Guitar Noise is pleased to introduce you to Dave Sanderson, songwriter, musician and jingle writer for the BBC. Dave is kind enough to share some of his experience and insight with us on the subject of writing a successful jingle for radio promotions in his article, Meticulous At Being Ridiculous.
Guitar Noise staffer Alan Green managed to get Dave to take a little time to answer some questions about his new CD, Songbook, songwriting in general and the influences different artists have had on his writing.
GN: There is a definite Joni Mitchell feel in the opening track, and some Beach Boy harmonies later. What were your early influences and have they changed as a result of your studies?
DS: I got into Joni Mitchell pretty late (in the late 1990’s), picking up vinyl copies of her albums at car boots and record fairs. She’s one of the greats and I’ve tried to make up for lost time by listening to her a lot. However, I can’t say she is has been an influence upon what I do necessarily (even though I’m delighted if someone might think she could be!).
Beach Boys. Well, again…I like the album Smiley Smile. I suppose if they’ve had an influence on me. This has been the result of being influenced by a band or artist who have been influenced by them first! 10cc, for instance.
My very early influences would stem from the music played in the house by my parents and older sisters. Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Stones, The Who and Pink Floyd to name a few although I’m simplifying it a great deal there as you can imagine. I was a strange kid at school. I liked Chic and Earth, Wind and Fire as much as The Police and The Stranglers. It’s quite acceptable for kids to like anything now but in my day, the seventies, you were seen as a poof if you didn’t just like the same heaviest, nastiest band that all the other kids liked. Later, I got into bands like Rush. Then heavily into Frank Zappa. Then a little later I caught up with XTC’s back catalogue. Those are the ones that spring to mind today. Although there was so much else I could have mentioned (as with anyone’s love of music).
I don’t think my influences have changed as a result of my studies. Though, I know my approach to working has!! I’m far more disciplined than I was…put it that way!
GN: With Muse increasingly prominent these days, a lot of attention is being focussed on the West Country. How strong is the music scene there?
DS: I’d like to think there’s more focus and more opportunity for people in the West Country to be heard. I remember the buzz around Muse before they jumped up a rung or two and made it big. And Joss Stone seemed to just appear out of nowhere.
Generally, things progress rather slowly down here but I’ve come across (and personally know) some very talented people from round these parts. So it’s only a matter or time before there are more stars and starlets from the area.
GN: How many instruments do you play?
DS: Piano is my first instrument. In the past, my role in bands has always been ‘the keyboard player’ and rightly so while there were people like my good friend, Arthur Cook, to play guitar!
All the songs on Songbook were made so purely for guitar (deliberately so to maintain the same sound world throughout) but I’m currently making up for it by working at the piano again for the next album.
I still intend to do a lot on guitar though. Steel-string, nylon-string…also the Nashville tuning which really proved effective on the recent songs.
I love playing bass. Just bought a new Yamaha five-string and the Bass Pod so I’ll be using those on the next album, I should think!
I’ll sit behind the drums if the seat’s free and there’s no other drummer about. But I wouldn’t say I’d join a band to sit there full-time or anything like that! I have about three different patterns I can muster reasonably.
GN: What would be your typical stage setup?
DS: Well…an answer to this could prompt a long sober reply if I’m not careful. Suffice to say, I’m not gigging any of the material on Songbook. I wouldn’t even like to say ‘watch this space’ because I don’t plan on doing it. Now, this could be like shooting myself in the foot with a view to getting the songs heard and selling copies of the album. BUT, as well as having misgivings about my own live performance these days, it’s evident to anyone who listens to the album that so many compromises would have to be made to produce it live. I didn’t make the album with any plan to play it live afterwards. I wanted it to be heard as it is on CD (and still do!). I know this is not a common or shared view amongst musicians but that’s the way I see my own work these days. I’ve never played or sung to my best in a live situation. I much prefer recording, getting it right with no pressure and with a nice hot cup of tea to sip from after a good take.
GN: What’s your approach to songwriting?
DS: I’d like to think there’s more going on in my head than just ‘here’s the verse, here’s another, now a chorus’ etc. I’m sure, for instance, my sidestep into composing concert pieces has had some impact somewhere upon my approach to songs.
I’m going to have to go back in history for a moment.
As a child, I started at the piano by dabbling, like so many do, without any intention of writing ‘songs’. I’ve still got recordings of about thirty or so pieces from that time (precious only to me, I suppose). Some of them are still the best things I’ve ever done (maybe I should give up now!).
Anyway, I remember all of those pieces developed by just playing, playing and playing…leaving it, coming back later, and adding the next bit.
Later, when I took along some notated pieces to a composition tutor at an interview for a music course, I was asked, “do you compose at the piano?” (er, yes) and “do you make it up as you go along?” (er, yes, again). While I studied composition there, I tore myself away from the piano to compose once an idea was taking shape. Also, I got into drawing up plans for pieces and an altogether more adult way of composing, or so it seemed. Composing a longer work for orchestra got me into the idea of using film structure as a template. That intrigued me for a while.
When recently, say in the last five years, I got back into writing on guitar and I found songs would just start forming naturally. A chord structure would suggest a melody, a melody would suggest certain vowel sounds to be sung, those vowel sounds would become words, and so on. That’s pretty much the way the songs on ‘Songbook’ have come together.
I’ve always been a ‘music rather than lyrics’ fan so yes, it’s the music first!! I wouldn’t come up with a poetic gem like Joni then put music to it. That feels odd to me. But, having said that, I won’t settle for any old words and I worked very hard on the lyrics for the songs on ‘Songbook’. In fact, I’ve said so much about what I really think of things (rather than going ‘ooh baby, I wanna love you all night along’) that I’m not sure what I have left to say for the next album.
Something’ll come along, I’m sure (that’s been the basic approach up to now!).
GN: “I was asked, “do you compose at the piano?” (er, yes) and “do you make it up as you go along?” (er, yes, again).”
A number of our readers – me included – will be thinking “so, what’s wrong with that?”. If there was just one tip you could share about composing a song or an instrumental piece, what would it be?
DS: Composing at the piano suits me fine, of course. But when the benefits of working away from an instrument were introduced to me it made a lot of sense. If I’m writing something for piano I’ll pretty much stay sat at one for the whole process BUT it’s when you’re writing for orchestra, string quartet or wind quintet (you name it) of course, that it makes sense for me to sit elsewhere and extend the ideas with a pencil and paper with a violin (or whatever it is) playing in my head instead. It’s so easy, otherwise, to get stuck on the piano enjoying its own distinctive sounds when you’re meant to be writing for an instrument for a completely different sound world. Plus the lines you compose for an instrument (other than piano, of course) end up just playing the notes that fit comfortably under the composer’s fingers on a piano. Oddly enough, there are plenty of examples in the orchestral repertoire that show evidence of this…famous chunks of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite Of Spring’ for instance…but, it’s healthy to have an orchestra operate differently than that sometimes!! So, I had to get used to it and allow the sound of a string quartet playing REAL pizzicato in my head rather than plonk around on a keyboard using Bank 1 Preset 14: Pizzicato Strings or whatever the patch would have been.
I’m not sure that’s the most important tip I can think of…but it’s pretty important, that one. You feel liberated when you do all that and get an exciting result. Mind you, that’s writing for orchestras and ensembles for the concert hall!