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SheWrites camp by BitchPlease

Interview with the founders of a brand-new international all-female songwriting camp initiative

by Markus Thiel –  September 21, 2018

If you were born sometime between the late seventies and today and have successfully avoided living under a rock, you should have been brought up with a decent idea of equal rights and opportunities for both women and men.

Despite knowing many successful women in the music business myself as well as being aware of the amount of room for improvement in terms of equal rights around the world, it never occurred to me that there may be a need for special girls-only writing camps.
So I was astonished and also highly interested to learn of the project BitchPlease by producer, engineer and songwriter Charlie McClean and singer/songwriter Violet Skies, who have successfully introduced the SheWrites camp initiative.
Both founders have a most respectable and versatile musical background and years of experience in the industry. As BitchPlease is also run as a non-profit organization, participants have to be invited by merit to the SheWrites camp project which is mainly supported by the PRS Foundation and music industry companies, such as Steinberg.

I met Charlie, Violet and participating producer Minna Koivisto from Finland during a camp in Germany at Tom Deiniger’s Bauteil3 co-writing space in Berlin Tempelhof.

Minna Koivisto

What was the initial idea behind BitchPlease and SheWrites?

Charlie: Violet and I worked together on her EP back in 2016 and for her it was the first time she ever worked with a female producer. All female artists I have worked with till now basically told me the same thing: that it’s totally different working with women than with men. After we accomplished the record we both decided that this should really happen a lot more. I jokingly said: “Hey, we should do some all-female writing camps!” and Violet said: “Yes we should!”.
First we thought we were absolutely insane but ten months later we had our baby called SheWrites doing female writing camps all over the world! We started with one workshop in London which in the end turned out to feature 70 musicians, songwriters and engineers spread in different studios all over town. From there on it kept on growing and growing all around the world.

Violet: To be honest we didn’t plan to do any other camp beyond that one in London. We actually just considered it a lot of fun. Suddenly there were so many international artists taking part that we had to plan at least another one or one big follow up every year. And suddenly there were people from other countries like Sweden coming up asking if we can also do camps in other parts of the world.

Charlie McClean

Seems like the world was waiting for you!

Violet: Actually at the moment we can’t really keep up with the demand, our capacities are completely booked.

Charlie: We even had to cancel the camp in London this year, instead we had camps in Spain, Stockholm, Tokyo, this one in Berlin and one coming up in LA and even one in Reykjavik!

Violet: This way we meet so many amazing female producers and artists we didn’t know before that recommending people, when being asked by other women, gets more and more easy. Having this huge and still growing network of female artists makes it in fact completely unnecessary recommending boys all the time.

Charlie: Best thing is we can recommend female artists to each other now. For example, if one of our writers says that she wants to go to Stockholm to work with some girls it won’t be that terrifying oh-maybe-I-know-one-search ever again, because we know them all now! Our goal is to establish a global network of girls in the music industry.

Violet: …and this way we definitely want to change numbers! At the moment for example only 6% of producers and 16% of songwriters in the UK are women. By the way none of them either won a Grammy so far. And if you look down the line these numbers haven’t changed since the Eighties — it simply blows my mind! You know there are so many female artists in the business but most of them are surrounded by men
ending up getting songs written and produced by men adding herself a little bit when lucky. Sometimes it turns out
there are artists in a group of up to 30 people being the only girl having not worked with another girl for almost three
years or more

Violet: …and this way we definitely want to change numbers! At the moment for example only 6% of producers and 16% of songwriters in the UK are women. By the way none of them either won a Grammy so far. And if you look down the line these numbers haven’t changed since the Eighties — it simply blows my mind! You know there are so many female artists in the business but most of them are surrounded by men ending up getting songs written and produced by men adding herself a little bit when lucky. Sometimes it turns out there are artists in a group of up to 30 people being the only girl having not worked with another girl for almost three years or more

This sounds unbelievable!

Violet: Don’t get us wrong we’re not in the we-hate-men-business here, our mission is finding answers to the question: Where are all the girls?

Charlie: Ah, there is definitely some boy bashing around too… (laughs)

Violet: It’s not about kicking the boys out, it’s about bringing the girls in! There’s a trend going on with the industry becoming bigger and bigger each year about girls starting to produce themselves because they got super frustrated! And one of the reasons are record companies and labels introducing young artists to some old guys, telling them they produced something famous in the '80s, and most of the girls are going: "What the hell — I wasn’t even born then!".

Charlie: It’s not about being disrespectful toward any producer with really lots of experience and renown, it’s more about the chance of creating a true relationship between artist and producer, knowing that each side of the vision is fully understood. Producing sessions should inherit an atmosphere in which you feel as comfortable as possible. I observe that a lot with artists I or other female producers work with — whether they’re male or female — suddenly realizing they can truly relax because there is a different kind of atmosphere in the room. If everything truly fits and you can be really honest with each other it brings out completely different kinds of songs and topics you want to write about. Actually, writing songs can really feel like a therapy session sometimes. It’s a different creative experience! I consider it really important for people to have a choice who they want to work with.

Violet: We really hope that we don’t have to run this camps any more in about five years from now, expecting BitchPlease to be at that point something like a good working publishing company or a record label that can look after a lot of talented girls. At least it looks like it’s heading in that direction, but to be honest we have absolutely no control over this! We just hope that with our contribution the numbers in the industry will get better in the future and maybe a girl we worked with will win a Grammy for Producer of the Year marking a change of the game so that there will be no more reason to fight the system. Also, I hope that more boys will open their eyes to the huge amount of talent that’s around them and record companies will question the habit of turning to the same old guys they’ve worked with for decades again and again and maybe asking someone fresh and highly skilled producers like Minna instead.

At the latest In ten years, you should honestly think about producing male artists with all female production teams!

Charlie: We already have plans on doing so, maybe we can arrange a collaboration with other writing camp projects.

Violet: That would be great!

How would you describe the main difference between male and female producers?

Minna: With female producers I experience a lot more of that therapy session thing Charlie already talked about. There are a lot more discussions going on. I feel that women are in general more open to conversation during sessions. So for me that may be the biggest difference.

Violet: For example when asked, a lot of female artists producing on their own consider themselves as topliners because nearly all of them can sing. Seeing girls swap between singing and writing like this all the time often scares boys. On this camp we sometimes have three people writing together in a room all of them singing and on top of that a producer who also may turn around in the middle of the session adding a line of her own. Many male producers usually don’t do that, they just don’t sing! It’s a whole different kind of contribution.

Charlie: From what I experience, sessions with girls are much more collaborative in general. It’s fascinating and I really don’t know if it’s a biological or a social thing but between women there is a lot less competition and protectionism going on during the production process.

Violet: For example if the artist doesn’t like the bassline, a female producer won’t usually turn around telling her: “Hey, but it’s good!”. I'm not saying that a female producer wouldn’t fight her point, but if the artist is not into it, there will be more of a collaborative “I don’t know, what do you think?” in the room.

Violet Skies

Violet: There is no alpha in the room! With girls I experience much more alpha swapping around the room, valuing who has the best idea at the particular moment by feeding the current winners idea and following her lead. Many of us experienced sessions lead by producers who talk on the phone while you’re singing your lines, and then giving you that quick turn and smile saying “This take was good!” and you’re like “Hey, which one do you mean? I just delivered around fifty!”. All the successful male writers I’ve worked with were those, who would sit down and really talk with you about stuff. I’ve done some incredible songs with men — producers and writers, but only with those that were emotionally in tune with me and the project. I think that’s the niche where most women don’t realize their own natural strength. I would not say that it’s biological, more the way we are brought up. Maybe women are taught to be more agreeable and open. Most men from my experience seem to be taught to grow up like clones at least for the show-some-strength-part.

Charlie: And by the way: isolating yourself from other ideas and opinions alike as copy-creativity is not really a strength but the opposite. In fact, to discover the real strength is what our camps are all about.

Violet: I had sessions in the studio where I literally cried and none of the boys seemed to know what to do. It almost felt like I had to comfort them. And it really doesn’t matter if it’s the emotion of a song or just me being a drama queen — what I truly am! (laughs) And it’s really not ideal for the whole process if running to the toilette is left the only option in such a situation. When I was recording with Charlie I reached breaking point nearly every song and she was just having a break with me asking if I like some biscuits or tea.

Would you say that there is also a different approach to the writing process between male and female artists?

Charlie: No I don’t think so! There are specific differences between writers or producers in general though.

Violet: I think it’s more about the atmosphere in the writing room depending on the balance of gender.

So it’s basically not about gender but about atmosphere.

Violet: Definitely! I think that Minna is one of the most experienced at this topic.

Minna: I often observe that some certain male writers tend to use me mere as a tool for their own vision, trying to push things through without listening to other opinions. This is a phenomenon I literally never experienced while working with female artists. For me this is really a huge difference!

Violet: That’s the thing. As a producer you should facilitate vision. In the end, as an artist you should be aware that you hire a producer for a very specific reason, so you should listen to his or her expertise. Otherwise save some money by just hiring an engineer who does exactly what you tell him. A producer is in the room because he has an opinion of his own and there should be a certain level of respect towards each other.

Charlie: As a producer you’re not there to realize your own vision but to facilitate the artists vision right through your own abilities. You are the sculptor that leads the tools to take care of the vision and handing it back to the artist when ready.

Minna: For me as a producer it’s also very important to respect the lyrics of a song. In my homeland Finland, for example, lyrics are regarded in general as the most important part of a song or production. I have the impression that many producers today don’t really care anymore what the lyrics of a song are about.

Violet: I already witnessed producers asking the artist what the song is about — after the session, acting like they haven’t been there the whole time!

Charlie: For me producing is a very flexible process that needs to be open. You should never run on auto-pilot. A lot of producers turn to the quick thing because it fulfills the expectations of certain artists to get home with a completed song at the end of the day. The challenge for a producer is to leave that tempting comfort zone as often as possible to be mindful and aware what is really going on in the room. A producer should also bridge all the gaps in between all different people working on a project assuring they are all connected in the best possible way.