Local, foreign songwriters camp it up

by Steve McClure

Early in the band’s career, Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham is reputed to have locked Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a room and told them not to come out until they’d written their first song.

The tune they composed in that inaugural writing session (“Tell Me”) wasn’t a hit, but it set the template for one of pop music’s most successful songwriting partnerships ever.

In mid-November, Sony Music Publishing (Japan) took a leaf from Oldham’s book by holding its second annual “songwriters camp” at Sony’s recording-studio complex in Tokyo’s Nogizaka district.

The basic idea, says SMPJ
international department chief producer
June Shinozaki, was to pair Japanese and
non-Japanese tunesmiths whose talents
the publisher hoped would prove a good
fit. Each two-person songwriting team
had two days in which to come up with
songs to pitch to Japanese artists and
their managers.

The ultimate goal, of course, is that one or more of those tunes will become a hit in Japan, which despite steadily falling CD sales is still the world’s second-biggest music market.

SMPJ’s inaugural 2009 songwriters camp produced songs that were picked up by J-pop acts such as male vocal duo Chemistry, female vocalist Rie Fu and female vocal trio Domino. “And we still have holds,” says Shinozaki.

“Holds,” she explains, are songs that artists and managements have optioned for possible future recording. A song can be on hold for as long as three years.

The November 2010 sessions brought together eight Japanese writers and eight from overseas.

All the Japanese writers taking part were signed to SMPJ, while the non-Japanese (South Korean and American) writers were under contract to SMPJ’s global affiliates, Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Kobalt Music Publishing and BOK Music.

Shinozaki and the rest of the SMPJ staff spent several months leading up to the November sessions asking Japanese and overseas writers whether they’d be interested in collaborating on songs for specific domestic artists to whom the publisher wanted to pitch tunes.

She says the trickiest part of the process is pairing the writers. One writer’s forte may be writing basic rhythm tracks, for example, which might make him or her a good match for a writer with a knack for strong melodies.

One apparently successful pairing at the recent Nogizaka sessions was that of Los Angeles-based songwriter Josh “Igloo” Monroy (whose credits include “I Do It For Hip Hop” by Ludacris and “Soul Bossa Nostra” by Quincy Jones) and Osaka’s Solaya, who has written songs for J-pop acts such as Crystal Kay, Kosuke Atari and Sowelu.

SMPJ teamed up Monroy and Solaya in the hope that they’d craft a song suited to the style of Chemistry, one of whose members, Yoshikuni Douchin, was on hand to lend his support.

“Yoshi had the original concept for this record,” says Monroy on the second day of his writing session with Solaya. “We just took that and did our own thing to it.”

“They are interesting writers,” says Douchin. “It’s the first time I’ve worked with them. They have their own good points and bad points, and that’s interesting.”

Neither writer speaks the other’s language, but they say that wasn’t a problem.

“We can’t communicate directly, but we’re managing to work things out,” says Solaya. “We are interacting and exchanging ideas because we are both music lovers.”

Monroy adds: “I don’t think there are any rules here. That’s kind of the point of it — to break some of that down.”

Asked what they’ve come up with, Monroy presses some buttons on the console in front of him and a pulsating tide of almost ambient synthesizer rhythms emerges from the speakers and fills the mini-studio where he and Solaya have been working together. It’s catchy, but not too poppy.

“I’ll write the lyrics,” notes Douchin, adding, “I have no idea what they will be yet.”

Shinozaki explains that it’s standard practice for Japanese artists to write their own lyrics. But foreign writers pen English lyrics to serve as a rough template for the final Japanese version.

Other Japanese music publishers to have held songwriting camps in the past include Fujipacific Music and Nichion.

Such camps can be very useful, says Vincent Degiorgio, president of Toronto-based music publisher/ production company Chapter 2 Productions and currently the coordinating producer for the Songwriters Association of Canada’s “Songworks” writers camps.

“Publisher-arranged songwriter collaborations are important for any writer, because they absolutely spike your credibility,” says Degiorgio, who has taken part in close to 20 songwriting camps in his career, mainly in Europe and Canada. Degiorgio has also written material for Japanese acts including jazz/pop singer Karen Aoki and female pop vocalists Mink and Tomomi Kahala.

Degiorgio says it makes sense for songwriters from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds to work together.

“I think it’s essential for any writer to truly learn the way the world works musically,” he says. “Those who do not speak English for example, or who don’t speak an Asian dialect, shouldn’t let that stop them. If the notes, chords and melodies start to flow and the energy is there, no language barrier will get in the way of what’s coming. I have worked with various Japanese writers before. I find them to be very talented and to have tremendous musicality.”

Los Angeles-based songwriter/ producer Joey Carbone, who has 20 years experience in the J-pop market, also enjoys working with writers from this part of the world. He thinks they should try more collaborative songwriting.

“In Japan, most composers compose alone, and so does the lyricist,” says Carbone, who claims the only foreign songwriters to have had more songs recorded by Japanese artists than him are Lennon and McCartney. “You don’t see too many composers co-composing the music unless they are band members.”

Carbone says he likes to see what happens when he mixes his influences and style with another composer’s, especially if they are from a different country and culture.

“I compose half of my songs alone and the other half with various collaborators who are American, Japanese or Korean,” he says. “I like people and prefer to be co-composing with someone, having a few laughs and enjoying life. This is much better for me than to be in a room by myself with a keyboard and a computer only. I think that for Japanese artists, the co-composed songs could be interesting and unique, and therefore attractive for them.”

Shinozaki says the camp achieved one key goal by getting local SMPJ writers used to the idea of collaborative songwriting. “We were more focused on that this year,” she says. “And we also got a bunch of great songs that we can pitch.”