wed 13/12/2017

10 Questions for Songwriter Carla Marie Williams | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Songwriter Carla Marie Williams

10 Questions for Songwriter Carla Marie Williams

Writer to the stars explains her new scheme to support women in the arts

'I guess I don’t stroke enough egos'Karina Lidia

Carla Marie Williams is a songwriter, artist mentor and founder of writing collective NewCrowd. She has written for stars including Beyoncé, Girls Aloud, Kylie and Rudimental, with a BRIT Award for her contribution to Girls Aloud’s single "The Promise", and Beyoncé’s recent hit "Runnin". She grew up in Harlesden, north west London, and was involved with music from an early age, but without the resources at home for private lessons, relied on Brent’s community music facilities and a powerful instinct for initiative and dedication, which has seen her win numerous competitions, including, at 15, the prize to join Hal Jackson’s Talented Teens in New York.

Tonight she launches Girls I Rate, an education and networking organisation dedicated to promoting women’s employment in the creative industries, especially music. Having become frustrated at their institutional bias, and disappointed by the failure of women’s networking to function as effectively as men’s, she has now devised a scheme to set things right, and, as she tells me, to "get to the bottom of why women’s relationships don’t come together so easily".

MATTHEW WRIGHT: How would you sum up in a sentence what Girls I Rate sets out to do?

CARLA MARIE WILLIAMS: I want to achieve a girls’ club. I want women to work together in the same way men do. I want a female army. Men do it without even realising. For me it’s sad that we have to force it. I don’t know why that is. Guys always find common ground in football, or in golf. They all support Arsenal, so it’s “Let’s meet up!” I’m trying to get to the bottom of why women’s relationships don’t come together so easily.

Was there a single moment in your own career when you thought, right, I have to do something about this?  

There have been several. I wanted to do this two years ago, but I couldn’t get it off the ground. They wanted me to do small events, so I could build it and build it, but I didn’t have the manpower for that. I made a start with it, but the team declined from six to one, back down to me, so I just let it rest. Then last year, when I was working in Los Angeles, I was dealing with two males in particular, and one of them said, in an email, “It’s a man’s world, and you’re never going to be able to change it.” I screenshot it, and put it on instagram. It didn’t have their name on it, but they know.

They sent me an email back and said, “There are women who do something about these issues and there are women who just scream about it on the internet.” I have still got the email proofs. Basically, they were telling me to stop complaining, shut up and sit down. Get back in the box. I thought, they can kiss my arse. So I called Viviana [vice president of Girls I Rate] from LA to ask for her help in setting up this event. She’s such a go-getter, great at getting sponsorship, she makes things happen. We went on the rampage, adding one woman at a time. There are eight people in it, all working for free, offering our time, resources and contacts, and making it work. It’s been difficult for me, because I’ve been working really hard, in writing sessions, living in LA, eight hours behind, but I decided I had to deliver it this year, because this needs to stop. I need to build some respect around myself, my brand, and encourage other women to do the same.  

It’s UK-based at the moment. Who knows where it’s going to grow to? I’ve been forging good relationships in the US with some really great women. Some of the publishing company heads are women, the head of ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] is a woman… I’m not going to run before I can walk, but I’m feeling like it’s going to grow, and I’m already meeting influential women. It’s not just about celebrating, it’s about educating.

Most record labels’ mentality is to ask, who’s the hit songwriter of the moment, and they go to the same people over and over again

Are the issues for women in the arts the same in US as UK?

My perspective is that men over there put women on a pedestal. I’m not saying there isn’t a boys’ club, because there is, but I’ve noticed that especially in the black community, there are a lot of young black marriages. Over here, black men aren’t so keen to get married. There, the marriages are really successful. They really love their wives. They empower each other to be great.

I have a group of friends I’ve known since I was about 12. They’re all successful professionals – teacher, barrister, music manager – but they are all single-parent families. The parents never got married, and in our culture, that’s the pattern. But in the States, it seems that every man is married.

What have been your most encouraging musical experiences? Which artists have been most encouraging to work with?

Brian Higgins was one of my main mentors. He ran [production and songwriting group] Xenomania. He always empowered me. Before each writing session he’d tell me about the potential of the tracks I was working on. He always encouraged me to the point where I’d want his presence in my writing. He gave me an opportunity when there was no hype around me. I hadn’t had any hits when I started with him, but he thought he wanted to work with me. He changed my life.

He get me started, then the situation with Beyoncé was created. She can work with anyone in the world. She heard a song I’d co-written, and loved it so much she asked me to work with her on her new album. I ask these people what it is they like about what I write, and they say, “We like things that are fresh and new. We like to try things.” I think that’s inspirational. Most record labels’ mentality is to ask, who’s the hit songwriter of the moment, and they go to the same people over and over again. The acts that really break through are the ones that try new people.

So I adopt that template. You never say no to the next new person.  

You have mostly worked with female acts – is that just how it’s worked out, or is there a question of preferences?

Carla Marie WilliamsYou do tend to get known for the things you’ve already done. A lot of the acts Brian [Higgins] had at Xenomania were female. Perhaps the male ones I didn’t connect with, or write my best songs for. I do like writing for women. I understand the concepts. They’re closer to home. Last Friday I was asked to write a song that’s sexy from a man’s point of view. I was talking about the woman handcuffing him, and he said, “Get outta here! No woman’s going to be handcuffing me!” A dominatrix point of view is my idea of sexy. So they said, “Thank you for your melodies. Now sit over there. The men are about to write these lyrics.”   

Your songs are often empowering and many of the acts you’ve worked with – Beyoncé, Ms Dynamite, Rudimental – are inspiring and motivational. Can you channel that energy and inspirational ability into more practical channels as well?

Prior to becoming a songwriter I was a youth worker for four years with the Peabody Trust in Hackney and Strawberry Vale. My role was to empower young people in need of employment and training. I also had a subsidiary company where I would go to the estates and teach kids singing and run songwriting workshops. I used all that knowledge and experience and put it into Girls I Rate. Now I want to open it up, build a network. I want to help people. I’m originally from Harlesden, which is a ghetto. But there was so much talent and energy there. I was around a lot of guys who got into criminal activity. A lot of the girls don’t really have a way out. A lot of the people around them are short-sighted and narrow-minded, but my mum and the people around me encouraged me to aim big. My first trip to America was to the Apollo at the age of 15, then I joined a girls’ group and went to live in Glasgow. I haven’t always been in the same area, around the same people, and I want to encourage others, and share that.

You grew up in Harlesden, learning music in the community. Would it be possible for someone from Harlesden to do what you did today?

I was in touch with Brent Music Services recently, wanting to find out about local singers, but I got no response, and I couldn’t find anything for myself. It was very disappointing. When I was growing up there, there was so much going on. We need a hub of talent in north west London.

You’re supported by the MOBO Organisation. What do they bring? Do you feel there’s a racial aspect to your work as well?

MOBO runs a competition called Unsung Artists. I was asked to give a talk to them at the PRS building in Streatham, and on the back of that, I suggested that we collaborate with a GIR wing for the girls in that competition. MOBO is keen to develop young writers, so I’ve taken finalists from Unsung Artists and I’m going to be giving them weekend masterclasses.

GIR is still a gender thing. Though there have been racial issues in the past, when I wanted to be a rock and soul artist, and people would look at me and not understand how I could make it work. That was partly why I got my lip pierced when I was 18, to stand out and look more like a rock chick. My Jamaican mum hated it at first, but now she says she can’t imagine me without it.

When a man has something to say in the studio, it’s taken differently

There are also issues of prejudice within the black community: the crabs-in-a-barrel syndrome. It was first described by Louis Farrakhan and it occurs when one person escapes from a less privileged community at the expense of others. Music has fused so much, that especially in America, people don’t really care about that any more. But I do feel that some of the artists chosen to front projects are either white or light-skinned. So, the people fronting things, for example Beyoncé or Rihanna, are not my complexion. That’s the acceptable black woman. Sometimes it feels as though the darker-skinned artist gets overlooked as not marketable. Back in the day, Motown-era, no one cared. Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, they were all darker-skinned women.

You see it in public life, too. When black men become successful, their wife is usually white. Barack Obama is a great exception. Why is it that when you get to the top, you don’t find women in your own culture you identify with?

How will it work in practical terms? What can you do to change attitudes and help talented women?

I want to run panels. I’m planning GIR panels that push boundaries and are both female and mixed. It’s not an anti-man movement. Men support Women too. But we can talk about these issues a lot – what are we going to do? My plan is to sit with the key heads in the creative industries, and work on strategies for creating more employment for girls, especially in music production. Implementing these plans is key.

We’re planning a twitter takeover, which is kind of open day on twitter for writers and artists, when young artists can spam influential figures in the recording industry with their work. Often labels don’t listen to demos sent in by unknown performers, so this will be a chance for them to get in touch, and get a response, establish contact.   

Like most successful creative people, you’ve had knockbacks, and projects that haven’t worked out, and you’ve got on with it and persevered. Where does that determination come from? Is it possible to teach other young performers who may be a bit low on confidence?

I’ve had some great support. The people around you make all the difference. My mum is powerful and supportive. I’ve always been involved in so many activities, even from young: Saturday school, all kinds of competitive things. They taught me discipline, to keep my eyes on the prize. If you can do that you can get through the down days. Bouncing back is all I know. It’s always been sink or swim.

Is there a difference in terms of treatment between performers and those, like writers, working behind the scenes? Are the issues the same?

They are the same, but there’s also the issue that the things you’re aware of, many more things when you’ve been in the business a long time than you are as a developing artist. The situations you get into aren’t the same. You don’t step on so many toes as a young artist. I’ve been in the industry over 10 years and I say and do things that could offend.

What are your own experiences of studio politics?

The other day I went to the studio. There were six guys in the studio, and my female artist, who’s 18. I heard the recording going on, went into the studio, heard that it wasn’t sounding right, and told them to re-record a section, and asked to listen to the other song they’d recorded and corrected that too. The chief producer came over and said, “Never say I’m bad again, she’s the worst.” They were shocked I’d come in and given them instructions. They’re not used to being told what to do by a woman.

Studios are mainly staffed by men, and for me, as a woman in her thirties, it can be a problem. It doesn’t go down very well for me as the writer, telling younger guys what to do. There can be an atmosphere with older guys as well who expected to have their way just because they’re older. You just stay in your lane, and I’ll stay in my lane, is their attitude. Sometimes it just works, though. Working in America recently, it just clicked. But I am known to be quite an assertive person, and I’ve had some success, and when I arrive, the guys are aware of a certain reputation I have.

When a man has something to say in the studio, it’s taken differently. I’m expected to go round the houses when I’m making a criticism, but I just want to say it directly. I have to spend time stroking egos. I guess I don’t stroke enough egos! But some people love the round and round because it makes them feel better.

When you don’t have your own team with you, every day is your first day. You have to imagine going in every day as your first day. No one’s saying what they mean, or being who they really are. It’s really tiring. You spend four hours saying “Maybe, I was thinking…” No one wants to say, “That bit’s shit,” or “That bit’s great.” Creatives are sensitive. You’d think, given the cost of studio time, we’d want to get on with it, but we’re not just dealing with the talent, we’re dealing with the personalities and the characters and the chemistry.

Music’s about chemistry. Sometimes you’ve got great talent in the room but the chemistry’s all wrong. It’s the publisher’s job, or the manager’s job, to identify the types of personalities that will work well together.  

What advice would you give your teenage self about how to make it in music?

You have to have a plan. Set yourself goals. Decide what you want to achieve, and who you want to be, and you are halfway there. And build a network.

  • Girls I Rate will be launching this evening, 8 March, International Women's Day

@matthewwrighter

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