this is why james may rocks
Gary has been a great supporter of ours over the years and we’re overjoyed that he has taken time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about his amazing career and how he goes about making those hits. Here he is answering questions from the Spitfire Team.
It’s widely known that you cut your teeth in working mens clubs as a performer. Can you elaborate on your route into music?
I got my first job as a piano player in a bar when I was 11. From the age of 9 all I ever did was play the piano. Every spare moment I had I’d be sat there. This continued till I was 15. It was then I started writing and my attention turned more to recording, programming and singing!
My involvement in film work has been brief so far. For Stardust and X-Men we watched the movie and went away and wrote a song. We’ve just done it again last week for a new movie called ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ It’s the best way of writing something specifically for a movie. You have to understand the score and temp music they hear to eventually make the sound and lyrical intension the director has in mind. I see our film work as an extension of making records. The 2 should work hand in hand. The film exposure is good for your song and the radio exposure is good for the film.
What role do you think songs play in film & TV? How effective do you find the use of songs in film and TV generally and how do you think they could be more effectively deployed?
Music is half the movie/tv show. So it’s incredibly important. And you can sometimes feel like you’re the only who cares about it. It’s always been my golden rule of anything I’ve ever done. If the music is good, everything else will have a chance.
Do you feel that the arrangement and/or orchestration of a track is separate from its creation or do you imagine the track fully formed and then work to realise that imagined sound?
The orchestration of a song happens late for me. I generally start at a piano and write the song in it’s rawest form. Then I add kit, bass, guitars and finally start adding sections. If we do real strings it would be one of the last parts of the record making process. However sometimes I’ve had music scored and gone back afterwards and revisited the whole track because it’s made me think about the record in a totally different way. This is not typical though!
At what point did you realise you wanted your life to be in music?
From a young age. Pretty much as soon as I stepped on a stage. Not the mention it’s the only thing I’m slightly good at!
How do you find the main differences between session musicians here in the UK and elsewhere in the world?
Oh that’s a delicate subject! Not sure how to answer this!! The fact that David Foster travels 6,000 miles to record strings says a lot for our players here! So I love the whole accession of doing a 24/32 piece orchestra in Abbey road, what a treat, i still pinch myself! But I have discovered some incredible musicians in LA. Drummers, guitarists with a real difference!! I guess the question really is what suits your record. Unless you’re making the same record over and over you will always need different horses for different courses !
What do you do to come up with melodic ideas? When do you find the most valuable ‘thinking’ time?
I get most of my melodies sat at a piano! I’ve never dreamt a song in my life! I’m sceptical of those that say they have! Sounds like a good interview story to me. My songs are always as good as the work I put into them.
Since you have been a successful professional writer, technology has advanced in leaps and bounds. We understand your laptop has become central to your creativity in recent times. How has technology changed your workflow?
Sorry to name drop but that’s a conversation I had with ‘Prince’ just a few weeks ago. How us ‘old schoolers’ embrace technology and make it work for us! My answer is ‘very well, thank you’. Technology tires me when you spend more time scratching your head than working. That’s when I dumped the idea of 2 systems. A big studio system and a laptop system was annoying. I spent most of my time trying make the 2 rigs the same so the songs would recall identically. It never worked so eventually as laptops became more powerful I just embraced the restrictions and dumped the big system. I can get a track 50% to where I need it to be on my laptop. There does however come a time when it inevitably needs to go into a bigger system. Thats where my 13 year relationship with my engineer Ryan [Ryan Carline] comes in. He knows exactly where I’m trying to go with it so has the skill of retaining the important elements and moving the track forward to a more finished state.
And here’s for the question that everyone will want to pore over!.. What’s your set-up, can you tell us about the kit you have. What are your favourites, both hard and soft…
Again theres 2 answers. There’s ‘my setup’: one laptop fully loaded with RAM and Harddrive space, the most plug ins known to man running with Logic X, a big screen/focal monitors/apollo twin or apogee duet/sm58 for every place I work. Home/studio/out of town studio.
Then there’s my studio set up: biggest pro tools system out there with Icon, huge amounts of new and vintage outboard that I’ve collected over the years, amazing vintage mic collection, vast vintage synth collection. My new love is souping up my old synths. There’s a company called Kiwi that does upgrades for the Juno 106 and the JX3P. They bring these synths back to life. Cant recommend enough. The main intention with the big studio is fun! we’re not interested in the digital/analogue/plug in war. We love the fun of twiddling knobs and watching meters going into the red. The New Take That recording I’m making is quite 80’s sounding so my new new hobby is programming my old DX7. If there’s any pros out there let’s have an afternoon making new sounds and eating biscuits !!
You’ve been quoted as saying that you get one good song for every 25 you write. How easy or difficult do you find it to abandon or rework material? How do you know when you’ve got one of the good ones?
Yes, that’s a good question. The answer is; I just know. I get a feeling. A good way of deducing whether something will be a hit or not is: When I tour live the last 20 minutes of the gig is your biggest songs. 5 or 6 corkers. If you can imagine your song in the middle of those then you have a hit on your hands. When I toured at Easter the end of my set was: The Flood -Back for good – relight my fire – and then I slotted in ‘Let me go’! The place went crazy. That’s the best feeling, when your new song stands up or even eclipses your old tunes!
In terms of production, how important do you think it is to create a new sound world for a song: one of your (and our) favourite songs is ‘Don’t Give Up’ by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, this is a great example of a song with an enormously characterful sound world: how do you go about achieving this in the studio and is it part of the writing process or arrangement and production process?
I love things that happen by accident. The best results come this way, you then chase the accident, smarten it up and find yourself in a totally different direction. The other way of doing this is working with other people. They will see your work much differently than you do. On the new Take That album we’ve been working again with Stuart Price. We give him a really great sounding demo, you wonder what is left to be done and then he sends you the track back and it sounds a million dollars. So always involve other people where you can.
How do you approach a collaboration as opposed to writing alone? Are there any tricks and tips to getting the best out of all parties?
If I’m working with a number of people the best way is to write to track. So basically writing to an instrumental. I had many of these tucked away. I knock them up on long flights or when I’m playing with new synths etc. It’s a great way of making everybody feel part of the process!
How do you deal with the sacrifices that professional composers and musicians must make in regards to family life? Is there a way to give your best and still keep your work under control so that family life doesn’t suffer?
This is the first question I ask any artist that has a family! It’s really hard! That’s because music follows you home and occupies your head space constantly until the job you’ve started has finished. The best answer is, find a good wife!!
If there is one piece of wisdom you would like to pass on to aspiring composers and songwriters what would that be?
Enjoy what you do. The success and the failures! There’s much to learn from both. We are blessed to be able to make a living playing with keyboards and computers and loving every minute!!
If someone were to make a film of your life, who would you like to compose the music?
Ha!! Has to be Hans Zimmer!!
Do you have a favourite film score?
Have you ever had writer’s block? How did you overcome it? Do you have any other “survival” strategies, for blank screen syndrome/ difficult presentations/ unkind dubbing mixers that you could offer up?
This is a simple one. If you’re struggling to write then get out of the studio. Sat looking at a screen 24/7 is not healthy. Take the dog for a walk, have a run, listen to music. One of the reasons I rave on so much about my laptop set up is that I can work anywhere!! Often I check-in at a hotel in the middle of nowhere and write for 5 days! A change of location is fantastic for freshening things up!! I went to write for a company in LA recently. They offered me their state of the art recording studio in studio city. ‘No thanks’ was my reply. I set up in my hotel room in Santa Monica looking at the ocean while I wrote!! Beautiful!!
What is your proudest/ most exciting moment as a songwriter or composer?
It’s hard to pick one. The sound of an audience singing every word of one of your songs. Hearing your song on the radio. Winning an award for your song. Having someone cover one of your songs! It’s all magic !!!
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becoming a parent means being the one to get the wasp out of the room and idk if i’m prepared to do that
Strategies I have used to try to avoid getting the wasp out of the room:
"Shouldn’t we let nature take its course? The wasp will eventually die."
"Mom will be…