Jamie Cullum on the songwriting craft

jamie cullum bbc amplify

Multi-genre, multi-instrumental, multi-million-selling: just a few strings to Jamie Cullum’s musical bow then…

Working across the last couple of decades, Jamie has worked with everyone from Farrell to Clint Eastwood, and earned a heaving mantlepiece’s worth of award metal, including three BRITs and two Golden Globes.

Opening the inaugural BBC Amplify event at the Excel Centre, London today (Friday), he shared his expertise on the art of songwriting and navigating the industry to ensure a successful, long-lived career in music.

Here’s the best bits…

On labels…

I sent my first label contract to the Musicians Union (MU) for advice. They were amazing to me.

I have to say, my personal experience with labels has been amazing. If you meet the right people at a label and connect with the people who sign you – if you share similar loves – mutually you all believe in each other and believe it can continue and work.

I met people at Universal Records 14 years ago and I still work with some of them now.

On breaking through…

When I started out, I was so music industry illiterate, I didn’t know you needed a song for radio, I didn’t think a track needed to be three-and-a-half minutes long. I loved pop, jazz, electronic, hip-hop music – I was across all of that when I was making my second album. It was a reflection of where I was and what I felt. When they pulled two songs out for singles, it was a complete surprise for me. It’s normally the last song you expect that becomes ‘the one’.

On having a team around you…

It’s important to have people around you that you can trust. If you’re going to be a creative person, you need to have some of those [industry] jobs taken away from you. If you’re obsessed with the business all the time you never have chance to let your mind wander.

It’s a problem having your phone on you all the time. I only get ideas when I’m bored or when I’m not consumed by something else. So having that team in place helps steer you in a certain direction.

On finding your way in the industry…

I would have loved to be more music industry literate when I started out. The great thing about the industry now is that it’s a lot more exposed these days and we understand a lot more about how it works. You have the opportunity to begin your career how you mean to go on – and that’s really important for a long career.

On keeping going…

Over the years I’ve had a lot of successes but I’ve also had a lot of things that have failed miserably – singles, albums, allsorts. But, you have to keep moving, like a shark, otherwise you die. If to make music that you’re proud of is your modus operandi, then you can’t fail really. It sounds obvious, but in a creative job it’s the most important thing.

On the importance of improvisation…

Improvising is such a great way to get great ideas for songs. Sit down without any preconceived ideas and sing or play whatever comes into your head. Just start saying words. Either record it or move on. That is the good stuff – the raw stuff.

On dissecting other people’s music…

I went on a creative writing course once and they told me that the best writers are the best readers. That’s something I truly believe. You need to be getting that book of Jay Z’s lyrics, you need to be writing down the best Stormzy or Leonard Cohen lyrics, you need to listen to great albums and learn the songs. If you think Katy Perry’s Teenage Dreams is a great song like I do, then learn it. Figure out the mechanics of it. The people that last understand the craft of songwriting – and it is a craft.

On the best books about songwriting…

There are so many good ones but if you haven’t read Songwriters on Songwriting by Paul Zollo you must get it. It’s a bible.

There’s another great book called Steal Like an Artist, it’s by a guy called Austin Kleon. He makes the point that every great piece of art is stolen in some tiny way. Bring loads of great stuff into your life, steal it, then become yourself on the basis of that.

On improving your craft…

I’ve tried everything. I’ve busked, played at funerals, bah mitzvahs, weddings, strip clubs… I think playing live in front of anyone in any situation is really instructive. It gives you an idea about what’s working, whether that’s your song style or performance style.

On helping overcome writer’s block…

Keep a diary. Every good writer I know has a journal. Write down anything that comes into your head. Keep it by your bed and write things in it as soon as you wake up – a bit of your dream, or how you’re feeling – I promise you, your subconscious is full of gold, ready to be written about.

Also, have an idea before you sit down to write a song. All the songs I’ve written that I’m most proud of had a concept to them right at the start.