Dragging my eyelids open, my flailing arms moved in the general direction of my phone. I’m not sure when my routine started like this, when 6am became my default. Squinting at the screen, my news feed reported that my friend Amy had won a Grammy. Amy Wadge is one-half of the songwriting team who wrote ‘Thinking out loud’, one of the many songs she and Ed Sheeran have penned in the 8 years they have worked together. I mustered some clumsy typing into my phone: ’You little beauty!’ and requested she track down a suitably unlikely celebrity to get a selfie with and send it over. Images started springing up of Wadge and Sheeran with Stevie Wonder; frankly I am still mildly disappointed that it wasn’t Jedward.
A few messages down the line and she generously agreed to chat over email/Twitter to share her experiences of the music industry as a writer and performer. In a week that’s been dominated by debate over artistic autonomy and power, I’ve been interested in getting an insiders viewpoint on some of the things which preoccupy my PhD study and how those views relate to the current musical landscape.
‘…the original connection came from the fact that at the time, I was essentially doing what he was - gigging, self- releasing…and he seemed to be relieved to be working with someone who got it’
Pop music can be noisy and increasingly, the noise generated around the organised sound being made, often in the name of ‘promotion’, can overwhelm the enjoyment of the song altogether. It’s interesting then, given the circus which now follows Ed Sheeran wherever he goes, that his relationship with Amy Wadge was formed, and is maintained by, a mutual respect in respect of the peculiarities of the music industry. A business which requires writers and performers to demonstrate a means of transforming their hunger for ‘success’ (whatever that means…that’s for another time) into into an easy-to-market product.
Often, this means making a song as market-ready as possible, making demos of songs that sound as ‘finished’ as possible. The New Yorker reported last year that Max Martin, the wizard-behind-the-curtain for so many huge pop songs, has such an acute sense of what ‘finished’ sounds like that he provides the track as we hear it on the radio, plus a guide vocal with such precise phrasing that ‘in a sense, [Britney] Spears, [Katy] Perry and [Taylor] Swift are all singing covers of Max Martin recordings’.
The reverse is true for Sheeran and Wadge who write in a big shed (at her house) or on a sofa (at his place), using an iPhone or a single microphone and a laptop to capture the song once it’s written. I wonder if their anachronistic approach to writing is audible in ‘Thinking out loud’, a song which seeks to channel the melodic characteristics of Van Morrison; the harmonic flavour of James Taylor and the lyrical familiarity of Carole King.
Part of my PhD is to explore the various technologies that frame the voice in contemporary culture. On the one hand, that’s about studio technologies; on autotune and other digital and analogue tools that modify and mediate the voice. But on the other, it’s about the rules, regulations, myths and legends of the music industry and how they function as a kind of technology to control us. If you’re interested in learning more, delve into the (sometimes quite brilliantly strange) world of Michel Foucault and/ or drop me a line.
I’m interested in the daily push and pull of the music industry, about the movement and distribution of power between artists/producers/writers of music and the corporations they deal with/in. I put some of these ideas to Wadge, asking about any particular moments or voices that stayed with her 25 years of experience in the music industry. Earlier experiences were framed through the lens of an all-male team of managers, producers, bandmates and co-writers with Wadge, front-and-centre as recording artist and songwriter.
‘having a female manager has changed everything for me…she has an incredible sense of what I should and shouldn’t do’
On the 4th February 2014, Wadge signed a new management deal with Lizzie Francis at Spilt Milk, the same day that 'Thinking out loud’ was written. While her work still includes making her own records and touring both solo and with Pete Riley, her day-to-day is punctuated by writing with and for other artists. She says the enormous shift in perspective is not just about negotiating a work/ life balance, but that she thinks it's evidenced by the character of the songs she’s now writing. She terms this ‘back to basics’ and reflects on the idea that the songwriter can often feel coerced into writing for radio, writing for the gatekeepers of the industry;
‘I used to think if i played louder and faster it made me better…The shift is not that now I think ‘I know best’ just that what I know is enough…’
The mantra of ‘knowing yourself’ and playing to your strengths features heavily throughout our conversation and is something Wadge reflects upon, sometimes with a tone of regret. The sting of an ex-manager’s announcement (presumably meant as a means to inspire her to improve?) that ‘singers like [her were] two a penny’ and that she would never ‘be’ a songwriter have certainly now faded to a light scar. In revisiting these moments, Wadge says that she has certainly experienced a genderedness to music industry strategies, but adds that she factors age, experience and 'failure' as vital tools in steering her career.
The popularity of ‘Thinking out loud’ is perhaps the perfect thing to test these tools. While my insight is limited, it’s been interesting to see the ways in which the national and international press deal with a song when it turns into a phenomenon; how the story of Ed Sheeran’s charismatic stardom outweighs the reality of a professional-but-friends relationship with co-writer Wadge. Perhaps it’s the role of the co-writer to wait in the wings while the star takes yet another curtain call but there’s a peculiar succession of incidents which have generated a peculiar mythology around this song.
Particular narratives are peddled in favour of others because they're more easily understood and monetised; Sheeran is coded as active, gallantly donating a portion of the song to Wadge as a favour to a friend who passively accepts the gesture. In October 2015, the amplification of stories around Sheeran’s generosity of spirit, reporting that he simply decided to gift part of the songs’ ownership to Wadge, was at best naive, and at worse, intentionally ‘re-storyed' in order to erase her from the songs’ identity altogether. It’s a peculiar state of affairs, emblematic of a sexist industry which routinely dampens the achievements of female songwriters to the wider public.
On the night of The Grammys too, stories began to surface about Wadge’s acceptance speech being cut from the televised output of the ceremony, that TV network CBS had in effect, ‘pulled a Kanye’, by moving proceedings on to a tribute to The Eagles.
I’ve never worked in TV so I’m not sure what the pressures would be in terms of the scheduling of such an event but I’m keen to argue that if a songwriter wins a Grammy for 'Song of the Year' and it’s expected that they should reflect on the accolade by way of a speech, then the songwriter should make that speech! To remove a writer from the narrative of the song altogether seems a clumsy move on the part of The Grammys as these kinds of ceremonies are about representation as much as celebration. It’s important that a 40-year old woman had a fair share in the composition of the most celebrated songs of 2016. It’s an opportunity for the entertainment industry to celebrate intersections of identity that reach beyond standardised ideal of what constitutes and creates a pop star.
Voices are amplified, quietened and tinkered with in the music industry in a variety of ways. As musicians, songwriters, academics, industry practitioners and thinkers, we need to have the conversation. My aim is for this series of blogs to touch on some of those things that get swept under the carpet.
Legend has it that Elvis Costello coined the phrase, but I think he got it wrong; talking about music is nothing like dancing about architecture.
Thanks for reading...
- Sincere thanks to Amy for taking the time out to talk, squeezing in bad puns and indulging in cockney dancing wherever and whenever possible. x