“Avoiding Cliches Is A Minefield” Guy Chambers On Songwriting

His work with Robbie Williams, and the Lang Lang International Music Foundation...

From Diana Ross to Tina Turner and Tom Jones, some of most-loved songs from the last thirty odd years have been written or co-written by Guy Chambers. Of course, Guy is perhaps best known for his work with Robbie Williams, having co-written some of Williams’ most iconic hits including ‘Angels’, ‘Millennium’, ‘Feel’, ‘Let Me Entertain You’ and ‘Rock DJ’.

The songwriter/producer embraced music from an early age and it was this experience in his formative years that help the young musician to not only navigate those tricky teenage years but also to use his early experiences to make music for a career both in his band The Lemon Trees, his solo work and of course his impressive body of work with some of the world’s most renowned artists.

Guy attests that it was a solid music education that helped shape his career and with this in mind, he wanted to give back to young musicians via the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, a charity close to his heart which helps support the musicians of tomorrow.

The eminent singer-songwriter spoke to CLASH writer Emma Harrison about his work with the Foundation, the importance of encouraging young people to learn musical instruments, revisiting his work with The Lemon Trees and why it was a case of ‘opposites attract’ when it came to him and Robbie Williams. 

How did you get involved with the Lang Lang International Music Foundation?

I’d seen Lang Lang play at the Albert Hall a few years back and admire his desire to get young people to play the piano.

The foundation helps support the musicians of tomorrow. How important is the work they are doing and how is it helping musicians today?

Their work is essential in keeping the piano alive as a working instrument in a world where you can make records on a laptop. Many young people do have access to an instrument and a good teacher and the Foundation gives underprivileged young people skills.

What has been your favourite moment (so far!) whilst being an ambassador for the  Lang Lang International Music Foundation?

Inviting young people who’ve never been in the environment to the studio was great fun, and writing a school song with a primary school in East London was a nice challenge.

I know that you have been very hands on with your approach which has involved you even going into schools and writing songs with the pupils? How does this experience compare to traditional songwriting environments where you have been collaborating with international artists?

Keeping a room full of primary school children interested and engaged was a challenge, but this can also be true of working with an exhausted, distracted A star singer.

One of the key pillars of the foundation is providing music education for artists and musicians that wouldn’t necessarily have access to this support. Can you please tell me about how music education helped shape your life and what it means to you having had the illustrious career you have enjoyed so far?

I was lucky enough to have an amazing piano teacher from the age of five, and a lot of encouragement from various music teachers in schools. This helped me get to the Guildhall school of music which even though it was not really set up for someone like me. I managed to make the most of my time there.

Do you feel like there’s more work to be done with regards to educating children at a young age about music and encouraging younger children to play musical instruments? I know that the The Lang Lang International Music Foundation’s Keys Of Inspiration Programme addresses the lack of music education access in underserved schools and communities, what else can be done?

I do feel there is a lot more work to be done to get young people playing musical instruments and connecting with others through music. I feel the phone, video games, VR etc, is making people addicted, and this can have negative outcomes. I’ve rarely had a music experience that has had a negative outcome.

You yourself play the piano, please can you tell me more about how you got started and what were your earliest musical memories?

I had a great teacher and there was a real piano in the house which I feel makes a big difference. My early memories are of Oliver the musical, doing ear training at a local choir, and the Beatles.

Who were your earliest musical influences? Do you remember the first artists/bands that you really connected with?

The Beatles, Queen, Led Zep, AC/DC, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who.

You are one of the UK’s most successful and prolific songwriters having worked with artists and writers including Tina Turner, Kyle Minogue, Robbie Williams, Will Young, Scissor Sisters, Busted, Melanie C, Diana Ross, Tom Jones, James Blunt and many more. Can you tell me a little bit more about your approach to songwriting – what comes first the music or the lyrics?

The music tends to come first, I find a chord structure and then a melody tends to come from that. I always lyrics are the hardest part of the jigsaw. But avoiding obvious cliches is also a minefield.

One of your most famous songwriting partnerships was with Robbie Williams. It’s safe to say that his career trajectory in the late ‘90’s was as a result of your partnership. You essentially helped shape his sound thanks to unforgettable hits like ‘Millennium’, ‘Strong’, ‘She’s The One’, ‘Rock DJ’, ‘Kids’ and, of course, ‘Angels’.

Did you ever envisage that when you worked on those songs that they would garner the success that they did? How did you approach the songwriting process together?

I knew the song partnership was strong from the word go. The chemistry between us was electric because we are opposites, and opposites attract. Our approach was to grab a guitar or a piano and write a song normally in one go. It wouldn’t take the length of time that he smoked through a pack of cigarettes.

Talking of Robbie, the Netflix documentary that came out late last year lays bare the relationship between you and Robbie. The good items, the more fractious years that followed along with your eventual reunion. One of the most interesting points seems to be down to Robbie’s need to have full creative control.

I think he classified your partnership as you both were in a “a band called Robbie Williams”, but as someone who helped shape his new sonic shift, do you feel that this is an accurate appraisal or just a bit of conjecture?

No, we were in a band at the beginning, but as the egos and money got bigger it became all about him. We created his sound, I didn’t do it on my own.

Do you have any plans to work together again with Robbie in the near future? You last worked with him in 2019?

No plans at the moment!

Almost thirty years on, you are rerecording some of the songs from your time in The Lemon Trees, how has it been revisiting these songs and do you have any plans to record any new material?

It has been a joy to revisit these songs. They mean more to me now than when I wrote them in some ways. I have already been writing new material and I hope to release more songs possibly later in the year.

As well as The Lemon Trees, your songs for other artists, you have also released a solo album, how does writing for yourself differ from writing for other artists?

Yes, I only need to please myself.I just have to focus on what I REALLY want to say and i don’t care what anyone thinks of them.

If you could write with up to three artists (dead or alive!) Who would they be and why?

Elvis, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.

If you could name one song that you wish you could have written, what would it be and why?

‘Angels’ because without the success of that song, I wouldn’t doing this piece for Clash today.

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Words: Emma Harrison // @EmmaHWriter

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