Cathy Dennis is arguably one of the greatest British songwriters of all time. Following a successful stint as a solo artist in the ‘90s, Dennis has since written for some of the biggest names in music, from Kylie Minogue to Janet Jackson, Britney Spears and Katy Perry. Her lyrical brilliance has been proven time and time again, and her influence in the music industry is undeniable. Here, she tells Murray Stassen about her early inspirations and takes us behind the scenes of some of her biggest hits.
“Music is something that you primarily feel,” explains Cathy Dennis. We’re speaking about songwriting, a few days after she was honoured for Oustanding Song Collection at The Ivors. This marks her sixth Ivor Novello award – the most won by any woman in the prestigious event’s history. “I am hugely self-critical,” she continues, reflecting on her career and songcraft. “But I’ve gone through these periods where I try not to be too critical, because I know what the perils of doing that are. As soon as you let your head start getting too involved – it’s difficult to feel it.” With co-writes on eight US Top 10 singles and 17 UK Top 10 hits, not to mention a trophy cabinet overflowing with Ivors, Grammys and various others accolades (including an Honorary Doctorate of Music from the University of East Anglia), Dennis’s infectious pop lyrics and melodies have been at the top of the charts and on heavy pop radio rotation for the last 30 years. If anyone knows what music should feel like, it’s Cathy Dennis.
Like many musical prodigies, Dennis’ education in music started at a young age. Growing up in a musical family in Norwich, her mum Linda Dennis was a singer, and her dad, Alan Dennis, a jazz and classical pianist. “Both my parents were musicians and they both played in various bands together,” she says. “My dad was the band leader so he wrote all the music for the rest of the musicians to play and my mum was a singer. “I had a rather unusual upbringing of spending a lot of time around them while they were doing their various gigs around the country, and watching them do their rehearsals as a young child. So, although I knew their job was unusual, it felt strangely comfortable, the idea of doing that for a living.”
In addition to seeing her parents performing for a living, Dennis cites the likes of the Bay City Rollers, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and ABBA as some of her “early big influences”. “I was mad about ABBA. I just loved their songs and I loved Agnetha [Fältskog] in particular, but I loved all four of them. I had a big phase of that,” she says. “Then, at around the age of 12, I got into dance music. I was really excited about Michael Jackson and his Off The Wall album in particular. Dance music really became a prominent pastime for me and I started going out to clubs with my friends, specifically just to go and absorb as much dance music as I could.” She says that it was also around this time that she started to properly analyse the music and by the age of 15 was writing songs herself, with her first song being one she penned with her dad. “He wrote the most gorgeous chord changes and I felt really inspired to write a melody and lyric on that and then I paid for myself to record it in a local studio in Norwich,” she recalls. “It wasn’t until a lot later that I realised how useful the time that I had spent [writing] with my parents actually was.”
Signing with Simon
Two years later when Dennis was 17 she “heard that Simon Fuller was looking for a girl singer to manage” and succeeded in setting up an audition with him. “They obviously had a lot of people interested because he had already established himself,” she explains. “Initially, I was told that they already had the girl they were looking for, a model who couldn’t really sing very well, as opposed to me who had a lot more musical interest. Fortunately, it somehow developed that they changed their minds about it. So, I auditioned and the rest is history, really.” Dennis signed deals with Fuller’s 19 Management and Polydor after that. She first found herself in the charts via the tracks C’mon And Get My Love and That’s The Way Of The World, both by British producer D-Mob aka Dancin’ Danny D. Those two singles reached No.15 and No.48 in the UK Singles Chart respectively. Her 1990 debut solo album, Move To This, hit No.3 in the UK Album Chart with the four singles Just Another Dream, C’mon And Get My Love, Touch Me (All Night Long), and Too Many Walls performing well in the charts around the world.
Two more solo albums, Into The Skyline (1992) and Am I The Kind of Girl (1997) followed. Looking back at her time as a solo artist, Dennis says that “it was a great experience”, and that she misses the “freedom you get as an artist”. “It was a big part of my life,” she adds. “You can’t compete with that freedom, because when you’re a songwriter, you’re really trying to tailor it to other people. Writing for other people “Now that I look back on it, I knew that as soon as I had made that transition to songwriting that I was going to feel a lot more restricted. I think that is why I initially rebelled against [writing songs for other people].” So why did Dennis decide to make the change from being a solo artist to being a professional songwriter? “In the end, I didn’t know what else to do with myself,” she says. “I considered a few other options, but I felt that I had been given a talent and that it would be abusing that gift if I were to just ignore it or throw it away. I also looked upon it, at the time, as [making] a living. So that helped me with the discipline for the whole process.”
Dennis diverted all of her attention towards writing songs after parting ways with her record label in 2000 and a string of hits ensued over the next few years. She co-wrote the Stargate-produced S Club 7 track Two In a Million with Simon Ellis (which was on the group’s debut album S Club). It reached No.2 in the UK Singles Chart and was one of the first of the group’s many Dennis-written Top 10 hits. She also wrote for the likes of Will Young, Rachel Stevens, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and of course Kylie Minogue, whose Can’t Get You Out of My Head topped the UK Singles Chart for four weeks in the Autumn of 2001.
An emotional process
Dennis wrote Can’t Get You Out of My Head with Rob Davis in his home studio in one afternoon. “[Its success] didn’t make me feel great, because I had not come out of the session with any emotional scars,” explains Dennis. “With [Britney Spears’] Toxic, even though I didn’t like the song initially, until I heard it on the radio, I felt more satisfaction because it had been a much harder process to complete.” Dennis says that she’s “always tried to write from an emotional point of view” and about what she’s going through at the time, rather than make lyrics up for the sake of writing a song. “It just dawned on me this morning that there are actually people who write songs lyrically coming from a business angle, trying to sum up what people want to buy music for,” she says. “That’s something I’ve never done.”
Marrying music, melody and lyrics
Earlier on in her career, when she “was mostly writing on her own”, the writing process would involve sitting down with a guitar, or at a piano, and then building lyrical and melodic ideas around chord progressions she created herself. “As soon I started writing with other people I found myself more in the role of lyricist and melody writer, so therefore the other person was much more musically responsible,” she explains. “Although, I am very opinionated and I do have a lot of ideas musically. I like to be in situations and in relationships with people who are open to my ideas musically, as well as on the lyrics and melody side.” She tells us that her advice for any aspiring songwriter would be “to do as much research as possible and to do as much analysis as possible”. “That’s something I’m still obsessed with,” she says. “Find out what works for you – and know what works for you – and don’t compromise on that.”
Commenting on how much the music industry has changed over her three-decade long songwriting career and particularly how different it is to when she first started out, Dennis notes how important it is that “there are a lot more female songwriters now”. “It’s the healthiest it’s ever been in terms of women redressing the balance,” she says. In terms of the contemporary British songwriters that Dennis admires, she cites Jess Glynne “because she is so diverse and consistent”, but also Ed Sheeran, “as we all know he is a genius”.
With our interview nearing its end, we return to the topic of winning awards, which Dennis has become well accustomed to over the last 30 years. But in spite of the number of times she’s walked up to the stage to collect one, she says that the novelty hasn’t quite worn off yet – her Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Song Collection is particularly significant for her. “Every other award has been about one specific song, so to receive something [to recognise] your whole career up to this date is a lot more overwhelming,” she explains. “And when you watch a video of yourself [at the ceremony] from 25 years ago, you remember the way that you felt and how you thought at that time. There’s something really emotive about that. “So, I wasn’t able to control my emotions at all. And, why should I?”
Cathy Dennis reveals the process behind a few of her most famous songs
Kylie Minogue, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head
“That wasn’t written with any specific artist in mind. It was the first of a couple of songs Rob Davis and I wrote together and it was a ridiculously relaxed afternoon. It really was written and demoed in two-and-a-half hours. It’s really annoying, because you spend the rest of your career wishing that things would come that easily, but it just doesn’t work like that all the time unfortunately. “We just did it around Rob’s house and he had a little studio… We would do an hour’s work and then take a break, and then do a bit more and take a break. Then I was gone before it hit three hours. I didn’t get in the way of my ideas that day… I have spent a lot of my career getting in my own way by playing devil’s advocate and trying to edit my work perhaps too much. But that was one occasion when I didn’t.”
Britney Spears, Toxic
“That was written in Sweden with Bloodshy & Avant [Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg] and Henrik Jonback. I went over there to write with Janet Jackson in mind. I was there for about ten days in total. I’d had a meeting with Janet, I think in London, but it may have been in New York. I thought I’d have a go at writing something that would work for her and it didn’t come out at the time. We did have this song Toxic, though. “It was started on day one of seven… then took part of day two to try to finish it. And because I couldn’t quite finish it, I said: ‘Look, let’s start on something else.’ So we wrote another three songs that week and in my spare time while I was in my hotel room I was very busy editing my lyrics on Toxic. Eventually on day seven, which was the day I was flying back to England, I had run out of time. I knew that it was D-Day and I had to sing and that was what I came up with after a lot of editing.”
Will Young, What’s In Goodbye
“The co-writer was Burt Bacharach. I felt such an enormous sense of responsibility. This was my one opportunity with someone with who I had grown up idolising. I knew that I couldn’t mess it up. Every few weeks I would get a message saying: ‘Hey, Burt wants to speak to you’. And I knew he would say: ‘Is it finished? Is it finished?’ And I had to keep saying: ‘Not quite, I’m getting there’. It took four months. When it was finally completed and recorded, Burt said that he was very happy with what I had done. So I was just happy that I didn’t let him down.”
Article first featured in The Works