Hidden down a narrow, tunnel-like lane in Gloucestershire, south-west England, is an 18th-century former convent. The lawn is decorated with eight decaying pianos, looking simultaneously sad and splendid, like an elephants’ graveyard. These days, the building sees a noisier form of rejoice and contemplation than it once did: as a music venue, recording studio and hotel.
It is a dreary winter’s afternoon, but the old chapel is ringing with joyous abandon. A dozen indie, rock and folk musicians are holed up here for a songwriting retreat, hosted by singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams. The idea is that the writers (including Romeo and Michele Stodart from the Magic Numbers and Martin Carr from the Boo Radleys) break out of their often solitary working routines and go home with fresh songs, valuable feedback and new allies.
Williams has two criteria for selecting artists for her biannual gatherings: “being a kick-ass talented songwriter, and not being an asshole.” Each day, they are split into duos or trios to write, and come together in the evenings to share the fruits of their labours. The best songs get performed for the public on the last night of the retreat, and are available to enjoy online.
Packing a bunch of songwriters off to the countryside for a week isn’t a new concept, but traditionally such events were more pressurised, run by music publishing companies or record labels. Williams’ model, on the other hand, is a celebration of the simple joy of making up new songs. “It’s about creating this safe place,” she says, “where people can open up.”
Watching them practise before their end-of-retreat show, it’s hard to believe that many of the artists had been strangers when they arrived. Carr admits he’d been terrified; he’d never written with anyone else before. Pete Moren from Peter Bjorn and John (a few years ago, the whistled riff from their single, “Young Folks”, could be heard everywhere, from DIY store ads to the TV series “Gossip Girl”) later confides to the audience that he was cringing at meeting Carr because a flute riff on one of his albums was nicked from a Boo Radleys song he’d listened to as a teenager.
Williams got the idea for her writing retreats after attending one hosted by Chris Difford from Squeeze. He has been running similar retreats for 25 years, mixing unsigned talent with seasoned artists like Suggs, the Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier, Cathy Dennis (who wrote the Kylie Minogue hit “I Can’t Get You Out of My Head”) and the late Kirsty MacColl. At his next one, taking place near Glastonbury this June, the raw, nightly performances will be streamed for public consumption. As with Williams’ retreats, there will be a live show on the final evening.
Difford doesn’t reveal his line-ups in advance, because he doesn’t want people turning up with certain expectations: “It’s much more fun having that surprise element.” Facilitating a retreat, he says, “is a bit like running a rehab: you have to make sure people are emotionally fit for what they’re doing.” He recalls that when Cathy Dennis first attended one, “she didn’t want to co-write at all, but it taught her stuff that helped her go on and write huge hits.”
Williams’ next retreat will take place in April. The guest list includes Adrian Utely from Portishead and Graham Fellows, aka John Shuttleworth (his comedy alter ego) or Jilted John (his musical one). “I had a spell in the 1980s where I tried working with others,” laments Fellows, “but the results were always a bit lame, or just weird.” He’s hoping that the retreat will teach him how to collaborate and get past his fear “that my amazing ideas and eccentricities will be watered down, or even, god forbid, rejected…” Letting other people in, he thinks, might help his songs have more universal appeal.
By the end of the convent retreat, the guests are buzzing after overcoming inhibitions and creative block. As the final song of the show is rehearsed, the chapel reverberates with the sound of three acoustic guitars, a piano, and many mighty pairs of lungs singing and laughing as theatrical vocal flourishes and harmonies are tried out. Williams is running around trying to make sure everyone’s where they’re supposed to be. “Herding artists around,” she says with a roll of the eyes, “is like trying to get 16 cats in a room. As soon as you get one in, one goes.” And at that, clipboard in hand, she scurries off to print lyrics sheets, and locate a missing musician.
For updates on Chris Difford's retreats visit www.chrisdifford.co