Many people picked up a new hobby during the 2020 lockdown, but we haven't heard of anybody taking it to quite the same level as Matt Edmondson. After finding that music-making helped to clear his mind and combat his mental health issues, the BBC Radio 1 DJ came up with a grand plan.
Inspired by the talented artists he interviews on a daily basis, Edmondson decided to learn the ins and outs of songwriting and music production, in the hopes of co-writing some pro-level tunes with those very same artists.
These aren't just any old songs, though - the weird and wonderful pop masterpieces Matt and his co-conspirators put together for Not Another Love Song, his new podcast series, are written with one rule in mind: they must be tunes that would've never been written under 'normal' circumstances.
This means that in the podcast, you'll hear Becky Hill singing about pimples, Maisie Peters waxing lyrical about Timothée Chalamet, and Tom Walker complaining about his dishwasher in 4/4 time. Don't be fooled by the subject matter, though - these are professionally produced tracks with a playful disposition.
We spoke to Edmondson about his journey from a music-making neophyte to an accomplished producer writing, recording, and mixing tunes with some of the world's biggest pop-stars in his home studio.
Tell us how the idea for Not Another Love Song came about?
“Like a lot of people, when lockdown happened, I had nothing to do, I was really bored. And I like to have a little project on. I'd had this experience where - because of my job at Radio One - I'd visited a recording studio and seen a producer called Andy Sheldrake produce a song. And I thought, wow, that's a real skill. That's amazing. I'd love to learn to do that.”
“It felt like the most direct version of a thought being downloaded from your brain that I'd ever experienced. That he could turn to a keyboard, and you could hum him something (in my case, out of tune) and he could play that thing back. I thought, well, that's an intoxicating feeling. I'd love to learn how to do it, if only I had more time.
“And so I tinkered around, you know, for about six months on GarageBand - making rubbish - and then eventually thought I'll try Logic Pro X out, and made some rubbish stuff on that. I thought, I wish I could get good at this. If only I had time... and then, during the pandemic, I suddenly did have time.
“So I thought, right, I'm going to sit and try to write some songs. I had no idea how hard it would be. I think if I'd have known then what I know now I probably would never have done it.
"Then I thought, I'll just DM some pop stars and see if they want to write a song - because I guess they'd be in a similar boat to me, because all their gigs were cancelled, and they probably weren't able to go to studios all that much.
“Amazingly, the ten I messaged all said yeah, I'm up for it. I'd never written a song prior to that. Nor had I picked up an instrument, I didn't know anything about music theory. I knew nothing about producing. And I've learned it all. So every song you hear in the podcast is me figuring it out as I go along.”
Did you find it daunting starting out from a completely beginner level?
“No, because I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I think I was so naive that I just had genuinely no clue. I thought, well, I can imagine what I want it to sound like. So I'll find a way of getting it to sound like that. But it's been hard, because I've had to sort of learn a few different disciplines.
“One is the songwriting, which is the bit that I found the easiest, the words and the melodies, that part came relatively easily to me, because the songs were quite silly, and required a bit of a jokey structure to them, that came very naturally to me.
“Then I learned to produce, which is kind of like being creative, but also like being a librarian... because you're like, oh, where is that sound that I need? I want a bass that sounds like the one from Driver's License, or I want that piano sound that’s on every house track. So part of it is going and finding those things.
"And you know, YouTube's an amazing resource, the internet, every answer you'd ever want to know, is there - if you've got the patience for it.
“Then I learned the mixing side of it, because I decided I was going to try and mix the tracks myself. That was like... that was hell on earth. If I'm honest, it’s a whole other world, isn't it? That discipline of trying to get things to sound clean and clear and come together. But, you know, I got there in the end, and I learned a lot of stuff. And I think I've come out the other side of it quite a competent producer.”
Other than YouTube, are there any other resources or tools you used to help you learn?
“It was mainly YouTube, to be honest. YouTube, and trial and error, a lot of playing around with stuff. I think sometimes the amazing thing with YouTube is, sometimes I think, I need to solve this particular problem.
"This isn't one I had to solve, but if you were like, “oh, how does Billy Eilish do that tremolo effect on Bad Guy? How's she doing that?” Okay, well, I can search that. But in the process of watching someone explain that, you'll see them do other things.
“And then sometimes it was just literally going and having a play, you know, cycling through presets. So a lot of trial and error. I mean, I didn't have access to a recording studio. So I was asking the people I was working with to send me their vocal takes wherever they could record them.
"Some of them recorded them in studios, if they were doing other recording things. Some sent me loads of stems, you know, doubles and harmonies, and some people sent literally one vocal track. And then some of them I had to coach them through how to record it in their own homes.
“So Tom Grennan recorded his vocal in his kitchen, which was the world's most echoey room and the opposite of where we'd want to record a vocal. The one I got from Brad from The Vamps he recorded at home, but it had so many plosives on it. Sigrid sent me one vocal track on a dynamic microphone, one that you'd sing into on stage. So none of it was, you know, easy.
“With Tom Grennan, I spent two days EQing his vocal, and I finally got it to sound like it was recorded in the studio. And I think, as awful as it was, it’s almost a sort of a blessing to have to deal with those things at this early stage. Because now I know if a plosive comes up, I'm your guy.”
Are there one or two things you remember being the hardest to get your head around?
“It's quite a boring answer. But when it came to mixing and working out how to sidechain things, so that in the low-end of tracks or between kicks and basses, nothing sounded too muddy, I remember taking a little bit of time to find a method that worked for me. Mid side EQ took a while to figure out, but it made the mixes sound way better, once I got my head around it.
“General harmonic theory was challenging at times, you know, writing everything in MIDI, but having no idea of any music theory whatsoever when I started was hard. That was an interesting lesson to teach myself. I still feel like I'm learning all the time.
“What else was hard stereo width... I found trying to get the songs to sound as wide as possible. And then actually the mastering phase, I went through a real sort of journey with that, both in terms of kind of clarity and loudness.
"My first masters of the tracks were probably not great. But the ones that I've finally got out, and the ones that you'll hear on the podcast, I think sound pretty solid, pretty loud.”
Do you have any advice for others looking to learn from scratch like yourself?
“Find yourself with nothing to do in a pandemic. [laughs] No, so my advice would be - it feels so intimidating to begin with. Because when you open up Logic, it’s like a spaceship, and you don't know any of the controls.
"Or it's like a mansion with 1000 rooms. And you can go into every one and there's just a big whirring clunking bit of machinery and you think... I don't know what you do, I'll come back and find you another day.
“So I think my advice would be to start simple, find an instrument, get a digital piano or something. And if you've never done anything before, just hum a chord progression to yourself and find the root note of it, you know, follow the bass note.
"Then building chords from that's quite easy, once that's looping, just record something, just put something over the top of it, get a singer or - if you can sing yourself - record something over it. Take each step at a time.
“I think for me, what I realised was that it didn't really matter how fancy my production was or what tricks I put into it. It was all about the vocal really. That's where I spent the lion's share of my time on each of the tracks, was making sure that everyone sounded like they do on their other songs, and sounded their best.
“You’ve just got to take it one by one, one song at a time. Actually, that's the thing that changed the game for me. That's why I'm grateful to this project. I've been playing around with Logic for a while, but I've never gotten further than writing a loop. Now I’m actually saying to myself, well, if it kills me, or it takes me six months, I'm going to start and finish a song to the highest quality that I can.
What kind of musical equipment were you using, what's your home studio setup looking like?
“When lockdown happened I bought a MacBook Pro and I souped it up: I was like, give me all of the RAM, all of the memory, give me everything. What I didn't realise was it would also give me the loudest fan noise of all time. It sounds like a plane is taking off when I fire up the laptop. I wish I'd held out for the M1 chip, but that's another story.
“For the podcast itself, I use a mic from Aston, I use the Aston Spirit range, which I have used on vocals as well. Although everyone for the podcast was sending in their vocals remotely, so I never actually recorded with them. I have a really bog standard audio interface - the reason I got it is because it came with Guitar Rig for free.
“I've got some KRK Rokits for my monitors. And I've got a MIDI keyboard, a Keylab 49 Essential. I got that because it came with Analog Lab, which has some fantastic, like, recreations, modelling lots of old synths. So that was pretty much it: a MIDI keyboard, some studio monitors, some headphones, and yeah, that was me.
“I mixed it all in this room, which I know the sound of very well, and it does have a little bit of unwanted resonance. But I kind of know where they are.”
Do you have any plans to expand your set up?
“I don't know. I just care about the end product, and how easily I can get there. I'm not at that place, maybe there isn't such a place where I can hear the difference between an analogue compressor and a software compressor. But I can hear what's going on and I can tweak my compressors so they do what I wanted to do.
“I have no real desire to go out and buy loads of gear, I do really want a Juno-106. But they are about three grand. Maybe one day, I'll go and get one of those.
"I'm going to teach myself piano first and then maybe go and get a synthesizer because at the moment, what's fantastic about the keyboard that I have, is that it automatically transposes into whatever key so you know, I can play everything in C major, or the relative minor. I can play all of it on the white keys, and just transpose it to where I need it to be.
Could you tell us a little about how the collaborative process worked with the artists, who was doing what and where the ideas started?
“I worked differently with each person. Firstly, I just DMed them and said, do you want to get involved? I’d say we need to set aside three hours, because I knew that we would have a chat about them, and life, and just have a conversation and see what cropped up. I never planned ahead of time what we're going to write a song about, because I genuinely wanted it to come from wherever we chatted about.
“I guess with my normal job, I've done lots of interviewing, and finding interesting things out about people is quite joyful and interesting. So we'd have those chats.
"As we were chatting, I would just write down: they've mentioned bread, or they've mentioned hayfever, or potatoes or whatever. Or, Tom Walker seems very upset about his dishwasher, for example. Then we'd say, what should we write a song about? And generally we'd be very in sync.
“Prior to each session, I will have created a sort of very bare-bones loop of something that has the vibe of something they would do. So for Holly Humberstone, I thought, I need something that sounds a bit dark, with very bass-heavy, droney kind of sounds.
"Then I would play them that track. They would either say yes, let's write to that, or they'd say, actually no, let's start with something else. It was about a 50/50 split.
“We would just write the song on Google Docs, because it was all over Zoom. So I set up a shared doc, and we would just set about writing. You hear that process in the podcast, you hear us sort of tussle for ideas.
"Or someone suggests something that makes the other one laugh, or suggests something that the other one doesn't think is very good. It was very democratic, which I think good songwriting is: you're both trying to get to the best version of the idea, with constant tweaks and refinements.
“They would send me their vocal sometimes the next day, sometimes three months later. Then I’d spend ages then producing the song, often including elements that were relevant to what we'd spoken about.
"So in the song about dishwashers, I used a cutlery tray as a shaker, or in the one about potatoes, I recorded myself eating a very crispy chip and used it as a snare topper.
“Then I'd Zoom them back and play them the song. It’d often been around two months since we'd written it, so they'd forgotten all about it. But they all had the same reaction, saying: I can't believe it's come out as well as it has. And that's purely down to me spending every waking minute trying to make them sound good.”
You’ve said that playing around with new instruments and writing music helped you to deal with mental health issues during lockdown. Could you expand on that for us?
“I have a condition called cyclothymia, which is sort of a watered-down bipolar disorder. You think of bipolar as being two extreme moods, you've got this “up”, manic phase and quite a down, depressed phase.
"And in bipolar, the ups are very up, the mania is quite all-consuming: people can stay up for hours, and they feel like they can conquer the world. With depression, of course, it can lead to people feeling suicidal and not being able to get out of bed.
“Cyclothymia isn't, fortunately, as extreme as that, it’s sort of touching the edges of those two things. For me, the up phase is quite fun. I get lots done, but it is quite intrusive, because you end up wanting to do whatever it is you're excited by, rather than living your life, your regular life. But the down phase is the bit that I really wanted to combat.”
“I found that if I get stuck in anxious thoughts or start catastrophizing, or I can feel myself slipping into a slightly more depressed space, I found that the immediate ability to create some music with no stakes attached to it, just for fun, was able to steady me.
"It allowed me not to get any intrusive, anxious thoughts. They couldn't exist, there wasn't space for them in my brain whilst I was concentrating on making something, no matter how good or bad it was.
“I found it an incredibly cathartic and life-transforming experience. Even if I never write another song again - I'm sure I will - it’s just the idea that Logic’s there, and if I start to feel a bit down, I can go to it. And I know it's just going to give me a little kick, when I think: you've done something, you've made something.
"For me, it's about that sensory envelopment that means there isn’t the bandwidth to be worrying about stuff, if I'm creating something.”
Do you think that music could have a potentially wider role to play in how we approach mental health as a society?
“I've certainly found it very helpful. Around the time that I started the podcast, I was making another song, which was about my dad, who took his own life when I was 22. I'd seen a therapist, and she'd suggested maybe writing a letter to my dad, or putting something down on paper. I found that very hard, and I was not intending to write a song about him.
“I had this day in lockdown where I was mucking around and found some chords on the piano that I liked. And this song just kind of happened in about 10 minutes.
"I'll be honest, I was trying to avoid exactly that, which was sitting down and thinking about it in a room on my own. But that's what I did, and it was really amazing. I was in a ball of tears as it all came out. It was an incredibly cathartic thing to make.
“I felt sort of odd about sharing it, but when I did share it, getting feedback from people who had had similar circumstances in their own lives was amazing. From a sort of therapeutic standpoint, I don't know if I'll have that experience again.”