With his fifth album, The Boombox Ballads, out tomorrow (14 August), Cardiff singer-songwriter Sweet Baboo – real name Stephen Black – has been pondering his musical career, naturally. Fortunately he's got himself a suitable life coach, namely Harry Nilsson. In a guest column he explains what he and his contemporaries can learn by following the singer's example.
So I’ve decided to write a bit on the following topic: "Today's singer/songwriters could learn a thing or two from Harry Nilsson". I’m looking forward to giving it a go, but I thought I should mention before I start (as a kind of disclaimer) that I’m no expert on Nilsson and definitely not a journalist. Don’t get me wrong, I really like him and have listened to his albums lots. I’ve read his biography and watched documentaries and stuff off the internet. The press release for my new record (which is the real reason I’m writing this) mentions Harry Nilsson as an inspiration which is true, but I’d say I was pub quiz knowledgeable at best. I know a lot more people who know a lot more about him and would be better equipped at writing this but they don’t have an album to promote so please bear this in mind when reading this for inaccuracies in spelling, grammar, opinion and fact. Anyway, that’s the end of me covering my own back. Here I go… Today's singer/songwriters could learn a thing or two from Harry Nilsson… Sweet Baboo @Sweet_Babs
1. Get a job at the bank
Everyone knows that banks are where the sweet dollars are made and Harry Nilsson started his adult life working for the man during the day/night and writing songs throughout the night/day. I’m not sure which way round. My point is: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. When people on the X Factor say, “this is my only chance to make it in the biz”, for example, I think, “I’m not sure if you’ve explored every avenue of how to get on in the biz”. Don’t give up guys. I’m a big believer that if you’re any good, then people will eventually cotton on. That’s what I like to tell myself anyway. As a side note, and not that I’m trying to compare myself to Nilsson, but I used to work for Welsh Government (in roads procurement) during the day and rocked the free world in the night time – a happy coincidence.
2. Have a sense of humour
As far as I’m aware, Nilsson had a great sense of humour and a lot of his music definitely has a sense of humour as well as a sense of wonder and fun. It’s almost considered a dirty word in today’s singer-songwriter’s very serious world, but it’s a serious business not to take yourself too seriously. One of my current favourite records of Nilsson’s is The Point!, a story about a boy with a round head living in a world where everything is pointy. That’s a serious subject – alienation – being told differently and with a sense of humour. An animated film was made to accompany the music. Great! I also love Nilsson Sings Newman, which is an album he made just after Everybody’s Talkin’ was released. It’s an album of Randy Newman covers and my favourite of his records. Not just because of the songs but, also, what an amazing thing to do: an album of covers by a then little known (I think) songwriter called Randy Newman. It was when he had just won a Grammy too so was at his most famous. That’s not funny ‘ha ha’ in any way, but it is perverse and awkward and contrary and I like to think of it as sticking it to the (record industry) man. It’s also a really cool (and confident) thing to do for your friend. As an aside, the album itself is punctuated with Nilsson giving himself instructions from the control room, which is brilliant (and gently humourous too). Anyway, it’s really good. Today’s singer/songwriters should listen to it. Stop taking yourselves so seriously. It also leads neatly on to my next two points.
3. Don’t be scared of singing someone else’s songs
As well as Everybody’s Talkin’, written by Fred Neil*, Nilsson’s other big chart success, Without You, was written by my fellow countrymen, Badfinger. Up and coming singers today could do a lot worse than, say, singing songs written by Welsh people. Like one of mine. It could take them to the top of the charts and make me some sweet beans in the process. Nilsson also wrote the song One, which was a hit for the band Three Dog Night. I think what I’m getting at is, don’t be precious: “make the song your own” © Louis Walsh. I did a cover of One last year for a Lynx advert, the teenage scent of choice, but unfortunately they didn’t like it and went with someone else. *As an aside, Fred Neil is a pretty good advocate of doing what you want to do. At the height of his success (I think), he gave up the music biz to concentrate on working with the preservation of dolphins; a much more worthwhile pursuit if you ask me.
4. Disregard commercial success in favour of artistic satisfaction
At the height of Nilsson’s success both with Everybody’s Talkin’ and Without You, Nilsson chose to do: firstly, Nilsson sings Newman; and also an album of standards performed live with an orchestra called A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night. A pretty leftfield move for someone who was at the height of his fame.
5. Ditch the loop pedal – hire Ringo Starr
This wasn’t one of my points either but it stands up pretty well. I think maybe Ringo might be a bit expensive to hire, but get your friends to play: it’s good to talk. I think unfortunately the loop pedal may have had its day. Just use a backing track (it’s less likely to go out of time); play it on your own, natural like; or get a band. It’s fun to play music with other people. Here’s a movie Ringo and Nilsson made together. I’ve never seen it but I’m told it’s not supposed to be very good:
6. Become the sixth Beatle
If Nilsson was the fifth Beatle or the American Beatle, or whatever he was, I’d definitely recommend trying to be the sixth. It couldn’t do you any harm. You should check though as I’m not sure if George Martin is in there somewhere, and Billy Preston. I’m gunning for the Welsh Beatle position myself.
7. Don't play gigs (unless if it's for TV)
Right, last one. Thank goodness. I don’t know if I agree with this point ‘cause I really like doing gigs, but here’s some links to some Harry Nilsson TV performances. Today’s singers could learn a lot from watching them ‘cause they’re pretty good and definitely more insightful than anything I’ve said for sure. A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night Complete footage of the album recording sessions. Recorded and broadcast by the BBC (it's a five part Youtube playlist):
The Music of Nilsson, A BBC special recorded in 1971:
Did Somebody Drop His Mouse? An unreleased documentary of the making of the Son of Schmilson album:
There’s also a good documentary called Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him)? which I think it’s on Netflix. Here’s the trailer:
For more from Sweet Baboo head to Sweetbaboo.co.uk, plus here's a preview from that aforementioned album of his...