Rob Davis is responsible for one of the most played and performed songs of the last decade.
An accomplished musician, he started out as lead guitarist in Mud, writing over 45 tracks for the band including their biggest hit, L-L-Lucy, before becoming one of the most in demand and successful songwriters in the UK.
Rob is responsible for some of the countries most enduring pop hits and three huge No.1’s with Spiller’s track Groovejet (If This Aint Love) feat. Sophie Ellis bexter , Fragma Toca’s Miracle and Kylie’s biggest hit Can’t Get you Out of My Head which he co-wrote and co-produced with Cathy Dennis.
To celebrate the 20-year anniversary of Groovejet’s release, Rob was invited onto The Songwriters Podcast to talk through his illustrious career.
We caught up with Rob shortly after to find out a bit more.
Maya Radcliffe: So how have you been, anyway? How have you been coping with it?
Rob Davis: Well, in the summer, it was brilliant, because last year, I bought a place in Ibiza, so we spent a lot of time there. There was no-one there, so we had beaches to ourselves.
Maya: So did you spend a lot of the lockdown in Ibiza?
Rob: Yes. I put out an ambient album this year, which I did all over there, which was fun.
Maya: Where better to do an ambient album than in Ibiza? Do you have a recording studio out there?
Rob: I take a laptop, with some plug-ins and stuff. I can do it there, and bring it home to my studio in Kent for the mix.
Maya: In an early interview with M Magazine - yourself and Cathy Dennis talking about Can't Get You Out Of My Head, Cathy described your studio set-up as the most primitive set-up you can imagine.
Rob: Back then, it was, yes.
Maya: Has the pandemic had impacted the way that you record?
Rob: Yes, I was in Ibiza for a lot of it. I do like to record and write with a singer, together. Zoom is ok for writing, you can do Zoom in bits, and go away and both do your own thing, and come back, but I prefer to be locked in with someone who's a good vocalist. You can throw ideas in and out - it's just vibey.
Maya: Why do you choose to have a more stripped back home set-up than, perhaps, hiring a studio or having somewhere that you go to?
Rob: My home set-up is now really good. It's really fast. I've always thought, "Have a studio at home, because if you want to roll out of bed at 4:00 in the morning, you can go straight in and do it. If you can't sleep, you can be there." But if you've got to drive to somewhere else, you probably wouldn't, in the middle of the night. It's convenient, and an amazing money saver.
Maya: I’m sure that you've recorded all over the place, but do you find that your best work comes from your home studio?
Rob: Yes. I do write with other people, in other studios, as well. But I think you can give so much more time to it at home. You're under so much pressure, I think it's just less stress to do it at home.
'The longer you do it, I think you get better intuition for what's a good song. Because you can write a thousand songs, and nothing's going to go. I've probably got thousands sitting there that are never going to be hits or never going to get out.'
Maya: Before you were songwriting for other people, you were lead guitarist in the band Mud. Do you think that your career, as a performer, has impacted your ability to write for other people?
Rob: I think it gives you more insight into the way songs are structured, and it gives you a more open mind. I'll try anything, in any direction. I think most writer/producers just do one sort of vibe. I'll try to open into different things.
Maya: So, you don't necessarily think that it makes you a better songwriter if you've had the experience of being an artist?
Rob: I think, in a way, it does. The longer you do it, I think you get better intuition for what's a good song. Because you can write a thousand songs, and nothing's going to go. I've probably got thousands sitting there that are never going to be hits or never going to get out. You need to be your own A&R man, really. I think you learn that a bit more, especially if you are an artist as well.
Maya: What happened after Mud?
Rob: I joined another band, Darts, for a couple of years, which was a really fun period. The reason I left Mud to do that was to do a couple of tours of the States, and I'd never been before. I thought, ‘I've got to do this. It might never come up again.’
Maya: After Darts, did you know that being a songwriter was going to be the next leg of your career, or was it all a bit up in the air?
Rob: I've always had a studio, even from way back in the Mud days, and stuff like that, and I've always wanted to write. It's just a great charge when you finish something and it sounds cool.
Maya: Were you songwriting in both of the bands?
Rob: Yes, I did bits. I did a couple of singles, but Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn wrote the biggest.
Maya: Was it quite a smooth transition from being in the band to being a songwriter?
Rob: It was a little bit worrying at first. I thought, ‘Financially, how is it going to work, and how is it going to last?’ Through the '80s, I was doing little gigs, stuff to keep my hand in with live work, and perfecting the songwriting and the recording, really. The more the technology goes on, the recording gets better and the production gets better.
Maya: Do you miss performing?
Rob: I miss just jamming down the pub, because I'm a guitar player. I really, drastically, miss that. I used to have a place in the States, up until two years ago, and I used to go to a place called The Stagecoach, and do a Sunday afternoon Jam. It was so amazing. It's the main thing I miss about America. But as everybody knows, pub gigs aren't great over here. There are not many venues, unless you're a big act. So little, downsized, gigs are rare, I think.
Maya: Can't Get You Out Of My Head is one of your biggest hits. When you appeared on The Songwriters Podcast with Louise Golbey, you chose that as the track that best introduces you. Did that release feel like a particularly career-defining moment?
Rob: Yes, it was just such a massive record. I couldn't believe how big it went. It just pushed you into another level, really.
Maya: I heard you didn't think it was going to be a big hit?
Rob: Everybody loved it when it was done, but I didn't think it would be a number one, but you never know these things. Kylie was hot at the time, and a great person to front it.
Maya: On the podcast, I heard you say that it was offered to Sophie Ellis-Bextor, and to S Club 7. You must be thrilled that Kylie did. Do you think it's easier to write a track when it's for a specific artist, or when there isn't an artist in mind?
Rob: It never works like that with me. This song was just written; it wasn't with Kylie in mind. Any cover I've ever had is probably something I've already good, that's sitting there, or something I've written for someone else. It never works like that, pitching to the actual artist. But I'm sure, for a lot of other writers, it does.
Maya: Do you ever get asked to do that by labels – to write specific songs for artists, or sit in on session where that's happening?
Rob: Yes, you often do. You're sitting down and trying to slug something out with an act in mind. It's like when Can't Get You Out Of My Head was done, every writer wanted to rewrite that with me. I'm going, ‘This isn't going to work. Go somewhere else.’
Maya: Why do you think it works better for you when you are just writing it not for yourself, but just as a song, as opposed to it being specifically for someone?
Rob: I think you put more into the song, rather than trying to drag it to the artist. Maybe it's got to be a certain type of lyric or something, and that starts inhibiting a good song, I think. But not always.
Maya: Do you feel at all invested in who the song goes to, once you've written it?
Rob: That sorts of happens, generally, in a few ways, but on the whole, I think you can control that, to an extent. Or if someone does it, you can maybe sit in and make sure they get the song right someone else is going to record it.
Maya: So you do have some say in who the song goes to. You won't just hand it over to a label. I suppose you have to sell it to them, do you?
Rob: Yes, and it varies. You might have a brilliant singer on a track, and someone redoes it, and the vibe is completely gone, and you think, ‘This is not even right for this person.’ You've just got to play it by ear.
Maya: It must be hard to hear a song that you've written, when it has gone to the wrong person.
Rob: Yes, and it's destroyed.
Maya: It's been 20 years since Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love) was released with Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Spiller. What was the songwriting process with Groovejet, and how you came about writing a chorus like that, that has become so infamous.
Rob: It's a really weird one. It was down to Universal Publishing, at the time. I was sent the Spiller track, because the track was out there before the song was on it, and it was getting a bit of club play and a bit of interest in Miami and places like that. Ruth Rothwell, who was at Universal at the time, said, ‘Write a top line on this.’ I thought, ‘Okay.' She said, ‘The track is hot, so it's worth doing.’
I think I came up with a whole song, at the time, with another singer on it. Whoever produced it and mixed it pulled out my chorus. Sophie had to, probably, do the whole song as well, and they used her verse against my chorus.
Maya: And you were happy with the end product, of course.
Rob: Yes, I thought, ‘Wow.’ It really worked. Her voice sounded really different on it as well.
Maya: How how do you feel when you listen to it now? Do you feel a sense of nostalgia? Or when you hear these songs that you wrote however long ago, does it still just feel like work, or does it have an emotional connection to you?
Rob: Yes. I think, ‘Wow, I'd forgotten about this,’ when I hear something on the radio. It just makes me smile. I hear it in all sorts of mad places, like Barcelona or something, in a bar. You never know where.
Maya: What steps do you think you can take, as a songwriter, to ensure that your music does stand this test of time? Is there anything that you can do, or is it kind of pot luck in that regard?
Rob: I think if you are a songwriter and you love what you do, just keep doing it and doing it and progressing, and branch out and try all different styles. You could write 100 songs before anything feels like a hit, but eventually, you might have something that feels great, and then other people are vibing on it. I think you've got to go by your own intuition, really. Go by what your heart says and keep doing it.
'Keep doing it and learning, and just do hundreds of songs. Get advice from other people as well – people in the industry, who know what a good song structure is, and stuff like that. But listen to records. Listen to all the good stuff out there.'
Maya: How do you feel your songwriting has evolved or developed since that kind of era? Do you think that it's still developing and evolving?
Rob: In a lot of ways, I think, especially lyrically, I'm really choosy. I hear a lot of songs where I think, ‘This is terrible, this lyric’ and it's massive as well, lyrically. But also, if you're a songwriter now, the production has to be great on the song. Whereas 20 or 30 years ago, it didn't. You could maybe have a guitar and vocal demo. But now, it's got to sound good, and the A&R have got to hear the song made, really.
Maya: What mistakes do you think songwriters make in that way that can make a song, maybe, sound dated quite quickly?
Rob: I think you've got to listen to current tracks and see what's going on on the radio directions, and stuff like that, and try to hear new stuff. I always listen to a lot of DJs that are bringing new stuff over, and I think, ‘This is good,’ sometimes. I don't like all of it. But I think, ‘I love that’" and I might put a couple of tracks up while I'm doing another tune, Especially with dance music, the tracks are really important, as much as the song, really.
Maya: You must have seen the industry change in such a dramatic way since you first started out with Mud. What have been the biggest changes that you've seen? Do you think that they've all been for the good?
Rob: I think the download has killed the music business, financially. Everybody knows that, including the record companies. But the writers have really suffered on that front. The upside of it is, if someone wants to make a record, they can stick it on a platform themselves, can't they? You couldn't do that 34 years ago.
Maya: So you think that the way that people are able to access music now is a positive.
Rob: Amazing for the public; terrible for the musicians and the writers. I think the splits for the artist and the writers should be much better than they are.
Maya: So if you had to give an aspiring songwriter a key piece of advice, what would it be?
Rob: Keep doing it and learning, and just do hundreds of songs. Get advice from other people as well – people in the industry, who know what a good song structure is, and stuff like that. But listen to records. Listen to all the good stuff out there.
Maya: Who do you listen to at the moment?
Rob: I like a lot of dance. I like Ariana Grande. She's got an amazing voice. I love her stuff. With dance music, I like it track by track. I loved that SAINt JHN track earlier in the year. I thought that was so different, that track. It's brilliant. But I don't tend to like a DJ or an artist, just one-off dance tracks. I love a lot of old stuff: Steely Dan and people like that, as well.
Maya: What has been your proudest moment, to date, do you think?
Rob: Can't Get You Out Of My Head receiving the Ivor Novello Award. That, and going to the States and getting a Grammy for Come Into My World.
Maya: What else are you working on at the moment?
Rob: I've got an act called Voyager 2 that's started getting a few hits, but that's all dance stuff. So a few things like that going on. And I've got a thing called Chakra Tracks, which is an ambient album, which I did during lockdown.
I've been asked to redo Spiller next year, so I'm thinking about that. Maybe do another version of it…
Keep an eye out for more episodes of The Songwriters Podcast with Louise Golbey.