Behind the Music: Simon Barber

Simon Barber and Brian O'Connor, hosts of the Sodajerker podcast, sit on a piano bench in a room with a grand piano and keyboard.

Ethan interviewed the songwriter, songwriting expert, and co-host of the essential songwriting podcast, Sodajerker, Simon Barber. That’s a tongue twister! Although we can’t say “songwriting” that many times and fast, we don’t have to, because Simon’s creative and academic life is dedicated to the study of the craft, and has much to say. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Ethan: What begot your deep interest (both creative and academic) in songwriting as a practice?

Simon: I was writing songs from about the age of 14. Childhood memories of Michael J. Fox playing ‘Johnny B. Goode’ in Back to the Future got me interested in learning the guitar and I started writing fairly soon after I learned my first few chords. I grew up in Liverpool, which is a very creative and musical city located in the north west of the UK, and of course it’s famous for The Beatles and a slew of great bands that followed. Eager to develop, I formed a band at school with like-minded teens and eventually found my creative partner Brian O’Connor, who was a classmate who took up the bass to join my first band. Aside from becoming the best bassist I’ve ever known, he also became my co-writer. After years of playing around the UK and having some modest success, we formed Sodajerker, which was really a vehicle for Brian and I as a songwriting team. At the same time, we’d both attended The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, which was a great training ground for learning about music and the music industries. After that, I wrote my PhD at the University of Liverpool, and that experience opened up a wider appreciation for studying and thinking about the creative process. In the years since, I’ve tried to bring all of these interests together, so in addition to collaborating musically with Brian, we also do a podcast called ‘Sodajerker on Songwriting’ where we interview some of the world’s greatest songwriters. Aside from the incredible joy we get from talking with artists we love, these conversations have also been an important part of my career as an academic and researcher. I’ve been able to use these relationships with, and insights from, leading professionals to develop the field of Songwriting Studies. In this space, academics, industry workers and practitioners are able to share information and produce new knowledge about the art and craft of songwriting. I currently run the Songwriting Studies Research Network which is a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to bring those people together and to publish and disseminate new research.

E: Does what you learn, both in your research and podcast, help you make music?

S: Yeah, I think so. I’m constantly engaged with how great songwriters go about their work, so I’ve accumulated endless amounts of guidance about how it’s done, how to make good decisions, and what’s required beyond the writing room to move songs along their path to reach an audience. This doesn’t mean that I’m able to immediately apply things that worked for someone else and get winning results, but it gives you options. It’s also a comfort to know that everyone, no matter how successful they are, faces the same blank page every time they sit down to write, and that doesn’t change really.

E: What’s the best song ever, written, according to you?

S: If you asked me tomorrow I would have a different answer. Today I’m given to say either ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ by Paul Simon or ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’ by Gilbert O’Sullivan. The first couple of verses in the latter are a lesson for the ages.

It’s also a comfort to know that everyone, no matter how successful they are, faces the same blank page every time they sit down to write, and that doesn’t change really.

E: What is the place of the songwriter in this modern tecnological world of short attention spans, clickbait, and streaming services?

S: Without songwriters, who are essentially the fount of new music, there wouldn’t be much to listen to on Spotify. So I think the place of the songwriter is still absolutely central. Of course, that doesn’t mean that songwriters are always treated appropriately, and there’s plenty of change needed within the music industries to redress that balance. That said, music, and creativity in general, has always been incredibly responsive to technology. Scholars argue that we can now observe short attention spans and Spotify skip rates encouraging changes in commercial songwriting practices through incredibly short intros, and an intense emphasis on the immediacy of hooks.

There are time-honoured fears and anxieties among creative people about how machines, especially intelligent ones, might encroach on creative practice, but I think the possibilities for assistance and augmentation over automation are really exciting…

E: If you could imagine something that the modern songwriter really needs, what would it be?

S: Peace and quiet, probably! Fewer distractions always helps when you are trying to lose yourself in the creative process. As a scholar and a musician though, I am really interested in the intersection between songwriting and artificial intelligence. There are time-honoured fears and anxieties among creative people about how machines, especially intelligent ones, might encroach on creative practice, but I think the possibilities for assistance and augmentation over automation are really exciting and there are some wonderful artists out there like Holly Herndon who are getting incredible results by engaging with these technologies. Indeed, one of the reasons that I discovered Tonic Audio was the promise of your Supertonic device, which I think is a really exciting development in the field.

E: What do you hope to teach your own children about music as they watch you live your life playing, studying, teaching and podcasting?

S: I’d like them to know that creating is as easy as making a mark on a piece of paper, or pressing a key, or playing a chord. Too often we sabotage ourselves in the moment by trying to critique what it is we are producing. Is this any good? Will anyone like it? There’s so much great stuff out there, how can this compete? I want my children to just get lost in the act of creation for the fun of it, and if what they make has any kind of lasting resonance, then great, but they shouldn’t set out with that goal. I’m happy to say that this appears to be the case with my kids. My youngest has a great sense of rhythm and we jam on my keyboards every week. My oldest is continually making videos for her YouTube channel and she amazes me with the things she has achieved by not second guessing herself.

E: How have you found collaborating to be during this lockdown?

S: It’s been fine with the podcast because video conferencing technologies like Zoom have improved so much that you can have a great experience recording remote interviews. We still can’t wait to be meeting our guests in person again though. There’s nothing quite like that interaction when you’re having a face-to-face conversation. Musically, we’ve relied on tools like Dropbox and Google Docs and WeTransfer. Standard stuff these days, but absolute wizardry really when you step back and think about co-writing in a document in real time or syncing a recording in a shared folder in seconds.

You can keep up with Simon’s personal work, research, and his podcast project, Sodajerker, on these platforms:

Website
Twitter
Instagram
Songwriting Studies
Sodajerker Podcast
Sodajerker Twitter
Sodajerker Instagram
Sodajerker Facebook

With our app, Tonic, collaboration and feedback are super easy, and all in one platform. Ever wonder how to collaborate long distance on a song, without long email chains and missing mixes? We’ve created a simple solution for you, a real-time remote music collaboration app. Beta-testing is happening now, come help us out.

By Ethan Clift

Ethan is Co-founder and CEO of Tonic Audio. His favorite things to do are sew quilts, make art, make music, and his morning ritual of waking with Evie June, feeding the animals, coffee + a jaunt to the dog park with the pocket-sized yorkies). His favorite tool is a Nintendo Wii controller Allison hacked for him to use to control a synth during live performances.