Songwriting & How to Develop Your Voice - An Interview With Phil Ramacon
Tips On Singing, Songwriting & How to Develop Your Voice
Phil Ramacon has racked up an impressive amount of accolades in his 25 years in the music industry. His enthusiasm and passion for all genres of music has lead him to work with the likes of Gregory Issaacs, Neneh Cherry, Jimmy Cliff and Marianne Faithful to name a few! In this interview, I caught up with Grammy award winner and tutor of our Songwriting Course to find out how he got into Songwriting and what it was really like to tour with the legendary Bob Marley.
How did you originally get into songwriting and music, and what made you decide it was something you should follow as a career?
I got into Songwriting through playing piano at school. I didn't have a musical background so it was just a random meeting with another student who showed me various bits and pieces and I started it as an activity with no particular aim in mind.
People were telling me it sounded pretty good until one of the teachers said I should get some proper lessons. They sent me to a local teacher in Stamford Hill and I found that I loved it. I kept doing my grades and winning competitions before getting a scholarship to go and study properly. I thought I'd take it really seriously and - to everyone's amazement - got in to a place away from London called Dartington Hall in Devon. From there I got exposed to things I hadn't known about before, lots of classical music.
The Amadeus Quartet and famous classical people go down there and give lessons and materclasses. I kind of got obsessed and attended them all and got exposed to lots of different forms of composition, concertos, symphonies so wrote a lot of that stuff.
There was a big electronics department there that had a massive Modular. I got a bit fascinated with all the wires etc as I never knew about anything like that. So that was one of the benefits about going to that place, getting exposure to early electronic music.
What was it that made you make the switch from Classical composition, which you were formally trained in, to getting involved with artists like Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley & Gregory Issacs whose style was taken from a totally different and informal way of writing?
There was a Jazz orchestra there at Darington Hall which I joined and I tried to write in other styles which was good exposure. Trying to write for small Jazz artists was new for me and I liked it. I met someone at college who knew someone at Island Records who are now famous for being the record company for Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Gregory Issacs and lots of rock bands like Free.
They knew one of the A&R people so I went down to London to audition for him and he must have liked the way I played. Also while I was still at school/college I was playing on a Bob Marley record at the time, so I auditioned for them - I didn't know anything about their particular style, I just played what I knew which was classical pieces and they all got excited about it. At the time I didn't really appreciate who I was playing for, I was just glad someone liked what I was doing and then they asked me to play on another record!
I didn't know anything about the recording process and I just learnt from watching them like a hawk to see how they did things. I just concentrated on playing the piano and they seemed to like it and from then on they kept asking me back to play on different records. I then came across a guy called Steve Winwood who was in this band called Traffic. They eventually split up but they all had separate deals. Through this I worked with the saxophone player where I met Jimmy Cliff and various other musicians that were signed to Island Records.
As soon as I left college I was playing with some of these guys and they got excited because I could read classical music. They kept asking me to write brass and string arrangements and it was really nice to hear this stuff on the radio knowing I'd played on it.
I did an audition for a guy called Rico Rodriguez who was a jazz trombonist back in the early 60′s and he's a very revered older statesman of ska music and I got into his band. I was the youngest guy there. They told me their band was going to be supporting Bob Marley on the European leg of his Exodus tour 1978 and asked if I wanted to do it.
That tour was the first time I came across Bob in person and it was when he was in his peak. Bob heard me play every night with Rico and I started chatting to him. We shared the same outlook on life as a spiritual journey with a moral purpose. After the tour ended I would often get the call to work with him in the studio whenever he was in London. It was definitely an honour to watch him work close up, talk with him and be a part of his creative process. 'Punky Reggae Party', 'Keep On Movin', 'Iron Lion Zion' and 'Mix Up Fix Up' are some of the tracks I played on. At the time I was just glad someone liked what I was doing and kept asking me to play on their records! I didn't really fully appreciate that these records would become so famous.
I also got friendly with his main keyboard player, Tyrone Downie who helped me so much with synthesisers and understanding the certain types of things you're meant to do in music at that level. Mainly to let the music breathe and to use space as much as possible. No clutter. Keep it steady.
Tyrone advised me to learn Stevie Wonder's chords and it was by listening to all these guys that I got exposed to real songwriting and musicianship. The first songs I did that got anywhere as a writer was when Jimmy Cliff asked me to co write two songs for his, 'I am the Living', album which I played on and arranged many of the songs. Those songs went platinum straight away. That's when I thought I could make a go of this and the royalty checks from those songs still come in.
You have been involved in writing with some real icons of the music world such as Jimmy, Bob, Neneh Cherry and more recently Keb Mo. These are all seen as very authentic musicians. What drew you towards working with an artist like Cher Lloyd, who brings with her a certain amount of debate in terms her authenticity as an artist after coming from a reality TV background?
It doesn't matter to me what background you come from. We're all learning from each other. All those people you mentioned, they can all sing and I'm drawn towards people who are really spiritual about the way they make music and when they open their mouth and sing you can just tell. Cher has definitely got that. There's a lot of talent but it's being completely ignored by the music industry, so in a way it's good there are programmes out there that bring them forward, otherwise we would never have heard of people like Leona Lewis.
A lot of people from X Factor get criticised but it's not as easy as it looks. I got criticised when I first started using synthesisers in reggae music. I was also one of the first to use drum machine in contemporary music and drummers weren't happy with me at first. I tried to reason with them but they saw it as a threat. Now I see the same arguments taking place over these talent shows. To me they are an extra dimension but not the whole picture, so there's no need for anyone to be worried. It's actually hard for an X factor winner to maintain the interest once a new series begins.
Cher Llyod and the other X Factor contestants may not be your taste but everyone deserves their time. For me it's whether that person will see the project through from start to finish. I like everything to be organised. There's no guarantees but I like melodies and I like vocals and songwriting. It doesn't matter if it's in dubstep style, reggae style - its a song so i'm going to love it.
Do you have any kind of tried-and-tested strategy that you employ when collaborating with artists, or will you adapt your process to the specific personality of the musician? For instance, did you approach your collaboration with Keb Mo any differently than working with Cher Lloyd?
No. My only tried and tested method is just to get to know each other first and see if there's any rapport musically and spiritually. I find that it's a good idea even before you even make music, to have a chat, maybe go out for a drink. If you talk to someone and realise they're talking a lot about garage music then it makes sense to start with something quite fast and energetic. Then see where it goes. Overall my approach is flexible depending on what skills the other writer has.
Some people are good at lyrics, some people are really good at melodies and I don't want to tread on their toes and vice versa. People sometimes come to me because they like the last thing I did or something I have done. So there's an expectation of the results to sound a certain way. There was a period where a lot of projects I was working on involved girls who could rap or sing like Neneh Cherry, because I was a co writer on 'Buffalo Stance.'
A lot of the managers would send me a similar type of artist, so they already wanted something similar to Neneh. I find that approach to be too restrictive. A good writing session with someone could start by me giving them some backing tracks for them to add to. Hopefully they'll respond intuitively to create a good lyrical and melodic chorus or theme. Other times I may start the process by singing something myself or by playing a groove on piano or guitar.
I like it when it starts on an organic level with guitar or piano and then my collaborator responds creatively to what's being played.
After having a number of commercial and critical successes with songwriting & production, (gaining a number of Grammy nominations in the process), how did you eventually make the leap from being the writer, full-time, to teaching others how to write for themselves?
A long time ago I was asked to deputise a teaching job at South Thames college and they were running a small department in music production. My job was to teach Pro Tools as it was then and piano. I was really inspired by my students as the gear that we had then was really basic but they made the best of it. Some of the things they were playing was unbelievable. Pretty much my whole class were the founding members of So Solid Crew who had all come from the church. They were really enthusiastic and hungry for the knowledge and any little thing they could get from me and the other tutors.
I was really impressed that they were interested and they would always go home and practise and then one day they came back and played me what they came up with and it was the prototype to 21 Seconds.
A lot of those guys have gone into grime and they then taught the next generation. There was one particular guy called A.C. Burrell and he ended up producing remixes for Beyonce and managed to buy his mum a house by the next summer!
As somebody who has written many songs for other artists, would you recommend all songwriters to do the same as a way of getting your foot in the door as a recording artist, and also as a way to master their craft? i.e. Somebody like Jessie J who has only recently stepped into the limelight after writing anonymously for other artists for some time.
There is no set method, you have to do what's right for you. People like David Bowie and John Lennon all started off as songwriters for other people. The Rolling Stones started off covering a lot of Chuck Berry songs but then went on to write their own. Carole King also started off writing for other people.
You don't always have to though. Lots of people start bands and write songs only for themselves. However I don't think you can really write for someone you don't know as you can't be sure what they really want. All you can do is write what you think is good and a situation may come around where it becomes useful for something else. The only advice I can give is to get started right now and if you're a singer/songwriter then just go for it but don't necessarily think about who it is you want it for. Just do it and along the way you'll figure out who it'll work for.
Apart from learning from a hugely experienced songwriter and mentor like yourself; what other benefits to young musicians do you see coming from taking music courses such as those at Point Blank?
This is important in contemporary music where it's all about the collaborative process. Also, in a college environment you get to meet loads of people that have similar music interests and tastes.
When I was studying music there wasn't many places where you could learn to produce music. It was more a case of reading the manuals and learning by making a lot of mistakes. At Point Blank you get hands on experience and have people who can show you tips that you wouldn't see in a manual or text book.
Someone here will tell you how to use the LFO in a certain way or to try coming in with the chorus a little earlier. They won't tell you what to write but will show you the best ways to achieve it in a way that's still you. All the tutors here at Point Blank are really committed and will show you all the short cuts.
As well as teaching young artists to write music, you also teach our Singing Class; who, out of all your collaborations over the years, do you think has had the most naturally talented singing voice? And what in particular set them apart from the rest at the time? Do you have any tips on finding your own unique vocal sound?
Pretty much everybody that I've worked with has had very good natural singing talent; I'm drawn towards that. I like people who use music to express themselves with their voice and sing in tune but that's subjective. They don't have to be technically brilliant singers but they need to be convincing when they do sing lyrics.
For me it's about attitude and performance. I don't necessarily get moved by someone who is technically in tune for every note, sometimes it can sound bland when someone is too technical. I think what I'm drawn to is someone that has a personality and can convey various emotions when they sing. Whether its anger or love lost, you have to believe that they mean it at the time.
I love Gregory Issacs' voice - the way he gets into his consonants, his phrases. Jimmy Cliff is another one and Mark Hollis (he is the singer for Talk Talk) he's got a really good natural voice, completely different -and of course Bob Marley had a great tone too.
What specific areas of composition do you personally put most importance on when teaching your Songwriting class at the college?
Melody for me is king. I'm personally big on structure, melody, harmony and lyrics. I think once you have all of your ideas you must try and put them forward in a way that has lots of contrast, hooks and structure. It's also very important when you're trying to write a radio friendly song to keep it tight and under 4 minutes.
I like students to try and be open minded and to appreciate all kinds of music. There is usually something good even in something you're not keen on. It could be a good use of chords, melody or lyrics but you can always find something within the big successful tracks and get inspiration from.
So really what's important for me is structure, harmony, melody and lyrics, not necessarily in that order but basically an open mind and using a combination of those and just listen to lots of different things. Songwriting is the kind of thing that you can't really stand still on and you have to listen to as much different music as possible to fuel your creativity.
Do you think that many wannabe 'Producers' these days ignore the idea of traditional 'Songwriting' and instead, put too much emphasis on writing good 'beats', letting the artist get on with writing the song themselves or with other outside writers? Would you encourage those who think themselves as 'beat-maker' producers to get involved in the more traditional process of Songwriting too?
There's many ways to write a song and each method is as valid as the next. There's a wide variety of genres and styles to go for, so it depends on what you're trying to achieve at the time. The so called 'traditional' way; melody, lyrics and harmony hasn't gone way at all, that's still current. You only need to look at Skrillex and Tiësto to see that musicians are still using those skills in some way or another. If you're working with vocalists and you want to be current, then you need your beats to be amazing; it is an important part of what you do, but it is'nt necessarily the whole picture.
However when your dealing with beats you've got to be aware that its got a shelf life of maybe 6-9 months before the next brand new thing comes along. When you marry great beats to a great melody and lyrics, your work has the chance reach people globally and to be timeless. People will still be playing it in 20 years time because melody and storytelling is something that resonates with people around the world. If you're looking to do that then definitely try and explore the idea of learning about the whole process of songwriting including harmony and lyrics.
I think big tracks are some sort of crazy mixture of beats with another genre. I've noticed that big tracks are sometimes a mash up of maybe rock and house music or maybe house and dubstep or there's some crazy mixture that no one has thought of with a melody and a charismatic artist you've got a chance of making something timeless. I kind of like the idea of doing things that are going to be around for a long time, I think that's a good thing to aim for. At the same time, one of the hardest things ever is to put a track on the fills up the dancefloor.
If you're the creator of one of those tracks you should be proud of yourself! To put a track on that all the DJ's up and down the land are going to say that's something they want to play. If you can do that then afterwards start thinking about how you can take it to the next level by adding vocals, and think about lyrics and melody.
Whether or not they come into the public consciousness, time will tell but almost everybody has got the chance to be up there with the very best. If you keep working, keep developing and try different things and experiment by mixing genres. Personally I like catchy things so my advice you just be to make it catchy!