Interview with JULIE FROST, songwriter for Black Eyed Peas, composer of 2010 Eurovision Song Contest winner - Feb 14, 2011
“I always thought, this is a huge hit song, but then it never went anywhere; it never got released; it never got any play ... until that little Eurovision thing”
It’s been a rare old 12 months for songwriter Julie Frost. After many years of maintaining a modest industry profile, her career suddenly burst into glorious full bloom when a chance debut publishing deal penned with EMI president Jon Platt introduced Frost to the world of Top 40 songwriting. Co-writing sessions with pop high rollers Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins, Chuck Harmony and Toby Gad have followed, and we’ll be seeing the first fruits of this new beginning throughout 2011, beginning with Black Eyed Peas’ upcoming single ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’. If that wasn’t enough, last May saw Frost pluck another feather for her cap when her song ‘Satellite’ won the Eurovision Song Contest for Germany.
In this interview with HitQuarters, the L.A.-based writer talks about winning a publishing deal at long last, finding the X-factor with Darkchild, and reveals the inspiration behind the ‘Satellite’ that orbited the tops of charts all across Europe last year.
What does it mean to have a co-write credit on the Black Eyed Peas new single ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’?
I’m really happy about it. I really love this song, but it hasn’t hit the radio and hasn’t had its big release yet. So I’m interested to see what will happen.
The song marks one of the first fruits of a whole new phase of your career that has seen you writing with a lot exciting songwriter-producers such Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins, Chuck Harmony and Toby Gad. When did this new chapter begin?
It really began when I signed to EMI Music Publishing with Jon Platt (HQ interview). That was a real turning point for me, because he really believed in me and gave me all these amazing opportunities to get in a room with all these people, and I just took it and ran with it. Signing with EMI was definitely one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me.
You were signed in 2009. So was that your very first publishing deal?
Yes, it was. It took a long, long, long, long time, and there were a lot of almost deals that didn’t happen, but I just kept on.
So how did the deal come about?
It happened by lucky chance. Jon Platt opened up an email from my lawyer and listened to my songs, and just heard something in it. Shortly thereafter I was signed.
It’s pretty hard to get a publishing deal, and it’s hard to get a good publishing deal, you usually have to have so much already going on, but in this case it was just from an email and just based on the songs.
What are the chief benefits of this publishing deal for you?
It’s support, it’s guidance and it’s just all the opportunities. It’s not just you anymore, there’s a whole team of people behind you that believe in you and are opening up the doors, and then working on getting your music out there so that it’s generating income; it’s getting placed, it’s getting recorded, it’s getting released. It’s the job of the publisher to get your compositions out into the world; the people are getting good music, and the money and support is coming back to the artist and the publisher.
Personally, the benefits are the confidence shown in me by the people that I work with at EMI, Jon Platt included, because that just means everything, and inspires me to want to be greater and work even harder.
It was through this new EMI deal that you came to start collaborating with Rodney Jerkins?
Jon Platt played some stuff for Rodney Jerkins and then set up a writing session. We just clicked, and we’ve been working together so much ever since. We’ve done a ton of amazing songs. When he plays the piano and we sing together it never fails to spark off an idea. I’m really happy when I’m working with him - we have a rare chemistry.
What marks him out as being so special as a producer and songwriter?
He’s one of my absolute favourite producer-writers to work with. He’s extremely intense, has a great sense of melody and, production-wise, I’m always amazed when I hear the finished product of something that started as a single idea or melody. It’s also very positive atmosphere that he creates, and that brings out the best in me. I really can’t say enough about how much I love working with him.
Are you collaborating on particular projects or just building up a reserve of songs that can be then distributed?
We just create and the songs then find a home through his network and through my network. ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ was all his connections. I guess Will.I.Am heard it and loved it, and Jimmy Iovine heard it and loved it. I wasn’t really in on that part of it; I just focus on the writing.
Can you talk us through how that particular song came together?
It started in an organic way with me and Rodney Jerkins in a room together, and Rodney playing the piano. His production team then came in and made the sound amazing and contributed to the composition of the music. But the words are mine. And then when Will.I.Am and the Black Eyed Peas got it, they cut it up and gave it their own twist to make it that final Black Eyed Peas thing.
How can a song be created with so many different collaborators?
There’s something like 10 or 11 composers on it. I think it’s just the genre and the way a lot of things are done now. Of course, when everybody takes a verse and everybody takes a part, and when you have the Darkchild production team meeting the Black Eyed Peas production team then you have a whole bunch of people [laughs].
What is your chief contribution as a songwriter in these co-writing sessions?
Top-line, lyrics, melody.
Your Eurovision winning song ‘Satellite’ was described by the German press as being an ‘earworm’ because of its incredible catchiness – so strong melodies are clearly one of your recognised strengths …
I’d like to think so, yeah.
Your background is quite different to a lot of these artists and producers you are working with. Has the recent cross-pollination of styles that’s going on in pop music at the moment been a benefit to you in this sense?
I think so. A strong lyric and strong melody crosses over all genres and all time and all culture. I’m just as much at home writing with somebody on a guitar - I wrote ‘Satellite’ on a guitar just walking around my house one day - as I am in a session with something more urban, R&B, soulful, loud … It’s just a matter of chemistry and being inspired. But I do have a lot of different influences, so I’m happy that I can do a lot of different things and just bring my lyrics and melody to all these different places.
As well building up your cache of songs, you’ve also been writing alongside up and coming artists like Vita Chambers and Michaela Shiloh – is that right?
Yes, I’ve written with Vita Chambers – we’ve done three or four songs together - and Michaela is signed to Darkchild, so we’ve been together numerous times.
Can you talk us through how you write together with an artist and what the challenges are?
It’s really different with every artist. I think the most important thing is the mindset - making the artist happy, wanting to serve them and give them a song that’s going to allow them to express themselves.
Some artists are happy to just do covers of songs, but other artists really have something to say. So you’re doing the writing but they’re bringing their personality and their spirit into the room to give the direction so that hopefully they’re happy at the end.
Different artists want different things - some are very involved, some are hardly involved. But when you have an idea, it’s always really helpful to have the artist sing it because sometimes I sing something and it comes across a certain way but maybe doesn’t with another person’s voice. So when you have the artist and you have them sing the idea and get the whole vision happening at once, it’s really powerful.
The most important thing I’ve learnt is to be patient and generous, and also to not come from that place of selfishly wanting it to be what I want to say but having it be where the artist is really happy. Also hopefully the record company and everyone feels like not only is the artist happy, but it’s something that can appeal to the people and could be a hit. Then everybody is happy and that’s the ideal.
If the artist doesn’t feel the song then they’re ultimately not going to deliver it as well. So I want to give the artist something that’s true to their heart.
What kind of themes and inspirations are you tapping into?
I guess I write a lot about love, and all the things that go on with love. I’m not one to write like your angry song. Often just a certain phrase or whatever is going on that day will spark off an idea that seems to come out of the blue. Once I have the chords and the melody, often an idea will come out of that like, ‘Oh that sounds sad’; in fact a lot of the time I get the lyrics for the theme of the song from the melody itself.
Do you try to stay aware of what’s currently popular in the charts and keep your ear to the street to get a better sense of how young music fans are talking to one another and what they are talking about?
Not very much. I definitely listen to Top 40 radio because that’s the market I’m working in, but not to be derivative of this style or that style - I leave that to the producers because they are a lot more responsible for the sound and the style of it - and not so much that it colours me. I’m not very good at talking like how I would actually talk or using slang or a word that isn’t really me. I’m not the kind of writer who can kind of take on all these different voices, but I can keep things light-hearted, and I can go deep.
But more than anything I want to innovate and create something new and not make it sound like anything else.
As a result of this new EMI Music Publishing deal you are now based in Los Angeles. Having spent a long time working out of Chicago, what are your impressions of L.A. in terms of pursuing a career as a songwriter there?
I was lucky enough to have an amazing ‘in’ - I had a whole bunch going on and a whole lot of opportunities - but to just move here cold and try to break into the business, I bet that would be hard.
It’s like an industry town – here everybody is in the business or trying to get into the business. It’s a bit more competitive because there are so many people doing what you’re doing, but then at the same time those people are the best at what you do and so in that sense it’s also very inspiring. Also the top-notch people who you want to work with and/or be like are here too.
If you’re just going to get on a bus and come out here with your guitar and try to break in then it’s tough, but at the same time it’s this kind of magical place where you could show up with your guitar and start playing on the street and then end up in a movie and your life would change. This is the kind of thing that does happen here.
How would you advise a songwriter to try to get their foot in the door?
I don’t really consider myself qualified to give advice, but I can say what I did. I just decided one day that I was going to make my living singing and playing the guitar or I wasn’t going to be making a living, and then I stuck with it through everything. I made that the main focus of my life.
I kept on writing, because the more you write the better you get, and I kept on listening and I just kept on kept on kept on … And every time the music asked me to do something, if I had to move or if I had to work on a jingle or anything no matter what it was, then I just said yes.
Until I got where I am now. But it’s still not easy - I still work really hard, and I’m constantly striving to get better. I never go, ‘Oh there’s an amazing song! When will I ever have another amazing song?!’ I’m like, ‘No, the next song will be more amazing.’ I’ve struggled and sacrificed and worked really hard. You have to be extremely determined and passionate and self-disciplined to make it through all the stuff that goes along with it.
When did you actually first start writing songs, and how did you pick up the mechanics of songwriting?
I have never had any formal music training or taken any songwriting classes. I just learnt how to play the guitar, and if there was a record I loved I’d really listen to it.
There’s a basic thing about songwriting: verse-hook-verse-hook-bridge-hook-out and for the hooks to be memorable, and that’s it. The rest is just me expressing what I felt, and then I figured out all these strange things on the guitar. I guess in being more self-taught than classically taught that gave me a style. They’re going, ‘This is the bla-bla-bla structure, this is what’s happening here …’ I’ve learnt those things since, but that isn’t where I started and I think that maybe gave me more room to be creative because I didn’t really know what I was doing [laughs].
Although you’re based in Los Angeles, you’re still travelling a lot as part of your job. Are you still involved in writing sessions in Europe?
Yes. I did about five weeks at the end of last year. And New York, Vancouver … just about anywhere.
What have you been working on in Europe?
I did several more writing sessions with John Gordon when I was out there last time. I’m hesitant to say names – it’s a respect thing - but it was a great trip and I met a lot of people. I worked with Guy Chambers, John Gordon (HQ interview), a German artist named Stefanie Heinzmann …
How does your publisher decide where to book for your writing sessions?
It’s based on: (1) they really care about like the people I like, the kind of places where I like to write, and the kind of things I like to write. So they think about who’s compatible and what’s the best possible chance for us to get together to write an amazing song.
And then (2) it’s based on which people are really making things happen, people I have a chemistry with, and also people who are working and succeeding, like Chuck Harmony and Rodney Jerkins.
Did you have the support of a manager or other representative besides your publishing company?
No. I’ve never signed anything except to EMI.
Is it worth a non-performing writer having a manager?
Management can be a great thing at the right time and under the right circumstances, but you can do good with or without a manager.
Somebody really skilled managing you can open up doors that you can’t open, can give you credibility, so that you can walk into a session. But then it depends on what you do once you’re through the door; you have to also be able to write the song. You don’t have the luxury of just writing the song just when you feel like it or because you feel like it.
I mean, maybe some songwriters do, but I don’t. I’m like, ‘this is my job. I’m on this person’s time and in this person’s studio, and I’m meeting at two o’clock and we’re writing a song’.
What was your first major breakthrough?
I made a record called ‘The Wave’ (2002) and it did really well on Triple A radio stations, and artistically that was the big breakthrough for me.
As a writer, the first big breakthrough was being signed by Jon Platt. And then secondly it would be ‘Satellite’ - that was a huge, huge breakthrough, about as big as a breakthrough gets [laughs].
So did the success of ‘Satellite’ in the Eurovision Song Contest have an impact within the USA, where I imagine the contest doesn’t have much of a profile?
I think so because there is an international music community. A lot of people in America maybe haven’t heard of the Eurovision, but the big record companies are international with international people.
Plus it was a success, and a success is always something that gets celebrated and noticed, and helps you get people to listen to you in a different way.
Why do you think it was so enthusiastically received all across Europe not just in the contest but also the charts?
I don’t know. Maybe because it was just that good [laughs].
Can you explain how the song first came to life and what the inspiration behind it was?
The song is about unconditional love. It’s about how when you’re connected with somebody they have such an effect on you, like if they’re having a bad day or a good day, and how that can be so irritating sometimes. But what’s the alternative because everybody has good days and bad days? When you love somebody that’s just part of the deal. The song is just celebrating that it’s really irritating but also incredible and beautiful.
The co-writer of ‘Satellite’, John Gordon, is someone whom you’ve worked with a lot. What makes it a good working relationship do you think?
First of all he’s vivid and he’s original - to me his sound and the things he comes up with are really unique. You might work with somebody and almost predict what’s going to happen but I can never predict with him! And it’s always unusual and left-of-centre, and yet at the same time a good pop song.
Plus he’s sarcastic and funny, and I’m kind of sarcastic myself, and so we have a good time and laugh a lot. I guess you call it the X-factor, when every now and then you just meet somebody and you just click like that. It’s not common. There’s a lot of people you can work with, but to really get that X-factor, like I have with Rodney Jerkins and John Gordon, is really rare.
I sent him that song [‘Satellite’], and then when he did the bridge melody, produced it and sent it back, it was just great – not in a million years could I have imagined it sounding so great. When it gets produced it should be like it goes to the next level. He heard it right away like it was easy for him; if you’ve got to work too hard hammering away then that usually means it maybe wasn’t the best inspiration.
I always thought, ‘This is a huge hit song’, but then it never went anywhere; it never got released, it never got any play ... until that little Eurovision thing.
Does your publisher send you to songwriting camps and can you describe the experience?
I’ve been to a few writing camps. Sometimes a record company puts on a writing camp and sometimes it’s a publisher. They just have a lot of writers and producers at the same place at the same time, like for a week, maybe in one hotel or working out of the same studio, and then every day you’re just put with somebody else. Sometimes there’s a direction, like maybe for a specific artist, and sometimes it’s just to get everybody together.
Because everyone is there at the same time there’s a lot of energy. It can be a really inspiring environment but it can also be hit-and-miss. But if that wasn’t the greatest day then the next day you’re with somebody else. So in a short amount of time you meet a bunch of people. From out of that week maybe you get one amazing song and make one great connection.
There’s something about being in a place - especially away from home in a different city – where there’s no distractions, where you don’t have to think about your cat, your bills, and so you’re just writing. It can be really fun.
You mention songwriting camps being useful in making connections. How do you build up and maintain your contact network?
Right now, I have my iPhone [laughs] and my emails, but it’s a big job. I get a lot of support of my publisher; they keep my schedule and it’s quite a big job and so I have a few people who help me.
Once you have all these relationships and if artists are emailing you or managers or record labels specifically ask me for songs and then you email out songs, it’s like you can spend your whole day doing that and then never get time to write. So I try to be really self-disciplined about it. I keep everything in my iPhone and try to answer everything right away so I don’t forget, and then I have the support of my publishing company to help with all the other stuff.
What artists would you like to work with?
Kanye West is one of my favourites. I love the bands U2 and Coldplay, and The Script. And I’d love to work with Brian Eno, and Daniel Lanois, Paul Simon, Rickie Lee Jones … Also I think Nicki Minaj is way cool.
Do you have any time for your own projects?
Nope. I will, but not right now.
What’s in the pipeline for 2011?
I’m going to be working with David Guetta. I’m just going to do exactly what I did last year except I’m going to build more with the people who I love to work with, and then just keep cranking out songs that I’m excited about. Hopefully some of these singles are going to be coming out this year.
interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Danish songwriter John Gordon on writing Eurovision Song Contest winner 'Satellite' with Frost
* President of EMI Music Publishing Jon Platt on schooling Jay-Z about publishing riches
* 'What's My Name?' writer Traci Hale on getting her break with Darkchild
* Britney writer Nicole Morier on pursuing a songwriting career in L.A.
* Cherry Lane publisher Al Smith on signing Black Eyed Peas