The Songwriter And The Song Contest: Eurovision’s Other Competitors Written by on February 25, 2016

We’re all familiar with the names of our favourite performers and bands at the Song Contest, but it’s called the Eurovision Song Contest… not the Eurovision Performers Contest. What is the National Final season like for the other side of the team; the writers, lyricists, composers, and songwriters? ESC Insight invited Matthew Ker to tell us about Eurovision 2016 from his point of view.

Saturday night.

My heart is pounding out of my chest. I’m trying to stay calm while watching the climax of Sanremo 2012 from my Paris flat. It’s late. Very late. But I’m fuelled by anticipation for an announcement expected any moment. My collaborator Erica Mou is storming the legendary Festival with ‘Nella vasca da bagno del tempo’ which I’ve worked on with her in the studio. She wins both the Critics’ ‘Mia Martini’ Prize and the Press, Radio & TV Award as a newcomer, which is fantastic news… but I’m more interested in another kind of prize. A nod from the committee, a trip to Baku, and the golden ticket to the Eurovision Song Contest 2012.

Not this time.

Sunday morning. Disappointment turns into steely determination. I’ve had the carrot of Eurovision participation dangled in front of me, and now I have a hunger – I want to make it a reality.

It’s not like I lack experience or confidence as a producer & songwriter. By this point, under my artist’s pseudonym of MaJiKer, I’d already racked up two platinum selling albums, three French Grammys, the BBC Radio 3 European Album Of The Year award and the French Mercury Music Prize. But MaJiKer is a producer. What about Matthew, the Eurovision obsessive who as an undergraduate student back in 2001 wrote his degree dissertation about the world’s greatest Song Contest?

How do I get to Eurovision? I take a first step, towards Eurovision veteran Jonas Gladnikoff. Turns out he is already a big fan of my work with the French artist Camille. That step leads to another. And another. And to where I stand today. I’ve had a thrilling ESC season. Three entries successfully submitted, two performed live in their respective National Finals, and one currently among the favourites to win a ticket to Stockholm.

Another tense Saturday night awaits. Once more my heart will be pounding out of my chest…

Majiker (Image: Paul Bryan)

Majiker (Image: Paul Bryan)

The United Kingdom

Jonas and I set about creating a repertoire of gloriously catchy tracks with the Song Contest in mind, sometimes as a duo, sometimes in partnership with others, such as genius American singer-songwriter Allyson Ezell.

Two weeks before the BBC’s deadline for their ‘Song for Europe’ we find the perfect ‘unknown’ act that fits one of our songs. Everything clicks, and in a whirlwind of excitement, we quickly film a fancy live showcase video and ask a few experts (and ESC Insight’s Ewan Spence) to give us some advice on how best to shape the visuals and advice on submitting it.

I’m with Universal Music Publishing, so there were (as you would expect) some connections made behind the scenes and discussions took place about the track, the artist and the team behind it. At this point it’s fair to say ‘things happened’… but you’ve all heard the six tracks, and ours didn’t make the cut. That said, the feedback was very encouraging from all angles, and the process was inspiring and informative.

It was all rather positive… except for the inevitable disappointment of not making the final six. But the song is still in play and my co-writers, my publisher, and I all feel it will make a killer Eurovision entry. Not today, not tomorrow, but someday…

Malta

Still hungry for new opportunities, I was chomping at the bit to write more songs. Through Jonas I met Michael James Down, another prolific Eurovision songwriter, and his co-writer Primoz Poglajen. We started writing together, in one of the most splendidly international teams you can imagine: an Englishman living in France, a Swede living in Finland, plus a Northern Irishman and a Slovenian based in Spain!

Working across multiple countries was surprisingly efficient and fun, and when we wrote on top of my sax-heavy 90’s inspired backing track and turned it into a cheeky Euroclubby stomper, we just had to call it ‘All Around The World’.

Here’s something you might not know: it was originally conceived for a male vocalist and had been submitted to a certain Nordic National Final. Although I liked the track, I wasn’t so personally connected to the lyrics and melody in the first version. It was only when Malta’s very own Deborah C grabbed it with both hands and submitted it to PBS (after the track was reworked for her) that I really connected with the entry. Deborah is adorable and her energy is infectious. Having such a familiar face perform the track made the whole experience much more exciting and fun.

Once again in Paris, I’m watching the action unfold from afar. My heart quickens as Deborah wins through to the Final, but she will go no further. At least I will forever now have a track to pop on should I find myself “drinking margarita’s back in Mexico…”. Unlikely for several reasons, but you never know…

Finland

Michael is a wonderfully positive and proactive person to work with and is in touch with numerous artists. When Kimmo Blom (née Angelo De Nile) told us he was looking to enter UMK with his girlfriend Annica Milán, we gladly accepted the challenge of crafting a song especially for this vibrant duo.

Deborah C’s track started with a saxophone, Kimmo and Annica’s started with a piano. It’s still right there in the opening section of the finished song. Jonas took this musical skeleton of mine and produced it up into a rousing mid-tempo backing with powerful beats and synths. This inspired Michael and Primoz’s topline, which we then all shaped together lyrically and melodically. Kimmo and Annica added their twist… and ‘Good Enough’ was born.

You know the routine by now. The demo was submitted to YLE, meetings were arranged, things happened,… and quite soon we got confirmation that the entry was indeed accepted into the 2016 Contest!

Once the track had been spruced up and mixed by Niklas Hast, we felt ‘Good Enough’ was a solid entry in a potentially competitive field, and were hoping for a respectable result. However, when all the UMK tracks were unveiled, we were totally overwhelmed by the reaction. The song was voted to the top of many fan polls. I feel the brilliantly moody video helped to bring out the depth of the song’s meaning, which really seemed to resonate with fans.

At this point the focus switched to the the artists. Kimmo and Annica set about preparing for their semi-final performance in Helsinki. We knew that YLE wanted to try out an idea with mirrors, so we were curious to see how that would translate to the screen.

Watching the live stream with friends, I was filled with a smörgåsbord of emotions: immense pride in the team, personal excitement and joy at seeing the track on TV, the realisation of a very cool staging idea… combined with a sense of distance – watching something happen far away with an inevitable pang of frustration at having little direct impact on the three minutes.

As a producer and vocal arranger, I’m used to being actively involved with my collaborations, so it felt strange to have relatively little influence over ‘Good Enough’s’ trial in the Semi Final. However, Kimmo and Annica were incredibly professional, did a great job, and I think the genuine warmth they naturally exude came across during the show… and yes, they qualified for the Final. Cue much jubilation and invites quickly sent out for friends in Paris to come and watch the Final at my place.

With two weeks between the Semi Final and the Final, YLE has the chance to work the camera angles, lighting cues and the sound mix so that the performance in the Final can be tighter and more powerful. We all feel it could be much stronger with a few tweaks, and work is underway to try to improve the performance as much as is allowed by the TV producers.

Meanwhile, Back In Paris

And so… 27th February 2016 is the day. I feel very serene about the whole thing. My journey thus far has been so full of twists and turns, and I’m sure there are many more to come.

Nine songs are left in UMK with some strong contenders amongst them. I know my Eurovision, and can see several of the entries winning the ticket to Stockholm, but with our song in the mix, it’s going to be an exciting final. I wish Kimmo and Annica all the best and hope they have a wonderful time participating – they have been an absolute joy to work with.

Whatever happens, the process of having songs compete in National Finals has been totally exhilarating and immense fun. With each attempt, the vision gets clearer and the goal gets nearer. Every disappointment helps to shape a better effort next time.

I’m back in my studio, writing and producing new songs. The hunger is still there. And my heart is still pounding…

About The Author: Matthew Ker

Award-winning, platinum-selling producer, songwriter and performer MaJiKer (Matthew Ker) is a British ambassador for musical creativity across Europe. He has produced two platinum selling albums and won three French Grammys, the BBC Radio 3 European Album of the Year, Critics' & Press Prizes at the Sanremo Song Festival and the French Mercury Music Prize. A prolific collaborator, he has worked extensively with artists such as Camille, Erica Mou & Amina Annabi, and has contributed to projects by Valgeir Sigurðsson, David Byrne & Fatboy Slim. His live work has included performances on Later... with Jools Holland, Top Of The Pops, several BBC Radio sessions and he has beatboxed at the BBC Proms.

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