Spotlight: Belfast Nashville Songwriter Festival

Katharine Phillippa

The Belfast Nashville Songwriters’ Festival and convention returns tomorrow for its ninth year, highlighting talent from both sides of the Atlantic.

American artists Brett James, Nanci Griffith, Kristian Bush, Jason Blume, Chris Young and Bob Dipiero will perform alongside Northern and Southern Irish songwriters such as Katharine Phillipa (above), Brian Kennedy, Gareth Dunlop, Ursula Burns, Wes Grierson, John Spillane and Mick Flannery.

PRS for Music sponsors the convention and will be hosting an aftershow club on Wednesday 20, Thursday 21 and Friday 21 February. The society’s Stuart Fleming will also take part in a copyright and royalties discussion panel.

Colin Magee, Belfast Nashville Songwriters FestivalTogether with his wife, songwriter Colin Magee (right) first staged Belfast Nashville in 2004 with seed money from Arts Council Northern Ireland. The annual event, still funded by the funding body, now attracts 8,000 songwriters and musicians.

On the eve of the 2013 event opening we caught up with Colin to find out more…

What are your connections to Nashville?
Nashville is famous for country music, but it’s more than that. It’s a songwriters’ city. People are drawn to it from all over the world because of the music industry there. When I discovered that Belfast was twinned with the city, we decided to include Nashville in the title and develop cultural links between the two cities. This year we’ve got 16 people coming over from Nashville this year. A lot of them are very established hit writers. In one concert alone, the CMA Songwriters’ Series, the four Nashville songwriters involved have written 39 number one hits in the Billboard charts – they’ve written for people like Bon Jovi, Leona Lewis, Keith Urban and allsorts of people.

What attracts songwriters to the festival?
Primarily it’s a wonderful networking opportunity. People come from all over the UK and Ireland to make new connections and learn about things, like royalties and copyright and how to make money from your songs – the important stuff. Songwriters meet for the first time and discover there’s a connection and continue to keep in touch with each other. We keep seeing the same faces coming back.

Does the festival concentrate on just country music?
We are interested in songwriting in different styles. We have country and Americana, we have folk songwriters, rock and pop writers. Henry Priestman of The Christians is coming for the first time.

Why do you think country music is so popular in Northern Ireland?
Country music is definitely popular here and I think that’s because local people here in Ireland can hear the musical connections between our folk music and country music in America. A lot of people emigrated from these two islands so there is that historical connection and they made an impact in the music of southern USA.

So it’s primarily country and Americana but its remit is broader?
Yes. I suppose you could say it’s mostly roots music; folk, Americana, Irish traditional, and then we have some pop and rock and blues. But the main three are folk, Americana and country.

What’s the live music scene like in Belfast and which venues are you working with for this festival?
We have a vibrant music scene here. I think ourselves and others are helping to inspire people to develop their music and also stay here rather than go off to bigger cities in search of connections. What we’ve done with our festival is bring people to Belfast. People can develop their music and remain in the city.

Also, the internet has had a major impact too. Songwriters are doing everything for themselves. People travel less – except to tour – so it’s a vibrant scene.

The venues we use are fantastic; Madisons and the Holiday Inn Olympic Music Room, the Empire Music Hall, places like that which have music all year around. We’re tapping into that too and adding in our festival.

Are there any upcoming Belfast songwriters that we really should know about?
We’re seeing a lot of new people coming through like Gareth Dunlop and I’m very impressed with Wes Grierson’s songwriting. Warren Atwell… there are so many names! It’s really important for people to hear about these people; Katharine Phillipa is doing very well, Peter McVeigh is writing fantastic songs. A lot of people are coming through. Chris Keys is another one to watch out for. A lot of them are rootsy singer songwriters.

You are a songwriter as well aren’t you?
Yes, that’s one of the main reasons I started the festival. When you write on your own you can feel really isolated – especially when you don’t have a co-writer.

So what do you think makes a great song?
It has to be the marriage between melody and lyric. Both have to be equally strong – it has to be a great memorable melody for it to work. And the words have to link perfectly with the tune. Otherwise it falls down. You might have written a good song but everybody strives to write a great song.

What’s been the most memorable songwriting advice you’ve heard at a Belfast Nashville workshop?
I’ve heard so much over the years, so that’s a tough one to answer. This year alone we’ve got 17 workshops. You can see the full list at

What comes up a lot is that we should be continually open to learning. Songwriters should continue to work hard on developing their skills. They should work hard on finding the right melody. We give people advice on lyrical styles, such as story songs. People realise too that you have to be in the right place and the right time to get that lucky break.

What will be a highlight for you this year?
I think the concerts are going to be excellent and Tom Baxter is going to be superb. I look forward to hearing Gareth Dunlop and local songwriter Brian Kennedy, who’s absolutely brilliant. I love going to all of the concerts. But in terms of our songwriting convention I’m looking forward to the PRS for Music one about royalties and making money from songs. We’re linking up with Irish collecting society IMRO and the Musicians’ Union too for that one. For the first time we’re critiquing songs too. There is an interesting one from a Cork songwriter called John Spillane. In his one hour workshop he’s going to write a song with the audience. It will be exciting to see what happens with that one.