Ruth-Anne Cunningham: ‘There’s no booklet for writing pop hits’
The Donaghmede woman has worked on songs for the likes of Britney Spears, Pixie Lott and One Direction. Now she’s planning her own album
Ruth-Anne Cunningham: ‘The biggest struggle for songwriters is that we’re not okay with not being able to deliver’
Who looks at songwriting credits any more? The days of poring over the inside of a CD sleeve, reading who wrote what, produced this, engineered that, and so on, are long gone for all but the most inquisitive. And the days of seeing just one or two names on a song (Dylan or Lennon-McCartney, for example) are fading fast.
Hello, then, to songwriting if not by committee then by consensus. Dubliner Ruth-Anne Cunningham’s name has been cropping up on pop-oriented albums for some years. She has an impressive track record, having worked on songs for Britney Spears, Pixie Lott, JoJo, Westlife, TLC, Professor Green, JLS, Sugababes, Tinchy Stryder and One Direction. Cunningham has also co-written with a long list of contemporary pop songwriters and producers, including Red One, Guy Chambers, Labrinth, Phil Thornally, Karen Poole, Paul Epworth, The Script, and Naughty Boy.
Next year, she aims to take centre stage by completing and releasing her debut album.
Looking at the former Billie Barry kid, you might doubt how someone so petite could pack such an ambitious punch; hearing her talk is a different experience altogether. “The first time my parents got a notion of what I was like was when we were on holiday in Portugal,” she says. “I was seven, and I entered a karaoke competition. I sang Hopelessly Devoted to You; we still have the recording of it. That was the beginning.”
Cunningham was born in Donaghmede, north Dublin, 28 years ago, and when we meet, she is in Dublin to take part in a commemorative concert at Dublin’s Gaiety theatre for the titular founder of the Billie Barry Stage School. At the age of 12, Cunningham formed a girl band, and then at 16, her father – without her knowledge – sent in a demo song to the Jacob’s Song Contest, which she won.
The script changes
By the time she was 17 (Leaving Cert dutifully completed: “my parents wouldn’t let me go until I sat the exams”), Cunningham was working in Los Angeles, living with the family of her then manager, Eamonn Maguire.
Maguire had at one time overseen the brief career of Irish boy band Mytown, and was now managing two former members of the group, Danny O’Donoghue and Mark Sheehan. The pair, who would eventually morph into The Script, were jobbing songwriters and producers, and saw in the Irish teenager a young artist bursting with talent.
Within weeks of landing in LA, Cunningham was introduced to Billy Steinberg, co-writer of hits for the likes of Madonna (Like a Virgin), The Bangles (Eternal Flame), Cyndi Lauper (True Colors), Roy Orbison (I Drove all Night), and The Pretenders (I’ll Stand by You). “I’m sitting at Steinberg’s piano looking at a Grammy Award placed on top of it,” she recalls, “and then Billy says, ‘Show me what you got’. I played him my little 17-year-old song, he listened and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ The next day we co-wrote Too Little Too Late.”
Two years passed before the song was covered by US pop star JoJo in the summer of 2006. It became a hit in more than 30 countries, and in 2007 it won Cunningham an ASCAP songwriting award.
At this point, Cunningham was putting on showcase gigs and travelling back and forth to Ireland. “Tipping away; artist development, basically. I was learning to co-write much more with people like RedOne [Moroccan-born Nadir Khayat], and others who would go on to be the biggest producers in the world.”
Many hands or too many cooks?
Being “in a room with people” is how she continues to work. Writing good contemporary pop songs, she says, is all about having a conversation with the artist. But how does this work when, for example, there are eight credited songwriters? This method, says Cunningham, is the new way. “Personally speaking, I don’t like to write a song with more than four people, and that’s including me.”
She explains the reasons behind the long list of names on songs. Aside from the core songwriters (usually two) there are credits for the composers of a sampled song (“a lot of the songs these days use old samples from other artists”), a chorus taken from one songwriter, a verse from another songwriter, and the song’s producer (“because they work on the music and sonic parts”). The names add up, but there aren’t necessarily seven or eight people in a room at the same time writing the songs together.
Cunningham prefers writing with fewer people, and says that the best pop songs are written with a less-is-more approach. “You don’t need seven people to write a song, but it’s the culmination of ideas that sometimes makes a hit. Some people might think otherwise, but someone’s verse, someone else’s chorus and someone else’s sample, and so on, all have their place.”
Bigger rooms, bigger artists, bigger producers, bigger risk: there is an inherent pressure in trying to deliver hit song after hit song. Welcome to the life of a contemporary pop songwriter. “There’s no booklet for what I do,” says Cunningham.
She is flying back to Los Angeles the following day, and so needs to head home to pack her bags.
“The biggest struggle for songwriters is that we’re not okay with not being able to deliver. I’m so glad that, after years of struggling with that, I’ve met other songwriters who feel the same thing. Writing good or great pop songs? It’s like a code you have to crack.”
CUNNINGHAM ON ONE DIRECTION: ‘THEY’RE POTENTIALLY GREAT SONGWRITERS’
Cunningham sees a possible new direction for the pop idols:
“They’re potentially great songwriters. With all of the success they have, they don’t have to be involved in the songwriting process, but they want to be.
“Even on the last album, Niall wrote Don’t Forget Where You Belong: that’s a really good song. Liam and Louis were also very involved in the last album, and Harry [right] is very much so on the new one. Also, Harry is getting involved in writing songs for other artists, and he has songs that he co-wrote with John Legend.”