It might shock fans of England’s soulful, smoothly seductive R&B singer/songwriter Bruno Major that the resolutely un-romantic Randy Newman is his “greatest songwriting hero.” But, for Major, it’s all about Newman’s ability to create unique narratives—an approach the 29-year-old composer takes with even his most tender and sweet love songs.
So many songwriters, so few truly compelling songs. What are your thoughts on that?
These days, I think you have to be able to master three fundamental skills, and just because you’re a virtuoso on your instrument, it doesn’t mean you can write a good song. If you’re a good songwriter, you might not be able to commit your ideas to a recorded format—which is music production. That’s a lot of different areas to focus on.
Many of your productions are almost hauntingly minimalist. Do you incorporate the production concepts into your compositional methods?
Actually, I have a rule where I’m not allowed to go anywhere near a computer until I feel the song is complete. I want to make sure a song can stand up without any decoration. Once I finish a song, I’ll record a guitar or a piano and a vocal. Only then will I build up the song with drums, or weird synths sounds, or whatever I feel is appropriate. Ultimately, the most important element needs to be at the core of any production, and that’s the song itself.
How do you know when a song in its most naked version is ready for prime time?
For me, what makes a song workable is whether it has a strong concept or not. For example, my song “Just the Same” had the basic idea that “no matter how horrible you treat me, I will love you just the same.” [Note: “Just the Same” had more than 204,000 views on YouTube at press time.] The hardest part, of course, is coming up with a concept that’s original. There have been bazillions of love songs written, so it’s very difficult to come up with a fresh take.
So how do you develop new ways of approaching time-honored concepts?
There’s always a new generation experiencing the same feelings people have experienced before. Those feelings just need to be explained and translated in new ways.
Do you worry about matching new ideas to similarly inventive melodic and harmonic structures?
Not really. The real problem is that there are so many things to choose from. There are only 12 notes, but there are so many different combinations that you’re confronted with an infinite sea of options. But it’s not about choosing the right notes, it’s about following the path of inspiration. If you can do that, you’ll find the notes will make themselves known.
Does it require disciplined, regularly scheduled writing sessions to capture and refine unique songs?
I very rarely set aside time to write. In fact, I’m usually doing something else entirely. For example, I was at the gym the other day, and this song just came into my head. I ran to the front desk to borrow a pen, and I wrote these heartfelt love-song lyrics while giant muscular men were pounding weights to really bad house music. It was the most inappropriate circumstance for writing a love song, but the point is, when it happens, you have to drop whatever it is you’re doing and chase the inspiration.