Once Rob Davis was a pop star himself with Mud. Now his songs have taken Kylie Minogue and Sophie Ellis-Bextor to the top of the charts.
The quiet streets of the Surrey commuter belt hide some surprising secrets. Take Rob Davis' house, for example. From the outside, it's no different to all the others in his street: and once you're inside, only the occasional copy of Music Week and a couple of discreet platinum discs tell you that it's not the home of a stockbroker or a head teacher. Even when you stumble into Rob's workroom, occupying a modest corner of a garage next to the conservatory, you could be in the home studio of almost any SOS reader.
Appearances, however, can be deceptive, for Rob Davis is one of the most successful professional songwriters in Britain. With Cathy Dennis, he wrote and produced Kylie Minogue's 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head', a colossal hit that has so far been number one in more than 20 countries worldwide. He also co-wrote the single of last year, Spiller's 'Groovejet (If This Ain't Love)', as well as innumerable other hits including Fragma's 'Toca's Miracle', Grace's 'Not Over Yet' and Silicone Soul's 'Right On'. And if you were to sniff at the converted garage he uses as a studio, he could point out that 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head' was almost entirely recorded in this very room — even the diminutive Aussie songstress's vocals were laid down here. If it's good enough for Kylie...
"Sonique's been down here, Kylie's been down here, lots of singers have," he says. "When you've got your own studio you're more hands-on, you know. The one problem I had was with one of the girls out of All Saints, who wouldn't come down here because it was too far to travel! In the end I had to do it at my publisher's place, but it wasn't as good. When you've got it in your house, you get more done. Maybe it's to my detriment — people say that if you've got your studio at home, you put too many hours in, but it's a very efficient wayto get things finished. Last week I was writing with people in London for a couple of days, and it's just so knackering. I don't mind doing that occasionally, but it's good when they come here!"
Rob and his family have lived in the same house for more than 20 years, and he's had the home studio for the entire time. Even before they settled there, however, Rob had already enjoyed a lengthy spell in the pop limelight. In 1966 he had joined rock band Mud as lead guitarist: after a couple of failed singles, they developed a reputation as an excellent live act, and eventually had the good fortune to be spotted by producer Mickie Most, who recommended them to his protégés Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. Under their guidance, Davis and the band scored a succession of top 10 hits, including 'Tiger Feet', 'Lonely This Christmas' and 'The Cat Crept In'.
The popular image of Chinn and Chapman is of assembly-line producers of manufactured music — but as Rob is quick to point out, Mud were an accomplished band with a lot of creative input into their records. "At the very beginning of Mud, I just used to write B-sides and stuff like that, but I've always been into the production side of things. I've always been good at harmonies. Where there were harmony things I'd work them all out on a Revox at home, and I'd multitrack guitars and stuff for a lot of the solos on the early Mud records.
"Chinn and Chapman always did things quickly. Mike Chapman would write the song, and he'd come and routine it with you in a rehearsal room, and then take you into a recording studio to record it. I think earlier on they used session players, but we always played on our stuff. With the actual production in the studio, we were all pretty well involved with that as well, but the early Mud hits were done really quickly. 'Tiger Feet' was made in a day. In that era, production was all about enthusiasm — getting the band and whipping them up and making them routine a song, and getting the vibe and the enthusiasm into the track. There were no click tracks then!"
All good things come to an end, and eventually the hits dried up for Mud. Rob then took up the offer of a slot with rock & roll revivalists Darts: "Mud's recording career wasn't happening too much in the late '70s, and I joined Darts because they were going to the States for two tours. I thought 'I've got to do this, because I'll never go otherwise!' Life in a band can be a lot of fun. I've talked to DJ mates like Paul Oakenfold who go all around the world, but I don't think they experience the sort of fun that we had, touring in the back of a van, going all over the continent."
When his spell in Darts came to an end, Rob set to writing and recording at home, initially with his own performing career in mind: "In the early '80s, after the Darts thing, I planned to do a Hall & Oates-style project with [Darts colleague] Stan Alexander. I had the basic studio here and he used to come down, and we just did lots of writing. To start with, we were visualising us being the act, but then we did one sort of dancey tune that became a hit in America for Liquid Gold, and that paved the way more for writing."
Throughout the '80s Rob kept his hand in, continuing to write and taking on occasional production jobs; and as dance music swept the nation in the late '80s, he noticed that most of the biggest floor-fillers at raves and nightclubs were lengthy instrumentals, lacking the structure or the vocal hooks that could get them radio play and allow them to cross over into the pop charts. He became convinced that there was a gap in the market. "I first met Paul Oakenfold in about 1988," says Rob. "He was playing me all these tracks. Most of them were instrumental, or the odd one would have maybe a cut-up soul vocal, and I was thinking 'If you really cracked this with a good tune, it could really cross.' And it did start to do that, and it still does now."
Thus began both Rob's long-term collaboration with superstar DJ Oakenfold, and his new career as a songwriter specialising in 'top lines' for dance anthems. "The first track I did with Paul became a club anthem in '89," he recalls. "It was a thing called 'Jibaro', which was like a chant. The first crossover hit I had with Paul was Movement '98's 'Joy And Heartbreak', which was sort of a Soul II Soul vibe really, but it was one of those half-tempo tunes that worked in the clubs as well. And then the big one I had with Paul was Grace's 'Not Over Yet'."
When it came to making the transition from rock guitarist to dance specialist, he says that the most important thing was to get to know the music and how it worked in the clubs. "You've got to keep in touch," he insists. "In Oakey's early days I used to go to his gigs about once a month, at places like Spectrum in Charing Cross. It's so divided now, different clubs play different stuff, but I'm really lucky now — because I've had a few hits on some dance tracks, I get sent loads of backing tracks that are out there, because I get asked to write vocals for them. So I'm getting to hear all the best stuff. But I think a good way into that is, for years, I taped Pete Tong's Radio One show on a Friday night. It's a good way of keeping in touch if you just listen to a cross-section — I would cassette a couple of hours of that and just play it in the car."
Rob was also painfully aware that his background in glam rock might not impress the acid house generation. "I kept it quiet for quite a while," he laughs. "Even when I met Oakenfold, for a couple of years he didn't know about it, and then he saw me on the telly one night and phoned me up, laughing his head off, and it all got exposed. I thought it wasn't very credible at first!"
It's noticeable that nearly all the parts in Rob's demos are MIDI sequences: rather than record his synths into the computer as audio to add plug-in effects, he tends to use the built-in effects in his Korg Tritons. This, as he explains, is partly force of habit, but mainly because working with different singers requires him to maintain flexibility when it comes to song keys and note ranges: "I should probably get more into putting the keyboards and stuff into the computer, but because I do a lot of vocals and stuff here, I like to keep all the MIDI live, so I can change key. That's the bad thing about a lot of dance tracks, the vocalist has to do it in the key of the track and you can't change it around. But if I'm writing my own tune, and I've got a singer here, I'll pull the key around to make sure it's not too high or low for them. With people like Kylie, sometimes she might sound better in a lower key or something, so it's good to keep the flexibility.
"There's never been many guy singers around — there's a few, but there's zillions of girl singers — so I've always sung demos in falsetto, it's just a case of habit. You get all these dance tracks coming at you in all these different keys — I don't think half of them know what key they're playing in, to be quite honest — and I'll pitch a vocal that will work with a girl. I would say that means anywhere from a B to a top E. I know some girls who have got a brilliant range and can do all that, but some are a little bit lower."
Rob Davis was one of the first writers to specialise in producing 'top lines' to order for hot dance tracks, and it's still a large part of his work. It's a job that poses obvious problems for a songwriter. In their original form, most dance tracks have nothing like a traditional song structure, to the extent that many consist of just one or two phrases, repeated over and over again with only minor variations. It's all very well to say that they could cross over with the right melody and lyric, but how on earth do you go about writing them?
The process starts with choosing the right track: "My publishers will tell me if a track's really hot and working in the clubs, and I'll give it a listen. Even if I don't like it, I don't make the decision immediately — I try some things out, because there might be something I don't really like but I've got an idea that works. You've got to be quite open-minded about it. Normally they'll send me an eight-minute track and I'll chop it up to about three-and-a-half to four minutes in the computer. Often, if the track's really basic — Rui Da Silva sent me one last year which was just a bass line — I put some chords over it just to make it a bit more interesting to write over. I don't tend to add completely new sections, though, because most of the the stuff that's sent me is pretty heavily produced. Coming from that dance thing, you need the lyric to be a little bit left of centre as well, not too 'pop' — a bit cleverer. I keep loads of titles and ideas in notebooks, so that I can refer to them as I'm writing.
"Sometimes it's really hard to fit a vocal over a dance track, and I know a lot of writers will go 'I'm not doing this, it's only got one chord in it!' But sometimes something really simple might be the best thing to do, just because the track's flying, and maybe you can get a one-liner to work on it. There was a record out from New York recently called 'Flawless', and the act was called Flawless too. Everybody was pitching top lines for this record, and they ended up using just one little vocoder line. It was brilliant, it just worked — a whole song wouldn't have been anywhere near as good. You just have to know where to stop."
Perversely, one of Rob's biggest hits came about when a bootlegger married his top line for Coco's 'I Need A Miracle' with a completely different record, Fragma's semi-instrumental 'Toca Me'. The result, 'Toca's Miracle', was a hit all over Europe and topped the UK charts in the summer of 2000 (see the interview with Ramon Zenker of Fragma in SOS September 2000 for more details). An even bigger hit was Spiller's 'Groovejet', an Ibiza anthem which, with the addition of Sophie Ellis-Bextor's vocals, became one of the most popular UK number ones ever. "Spiller was a backing track that was sent to me, and I wrote a whole top line to it, and they ended up using my chorus," explains Rob. "I think Sophie wrote the verses herself."
As well as turning nightclub floor-fillers into chart hits, Rob Davis also writes and produces from scratch, often in collaboration with artists, other songwriters such as Cathy Dennis, or top studio teams like Biffco and Murlyn. The most important prerequisite for writing a hit song, he says, is to know who you're writing for and what they want: "For years and years I was just writing willy-nilly, thinking 'Oh, this is a good song' and then thinking 'I don't know what to do with this, I don't know who to place it with.' And now I try to home in on who might want this song. My publisher will give me sheets saying which people are looking for songs, like Tom Jones or Atomic Kitten or even Pop Idol people, anybody like that. Obviously, you've got to get the plot right from the track angle. Say it's Tom Jones, for instance: they want him slightly rocky, but they also want him a bit Massive Attack-y, a bit off the wall, so I'd put something like a 104bpm groove down, then I'd play some rocky guitars, chop them up and make them sound a bit more modern. In fact, I've picked Tom Jones as an example, but he's a really hard one — lyrically, they want something very strange for Tom, they don't want knickers in the air and stuff any more."
Although it's important to target specific artists and record companies, however, that's not to say that every song has to be written exclusively for one act: "If you write a 125bpm pop/dance tune, if it's a great tune, there's plenty of people would go for it — Atomic Kitten, Kylie, there's loads of acts out there. I've had a couple of songs where we've pitched it to one person, they didn't want it, then we've pitched it to someone else and they wanted it. Sophie Ellis-Bextor's next single, for instance, I did in Sweden with Murlyn, and I think that was first pitched at Kylie. Kylie's a funny one, because you have to please the record company before her. Jamie at Parlophone went for 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head' because he just loved the vibe on the demo, Cathy Dennis did the vocal on that, and he just thought it was different, a bit left of centre, not too pop, and he thought it would get the credibility of the danceheads and everything. And he was right. With Kylie, I wouldn't want to go too cheesy. It's a hard one to focus on. You get that one right by accident, rather than saying 'Right, I want to write a tune for Kylie.'
"Because I'm always coming from a song basis, I'll keep the demo really basic. The main thing is to get the song happening and everybody liking the song, and if after they've heard my demo they want it produced, then I'll start adding stuff and taking it further. But quite often, like with the Kylie song, Jamie heard the demo and said 'I want it exactly like that — just make it sound a bit better!' So I did everything here, even Kylie's vocals, and just took it to a Pro Tools room to mix. I think I might have added one string line and some cymbals or something in the Pro Tools room, but the whole thing was done here really. If they say the demo works, you keep it simple."
Another important skill for the professional songwriter is to be dispassionate about your own creations, and to maintain a critical approach to your output: "I discard a lot of material. You might end up writing one really tasty song in 10, maybe, although because of all the success I've had over the last two years, my manager is actually placing songs that couldn't get placed a couple of years ago. My publishers are very good, I've been with them since about '96 — there's two people I've known there for a long time, Willi Morrison and Ruth Rothwell, and they've both got good, constructive musical ears, which I like.
"If someone likes an idea, if I've got a good chorus and someone comes in and says 'I want to do this, but I want to rewrite the verse,' then I think 'Well, maybe it could be better, I'm up for hearing what they're doing.' But sometimes I will go somewhere and write with a writer who's maybe not so experienced, and I'll think 'This is crap' even though the other guy's loving it. Sometimes I will write with a keyboard player who's brilliant, and they make the songs too fiddly — from a writing angle that can be detrimental."
If Korg ever wanted an advert for their Triton workstation, they could do worse than printing the track sheet for Kylie Minogue's 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head'. Apart from the vocals and Rob's guitar part, everything was triggered via MIDI, and most of it came from the aforementioned Korgs: "The whole Kylie record was done on the Triton. The hi-hats, bass drum, snare, that's all off the Triton. There's another hi-hat off the Triton, a loop which was out of the Akai, and I think the shaker was off the Triton too. I started with the loop and drums, and then put down some chords. There's two basses: an organ bass out of the Triton and a Roland Juno 1, which has blown up since! Strings and Wurli were off the Triton. I sampled the 'las' into the Akai in the end, so they're coming back off MIDI. There's a filtered, gated synth part off the Triton, and a wah-wah guitar from the Johnson J‑Station.
"When I took it up to the Pro Tools room, everything got recorded into Pro Tools, and we squashed it all up. If I did put all the MIDI parts into the computer I could use all the effects and all the lovely compressors and stuff, so it would sound better. My computer's powerful enough to put everything in there, but it's so time-consuming. I suppose if I ever thought I was going to mix something here I'd get into that, but I might get an engineer down here to mix it with me."
Most of Rob's compositions begin with a basic groove. He'll start by getting a rhythm track going, using drum loops from a sample CD and kit sounds from his Korg Tritons, and then develop other elements such as a chord sequence and cut-up guitar parts. "You have to get the backing right," he insists. "For a pop/dance thing, you need to start with a groove. If you sat down with a guitar, you could get a basic idea, but it might not be the right sort of flavour for it, though for a ballad or a more rocky thing, I might just sit with an acoustic guitar and hum something. For dance tunes you do need loops, because you can get the drums sounding heavy straight away. I get them from sample CDs and I get loads of dance tunes sent to me — you normally get some really nice drums at the front of the track, so I nick loads of those, because I know not many other people will have them. They're always worth taking."
Although Rob asserts that he's "not that technical", he often programs everything that's on the finished track, as well as engineering and recording the vocals; the only stages of production he routinely leaves to others to do are mixing and mastering. His programming is done using Cubase VST on an Apple Mac, and his rig contains a small but effective range of sound sources: "I've got a couple of Korg Tritons which I love. I like using the internal effects in the Triton, they're really nice. I don't tweak the EQs of them much, I just bring them in through the desk, but I love putting the effects on that are inside the unit, they're really good. The kits aren't bad, either. I bought a rack version as well because I like to get the drums out separately. I use that a lot, I chop up some of my own guitars, I've got a couple of other small analogue units I still use, and an Akai S3000 as well. I still use that a bit, but it's going more and more towards me putting everything in the computer. I've got a dual-processor G4 now that will stand up to lots of stuff going in there. I use soft synths a little bit — they can be a little bit fiddly and not too reliable, but there's a couple in there that are all right.
"The desk isn't that important really. A lot of people are telling me to get the Mackie digital mixer [he's currently using an analogue Mackie eight-buss] but everything's going more and more into the computer these days. I stopped using my Tascam DA88 about two years ago, but I kept it because occasionally someone wants an old vocal or something. I should really dump it and put all the stuff on DAT, but it's too time-consuming.
"I use the outboard effects less and less. I still use the Roland SRV330 quite a bit for reverb, but I use plug-ins for the vocals now. I put them straight into the desk and then into the computer. I've got so many nice plug-ins, and a great mic, the old Neumann U47. It's so old it's got a cut-out on it — if someone spits on it too much it'll cut out to stop it harming it, and I have to get a hair-dryer and dry it out — but it's a beautiful sound. I plug it straight into the desk, put it through a little bit of compression with the Dbx, and then I'll probably put more compression and some Auto‑Tune on in the computer. I love the Waves compressors.
"Everyone tells me I should get better speakers, but the reason I use NS10s is because practically every office in London has got a pair of them, so you know what it's going to sound like. They're not great speakers, but if you make them sound good you've probably got something good to go on."
Hi-fi purists would be even more appalled by the familiar square speakers that make up Rob's other monitoring system: "The Auratones are good to run quietly," he explains. "If I work late at night, I don't disturb the neighbours, and also if I do a vocal, I'll work really low so as not to get spill on the mic."
Although he's an able keyboard player too, Rob's main instrument is still the guitar, which is invariably recorded through his Johnson J‑Station modelling preamp: "I just put the J‑Station into the computer and play it. And unlike the old days, you can get a few good parts in there, play the whole thing through a couple of times, and just chop it up and get what you want. In the old days you'd have to keep playing it until it was perfectly in time!"
Over the last two years, Rob Davis has become one of the first-call songwriters and producers for Britain's biggest pop stars. It's interesting to compare his role in the modern music industry with that of Chinn and Chapman, the team who first brought Rob into the music business. "It's a different thing doing bands, and I admire the sort of guys that put that stuff together," says Rob. "There's a lot of fighting and arguing goes on to get it right, whereas this is more technical. You get your one singer up, get her to sing it properly, and then you do all the work afterwards, perhaps with another engineer. I've actually steered clear of working with live bands, because I've come from that era, and I know what it's like when you're in a band. Every musician in that band wants to hear their guitar part or their drums louder than the others, and they don't think of it as a production. I've been through all that. I was like that initially, but you need to think of the overall sound."
Although technology and the music business have moved on since the mid-'70s, one thing has remained constant: there'll always be a demand for great songs. And while Rob Davis is around, there'll be plenty of those about.
Like screenwriters in the film trade, songwriters often lose out in the wheeling and dealing that goes on in the music business. It's relatively common practice, for instance, for successful singers to insist on making inconsequential changes to the song, so that they can claim a co-write and a share of the publishing lucre. "There's a lot of cases where someone will write a great song, and someone else will come in and say 'I want a piece of that if I'm doing it,'" says Rob. "It's all very tacky, and they normally change it for the worse. If the record company's picked a song, normally they love the song as it is, and then the singer wants to change it. Whereas people like Kylie wouldn't dream of it, if they love the song they'll do it."
Another publishing-related problem that plagues Rob's work as a writer of top lines for dance records is sample clearance. Many dance tracks are constructed out of obvious samples from old records, and as long as they stay 'underground', few producers or record labels bother to pay for the rights to use them. When those tracks get licensed by larger record companies with a view to adding a top line and creating a crossover hit, however, all the samples need to be cleared — and that can mean that most of the publishing royalties disappear. "With a lot of these dance things, if they've got something that feels like it's taken off an old disco tune, I'm really wary," says Rob. "I get it all checked out — how much am I going to lose before I put a load of work into this? The problem with the Spiller track was that there were so many samples on it, I didn't see a lot of publishing for it. It's the same with things like Modjo's 'Lady', which is an old Rodgers and Edwards backing track — all they've done is put drums over Nile Rodgers' guitar part and written a song. The prime example recently was Roger Sanchez's 'Another Chance'. It's the verse from a Toto ballad, and it's the vocal from the record: all he's done is added drums and a groove, and filtered it. Someone told me he got 10 percent of the publishing, and it doesn't surprise me, because there's even the original vocal on it. He's made a lot of money for Toto! But on the modern Euro stuff it's all played — there were no samples on 'Toca's Miracle' — and you're only going to do a two or three-way split on publishing, which is great.
"Sometimes it annoys me with things like the Spiller track: all those samples could have been replayed slightly differently, and we wouldn't have had to give anything away. But with DJs and their credibility, if it's sampled and it works in the clubs, they won't change it. There's a few organisations now that will create old samples, they'll get live brass in and live strings, and replay the whole thing. If it's a two-bar sample they'll recreate it for about three grand. If the part is so significant it sounds like the original you still have to pay the publishing, but you get the mechanical royalties."