Interview with TIM FRASER, songwriter for Tina Turner, Joana Zimmer (No.1 GER) - Mar 1, 2006
“I don’t have any recording equipment. I just remember what I've written. My view is: if I can’t remember the song then no-one else will!”
… says Londoner Tim Fraser, songwriter for Tina Turner, Joana Zimmer (No.1 Germany), Beulah, Roxanne, and teacher and driving force behind the known S 3 songwriter meetings.
Read the fascinating story of how Tim made hits in the 70s, took a break from the music industry for 20 years to run a printing business, and came back to score hits once again.
Here he tells about how the development of new technology sparked his will to write again, even though he hardly owns a studio and still memorizes all his songs. He also shares his views on why he refuses to sign a publishing deal and instead uses publishing collectors, how one can get into the music industry after not having updated one’s contacts for 20 years, why you need 10 released songs a year to make a living and how to attend the S 3 songwriter meetings.
How did you start out in the music business?
It all began way back in the 60s – I was playing in a rock band and we got a record deal while I was still at school. I played guitar and bass and sang. Also, I wrote most of the songs for the band, and so I got signed as a songwriter as well.
I am basically self-taught. I started guitar when I was 18 - no lessons - and I was listening to rock bands, the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and doing heavy metal in my band. But what fascinated me was big band music, the standard jazz singers like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn. These arrangements, chord structures, harmonies really got me into song writing.
How come you got signed?
Somebody introduced me to somebody, I knocked on the right door and there I was! The reason why things were so different from now is that music at the time was going through a revolution, but the people in control at the record companies didn’t have a clue about what was happening out there.
So they just signed people and gave them a chance! And if they were good enough they stayed on. Now, the A&Rs think they’ve got the finger on the pulse, but they are further and further behind what is happening. So, they sign less people because they think they know – but they don’t. And that’s why it’s so hard to get signed these days.
How did you make a career of song writing?
I always hated performing, so I focused on songwriting and I had some hits in Australia, Japan and the US with bands that I don’t even want to mention because then you’ll say: what, he’s that old?! One of them was the New Seekers in the States with a pop ballad.
At the time I had a publishing deal and I was just writing and pitching my songs. But it was such hard work pushing my songs, and the financial return was not great compared to the effort. So when I got married in my mid-twenties and started a family I simply stopped and started my own printing business.
So you stopped songwriting completely?
Yes, completely. For over 20 years. My business in London did very well, I am also an inventor and I have a couple of inventions, and it was only about 5 years ago that I started writing again.
What made you start again after 20 years?
A friend who lives and teaches in Italy came to London to do some songs in a studio here and asked me to stop by. I was amazed to see how the recording technology had changed and how much easier it was to record a demo! So from then on, every evening when everybody had left the office, I would pick up the guitar and start writing again and all these songs were coming out. And I started to demo some of them.
How come Tina Turner heard one of these songs?
I was introduced to Grammy winner Terry Britten who is now one of my best friends and who became my mentor. Terry wrote “What’s Love Got To Do With It” and “We Don’t Need Another Hero”, he writes for Lenny Kravitz, Blue, Cliff Richard and had the only outside song on Michael Jackson’s Bad album.
He heard my song, “Falling”, and really liked it. In 2000, he was writing and producing the Tina Turner album and in a recording break at the studio he played the song to Tina. I had demoed it with a male voice, more like a Boyz 2 Men type song. At first she said: “I like it, but it´s more for a Whitney Houston type voice”. Then her manager Roger Davies said: “No, you should do it!” And she just said: “OK!”
How did you meet Terry in the first place?
I have a friend who owned a record store near my office and he said to me: “I want you to meet a friend who comes in here and buys records.” It was true fate. You need that little bit of luck and you need to make yourself available for that luck!
Terry was not going to knock on my door! I was invited to go to a studio where he was recording someone. First he told me off for talking too much, but then he asked me what I was doing and asked to hear my songs.
What happened after “Falling”?
I thought: “Yes, I can do this.” But I was really the ‘wrong’ generation and I had to start again and network – or else the momentum would be lost. So I started to go to these industry get-togethers specifically for publishers, either through ASCAP or BMI, where professional writers say hi to publishers.
They all know each other and I knew no one – I would have to barge my way into conversations. I worked very hard to get to know people. As a result, my songs started happening, I was writing for Lulu, I got to know 19 Management, the people that do Pop Idol in Britain. I started to co-write with some legendary people. I currently have covers with Beulah, Roxanne, Joana Zimmer, Poloroid, Lulu and Kai from Fury in the Slaughterhouse and a few others as well as synchs on CSI and Roswell.
Did you sign a publishing deal?
No, I have retained all my copyrights and grant licences for collection. The more I found out about publishing and the more I saw what publishers do – no disrespect to them – the more I thought: I can do this myself. I know lots of writers who have signed a publishing deal and the publisher has done nothing for them. I looked at different publishers and they looked at me… and I decided I didn’t need one.
I was in the great position that I didn’t need a publisher to keep me afloat while writing – I had my own income, I cut my own demos and was able to pay for studio time. With time I also learned a lot about rights, territories and contracts to the point where I was doing my own contracts. I had seen lawyers playing ping pong over a contract and being paid lots of money for it, which at the end of the day eats into my income out of the song the contract is for.
How do you make sure that your royalties are correctly paid?
I own my copyrights and I make a deal with a publishing collector. One such company is Kobalt Music from Scandinavia. They can collect worldwide for you, in every territory for about 10 per cent. Another company is MCS, run by Guy Fletcher. Especially if you are the one who is pushing your own material and therefore you don’t need a publisher. I heard that Gwen Stefani has just signed a deal with Kobalt.
How do you get your songs to the artist?
There are different ways of doing that –
A) You get to know the publishers and the record companies. If they like your work you can get to work with their artists. Because at the end of the day, all they want is a good song. And if that song is going to help the career of their artist, they will be happy just to have the publishing on the artist’s side when you co-write, even if they don’t have yours. Artists will now ask for me to co-write with them.
B) You do co-writes with their signed writers – that way, if they get a good song they have part of the publishing and you have yours. That way you build a network. I don’t really approach publishers, I approach the managements of artists, and I work with other songwriters that are signed to publishers who then push what we have done. The only publishers I approach are the ones that own the artist and the show, like 19 Management. They like my stuff, and I get to write with their writers and artists.
If you are signed to a big publisher, the chances are that you’ll get to work with the artists that are signed to them. So you have a head start over people trying to send in outside songs. But that’s about the only positive reason I can think of. I work pretty well with my own contacts. And if you speak to other writers, they will tell you they do the same. A lot of young kids dream of getting a publishing contract but often the publisher does nothing for them and then they can’t sign anywhere else. More and more kids realise that.
I was recommended to SongQuarters.com by someone who attended one of my songwriting courses, I had a look and thought: what a great idea! This is the future, whether the record companies and the publishers like it or not.
Collaboration is the key to all of it! I am known as someone who you can send an artist to and a good song will come out. This is true for every business you are in, whether selling cars or working in an office: you have to collaborate, network and get people to buy your product. And music isn´t different, so collaborate with everyone who has talent! Collaborate with people who’s half is going to be pushed! There’s no point writing with the kid next door if she is not going to become Prince.
How do you get to write with an established writer?
You have to approach people and make contact. Then – and this is very important – you’d better be good when you do the writing appointment! For instance I wanted to work with Marcella Detroit who is a bit of a legend as a songwriter but my then publishing representatives were telling me that it would not be possible to work with such an 'in demand' writer. Then I bumped into her at a writing session, approached her and we hit it off fantastically well and now we are writing great stuff together.
Even the top top writers work with complete unknowns because it freshens up what they do. One example is Terry Britten. A lady in her forties with no songwriting experience, who was a friend of his wife, came to him for some advice on buying a portable piano. When she was about to leave, the weather had become really horrible, and the radio was announcing a storm warning. She said: hey that’s a great title and he said: well why don’t you write some lyrics. She went home, did some great lyrics, Terry turned them into a song – and it became a hit for Bonny Raitt and Bob James.
What if you collaborate and you think that the other person’s ideas are awful?
You have to be a good diplomat and use your abilities and your power of persuasion to turn that idea into something good. I’ll give you an example: I’m working with a talented up and coming singer called Louise Setara, who is 17 years old and has a fantastic voice. She was sent round to me by her publisher, who had sent her to a number of well-known writers to collaborate with and they had all treated her a bit like a kid, saying: “look we’ve got a track here and you just sing on it.”
So I sat down with her and asked her: “what do you want to write about, what is bugging you? Because I’m not 17.” She came up with an idea which was incredibly cliché: she is going out with an older boy and her parents are worried. Songs like “Puppy Love” and “Young Girl” immediately come to your mind, and they’ve been done a thousand times. BUT, we twisted it and gave it a new angle: she is expected to emotionally act like an adult but she doesn´t have the power of an adult. It became a really good song and it’s currently being produced!
How do you split the publishing when you co-write?
50/50. If there are 2 people in the room and the other person just contributed 10% of what you have it is still 50/50, because you would never have come up with that song if they had not been involved. If their contribution is nothing, but it’s a famous artist, hey, they get their 50 per cent, because they will get the song cut and out there.
It’s better to have 50% of a release than 100% of nothing. If you are so worried about holding on to your percentages then that means in the back of your mind you are worried you only have a limited number of songs in you and that you might not have another good idea in the next six months!
What is your writing process like?
When I go into the writing appointment, I come prepared with chord shapes, a riff, a title, a subject. You need those starter points and I usually have 15 to 25 of those ideas or shapes for a song floating around. I always have a guitar near to hand and I am always playing around with new ideas. Those need to be in all styles, rock, R&B, country, pop.
A few months ago I was working with Lulu who is a real institution in the UK. She’s in her 50’s but looks 30, tours with Elton John and has had two massive hits duetting with Take That. Her new album is produced by Chris Neil, who also does Celine Dion, and the brief was: smooth soul. By the time she got here, she said: “it’s all been changed and we have to do some early 60’s R&B! So you make them a cup of tea and then you have to get it together. By the end of the writing date I like to have all the chords and the melody in shape.
I like to write from scratch, just with the guitar. I don’t do “studio-writing” where you start out with a beat and then you throw other bits in, I find that soul-destroying and very clinical. The best songs in pop are based on a guitar pattern! All of my songs have a solid shape on the guitar and I’m a great believer in those passing chords.
They can make your three chord song much more interesting! I don’t have any recording equipment – I don’t even use a casette recorder. I just remember what I´ve written. My view is: if I can’t remember the song, then no-one else will!
Aren’t you afraid that you will forget a really good idea?
No. I have a peculiar memory. I can´t remember a phone number but I can tell you the chords to all the songs I’ve ever written. But of course I don´t mind if my collborators bring in a tape machine to make notes because that’s the way most people work.
How many songs have you written?
250 to 300 songs. I try to have 50 finished songs per year, meaning where I have recorded the demo.
Why do you teach songwriting classes?
Andy Duncan - a writer/producer who has worked with George Michael, Sting and Robbie Williams - and I decided that we wanted to make what we’d learned available to other people. We’re doing small groups of 8 to 10 people. In one weekend we teach them about songwriting approaches, collaboration, but also the business side of things like equipment, networking, pushing your songs, copyrighting, licensing, making deals etc.
And of course we answer all their questions, and give them an idea on what to expect financially as writers. Imagine that you and your friend wrote a song together and it was put on an album that sold 100,000 copies. How much do you think that you would make? £3,000 pounds! ($5,000) So you need another 10 of those! We are aiming to do these classes once a month because the reaction from the people who have attended so far has been fantastic.
How do you apply?
You have to fill in an application form with info about yourself, and also send 2 or 3 songs. That way we filter people who are completely hopeless. Then we talk on the phone to the applicants and try to put people in the group that could fit together musically.
You can check us out at our website www.s-3online.co.uk. And we hope to reach out to more people in Europe. The charges are 220 pounds a day, which includes all meals, a meals and pub visits each day where we have special guests who are heavyweights in the business – who most writers would normally never meet.
To listen to available songs by Tim Fraser, go to http://www.s-3online.co.uk/timhome.html
Contact info for the S 3 songwriter meetings –
Vicki Johnson, phone +44 20 8947 2926, firstname.lastname@example.org
S3 Ltd, P.O. Box 198, Richmond, Surrey TW9 2ST, UK
Interviewed by Monica Rydell