Jimmy Napes on Unholy, Sam Smith, and never taking success for granted

Picture: James Barber

MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. Here we meet Jimmy Napes, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning British songwriter who has written with and for Sam Smith, Taylor Swift, Alicia Keys and many more. World’s Greatest Songwriters is supported by AMRA – the global digital music collection society which strives to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in the digital age.

As the wedding DJ dropped Clean Bandit’s Rather Be, Jimmy Napes couldn’t help but smile.

Just a few years ago, Napes was the harassed guy behind the decks, knowing his choice of records was responsible for getting the happy couple’s family and friends up and dancing, and putting the seal on what could be the best day of their lives.

Now, one of the songs he’d written was doing that job, without him having to worry about lugging all his gear back to South London at 4am.

“Once I’d written some songs that got played at weddings, I knew I was on to a good thing,” he grins. “I was at a wedding and I heard Rather Be and it was one of those ‘Practise gratitude, thank God for that!’ moments.”

Napes learned a lot from his stint as a reluctant mobile disco operator – chiefly to “work twice, three times, five times as hard on the songwriting, because I didn’t want to be doing that forever – I fucking hated it to be honest!”

Luckily, Napes has been writing the perfect songs to soundtrack life’s big moments for quite a while now. But if it seemed like he became an overnight success when his 2012/13 lava-hot streak saw Disclosure’s Latch, Naughty Boy’s La La La, Sam Smith’s Lay Me Down and Clean Bandit’s Rather Be all drop in rapid succession, the reality was rather different.

Napes was sure enough of his destiny to inform his parents that, aged 14, he was going to become a professional songwriter (“It was before I’d even done my GCSEs, and they were looking at me like, ‘Just slow down there, partner!’”). But it was over a decade from that chat before he had a true hit, years spent writing music for commercials at Mophonics (most notably a jingle for an Apple iPod Nano ad) and DJ-ing at those weddings and in South London clubs to scrape together a living, while furiously working on his writing in every spare moment.

Everything changed when he met a young singer called Sam Smith. On the very first day they met, they wrote Lay Me Down together (with their mutual friend Elvin Smith, who introduced them). Napes emailed the song to his managers, Jack Street and Sam Evitt of Method Music, and the reaction was instant.

“They called me back within a minute-and-a-half and the song’s four minutes long!” he laughs. “So I knew we had to be doing something right!”

Napes and Smith have been causing reactions like that ever since, as two halves of one of the greatest songwriting partnerships in modern music. Right now, they’re red hot again, with Unholy (feat. Kim Petras) – written in Jamaica over rum cocktails during a lockdown curfew – proving to be both a historic moment (Petras is the first transgender solo artist to score a No.1 single) and the biggest hit of even Smith’s stellar career.

“Having a hit never hurts,” Napes grins. “I’ve always gone by the philosophy that you’re only as good as your last song, because it keeps you on your toes, keeps you hungry and it’s nice to be in demand.”

In February, Napes and Smith returned to the Grammy Awards for the first time since Smith won four (including Record and Song of the Year for Stay With Me) in 2015 (the duo also won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2016 for their Bond theme, Writing’s On The Wall). This time, Smith and Petras picked up the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance Grammy, and Napes confirms he’s now in the middle of another wave of “ridiculous calls” from A-list artists wanting to work with him.

And while he is no devotee of the limelight – he loves being able to do the school run without attracting any undue attention or having to go on the road – he certainly works hard to make sure the world’s top talent keep him on speed dial for whenever they need a co-writer or producer.

That’s why, as he sits in his discreet North London studio, he’s able to chat warmly about Mary J Blige jetting into London to work with him; Alicia Keys flying him out to New York for a session; Taylor Swift calling to ask if he wanted to make a Christmas record (Christmas Tree Farm); or Sting sending him to the corner shop to buy him a cheese-and-pickle sandwich (“that was particularly surreal”) during a session with Disclosure.

“I’m extraordinarily grateful for every day I get to make music for a living, because I know how hard I worked to get here.”

That’s why, the morning after the Grammys celebrations, Napes was booked into a studio with an artist he really wanted to work with (“Who books a session the morning after the Grammys? Someone that’s got to fly home to their kids and really wants to make the most of the trip!”).

And that’s why he can enthuse about a packed diary full of sessions with both ‘top secret’ superstars and brand-new artists.

“It’s always nice to be in demand,” he says as he settles down to chat to MBUK in a rare interview. “I’m extraordinarily grateful for every day I get to make music for a living, because I know how hard I worked to get here. I’ll never take it for granted.”

Did you set out to do something completely different with Unholy?

Sam did. We’d had enough of piano ballads, we’ve written our fair share of those. It was more for us than anything, we just wanted to try a different direction.

It’s become that record you can’t get away from, which is a great thing. Because it’s such a different record, we’d be lying if we said we thought it was going to do what it’s done.

What we knew is that we were pushing boundaries musically, going into areas we hadn’t been to before and that was exciting. So it’s really nice that that’s been rewarded with the success of
the song.

Did you realize what a game-changer it would be for everyone?

Yeah. It’s an important one too because it’s at that stage of Sam’s career where they’re on their fourth album – a lot of artists don’t make it to that number, and to have the biggest hit of your career on your fourth album says a lot about your longevity.

How do you feel about the right-wing backlash against the song and the Grammys performance?

If you’re not upsetting somebody, you’re doing something wrong! I like supporting artists on their journey, it’s part of what I love to do – and if you’re not growing, you’re dead, right?

Sam and I are very good friends, so I always want to make sure they’re good – and they are, because they’ve never been more themselves.

When you first met Sam, did you instantly know what an amazing creative partnership you’d have?

I didn’t, but I did know Sam had the best voice I’d ever heard. I couldn’t quite believe that voice was real. When we wrote Lay Me Down, I still remember I had full goosebumps up and down my arms. I was playing the piano and it’s one of those feelings you can’t forget, it felt like magic.

The goosebumps don’t lie, I always tell myself – sometimes if the session’s not going well, you’re trying to force things, but you can never do that. You have to let it come to you and the goosebumps are the key indicator when something’s going well.

How often do the goosebumps come?

Not often! I wish I got them more, but that’s how you know, they’re very honest.

Why do you think you and Sam work so well together?

It’s to do with the fact we’re so close. We really trust one another; we can tell each other anything and that helps.

We’ve just built up a partnership and we complement one another. I think we’ll always work together. We can’t shake each other now, we’re stuck!

We’ve always had a relationship where Sam works with lots of different people, and I go off and work with lots of different people. But we both recognise that something special happens when we work together.

Is it very different when you work with someone else?

I have good relationships with most of the artists I work with. We work together multiple times and have built trust – it’s important to do that.

“I like artists to feel they can trust me, and I can trust them, because it’s in those safe spaces that you get the most magic.”

You’re telling a lot of your personal life stories in these moments, so I like artists to feel they can trust me, and I can trust them, because it’s in those safe spaces that you get the most magic.

Is that harder to do in the modern world of multiple co-writers?

It is slightly different. But what I’ve worked out is, as long as everyone in the room is cool, it doesn’t change anything. If everyone’s willing to be honest, put their best foot forward and let the best idea win, then it doesn’t matter how many people are in the room.

With Unholy, there were six or seven people involved and it worked out great, because everyone’s so great at what they do and lets everyone breathe and contribute ideas.

Most songwriters specialize in either ballads or bangers. You do both. Which do you prefer?

Some songwriters have a lane, but I love that [I do both], it keeps it all exciting. If I was just on the piano all the time, it would
be dreary.

But I’ll write a load of songs on the piano and then I’ll work on bangers with whoever it may be, and it freshens the palate. Then you can go back to the other thing and feel really excited rather than being, ‘Oh no, not this again’.

When people ask to work with you, which type of song are they requesting?

I always see what the artist wants to do, I listen to where they’re at in their journey. Sometimes, someone’s just gone through a break-up and the only thing to do is to write a break-up song – that’s just what they have to do, so I have to help them do it.

And maybe it’s a break-up ballad or maybe it’s a break-up banger – that just depends on what stage of the break-up they’re at.

Do you think that songwriters get enough respect from the industry?

Songwriters definitely aren’t paid enough. If you look at the ratio of what they’re paid compared to other people, it makes pretty poor reading.

I’m always in a mixed position, because I’m so grateful to get to do what I love for a living and I’ve been so lucky, but, if I was starting now and I hadn’t had the success on US radio, it would be a completely different story.

“before streaming, it was an even darker time, no one was getting paid anything for anything. But there’s still some work to be done to even out the splits.”

In one way, it’s amazing because, before streaming, it was an even darker time, no one was getting paid anything for anything. But there’s still some work to be done to even out the splits.

Do you have a view on the rights sale boom that has taken place in the past few years?

It’s obviously a hot topic and a lot of my peers have done it. It’s just business at the end of the day, you have to separate the art and the business and, if it suits your life and it’s something you want to do, I completely understand.

It’s giving yourself security long-term, that’s why people are choosing to do it, but it’s also a shame to not feel you could take your time and have those royalties collected over your lifespan. Have I had any offers? I’ll keep that one close to my chest! I haven’t done it yet…

If you could change one thing about today’s music industry, right here and now, what would it be and why?

I’d make sure songwriters were invited to the BRITs. There should be some more love shown to the people that make the music. I wasn’t even invited to the BRITs and I was nominated for Song of the Year – that’s a strange one isn’t it? So I didn’t go. It feels like it’s behind the Grammys in that way.

You once said you’d written 995 crap songs and five good ones. What’s the ratio now?

[Laughs] It’s probably the same! I hope it’s getting slightly better now, but it’s important to always write.

Don’t turn the tap of your creativity off. I wake up every day and just write at the piano by myself. Doing that every single day, there’s bound to be a lot of rubbish that comes out.

So you still write crap songs?

Of course! It’s my forte!

What do you do with them?

You let them out. You just let them go. Whether it’s a chord, a lyric or a feeling that was manifesting in some of those other songs, that led to the point that [another song] became magic.

It’s all part of the journey. And, if you don’t write the crap songs, then the great ones don’t come.

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