Andy Platts is a songwriter and vocalist best known for his work with the band Mamas Gun, a ferociously funky live act, whose sound bridges classic melodic pop songwriting with retro and contemporary soul/groove sensibilities. The song 'Red Cassette' from Mamas Guns third album recently made the BBC Radio 2 playlist, as well as being playlisted on major radio stations across Europe and Asia. 'House on a Hill', a song from the bands debut album, was the most played song on Japanese radio in 2009. As well as his work with Mamas Gun, Andy has also enjoyed chart success working with other artists, including several number one singles in Korea, number one albums in Japan and top 20 successes in Europe. Most recently Andy has been working with Dutch singer Steffen Morrison and Korean Superstar Park Hyo Shin. Here, Andy discusses his songwriting tips.
- Do you have a daily songwriting routine or do you wait for inspiration to strike? It really does depend on what else is happening at the time. Historically I'm at my most active in between albums (which is logical!). During this time I'm inspired to want to implement a daily routine. Typically during this type of period I will get up very early, sometimes as early 6am. I find this time of the day especially conducive to writing lyrics or following streams of consciousness with a certain level of clarity. I tend to try and use a day to pursue an idea as far as I can take it, as opposed to flitting between unfinished ideas but sometimes a song won't let you do that and you have to walk away.
- Do you have any tricks to get the creative juices flowing? No, no tricks. You just have to remain constantly interested in the process and retain a certain amount of romance (and even naivety) and be prepared to take full advantage when the really special lighting bolts strike. I used to smoke a lot of weed (not to write, specifically, just all day every day…) which certainly puts your mind into a different sphere, and I know quite a few people who won’t play a note without it, but I wouldn’t say is necessarily better for getting things started or being creative. On a basic level, you can of course foster good conditions for songwriting. Obviously listening to music can be very inspirational, but I am also a big reader. Engaging with words/language and the infinite ways it can be used to communicate or 'paint', I think is crucial. At the moment I’m bingeing on the prose of Thomas Hardy, the style of which forces you to engage with words and sentence construction in a different way.
- Do you find you normally start with a melody or lyrics? Ah this old chestnut. I don't ‘normally’ start with either. If you characterise yourself as 'someone who starts with xxxx ' then you are conditioning yourself to perceive and create in a certain way. You have to be open for any kind of stimuli to inform what may come next, be it lyrics, melody, chords, a lick, or simply a feeling.
- Do you think that melody is the most important aspect of a song? Oh absolutely crucial but not necessarily the most important aspect. The 'recipe’ of every song is different and the appeal of a song lies in how its constituent parts are balanced. And this is where the subjective nature of music and taste comes in. Yes often the melody will be the thing which sells the lyric - I always liked what Paul Mc Cartney said about songwriting. I'm paraphrasing here but it was something like 'melody is like the eye catching gift wrapping on a present that ultimately leads you to the thing at the centre of it, the lyric.' Melody and lyric are just as important as each other and to me, finding that perfect balance between the two, and it saying what I really want it to say, is the holy grail. It also depends on what kind of song(s) you are looking to write.
- How long does it take you to write a song? Looking back at the songs I've written - anywhere from 30 minutes to 10 years. Some ideas need to be captured, bottled and written on the spot, regardless of time, place or circumstance. But some ideas, which are best left and not forced, can develop a different context and become more meaningful over the passage of time.
- Could you explain a little about the writing process behind a few of your songs? Red Cassette: I found an old red cassette in a shoe box in the loft at my parents house on a visit a few years ago. The song tells the story of when I was eight years old and wanted to be a radio DJ. I’d wired up all my turntables and hi-fis into a scientist’s laboratory and I’d stay up late to make my own radio shows writing my own jingles and songs, recording it on a four-track player on a red cassette tape. But it’s also a love letter to nostalgia. It’s the notion of looking back in order to move forward and create in the present, whether it’s creating music or art or just life experience. The chorus refrain ‘Take me back, take me back to when it all began’, speaks to the tangible element in the song - the red cassette itself, which aside from being a great visual physical device, is also a great metaphor for nostalgia and also a cool song title. The style of the song was influenced by stuff like The Isley Brothers 'Harvest for the World', with all those nice slash chords and insistent driving 8 beat. I guess I wrote this one in about 30 mins. Pots of Gold: I’d been listening to a lot of doo-wop and vocal groups like the Ink Spots and also people like The Delphonics and The Stylistics. I wanted to write something optimistic and summery so I wandered down that maj7, dom7 progression as a starting point, and then found myself thinking about the sun, the sky, then onto rainbows and then the elusive pot of gold. I immediately thought this had legs as a visual image as well as a great metaphor. The song kind of wrote itself after that and is basically about chasing your dreams at the expense of the things which are most important in life. To me, those things are family and the close personal connections we form with friends, lovers etc, without whom life would be utterly meaningless. In other words: re-define the notion of success and put your happiness first. Long Way Back: I'm proud of this one. This is a song I wrote from the perspective of my Grandfather at his wife’s bedside just before she passed away. The tempo, space, harmony, melody and lyric all combine powerfully to create a feeling of reflection and nostalgia, but in a way that is not obviously hammy or cheesy. (I hope….).
- What songs that other people have written do you particularly admire? Just a few of my favourite songs (not necessarily recordings)… Lennon/McCartney - She's Leaving Home , Lennon/McCartney - If I Fell, Lewis Taylor - Damn, Queen - You're My Best Friend, Andrew Gold - Lonely Boy, Kate Bush - Mother Stands For Comfort, Prince - When You Were Mine, Joni Mitchell - Free Man In Paris, Irving Berlin - They Say It's wonderful , Elton John - In Neon, Jeff Lynne - Strange Magic
- Do you think that a technical knowledge of theory is important or does it get in the way? I don’t think it’s important at all. Look at people like Bob Dylan. 3 chord tricks with exquisitely crafted lyrics and just the right amount of melody to carry them. Same with someone like Noel Gallagher who wrote simple working class anthems that resonated with a whole generation. As long as you are being yourself and being true to yourself, you should (with a bit of luck and elbow grease) find your voice regardless of your level of music theory.
- Do you tend to revisit your songs and rewrite them? Absolutely. Especially ones that you know have something special about them but haven’t been elevated to where they could be. You have to draw a line at some point, (otherwise you’ll go mad) but songs can always be better, in a number of respects, but just as important is knowing when to draw that line to not do any more work on them.
- Do you write songs with a view to being commercial and following current trends? I find that I naturally write with one ear towards being commercial or accessible. It’s what I like, I grew up listening to the radio after all! I find that I don’t care about trends. I make myself aware of them but it certainly doesn’t dictate how or what I write. If I’m writing for another singer (a Japanese balladeer, for example) I may take into account the hallmarks of the genre ( certain chord types and progressions ) but I will still tend to write something which I like and from which I get something back.
- Have you done much co-writing, and if so what do you see as the benefits? Yes done plenty, with people all over the world. There’s def something to be said for co-writing. If you have a synergy with someone then you can really hone in on something quickly and ensure the quality level is kept high. Creative tennis if you like. Someone else will almost have a slightly different take on a lyrical theme or chord progression, which can be invaluable. I’ve also I’ve found that one person tends to (has to?) ‘lead’ in these sessions otherwise things can lose focus. Nowadays I'm more selective about with whom I co-write. If a writer is suggested to me by my publisher, I will do all I can to research the writer's body of work, their style etc.
- Who do you view as great songwriters. Who has inspired you musically / lyrically? Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, Sylvester Stewart (Sly Stone), Prince, Joni Mitchell, Scott Walker, Andy Sturmer, Kate Bush, Brian Wilson, Jeff Lynne, Elton John / Bernie Taupin, Andrew Gold, Stevie Wonder, Rod Temperton, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin….
- Do you feel that when there's conflict/struggle in your life that it inspires better songs? Ok getting personal! Yeah I’m sure conflict is at the heart of the creative condition. I’m pretty sure that I became a writer not just because I love music. I would offer that creating art, music, paintings, sculpture, drama…whatever….goes some way to exploring what’s at the heart of that conflict. On a deeper, more permanent level, the fact that we are all a genetic product of two different sources means that a certain conflict exists within us all, as a starting point. Personally - being of mixed race with parents from opposite sides of the Earth has definitely left me with irreconcilable issues of identity which I’m convinced feed into the music I write. It’s not like I’m sitting in a shower crying screaming ‘who am I?’ everyday - it’s more subtle than that. But indeed writing songs, for me, is a form of self-therapy and crucial in providing some kind of stability and an outlet through which I can process and make sense of things.
- Do you have any idea where your ideas come from? If I knew that then I probably wouldn’t be doing it!
- Do you have any advice you'd like to share with budding songwriters out there? Just keep writing, keep writing, keep writing. Writing songs is about developing a knack for knowing what’s good, what could be good and just as importantly knowing which ideas aren’t worth pursuing - the red herrings! And don’t settle for okay. Remember that you’re going up against the very best songwriters who have ever lived. You will become part of that body of work and that musical conversation so try to make what you do as special and memorable as possible.
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Click on the following to find Mamas Gun and Andy Platts on the web.
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This interview was by Ben Williams. Find Ben on TWITTER, FACEBOOK
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