Songwriting & Composing
More interviews with songwriters & composers coming soon, with more tips/advice too...
Singer-Songwriter Ian Donaldson (H20) / composer Jeff Bernstein
With over thirty five years in the music business, former frontman of Scottish 80s New Wave pop band sensation H20, Ian Donaldson reveals his latest Single "How Beauty Sounds" and more on his career & songwriting.
"How Beauty Sounds" is a stunningly poignant & reflective orchestral ballad, which is the result of a collaboration between himself and Fife composer Jeff Bernstein. In his time with H20, Ian had Top 40 chart success with "I Dream To Sleep" and "Just Outside of Heaven", selling a lot of Singles, Albums and Tours.
We caught up with Ian (Jeff below), to get a glimpse of their collaboration project, which definitely seems to be a winning formula, as the song is receiving a lot of airplay on radio stations here and overseas, and also his songwriting processes, music biz experience.
Q: How did you first become involved in music - did you learn an instrument or were you inspired by what you heard on the radio?
"The radio, mainly Radio One and Top of The Pops were the two ways I discovered music. Tamla Motown and Glam Rock in particular. I took piano lessons at school for a while, but lost interest. I wanted to learn to play Roll Away the Stone by Mott the Hoople and not Twinkle Twinkle Little Star."
Q: In your early days, you formed Punk band "Skroo" - How did that come about ?
"Punk happened when I was at Secondary School. As a teenager from a tough area, it was a life line – an opportunity to escape from the grey and humdrum, be part of something exciting and new. The music was raw. It's message was revolutionary. I was fifteen and in a band called 8 Miles Out playing songs by The Who, Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry. I left, taking the drummer, Brian Donaldson (no relation) with me, found a guitarist and bass player, called the band Skroo and set off on a great adventure."
"I began writing songs in Skroo with the guitar player in 1976/77. ‘I Dream to Sleep’ and ‘Just outside of Heaven’ came later in 1982/83."
4) From the early days to H20, what led to being signed and writing the songs for H20?
"I formed H20 with Alan McGee after Skroo broke up. He played bass. Andrew Innes (now with Primal Scream) was on guitar. This line up didn’t last long. Alan and Andrew left to go to London and the rest is history. I expanded the new line up of H20 to a six piece. We gigged hard and built up a following. TV and Radio began to take notice. An appearance on a new TV Show called Street Buzz, playing live to a studio audience really helped. John Peel had already played the band’s Indie single ‘Hollywood Dream’ – which was released on our own Spock Records – on his late evening show on Radio One a couple of times. We had momentum. I taped the three song from Street Buzz onto a VHS tape and went to London, staying with Owen Paul - CBS, EMI, London and RCA were interested. We signed with RCA in the end. I wrote the songs for the band with Ross Alcock who played keyboards. It was a partnership that worked."
Two versions, thirty five years apart.
Q: Is there a particular way in which you write songs, what are your processes ?
"When I write on my own, I fit the chords around the vocal melody. Never the other way around. I work on piano. I begin with a vocal line, could be a chorus or verse, find the chord and sing the next line and so on, building a shape. Sometimes I have an idea lyrically to work with and other times the words appear. When I work with musicians who give me a piece of music, the process is reversed. It’s a different kind of challenge. Trying to create a melody and lyric that fits and works can be tricky, but really rewarding."
"Trying to create a melody and lyric that fits and works can be tricky, but really rewarding...."
Q: What was it like to hear your song being played on the radio back in the 80s and having those hit songs ?
"It was amazing. A dream come true. I still get the same feeling all these years later."
Q: February 2018 saw the release of your first solo CD, "From Stars We Came" (Toy Town Records). Two sold-out concerts in Glasgow celebrated your official return to the world of music - did you take a break from music, why the time period / not being involved in music, or were you still in music, just not as visible for personal reasons?
"Both is the honest answer. I had been in bands and making music since I was fourteen. When H20 broke up I was burnt out. I was a hermit for a few years, not sure of what to do with my life. Then I ran a recording studio with a friend , writing for and producing other artists.. A new adventure came next. Four Good Men was a band I fronted with Mick McNeil and Derek Forbes from Simple Minds. Bruce Watson from Big Country on guitar and Robbie William’s drummer, Smiley. We toured Europe, Canada and the US performing Simple Minds, Big Country and H20 songs. This lasted a few years. It gave me the taste for making new music and performing again. The result was ‘From Stars We Came’ and the two shows at Websters Theatre in Glasgow."
Q: Who inspired you to write songs, and what music do you listen to these days ?
"David Bowie, Roxy Music and Tamla Motown were my main inspirations. They still are to an extent. I now include everything I’ve heard since. Standing still isn’t an option. Repeating myself doesn’t interest me. I always want to do something more. Try different colours and find new ways of telling stories."
Ian's solo album "From Stars We Came" and his debut novel "A Rainbow In The Basement" - both available on Amazon - click images
Q: You've written/released your fist novel "A Rainbow in the Basement," in 2016 - which has had great Reviews - Did Songwriting lead to you then focusIing your writing onto the novel....do you think coming from songwriting to writing books is a natural progression for songwriters ?
"Yes, song writing lead to working on ‘A Rainbow in the Basement’. It took twenty years to complete. Developing a style, understanding grammar and punctuation – took time. Presenting an idea that keeps people interested for four minutes with a song is difficult. Keeping people interested for 400 pages is so much more difficult. I worked on it, reworked it, put it away for a time, reworked it again and again until I was happy with it. David Bowie is my musical Hero. Ray Bradbury, the US Fantasy writer, is my Literary Hero. Bowie’s early songs are fascinating, otherworldly stories in miniature. Not unlike Bradbury’s early short stories. A song on the H20 album ‘Faith’ called ‘Leonard’ is based on one of Bradbury’s tales ‘The Pedestrian’."
Q: You've just released a new single "How Beauty Sounds", a stunning orchestral ballad in collaboration with Fife composer Jeff Bernstein. How did that come about ?
Jeff and I met at a residential recording studio called Jacobs Manor back in the 80’s. He was in a band called White China and I was in H20. We had a great chat. Didn’t meet again until recently. I was aware of Jeff’s beautiful solo work. A mutual friend in a Face Book chat suggested Jeff and I work together. I liked the idea, he did too. He sent me a piece of music to listen to. I immediately liked it. The challenge for me was to come up with a lyric and vocal melody and to match its beauty. I lived with the piece for a few days and that’s when it hit me - This is How Beauty Sounds. Literally. I worked on it a section at a time and sent Jeff rough ideas to hear. He liked them. I went to Dunfermline to record the vocal. We decided on what would become the final version and then it was time to take the paint brush of the canvas and let it go free.
"How Beauty Sounds" - Stunning, haunting, reflective.....
Q: Any plans for a new album, EP or more Singles ?
"My next record will be released on Alan McGee’s new Label, It’s Creation Baby. Alan really liked my last song ‘Mirror Ball’. He introduced me to Craig Walker earlier this year, a song writer/musician who lives in Berlin. We have since written a handful of songs together. We’re all excited about how they have turned out. Release date, late summer."
Click Here for Ian's Facebook page
Q: What advice would you give young aspiring Singer-Songwriters/Bands etc when dealing with Songwriting and the music biz in general ?
"When you are young, brave and invincible, advice from ‘old’ guys doesn’t really register. At least it didn’t for me when I was young. I appreciate that young bands and musicians are more aware of the business side of the industry now. Knowing how money is generated, where it comes from and how it gets to you is really important. Ultimately – song are what we are judged by. It’s important to understand and recognise that not everyone is a song writer and not everyone is a good song writer.....
...Whoever writes the best songs in your band, let them – if you’re happy with that arrangement go with it. Many bands break up because everyone wants to be heard. And if it’s really crucial to you that your songs be heard, and are not are not the ones making it onto record, don’t be afraid to walk away and do your own thing."
Q: Lastly, what are your 3-5 top tips for Songwriting, Composing, being in a band, pursuing a career in music ?
"Give the song EVERYTHING you have. Work on it until it is the best you can make it. Break your heart if necessary. Also work hard on getting the arrangement and musical parts right. Don’t release anything that you are not 100% happy with. You will only be disappointed later. Harmony within a band is crucial if it’s going to stay together. Challenging each other musically is healthy too. Be encouraging when you do this, not confrontational. Enjoy it. If it’s not fun, what’s the point in doing it ?..."
"Give the song EVERYTHING you have. Work on it until it is the best you can make it. Break your heart if necessary...."
As they say in Nashville, the song is king....
Freshman Guitars wish Ian and Jeff every success with the Single and future plans...
Interview with composer Jeff Bernstein
Jeff collaborated with Ian on the new Single "How Beauty Sounds"
It may not appear to be relevant to a guitarist, but it's important to understand orchestral composers/compositions, as it will help your understanding of the composing process and you may at some stage, have to work with a composer or play on music which has orchestral parts in it. The best way for any musician to develop, is to listen to and try and understand other styles/genres of music, which in turn, helps improve their own music. We caught up with Fife composer Jeff Bernstein, who's music was the basis of the symbiosis of Ian Donaldson & Jeff's new Single "How Beauty Sounds". It also demonstrates that musicians develop all their lives and find themselves on new musical journeys, rather different from where they initially started.
Q: You were in Fife band White China and recorded / toured all over the UK. How did you transition from keys player in a pop band to composer of Orchestral magnificence and compose music for indie films and special projects ?
"I was indeed a member of a band called White China back in the 80’s that achieved some minor success, we released a couple of singles and were signed to Island Records and Stiff Publishing. We also recorded an album that was never released. Although I was in a “pop” band, I had always loved soundtracks from an early age. My Mum had the vinyl LP’s of Ryan’s Daughter and Doctor Zhivago, which I would listen to often and Maurice Jarre was a great introduction into how music drives a film. When I was about 7 years old I heard John Barry’s theme to The Persuaders! (still the greatest TV ever composed IMO) and I’ve been hooked ever since. I think it was inevitable that my music preference would lead me down the route of composing for film, I always knew I would end up doing it if that makes sense.
I was approached by a number of independent Film Directors who asked me to compose for their work, which I was more than happy to do, as it stretched my own capabilities and put me into a position where I was composing for other people and working on shared ideas, which was unique for me."
Q: Do you miss the Pop/Rock scene, performing live and now focus on Orchestral / Soundtrack for film etc on your DAW ?
"I do miss the live music scene and being on stage with fellow band members, but it may not be over yet, we may hook up again and play more gigs. For now, I just want to concentrate on composing for myself and the various projects that are already in the pipeline."
Q: How did you become involved with Ian Donaldson, (H20) and how did you guys end up working together to produce your new orchestral ballad Single "How Beauty Sounds" - Did you have existing music then Ian wrote lyrics/melody for ? did you rehearse, how was it all brought to fruition ?
"I originally met Ian around 36 years ago, when both H2O and White China were recording at a studio called Ridge Farm. If I remember correctly, we had just arrived as they were leaving and we all chatted for about an hour before going our separate ways. I found Ian on Facebook a few years ago and got in touch. Ian had mentioned that if I ever needed a vocalist for one of my tracks then that he would be interested. I have always loved Ian’s voice, but I didn’t want to send any track, but decided I wouldn’t push it in terms of trying to write something as quickly as possible. Instead, I just continued composing and a few months later I played the opening chords to "How Beauty Sounds" on the piano and knew this would be the track in terms of fragility, which would suit Ian’s vocal. I finished the track and sent it to Ian. Thankfully, he loved the track, and we met a few weeks later in Glasgow and discussed the vocal and lyrics, which Ian had put together in readiness for recording. Ian came over to Loopmaniac Studios in Dunfermline and we recorded the vocal. I just remember thinking that the music and Ian’s rich vocal tones were a perfect match."
"Awakened" and "The Sorrow Farm" (above) are tracks from Jeff's debut album "Requiem For The Flawed". Jeff lost his mother a few months before his album was released, so it's especially poignant for him, has special meaning to him.
Q: Is it a similar process of composing for orchestral/instrumental works to composing for pop etc ?
"There are some similarities, as you’re trying to create a piece of music, but replacing perhaps a vocal melody with strings or a woodwind instrument. There is no requirement for a verse and chorus, you’re creating something that’s more of a feeling to match a particular piece of film or a story."
Q: Your good self and Ian have produced something rather timeless and beautifully poignant. Have you any plans to collaborate more with each other (or anyone else), with more orchestral or pop aligned Singles on the horizon, or perhaps an EP or Album ?
"If the right opportunity arose with Ian, I’d be more than happy for us to work together again, but it would need to be as special as How Beauty Sounds. There are a few other people I have worked with and those tracks, will be put out in due course, but I’m always open to a collaboration if it feels right."
Q: What are you working now - The film/TV industry pretty much at a standstill, are you focusing on building up your composition library ?
"I’m currently working on a short film with the Director Tim Granados, who I have enjoyed working with in the past. Some other projects lie ahead, but I’m not in a position to discuss these yet. I released my album Requiem For The Flawed late last year and was blown away by the interest and the amount of people who bought the CD and vinyl. It was like a line in the sand for me, a number of years to compose all the tracks, but it’s time to move onto the next part of the journey and I already have the start of a second album, which may be released next year."
Q: As a musician/creative, how have you coped during the past year ?
"Lockdown has been a pain in some ways, but it has also led to more time composing and recording, which ultimately led to the earlier than planned release of my album. It’s also let me hone more into the skills of recording orchestral pieces and being more self-critical on what should and shouldn’t be included in a particular piece."
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring composers/keys players out there who want a career in music with bands etc ?
"Join a band, learn your craft and don’t do it for other people, do it for you. If you’re looking to place music, with a publisher as an example, make sure it’s the best it can be. Demos aren’t really acceptable now, it’s all about sending a finished, polished and Mastered piece of music. Don’t rush the music and the most important part of the process…..be yourself. There’s so many people that want to be the next Hans Zimmer or Junkie XL, but we’ve already got those composers and they’re pretty good at what they do. It’s fine to be influenced by them, as they’re no doubt influenced, but find your niche and try to stand out."
Q: What are your top 3-5 tips for composing music ?
"If it’s not working during a writing session, walk away for a while (Don’t beat yourself up). Be an individual, don’t follow trends. Be patient. Enjoy what you do and don’t be put off by critics. Buy the best VST’s you can afford and wait for the sales."
We wish Jeff every success in the future