While the California cool kids were partying at Coachella a few weeks ago, some of the masterminds behind your favorite pop songs were miles across the Pacific ocean, tucked deep into the Ubud jungle in a creative retreat that can only properly be described as a songwriting bootcamp for the best of the best. I’m talking about legends like Oak Felder and John Alagia, who respectively have produced tracks for Busta Rhymes and Dave Matthews, to sought after songwriters like Maegan Cottone, whose discography ranges from British girl group Little Mix to Britney Spears, to Australian superstar Guy Sebastian.
Before my experience documenting The Invitational Group’s 2016 Bali Songwriting Invitational, I knew songwriting was a “job” and could imagine how records were made, but only in an abstract kind of way. In my pre-camp brain, I was probably one of those smartasses who snobbed Beyonce for having 15 writers on one of her “Lemonade” tracks, instead of acknowledging her brilliance.
Now, here’s something most music fans don’t know about: To keep the the top 10 thriving, it is common practice for writers, producers and performers to gather up and attend songwriting camps. If headlining Coachella is the end goal, these retreats are the beginning. A crucial component to the health & wealth of the music industry, they’re typically hosted by organizations such as BMI with hopes of facilitating members-only networking opportunities. That, or a recording label will call on its roster to focus on creating material for one major project, such as Roc Nation’s recent Rihanna songwriting camp for her latest album, ANTI.
But the buzz is generating about a series of camps that are breaking the mold. Industry veterans Peter Coquillard (Milk & Honey) and Mike Taylor (Universal Music Australia) founded The Invitational Group on a spontaneous whim after organizing an off-the-grid writing session whose successful outcome made them realize how important it is to create a safe space for artists and producers to collaborate free from label expectations.
What sets them apart is a remote, tropical environment – the cozy Swarapadi Villa in the small town of Junjungan, a four-bedroom resort villa that doubles up as a state of the art recording studio – and its eclectic group of award-winning musical guests.
For example, Raja Kumari. A stunning LA-native of Indian descent who has been gifted with a powerful voice and stunning melodic agility, she has been in the biz as a top-liner (someone who writes the melody and the lyrics) for years, working closely with and writing hits for everyone from Fallout Boy to Meghan Trainor, and most recently, Gwen Stefani.
Every music exec in the United States has heard her sing on demos and although from a style and personality standpoint, she is so obviously born to be a performer, it is only recently that a clever A&R at Epic Records started backing her personal project, which is what led her to attend this year’s Bali Songwriting Invitational as an artist.
With her unique point of view and loud mouth; an American woman who grew up in the Valley with privilege, but still feels like a minority, a badass intersectional feminist who wants to defy the status quo; you can’t put her in a box and treat her like anyone else on the label. Now, plant her in a room with fellow Indian, producer Tushar Apte, Aussie topliner Erin Marshall and musical prodigy Tayla Parx and you get a phenomenal song that I guarantee will make its way onto her debut album & to the top of the charts.
Throughout the week and through intimate collaboration with the other camp’s participants, Raja created some catchy, revolutionary pop anthems that tell her story in a way that every young American woman will be able understand.
That is where The Invitational Group excels – it all comes down to the moment when, every morning, Peter stands on his chair and shouts out teams for the day, consistently suggesting unexpected matches that force everyone to step out of their comfort zone and do things differently.
Speaking of doing things differently, let’s talk about Tayla Parx, a rare songbird from Texas I had the pleasure to encounter on this trip. You know that Hemingway quote; “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” That’s all she does all day, every day. Art in its purest form. Her eyes light up when an idea sparks, and she’ll sneak out mid conversation with her iPhone to record a voice memo. It starts from there and ends up on Mariah Carey, J-Lo or Ariana Grande’s records.
On one gloomy camp afternoon, Tayla walked up to Aussie producer M-Phazes’ studio with an itch she needed to scratch. After finishing a song for Raja a few hours before, she had been scribbling thoughts about love. If it wasn’t for M-Phazes swiftly picking the right guitar track, and Raja helping refine the melody, the song that I witnessed come to life in about thirty minutes would not be what it is. It stemmed from the heart of Tayla Parx, but really blossomed as the group of artists came together. We all had shivers as she laid down the vocals, sounding like a young Michael Jackson with a tone so buttery it oftentimes makes you want to cry, or fuck, or both.
Even as an outsider, this trip has created countless memories and friendships I will hold on to forever. Each morning, over black sticky rice pudding and ginseng coffee at breakfast, we discussed industry casualties such as how Brittney’s breakthrough hit “baby one more time” was originally written for TLC – can’t you just totally hear T-Boz mumble “oh baby baby”? – and how a dozen pop stars passed on “Umbrella” before it landed on Rihanna’s lucky lap. There was that open mic night at local music dive Laughing Buddha when Trey Campbell – the trip’s MVP, a highly coveted-top liner – blew everyone’s minds with a tear-jerking rendition of Whitney’s “I will always love you.” There was our crazy dance-off / listening session at the closing party, when we really let loose and Maegan Cottone spilled some Bintang beer all over my hair, initiating my Russell Brand open robe-and-swimsuit look for the evening. I had gotten so close to everyone that I almost knew all of the songs by heart. I still find myself singing the melodies in the shower these days.
The demos created during Bali’s 2016 Songwriting Invitational might not all end up being singles, and some of the songs created might not see the light of day until five-ten years from now – who knows! But you know the saying; “The difference between a master and a beginner is that the master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.”
I can personally relate to this, the camp being my first experience as the main (and only) photographer on a project. On the last day of camp, LA-based producer Stuart Crichton looked at my selects and jokingly said “You should do this for a living!” while having absolutely no idea I do not actually do this for a living. Coming from such an experienced professional, whose legacy includes work with everyone from Depeche Mode to Selena Gomez, his comment cracked me up and made me realize the immense impact that this trip had on me from an artistic standpoint. Being around these phenomenal creatives who have dedicated their lives to the precise art of songwriting made me want to create and hone in on my talents as well. Be a better journalist, a better photographer, take more risks, do more things for the first time.
It truly does require non-stop work and serious commitment to stay on top of your grind and constantly reinvent yourself as an artist. We’re humans and we tend to get lazy. Our minds wander, we want to take short cuts, do what’s expected of us. And sometimes, all we need is someone like Peter to stand on a chair, call out our name and shake things up.