“The thread that ties superstars together is that gritty determination”

Guy Chambers has spoken to NME about his opinions on modern-day songwriters – including his love for Doja Cat and Olivia Rodrigo – and his work with Robbie Williams.

Last week (March 6), the world-famous producer and songwriter was interviewed as a part of Confetti Institute of Technologies’ annual Industry Week in Nottingham, bringing together experts in music and technology to share their stories with the next generation of creatives.

Chambers is best known for writing songs for some of pop’s most successful superstars including Kylie Minogue, Tina Turner, and Melanie C of the Spice Girls, as well as penning Robbie Williams’ biggest song, the 1997 Top Five hit ‘Angels’.

Chambers emphasised how much he loved classical music before he came to make pop music. Speaking on stage in Nottingham, he explained that his love for music-making came from watching his London Philharmonic Orchestra flautist father He also mentioned at the age of five, his first experience of live music was while watching Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé.

However, he began making commercial music as a part of numerous bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s including The Waterboys and World Party. Chambers revealed that during his time in the short-lived group The Lemon Trees, they were “offered loads of record deals, including Parlophone Records”. But when he told the band’s then lead singer David Catlin-Birch that they had a potential deal with “The Beatles’ label,” he said, “Sorry, Guy, but I can’t do it.’”

Chambers continued: “I was in this horrible position where I’d been offered a record deal but I didn’t have a singer. I had to find a replacement for him and we auditioned loads of different singers and nobody was even close to being as good as him. It was heartbreaking. The singer who did end up getting the job was a compromise and it was a tough lesson to learn.”

Successful songwriter-producer Guy Chambers at Confetti Institute of Technologies in Nottingham. Photo credit: Confetti / Tom P Morley
Successful songwriter-producer Guy Chambers talking to students at Confetti Institute of Technologies in Nottingham. Photo credit: Confetti / Tom P Morley

The band released one album, ‘Open Book’ in 1993, which was pop-centric. The West London native said that The Lemon Trees’s drastic change from pop to a “grungy” sound for their second album was a “mistake.” However, this taught lessons he’d take along to working with Robbie Williams on his 1998 second album ‘I’ve Been Expecting You’.

“[Williams’] debut album [1997’s ‘Life thru a Lens’] only sold 36,000 copies,” Chambers said, explaining the pressure he felt while creating ‘I’ve Been Expecting You’. “A few years later, I made sure that the second album was a progression from the first, but it wasn’t radically different from the first.”

He told the crowd that working with Robbie Williams “saved” his career and vice versa. “I was a struggling songwriter. I wasn’t doing well when I met him. I wasn’t really earning a living. I was just scratching a living We both really needed one another.”

After the masterclass, which also saw Chambers speak about A.I. and how its “acceleration is terrifying“, the hitmaker spoke to NME and opened up his time working with Williams and his top tips for aspiring songwriters and producers.

What do you remember about the process when creating ‘Angels’?

“‘Angels’ started in my bedroom where I had a little studio set up, and it went from there to the studio where we [he and Williams] recorded it. Then we went on tour with it and we noticed how people reacted to it before it had even come out…

“It was our second day of working together and I had a terrible sinus infection. I remember phoning my mother before, saying, ‘I really don’t think I can do this session. I’m going to cancel it.’ She said, ‘Guy, I’ve got this feeling about today. Whatever you do, don’t cancel it.’

“[Williams] started singing the ‘I sit and wait / Does an angel contemplate my fate’ line a cappella and I started to play on the piano. We wrote two verses and a chorus. The reason that song doesn’t have a middle eight is because of my sinus infection.

“The original demo for ‘Angels’ was just piano, his voice and me singing [backing vocals]. That’s it. There are no drums, there’s no guitar. Just very, very simple – and again, that was because I thought I was going to die [from illness]. I thought my head was going to explode.”

Why do you think people love ‘Angels’ so much?

“It’s one of the few Robbie songs that isn’t very specific to his life. It’s a universal song. A lot of his lyrics aren’t very personal and have a lot of his humour in it and that kind of thing. Quirky would be the word I’d use. ‘Angels’ isn’t like that. ‘Angels’ is a spiritual song. It’s kind of a hymn. Therefore, I think because of that, it was this massive deal. We should have written more like that really, but we didn’t.”

Were there any songs that were particularly hard to write with Robbie?

“He was going through a real crisis when he wrote [2002 single ‘Feel’]. He found the music sad and, because he’s a manic depressive, he didn’t want to write on it. Eventually, he did. Thank God he did and let out how he really felt at that time, which was lonely and he needed [to fill] this massive hole in his life [with] love.

“[When it came to writing 2000 UK Number One ‘Rock DJ’] we were trying to a song that could be played at a wedding. Well, we wanted the lyrics to be funny, provocative, but he thought it was cheesy as hell. He didn’t like it. So I had to keep saying to him, ‘I know you don’t like it, but I think it could work.’ He was very self-critical; incredibly self-critical.”

Do many artists still ask you to write songs for them?

“Back in 2003, they were. Not so much now. I’m an older gentleman now. It’s a young man’s game, pop business. When you get a bit older, you don’t have as much hustle. I don’t have the same level of hustle that I did when I was in my 30s. [You need to have the] ability to be able to keep writing when you’re not getting anywhere and the ability to hustle the label, hustle artists who maybe don’t want to work with you to try and get them to work with you.”

What was it like working with Kylie Minogue?

“We knew we wanted someone to duet on [Robbie Williams’ 2000 song ‘Kids’] and I knew there’d be chemistry between the two of them. Writing it was really good fun [too].

“[Williams and I] wrote some other songs for her including ‘Your Disco Needs You’ [from her seventh album ‘Light Years’], and – if you are a gay man – that song is played at Heaven, which is London’s number one gay club, and [other London gay club] GAY. Every night they play that song. [Minogue] plays it at every show she does. So I’m quite proud of the fact I’ve written a gay anthem.”

“[The song] does feel a little over the top. I think it’s got cannons on it, but I like gay culture. I like [Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 hit] ‘I Will Survive’ and songs like that. I like campness.”

What song do you wish you wrote?

“There are tons of those. ‘I Kissed a Girl’ I really like by Katy Perry. I wish I’d written that, but I’m in awe of Max Martin.”

What do you think of the state of modern pop music and its songwriters?

“It’s really healthy, especially for women like Olivia Rodrigo, Doja Cat, Tate McRae. I love [Rodrigo’s] song ‘Vampire’. It has brilliant lyrics, it’s a brilliant melody. It’s totally authentic. In every era, you have a bunch of amazing songs and a bunch of mediocre songs [but] I think there’s some great songwriters out there, so I think it’s healthy.”

What do the superstars that you’ve worked with have in common?

“I would say the thread that ties superstars together is that gritty determination and the courage to do something they don’t necessarily think they could do – they still do it anyway.”

What advice do you have for budding songwriters and producers?

“Be flexible and be open to working with a wide range of people. Be sociable and don’t isolate yourself. Be open-minded to experiment when finding your own sound because it’s not easy.

“If you’re introverted, work with someone who’s not. Work with a partner or in a group. So many song partnerships are two people: the Bee Gees were three brothers working together… I’ve worked with a lot of songwriters who are quite shy when they’re off stage, but when on stage they come alive. Maybe have a persona like Doja Cat – I can’t imagine she’s the same person on stage and in her videos as she is in real life. I bet she’s a completely different person.”

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