NORTHERN LIGHTS: Swedish singer songwriter Nina Woodford, who co-wrote James Morrison’s hit single Broken Strings and has penned songs for Tom Jones and Leona Lewis, talks to M about her passion for pop, Nordic music culture and the inspirations she draws on when she’s in the studio.
When did you first start writing songs?
In Sweden there is very strong support from government for music in schools. You are allowed to choose at least one, maximum two, instruments and they would lend you them. You could choose anything. I played the recorder, saxophone, piano, you could choose anything and you’d get one free lesson a week.
Then, after graduation, my sister said to my producer brother in law, that I had a great voice and he said, ‘Yes yes, but its your sister!’ Then he heard me singing and ask me to sing. I started doing demos for him and backing vocals for various Swedish artists and then word got around and I started doing it for his friends and other people. But some of the lyrics were atrocious, even for me as a 16 year old! So I humbly started suggesting little changes.
How did you get your first big break?
Some of the people I’d been doing demos with were really lovely and when I told them I’d like to write, their responses were really positive. I took a couple of songs to a publisher they’d recommended called Merlin and I thought what I’d written was the bees knees. But when I listen today I think, ‘Really?’ It’s so embarrassing, they are so bad! But they must have heard something in there because they signed me. It was my first publishing deal, it was 2000 and I was 20. I was really lucky, and at the same time I had some really big cuts that first year. I thought, ‘Oh, this is easy’, and relaxed a little bit. I focused not so much on the writing but developing my craft, but then I didn’t have so many cuts for a few years until I figured that out!
You’ve written for loads of artists like Leona Lewis, Tom Jones, Jay Sean. Do you write with an artist in mind?
It’s very different, it depends. For instance, with James Morrison’s Broken Strings, I knew I was going to work with him. Three weeks before I was walking to my accountant and I was thinking about what I knew about him and it wasn’t a lot! I know he plays guitar so I was thinking about different guitar analogies and came up with Broken Strings. That was something I was thinking about him but it still had to resonate with something in me.
What inspires your songwriting, is there anything in particular that will trigger it?
It’s different. I find conversations with people are great. My friends. A lot of the time if feels more genuine than other things like movies, they can be a bit stilted and it never feels as honest and as earnest as when someone is really speaking. Sometimes people will have a thought about something and I think, ‘What a great line.’ Also, I read a lot, I watch movies, I speak a lot to my friends and I carry around my notebook.
So it’s all about the feeling? How do you get that in there?
I don’t know. Leonard Cohen said, ‘I don’t know how you write great songs. If I knew where that inspiration comes from I’d go there more often.’ I have so much to learn. I still feel like I’ve just started out and have so much to learn how it works for me. The best songs I’ve written have always been collaborations with people and it’s the synergy and energy of a bunch of things falling into place. That’s why I love writing with other people. It’s always something that none of us could have done by ourselves.
What is your starting point on a song?
It depends. I find more often now than before that I’ll have some idea of a concept or a title or word that conjures up a lot of emotions or thoughts. It depends as well if there’s an artist in the room or not. I’d prefer if there is an artist is in the room that a seed comes from them because it will come across when they sing it. Even with Broken Strings, I came in with it, but he could relate to it and talk about what that idea meant to him and how he felt about it and we just took it from there.
If you write about something that a lot of people can tie into their own lives – that’s when you hit on something that can really travel…
The songs you write have a universal appeal to them. What do you think makes a song exportable and universal?
It’s a lot of factors. There are some sounds and music styles that feel quite local to say, the UK, or States or Scandinavia that may not travel so well. But from a songwriting point of view, I think that if you write about something that a lot of people can tie into their own lives – that’s when you hit on something that can really travel. In general, songs that do really well, Someone Like You by Adele or whatever, its something that feels relevant to people; even if it’s Rehab with Amy Winehouse. It was all over the news that people were going to rehab for years and it’s about something that figures in people’s lives.
Rehab was kind of voyeuristic, wasn’t it? You were getting a glimpse behind the character…
Exactly! It was like one step further than reading about it in all the magazines, like we did.
The Nordic region punches above its weight across lots of musical genres. Why do you think that is?
People ask me and I’ve changed theory every now and again. There is definitely a history of pop, dating back before ABBA. Also, there’s something to be said about the kind of folk music we have. In Sweden you can hear something in the folk music that taps into a pop sensibility. Also, I think Scandinavia is pretty international; we learn English early in schools, we don’t have subtitles like Germany or other places. People always remark on our accents. There was a study done and Denmark came in first, phonetically sounding the most American English. That has a lot to do with it. The vocabulary is there. English is a strong second language for us. So it’s more natural to write in English and discover other music written in English.