Writing a song that captures a continent: how hard can it be?
Brendan Graham: Every songwriter needs 'a pension song'
Ireland is about to pick its Eurovision entry, so what does it take to pen a winning entry? Honest hooks and cracking choruses, but the dancing is optional, writes PATRICK FREYNE
The first rule when writing a Eurovision winner is don’t try to write a Eurovision winner. “The two songs of mine that won were not written with Eurovision in mind,” says Brendan Graham, two-time winner, with Rock’n’Roll Kids in 1994 and The Voice in 1996.
Shay Healy, who won in 1980 with What’s Another Year?, says: “Just write a good three-minute song. A good song is a good song.”
Healy is mentoring one of this year’s Eurosong writers so it’s all fresh in his mind. Brendan Graham is just passionate about song-writing.
Eurovision songs have changed over the years. In the early days, static, monochrome figures in tuxedos and ball gowns crooned melodies with minimal movement on bare stages. Some casual dance routines sidled in with Abba in the 1970s, but when Johnny Logan won with What’s Another Year? in 1980 the visual high point came when he got off the stool for the final verse.
Nowadays, the Eurovision is much more energetic and flamboyant, with sexy dance routines, acrobats, eastern folk airs, Euro-pop beats, stray rock bands, fire eaters, loads of angel wings (“The angels have to be catered for,” says Healy), and countless fiddle players going buck wild.
“Dancing has entered into it in a big way,” sighs Healy. “To some extent it’s self-defeating to do a dance song unless you spend the money Europeans spend. We send Dustin and two hoofers and expect that to pass as a production number.”
However, the basic rules of Eurosong-writing stay the same. “You only have three minutes,” says Brendan Graham. “And it’s harder to say something in three than four and a half. You have to have something that hits the listener. You need to have an interesting title. You need to get into the hook quickly. You need melody and a storyline and some way of rounding it off. You have to stand out from 26 other songs.”
Listening to nearly six decades of winners, it’s clear that there are a number of recurring themes: references to flight, light, love, unity across nations, the process of singing, the notion that melody can positively affect geopolitics, not to mention the international language of Euro-gibberish (such as Sweden’s Diggiloo Diggiley from 1984).
Graham doesn’t think I should worry about the trends. “You need to be true to yourself.” A good song, he says, is universal, but rooted in the personal. The Voice was inspired by a stroll in the mountains. The idea for Rock’n’Roll Kids was written on a ticket stub while watching ageing baby boomers grooving at a Fats Domino gig.