Inside SongHubs, the busiest week of New Zealand songwriting

Nine musicians and producers from this year’s SongHubs, a collaborative song-writing retreat presented by APRA AMCOS with support from NZ on Air, share their experiences.

Five rooms at Roundhead Studios, each containing three songwriters and a producer, pumping out a brand new song every day for a week – could there ever be a more productive week of songwriting in New Zealand?

The whole idea of SongHubs is to bring local and international songwriters together and encourage collaboration – not only for the duration of the week and the 20-plus songs which are written during that period but also hopefully forging new relationships which might last into the future.

This year saw three veteran Nashville songwriters – Marc Beeson, Heather Morgan and Kate York – sharing their knowledge with 20 local songwriters and producers of varying ages, genres and experience. By the end of the week, they had all gone from being relative strangers to drinking whiskey and wine together, dancing around the studio, sharing in the rush of hearing their brand new songs through Roundhead’s impressive control room speakers.

Here is a collection of photos from the week, taken by Amanda Ratcliffe, and captioned by the songwriters.

Songwriters Tami Neilson and Julia Deans with producer Simon Gooding and visiting international guest songwriter Marc Beeson

Tami Neilson: We would’ve been working on lyrics at this point for a song called ‘Red Wine Stain’. This was our first day, so everyone was still figuring each other out. Weeks before I’d thought to myself, ‘Yeah I’m gonna do some prep, have some ideas that I can go in with’, and then we had no power for a week, and my brain was just in survival mode, and I was totally unprepared, so it was a bit of a crazy first day mentally.

Marc had this idea of a red wine stain as a metaphor for the memory of a relationship or a person, but we were writing a song for me and I said, ‘You know, I’m not really in that space right now of wallowing in a broken relationship or pining after a man, but what if we think about like a social commentary, that people’s minds are so hard to change, you know their minds are made up with the permanence of a red wine stain. And also the way people get comfortable in relationships, and comfortable with what they can get away with, and it will just keep ticking along.’

So Marc and I were going line for line, slowly figuring each other out, and then I think the moment Marc figured out who I was, we were finishing the first verse, and I threw out this line “He likes his dinner and his woman hot when he gets home from work”, and he was like, “Well shit. Ok.” And then he knew what game we were playing. He got the sass.

Songwriter Jenny Mitchell and producer Tom Healy

Jenny Mitchell: This was Monday and I was in a session with Nick Dow and Possum Plows, and Nick is actually just out of the shot here, playing some fiddle on a song we were writing for me. So there we were listening to Nick and it was quite cool because I’m not usually in that seat. It was a bit of a co-producer-ish type moment, and we were just talking about which phrase we liked. Nick would play ‘de de daaa’, and then he’d try ‘do do dee’ and we were figuring out which direction to go in. Getting some country flavour in there. It was great. I loved working with Tom.

Songwriter Madeline Bradley working on a song for Elle Graham aka Woodes, (with visiting international songwriter Heather Morgan and producer Simon Gooding).

Madeline Bradley: In this photo, we’re writing for Elle [Graham], and I was working out the B part of the verse on the bass, so we could have some variety with the phrasing. We were writing something very ethereal here, something very much like Woodes, and her flavour. It was very beautiful and spacey, a little bit of Grimes vibes – I don’t think she’d mind me saying that.

Producer Jol Mulholland and songwriter Seth Haapu, working on a song for Tami Neilson with Kaylee Bell

Seth Haapu: I think here we were trying to come up with a post-chorus melody, and we were vibing and jamming different melodic hooks. Jol’s on the Korg, and I’m enjoying playing the grand piano. That’s where I feel like I find a lot of melodies, on the piano, because that’s my main instrument. Jol had a really cool harmony which I liked, and so we were throwing some variations around. It’s great to have other people there to bounce off, you know when an idea comes through, you can bounce off each other to see where it will go next, and that’s a lot of fun.

Songwriters Tami Neilson, and Marley Sola, working with producer Tom Healy, and guest songwriter Ciaran McMeekan

Tom Healy: That photo would be mid-way through Marley singing a powerful soul ballad. Obviously, I’m making a few mistakes to put him off. No, this was about halfway through Marley’s song, and I’m playing a bit of a bass line on the Moog, and I’m sure Ciaran’s on the kazoo at this point! Actually I think he’d be reading the lyrics, and Tami’s casting her powerful aura over all of us. There were some great harmonies with those three that afternoon.

Visiting guest songwriter Heather Morgan on the floor, with songwriters Kaylee Bell and Julian Deans on the couch, and producer Alex Wildwood

Kaylee Bell: We were writing a song called ‘Intuition’, and it actually started with a conversation we were having. Julia mentioned the word ‘intuition’, and it was relevant to the ideas we were exploring, so I think here we are playing around with ways to work ‘intuition’ in there, how it could become the hook of the song. The song started with a beat that Alex worked up and some chords that Julia was adding – I decided I wouldn’t go near the guitar for this song, because sometimes I get stuck in the rhythms and chords I know, and I wanted to focus on the lyrics and melody for a change.

So Heather and I were working through the lyrics, and Julia and Alex were building the chords at this point. That was a bit different for me, but I wanted to try something new, and I wanted a bit of a Sara Bareilles vibe on the song. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that myself if I played the chords, so I thought, it’s time to step away and let these other awesome writers get in there.

Producer Alex Wildwood with songwriters Elle Graham, Marley Sola, and Jamie McDell

Marley Sola: Jamie had some cool ideas and we were having a good laugh there. I think throughout the week you definitely have these moments where you’re trying to keep things from becoming way too serious, and you need to have a laugh and lighten things up. This was a song we were doing for Elle, and the girls were singing, but I learnt loads from them, just bringing the song together. They made me want to step up my game. It was a song about changing your mind, from the perspective of someone who is sceptical of love, but then finding that they do unexpectedly fall in love, and the role of that special person who has changed their mind about the whole deal. It’s funny to talk about that stuff with people you don’t know to begin with, but you loosen up.

Songwriter Jamie McDell

Jamie McDell: So this is me recording guitar and vocals for a song we wrote on the last day. I went into the session knowing I wanted to do something acoustic, with not much else accompanying it, just the vocal and harmonies. It’s a pretty raw song, we kept it very live sounding, just doing full takes. Jenny Mitchell and Heather Morgan also worked on this song with me, along with Tom Healy producing, and the title is ‘My Mother’s Daughter’. I came into the session wanting to tap into some of the negative and positive ways my mother has affected me, and it turned out to be a beautiful, more empathetic song than I originally thought, which was really nice.

Visiting international guest songwriter Kate York, with songwriters Julia Deans and Nick Dow, along with producer Tom Healy

Nick Dow: I think in this moment we had the chord progression worked out and we were trying to figure out the right melody for the song. We’d had an idea that revolved around the phrase ‘only in the shallows’, which is where the song started, and I guess it’s about how sometimes feelings can get lost in the depths, and you need to bring your insecurities to the surface, to the shallows, in order to look at them and deal with them. It was a line that I had a while ago that I hadn’t worked on at all, but it was really cool working with these more established, experienced songwriters, and getting their perspective.


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