Phil Thornalley learned his trade as a rock engineer and producer in the '80s. Then he co‑wrote a little‑known song called 'Torn'...
Phil Thornalley was once known as an engineer, mixer and producer of serious, critically respected rock by the likes of Prefab Sprout, the Cure, XTC, Graham Parker, Julian Cope and Edwyn Collins. He has since reinvented himself as one of this country's leading pop songwriters and producers, most recently with teen sensation Pixie Lott.
Thornalley started his music career more than three decades ago at RAK Studios in London, where he learned many of the tricks of his trade from legendary producers Mickie Most, Steve Lillywhite and Alex Sadkin. He achieved his greatest successes as an engineer, producer and mixer during the '80s, but his teenage dream of becoming a songwriter and artist kept calling. Towards the end of the decade, he made his first and only solo album, Swamp (1988), and he also ended up fronting Johnny Hates Jazz, a band he initially engineered and produced.
Today, talking from his Swamp Studios in Northwest London, Thornalley calls the Johnny Hates Jazz project "a grand mistake, in the sense that I devoted three years to it, and it was deeply unsuccessful. But you learn from your mistakes. I realised that I don't like being in a band and I don't like this process of taking forever to make a record. But I do like to write songs for other people and I do like producing other people. I am a studio person. That's what I love to do. After the Johnny Hates Jazz experience I finally had clarity. It was not exactly an epiphany, but at least there was clarity. Plus there was the fact that I was unemployed, which was the first time in my career that I had experienced that.”
The early '90s were indeed a barren period for Thornalley, but the seeds for his resurrection as a pop writer were sown in 1991, when he co‑wrote a song called 'Torn' with Anne Preven and Scott Cutler, who later went on to form Ednaswap. 'Torn' was included on that band's 1995 eponymously titled and rather unsuccessful debut album. A year later, Thornalley was asked to produce a number of songs for Australian soap‑star‑turned‑singer Natalie Imbruglia, and they decided to re-record the song. Released in 1997, the Imbruglia/Thornalley version of 'Torn' became a worldwide smash hit, as did her debut album, Left Of The Middle, which contained five songs co‑written and produced by the Briton. It was, he now says, "a career‑saving experience”. It also sealed his conversion from adult rock to pop.
"My background is in pop music,” explains Thornalley. "Mickie Most was making pop music, for instance. Although I was involved in the making of interesting, arty, records with Prefab Sprout and XTC, and the stuff I was doing with the Cure was meant to be dark and so on, my natural inclination has always been to make pop. Having had such success with Natalie, I suddenly was a pop writer and producer, and I'm not unhappy about that at all. The artists that I worked with, like Paddy McAloon, Robert Smith and Edwyn Collins, all have their own artistic voice, but I don't think I ever had that. I'm not ashamed to say that. I have always felt that I am a craftsman: I like to make things. Some people know how to make a chair or a table, and if someone comes to me with a request to make something in music, I go: 'Oh, yes, I know how to do that.' Of course I respect artists: my biggest influence is Todd Rundgren; but I'm not an artist or protest singer.”
Naturally, after the success of 'Torn', artists and record companies came knocking on Thornalley's door. He's since clocked up an impressive list of credits with, among many others, Bryan Adams, Naimee Coleman, Ash, Ronan Keating, Mel C, Don Black, and most recently Pixie Lott. With long‑term collaborator Mads 'Mutz' Hauge, he not only writes and produces, but frequently plays many of the instruments on these hits.
Much of Thornalley's current writing and production work takes place at The Swamp, which hoards equipment gathered over many years. He comments, "We have three rooms here, Mads [Hauge] has one, and we share one big room where we do most of the writing and producing. My desk is a Tri‑mix, which was Trident's budget range. I bought it in the early '80s, with the money I earned from mixing Duran Duran's Seven And The Ragged Tiger . At the time it cost a lot of money. Most of our drums go through the Tri‑mix. A lot of our other gear consists of API stuff. RAK had a lot of API gear, including two API desks, which they still have today, and I came to love it. But my big discovery was that if you have a great song and great musicians and great singers, you don't have to worry so much about the gear and the right EQ and things like that.
"I started working in the punk days, and that was a lot of fun, but people made a pretty bad sound, and the drummer would never hit things the same way twice, so we learned how to use compressors and how to vibe up sounds that weren't particularly musical. Punk was about energy rather than being able to play well, and I'm still into the idea that music is about ideas and not about virtuosity. I call it the spirit of the youth club, where you try to capture the way you felt when you were 16 or 17. You go for passion. Of course, we have technique on our instruments now, but it's still a matter of keeping it simple and enjoying playing, rather than showing off one's skills. My main instrument is bass, and I lump around on others, particularly keyboards and guitars, and I've become quite good at Beat Detective in Pro Tools, so I'm also an excellent drummer!”
Thornalley appears to prefer writing with other people, and his ongoing work with Mads Hauge is a good example of how he likes to collaborate. The two met three years ago, and, Thornalley recalls, "We hit it off straight away. 'Cry Me Out', which ended up on Pixie's first album and which was a hit in the UK, was the first song Mads and I ever wrote together. We then wrote 'Mama Do' and 'Boys And Girls' for Pixie. We're both focused on writing melodies and lyrics, but Mads is more engaged in the recording aspect. I spent the first 10 years of my career reading manuals and I now prefer to go and make tea and let somebody else worry about the technical side. I'm so much more interested in melody, the song, and the arrangement. I'm not saying technical things aren't important, but Mads cares more about them than I do. Mads is at a phase in his life where he has lots of energy to burn, and he probably works four to six hours per day more than I. Mads is really good on Pro Tools, and I'm kind of his junior in that respect, as I learned on two‑inch tape machines. I can operate Pro Tools, and I'll often record the overdubs on it, but I'm not an expert.”
Thornalley stresses time and time again that "melody and lyrics are paramount” and clearly enjoys elaborating on the ways that he comes up with them. "I sometimes get my melody ideas at the top of a bus. You can do the most mundane thing and suddenly you get a melody in your head, and if you are lucky you can think of a phrase to go with it and that will make it stick. I prefer not to record these initial ideas, because my philosophy is that it's called a melody because you can remember it. Sticking a few snatches of lyrics with it will help to make a melody idea memorable, because at least you'll remember the phrasing, and you can develop your idea from there. I sometimes work with a songwriter called Boo Hewerdine, and he never writes down his lyrics. His philosophy is that, because it's a pop song, after the first line you should immediately think of the second line, and so on. I'm not quite as bright as he is [laughs], so I usually scribble lyrical ideas down with pen and paper. I don't like using laptops, I prefer to scribble. It just feels nicer.
"The other way of writing is to contrive it — like we're in the studio and I sit at the piano and Mads with a guitar, and we try out lots and lots of ideas, until we come up with something that feels like we've hit a little bit of gold. Or we develop one of the ideas I came up with at the top of a bus. But it has to be a melody where, right from the start, you feel like it's worthwhile. Some people say that only the choruses matter, but it's the whole thing. You have to write so that you feel that it's interesting from the first line that the singer sings, and it has to follow on from there. Even the middle eight has to be catchy and have a real purpose. The greatest songwriters, from Lennon/McCartney to Bacharach to Holland/Dozier/Holland, they didn't let up, the quality and feeling is there right throughout the song. So when you have found an initial idea, you have to work at finding the next bit. If you're writing to satisfy what a specific artist is looking for, it's even harder, because there's more pressure. You quite literally have to contrive something. I suppose that the songs that I love more are the ones that originated at the top of a bus. Those might be the moments when I came up once or twice with something that was artistic, where you might go: 'That's a proper song.'”
With regards to working with Pixie Lott, the writing process was also, as Thornalley calls it, "contrived”. He elaborates on the process: "When Mads and I first worked with Pixie, she was 17, and it was startling how much maturity she already had, with a great focus on singing the melody we had written, but also the ability to interpret takes with her own inflections and ad libs. But what makes Pixie really special is that she has a quality that you cannot learn: soul. Many singers are in tune and in the pocket and have a good tone, but the special ones have all of those qualities plus the ability to bring a melody and lyrics to life in 3D. You might think that that's an over‑reaching statement for a 'pop' singer, but it's the same ability that rock singer Bryan Adams has and John Martyn had: bringing the song to life. All the time that you've spent on writing the melody and lyrics suddenly feels like genius, because the artist is making your sketch into something with depth and purpose.”
Hauge describes how Thornalley and he came up with their sketches for Pixie Lott: "For writing 'Mama Do', I recall Phil sitting behind the piano, hammering out a chord with some short of shuffle rhythm, and I started singing something, and Phil is very good at guiding me. He'll take the first bit of inspiration that comes out of my mouth and will twist it into something more melodic, more hooky. Then we went to the chorus, and immediately came up with the 'uh‑oh, uh‑oh' bits.' I'm not sure how the chorus lyric emerged, but for every session we were doing at the time Pixie's mother was in the building, waiting in the other room for her to be finished, so I guess her being around may have inspired us with the lyrics. 'Boys And Girls' was written a month later, at the end of the day. Phil and I had spent a long time kicking ideas around, and it wasn't really happening, and we'd switched off the studio and he was standing in the door with his jacket on, and I started singing a part of the chorus. I remember Phil looking slightly disappointed — 'It sounds like we have an idea, and now we have to power everything up again' — but we wrote it quite quickly after that. Pixie came in the next day and helped with the lyrics.”
Thornalley: "Pixie got involved lyrically because of her perspective as a female teenager, but Mads and I are quite disciplined about what we think the melody is. We go backwards and forwards quite a bit, saying things to each other, like 'This line can be better,' or 'Maybe we need to change the verse a little bit.' We're not Lennon/McCartney, but you try to make it as good as you can, and one thing that's very important is to use the energy of two or three people in a room pushing each other to come up with better ideas. If the chemistry is working, that's very valuable. I'm still working with pen and paper at that stage, but Mads is typing into his laptop. We might also disappear into a corner, or take the song home, and sit back and contemplate in silence where the song needs to go. And then you continue working on it again together, having fun and trying to keep that teenage vibe of believing in it. One of us may play drums and the other is singing some rubbish, and all of a sudden a good line pops out, and it's like: 'That's it!' We're not like scientists. It's more like we're adventurers.”
Though Thornalley believes that a good hook should stay in the mind unaided, Hauge explains that the pair do make use of musical notebooks. "We have a lot of Mac laptops lying around, and I have a little application called AudioRecorder that records straight to MP3, using the built‑in laptop microphone. At the beginning of each writing session I'll press record and it'll record for four hours. Because it's MP3, it doesn't take too much storage space on the computer. It's just in case we forget something, although Phil will be the first one to say: 'If we've forgotten it, it isn't strong enough.' But I don't think this is always the case. Every now and then there's a lyric or a hook that you may forget.”
Thornalley: "AudioRecorder is cheap, in fact it's free, and cheerful. We use it just in case some little thing flies by and you go: 'What was that?' We don't normally use these recordings, they're just for scratch, but snatches of them have ended up on tracks, like a count‑in or a guitar twiddle.”
Hauge adds that his writing partner is, at this stage, constantly focused on getting their ideas to be "more hooky and simpler. I have a tendency to make the story a little too complicated, but he has a good ear for what works on the radio and he's really focused on what message we're trying to get across in a song and keeping it simple and fresh.”
Thornalley: You have to concentrate on the melody first, and so the harmony comes later. In terms of musical knowledge, harmony and so on, Mutz is stronger than I am. But I always try to keep it simple. I can only remember one song I ever did with a key change, and in general, I'm into writing songs with simple major and minor triads; the richest chord we use may be a dominant seventh.
"I recall when working with Mickie Most that if any of the musicians played a note that wasn't in the triad, he'd say: 'That's out of tune.' And he was right. He was concentrating on the melody, and if there was an additional note in the chords, even if it was sympathetic, it distracted from the melody. It was literally not supporting the tune. He was not technical, he went totally on gut instinct; he was like Simon Cowell with balls! It was very refreshing. Another advantage of only using triads is that you can have much more fun later on while dressing up the arrangement. Everything has room to breathe, and if somebody wants to use a rich harmony note in the background vocals or thestrings, it's not clashing with the minor sixth or major seventh you've already put in the basic chords.”
While bashing out the early beginnings of their songs, Thornalley and Hauge make good use of the many instruments and facilities at The Swamp. Hauge: "We have a grand piano, an upright piano, a Wurlitzer, a drum kit. Everything is miked up and ready to go.”
Thornalley: "Sometimes it's nice to write to a beat. Say if you're on idea four and cup of coffee number three, one of us may say: 'Let's try a shuffle beat,' or something, just to give us some energy and take things in a different direction. We don't normally use software for that, most of the time we'll play the drum kit. One of the advantages of the studio here is that we have a stairwell under which the drums have this really bombastic sound — we also use it as an echo chamber for background vocals — and we've worked for years on perfecting our drum sound there. All microphones are set up all the time, and both of us play to a six out of 10 standard, and we'll record a few bars of drums, edit them in Beat Detective, take the best bars and loop them, and this will have its own energy. Only very occasionally will we use Stylus RMX or something like it to program a beat — there are some writers and artists we write with who have to have a beat.
"Once we feel we have the melody sorted out and we have a few ideas for the lyrics, we may record the track, to keep the energy going. But it's not indulgent jamming, it's strictly based on our idea for the song. We may lay down some drums and bass and piano. We try and play as much as we can, but of course we're both programmers too. We'll use a good two‑bar drum loop of our own playing, but if we don't manage to nail the drums ourselves, we'll have a drummer friend of ours come in. Mads does his programming in Pro Tools, but I still use Logic 7. I think they're up to version 9 now, so I'm disappearing in the dust, but it works and I've found that newer versions don't work with Pro Tools hardware. So for doing MIDI stuff I get my old Logic out with all my samples from the last 15 years, and I'll program strings or do a bunch of synth stuff. I'll use Spectrasonics in Logic for samples, and some of the GarageBand stuff is amazing. I fancy myself as the Arif Mardin of Northwest London when I do a string or brass arrangement!
"For most official releases, if it has to sound really good, we get real people in, like a professional string arranger, and we'll then record it properly with musicians. But for bass, drums, keyboards, and guitars, because Mads and I can both play, we lay down our own tracks in the assumption that we'll keep them. It makes it more exciting. Sometimes Mads and I will be putting down our parts at the same time, and we may have the singer sing as well. It's so much more fun. The quickest way to arrange a song is to get guys to play it together with a singer. You instinctively know that you may have to go the chorus quicker or that the middle eight isn't good enough or that the second verse is too long. I've had experience touring and playing in bands [playing bass with the Cure], and it's something you forget or ignore at your peril. If you feel bored while playing, it is because you're bored, so let's try to keep the energy up, and see what ideas people have. It's an organic editing process.
"When we track stuff down in Pro Tools, probably 90 percent will remain the same as when writing. We'll have explored things sitting at the piano, but you may suddenly feel that a section needs freshening up, and so you throw in another chord, like a B-flat in the key of 'C'. But if the song does change during tracking, it usually is a matter of simplifying things — halving the second verse, taking notes out of the bass part — making it less rather than more. It's what makes modern recording so creative: there's no fear any more. In the old days with analogue you were all the time rolling the dice: 'Shall we punch in or not?' Recording is so much more fun now, because there's no risk. You just let your imagination go, and if it's shit, you delete it.”
Hauge and Thornalley complete their songs right up to mix standard, after which they're often mixed by professional mix engineers, like Phil Tan and Fraser T Smith (interviewed in SOS February 2007 and November 2009 respectively) in the case of the three songs they had on Pixie Lott's debut album.
It's interesting that even a high‑profile writer and producer like Thornalley is still actively pitching his skills, rather than resting on his laurels and waiting for people to knock on the door. Thornalley even showcases a selection of unused songs on his web site, some of them sung by Pixie Lott, in the hope that someone will want to use them. However, word of mouth is still the key to success.
"The songs on my site are good, but were not used because the A&R wanted something different, for instance. But to be frank, the interest I get from the web site is minimal. Most deals are secured by my publisher my manager, or via a personal relationship that I may have: I might know the artist, or the A&R person, or the producer. Personal relationships are very important: you don't need to be great friends but if they trust you, somebody will ask you to write a song for their artist and be confident that you can come up with something they can use. Obviously we don't get it right all the time, but they come to you because they know you're not an idiot, and because they know you'll have an honest stab at writing a good song in the style the artist wants, and because you have a proven track record.”
Mads Hauge is responsible for most of the engineering that goes on at The Swamp: "I've done a lot of programming in the past, but now I really enjoy the energy of live playing here at The Swamp. If something is completely wrong, I can always overdub and fix it, but if it sounds good, we just leave it. We have all the microphones permanently set up here, and for drums for instance we've been perfecting microphone placements and different blends. I keep reading about new ways of doing it in Sound on Sound and I really enjoy that and often try it out. There's always something new to learn in music production.
"We have a small kit: just kick, snare, two toms, and hi‑hats. The kick drum only has a skin on the beater side, and we record it with a AKG D112 and an NS10 [woofer used as a microphone] for the sub‑frequencies. The snare is recorded with a [Shure] SM57, we have a [Shure] SM7 on one tom and a Sennheiser E604 on the other, AKG SE300 on the hi‑hat and AKG C451 for overheads, and usually I also have a Neumann U87 in the lounge area next to the living room, which gives a very natural reverb. There's so much energy in that room that we often stick the U87 there when recording guitar, claps or piano. I also use a mono ribbon mic, the Coles 4038, and the Shure 55, the BBC or 'Elvis mic', which I read about in SOS. I put the 55 on the floor between the snare and kick and it gives a horrible sound, but it provides some helpful grit in the mixes. Most of these mics go through the Tri‑mix, the overheads and room mics through API mic pres, and the ribbon through a Neve Amek preamp — the combination of the ribbon and the API seems to give some humming noise.
"Phil and I normally record vocals together, with me pressing record and focusing on the technical side, so he's able to have all his attention on the performance. I'm listening for distortion or whether the compression is maybe hitting too hard. We recorded Pixie using the U87, going into an API 512B, going into an API 560 graphic EQ boosting a little around 16k and taking out a bit of bottom end, and then into the great old Urei 'blue stripe' 1176. The 'blue stripe' is an important part of the sound in the studio here, so much so that I had one cloned for my own use. I also recorded Pixie's vocals onto my Revox quarter‑inch tape machine and bounced that into Pro Tools, correcting the timing for the delay, and that sounded great. We also have quite a few guitar amps here, and the chain would be Shure SM57 and then the same as with the vocals: API 512B, API EQ, Urei, into Pro Tools. I really enjoy recording gear that has a strong character or sound. Things like tape machines, spring reverbs, overdrive effects or odd mics sometimes gives recordings a certain flavour. I find Pro Tools and digital recording sometimes too sterile and lifeless, which is why my Revox tape machine gets used a lot. I've also just bought the SSL X‑Patch to make routing stuff in and out of Pro Tools easy peasy.”
One of the most important parts of the producer's role is helping the singer to deliver the best performance possible. Phil Thornalley has plenty of advice on the subject: "One of the 'key' issues, so to speak, in making a singer and a song work well together, is that very simple process of picking the right key. Do you want the singer screeching at the top of their range like Levi Stubbs, or do you want them comfortable in the 'purple patch' of their voice? Some singers, especially pop singers, may have soul and a sound but also have a limited effective range, say an octave or less. It's not that they can't singer lower or higher: it's more that they have an area where their voice becomes 3D, and outside of that range they have no character or expression. So avoid that at your peril.
"In old days it was always a tough call to change the key of the song after you had already recorded it, but these days with Serato Pitch 'n Time LE it's easy to change the audio by one or two semitones. If the song has to change by a bigger step, say a fouth, you have to replay the instrumental parts, but if the singer is with you, you can rehearse at the piano, pick a better key, do a rough pitch change in Pro Tools of the track, record the vocals, and then later replay the parts that suck in the new key, usually piano, guitar and bass.
"Another key issue in working with singers is to get the sound and the balance in their headphones right. Be careful not to have the cans' volume too loud, or the singer might lose pitch and rhythm. Putting effects on their voice while they're singing can be counter‑productive: you've got to confront the reality of what you're doing, and a bunch of delays and echoes may be vibey, but may also just add beautiful confusion. We do, however, always use compression to some degree while recording, and sometimes, if you want a particularly intimate sound, you have to crank it up.
"When Mads and I work with the singer we're all together in the studio, with the same balance in the cans: it's so much warmer as an experience to be with the singer, and you can react immediately to what they're doing with simple thumbs up or even by jumping during the take. If necessary, you can also sing the next chorus right there and then to show the singer where they're getting the melody wrong. When I was making records I sucked as a singer and had low confidence, and this was not helped by being in the studio whilst the producers were in the control room. Paranoia would set in: 'Are they ordering pizza, or are they calling around for someone better?' I learned from that experience. You can blame your guitar if the tuning is off, but when you're singing flat there's nowhere else to hide. Singers have to be given the most respect and support. By the way, we use Fostex headphones, they have a nice unflattering and true sound.
"Most singers prefer their producer to explore every angle. They want to shine, and they enjoy the process of multiple takes. But some don't. The most important thing is to make the session fun. Endless takes of one line will drive the most saintly singer to hard drugs. If you, as a producer, are getting bored with hearing the verse sung listlessly over and over, then there's a good chance the singer is feeling that way too. So it's better to move on to singing the bridge, or stop to have a cup of tea and a laugh and then reboot, or to come back tomorrow. With production there's always something else that needs doing — a string arrangement, comping the vocals on yesterday's song — so you don't waste time.
"How do I spot a great singer, who can bring that fleeting but most important quality, feel, into focus? I've been in the studio for the last 32 years, and I can only judge a singer by how they sound when they get on the mic, which is always an 87! I'm currently developing a young singer, and when we're writing and he's singing in the room I think 'Oh, he's OK,' but when he gets on the mic sparks fly. That's the magic and mystery of recording music.”