Saturday, August 16, 2014

Interview with Chris Eaton

Continuing my summer series of interviews, earlier this month I spent some time with Chris Eaton, an award winning songwriter well known for songs such as Saviour's Day and Breath of Heaven -  songs which have reached number one on both sides of the Atlantic. We talked for some time around a wide range of things, and I've drawn out some highlights to share with you all. Enjoy!

So Chris, people may know you for some of the songs you've written, but how would you describe yourself and what you do?

I think first of all I'm one of the most blessed people on the planet in one sense because I do something for a living that I love with a passion. I know so many musicians, such as yourself actually, who are really talented and who don’t do it for a living and I just think "what happened to me along the way?" that made it easier for me to pursue my passion and give up the day job to do it. 

I've always had music coming through me, and I think it was playing by ear at an early age, probably 12 or 13 when I started to form my own juicy chords, and playing piano I was searching for chords that made me feel good. Music always played a massive part in my life. I would say that I'm from a pretty steady middle class-ish background. My dad was also a quality musician, played the piano and sang, but he was a building society manager, my brother was a bank manager!

"I try and put the honesty of my life.. into my songs"
You're asking "who are you musically, who would you say you are"  - I'm a singer songwriter, but  I'm just someone who's honest. I try and put the honesty of my life and the way I see other people's situations into my songs. I try and interpret them with a vulnerable edge, so that when people hear my music hopefully they're moved by it in a positive way, and they understand that's why I put a lot of hope into songs, although not always answers!

As a Christian I really do believe that music's a gift, first and foremost. No one deserves it. But it's something that if we choose to ignore, we're missing out on so much joy and so much fun.  Whether you're in the bath or when you're washing up, you can be listening to music that you love and it can change your day completely. 

For me in the early days when I wrote songs I would come here and escape from the rest of my life, whether it was at school or work, if things were stressing me out I would come to the piano as a way of therapy with myself, and just play. 

Have there been significant decisions then you've had to make to step into that? You said that your family were perhaps quite traditional in their thinking - what risks did you have to take, or are there things that you remember that are key events that set your path more determinedly?

Oh definitely, I think that I was a yes man, a yes kid. when people asked me to do things I'd never say no. I'd be like "yeah great, let's do it" even it was people I didn't know of someone wanted me to sing a song at a church I'd never been to, or a coffee bar or something, I'd just do it.

I also had parents who were very supportive, so they let me play for hours on end, and often I'd bang away on the piano and  the next morning I'd say "I've written a song" and they couldn't believe it was a song! But I'd go through bits of the song for a long time to get the feel right. I'm a very rhythmical player, so I was very blessed that they didn't poo-poo my commitment, "as long as you get a proper job". Don't give up your day job sort of thing! 

I left school, was going to go to university, but my dad offered me a job with a friend of his at Eagle Star insurance company, which I took because  I was doing so many gigs at that point, at weekends with a band, that it made sense for me to have a mid-week job, get some money in my pocket, and then play weekends. So that's what I did and chose not to go to uni. 

Two years after that I'd been working with a guy named Dave Pope who was well known as a gospel artist in this area, and he knew Cliff Richard. Through playing with Dave I actually got to meet Cliff. And it was through that connection that it all suddenly turned around for me, I suddenly got hit with this opportunity and it was after that that everything changed. 

Cliff got really excited about this one particular song I'd written for Dave Pope called Sail Away, and he came up to me and said "You wrote that song, I absolutely love it, and I would love to hear more of what you've done". That alone was amazing because Cliff was huge at the time, really on top of his game, and I said "I've got loads Cliff, I've written 200 plus songs" and he said, "Well, could you just send me a demo of your best 5 songs? I'd really like to hear that". 

"I suddenly got hit with this opportunity and it was after that that everything changed"
I had no way of recording other than a reel to reel but the following week, on tour with Dave we did a concert at St David's hall in Cardiff, and the guy who put the concert on, Rob Andrews, owned a 24 track recording studio. It was just incredible when I look back that not only did I meet Cliff but within a week I'd met this guy who said "I love what you're doing, I love that song Sail Away, I've heard some of the songs that you've done, I heard you've met Cliff, and I want to help you, I want you to come down to my 24 track studio and we'll record 3 or 4 songs in a weekend. And I'll put the band together, and I'll take care of it". Just amazing. That was an incredible thing, and what happened was all of these opportunities came to me. I made this demo and was thrilled with it: 5 songs, it sounded great, and sent it off to Cliff. I got a message from his secretary saying "Thanks for the tape I’ll pass it on to Cliff, we’ll let you know". And that was it. 

I heard nothing for a week, two weeks, a month – at which point I’m starting to get a bit frustrated because it’s like everything was coming together and I was so excited and passionate about it and nothing was happening. Six months went by, the end of my tour arrived and I didn’t have a job at the end of it so I ended up driving a beer truck locally for Holden’s brewery and working in a fruit shop and as a taxi driver for six months. 

And all of that I enjoyed but underneath it all I was like "What is going on?". I was a Christian at the time and I couldn’t believe how it seemed like God had ordained this path for me, it had all worked out brilliantly, and then nothing had happened!

One Sunday night I was at my local church and I felt that God was talking to me directly, and the message very clearly to me was “If you love me, trust me, let me deal with your future, don’t try to work it out for yourself”. I went home that night and I remember praying a prayer very genuinely, I was upset, and I said “If you want me to be a window cleaner, then I’ll do it – whatever you want me to do” Nothing against window cleaners, but if this isn’t meant to be, just put me in your will, let me be doing what you need me to be doing. I didn’t get an answer, I just fell asleep and I remember sleeping peacefully  - a weight taken off me. 

Three days later I got a letter from Cliff’s secretary saying that Cliff was going to record four of the five songs on the tape, which blew me away. Two of them went on to Wired for Sound, which to date is one of Cliff’s biggest albums ever, one track was called Summer Rain and one was called Lost in a Lonely World, and they were the two of my songs that were first seriously recorded.

Cliff contacted me, we became friends and I signed a three year publishing deal to write exclusively for him, so he owned my publishing. He basically paid my wage. I believe the pivotal moment for all of this to happen was me giving it up. I don’t want to be so fatalistic to say that it would never have happened - but you just don’t know. 

"I believe the pivotal moment for all of this to happen was me giving it up"
And I’ve tried to learn that lesson a million times since that first thing happened. And it’s been difficult because there are other pressures you feel when you’re older. I’m still writing 80-100 songs a year and I might only get ten cut, and I love all eighty! You can go stir crazy if you expect the same accolade for each song, and even though they’re your babies, you’ve got to let them go - if they’re meant to land on an artist or land with someone they will. I’ve become very philosophical about that over the years.

1990 was probably my biggest moment when Saviour's Day got to number one. People would say to me "Do you think Saviours Day changed anything for you? "And honestly it didn’t change what happened within me at all, but it did change what happened around me, people’s view of me changed, “oh that guy’s written a number 1” so my opportunities were greater.

In terms of writing a great song or trying to craft a great song, I’ve tried to learn over the years what it is, trying to put my finger on aspects of writing a great song, what makes it special. Can you analyse something enough to be able to reproduce it and say I’ve got the blueprint here? And I think all you can do is work on a general template, because really its like painting by numbers with no paint! Because the paint is the Holy Spirit, the passion and the thing which makes you communicate the simple truth but it comes out blazing red or blazing orange.

I've learnt how to join the dots, but I still realise that all I'm learning is that its the initial nugget of truth that's in a song that dictates where it should go. I've always wanted to write stuff that's going to last. I've always wanted to have a nugget of truth in a song. I hear a song sometimes and think "I wish I'd written that!". For me as a writer, I'd say to any writer, whether you're a faith writer or not, whether you're a human being, you write from your heart, you write honestly, you apply creative knowledge, you apply a desire to learn from chord changes and from where melodies can lift, and go down. And the atmosphere of a song is massive to me. You create an atmosphere first out of which a song comes. If you don't have an atmosphere how can you write a song? If I'm writing a Christmas song, for instance, I have to immerse myself in the feeling of Christmas.
"1990 was probably my biggest moment when Saviour's Day got to number one"
And if I want it to be a spiritual one - if somebody asks me to write another Breath of Heaven - I mean I can't just write you another Breath of Heaven, it's impossible! But what I can do is I can look back to the things that were the catalyst to that song, and they weren't a melody particularly, they were spiritual principles. The original song I wrote here when I was going through my most painful time, and the verse was just making statements of what God was to me - it's like these are truths that I cannot feel right now but they're truths. "you are harvest, you are golden sun, you are cool rain, you are all in one, and in all my deepest thoughts, and in all my battles fought, you are within. You are crimson, you are midnight blue, you have called me to discover you". And in the song, within that moment, God broke through into me and gave me the chorus, and I knew that the feel of the verse was syncopated, that the chorus had to be like the footprints, like God's footprints on the sand, not mine, he was carrying me, and it was almost like his heartbeat, where I was in his arms, I could feel the heartbeat of God, and it was just the breath of heaven that was coming in to hold me together, be forever near me.. it was just this thing that was easy to sing and easy to feel and it was like you were being caressed by the Holy Spirit.

And the only two people that I knew who could maybe understand it were Cliff Richard and Amy Grant, and I immediately dismissed cliff because I thought he's more pop, and this has been so deep for me and someone who understands that depth is Amy, and I told her the story of how it was written, sent it to her. The next week she rang me up and said “I’m completely in love with this song, I have to record it”, and the rest is history – it’s just amazing.

Would you say that one of the harder things about your craft is holding it in an open hand?

In one sense no, I think the harder thing for me is writing on my own, it being quite a lonely affair writing songs. It’s quite introspective at the time, you enjoy it, but then it’s this weird thing getting it out to the general public. 

The minute you write a song, it’s perfect, the baby’s been born and nothing's happened to it. But the minute you do a recording of it, it can change for the worse. You’ve got a picture of how you want it to sound and suddenly the drums are on it and they’re wrong, or the vocal isn’t passionate enough, or the piano part’s wrong, and it’s very difficult – production is a whole different thing and these days the producer is as important, if not more important, than the writer of the song. 

These days people won’t even listen to it if it’s not a master, it has to sound like it’s going to on the radio. It’s not so much that they’ve got no desire to figure out what it could be like, it’s more that the old-school publisher who hears a hit in a rough piece of work, they’ve sort of died off, and the new school is more about practical about money – there’s not a lot of money in it anymore, so they want a cut. So you have to do what they call 360 degree deals now where you do the production, you do the writing, you’re the artist if possible, or you work with an artist. So there’s a lot of politics now involved in terms of share, because the apple that we share is so much smaller than it used to be. 

For people looking for a way to step into who they’ve been made to be, and perhaps to turn dreams and ideas into reality, what would your advice be?

I would say that we’re in a different sort of era than I was in - there’s a lot more reward these days for sheer hard work, because of red tape and qualification. People will say to me "I want to become a sound engineer, should I go to college?" and I’ll say yes – whereas 20 years ago I would have said no. That’s the way the world has changed, not just in music but in everything.
"Strive for excellence in whatever you do.."
For me it’s a combination of working hard and getting your craft better, whatever you’re doing, whether you’re a writer or a singer – you can sing better, you can have voice lessons, you can learn to increase your range, understand your voice more, there are a lot of practical things you can do. Play your instrument – guitar, piano, whatever it is – get better at it. Listen to music and analyse it. Take bits of your favourite music that you love and think “what is it I love about that?” Is it that funny chord created by all those weird sounds, what are those sounds, how did they do that, or is it when that song lifts to that point? Apply that to your writing, or to your thing that you’re doing and think "How can I take the level up?".

Strive for excellence in whatever you do because I really believe that God will honour that. But you cannot be excellent at something you're not even doing. A door will open if you’re meant to be doing something. If you’re trying to bang a door down, no matter how hard you try, if it ain’t meant to be then that door won’t open and all you’ll do is get frustrated.

In something less creative there’s no substitute for work – work hard and you can be great at it. If you want to be a rocket scientist, and you’ve got the intelligence to understand it then work hard, get your degree, get your doctorate, do what you need to do and you’ll get close to doing what you want to do and you can do it. It’s amazing what things can happen once you get really good at something - you will get more opportunities the better you are at it.

I would encourage people to do whatever they do authentically, don’t copy somebody else, don’t do it because somebody else is doing it, do it because you’re passionate about it. If you want be an Olympic swimmer there’s no way around it, you’re going to have to swim every morning at 5am before you go to school – that’s life! It’s the way it’s going to have to be, and again after all. Having seen the Commonwealth games, these guys, all of them, have only achieved what they believed they could achieve through incredible hard work, hours and hours and hours and hours.

There’s something about being positive, that somehow things happen when you really believe in them. If you really believe something, doesn’t matter what it is, if you’re into it, it happens. And at other times you’re like "Why doesn’t this happen? Why doesn’t it ever happen to me?" And it never happens to you because you’re always thinking it never happens to you! I think there’s something in that, something about staying positive even when things are really hard and the easiest thing in the world is just to give up and say “I’ve had it”.
"I would encourage people to do whatever they do authentically.."
I know that people could listen to my story and say "Well it’s easy for you Chris, you had early opportunities you’ve had a blessed life" – well I could tell you a million ways when I haven’t had a blessed life, when things have gone wrong – it doesn’t matter what’s going on in your career, if your private life is falling apart then it’s a complete nightmare.

Even in the music, when you feel like you’re constantly writing stuff you believe in but everybody’s ignoring it, and you’re doing it for a living, there are times when you want to give up. And just when I’m at my edge of giving up I get a letter from someone, or an email from somebody who goes "Don’t give up, whatever you do, don’t give up! You are changing people’s lives even now with the songs you have written", with something that you’ve done that you don’t even know about, and God is doing it - so don’t let God down by closing off that avenue purely because you’re not seeing the results right now. So it’s a thought.

I think when you get older as a Christian you realise that God’s dream for all of us is actually that we love him the way he loves us. That’s his biggest dream, because that’s how he made us, and it’s a work in progress getting to that point. And trying to keep that perspective when you're at your worst: at your most desperate don’t give up, but give it to God.

Chris, thanks so much for your time, we appreciate you sharing with us, and you've left us with plenty to think about!

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