A group of chart-topping international songwriters came to town last week to work with a group of local rising stars. Lydia Jenkin was there to hear the results and how the experts ply their musical trade.

It's Friday evening, and there are roughly 30 people gathered in the warm glow of Roundhead Studios in Auckland.

We're all facing a pair of large speakers, ready to hear some new songs. It's a listening party - not an unusual event in the local music industry, but this particular evening is special.

The songs we're about to hear have all been written, produced, and mixed in the past five days, from scratch.

They are the result of a project known as Songhubs, put together by British-Kiwi producer Greg Haver, and Apra, which gathered together 12 local songwriters, four local producers, and three notable international guests who make their living by co-writing hits with the stars.


Adele, Madonna, Miley Cyrus, Ellie Goulding, One Direction, Selena Gomez, James Blunt, Lana Del Ray, Jessie Ware, Tears for Fears - between them, Lindy Robbins, Sacha Skarbek, and MoZella have written songs for all these artists, and more.

They're very effective "hit factories" in a sense, but they're also musicians and songwriters first and foremost, and the idea with this project was to expose Kiwi artists to their expertise, get them collaborating for a week, and see what they could learn. Whatever songs came out of it would be a bonus.

Except by the time the Friday night listening party rolls around, there are 20 songs basically finished, and they sound remarkably impressive.

You can hear the influence of Lorde in songs from the younger participants - stylistically and in the sheer quality and confidence of their vocals. But you can also hear the singular creative direction each artist has chosen to take, whether they're going for a soul-funk sound, a hip-hop take, a piano ballad, or some sort of mash-up.

It's inspiring. And there's plenty of hit potential in many of the tracks we hear. It seems these international guests do have a way of sprinkling some musical magic dust around.

Songhub songwriting sessions at Roundhead Studios. Photo / Amanda Ratcliffe
Songhub songwriting sessions at Roundhead Studios. Photo / Amanda Ratcliffe

Plus it seems like they're loving the opportunity to work with the local artists. Mid-week, they're full of praise.

"Being here you can see how someone like Lorde broke out of here in such an interesting way, because I'm meeting so many cool, sick, interesting artists that just do what they do," MoZella (who everyone calls Mo) explains.

"They haven't been tainted by the topline LA scene, and they have an untapped genius, and all they need is someone to help them along, without taking away what they do.

"I guess the main difference in New Zealand is that a lot of the writers here are really new to co-writing, because from what we understand, New Zealand is a more fiercely independent scene.

"So it's almost like this week is about showing them how we approach co-writing, and seeing what comes out of it."

They're all very wary of the effect that too many co-writers, or too much outside influence, or too much pressure can have on artists, and they all work to avoid that

"I think it's a problem that takes place in the bigger markets of the UK and US, where they're not allowed to breathe enough or develop enough before they're put into this sort of factory system." Skarbek explains.

"And what we as individuals hope we can offer is a bit of a step away from that a little bit, I think we all work with a bit of artistic understanding.

"We don't want to be like an A&R guy going, 'Try and sound like this person or this person, someone with a current hit', instead of trying to work at what makes this new artist unique and different," adds Robbins.

"To me this week is about figuring out how to make a song clear and cohesive, and make it lift in the right place, and make it say what you want it to say - but it's still all about the artist."

Heading into a studio with someone you don't know, and having to share your most intimate, innermost thoughts and feelings in order to try and get an authentic song written can be a daunting exercise, which Mo, Robbins, and Skarbek are all aware of.

"I always suggest we immediately get naked," Skarbek jokes. "No it is an interesting challenge, because it is scary, you don't know somebody, and suddenly you're having to talk to them about stuff that maybe you wouldn't even talk to your best friend or your mum about."

They all talk about the value of spending time talking, bonding over food, and trying to create a conducive atmosphere.

"If a space is too sterile, and everyone is watching the clock, then songs won't get written. That's not how I got into music, you know, I sat in my bedroom when I was 13 with a guitar, and I fell in love with songs," says Mo.

"I never imagined I'd be sitting around from noon to seven with a bunch of people I didn't know, and going 'Ready, go!' and you write, write, write. So the thing good producers or collaborators can do is create a space and atmosphere that's conducive to heightened sensibility and creativity and still feels safe."

There are no particular tricks to making a song work either, no "how to write a hit" guide.

Every time is different - Mo compares it to kissing.

"It's like going in for a kiss almost. Sometimes it's more vulnerable, sometimes more passionate, sometimes tentative, sometimes you have history with that person, and so every time the dance that leads up to the kiss changes."

Skarbek warms to her theme: "I think that's a good analogy actually. Because you've got to set that kiss up every time, and that's like every time as a producer or a co-writer, you can't come in completely blank, expecting something to happen. You can't just turn up with your clothes off, you have to have the little seeds to sow to point you in the direction of that kiss, so maybe you've got a little chord structure, or a little line, or you've got something to listen to ... ."

"It's like you have a little dinner, a little wine, a little conversation, and each of those little things is moving you into that space where 'Ah we're here. A kiss is possible'," Mo finishes.

One local artist who definitely seemed to get into "kiss territory" during the week was Louis Baker. The 25-year-old Wellingtonian with his stop-you-in-your-tracks kind of soul voice, has been notching up the accolades in recent years.

He was a finalist for the Silver Scroll award in 2014, picked to represent NZ at the Red Bull Academy in 2013, and travelled to Europe six times in the past couple of years to perform, write, and record. It seems this collaborative opportunity came at the perfect time though, and he's clearly excited about the experience.

"I think my expectations going in were actually quite high, just because of the skill sets and experience of the guest songwriters, and what they've achieved. So my expectation was high, but I definitely wasn't let down. I can't wait to see what's going to happen next, and I feel ready for it."

He came away with two fantastic songs: Why Not Me, which is the perfect pop ballad with a twist to really show off his vocals, and Addict, a slinky 70s soul groove with plenty of dance floor appeal. They're both bigger, bolder, and more produced than the material from his early releases, but they've still got Louis Baker firmly stamped on them, and should be just the ticket to take things to another level.

"I guess I always wanted to grow with the music, and maybe felt like I didn't want to show all my cards at once, so it's not that I don't feel comfortable with bigger tunes or more pop tunes, I just haven't released anything like that yet.

"I feel like I've been building up with the production, and these tunes fit in with what I've been working towards on my next EP - paying homage to all the soul greats. So it's definitely what I'm aiming for. It's all about timing, and this feels like the right time."

Songhub songwriting sessions at Roundhead Studios. Photo / Amanda Ratcliffe
Songhub songwriting sessions at Roundhead Studios. Photo / Amanda Ratcliffe

Of course Baker wasn't the only artist pushing boundaries and really opening ears to their talents and capabilities. There were several very new artists like Robinson, Campbell, Montaigne, Sarah Aarons, and Sahara Skye involved - all young women you're likely to be hearing more from. There were rising local lads like Ciaran McMeekan, Matthew Young, and Maala, all with very different styles, but clearly relishing the opportunity to get outside the bedroom and work with fellow artists. And there were more established singer-songwriters Mel Parsons and Anna Coddington, shaking things up and sharing some wisdom too.

It was a wonderful atmosphere at Roundhead all through the week - the inspiration and enthusiasm was palpable, and we can only hope it may be repeated in the future, because this seems like a great opportunity, not to churn out "the next Lorde" or create some conveyor belt for top 40 hits, but to really give local artists the chance to see what's possible with a little extra help.

What: APRA Songhubs, a week long collaborative songwriting program

Who: 12 local artists, four producers, and three international hit-makers, MoZella, Sacha Skarbek, and Lindy Robbins

Where: Roundhead studios

Also: See apraamcos.co.nz for more