I have spent a superb few days at Tilton House, near Lewes in Sussex, in the company of eleven musicians, at a songwriting camp hosted by lyricist Chris Difford of Squeeze fame. Chris has arranged over twenty-five of such retreats and it proved a fascinating exercise in co-writing with new contacts.

We arrived on Monday afternoon at the beautiful setting of a former farmhouse with delightful and extensive gardens. The house played host to the Bloomsbury set in the 1920s, as it had been the home of Maynard Keynes and his Russian ballerina lover, Lydia Lopokova.

In our group – if my memory serves me well – were Lancashire’s Simon James, Darren James from Cardiff, Belgravia’s Clary Aspinall, Colombian and Brit School graduate Luisa Santiago, rising acoustic star Lisa Redford, Shelly Quarmby from Staffordshire, Kate Raison, a Beckenham neighbour ‘Ant’ Goldsbrough, David Wakefield from Eastbourne, west Londoner Adam O, and Phil Barr who had flown over from Spain for the event.

We were welcomed by the owners Shaun and Polly who showed us around the grounds and the facilities, and who spoiled us with fine food, drinks and valuable assistance throughout our stay.

Having settled into our rooms – I was to share with the talented Simon James on the first floor – we gathered in the kitchen area for our first dinner. The fare was solely vegetarian, however it was the ample supply of wine and beer to be had from the refrigerator that was particularly appreciated!

After dinner we took our places in the library, where Chris talked us though what we could look forward to over the next three days. We spent the rest of the evening getting to know each other better, before retiring to our respective lairs.

The following morning (Tuesday), after a fine breakfast, we were to be found in the library once more, where Chris set us the task of writing a lyric about our childhood bedrooms. I was in a trio with Simon and Shelly, and under a tree in the garden we prepared a pleasing set of words under the title, ‘Shooting Star.’

Chris then asked us to perform one of our own songs, so that he could witness our regular style and delivery. I was one of the last to perform and chose ‘Blind drunk and stupid Cupid’, knowing it has an instantly catchy chorus, even though it usually generates feedback highlighting the influence of Squeeze!  

By this time we were settled in our surroundings and beginning to enjoy the challenges set by our mentor. One exercise involved our preparing a song for a name artist in need of a song to perform on Top of the Pops in 1976. (Chris showing his background there!). Simon, Ant and I wrote and performed to our colleagues, ‘Ooh, that girl’ with Rod Stewart in mind:

Verse:

Saturday and I roll down the stairs,
I pour myself a cup to soothe my head,
I look into the mirror and I see red,
there’s a number written there, did I forget?

Build-up:

Did I lose my mind?
Did I hold down time?
Did she get mine?
Is it just another heartbreak?

Chorus:

Ooh, that girl, she’s got me going crazy,
got me thinking maybe.
Ooh, that girl, she’s not another lover,
more than just a number.
Ooh that girl, ooh that girl, ooh that girl.
Woah, scares the Hell outta me.

Verse:

Monday’s going by and Tuesday’s dead,
Wednesday’s come alive and I give in,
it’s a stupid situation, I’ve never been in,
call her up tonight, ooh…

Build-up:

Did I lose my mind?
Did I hold down time?
Did she get mine?
Is it just another heartbreak?

Chorus:

Ooh, that girl, she’s got me going crazy,
got me thinking maybe.
Ooh, that girl, she’s not another lover,
more than just a number.
Ooh that girl, ooh that girl, ooh that girl.
Woah, scares the Hell outta me.

Copyright 2019: Keith Ames, Anthony Goldsbrough, Simon James.

That evening, after another satisfying dinner, a group of us walked through the peaceful local countryside to The Ram Inn at Firle. Our thanks to Luisa for the ride back in her jam-packed car.

Day three (Wednesday), Chris mixed up the groups some more and asked us to interview a co-writing partner, with a view to writing a lyric based on an original personal story. I was paired with Lisa and we wrote ‘WG’, inspired by a Victorian tale of when my great-grandfather Sydney Hague played against a cricket team – led by the sport’s very first superstar Dr W.G. Grace – in an exhibition match in Gloucestershire in 1882.

The next challenge set by Chris was to write a song about London.  Adam, Phil and I walked to the campfire site in the woods and quickly began a lyric using a title I have had for a while, ‘Give me England by the sea.’ By changing ‘England’ to ‘London’ we were up and running and in no time at all, we had numerous rhymes on a geographical theme in a light-hearted lyric extolling the virtues of coastal resort life. Kudos to Adam for his excellent jazz guitar chordal work and the finished song certainly reflected our trio’s collective sense of humour. ‘Give me London by the sea’ proved a hit with the group back in the library and is perhaps the start of a turn in musical theatre!

That evening we dined together in the glow of the setting sun in the garden. Ant began showing Lisa a guitar tuning that he often called upon and this led to others joining the duo in writing a song. This resulted in eight of us sharing a potential writing credit! (My contribution was an accompanying guitar part and the following morning the three of us performed the song to Chris).

Deciding against another walk to the pub, we gradually collected at the log pit, where acoustic guitars were put to good use and a woodland jukebox echoed to songs until midnight by The Who, the Police, Green Day, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Harry Nilsson and numerous others.

My room mate Simon had left that afternoon as he had a gig in Crawley so, as requested by our hosts, I packed my belongings that night knowing we were to vacant our rooms early on Thursday. This last morning was a relaxed affair, with the library group reflecting on lessons learned and minds inspired.

I must add at this stage that the group performed not just the songs written during the stay, but also played other original material, which was consistently impressive. For me, amongst many such moments, Ant’s performance of his song about his daughter Florence was a particular standout.

Reluctantly, we faced the end of our stay, and writers said their goodbyes and set off for home. Promises to stay in touch were plentiful and Chris sent us on our way urging everyone to record the newly written songs.

Luisa kindly gave me a lift to Lewes Station and I arrived there to find all trains delayed courtesy of signalling problems. Oh, reality bites.

I wish to thank everyone at Tilton for being such an inspirational and supportive assembly. The camp illustrated how vital new partnerships can be in generating original works. I will be both seeking out further opportunities at similar retreats – perhaps that special one Chris mentioned in Nashville next year – as well as staying in touch with some new friends.