After a successful career writing songs for Robbie Williams, Guy Chambers has just released his first album. But what is it like to be ‘silent’ partner in a songwriting collaboration with a megastar—and how do you strike out on your own?by Suchandrika Chakrabarti / June 17, 2019 / Leave a comment
Behind many of our favourite tunes, there’s often a songwriter who receives none of the onstage glory, the breathless autograph requests, the chance to make it onto the covers and homepages of music publications. What is it like to be ‘silent’ partner in a songwriting collaboration with a megastar?
Guy Chambers knows. He’s just released his first album, Go Gentle Into The Light at the age of 56, after a successful career writing songs with Robbie Williams. The album is a selection of Chambers’ classic songs played as piano instrumentals.
Chambers collaborated as songwriter, producer and musical director on Robbie Williams’ first five solo albums, all of which reached number 1 in the United Kingdom album chart and have sold over 40 million records globally. Their hit singles include “Angels,” “Let Me Entertain You,” “Millennium,” “Feel” and “Rock DJ,” among others.
In 1995, Chambers’ own band, The Lemon Trees, disbanded. Describing how he first met Williams two years later in 1997, he says that it happened “through my publisher, Paul Curran, who was a friend of Robbie’s manager, Tim Clark. Rob called me up and asked me if I could write ‘dirty pop,’ I said ‘yes’—and the rest is history.”
In a 2005 Guardian profile, Chambers explained their dynamic more fully: “I was intimidated by [Williams]. Just like he was intimidated by me. It was mutual intimidation. I’m still intimidated by him. He’s got this persona, you never know what he’s going to say or think. He’s edgy. But that’s quite good for me creatively. It woke me up a bit.”
It was also around this time that Chambers started working with award-winning singer-turned-songwriter Cathy Dennis. A pop performer in her own right, Dennis was called “a half-remembered 90s star” in a 2008 Guardian profile, which then adds: “she had 10 consecutive UK top 40 hit singles in the 1990s,” the most famous of them being “Touch Me (All Night Long)” from 1991.
It was only the year after, however, that another song she wrote was in the charts—but this time, sung by someone else. Dannii Minogue’s 1992 “Love’s On Every Corner” was the first song Dennis wrote for someone else.
Talking about the years in which she’s sold her songs to other singers, she said: “I think I naturally thrive in situations where I feel that I’m the underdog—that’s the kind of thing that drives me.”
Dennis went on to work with S Club 7 in the 1990s, writing end-of-the-night anthems such as “Reach” (2000). She continued to pen a string of 2000s bangers, for Kylie Minogue (“Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” in 2001; “Come Into My World” in 2002), Britney Spears (“Toxic” 2003) and Katy Perry (“I Kissed A Girl” 2008).
This year is heading back onstage for the first time since the early 90s. After years away from the performing spotlight, winning multiple Ivor Novello Awards for her songwriting, Dennis will be celebrating her 30th anniversary in music this summer by playing the Mighty Hoopla Festival in London’s Brockwell Park on June 8.
Speaking to the Sun last month, she said: “I haven’t done it for a very long time and I enjoy it … I don’t really understand why I’ve neglected it as much as I have.”
Guy Chambers seems a bit more low-key than Cathy Dennis, and he doesn’t appear to be bringing The Lemon Trees back any time soon. Yet while Chambers and Williams continue to work together, it’s the songwriter who has the new album out, while Williams is about to kick off his first-ever Las Vegas residency.
Apart from old friend Dennis, which other songwriters out there should we be paying more attention to? Chambers doesn’t hesitate to name names: “I admire anything Max Martin does, and Coldplay. They’re the most successful band in the world so you can’t deny their collaborative magic works.”
While it’s true that Coldplay frontman Chris Martin has written songs for an impressive variety of acts—Embrace, Jamelia, the Streets, Jay-Z, Dua Lipa—Max Martin’s back catalogue reads like the greatest hits of early 21st-century pop. By the turn of the century, he’d written Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” (1998), The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” (1999) and NSYNC’s “It’s Gonna Be Me” (2000).
More recently, he’s worked with Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift and The Weeknd. He is the songwriter with the third-most number-one singles (22) on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, behind only Paul McCartney (32) and John Lennon (26). Oh, and he’s the 99th richest person in his native Sweden, making US$19 million in 2016.
He could buy plenty of time on a stage if he wanted it—but unlike Chambers and Dennis, Max Martin hasn’t shown any signs of wanting to perform.
So what does Chambers’ own album sound like? Talking to Music Week, he explained how he put Go Gentle Into The Light together: “I chose the music that I thought would lend itself to solo piano, they were not chosen as part of a greatest hits exercise. I learnt a lot about the songs. I thought it would be nice for them to be heard in their pure melodic form. It was a little gift to myself.”
That’s what the album is—Chambers’ work, with Robbie Williams removed. That works particularly nicely on tracks, like “No Regrets’, “Feel” and (surely his lost Bond theme) “Millennium,” where Chambers’ intricate piano work has always taken centre stage.
Perhaps it was a mistake to leave “Angels” in, though, because the stripped-down version is a four-minute reminder that Robbie Williams’ surprisingly vulnerable turn on this song, on the edge of his voice cracking with emotion, is what makes it an enduring hit. It was this song, from his first solo album, that cemented Williams’ post-Take That career, and made the rest of his partnership with Guy Chambers possible.
In an industry known for being cutthroat, accepting that someone else will be performing songs you wrote seems refreshingly altruistic. Was Chambers ever annoyed about remaining in the stage wings all those years, while Williams was getting screamed at adoring fans?
“There are no frustrations not being the performer,” Chambers says. “I’m just glad that artists want to perform something I’ve written. I always see that as a bonus.”