interviews

Rising Star: Live music booker Alexandra Ampofo

The biz's brightest talents tell their stories. This week it's the turn of Alexandra Ampofo, junior booker, Metropolis Music/ERG leader, Live Nation UK. What’s your happiest moment in music so far... “My happiest moment in music was co-founding my company ...

'It's like any lively dinner party': Inside the Mercury Prize judging processs

The year Skepta won with Jarvis Cocker presenting was brilliant. There was a lot of deliberation between him and David Bowie, but the decision was made with the feeling Bowie would be pleased…” Jeff Smith is reliving the night of September 15, 2016, when Skepta, a totem of the UK grime scene, scooped the Mercury Prize for his fourth album, Konnichiwa. He piled on stage with a huge entourage, headed up by his mum, whose delirious dancing went viral. Head of music for BBC Radio 2, Jeff Smith has been involved with deciding who wins the Prize for around a decade, and took over as chair of the panel last year, following the departure of Simon Frith. “As judges, we put ourselves under a lot of pressure, the only reason we’re there is to decide the album of the year, but even when you’re down to the 12, it’s no easy job. People have been asking me who’s going to win and I don’t have a clue!” Smith tells Music Week on the eve of this year’s ceremony. Just as every other year since it was founded in 1992, the Mercury continues to spark debate like few other events in the music calendar. Whispers of what happens in the judging room do the rounds regularly. Annie Mac joined the panel for the first time in 2016 and remembers it well. “I’ve been in more heated Mercury panels than that one,” she smiles. “That was a really good one, I don’t think people went away from it feeling hard done by. It’s an interesting situation when you have two albums that are so extremely different and represent so many things.” BBC Radio 1’s new music obsessive hosted the show in 2018, and returns this year to the 12-strong committee, alongside artists, critics and industry figures such as Stormzy, Jorja Smith, Radio X’s Mike Walsh and Clara Amfo. Mac’s Radio 1 colleague was judging in 2016, too. “I had to have my poker face on with a photographer I knew,” Amfo remembers. “I said, ‘I’m not telling you a damn thing, just go and enjoy your night!’ It’s such a momentous moment for an artist who’s submitted their album, it’s a crass thing to ruin someone’s surprise.” The DJ tells us the story of a “very well-known singer” being informed they were about to win a BRIT Award by a fellow pop star. “They were rightly pissed off, I’d hate to be that person,” she says. But, as anyone who’s been in the room on Mercury night will attest, it’s not that kind of show. “There’s such camaraderie and respect among the artists. It’s about rewarding the music first and the TV show is a bonus,” Amfo reasons. “People are more relaxed. It’s just fun. All I see people doing is going, ‘Alright mate, I haven’t seen you in ages, congrats’. It’s a nice get together.” Amfo presented Wolf Alice with the Prize 12 months ago and is now in her fourth year as a judge. Her passion is screamingly obvious. “It’s always quite frantic. When Sampha won [with Process, in 2017] being in the room and knowing he was going to have that moment was really special,” she continues. “The genuine look of shock on his face was priceless, he’s an unassuming guy who wouldn’t have expected it. It was surreal, or dare I say comedic, that Luther off the telly [Idris Elba] was giving him the Prize.” Amfo remembers “trying to create tension” by elongating her words (“And the winner iiiiiiis…”) when announcing Wolf Alice last year, but when the big reveal arrives, the expectation reaches gargantuan levels all on its own. It’s the culmination of a long, hard process. The judges meet up twice, firstly in early summer to whittle more than 200 submitted albums down to a list of 12, then again on the night. That’s when the panel’s passion really begins to slosh around. “It’s like any lively dinner party,” Smith explains. “It does get heated. You can have the room divided, there can be pockets of particular support, so it’s the chair’s job to bring all that together and come to a conclusion that pleases everybody. We’re having our dinner, but we’re not concentrating too much on the food...” Smith leans on the skills he’s picked up in countless playlist meetings over the years, and has tried to keep the process in keeping with what Simon Frith and chairman David Wilkinson have built over the years. “It’s getting the judges to feel they can have a meaningful conversation. To a certain degree, it’s like a playlist meeting, people sitting around a table trying to come to conclusions about music, which is often a very subjective business isn’t it?” Smith says. Former rock critic Frith is now emeritus professor, music at Edinburgh University, and reflects fondly on his long Mercury association. “As chair of the judges, I was more interested in talk and enthusiasm than in voting and consensus. Better a record that aroused passions for and against than one that everyone quite liked,” he says. What special skills, then, does the chair need? “The ability to let people talk – and to shut them up! And to keep one’s personal tastes out of it,” Frith says. “Above all, it’s presenting a persuasive collective view, a sense of the meeting, at the end of all the arguments.” As for the judges, Amfo says honesty and passion are paramount. “There have been disagreements about what people think is the best, but there’s nothing wrong with that,” says the presenter. “I’d be disillusioned with the industry if people didn’t care.” Clearly, they do. Amfo has been listening to Anna Calvi’s Hunter while cycling home (“‘Don’t beat the girl out of my boy’, what a lyric!”), while Mac says she’s had Black Midi’s Schlagenheim blasting from her car speakers. “I’m reliving all the albums, reminding myself of how everything feels and sounds. The joy of this is getting more and more from it every time you listen and understanding new perspectives,” she says. “It’s just being a fan and listening over and over again, this forces you to do that and normally I don’t let myself do that because I don’t have time.” Mac’s favoured description of the judging process and, in fact, everything to do with the prize is “important”. The DJ uses the word repeatedly, stressing it each time. “Everyone on the panel is chosen as a judge because they’re immersed in music, so music and artistry are important to them,” she says. “There’s a deeper level of respect from the judges for the artists, so they want to make sure the right album wins. This is a really important prize because it celebrates the album, which is something that needs to be preserved as an art form.” Mac is proud that the shortlist celebrates records from Britain and Ireland and says the industry must “make sure we’re flying the flag and letting the world know about these amazing artists”. She points to the Mercury Prize’s 27-year run as testament to its strength, even its uniqueness. “It’s one of a kind. It’s lasted so many years and it never seems to have dwindled in significance, culturally or in the music industry,” says Mac. “Having someone like Skepta win when he did, I’m so glad it went to him. You saw how much it meant to him, his family and his scene. It’s important that the Mercury means that to every single type of artist in the UK, from jazz to rock to rap, I’m glad it means so much to every single person.” As for this year’s list, the buzzword that emerges from Music Week’s investigations begins with a ‘P’. “The shortlist is a sign of the times, you can hear the political unrest going on in the country,” reckons Mac. “It’s quite telling when you look at how many albums are punk-leaning and political in their own way. There’s a lot of frustration out there being channelled through music on these albums.” Jeff Smith smells something similar. “People have said things about the state of the UK, about an awareness of what’s happening now and you can find threads of that in lots of the albums,” he says. “I’ve aligned it to the state of people’s minds in Britain as well. Not just social but psychological things, too.” Bubbling disquiet certainly forms a backdrop to the Mercury Prize 2019, the issues railed at by nominees including Slowthai and Idles are just as relevant now as they were when they turned vitriol into music in the studio. Perhaps that will equal more public focus on these records, after all, hasn’t that always been the point? “In simple terms, the aim of the Mercury Prize was to sell records; more particularly to get music lovers who had got out of the record-buying habit to listen to new music,” says Simon Frith. “The prize was modelled more on the Booker than the BRITs. It wasn’t about celebrating commercial success, but took on the role of that fanatical music-loving friend who keeps saying, ‘Listen to this! You might like it!’ From the beginning it was agreed that the Prize should celebrate all kinds of British music.” Jeff Smith is honoured to follow Frith as chair, and notes that the judging process starts with music, but does take into consideration what victory might mean. “It’s about quality and whether we feel the album really represents the year, clearly it [winning] can have a huge affect on people,” he says. All that remains, then, is for the 12 judges to gather on September 19 to decide where the trophy will end up this time round. What goes on in their room is all that matters. “Initially everyone is excited, no one knows what’s going to happen. Then it’s very intense, especially when it gets down to two or three albums,” Frith remembers. How does it feel when it’s all over? “The emotion comes in when you see the winner,” Smith sums up. “Seeing the real people behind the music and then watching one of them win is quite humbling.”

Hitmakers: The songwriting secrets behind Ella Henderson's Ghost

Ella Henderson teamed up with OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder for her debut single Ghost, recorded on the eve of her 18th birthday. Here, the singer shares the story behind one of the biggest UK hits of the decade... When I signed with Syco I was 16 and I was given the opportunity to state if there was anyone in the industry I would like to work with. I cultivated a shortlist and Ryan Tedder was one of the names on there. He was writing with everyone at the time – Beyoncé, Leona Lewis, U2 – but I had no idea of how to get in with him. I did a mash-up of Drake’s Hold On, We’re Going Home and uploaded it online, and [Tedder] then got in touch with the old label boss Sonny Takhar, saying, ‘I love this cover, I’d love to meet her’. So, the next time Ryan was in the UK, we arranged to meet. I’d been writing the album for just under a year when I met Ryan in a studio in London. He was really chilled out; he was having a beer and we spoke about what I felt was missing from my record and where I was at musically. I grew up listening to soul and Motown because of my mum – that’s what I used to have to listen to on the school run. Instantly, we had a connection and we bonded really well. He’s definitely a close mate now in the industry. I felt so nervous when I walked into the room, but Ryan thought I had come in with so much confidence. He was like, ‘You knew what you were doing. I just helped and shaped the song around you’. The title, Ghost, came from describing how I was feeling – like I was haunted by writing a record and the expectation of it. Ryan got it immediately and said, ‘I’ve got this idea of the choir singing behind you and you’re going to be the anthemic front of it’. And I was like, ‘Wicked!’ We sat around a piano and wrote the chorus in 20 minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever written a chorus so quickly. We both had that goosebump moment and, when Ryan left, I said to my A&R, ‘I need to finish this song, it feels really special’. The next time [Tedder] came to the UK a few months later, we went into the studio again and wrote the verses. We got it to a place where we were super-happy with it. There was definitely still more to be done, but there was enough for him to build the track and sonically create the record. We were emailed the track just before Christmas [2013]. We all listened to it and the grin on my face... I was like, ‘This is 100% going to be the single. I know it, I feel it’. And nobody questioned it, either. Ryan invited me to come out to his house in Denver to finish it in the January. It was two days before my 18th birthday and I remember flying over with my manager’s wife. It was thick snow and Ryan’s house was just unreal – it had a glass floor looking down into the studio. He said, ‘What do you want to do for the middle eight?’ So I went into the booth and did a few takes, and that’s when the, ‘Give up the ghost’ line came. That wasn’t planned, it just happened in the moment. As I was recording my last few vocals, it had turned midnight. I’d just turned 18 and Ryan wanted to take me for a drink, but obviously in America you can’t drink [alcohol at that age]! I loved the song standing for trying to get out of a situation: something that has completely taken over your mind which, at the time, was me trying to write my first single. The buzz I get from singing Ghost is unbelievable. I’m very proud of the record and what it’s achieved. That song literally took me across the globe, so I’m very grateful for it. Writer’s Notes Publishers Write 2 Live, Kobalt, Downtown, Songs Of Patriot Games, Blastronaut, Sony/ATV Writers Ella Henderson, Noel Zancanella, Ryan Tedder Release Date 06.06.14 Record label Syco Total UK sales (OCC) 1,608,612

The Aftershow: Derek Allen

subscribers only

'MMF's network is crucial': Music Managers Forum - The Music Week Interview

subscribers only

Rising Star: BMG's Dan Owusu

MORE Music Week Features

Show More
Loading
subscribe link free-trial link

follow us...