Jimmy Napes is one of the most successful British songwriters and producers of the modern era, having won an impressive clutch of some of the most prestigious awards the music industry has to offer, including three Grammys, two Ivor Novello Awards, and an Academy Award for the title track to the Bond film Spectre, which he co-wrote with his longstanding musicalcompadre Sam Smith. These considerable achievements seem all the more spectacular when you consider the fact that the 37-year-old’s major breakthrough in the industry only came eight years ago, with the hit “Lay Me Down” – a soulful pop classic penned with the aforementioned Smith that launched both artists’ rocket-like trajectories into the pop stratosphere. Here, Napes tells Collective Culture why an unwavering commitment to the truth is key to good songwriting, and explains why ‘going with the flow’ in life is far more creative than you might expect.
When were you first introduced to music?
I grew up in a very creative household and there was always music going on – my mum had a piano in the house, and she still plays better than me; my dad played drums a bit, too. As a child, I enjoyed having access to these things without them being forced down my neck, and now that I've got my own kids, I think that’s really crucial – to just make something fun, and have creative things laying about, so that they don’t feel daunting, or like an alien object in the room. The piano just felt like quite a like natural place to go for me as a kid, and I would end up sitting at it from five or six years old, just figuring stuff out.
Was there any particular album that really resonated with you as a child?
To be honest, I was obsessed with Michael Jackson as a kid – absolutely obsessed – and when I heard Bad for the first time, I just couldn't believe the overall sound. The production of that record was just so huge and so impressive, and I played that album on repeat forever. I think as I got older, I appreciated the crafting of the songs more, but initially it was just the wall of sound that was exciting to me. The way Quincy Jones makes records is unbelievable because the sonics are just so huge. I always felt like I had to find a way of doing something in the music world from a very young age – anything where I would get to be creative. Thankfully, the stars aligned and I got to do what I'd always dreamed of doing, which was really magical.
What was the pivotal moment in turning your passion into a successful career?
When I met Sam Smith, it was real serendipity – that songwriting partnership was the game-changer. Sam was working in a bar in St Paul's when we first met, and we wrote ‘Lay Me Down’ together, which was really the first song that anyone was excited about. I had already done some work with Eliza Doolittle, and we had kind of taught each other songwriting, but that record with Sam changed my fortunes, for sure. It was the pivotal moment. My whole trajectory took off from there, and it led to working with Mary J Blige, and Alicia Keys, and all these amazing artists that I grew up listening to. I had all of these pinch yourself moments where it all just seemed so incredible – like being flown to New York to work with Alicia. It was amazing.
How do you recognise authenticity in a song, or an artist?
I think truth is the most important thing for me. It sounds like a cliché, but if people can tell that there's truth in the song, then that is so important. And if as an artist you can say something that maybe you’re actually a bit scared to say, then you will get people's attention, because they will recognise how brave it was to say that. I think that sense of being authentic is essential. It’s much harder to tell the truth than to paint by numbers, and I think it’s all too easy to fall into that trap in any profession.
How do you approach songwriting?
I always think of songwriting as being kind of like a pyramid, with, you know, the chords, the lyrics and the melody, and so on, and everybody has got different strengths within that pyramid. What is so fascinating to me is finding partnerships where the person you're working with complements the skills that you perhaps don’t possess to the same degree – you can kind of see and analyse that relationship in most great bands and songwriting teams.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a producer?
The biggest challenge is often about not losing the original magic of a song. In all seriousness, a lot of the time I'll end up mixing original demos versus going to a shiny studio with lots of players, because I’ve done that before and has it ended up not retaining the magic, you know? So, it's about whether something you are doing is adding real value. I've recorded entire string sections and then deleted them, and that can be a really heartbreaking moment because of all the time and expense involved, but if it just doesn’t sound better with the strings on, then you have to stay true to the original song.
How do you know when you are creating at your optimum level?
My friend was talking to me recently about ‘the flow state’, which is basically a state of mind you can get into that is above the level where you are just painting by numbers, but below the level where you are basically racking your brain to the point where you are getting stressed out. It's kind of a middle ground where you are performing just slightly above your average, and if you can get into that state of being creatively then time passes really fast. I've always felt it, and done it kind of naturally, but I never realised that it's an actual state of mind that you can train yourself to get into, so you can push yourself further.