Even after a few decades in the world of pop music, Eg White — real name Francis White — still seems to be a man in a hurry. As we catch up with him, he is in the middle of another busy day of music production in between appointments and cycling into town. You get the impression instantly that this is someone for whom 24 hours will never quite be enough. ‘Life’s exciting!’ he laughs. ‘I like being busy but bloody hell…’
Born into a music family — both parents were strings players — White went on to form late ‘80s pop band Brother Beyond with (naturally) his brother David. Despite having entered the pop world as an artist, he has since become more famous for his songwriting; winning an Ivor Novello for Will Young’s Leave Right Now, and being nominated for both an Ivor and a Grammy for Adele’s Chasing Pavements. It’s fair to say he knows his way around a hit.
‘The further I’ve got from the mainstream, the more I realised how much luck plays a role in the moments when stuff does go well.'
Juggling writing with a small amount of production, it’s no wonder that life is exciting, albeit a bit manic. I begin by asking him which aspect he prefers. ‘They have totally different energies,’ he begins. ‘Producing can be depressing, but when you know what you’re doing and you’re looking for the wrinkles and trying to smooth them off then I quite like it!’ He estimates that 90 percent of his time is still spent writing, however. ‘It’s much faster and more exciting,’ he says. ‘It can also be much more frightening because you can lose something. You can have it and then go, “Wait a minute. We fucking had something here and now we don’t! Were we fooling ourselves, or did we kill it?”’
With both his parents being talented classical instrumentalists, it was perhaps inevitable that both Eg and David would become musician — not that his dad advised it. ‘He told me to “run for the hills,”’ Eg laughs. ‘He said that it wasn’t a way to make a living, that it was dwindling and dying on its arse. But that was classical music and he was right.” It sounds like he would pass on the same advice to his own children. ‘If they wanted in any way to go into it, I’d probably say, “run like fuck children!”’ he grins. ‘I don’t understand how young people, unless they’re phenomenally lucky, are going to make a decent living. If you go back to the ‘80s, if you got a song on a Michael Jackson album for example then you were made for life — the amount of money that came off that was probably 30 or 40 times what would happen now.’ He seems almost grateful that that didn’t happen to him however, stating that it gives him the hunger to keep going and to keep creating.
‘Quite often, the artists don’t take the songs you really care about and wish they’d take,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write them, though. You should, otherwise you die.'
Those pop star days are long behind Eg of course, and he begins to reminisce about his transition from performing to writing. ‘Most writers were artists at one point, and most artists got railroaded by a bloody producer and had some power trip pulled on them at one point,’ he begins. ‘I was, and it was humiliating. I wanted to do something and a producer said to me, “No, that’s too sophisticated.”’ It’s a lesson that Eg has held close ever since. ‘The best writer in the room is probably the artist,’ he points out. ‘That idea of professional writers being somehow better than the artist isn’t true in my experience. If the writer in the room does most of the writing, it probably won’t fit the artist so well and it might not be used. It’s a selfish failure. Often I’ll come upstairs and feel like I’ve done brilliant work and written great lines, and then realise, to my shame, that I’ve written the song for me, not them.’
White is honest throughout our conversation, but brutally so here. ‘Quite often, the artists don’t take the songs you really care about and wish they’d take,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write them, though. You should, otherwise you die. But very often the ones that do get taken have an exaggerated clarity about them that to me might feel a little crude. You have to have to accept a really high attrition rate.’ Eg estimates a good rate as one in three songs being picked up, as he explains a little bit about the likely outcomes from his writing sessions. ‘There are only three outcomes really,’ he begins. ‘One, the artist knows what they’re doing and it’s my job to back them up in any way I can — probably production or a little turn of phrase. Two, the artist can’t really work it out in which case it’s my job to try and bring them a kind of lyrical theme or something that we both want to write about. Or three, where the two of us can’t agree or the artist doesn’t like what we’re doing. With that one, you probably don’t want to continue.’
'My mantra is always, “I want one of us in the room to be surprised.” Ideally me, but if it’s you then that’s fine too.’
Writing Leave Right Now in 2003 for Will Young was the big hit moment that Eg had been waiting for. ‘There’d been nothing before that,’ he admits. ‘I’d have things come out, get to number 54 in the charts, turn around and walk straight back out the room again without anyone noticing they’d been there. And then bang, that one really went off.’ Not that it had been an easy journey for the song to come into fruition. ‘It was a tremendously messy journey for that song to be a hit,’ he says. ‘One would like to look at it and say it was fucking inevitable in retrospect, but it absolutely wasn’t in so many ways. It inched through like a sperm through a muddy river. It just didn’t belong, and it was bloody lucky.’ Luck is a subject he returns to more than once in our conversation. ‘The further I’ve got from the mainstream, the more I realised how much luck plays a role in the moments when stuff does go well,’ he states. ‘Never underestimate luck and the power of people who do things. Those people who do try something, even if it’s the wrong thing, are to be enormously encouraged.’
Eg’s songwriting credits now are a real Who’s Who of British pop music, having written for the likes of Adele, Florence + The Machine and Take That. But he’s still seeking out new sounds — we discuss about how exciting music from Nigeria, India and Pakistan is for him at the moment as it begins to move in new directions. It’s clear that for Eg, staying still isn’t an option. ‘You can run something three times and then it just dies,’ he states clearly. ‘I’m gonna paraphrase Brian Eno who basically said, “If you get a great idea, tell everyone you possibly can about it otherwise you’ll be condemned to repeat it until it has lost all force.” Do it, be grateful, tell people and get the fuck away from it. My mantra is always, “I want one of us in the room to be surprised.” Ideally me, but if it’s you then that’s fine too.’ Returning to his favourite themes as we begin to wrap up, he ponders on how lucky he has been once again. ‘Again and again, I look at it and think, “Christ, you didn’t see the luck,”’ he smiles. ‘It’s luck and faith. If somebody in the room has faith, that is enough. Some people have more faith than others and you want to be in a room with them.’ And then he is gone, off onto the next big thing, bringing a whole lot of faith, luck and talent with him.
To hear more about Eg White’s illustrious career, you can listen to his episode of The Songwriter’s Podcast hosted by Louise Golbey.