First Published September 2018
A GOD OF SONGWRITING
Ask some people if they know who Albert Hammond is, and what you’ll see next is a slightly puzzled look fall across their faces. ‘The name sounds familiar, alright’, they’ll usually reply, ‘but I just don’t know why it does!’ If you go on and tell them that they probably know a lot of Albert’s songs, they’ll look at you with an even more puzzled look, and say, ‘No, I don’t think that’s it.’ But then…when you start naming some of the Gibraltar-born songsmith’s hits – classics such as; ‘To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before’, ‘When You Tell Me That You Love Me’, ‘One Moment In Time’, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, ‘The Air That I Breathe’, ‘Don’t Turn Around’, ‘It Never Rains In Southern California’, and the list could go on and on, because it does – then everything changes. Then, they realise why they know his name. And the look on their faces changes from one of puzzlement to one of awe, ‘Did he really write ALL of those?!’
He certainly did. And on October 2nd in the Tullamore Court Hotel, he’ll be performing a lot of them. I had the very great pleasure of having a chat with this god of songwriting last week.
I saw it written in a review of one of Albert’s German shows recently that his songs, “...probably provided some of them [his fans] the soundtrack of their first heartache.” That’s a brilliant and a powerful statement for any songwriter to hear. I wondered how does he feel when he realises that his songs – and so many of them – are so entwined with so many peoples’ lives, and probably in so many intimate and personal ways, too?
“The feeling of having touched so many millions of people with my songs goes beyond satisfaction as most of my songs are life experience, and to think that their lives and mine are entwined through my songs is magical and so incredibly fulfilling.”
A lot of songwriters talk about how sometimes, after they finish writing a song, there’s a kind of a nagging whisper in the back of their minds about whether or not they’ll ever be able to write another one. Now, Albert has been writing for over 50 glorious years at this stage. In all that time, is any form of ‘writers’ block’ something he’s ever experienced, or is it something he believes in?
“I prefer not to call it writers block because you can still write, I prefer to say that my heart my mind and my soul are out of alignment and therefore what I write doesn’t satisfy me, but I know to be patient for I’ve been down that road before.”
I remember reading somewhere that there’s something like 15 of Albert’s songs that people generally agree have become ‘standards’ now, part of popular music culture, rather than simply being linked to one particular artist. And amazingly, those 15 songs are played somewhere in the world every minute or so! That makes Albert’s work almost a living organism in itself, and to me, makes it very much a part of what Earth as a planet is as a living organism. Having already reached such peaks as a songwriter, what drives him on to keep writing?
“Well, one only dreams of having a few evergreens. I humbly admit I’ve been lucky to have songs that will most definitely outlast me ,and more. I love the way you say it – a living organism like Planet Earth. My answer really is simple: I don’t believe I’ve written my best song yet and that keeps me striving to achieve this.”
Albert has told the story of how he wrote, ‘When I Need You’, after a phone-call to his wife and children when he was on the road in the middle of a 15-month world tour. Does he tend to write more ‘from the heart’ – his own experiences – or can he simply have an idea for what he thinks would make a good song, and begin to craft it from start to finish?
“I’m not very good at formula writing. Maybe this is why all my songs sound so different, and why I’ve had hits in most charts from pop to rock, country, R&B and easy listening.”
On the subject of ‘When I Need You’, I also remember hearing once that Albert submitted an album’s worth of material to his record company, including ‘When I Need You’, but bizarrely, they said they couldn’t hear ‘a hit’ among those songs! In those earlier days, would something like that have shaken his confidence much? And also, has he found that he always knows when he’s written ‘a hit’?
“Yes, in the early 70’s I recorded an LP that contained ten songs. Four of the titles were, ‘When I Need You’, ‘To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before’, ’99 Miles From LA’, and ‘Moonlight Lady.’ But when I played it to the record company they told me they didn’t hear any hits on the LP. So it was shelved. Only when Leo Sayer had a hit with ‘When I Need You’ did they release it, and called it ‘When I Need You.’ But by then, there was no interest in promoting it. But all four songs were hits by other artists. And yes, it devastated me. I could have had a big career way back then, but I’m over it and grateful for all the success that followed. I don’t always know what a hit is or what makes a song a hit, but I knew I’d written a few on that LP.”
Moving slightly away from music for a moment, Albert has described his song ‘Down By The River’ as probably being the first ‘green’ song, and of course, he’s always been awake to the dangers of how we’re treating the planet. So, when he looks at how the Trump administration in the States right now are so recklessly rolling back so many of the Obama-era regulations and protections – all of which were put in place for very good reasons – how much does that worry him?
“Well it doesn’t worry me, because there’s nothing I can do about it. But I do agree we’re doing some wrong things. But I also believe our universe shifts a little every few hundred years, so I would say it’s a combination of the two. I try to stay away from politics and religion, I’m more of a spiritual man.”
Albert has been awarded an O.B.E. in 2000, he’s been inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2008, and in 2015 he was honoured with an Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Song Collection. Undoubtedly, each of those are remarkable achievements for anyone. And that all have come his way is a reflection of the massive contribution he’s made to his craft and popular music culture. But I wondered if any one of the three meant the most to Albert?
“Awards don’t inspire me to write, nor do they pay the bills. But it’s very nice to receive them! I don’t know which one I would put first, they’re all of great value to me.”
When speaking about writing ‘To All The Girls I Loved Before’, Albert said, “…maybe it was because I can count the women I loved on one hand.” Does Albert feel that relationships are like wells that he can return to time and again to write about different emotions, or different moments, in different ways?
“Yes, relationships are moments that you can return to every now and then. In other words, you can have relationships with many people, it doesn’t have to be sexual. You can have relationships with animals, or with nature, or with the sea, with the Earth …. And that is the endless well that inspires me.”
Two lovely little details I’ve heard about Albert are that he still poses for photos and sign autographs after a show, and that he draws a little heart behind his name when he signs an autograph for a lady. Now, with almost 360 million records sold, he definitely doesn’t have to give as much of himself to his fans as that, building and fostering such personal connections. But he does. Why does he still feel it’s so important to be that close to his fans?
“Good question, Anthony. I treasure my fans, they are faithful and loving. I believe that my shows wouldn’t be the same without them, they give me strength, they excite me. They’re part of a successful concert, and more. In return, I reward them by coming out after a two-hour show and signing autographs, taking pictures and shaking hands or a hug until they’re all gone. Yes, sometimes I cannot do it due to exhaustion, or that I have to leave immediately to catch a plane. [But] otherwise I quite enjoy it. Some have even become good friends. I’m lucky in that sense, my fans are patient and they stand in line and wait their turn because they know I’ll be there ’til the end. Or maybe I’m still a kid at heart ,humble and innocent, who knows.”
For all the songwriters out there, I had to ask this question before we finished up, because wisdom from a man like Albert is akin to wisdom from a God of songwriting! Looking back on his career, on everything he’s seen and done, and learned with regard to songwriting, and taking into account advice passed onto him, too…what is the one piece of vital advice that he would choose to pass on?
“Here are some thoughts on your question. Never give up. Stay humble. Embrace each moment. Let go of fear. Have love and compassion for yourself, and for others. Give attention to positive thoughts. Great things will come to you if you’re patient and you stay focused. Follow your dream.”
If I end up hearing Albert perform ‘It Never Rains In Southern California’ in the Tullamore Court Hotel on October 2nd, that will be a dream come true for me. And I have a feeling I won’t be alone.