It was Bruce Springsteen who said that talking about music is like talking about sex: “It’s better demonstrated.” The rub? He was in conversation with Elvis Costello on the latter’s wonderful ‘Spectacle’ television show. A show devoted to talking about music.
‘Spectacle’ was phenomenal and offered a valuable and unique insight into the world our favourite songwriter’s inhabit. Springsteen’s comment was said with a giggle, as he knew he was wrong. The likes of Springsteen, Costello, Smokey Robinson, Lamont Dozier and Burt Bacharach have done nothing but talk about songwriting since the Internet started to dominate the media. We all analyse arts way too much now – and some aren’t qualified to do it at all. When it’s done right, however, the Frasier Crane in all of us can dig deep and find things out for, and about, ourselves. The analysis is right when done in, let’s say, monthly podcasts with interviews featuring some of the most successful songwriters and musicians in the world…
Sodajerker do that one better than most – and have done it for five years now. The Scouse songwriting team, founded by Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, host a popular programme that has attracted some of the biggest and best names in the business, with recent classics including conversations with John Grant, Mike Scott, Miranda Cooper (Google her), KT Tunstall and Paddy McAloon. How did two schoolmates go from being in a popular local beat combo (Santa Carla: art pop in the tradition of Deaf School and well worth a dig after you’ve read this), to chatting to their songwriting heroes? Let’s start at the beginning…
You were in a band together. Is that when the itch for Sodajerker first started?
Simon: In a roundabout way, yeah, we were in Santa Carla for a number of years and we were its main songwriters. The band split back in 2007, but Brian and I valiantly soldiered on and continued writing songs under the name Sodajerker.
Brian: The podcast initially came about just shy of five years ago and we originally conceived it as a way to get people to engage with our music… and us! We were fans of shows like ‘WTF’ and ‘Nerdist’, and decided to model ours on their long-form interview format – but focusing exclusively on songwriters.
It’s a very niche audience… but a very engaging one when found. How did you balance that at the start?
Simon: We try to make it as accessible as possible to people who may not have, say, a great deal of musical knowledge. Many of the songwriting techniques and approaches we’ve talked about with our guests are transferable to other kinds of creativity, too.
You’re 87 shows in, so it must be true!
Brian: People like hearing great songwriters telling stories of how their classic hits came to be. As Simon indicated, it’s fun on an anecdotal level as well as being manna for musos, too. I also think that people are invested in us on a personal level now, too, they know we are music lovers and have taken a journey with us through the course of the series. Hearing us get to chat with some of our heroes is part of the way people enjoy the show, because we are fans just like they are.
The BBC are fans of yours, too. Tell us about that…
Brian: We were approached recently by BBC Radio’s head of current affairs, as it turned out he was a big fan of the podcast and asked if we’d like to make a radio documentary on songwriting, based on our interview archive… which is pretty extensive now. The documentary is called ‘The Secrets of Songwriting’ and went out on the BBC World Service a couple of weeks ago.
Simon: It really was as simple as that! Within days of agreeing to do it, we had a transmission date, a producer assigned to us and we got to work…
Brian: It was quite a baptism of fire in terms of the time we had to get it together, but we’re thrilled with how it turned out. Listeners really seem to be responding to it too.
Simon: Yeah, even people who were already fans of the podcast told us how much they liked hearing key moments in the form of a handy ‘digest’.
Brian: I prefer to think of it as a ‘best of’ or one of those mid-season ‘clip shows’ they do on American sitcoms.
Clip shows are an essential component of success! Back to good songwriting, what are its essential components do you think?
Simon: Obviously, you need a strong tune.. that’s the first thing the listener is going to hear. You need to hook them in right from the off with a good melody and it doesn’t have to be anything overly elaborate –a simple melody with a few notes can work just as well as one that leaps about all over the place. Though a surprising chord change and an unpredictable structure are also good rules of thumb.
Brian: A heartfelt lyric an audience can relate to is also important. If you’re writing about something personal, chances are there’ll be people listening who’ll identify with it, so it’ll really hit home. Having said that, some of my favourite songs have utterly inane lyrics or bizarre imagery! But, a weird and impenetrable lyric can kind of transcend its own weirdness and make some kind of sense if it’s complemented by a strong tune: ‘Surf’s Up’ by The Beach Boys or The Beatles’ ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’. If we’ve learned anything about the rules of songwriting, it’s that there are no rules!
Cards on the table, then… who are your favourite songwriters and what do you love about them?
Brian: Paul McCartney is just so… musical. He’s like a human vessel, purpose built for the conveyance of music. I think Bob Dylan described him best when he said: “Everything that comes out of his mouth is framed in melody.” Prince would have to be up there – I still can’t get used to describing him in the past tense. I sometimes think his pop superstar status meant his abilities as a songwriter (and an instrumentalist) were overlooked, but he was ridiculous: pore over his catalogue and there’s every kind of song in there – concise, catchy pop; tender ballads; funk workouts; blues, jazz and songs you couldn’t categorise… have you ever heard anything else that sounds like ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Parker’? He was limitless in his scope.
Simon: You’ll get no argument on McCartney from me, but Paddy McAloon is a wonderful songwriter also and that unrequited and romantic quality to his music never fails to completely absorb me. He writes the sort of songs that are so good, you end up daydreaming about having written them yourself!
I hear that. What other songs do you wish you had written?
Brian: The chord sequence for Squeeze’s ‘Tempted’ is one I wish I’d written – it’s fiendishly good and immensely satisfying to bash out on the piano.
Simon: In terms of great chord sequences, for me, it’s probably the intro of ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’, by Paul Simon… how that was arrived at is one of the great mysteries to me!
What about favourite songwriters from the podcast’s extensive back catalogue?
Simon: Interviewing Liverpool’s own Willy Russell was perhaps the single best experience we’ve had doing the show. He was witty, engaging and so enthusiastic about the podcast. He’d even listened to quite a few episodes before we spoke to him and referred to specific ones during the interview! I also loved chatting with KT Tunstall – a brilliant artist and a really warm and funny person.
Brian: Andy Partridge springs instantly to mind whenever we’re asked that question – he was brilliant, funny and so connected to his process. The American singer-songwriter, Mike Viola, was also great in that way. Dan Wilson, formerly of Semisonic, was also like that and we included a great story Dan told us about writing with Adele in the aforementioned BBC documentary…
Simon: Thanks… we’ve had so many great guests that it’s becoming increasingly hard to pick out just a few favourites.
Brian: A football pundit would call that ‘a good problem to have’!
Simon: It’s a game of two halves…
Brian: Over the moon…
Simon: Sick as a parrot…
Enough! At the end of the day, then, what’s next for Sodajerker?
Simon: We’ve got more great episodes in the can and we also have plans for a book based on the podcast.
Brian: We’d love to do more radio, too, as we really enjoyed putting the documentary together for the BBC. It would be lovely to make some more.
What about your own songwriting?
Simon: We’ve some unfinished business to take care of in the form of an album we’re writing…
Brian: That’s right. Ironically, our own songwriting has taken a bit of a back seat since the podcast took off, but we’re now at the point where we want to take the wisdom we’ve gleaned over the last five years and use it to make an artistic statement of our own.
Simon: Did you just say ‘artistic statement’?
Brian: I make no apologies…
Pic by Matt Thomas