One of Britain’s best-known songwriters & composers shares insights with aspiring singer-songwriters.
Mike Batt’s consistent track record of success includes production, composition and conducting on projects as diverse as ‘Phantom of The Opera’ (producing, orchestrating and contributing lyrics to the first hit), ‘Watership Down’ (music and lyrics to Art Garfunkel’s international number one single, ‘Bright Eyes’), and a great deal of symphonic work, including many television and film scores.
As a producer he’s been unstoppable: He’s written and produced with Cliff Richard, Tim Rice and Alvin Stardust. He founded Britain’s leading indie label (Dramtico) and is Deputy Chairman of the BPI (British Phonographic Industry) and past director of British Academy Of Songwriters.
What do you do to keep fresh with your songwriting/music creation?
I don’t deliberately try to stay fresh. I think if there is freshness, it’s because I don’t write every day, and I am usually writing for a project or an artist with whom I am working. If I am working on something like a dramatic music project of my own, there is an intense feeling of excitement that drives me along, and it would be the subject matter that would be keeping me fresh. If I am writing about the Spanish Civil War one minute and a love song about how many bicycles there are in China the next, it is the pure variety of material that keeps me interested.
Is there some place or time of day that works better than another?
I find that I am fresher in the mornings, although I’m not a particularly early riser. I just think the brain is a bit less worn out when the day is young, and so particularly if I am writing prose (perhaps an article or something), I would definitely choose the morning. However, any time of day when it’s peaceful is good, so that would tend to be late evening and into the early hours. Saturdays and Sundays are great if it is nice and quiet and the phone isn’t ringing.
Is there a ‘best place’ for you to do your songwriting/music creation? If so, what is that place?
I don’t have a “best place” but I operate well if I switch places so as not to get bored of my surroundings. I can work quite quickly (unless I’m orchestrating some massive piece), so I am rarely in one place for very long. I find it very stimulating to be in a train or on a plane to write lyrics. I think it is something about the forward motion that inspires me and makes me feel that I am “going places”.
What is hanging on the walls of your workspace (or on shelves) that inspires you?
Nothing particularly. What inspires me is the task at hand and not what is hanging on the walls, expect perhaps pictures of my family which are inspirational just because they are what keep me going, rather than because of any inspiration regarding subject matter. Other than that, there is a quote that I mention later in answer to another question.
What are your guiding principles in the songwriting process?
First, to know what the song is going to be about. Although I am thought of as a musician because I conduct and arrange, to me the lyrics are the heart of the song and the song has got to express a thought (whether trivial or massively important). It is the expression of that thought in a unique or interesting way that I strive for when I am writing.
The first songwriter to make an impact on you and why.
It’s a fairly predictable answer, but the first songwriters to make an impact on me were Lennon and McCartney. I must have been about 12 when they broke through and their songwriting was so powerful and creative that it was inspirational. Actually, their writing was very simple in the early days (“Love Me Do”, etc) and it was when they started getting towards their “Help” period that I really sat up and started listening properly. This must have been around the time that I got turned on to the Beach Boys. “I Get Around” was a song that explored chord structure that you didn’t get in 3 chord blues (even though I love 3 chord blues’ simplicity.) The realisation that songwriting could be a lyrically and harmonically interesting medium of expression came from these people.
What’s your response to a young artist who says: I want to write my own songs – but what do I write about?
That is such a basic question, nobody with enough nous to write a song would ever ask. If you don’t know what to write about, don’t write!
Do you ever take songwriting inspiration from other musical genres?
I’m interested in most musical genres and so I suppose I am unconsciously inspired by all of them. Hence the word “other” doesn’t really apply as I don’t have a musical genre with which I am centralised. Musical style-wise I love switching genres and so I am as happy writing a jazz based period piece as I am a contemporary pop song. A change is as good as a holiday!
What’s the longest time it’s taken you to write a song?
I suppose if you count songs that were started many years ago and finished recently you could say as long as maybe 20 years. I am talking about perhaps finding a lyric that I wrote when I was 20 and coming up with a tune for it and expanding it. Then there is the situation where you spend several days thinking about a song, and sit down and write it very quickly, and so that would be described as having taken several days.
The shortest time?
There have been times when I’ve written songs in 20 – 40 minutes because of the excitement and inspiration coming as quickly as that.
The world thinks in terms of songs that ‘fail’ and songs that ‘succeed’ – as a songwriter, do you think that way?
Never. Some of my best songs are songs that you might never have heard. There might be songs on a solo album or some project that never really got anywhere, but which I think were fantastically successful as songs. Of course a song can be measured by its chart success or profile and when your artistic view of its success and the financial view of its success align, that is of course the best measure. Obviously, the two things are often connected, in that something which is artistically excellent is more likely to be commercially successful.
How can songwriters maximize their chances at having their material see the light of day?
Make it as good as possible. Don’t just write piles of the same old stuff. Persistence and energy in helping your material get heard is at least half of the story.
Is there a favourite quote on life (or music/songwriting) that inspires you?
Yes there is. On the wall by my piano is a scribbled quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt: “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure…than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
Mike Batt is one of Britain’s best-known songwriter/composers. He has worked on ‘Watership Down’ (music and lyrics to Art Garfunkel’s international number one single, ‘Bright Eyes’), ‘Phantom of The Opera’ (producing, orchestrating and contributing lyrics to the first hit) and many television and film scores. He has won five Ivor Novello Awards.