Story: Mark Davie
Photos: Bobby Rein
You should heed the words of Vanilla Ice. It’s time to stop, collaborate and listen.
Check this out. Ice was a suburban white boy who collaborated with an established black artist, DJ Earthquake. That pair then ‘collaborated’ a key riff from a hit ’80s collaboration between Bowie and Queen, into their own hit. They also ‘collaborated’ black hip hop and white washed it. And made millions doing it.
Yes, yes, I’m misappropriating collaboration there like Ice vanilla-ising (icing?) the chocolate cake of hip hop, but you get the idea. Repurposing works, honing outside influences, buddying up, it’s all part of the hit-making process.
Five years, 52 camps, over 100 songs released globally and $1.4m earned in performance royalties. Those are the numbers Milly Petriella, APRA AMCOS’s Director of Member Relations, lays out to describe the success of her baby — APRA AMCOS’s SongHubs.
It’s not everything though, she points out. Firstly, that’s only the money APRA AMCOS can track, there have been sales and syncs to major ad campaigns that the collection agency doesn’t have figures on; but it’s a healthy chunk regardless.
The other reason is that the goal of SongHubs goes way further than figures on a Spotify statement, it’s about propelling Australian and New Zealand artists’, producers’ and songwriters’ careers. “It goes far beyond the tracks written in those few days,” said Milly. “It’s changed careers.”
Artists like Morgan Evans, who was desperate to work with Nashville songwriter/producer Chris DeStefano but couldn’t get in the door. Milly met Chris at the Bali Songwriting Invitational, then invited him to to the Sydney-based, APRA AMCOS-supported 50 Songs in 5 Days. Morgan finally gets to have a session with Chris, Chris becomes the executive producer on his album and he now has a number one hit, Kiss Somebody, on US country radio. Boom!
Likewise, Jon Hume, previously of Evermore, attended the LA SongHubs with Mr. Hudson, who invited him to a session with JP Cooper. It turned into JP’s biggest hit September Song, and Jon sold his country property to move to LA. Kapow!
Songwriting camps aren’t new, the Bali Songwriting Invitational is in its 10th year. But early on, Milly says the Australian attendance had been proportionately low. There were a smattering of high profile Aussies; Guy Sebastian, Delta Goodrem, but not many others. She wanted to upend those numbers, and APRA AMCOS eventually pitched SongHubs to the Federal government. With half a million dollars funding to run the first three years, APRA AMCOS matched the income and they were away.
The first SongHubs kicked off in August, 2013. It went for 10 days back then, a facsimile of the Bali Invitational format, but it’s now come down to three to five days. The idea is to find Australian talent with mid-to-high level careers and mix them with some international guests to increase collaboration. “It’s also targeted at commercial outcomes,” said Milly. “Increasing the percentage of Australian ownership in works around the world.”
In the early days, trying to convince international artists to come out to Australia for a week was tough. “It was such a difficult ask to get people on a 15-hour flight,” said Milly. “It was always a ‘no’.” Five years on and now labels are flying internationals out to Australia to work with multiple artists in batches.
A couple of years ago, Milly begged the APRA AMCOS CEO to transform their empty four-story office in Ultimo, Sydney into a songwriting camp over Easter. She was able to turn the empty building into eight studios, and flew in 12 internationals for what has become their flagship event, called The Tower. “Five years ago, asking 12 internationals to fly over to Australia for Easter… they would have laughed at me,” she said. “It’s getting easier because of the program’s reputation and success. Over those few days Ricki Lee made her single Not Too Late, Ainslie Wills wrote her single that’s just been released Society, and a track called Warpaint is being synced to an Air Asia global campaign.”
The latest camp, celebrating the fifth anniversary of SongHubs was held in Queensland at Heliport Studios. It was over the weekend prior to Bigsound Festival, Australia’s premiere music industry event. The international artists were songwriter/producer Yves and top-liner Maize, from the US. Locally, Tom Busby, from Busby Marou, was the guest Australian writer. The rest of the attendees included artists like Tia Gostelow, Timothy Morrisey from John Steel Singers, and producers like Konstantin Kersting and Mookhi. There were 15 attendees in all, a mixture of local Queensland artists and those on their way to showcase at Bigsound. While everyone is well-catered for, including accommodation, food and drink, one lucky APRA AMCOS member gets their entire trip fully funded. In this case, it was Bri Clark from Perth.
While it’s invitation only, any APRA AMCOS member can apply to participate, but you can only be granted one residence, and one fully-funded position within an 18-month period. On average, Milly gets between 50 and 200 applicants depending on the genre and territory. She got a boatload more for the LA and Nashville camps, especially given there was a fully-funded double pass up for grabs to celebrate SongHubs’ fifth anniversary.
While Milly and her team organise the SongHubs, the actual attendees and makeup of the camp is decided by an external curator. This year, Milly asked Robert Conley back, who was the first ever SongHubs curator. For the last 20 years Robert made his living writing and producing, but four years ago started his own publishing company, Specific Music, which he runs through Kobalt. He’s having particular success with Dean Lewis, who just eclipsed half a billion streams. In the last year, he was also approached by Universal to establish a joint label.
“Narrowing down about 80 people to the 15 people involved was more challenging than I thought,” said Robert. “They had to provide three links to songs they’d written. I try to find the people I think are going to be the next-level writers who haven’t broken through yet. The goal is always to discover some people who have potential and put them in with established artists.”
Robert has his own songwriting camp, 50 Songs in 5 Days, which has over 100 people involved across 22 studios. He’s been running it for the last six years, so he reckons he’s got a handle on how to pick a fake from a true songwriter, though “sometimes you get it wrong or are tricked by people with good songs who are average writers.”
Once the camp starts, Robert takes a fairly hands-off approach. Each day, he groups them into five parties of three, comprising an artist who’s looking to release material, a producer and a top liner. Each day, the makeup of the groups change, so everyone gets three unique chances to make a song. After a morning pow-wow, a few coffees and the occasional morning meditation routine, Robert lets them know who they’ll be partnering with, and five minutes later at 10am, they’re writing a song with two relative strangers. By 5pm they need to turn in a demo.
While he says the environment can be confronting for some, typically the guns show what they’re made of.
One of those guns is Mookhi, real name Olympia Henshaw. She’s a young producer from Sydney, who’s already done one SongHubs in London. This time, she was thrown in the deep end straight away, partnered up with international guest Maize and Tia Gostelow. It all went swimmingly, said Mookhi, “we got into that flow state and it came seamlessly.” The next day she was grouped with Tim from John Steel Singers and Natasha Shanks from the Little Lord Street Band. “I’m an electronic, poppy producer and she’s a folky singer, so I was a little out of my depth,” said Mookhi. “But we managed to pull it together and come up with a beautiful cinematic, folky song with inspiration from Kate Bush and Fleetwood Mac.”
Mookhi had her live rig — a collection of keyboard and pad controllers — with her for her upcoming Bigsound showcase, but didn’t need much other than her laptop and Ableton. Before jumping into any production, she got Tash to play some previous material, “so I could identify the limitations and strengths of her vocals, as well as the style she feels comfortable singing in,” she explained. “Then I looked at the space we were in and figured out what we could and couldn’t do. We weren’t going to record an acoustic drum kit, so I stripped it back to a downtempo beat and started with some melancholic chords. She wanted something sad, but with a hopeful resolution. We layered vocals and strings from there and it just grew organically.”
While Mookhi says she’s often informally involved in collaboration, she finds it hard to penetrate the established Australian scene. “Established artists already have producers they prefer working with, and I’m the new kid on the block,” she said. SongHubs is a perfect way for her to get more credits and work her way into the mix. “You’re definitely running on fumes,” she said. “It’s still morning and I’ve had three coffees already. But the more I do it, I’m just so in love with how fast it is and how quickly you can put together a really promising track. You don’t need all the time in the world to create something beautiful.”
Heliport Studios is the perfect place to host a songwriting camp. Set on 56 acres of sub-tropical rainforest, it’s a retreat for the senses. Studio director James Russell had the job of setting up the five studios. Some were a no-brainer; there are three dedicated studios — A, B and C — on the property. Studio A is the largest space, with an SSL Duality console in the control room that didn’t see much use for this camp. One group camped in the control room, while another set up on the other side of the glass in the live room.
Yves was stationed in Studio B, where he simply unplugged the Thunderbolt cable from the studio’s Mac Pro and stuck it into his laptop. He’s a UAD user, so Heliport’s Apollo 16 made for an easy transition. He was also able to use the SSL Sigma for his monitoring, and the Neve 1073 preamps and Retro Doublewide compressor in the 500 series rack. Studio B is designed as a writing and pre-production space, “we recently had The Brave in there to write their album,” said James. “It’s a big open-plan, acoustically treated room with a vocal booth attached. It really helps to not have a separate control room.”
The rest of the spaces are adapted, which although James had to run out a bunch of monitors, and get the right sex changes for each interface, there wasn’t a lot of treatment required. “Alan, who built the studio, got addicted to building studios,” said James. “So all the recreational rooms have been acoustically treated and we’re able to adapt a lot of the spaces.”
James had already put up a collection of Neumann U87s and AKG C414s for each of the groups, but when Yves got a sniff of the mic locker he had James pulling out pieces like the RCA 77 ribbon mic. He also liked working in Studio B so much, he decided to stay on for a couple of extra days to finish off some work, staying onsite in the Producer’s Cottage.
Beyond the actual and makeshift studios, there’s a whole landscape to inspire artists. There are six separate outdoor decks on the property, prime for pulling up an acoustic guitar and hammering out some ideas. Another big benefit of Heliport is it can be literally ‘locked out’. James can close the front gates, turning the entire 56-acre property into a private retreat.
Mookhi loved working in the studio. “I mean, who has a helipad in their backyard? It’s crazy. All the studios are so beautiful, the grounds themselves have been really well maintained. It’s been such a creative space to be in.”
Robert doesn’t just extol the virtues of collaboration, he sees it as absolutely necessary for an artist’s and producer’s development. Not to mention increasing the chances of getting hit songs on the board.
“I could not express how important it is for up and coming writers to collaborate as much as possible,” said Robert. “That is the development process, and it’s the secret to writers getting to the next level; collaborate, as much as possible, with as many people as possible, across as many genres as possible, for as long as you can do it. Especially ones outside of your comfort zone, where you’re with a producer who does something you’re not used to.” It’s simple math really; “The more sessions you’re in, the more songs you write.”
As well as his songwriting camp, he also owns a studio-equipped caravan on Fingal Head Beach. He sends his artists up there for a week or two at a time to “just live on the beach and do nothing but write songs,” he explained. “There’s no phone reception there. They’re trapped. I give them enough food and alcohol, whatever they need to just relax and deliver songs. With Dean Lewis blowing up, suddenly people are more interested in my development process.”
“It’s good practise for me,” concurred Mookhi. “Because you need to get your chops up to be quick, and be decisive.
“It’s interesting watching them get thrown into a room together,” agreed James. “I’ve worked with Caitlyn Shadbolt before, and she’s more of a country artist. Seeing her thrown in a room with two more electronic producers, where they came up with a pop funk, country tune. It’s amazing the results of the collaboration.”
APRA AMCOS’s SongHubs is a global program. As well as Australia’s capital cities, invitees can find themselves flying across oceans to hubs like LA, Nashville and London, or India, Toronto, and the latest addition, Brazil. Milly Petriella, APRA AMCOS Director of Member Relations, said APRA AMCOS’s songwriting camps often happen in conjunction with a partner, like a festival, or existing camp, to spread the funding resources and manpower.
Milly: “We often tag onto festivals, so we host SongHubs in London when Great Escape is on and there’s already 30-40 Australian bands attending. LA and Nashville are a no-brainer. In Melbourne, we’re doing one or two a year with Creative Victoria, and host Brisbane in conjunction with Bigsound. The Bali Songwriting Invitational is a standalone camp we partner with. They provide the infrastructure, but our funding involvement allows 30% of the writers to be Australian.
“We partner with 50 Songs in 5 Days in Sydney at the end of every year, which is owned and run by Robert Conley and his wife Leonie. We’re going to be working in Brazil for the first time in December. There’s a conference happening at that time called SIM, with some Australians already there, and after hearing about the success of SongHubs the Brazilian society reached out.
“That will definitely have a Latin feel to it. We try and cover different genres; pop, urban, jazz in conjunction with Reeperbahn Festival in Berlin. Stockholm is the centre of the music industry, so we’ve done SongHubs there three or four times now. I’m working on doing one in Atlanta, the epicentre of the urban scene. We’ve done India three times, and partnered with SOCAN in Canada twice.”