Interview with Nathan Timothy
Nathan Timothy in conversation with Andrew Bishko of Musical U
How did you begin with music?
‘I guess my first introduction to music was TV and movies - really noticing that the music moved me in some way. That was my first introduction - films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Superman’ in the 70’s…and I vividly remember staying up late one night and catching a Hall and Oates concert on TV - thinking - I want to do that! Now how do I do that?’
What were your early experiences? Who did you admire?
‘I grew up listening to a range of music from the likes of The Beatles, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, Bee Gees, Chic, Chaka Khan, Herbie Hancock but it was electronic music and Howard Jones in the early 80’s that really inspired me to want to play piano/synthesiser and write songs. I also became obsessed with all the production work that went into making a record around this time. I love the sound of a great record and really appreciate how much time goes into sculpting it. Stephen W.Tayler is my favourite mix engineer. He’s mixed all my favourite records. I would spend hours picking apart my favourite songs and try and figure out their dna! I studied records made by Quincy Jones, Rupert Hine (Rupert is now a Patron of the charity by the way) and Trevor Horn. I’m still studying and trying to figure it out!
I was in an electronic band called ‘Purple Dreams’ as soon as I built up enough confidence to sing in public from the age of about 16 and we would regularly perform 2 hours of original music in bars and pubs for £40. Looking back we were crazy and fearless!’
How did you begin songwriting?
‘I started writing songs in a little black book at the age of 9. I’d create melodies in my head and imagine what my band would sound like. But I’d never share those ideas with anyone. It was more like therapy/diary writing to me I guess. I got my first piano about the age of 13 after spending years saving for one and then spent hours and hours teaching myself to play the songs that were whizzing around in my head.’
How were you shaped by your 11-year teaching career? What are some of your memorable experiences from that stage in your life?
‘Teaching was always about inspiring the children for me. It still is. I’ll do anything to engage with them and get the best out of every individual. It’s so important to respect and listen to children you’re working with and not be afraid to change your lesson plan if something isn’t working. Even if you’ve spent hours on it! We’re all different and all require a slightly different approach to get the best results.
The most memorable experiences were writing and directing the school musicals, organising Sports Days, talking the children on school trips and journeys. These experiences were where lasting memories were made and where life changing moments happen.’
When and how did you start teaching songwriting to children?
‘I started when I was on teaching practice back in 1994. I seem to remember friendship songs were really popular with my 10/11 year olds back then and I even had a lunchtime songwriting club which was over subscribed. There was a piano in my classroom which I would use at every opportunity!’
What gave you the idea to start Bully Beat? Please tell us more about that project.
‘Bully Beat was born out of my desire to help create an understanding, a simple definition of what bullying is so that children and young people can accurately report it. Bullying is when someone makes a choice to say or do something unkind to you on a regular basis. It’s totally unacceptable and should always be reported and dealt with.
I wanted to to do something that built on my teaching ability where I could also share and indulge my own passion for songwriting and music tech. I recognised there was a great value to getting children to write their own songs - and it becomes very powerful in the wider community when those songs have a brilliant message or a meaning.
I love the process of songwriting and putting together a record. I love how it makes me feel to create something brand new. That’s what I’m trying to leave the children with at the end of the day. I want them telling their parents what they’ve done in school. I want them to feel really proud of their songwriting achievement.
I left teaching in December 2006 and in January 2007 I started phoning up schools asking if I could come and deliver my workshop not really knowing if it would work to be honest! Thankfully, it did and I think to date I must have delivered well over 3000 Bully Beat days. It’s still my most popular programme by far.’
How did you start the Songwriting Charity? What do you all do there?
The Songwriting Charity was established in 2011 by myself, John Quinn and Ben O Sullivan, so that we could begin to tackle other issues through the songwriting process in addition to Bully Beat. Things like leading a healthy lifestyle and the importance of sport with our Sports Tracks programme, Healthy eating through our Soul Food workshops or world peace through our Master Peace programme. We also have a ‘catch all’ programme where the teachers or school provides the theme that we call Encore Curriculum.
The charity has three trustees who are responsible for overseeing the day to day running of the charity and have a broad range of skills between them. One is a Head Teacher, One is a front of house sound engineer and the other is an expert in digital media.
I’m based in Kent. I have a small project studio at home and do a lot of my post production work there. I design all the programmes and I’m responsible for the delivery aspect and work with a small team of sessional musicians and video editors delivering workshops. We have another base in Cambridge headed up by John Quinn, who in addition to looking after our social media works closely with me on fundraising, reporting and looking after our partners. We also have a presence in and around the Bristol area and have completed some fabulous work there thanks to Ben O Sullivan and his team.
What is your songwriting process with the children?
‘The first 5 minutes are crucial for me. It’s about creating an environment where the children feel comfortable enough to want to write a song/piece of music with me in the first place. After I’ve achieved that, I encourage the children to improvise messages and slogans (related to the theme of the day) until they have something that they’re proud to sing/rap. Something they have ownership of. Following this, my job is to record and frame those ideas using the latest music technology. We also film the process too if we can so that the school and the young people have a lasting memory of the day. I love it that the song has a life of it’s own long after we’ve left.’
What are some highlights of your time with the Songwriting Charity?
‘Winning BASCA’s Gold Badge the same day Sir Ray Davies from the Kinks got one was pretty cool. That will take some beating. Being invited to his studio to hang out and share ideas was brilliant and he’s recently become a Patron of the Charity too, which I’m proud of.
Every workshop creates so many magic moments it’s hard to remember them all. We always have a great time, but the Sports Tracks workshops we delivered in the run up to the Olympics in London 2012 were really exciting - and I’m proud of the workshops I set up in my younger sister Kate’s memory in that year too. Project K was truly beautiful. 10 schools, 10 songs and videos all about world peace, celebrated at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff near to where my sister lived. To create something positive out of a really bad situation was the aim and we achieved that.’
Tell us about the slogan, "One Song, One Day." How does it encapsulate the ideals of the Songwriting Charity?
‘The Songwriting Charity is all about inspiring the next generation of songwriters. We aim to teach the young people we work with how do get started so that they can do it again when we’re left the room. We provide them with a basic method that will hopefully mean they continue writing and creating songs. Maybe become more inquisitive and want to pick up an instrument and learn how to play that too because of us. We want to open that door.
One Song, One Day puts a certain pressure on the children (and us) to get something finished by the end of the day and that’s good. if we didn’t have that pressure we may just spend all day fiddling around with a bass drum sound! The time restraint means we have to make quick decisions on what to include in the song and what to leave out. It’s quite a skill but I’m hopefully teaching the children to really focus on the best ideas and how they work together.
The fact that the songs are all written from scratch in one day and appear on Soundcloud, iTunes etc by 5pm is really exciting for all of us. We want it to be the best it can be. We want the children to feel proud of their work so that they can show it off at home. It’s all about them - the children write the words, melody and have a say in all aspects of music production too.’
In addition to your work with the Songwriting Charity, you've released six studio albums of your own. After 20+ years as a songwriter, what are some of your favourite Nathan Timothy songs?
‘I’m really fond of all the songs on my ‘Living From A Suitcase’ album - it was a really difficult album to record because I was travelling so much and I stared to develop a vocal problem which later got operated on but I have great memories of working on that album and mixing it with Robbie Bronnimann.
If I had to choose one song from that album it would be ‘You Are Who You Are’ - written for my son Christian just after he was born. He’s 13 now and a terrific piano player, guitarist and singer! My youngest, Harrison is 9 and has been playing the drums for about a year. He’s got a great singing voice too. It’s loud in our house there’s always someone singing or making a musical noise but thankfully we have great neighbours. I’ve written Harrison a song too which will appear on my next album. Being a dad is the best job in the world.’
Where do you see the Songwriting Charity going in the future? and your own career?
The Songwriting Charity will continue doing what it does best. The One Song, One Day workshop format works and I’m not going to change that. I’ve got nothing to prove on that front. The teachers, young people and parents love it. I get so many positive emails and thank you letters every week. I’d like to have more fantastic people delivering for me and in time that will happen. It’s just a matter of funding. I’d like to have the resources to train up an be able to employ an army of songwriters to go into schools. We’ve worked with some fabulous funders over the years who really believe in the work, so we just need to find a few more of those to get on board. It really helps us when businesses and individuals what to support us on a regular basis. We’ve just held a really successful celebrity fundraising quiz night so we’ll be doing a few more of those this year.
As for my own music career, I’m writing all the time - so far this year I’ve written 65 songs in addition to all the Songwriting Charity songs and I’m in the process of recording and mixing those for a new album project. I love it. Because we’re all connected now via the internet, technology is enabling me to work with all my favourite musicians who all have the tools to work remotely. It’s brilliant. I love technology and electronic music but nothing beats having real people playing my songs! It’s a real thrill.