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Some of the most inspiring stories of the music industry come not from the bright-shining stars but from the slow-burning musicians and artists, whose songwriting abilities and smarts have provided them an enviously long career.
One such musician is Geoffrey Williams, a singer-songwriter and loop artist who has written for artists such as Michael Jackson, Nile Rodgers, Dusty Springfield and Color Me Badd, as well as performing at some great venues and events, including Wembley Arena and the Montreux Jazz Festival.
In his first article, Geoffrey outlined how he dealt with writer’s block and how it can be defeated. In the second article, he discussed working with Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers and what he learned from the experience. Now, he’ll take you through his journey as a writer for the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
So join us for this four-part series called “4 PROVEN TIPS TO INSPIRE YOUR SONGWRITING”, where Geoffrey will help you to unlock your songwriting creativity with the knowledge he has learned from some of the biggest names in the business.
YOU CAN BE INSPIRED AT ANY TIME – SO KEEP WRITING!
Is it interesting to read about how a song was written? Maybe. Sometimes, writing becomes a long and drawn out process that yields little fruit and many grey hairs! And who wants to know?
Is it a more interesting read if it’s a well-known song? Or if it’s performed by someone well-known?
Of course it is! If I’d written Billie Jean (if only!), I’d probably start with “I was in the studio wearing my one white glove, my sparkling socks and a pair of pants that were too short for me, when this killer melody came out of nowhere…..”
You’d be gripped. I know I would be. OK, I wrote a song that Michael Jackson recorded for his last album of original material called Invincible. The song is called Whatever Happens.
There. I’ve said it. I feel better now with that off my chest! I wrote Whatever Happens with a friend of mine named Gil Cang, a very good drummer, writer, and producer!
So there I am in 1998, sitting in my old and well-loved Vauxhall Maestro outside a pregnancy clinic, waiting for my then girlfriend and a friend of ours.
While waiting, I see a steady stream of couples coming out of the clinic. I take out my pad and pen and imagine/create scenarios of what might be happening with them. I write about 3 x A4 sheets.
About a month later, I’m writing with Gil. He’s created this cool backing track (yes, ladies and gentlemen, licked that can’t-write-to-a-backing-track problem!). I bring in the sitting-outside-the-clinic lyrics, we merge the ideas together and Whatever Happens is born. It sounds like this:
I have no idea why we wrote it in a key that was too high for me to sing comfortably, (sometimes I find it impossible to change the key because it’s part of the vibe).
After it’s written, I never perform it. Also, I play it to very few people. Consequently, it looks like it’ll be just another song, wasting away in my then publisher’s vaults, collecting high pitched dust!
But, the song then starts to have a life of its own.
OLD SONGS CAN TAKE A NEW LIFE
Cut to 2000 and the song is recorded by a singer called Mario Vasquez, signed to Sony at the time. But, (as it was then and maybe still is today with the music industry), he is dropped before the record comes out. His manager keeps hold of the recordings and goes shopping for another deal. Eventually, he arrives at the doorstep of Teddy Riley, writer, producer, remixer, singer!
Teddy was a member of Blackstreet, Guy, creator of the New Jack Swing genre (I wonder if he invented the haircut as well), has written and produced for Bobby Brown, Britney, Whitney and of course, Michael Jackson.
Apparently, Teddy likes Mario’s voice but, more than that, he loves the song. He then records a version and presents it to Michael. Michael loves it too.
So now, let me give you a bigger perspective. I have heard it said that there were about 250 songs recorded for Invincible, with Michael singing on 160 of them. Yikes!
It seems like even if it’s half that number, that is enough recordings and enough cash spent on the producers and engineers of those tracks, even if they don’t get used!
Alright, back to my less lucrative part of the universe. In January 2001, I get a call while driving. I find myself speaking to my publisher, the lovely Michelle De Vries. The conversation goes a little like this:
Me: Uh, why?
MDV: Well… Michael Jackson wants to record Whatever Happens!
MDV: Did you hear me? I said…
Me: Yes, I heard you. *silence*
MDV: Are you still there?
Me: Not sure, I think so…
Of course, I’m having another Thriller moment (see last post!). Then, I remember that about a decade previous, the MJ camp had another one of my songs, Back In Circulation, on hold. In the end, they never used it.
You can listen to a clip of that track here:
Anyway, my thought stretches out into the deep outer space of “OMG, I’m going to be rich!”, followed by maniacal laughter.
I then twang back into the reality of, “Fat chance earthling, he probably won’t record it!”
Essentially for mental self-preservation, I decide to stay present with it every step of the way, only dealing with the facts and enjoying them.
In April, Michelle tells me that they’ve started recording it. Pre-eruption Vesuvius-type excitement. In May, there’s a rumour that Carlos Santana may play guitar on it. Disbelief.
In the same month, these rumors are revved up by the national newspapers. More maniacal laughter. Additionally, in June they record the song with Santana on guitar! Now, I am somehow cloned and beside myself!
STAY IN THE MOMENT AND YOU’LL STAY INFORMED
Then the MJ lawyers come into town. Cue the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly!
(Play the clip while reading the next few paragraphs!)
At this point, I’d like to reiterate that only Gil and I wrote the song (50-50 split) and as a result, “own” the intellectual property, the copyright, pertaining to the song, with Hit & Run, the publishers, looking after (that’s another story) and exploiting it for us.
So, it’s my publisher Michelle with the MJ lawyers at high noon!
They congratulate us on making it to the final 16 tracks for the next Michael album. Yes, yes, yes!
They then ask, as if they’re asking for a glass of water, for 100% of the copyright to the song. Just like that. I imagine the conversation going like this:
MDV: Sorry, I thought you said that you’d like to own the song.
Lawyers: We did.
MDV: What do you mean?
Lawyers: He’d like 100% of the publishing, please. (She squints eyes and closes mouth.)
MDV: Er, no.
Lawyers: OK, give us 75%. (She shifts from the left to the right buttock.)
MDV: No way.
Lawyers: Well, how about 50%?
Lawyers: Can I call you Michelle? You know Michelle, sometimes one records a lot of tracks for an album. Usually, the strongest ones survive but occasionally, through stylistic decisions or other unfortunate circumstances, they don’t end up on the album. Shame really.
How about you give us 25%?
(Pregnant pause. She opens her eyes wider and suddenly feels hot.)
Lawyers: No hurry, take your time. (Lawyers stare at Michelle and drum their fingers.)
(Now at this point, Michelle clearly and quite rightly, wants to ensure Whatever Happens happens to be on the next Michael Jackson album!)
MDV: Alright then.
(Lawyers crack a wry smile, suppress the urge to punch the air and whip out the paperwork!)
So when Gil and I hear that Michelle has made this decision without consulting us, we are not happy at all. But if not for her, I wouldn’t have had a song on Invincible, so thank you so much for making one of my dreams come true Michelle!
Now, back to the Twilight Zone that is the music industry! Then in September, after the tragedy of 9/11, Michael replaces 6 of the tracks.
(Heart in the mouth.)
We survive it. In October, Invincible is released and Whatever Happens is Track 15!
Miraculously, the names of Teddy Riley, Michael Jackson and some girl called Jasmine Quay turn up on the writing credits, along with Gil and I. It’s an interesting way to write a song!
So now, I have the good fortune of being one of only 5 Brits to have ever written a song that appeared on a Michael Jackson record. Thank you, God!
When I hear it at the playback party, it brings tears to my eyes. There I am, listening to the lyrics I’d written while sitting in my old Vauxhall Maestro, sung by Michael Jackson, with Carlos Santana playing guitar. And here it is.
Wonderful things do happen.
4 PROVEN TIPS TO INSPIRE YOUR SONGWRITING PT.1 – INSPIRATION IS EVERYWHERE!
4 PROVEN TIPS TO INSPIRE YOUR SONGWRITING PT.2 – THE LESSON I LEARNT FROM NILE RODGERS
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