Songwriting is quite the tricky art: to write a powerful, affecting song, you must translate your intentions, emotions, and ideas into music in such a way that your message is received by the listener.
The Songwriting Charity founder Nathan Timothy wants to inspire the next generation to immerse themselves in the world of songwriting. Through his charity, he delivers songwriting workshops to young people across the UK, helping them to create an original song within the span of one day, with a specific message in mind – the most popular being an anti-bullying musical workshop called Bully Beat.
Musical U sat down with Nathan to learn about the beginnings of his teaching career, the events that inspired him to create his famous Bully Beat songwriting workshop and later, the Songwriting Charity, and how he encourages young people to explore their musicality in his workshops.
And Nathan isn’t just an educator – on top of his philanthropic work through his workshops, Nathan is a prolific musician in his own right with over 20 years of songwriting experience and six studio albums under his belt, and was kind enough to also share his own musical inspirations and experiences with us.
Q: Hi Timothy, and welcome to Musical U! Before we get to discussing the Songwriting Charity and your workshops, let’s hear a little about your musical history. What were your early experiences with music?
I guess my first introduction to music was TV and movies – really noticing that the music moved me in some way. That was my first introduction – films like Star Wars and Superman in the 70’s – and I vividly remember staying up late one night and catching a Hall and Oates concert on TV, thinking, “I want to do that! Now how do I do that?”
I grew up listening to a range of music from the likes of The Beatles, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, Bee Gees, Chic, Chaka Khan, and Herbie Hancock, but it was electronic music and Howard Jones in the early 80’s that really inspired me to want to play piano and synthesiser and write songs.
I also became obsessed with all the production work that went into making a record around this time. I love the sound of a great record and really appreciate how much time goes into sculpting the sound. Stephen W. Tayler is my favourite mix engineer – he’s mixed all my favourite records. I would spend hours picking apart my favourite songs and try and figure out their DNA! I studied records made by Quincy Jones, Rupert Hine (Rupert is now a patron of the Songwriting Charity, by the way!), and Trevor Horn. I’m still studying and trying to figure out the music.
Q: So not only did you have a wide range of musical influences, but you were inspired by the inner mechanics of musicmaking itself! How did you translate this fascination into songwriting?
I started writing songs in a little black book at the age of nine. I’d create melodies in my head and imagine what my band would sound like. But I’d never share those ideas with anyone. It was more like therapy or diary writing to me I guess. I got my first piano at the age of 13 after spending years saving for one, and then spent hours and hours teaching myself to play the songs that were whizzing around in my head.
I was in an electronic band called Purple Dreams as soon as I built up enough confidence to sing in public from the age of about 16, and we would regularly perform two hours of original music in bars and pubs for £40. Looking back, we were crazy and fearless!
Q: Fast forward 20+ years of songwriting, and you’ve now released six studio albums of your own. What are some of your favourite Nathan Timothy songs?
I’m really fond of all the songs on my Living From A Suitcase album – it was a really difficult album to record because I was travelling so much and I started to develop a vocal problem which later got operated on, but I have great memories of working on that album and mixing it with Robbie Bronnimann.
If I had to choose one song from that album it would be “You Are Who You Are” – written for my son Christian just after he was born:
Christian is 13 now and a terrific piano player, guitarist and singer! My youngest, Harrison, is nine and has been playing the drums for about a year. He’s got a great singing voice too. It’s loud in our house – there’s always someone singing or making a musical noise but thankfully we have great neighbours. I’ve written Harrison a song too, which will appear on my next album. Being a dad is the best job in the world.
Q: Before you started the Songwriting Charity and your workshops, you were a music teacher. How were you shaped by your 11-year teaching career? How did you start teaching specifically songwriting to children?
For me, teaching was always about inspiring the children. It still is. I’ll do anything to engage with them and get the best out of every individual. It’s so important to respect and listen to children you’re working with and not be afraid to change your lesson plan if something isn’t working, even if you’ve spent hours on it. We’re all different and all require a slightly different approach to get the best results.
The most memorable teaching experiences were writing and directing the school musicals, organising sports days, and taking the children on school trips and journeys. These experiences are where lasting memories are made and where life-changing moments happen.
I started teaching songwriting when I was on teaching practice back in 1994. I seem to remember friendship songs were really popular with my 10/11-year-olds back then, and I even had a lunchtime songwriting club which was oversubscribed. There was a piano in my classroom which I would use at every opportunity!
Q: One of your most popular songwriting workshops, Bully Beat, provides children with exciting lessons in lyrics, singing, and music arranging – with a focus on an anti-bullying message and the invitation for kids to express their thoughts on bullying. What gave you the idea to start this project?
Bully Beat was born out of my desire to help create an understanding, a simple definition of what bullying is so that children and young people can accurately report it. Bullying is when someone makes a choice to say or do something unkind to you on a regular basis. It’s totally unacceptable and should always be reported and dealt with.
I wanted to to do something that built on my teaching ability where I could also share and indulge my own passion for songwriting and music tech. I recognised there was a great value to getting children to write their own songs – and it becomes very powerful in the wider community when those songs have a powerful message.
I love the process of songwriting and putting together a record. I love how it makes me feel to create something brand new. That’s what I’m trying to leave the children with at the end of the day. I want them telling their parents what they’ve done in school. I want them to feel really proud of their songwriting achievement.
I left teaching in December 2006. In January 2007, I started phoning up schools asking if I could come and deliver my Bully Beat workshop, not really knowing if it would work, to be honest! Thankfully, it did, and I think to date I must have delivered well over 3,000 Bully Beat days. It’s still my most popular programme by far.
Q: How did the Songwriting Charity evolve out of your workshops? Who else is involved in the project, and what roles do each of you play?
The Songwriting Charity was established in 2011 by myself, John Quinn, and Ben O’Sullivan, for the purpose of tackling other issues through the songwriting process in addition to Bully Beat. Things like leading a healthy lifestyle and the importance of sport with our Sports Tracks programme, healthy eating through our Soul Food workshops, or world peace through our Master Peace programme. We also have a “catch-all” programme called the Encore Curriculum, where the teachers or school provide the theme.
The charity has three trustees who are responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of the charity and have a broad range of skills between them. One is a Head Teacher, one is a front-of-house sound engineer, and the third is an expert in digital media.
I’m based in Kent. I have a small project studio at home and do a lot of my post-production work there. I design all the programmes, and am responsible for the delivery aspect. I work with a small team of sessional musicians and video editors delivering workshops.
We have another base in Cambridge headed up by John Quinn, who in addition to looking after our social media works closely with me on fundraising, reporting, and looking after our partners. We also have a presence in and around the Bristol area and have completed some fabulous work there thanks to Ben O’Sullivan and his team.
Q: It’s amazing that you create each workshop with a specific message for the participants to center their music around. What is your songwriting process with the children?
The first five minutes are crucial for me. It’s about creating an environment where the children feel comfortable enough to want to write a song or a piece of music with me in the first place.
After I’ve achieved that, I encourage the children to improvise messages and slogans related to the theme of the day until they have something that they’re proud to sing or rap. Something they have ownership of.
Following this, my job is to record and frame those ideas using the latest music technology. We also film the process if we can, so that the school and the young people have a lasting memory of the day. I love that the song has a life of its own long after the workshop is over.
Q: Over the course of your career, you’ve given thousands of these workshops, both before the genesis of the Songwriting Charity and after. What are some highlights of your time with the Songwriting Charity?
Winning BASCA’s Gold Badge the same day Sir Ray Davies from the Kinks got one was pretty cool. That will take some beating. Being invited to his studio to hang out and share ideas was brilliant and he’s recently become a Patron of the Charity too, which I’m proud of.
”It’s so important to respect and listen to children you’re working with and not be afraid to change your lesson plan if something isn’t working, even if you’ve spent hours on it.”
Every workshop creates so many magic moments that it’s hard to remember them all. We always have a great time, but the Sports Tracks workshops we delivered in the run-up to the Olympics in London 2012 were really exciting.
I’m also very proud of the workshops I set up in my younger sister Kate’s memory in that year too, named Project K. It was truly beautiful. 10 schools, 10 songs and videos all about world peace, celebrated at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff near to where my sister lived. To create something positive out of a really bad situation was the aim and we achieved that.
Q: Tell us about the slogan, “One Song, One Day.” How does it encapsulate the ideals of the Songwriting Charity?
The Songwriting Charity is all about inspiring the next generation of songwriters. We aim to teach the young people we work with how to get started so that they can do it again and again, long after we’ve left the room. We provide them with a basic method that will hopefully mean they continue writing and creating music. Maybe some will become even more inquisitive and want to pick up an instrument and learn how to play because of us. We want to open that door.
“One Song, One Day” puts a certain pressure on the children (and us!) to get something finished by the end of the day – and that’s a good thing. If we didn’t have that pressure we may just spend all day fiddling around with a bass drum sound! The time restraint means we have to make quick decisions on what to include in the song and what to leave out.
It’s quite a tricky skill but I aim to teach the children to really focus on the best ideas and how they work together.
The fact that the songs are all written from scratch in one day and appear on Soundcloud and iTunes by 5pm is really exciting for all of us. We want it to be the best it can be. We want the children to feel proud of their work so that they can show it off at home. It’s all about them – the children write the words, melody and have a say in all aspects of music production too.
Q: Where do you see the Songwriting Charity going in the future? Where will your own career take you next?
The Songwriting Charity will continue doing what it does best. The “One Song, One Day” workshop format works and I’m not going to change that. I’ve got nothing to prove on that front. The teachers, young people, and parents love it. I get so many positive emails and thank-you letters every week.
I’d like to have more fantastic people delivering for me, and in time that will happen – it’s just a matter of funding.
I’d like to have the resources to train up an be able to employ an army of songwriters to go into schools. We’ve worked with some fabulous funders over the years who really believe in the work, so we just need to find a few more of those to get on board. It really helps us when businesses and individuals want to support us on a regular basis. We’ve just held a really successful celebrity fundraising quiz night so we’ll be doing a few more of those this year.
As for my own music career, I’m writing all the time – so far this year I’ve written 65 songs in addition to all the Songwriting Charity songs, and I’m in the process of recording and mixing those songs for a new album project. I love it. Because we’re all connected now via the internet, technology is enabling me to work with all my favourite musicians remotely. It’s brilliant. I love technology and electronic music but nothing beats having real people playing my songs! It’s a real thrill.
More recently, I’ve been writing songs with specific artists in mind so I’m looking forward to pitching those soon. There are lots of other very exciting things in the pipeline but I’m afraid if I mention them they won’t happen!
Nathan, thank you so much for discussing your philanthropic teaching career with us – it’s an understatement to say that we’re moved and inspired by your use of music as a vehicle for empowering young people to find their voice.
Please keep us in the loop with your future plans for the Songwriting Charity, your workshops, and of course, your personal musical journey. We look forward to hearing your upcoming album!
You can listen to Nathan’s music on Spotify or iTunes to get acquainted with his own impressive body of creative work.
Venture Into Songwriting
Nathan’s approach to spreading the joy of writing music is nothing short of incredible. By fostering an environment that encourages improvisation, self-expression, and creating music with a message behind it, he introduces young people to the joys of the creative process and the pride of finishing a song – all within one day!
Perhaps this interview has inspired you to take a songwriting workshop of your own, or if you’re a newcomer to writing music, to try it out. For an easy, stress-free introduction, try out a songwriting challenge. With some creative constraints – for example, writing a song based around a theme – and a time limit, you’ll be amazed at what you can come up with a little creative push.
For an extra challenge, take a cue from Nathan and write a song with a message that’s close to your heart – be it about a loved one, a moving experience, an issue you feel strongly about… you’ll be amazed by how powerful music can become when imbued with a purpose and message.
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