m sure they existed, I just didn’t know about them. There are some great keyboard players in Auckland tho.. Kevin Field, Godfrey de Grut... i really looked up to these guys and still do.
The one songwriter you will always listen to, even if they disappointed you previously, is?
D’angelo. He hasn’t disappointed me yet. Voodoo was the album for me that I dissected every tiny piece of. When that album came out I had a keyboard that you could sequence on, and I transcribed every part of that record and reprogrammed it on the keyboard to get inside it. I’ll always give D’angelo the time of day. The question is, will he give me anything, anytime soon!?!??!?!
As songwriters: Lennon-McCartney or Jagger-Richards; kd lang or Katy Perry; Madonna or Michael Jackson; Prince or Pink?
Honestly, I’ve listened to more Beatles than Stones, I love their music. Constant Craving is a masterpiece but it’s the only kd song i know super well. Katy has gotten really good at singing and performing energetic dance routines simultaneously. Seriously, this is quite challenging and I’ve noticed a marked improvement from when she began to the recently televised July 4th performance.
Michael was, I believe, the greatest entertainer in the history of entertainers. I admire Madonna for her reinvention, for staying on top of the game. I love her first four albums. PRINCE PRINCE PRINCE ABOVE ALL!!!!!
The three songs (yours, or by others) you would love everyone to hear because they are well crafted are . . .
The lyrics of the song “Goodbye” by Dianne Reeves are some of the best lyrics ever conceived, I think. Simple, perfectly conveying a well known sentiment without drawing on cliche.
There is a song that Shirley Horn recorded called “You Won’t Forget Me” that is brilliant. The story goes that the great Miles Davis used to go and watch her perform in the West Village. This was in the late Eighties, and by this time he refused to play ballads anymore, he was heading into his hiphop phase. But he was in love with this song and he told Shirley that if she ever recorded it, he would guest on it. So she did, and it was one of the last things he played on before he died. You even hear him speak a little on it, caught up in the emotion of the thing.
And “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt I think is one of the best written songs of all time.
Melody first? Words or phrase first? Simultaneous?
Melody first. Although every now and then I’ll read the title of a song that strikes a chord and I’ll steal it and make a new song out of it. I wrote a song called “I’ll smile tho my heart is breaking” after reading the title of the classic song by the same name. I love this sentiment of putting on a brave face, the need to “grin and bear it”, it’s very British I think. Common, tragic.
The best book on music or musicians you have read is . . .
The Quincy Jones autobiography is fascinating, so is the Miles Davis one. I recently read “Musicophilia” by Oliver Sacks which is a really interesting read about certain anomalies that occur sometimes when music meets brain disorders, or even in a brain functioning normally.
If you could co-write with anyone it would be . . .
Diplo or Brian Wilson.
The three songs you'd insist anybody listen to because they might understand your songwriting style better are . . .
I really admire these three songs:
“Black Gold of the Sun” by Rotary Connection. The relationship between the bass line and the keyboard part. Actually Charles Stepney is one of my favourite arrangers. Great string orchestration in this song. And then the change of time signature for the bridge section that sounds intuitive but really isn’t.
“God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys. Sublime melody, a beautiful lyrical sentiment, creative orchestration. That weird little instrumental phrase after the second chorus, the interesting way he joins the vocal phrases together... brilliant.
“Nothing Even Matters” by Lauryn Hill and D’angelo. D’angelo’s Wurlitzer line I could (and have done so) play for hours. That click pattern and reggae bassline that gives the whole thing this feeling of suspension. And the way it cruises along, it reminds me of when i’ve been walking, walking, and then finally reach my bike, I climb on it and then I’m cruising away fast, fast, goodbye lame walking feet, hello wheels, this is real traveling!!!
The last CD or vinyl album you bought was . . . (And your most recent downloads include . . .)
The last 5 songs I downloaded were
“Tearz for Animals” by CocoRosie. Great drum production under a beautiful song. Antony Hegarty guests on it and the blend of their voices is stunning.
“Do you sleep” by Tea Leigh. A new act from Brooklyn/Boston. Cocteau Twins-esque.
“Wolves I and II” by Bon Iver. I heard this on Meshell Ndgeocello’s mix for Red Bull Music Academy Radio. Great vocal arrangement.
“Fuse” by Hudson Mohawke. I love this producer, this song makes me so happy, it sounds like a celtic melody mixed with funk.
“Every Single Night” by Fiona Apple. First single off her new album, unwraps like a butterfly from a chrysalis.
One song, royalties for life, never have to work again. The song by anyone, yourself included, which wouldn't embarrass you would be . . .
Do you mean if I could have written a song that has brought the writer royalties for life? “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac. Whenever that song comes on, everybody in the room sighs with contentment. Oh, to have written that song.
One line (or couplet) from a song -- yours or someone else's -- which you think is just a stone cold winner is . . .
Rollin down the street, smoking indo, sippin on gin and juice, laid back (with my mind on my money and my money on my mind)
Songwriting: what's the ratio of inspiration/perspiration?
I would guess... 40% inspiration 60% perspiration.
Ever had a song come to you fully-formed like it dropped into your lap?
Yes absolutely. Not with complete lyrics but occasionally I’ve pulled fully formed songs out as tho they were a piece of string. It only ever happens when something really emotional has happened. I think songwriters are portals for songs and perhaps the key to getting a complete song is being caught wide open, completely vulnerable to those intense feelings that rock us. At least, that has been my experience.
And finally, in the nature of press conferences in Japan, “Can you tell me please why this is your best song ever?”
Really, that’s the Japanese way? I spent a long time crafting this song, playing it over and over again to get the bass line hitting in the sweet spots, the internal rhymes landing on the stress points in the melody, and the string line the best I could, having not ever written for strings before. It was a lot of fun.