In our first episode of Season 2, we catch up with songwriters Jamie Hartman and Sam Dixon to talk about their creative process, artist collaborations, and how those play out in the studio. Jamie Hartman co-wrote Rag’n’Bone Man’s hit single, “Human,” and has worked with Ellie Goulding, James Bay, Celeste and many others. Sam Dixon is a Grammy award-winning songwriter and producer whose songwriting credits include songs from Adele, SIA, and Christina Aguilera. Whether you are an aspiring artist or an avid music listener, we hope that this podcast will give you a glimpse into the world of music making.
Stories of Seasoned Songwriters: How to Craft Your Next Song
Welcome to the Drop the MIC podcast where we'll dive into conversations with some of the music industry's most established professionals
Like all of our episodes, what you will hear today has been created and curated by Stanford students who are breaking their way into the music scene.
I'm Jay LeBouef and I lead Stanford University's music industry initiatives. Whether you're aspiring to launch your career in the music industry are already a music industry pro, or just curious to learn more. We've got you covered.
Hasan Malik: Hello, and welcome to DropTheMic, Stanford's music industry podcast. We're your hosts:
Malachi: Malachi Frazier, a freshman at Stanford.
Clara: Clara, a Senior at Stanford.
Hasan Malik: And Hasan Malik, a sophomore at Stanford.
Our guests today are Jamie Hartman and Sam Dixon. In this episode, Jamie and Sam talked to us about their songwriting process, collaborating with artists and their role in the studio. They also share their journeys in the industry, from the first songs they wrote to the first bands they performed in. Whether you're an [00:01:00] aspiring artist or an avid music listener, we hope that this podcast will give you a glimpse into the world of music making.
Jamie Hartman is a BMI, Ivor Novello, and Brit award winner who has written, produced and performed over a hundred cuts in the pop singer song writer and dance genres. He's had a number one for 11 consecutive weeks in Germany with RagNBoneMan's smash, "Human," which later became a chart topping hit in the UK. Amongst many others, he's worked with the likes of Ellie Goulding, James Bay, JP Cooper, Jess Glynne, and most recently Celeste on her debut album.
Sam Dixon is a Grammy award-winning songwriter and producer. His production and songwriting credits include Adele, SIA, Christina Aguilera, Paloma Faith, and Jack Savoretti, among many others. He's toured with both Adele and SIA as their bassist and musical director, and he has some incredible stories to share about his experiences on the road and in the studio.
First up, we talk to Jamie Hartman.
Jamie Hartman Interview
What are some of your earliest memories of songwriting?
Jamie Hartman: First songs I ever wrote were at school when I was 16. I'd [00:02:00] walk past the music school where the kids practicing piano and practicing violin at break time. And I just sneaked in there when there was nobody else around, to be honest. And I just sat down at the piano and started to teach myself piano a little bit and started coming up with ideas that made me happy.
That was that straightforward, really, but tried to impress some girls with my songs very early. And make myself happy doing it. Just got pleasure from writing songs, really.
Hasan Malik: You performed at a juice bar in London, where you were discovered by an A&R and offered your first publishing deal. Talk to us about that publishing deal, and what lessons you learned from the early parts of your career?
Jamie Hartman: Well, I thought from as soon as I started writing songs, right. It's suddenly, you know, started at 16. I thought by like 20, I would be signed.
I'd have a record deal. Oh man. Was I wrong about that? And how late the starter I was. I was still at 27, 28. You know, I didn't have a job ,I'd been to university. I left university. I went and lived in, uh, in Notting Hill. And [00:03:00] I was on unemployment benefit. I was screening houses and I was busking and I wasn't really making any money at all. Uh, I discovered from busking, that I was doing okay, but I found this little juice bar went in there. Got a residency, and the song writing. I felt like I was on a path even earlier than that. But what I hadn't done at that point, and this is crucial really, for anybody who is doing music.
So I hadn't collaborated, I hadn't written songs with other people. I got a publishing deal off my own from my own songs. And so for a long time, I thought that's it. I'm just going to write songs myself. It wasn't until I would say mid, late twenties, when I got in touch with organizations like BMI and PRS and the organizations where you putting songwriters together, I got invited to go to Denmark to go on a writing camp where there were a couple of American guys, few English people.
And then there were a bunch of Danish guys. And between us, we were doing this camp for five days. And I sat down in that room, not knowing anything about these people. And I sat down and they [00:04:00] asked me to sing a song so I sang a song, one which I thought was pretty damn good. And I was pretty proud of myself at the time and this guy starts singing he played like a genius. He sang like a genius and he was a genius. And then somebody else sang something and I was like, the talent is crazy. You know, these people are so extraordinary and what it made me realize is holy shit, there's an entire world of people out there with enormous amounts of talents and all different types of sounds, all different types of superpowers when it comes to music and what they do.
Because if you think about songwriting, which I love to do and songwriters and producers and musicians in general, as witches and wizards and characters. They, you know, once you get to the point, everybody has their little super power that they do in a room. And what I realized in sitting in that room for the very first time is just how many different talents there are and how many different talents there can be and how many different talents there need to be to make a record really special.
Malachi Frazier: You talked a little bit about how you were chasing being an artist so for any [00:05:00] aspiring songwriters or artists, what kind of advice would you give to them?
Jamie Hartman: Part of me wants to turn around and say, would we have the artists we have, if everybody knew the answer to that question? No. Because some of the greatest artists throughout history are the ones who never figure that. Always work incredibly hard, be good to people, be humble and do your best, right? And everything else kind of falls into place. However, some of the greatest artists that I admire they are outsiders, they're outliers when it comes to that. And the reason that they have interesting things to say is because they're searching and grasping, right? So all I'm saying is that if I look at Amy Winehouse or if I look at Freddie Mercury, and if I look at Elton John, you know , some of the greatest artists we've ever had, have never figured that one out or it's taken them until their late sixties and early seventies to figure that out. And the most electrifying performances I've ever seen are often from people who are high or they are, desperately [00:06:00] unhappy, or they are throwing up backstage before they go on. We all want to help everybody. And we want everybody to be okay, which is great, but some of the greatest works of art come from everybody who's just not okay. And they have to tell you why. I've found my own little niche that works for me helping and being a mouthpiece for other artists and helping discover artists and help give them their voice.
Hasan Malik: Take us through the process of writing a song. Does it start with a piano melody, or lyric or a voice memo? What does the song writing process look like for you?
Jamie Hartman: That process has changed over time for me in that it tends to be me, like most things in life is the requirement is for it to be far more immediate than it ever used to be. Right? Because you're being asked to speed date with somebody you've never met before but, you meet them for the first time you sit and talk, and the process, I find is, is pretty straightforward in that we'd have a conversation. [00:07:00] Something would usually jump out at me, either from what we're speaking about, a phrase, a feeling or whatever. You've got to have instruments to hand or, something that just gets you going, right?
So whether it's a synth or a virtual instrument or a real instrument . I love real instruments so a live piano is always preferable to a synth one, live guitars but you can, you can find new ideas on anything. You need to have some way of expressing what it is that you're trying to say, and that can be a ukulele, or it can be a synth patch or it can be, uh, a bass or a fake bass on here, or it can be an arpeggiator, whatever it is.
It doesn't matter. You've got to feel instinctive about whatever it is and you've got to be experimental. So if you're talking to somebody, and there happens to be an instrument in front of you as they're talking and you just start playing something, doesn't matter what it is.
And you will find that more often than not, your brain is not doing what you think it's doing. You're listening, [00:08:00] right. But communicating is not something you're in full control of, certainly creative. So you'll be amazed at how many times you just sit there and you just, and someone goes, Oh, that's quite nice.
Just cause you're noodling whilst you're thinking, but you're talking, but you're not really thinking and always record, always record. I messed that up so many times , always record because you just you're like, Oh, I dunno what I did, man. Okay. Well, that's gone, isn't it? You know? Um, but the minute they walk in record, because more often than not your brain is figuring something out that you don't even know you're doing.
Yeah. And don't be afraid to try an idea however nuts it sounds when you first try it just don't be afraid. In terms of creativity, try anything, but also don't hold on to crap ideas. If they're crap, they're crap, there's plenty of crap ideas. You always know when you've got a good one, because you go, Ooh, that doesn't sound like [00:09:00] anything I've quite heard before.
There's something different about that. Chord structures can be tempered yet everybody uses the same chord structures, you know, you would be one of the world's true geniuses if you found anything really, really revolutionary in terms of chord structure, you know, that's okay. It's what you, it's what you do with it.
I think one of the geniuses from the American scene, in terms of the way he uses, unusual timings is Jon Bellion. A couple of his records that I heard five, six years ago, I was just blown away. And I used to go back and listen to Beck. If you've ever listened to Beck's records, early records, you know, another genius, who mixed up so many great influences and really changed things, you know, it's just, wow. Yeah. So the creative process can be totally chaotic but it's usually not, you might think it's chaos and you might be like, I can't grasp that idea. Great. Go with that for a minute. Try not grasping it for a minute and seeing where that takes you.
Malachi Frazier: So when you are in the studio with an artist or other songwriters, is there a certain [00:10:00] direction you always tend to head?
Jamie Hartman: I don't ever get bogged down in production first, ever. I don't spend hours choosing sounds ever. Allowing things to flow smoothly is really important. And part of that is actually ego. It's very hard to write anything or be creative, with anyone who's guarded and being self-deprecating and being the buffoon in a nice way is fine.
You know, if you're in a situation where you're kind of tense and the person doesn't want to interact with you that's really hard. That's a tough gig for anyone and you get those and those are the head-scratcher days where you're like, why the hell did that not work?
It's okay. It's going to happen to you once in every 30 sessions, you're going to get one where you're like, that was a horrible experience. I don't know why it didn't work. And sometimes you'll be like, this is a huge, I love this artist. I really want to write something great. When you're in the room, you're like, yeah, I got nothing.
You can't have sparks every time at all, but you do have to keep trying, you know, those are the ones that are the sobering ones that remind you, they happen sometimes. One thing I would suggest to people who are getting involved for the [00:11:00] first time is keep your sessions small. There can often be too many people in the room, right? So three is pretty much the max. Four at the outside, four is a lot of people and a lot of thoughts and a lot of ideas in one session.
So, you know, you can have great moments on your own. It's great to be able to bounce ideas of one person and two, you know, the scenario of three people writing is great. I love working for the first time with a new artist. I always try and ask for one day, just myself and them just to get to know them like any situation, just write something there, because I think that there can be a certain magic when you interact with somebody one-on-one for the first time.
And then you often get an idea, but give yourself a fighting chance, just be in a room with one other person or two other people. Because the chemistry affects what you're doing, everybody's thoughts and processes affect how that record comes together. Every time. So don't put too many ingredients, you know, start and see how it works.
Malachi Frazier: Do you delegate any tasks to audio engineers or [00:12:00] mastering engineers or anything?
Jamie Hartman: Well, this very much depends on your own personal superpower. So whatever you're really good at concentrate on that and lean heavily on people who are really good at the rest .I write songs and I communicate and my best demos, are often piano, vocal guitar, piano , vocal, very simple beat, maybe. So for me, I write a song and my demo will focus on vocal performance and capturing vocal performance and comp and tuning. And I want to send the artists the demo where they are surprised at how good it sounds, how their vocal sounds in the context of the song. So for me, that's how I sell a song. Which is a very different process from someone who writes beats and makes beats for a living and wants to be that type of producer, because they're looking for a top liner to come in and sing over top of that beat and sell that idea as a beat, which is great.
It just so [00:13:00] happens that it's not the way I do it. So for me, if I'm a singer-songwriter, which is what I am, the bones of the idea is, is there a great concept? Is the melody interesting and different enough to capture your attention? And is it hooky and is it great, you know, are you basically, are you conveying an emotion successfully and originally across a song? Across two and a half minutes. Really. That's pretty much all I'm trying to do. Simple beat. Yeah, but no, the production for me is absolutely secondary. If you're selling an emotion as a singer songwriter, it's about the song and the vocal performance, don't get a crappy vocal performance, whatever you do, it just ruins everything. No, it's super important.
Hasan Malik: With the time we have left, I want to touch on some of the incredible artists you've worked with. RagNBoneMan's 'Human' is certified three times platinum in the UK. What was it like working with Rory, or RagNBoneMan, as we know him best. And [00:14:00] how long after meeting him did you write Human?
Jamie Hartman: I met him that day, first time in London at The Dairy, which is in Brixton. I heard his voice and I was just like, this guy's crazy, with Human pretty much a lot of the bones of that, and a lot of the actual meat of that was done before I met Rory, but Rory heard it and we really worked on it and honed it together. I captured the vocals there within that day, did a bunch of backing vocals, took it back to my house. At the time I was living in England and sent it into the label. Very simple demo form, but Rory and I, we took the idea, put it down very simply, and I got a phone call from the A&R man, 25 minutes after I sent it in.
Hasan Malik: Wow.
Jamie Hartman: Julian Palmer who actually set me up on it. But Julian's great. Fantastic A&R man at Sony in the UK called me and went, that's it mate, that's an absolute monster. And he knew, and I was like, really? He's like, yeah, yeah, yeah.
But he also knew how to take it further. You were talking about production and how you know where that goes. [00:15:00] He then goes great. Send me the parts. He got Two Inch Punch involved. Two Inch Punch took what we did , looking back now, the paths had to cross, and as I said to you before my goodness, if there are other people, there are plenty of other people who do everything better than we do.
There just are, because that's the way the world works. Lean on them, let other people do their job. Don't strangle an idea for thinking that you have to do everything. You never have to do everything and it's never just your record and it's never just your baby, even as you think you've done everything, you've played every instrument on it. Right. The guy who actually takes it to them, the DJ on your behalf from the record label happens to know that guy really well and happens to get him to play it at the right moment is hugely important. It's never just your baby. So lean on other people for how good they are and it will get you further. But yeah, Human came together in a beautiful way. It was a lesson in giving for me. And in that you have to give shit away to receive. You have to give stuff away. You have to give of [00:16:00] yourself sometimes more than you're comfortable with to really receive what you're looking for. It's important, it's more important than you know.
We'd love to deep dive into your recent collaboration with Celeste. She strikes me as a, sort a once in a generation type artist. What brought you two together?
I hadn't heard anything from her before. We sit down and that morning I'd just bought a piano for the first time ever in my life. Just sat down at the piano and had this little riff. That's cool. I really like that. That's cool. Recorded. There's a video of me, I think my daughter took it of me playing that for the first time, but the morning of the session when I was going to go meet Celeste, sat down with Celeste, she talked to me, you know, she's just a lovely person. But for me, I needed a start point and when I heard Nina Simone, I was like cool, cause I've got kind of this little riff then she went, I really love that. And we went and wrote the [00:17:00] bones again, just together of, we actually wrote the verse and the pre-chorus of Stop This Flame that day and another little idea.
And that was for me, I was like, whoa, this is special. Just hearing her voice, you know, as you said, once in a generation, but I look for voices like that. That's the first thing that gets me in a room with you now is, I really listen out for signature voices because there are so many voices that sound the same. So how are you going to stand out? And you know, for me, vocals are so important having been a singer. I listen out for signature voices and you're a hundred percent right, she has a totally signature voice and we just wrote more and more and more and more. I loved working with her. She came back on two or three trips to LA. I worked with her in London. She got signed off the back of the music we've been making and some stuff she'd done with these other guys who were fantastic as well, who ended up working on the record. Meeting Celeste, hearing her voice took me back to being 12, 13 years old with my little record player, [00:18:00] listening to Ella Fitzgerald, listening to Nina Simone and me doing literally Billie Holiday impressions in my bedroom. You know, I was like, this girl was crazy and I was just like, we need to do some stuff. So, when you go full circle, you're like, I know what this is. I know what this can be. You know, she can be that, and there was nothing more exciting than that, but you've got to hold out for those people to work with as well, you know, keep the bar high as to who you want to work.
It's almost like a perfect match between you two. When you talk about the music you were listening to and in walks Celeste who embodies so much of that soul and character that you loved listening to when you were younger.
Yeah, Sam Cooke was my biggest hero as a male singer, Nina Simone, and Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, as, as female singers. Aretha Franklin, I mean, you know, you're there. So yeah, you're right. It's just that sometimes the right artist walks in at the right moment. And that's magic. And for me, Celeste has been absolutely wonderful with that. It's been an incredible experience.
Hasan Malik: That's great. And before her debut album, Not Your Muse was released, you and Celeste had worked on a number of singles. I want to touch [00:19:00] on Little Runaway. How did that song come together?
Jamie Hartman: Little Runaway was, the record label guy, Keir, who's great was in LA with her quite often came over with that. My friend, Gary, who is a super, super fantastic songwriter Gary Go, his name is, came and joined us. Kier said to us, guys, you got to peel the onion back, you got to peel the layers away, get something great, you know, take Celeste out of her comfort zone.
And we sat down and Celeste started talking about her father who passed away when she was young. And that one just came out in an hour between all of us was just there and myself and Gary were both sitting there, tearing up and Celeste was sitting there and she was like, you're crying? You're both crying. And I said, this is about your dad. And then she just put her lyric book after we'd written it, just up like that, and just sat there for a bunch of times like that, because she just, it was too much. She didn't realize what that was about until that moment. And if you listen to the lyric, that's, you know, it was obvious to me and to Gary, [00:20:00] but I think it just hit Celeste. It was too much. I think at that point funnily enough, it was a bit too much to bear. I think sometimes songs are too personal and you don't realize that what you're doing at the time. But for me, that remains one of my favorite records. I'm so glad you picked that up because for me that's just makes me tear up when I hear that song.
Hasan Malik: I also want to touch on her single Love is Back, which has an incredible string arrangement, and immediately reminded me of some of Amy Winehouse's records when I first heard it. Did you have that final production in mind when you were writing that song?
Jamie Hartman: No. And that's , I'm really glad you asked me that question. I want to play something super cool . Right, so, driving through Los Angeles, my seven year old daughter at the time. We're on our way to see our friends. She goes to me, daddy , and you know she puts this in the back of my mind, she just clocks something and then puts it away and doesn't tell me. Then we get to England about two days later. We flew to London. I was going to work with Celeste the following day. I sit down, I'm in the living room at my parents' house. And my daughter said to me, daddy, I think I've got a song idea, [00:21:00] a title, for a song, and I said really? What is it? She went , Love is Back. And I went, that's pretty good. So I went: Love is back Love is back.
Love is back,
Love is back.
For a moment, there it goes
Turn around, next think you know
Love is back
So that was what I had. So I did that little voice memo like that. Went to see Celeste the next day. And then Celeste, I said, I think I've got an idea. You're going to find this nuts. But my daughter came up with a title that I [00:22:00] really loved and I wanted to play this for you. Bear in mind that. That was just the start point. We didn't have any other lyrics on that, you know, and then Celeste and I sat down there and then all at Paul Epworth's studio actually in London because that's where we were at that day.
And I played it to her and we wrote pretty much the whole thing. I think she ended up adding a few more bridge lyrics, after the fact, but the whole thing came together that day there and then we went downstairs and just did a super simple recording of it.
For me, it's got to feel great, even in simple, however, simple form, when we wrote tonight, tonight, it was just like, we were sitting at my house. I was sitting on Zoom it was during COVID. And I was like, You know, what'd be cool? Why don't we do like a Leonard Cohen meets like a Tarantino moment of like, I was listening to love songs. No one listens anymore. And I thought of who you were, and so it started really, really just like that. Like we were just sitting there doing like, okay, let's do an impression of a great Leonard Cohen record style thing, but mix it with a bit of [00:23:00] Tarantino, you know, it starts from a very different vibe, but most importantly, you're getting emotion across first. Right. So we knew there was something great, but the productions can, can end up being quite difficult, right. Faster et cetera. But the song has to be that for me anyway.
There's a bunch of other songs that we've written for that record, which is sitting, waiting for album two, which nobody's heard yet, which is kind of cool.
Hasan Malik: That's great well we're excited to hear it when it comes out And finally, what are you looking for in an artist that you work with? Is it their voice? Is it a compelling demo? What's the first thing that grabs your attention?
Jamie Hartman: Whatever it is that you're trying to achieve with a piece of music you're presenting to somebody, make it emote and listen to reaction like any piece of art.
It needs to elicit an emotional and visceral reaction from somebody that's it. It doesn't matter how simple or subtle that is , if it does that people will want to hear it again. And the only reason they want to hear it again is because they haven't heard it before. Very important. Has to have something which is different, and [00:24:00] new and a point of difference that they haven't heard before. It doesn't have to sound perfect ever, don't ever make anything sound perfect. Just make it sound emotional. Make it elicit a reaction, whatever it is, whichever instrument you're recording.
Myself and Paul Epworth, actually have invested in a new music company to help young people in the UK , but it's going to be going internationally worldwide very soon. And just check out something called sharethewrd.com. There's no O in word. So it's sharethewrd.com and it's based around everybody in the music business today, working in every type of area of the music, business sharing 15 second blocks of knowledge and advice and inspiration.
Sam Dixon Interview
Hasan Malik: We now turn to Sam Dixon who takes us through the defining moments in his career and shares key insights on the creative process.
Let's jump straight in and start at the very beginning of your career in Australia, You grew up in Adelaide? What was that like? Was your family musical?
Yeah,Sam Dixon: I, I wouldn't say my [00:25:00] family was musical, but I definitely, you know, there was always, good records on, in the house. And at about 14. I realized at my school there was like three or four bands and only one bass player. And he was playing in all of them. And, he was in his final year of high school. And I was, I was kind of like, damn, if I play bass, I can play in all of these bands.
Like, so that, that was a bit of an impetus for me to kind of, you know, I saw a window there, but Adelaide, it's much more of a cosmopolitan place now, but back then it had the feel of being, it was like the joke in Australia was like, it's not a city, it's a big country town, you know, you don't have dreams of getting out of there, but it was like, I knew that at that point, especially, you know, when I was getting towards the end of high school, that I was thinking pretty seriously about having a career as a musician and, wanting to be in a band or, be a session bass player, I would have needed to get out of Adelaide,
Hasan Malik: Talk to us about working with SIA for the first time she grew up in Adelaide, too. So is that where you first met?
Sam Dixon: We never knew each other when we lived there actually, but [00:26:00] when I'd moved to Sydney, the band I was in, when we'd come back and play in Adelaide, her band would do shows with us.
So we met and became really good friends then, and we kind of kept in touch over the years. And then she'd been living in London for maybe four or five years and was back in Sydney one Christmas and she just signed her second deal. She's like, "What have you been doing?", I was like, "Oh, I've been messing around with a computer doing demos." What do you know? And she's "Let me hear some," so I played her some, and she said, "This is great. I have to write an album. Let's go write some music". We had this amazing 13 day blitz of, you know, we wrote 10 songs in 13 days, and then about half of those ended up becoming her Colour The Small One record, and off the back of that, I'd been coming to London a few times on tour over the years to see Sia and do bits and pieces with her but came to London to play on that record and ended up sort of meeting with publishers and signing my publishing based on those songs on the album. And I'd reached a point in Sydney as well. At that point, I was late twenties and it was like, you know what now would be a good time to give London a [00:27:00] go and see what happens.
Hasan Malik: How did those early days working in bands and touring and doing gigs and commercials in Sydney, how did that influence your later career as a songwriter and a producer?
Sam Dixon: I think being in a band and seeing how that side of it works and having to do press and promo and also inter-band politics and, touring and, and all that side of it I think gave me a bit of an understanding of when I worked with artists as a writer producer, having a bit of an understanding of what they have to go through at certain stages of their release cycles. And then, but also creatively, like knowing that, you need time to work on things and good ideas can't be rushed. And if nothing happens in that one day, it's not the end of the world because you can get back together again another day and try again. And like, you know, I think there's so much pressure now, especially in the songwriting circuit, like people getting together, who've never met before having three hours and being expected to write the smash is kind of, you know, for an [00:28:00] artist that's incredibly disheartening, I think as well.
And you know, if they'd been forced to do that, a lot or sent around to different studios multiple times a week, month and month, year and year, they can start to lose a sense of who they are and, and why they started doing it in the first place. I think. I've been in writing sessions as an artist in the band in days where nothing happened or you're frustrated because someone's not doing something the way you were hearing it or, or you know, and the muse just wasn't in the room that day. And that's that's totally fine. And part of it.
Clara Bradley: You spoke a little bit about you and SIA both growing up in Adelaide. How did that influence your creative relationship and what was it like witnessing her artistic growth?
Sam Dixon: I think if you're friends with someone you've both grown up at the same time, in the same place, you see the world in kind of a similar sort of way, and you have similar shared experiences at least, you know, culturally.
Seeing her artistic development over the years in her career, but it's just been amazing. It's amazing. It was obvious very early [00:29:00] on. Yeah. Even when she was singing in Chris, when she was 17, that she had something incredibly unique and her voice was clearly of another plane and it wasn't at all surprising. What was surprising is that it took as long as it did for it to kind of all finally fall into place, you know? I guess that's the lesson there is, don't give up
We'd love to deep dive into the song writing process. Hasan Malik: Do you start with a bass guitar and a groove you mentioned sitting on the piano voice memos. How does it all come together?
Sam Dixon: It's so different for every artist. you know, Some artists can play, so they might sit down at the piano and start playing and I'll end up sitting on the couch and working on lyrics or on the, the kind of melody and top-line with them at the same time. Or it might be the other way around, they don't play, so I'll be at the piano or guitar, and finding something that works for them harmonically and that they react to and then we'll loop that round and, but I find for me personally, like building up tracks in the room and a writing session can be really [00:30:00] distracting.
I know if someone is like getting worried about a kick drum sound and we don't even have a verse lyric yet, it's kind of like, well, what are we, that's crazy. What are we doing? You know, we can do all that stuff later and that's the fun part, but that's like, At least kind of work out what it is we're trying to say or what the story is, or like get a chorus that we love that works just on the piano and the voice, or just on the guitar and the voice. And you know, it's, it's so crazy because you, on paper, you could look at a session coming up and a person you're going to be with. And like, this is going to be amazing. This is going to be incredible. And, and nothing happens, you know, and something you thought was like, but you weren't that excited about you get in and it's incredible. There's no rhyme or reason or logic behind it, or someone you've worked with regularly and done tons of great stuff with and then you can get in. And again, nothing happens like, but that kind of goes back to what I was saying before about the need to be able to have days like that and not get stressed out about it and be able to come back to things [00:31:00] and revisit.
Clara Bradley: You often work with powerful vocalists, like SIA, Adele, Christina Aguilera. What is it that draws you to powerful vocals?
Sam Dixon: It's funny. I didn't sit down and go, I'm going to work with people with amazing voices. It's like, I've just been insanely lucky and I've gotten to work with some incredible singers. It's not, it's not something I haven't like actively kind of, you know, you, you definitely. I mean, those three artists you mentioned, you know, God, I'm just so lucky to even have had the opportunity, but, when looking for new artists to work with, you know, invariably you listen to demos and you're going to react to what you hear and you're listening to the voice and you're listening to the lyric. And the voice is usually what hits you first on the, kind of the surface level of that. I think that leads me to work with certain people where I'm like, God, that voice makes me feel something, or I feel, you know, that's an amazing instrument and you get excited about what can you build around that?
Clara Bradley: And how do the artists you work with navigate the process of [00:32:00] holding back versus going all the way. Does it depend on the artist or do you have input on how to approach a vocal?
Sam Dixon: That's really interesting. Again, I've been really lucky. The vocalists I work with are all amazing producers, as far as they know what works for them when they're singing. And you know, it it'd be that through years of experience, of time in the studio or gigs that they've done over the years and, and, and also seeing how people react.
When they sing, they know what, how an audience responds to certain things. And, you know, I mean, there's the obvious things like a lyric can often dictate what the dynamic of the vocal is going to be.
Like Christina Aguilera was just incredible. Like her ear just would, you know, she's, she's like a superhuman athlete almost with her singing, you know, she'd be like, That last second, last syllable. And that last word was a tiny bit flat.
I'm like, what, what are you talking about? And then you look at it in the computers, like tiniest amount. I was like, yeah. Okay. You're right. Like that [00:33:00] just is that level of attention to detail and, and, and also that desire to make it that good and be as good as she possibly can and, you know, super inspiring.
Hasan Malik: Midi technology and sample plugins are much more prominent now in modern music than we've ever had before. What are your thoughts on using midi instruments versus tracking instruments live?
Sam Dixon: It's so interesting. Like the sample instruments are getting better and better and better and better and better, but there is something about an actual piano, which is never going to be perfectly in tune like a sample instrument is, and the way it's mic'd isn't ever going to be quite as perfect as it is like in that pristine sample library you've got.
The actual, the microphones recording sound vibrations moving through the air in that particular space, give it a character that nothing else could, that is just so hard to replicate with a sample instrument. I've got a couple of sample libraries which are kind of not [00:34:00] perfect on purpose and to get MIDI piano parts sounding human is actually a lot of work it's like, cause you've got to go in and get all the velocities just right.
And I don't know. It's just so much easier just to sit at piano, put some microphones up, play it. Oh, that was it. Great. If there's that contrast between analog, organic stuff, and then the super in the box thing that can make those differences quite glaring. Whereas if it's all sample stuff, it sounds amazing. Like it sounds huge and super clean and pristine and kind of, you know, and if you suddenly put the wrong organic element amongst all of that, it's like, what is that just sounds, you know, it doesn't work.
What I do miss is, getting to track as a band, like in a room, you know, it wasn't that long ago when you get a call to make an album, you spend a week, two weeks in a great studio with your friends playing live, like, you know, doing takes and I don't know. It's [00:35:00] so great. You know, and that, of course those albums still get made like that, but it seems less and less. .
Hasan Malik: That brings us really nicely to Adele. 25 had so much more of that balance between sampled instruments and live instruments, but it pulled it off brilliantly. We'd love to learn more about you working with her. What was it like when you actually got in a room for the first time and said, let's write a song together.
Sam Dixon: Yeah. I mean, it's not often I'm nervous, but that was just because , it was more because we were friends by then,by the time we actually did a session together because I'd been on the road with her for sort of two and a half, three years, from when the promo for 21 started. So when Rolling in the Deep came out was kind of when I sort of I'd, I'd actually just stopped touring with SIA and I was like, okay, I'm not going to tour anymore.
I'm going to stay in London and focus on my writing and producing because I was getting in this cycle of like, I'd get my writing, producing to a point and then I'd go off and tour for six months, eight months. And then I would kind of be back to square one a bit, and also just, you know, touring it can be, it can be a bit like Groundhog Day.
It can [00:36:00] be really exciting, but other times it's like you're sitting in some dressing room in a hockey arena and it's minus 17 outside and you're there for eight hours but yeah, I'd kind of reconciled the fact. It was like, okay, I'm not going to tour anymore.
I'm going to stay at home, work on the studio, focus on that stuff. And then a friend of mine, Tim Vanderkuil who's a fantastic guitarist. He was like, Oh, I'm going into audition for Adele, and they're looking for a bass player. Do you want to do it? I was going to recommend you. And I obviously knew 19 and I'd actually seen Adele sing maybe the year before that at the Mercury Prize, which is like a British album prize.
And it was just her and her guitar. And it was just like, mindblowing, you know, it was, it was like, wow. So I was like, you know what, I'll go. I'll just go, I'll go to the audition, see how it goes. And so went along and, it was obviously amazing and she was incredible. And at that point no one knew what was going to happen.
It was [00:37:00] like, there's going to be, it was like six or eight weeks of promo of like, you know, the fun stuff, like doing Letterman and you know, U.S. TV and British TV. I was like, okay, cool, well like you know, I'll do this. It's like a couple of months. It's going to be fun. Everyone's great. Team's awesome. Let's see what happens. So yeah, after 21 was done, touring finished. I knew she was writing but had no expectations at all. But yeah, we went to lunch one day and she was like, oh, we should write something. I was like, yes. Um, and thankfully, you know, we, we got together a week after that. It was very locked in time-wise because her boy was quite young, then it's like, she's like, I have to leave at five picking him up. We'd started on something that she'd already had going and wanted to try doing a chorus for. So we did that and that kind of went okay. Yeah. And then she's like, okay, let's park that. Let's try something else. I just sat down at the piano and just like, I don't know that that, that chord motif just like happened sort of straight away.
And I just thought she like physically [00:38:00] reacted to it straight. It was like, Oh, but she was suddenly kind of sat up a bit and was like, oh, this is interesting. And then it happened super quickly. Like we got the verse and chorus in about an hour and we tracked that like really rough, just her sitting on the couch, holding this microphone actually. And that hit five o'clock. So I've got to go, bye. I'm like, okay. So that's, I was like, either that sucked or she just had to go and, you know, we'll see what happens and then sure enough, I got a text later that night. She's saying I'm really excited about the song. Could we start a bit earlier? I want to get it finished.
And I'm like, okay, great. And then yeah, she came in, we wrote the second verse and the middle eight again and about I think 45 minutes an hour. Wow. Had some lunch and then vocaled it, but again, like just a couple of takes sitting on the couch, holding the mic. And then that was that. And then, you know, I kind of went overboard on the demo. Like I, you know, it had drums and it had, it was got strings on it, and it was a much more bombastic fleshed out [00:39:00] production than what ended up being on the album and, you know, sent it and, you know, and again, like you don't, you shouldn't ever expect to hear back it's just like, you'll know when you know. And then a year passed, like, and I saw her a year later, it was a birthday party.
And I knew the album was getting close at this point and stuff had been scrapped but in my head at that time, I was like, it's not this isn't happening, this song isn't going on the record, you know? And then I just, I just remembered, Adele would always love doing at soundchecks, very stripped back versions of songs that were for band.
So she would, she would often love to do Skyfall or something, you know, just with her and the piano player. Like she really likes that broken down thing. And I was like, God, I should just, I'm just going to do another mix of this song with just her, the piano and the strings, and maybe a little bit of sub bass synth. Because it was such a personal song as well. I've just framed it the wrong way. I need to frame this differently. So I kind of did that and then sent it off and didn't hear anything. [00:40:00] And then got a call out of the blue really late one Sunday night saying, you know, from her team being like, it's in consideration for the record. Can you replace the strings with real strings? And I'm like, yeah, of course. Like when, when do you need this by? This is Sunday night. Well, um, we're mixing on Thursday. So, uh, there's a challenge for you. And then so ended up trying to organize a 35 piece string section, get it recorded, then get everything ready to mix it, you know, in three or four days was hard going.
And then so Monday spent all day organized 35 players in London, and then couldn't find a studio. There were no studios available that were big enough. And then a friend of mine was like, go to Prague. There's this amazing orchestra in Prague.
You show up with your charts, hard drive David Lynch does all of his film scores there. You just go in, you'll be done in three hours. So yeah, I checked in with the management, like yep. Go for it. So yeah, got on a plane to Prague [00:41:00] Tuesday morning, total covert, you know, you know, and because obviously, because there's a level of secrecy as well at that point around a project, so they couldn't know it was Adele.
And it's some, yeah, somehow got it all done in time. Sent send the files to mix late Wednesday night, got the mixed back Thursday night, everyone's signed off on it. And the album was mastered on the Friday. When those moments happen you've just got to go for it and do whatever it takes to get stuff done. And you don't know when those things are gonna happen, if ever, and if ever again, you've, you've just got to give it everything and do whatever it takes.
Hasan Malik: What was it like playing at Royal Albert Hall? Um, I'm sure it was amazing,
Sam Dixon: Man. Yeah, amazing. So great. I mean the history, it's location. It's right on the edge of Hyde Park. It's such a magical place and it's, it's funny. It's not huge. It's by no means the biggest place we ever played, on that tour.
But the fact that they were filming that night as well, you know, gigs are fine, but as soon as there's a camera involved, suddenly things can get a bit more nervy. [00:42:00] Yeah. And I was like, Oh my God, and because it's like, it's not like they're just filming in the studio where you can do multiple takes and start again it's a gig.
So it's, you've got to do a great gig, but also do a great performance for the camera. So all of us super nervous and the very first song. There's like a steady cam guy operator who's got one of those amazing steady cams, which are like mounted kind of on a gyroscopic body mount thing so you can walk around and they don't bump and some insane, massive, like glass, huge glass lens, worth tens of thousands of pounds.
Like at the front of this thing. And he's walking along the front of the stage and this is like in the first song. And the lens drops and glass just like smashes all over the front of the stage. And I was like, thank you, sir. It was like, thank God. He was the guy that was going to screw up tonight.
Not us. Awesome. It was like, so that suddenly it felt like the weight was lifted. It was like, okay, great. Nothing we can do now will be anywhere near as bad as that. [00:43:00] So we're good.
Hasan Malik: What advice would you give to young songwriters?
Sam Dixon: Man, I would say work out what it is that you love and what you're excited about and what you want your stuff to sound like and work out why those things sound like that.
And see if you can do that yourself as well. And at least then your reinterpretation of that is never going to be exactly the same, but you'll start finding your own voice through these other things that excite you, I think is, you know, if you like how Tom York plays guitar, or if you like, how's that, you know, learn some of those songs.
And in doing that you kind of make it your own, I think. And that'll help you find your thing, you know, whereas just coming at something straight on without any sort of external influences, I would definitely work out why that stuff is resonating in you and work out how you can do it yourself, be it a technical thing, like how to play an instrument a certain way.
Be it how someone phrases, their vocal melody. Be it the use of language, you know, their lyric writing, [00:44:00] study that stuff and just focus on the stuff that you love. Find what it is that you really love and resonates with you and try and work out how to do it yourself.
Hasan Malik: That's about all we have time for today. This has been the songwriting episode of DropTheMic: Music Industry Conversations . Thank you so much for listening to our podcast and thanks to our guests, Jamie and Sam for taking the time to sit down with us. If you enjoyed this podcast, please feel free to subscribe to DropTheMic wherever you find your podcasts. Thanks for tuning in and see you next time.