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Tuesday 21 May 2019

‘There has definitely been bitterness on the Irish scene’ - man behind Ireland’s Eurovision entry on changing up songwriting in Ireland

Hamlet Sweeney has launched songwriting hub The Nucleus in Dublin, the first of its kind in the country but, as he reveals to Independent.ie, not everyone is on board

Hamlet Sweeney, The Nucleus. PIC: Zofia Jarzebkiewicz
Hamlet Sweeney, The Nucleus. PIC: Zofia Jarzebkiewicz
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

RTE has taken several different approaches to choosing the best song to represent Ireland at Eurovision over the years, from public votes to Mayo pop mogul Louis Walsh, but this year was different.

Last summer they held a Eurovision Song Contest Forum and invited key industry professionals, songwriters, and performers to RTE to meet with international Eurovision experts and RTE decision makers.

Of the 300 songs submitted for consideration prior to the November deadline, the ballad 'Together' was victorious and will go forth to represent Ireland in Lisbon next month. 

The song's origins were perhaps a little different to the others in contention.  It was born of The Nucleus, a new Dublin songwriting hub based on a collaborative songwriting model which founder Hamlet Sweeney had observed in Scandinavia, and which is used across the world. The concept, however, is new to Ireland.

The Nucleus is effectively a song factory, which pools the talents of multiple writers and producers on a single song.  It has connections to publishers and producers across the world and the aim is to mass produce pop hits.

'Together' was written by Ryan O'Shaughnessy and fellow Nucleus songwriters Laura Elizabeth Hughes and Mark Caplice in the course of two Eurovision songwriting camps run by Hamlet. 

"Between January last year and January this year we’ve run eight songwriting camps and two of those were Eurovision-centred," he explains.

"There were over 20 writers involved in each Eurovision camp and we wrote lots of songs.  I created a pitch, a brief for the song, and that brief was very, very tight, and even included the bpm and where the vocal energy should be, the high note, and stuff like that. 

"With creative people, if you give them quite tight constraints like that it sometimes gets the best out of them, rather than giving them free reign.  The creativity has to be focused.  A few of the writers nailed it and I thought Mark, Ryan and Laura particularly nailed it."

So did RTE, who also wanted Skerries native Ryan, an established singer/songwriter who had appeared on The Voice of Ireland and Britain's Got Talent, to sing the song he had co-written.  The Nucleus were also involved in production, working with producer Mark McCabe to create what Hamlet believes is "an absolute dinger of a radio pop ballad."

Ryan will perform at the first semi-final on May 8 and will hopefully buck the trend of recent years and make it through to the final which airs live on May 12.

"We want to do as well as possible, but at the same time it’s a competition, a voting competition, and the public are involved – anything could happen!" laughs Hamlet. 

"Within the industry, there is a lot of kudos for writing your country’s Eurovision entry.  It’s almost cooler to be selected than it is to win.  It’s like, okay, well all artists in your country were trying to get it and you guys got it - well done.  As for winning it, often not great songs win it.  Together is a great song so we’ve a very strong chance in the semi-final of death, as they call it."

Collaborative songwriting may have become the industry standard - the list of credited writers on many modern pop songs is often longer than the track listing - but there has been some resistance to the approach from some established songwriters in Ireland, according to Hamlet.

"There has definitely been some bitterness on the Irish scene - that's a fact," he says.  "Some of the things I've heard coming back to me are very disappointing.  At the same time, when you're breaking new ground that's always going to happen.

"My approach is to kill them with kindness.  Even people I know have given out about us behind our backs, I’ve said to them 'Creativity is creativity - if my writers and you can create something great that would otherwise not be created, then come and work with us'."

He's honest about what he's trying to achieve - commercial success - and perhaps some songwriters feel this undermines the sanctity of their craft?

"Frankly, I’m not trying to make great art," he says.  "The success of our art is defined by the success it has in the commercial sense.  We’re very unpretentious.  We’re after the songs that can commercially do the best."

He continues, "I love saying the words ‘pop music’ to Irish writers.  Oh my God, they get frightened.  Money is not a dirty word.  Success is not a dirty word. 

"For example, Motown, they were as commercially driven as Nucleus is and they created bloody good pop music.  They were a record label rather than songwriters but it was a very similar model in that sense.  It’s a commercial business.  Our success is judged by that. 

"If people get their nose out of joint because we’re changing their rhyming structure they’re not for us."

It's pop music by numbers, which is not a new concept.  As well as Motown, Hamlet references the Brill Building churning out hits in 60s New York.  Stock Aitken and Waterman took a similar approach in the 80s and 90s.

But how does The Nucleus benefit songwriters whose tunes are destined for success?  A song earns the same fee whether it's written by one songwriter, or three, or ten...

"You’re better off having a slice of a pie played by millions than owning all of a pie and playing at the International Bar," says Hamlet of the financial implications.  He adds that the Nucleus has access to and connections with publishers across the world.

Those connections are long standing. Hamlet has worked in the industry for many years.  It was during his time in Denmark in the 90s, while he was trying to make it as a solo artist, that the embryo of the idea for The Nucleus was formed - thanks, bizarrely, to Barbie Girl's 1997 bubblegum hit, Aqua.

"I remember being in a studio one day and in the next room there was this crazy music being made," he reveals.  "I was like, what is this?  Who are these idiots?  It was Barbie Girl by Aqua.  I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is really interesting.’

"It kind of opened my eyes, made me see things differently.  I had come from a singer/songwriter scene in Dublin to seeing these bands like Aqua and Ace of Base just meters from me or working with people I was working with and they were producing huge international hits that were massively successful."

While Eurovision is just one of several projects The Nucleus is involved in (they also worked on Jake Carter's current single The Little Things You Do among others), the televised contest is a big deal for the fledgling company.

"We've already been around Europe and Israel and we, in Ireland, have no idea how big Eurovision really is.  It’s absolutely huge.  Countries pick their best writers, best pop producers, best singers – they take it so seriously," says Hamlet, adding, "I think RTE were very, very wise in getting us involved. Nothing against Louis Walsh but why not pick young people who are breaking new ground?"

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