Robert Harvey was once the frontman of The Music. Formed in 2001 in the city of Leeds, success came to him faster than he expected. Or even wanted. The band’s 2002 debut self-titled album was hailed as an instant classic. Harvey was a teenager at the time.
It became a certified Gold record, released during a musical halcyon age for anyone who today calls themselves a millennial. It came on the cusp of a mainstream moment for UK indie music, a scene defined by skinny jeans, sweaty gigs, lead singers appearing on panel shows and guitar riffs from the Arctic Monkeys and The Libertines.
2004’s Welcome to the North came next for The Music, followed by 2008’s Strength in Numbers. Then, everything changed. Harvey left the band in 2010, and by the end of 2011 The Music had been turned off.
The years that followed for Harvey were interspersed with moments of soul searching and general disillusionment towards the music industry. Harvey was done with being ‘The Frontman’, but wasn’t entirely sure what his role in music was anymore. He was in a funk, but it was one that he overcame thanks, in part, to Mike Skinner of The Streets.
After writing two songs on The Streets’ 2011 album Computers and Blues – and featuring as a vocalist – Harvey joined the band on tour as a singer and guitarist. Harvey was still doing what he loved – music, mostly – but thanks to Skinner the eyes weren’t solely on him anymore.
More than that, though, Skinner aided Harvey in his self-described, post-Music ‘rebirth’.
“I’ve got so much to be thankful for to Mike Skinner,” says Harvey. “He showed me so many things about songwriting that you can’t get on a college course.”
After his period of holding the music industry in contempt, it’s perhaps unlikely that Harvey would go on to pen a number of blissfully joyous, unashamedly uplifting pop hits. Songs that, by his own admission, his former-self might even scoff at. But that’s exactly what happened.
Since 2014, Harvey’s writing credits have spanned Clean Bandit’s Real Love and Gorgon City’s Take It All, to Rudimental’s I Will for Love and Jax Jones’s All 4 U. And in 2020, while the world was shut down, Harvey co-wrote Head & Heart, recorded by Joel Corry and MNEK.
With its obscenely catchy bassline, and lyrics that speak of being ‘frozen in motion’ by a fleeting crush, the single became a quintessential, would-be festival staple – however, as no festivals be held, it found new life in the living rooms and kitchens of bored Brits instead. It also hit No.1 in the UK charts, and picked up nominations at the BRIT Awards for British Single, and at the iHeartRadio Music Awards for Dance Song of the Year.
In recent months, with a reunion gig set for 2022, Harvey has been revisiting some of his earlier works with The Music and is back rehearsing with his bandmates.
“We’ve not played together for 10 years,” he says. “We never knew if it was going to sound good. My voice has changed quite a bit, too. But after 10 years, we played a song and we knew it was going to be alright.”
Harvey had recently returned from The Ivor Novellos when we speak. Alongside fellow Head & Heart songwriters Jonathan Courtidis and Dan Dare, he was nominated for the PRS for Music Most Performed Work award.
“We didn’t win, but it was nice to be recognised and nominated,” he laughs. Nevertheless, he’s in good spirits as he remembers his early years in The Music, how he turned mainstream disdain into pop music gold, and why writing a good song can be akin to writing a Presidential speech…
You recently took part in an online listening party for The Music’s second album, Welcome to the North. Have you listened to that record much since it was released all those years ago?
That album was a weird one for us. The Music’s first album was all very positive. For the second album, we had about six songs and were sent to Atlanta to finish it. We had nine weeks to finish writing it, and to record it, produce it and mix it. We’d been on tour consistently, my grandma was not very well and then I was sent to Atlanta for nine weeks. It sounds nice, but not when you’ve been on tour for two years.
At that time, I was in a bit of a weird place mentally, and I was thinking some pretty dark shit. I’m not really like a rock and roll kind of guy. But it’s hard not to get swept up in the thrill-seeking of [the frontman experience].
So, it’s pretty weird to listen to that album now. I don’t really like a lot of songs on it. It’s difficult to listen to, but it’s good to go back and see how far we’ve come. Life is so strange, with the little twists and turns it can take you on. But I’ve got nothing but gratitude for [that period]. Even the dark stuff.
You’ve obviously continued as a songwriter from The Music days. How does it differ writing songs as a professional songwriter vs. being an artist-songwriter in a band?
As a songwriter now, I am aiming songs at [audiences]. It’s being way more selective about what I’m trying to do. Before, as an artist, it was about expression and how we felt as a band. I think [the band] played how they felt, and I sang how I felt. I really like the challenge of trying to move people and doing it through a slightly different avenue.
The skill set is trying to create something super simple; something familiar, but different enough that it still feels new. It’s way easier to be leftfield and ‘out there’. You win every time if that’s all you’re trying to do. But if you’re trying to hit a market, sell records, and [attract] views or streams, you have to be much more specific about who the audience is, and who the artist is.
How did you learn to write for other artists? And specifically for artists that want to rack up big streaming numbers?
I have a chaos-and-order approach, whether that’s me on my own late at night or me with a guitar by the table. I don’t want to have boundaries or rules to start with, and when something starts to formulate – a melody, maybe – that’s when I’ll be more orderly about it. For me, it’s really important to not let the selective bit come too early in the process.
If you’re halfway through a verse, and someone’s going, ‘this is not a hit’, I want to tell them to shut up. I think the biggest mistake you can make is when you think you know what you’re doing. That’s when you’re furthest away from it. It’s like trying to explain what God is. The more you talk about it, the further away you get from it.
From back when you left The Music, to when you began working with The Streets and eventually, the likes of Clean bandit and Gorgon City… how hard was it to break into a new role as a pop songwriter?
I’ve always been pretty delusional, but in the best possible way. I’ve always felt pretty free. But by the end of The Music I needed something without any walls for a little while.
Mike [Skinner] (pictured inset) is unbelievable with words. He always talks to me about [rhythm structures] like meters and male and female words. He talks to me about how to use those two feelings and how things sit nicely on the ends of lines. He sends me Presidential speeches. They’ll use a technique where the word that finishes last in the sentence is the beginning of the next.
“Today’s a special day / a day that we can be brought together as one nation / a nation under God,” that sort of thing. It’s those little tricks and tips that I’d never really thought of as a writer before. Then I started to realise that a song isn’t about me, it’s about the listener. And then that’s when it clicked. I also went to a seminar by a guy called Ralph Murphy. He said, ‘Nobody cares what you think, they listen to the music because they want to connect to their own lives and their own story.’ It’s about presenting them with an idea they can latch onto. He also said to find someone who’s not a very good singer to sing your songs, because then you’ll find out if you’ve got a good song! It’s almost like emotional manipulation of the listener, but for a beautiful reason.
That whole period from, like, 2011 to the beginning of 2014 was a massive rebirth for me. There was definitely some bitterness towards the end of The Music for me towards the industry. It’s quite a way to fall when you think you’re the shit and then suddenly you’re not. I used to listen to the charts and think, ‘What’s all this shit? This isn’t real music.’ But I’m lucky that I’ve got loads of really smart people around me who told me I can’t hate something that I want to be successful at. There’s a lot of humbling I had to go through. So I thought, fuck it, I’m going to delve as deeply as I can into songwriting. That’s how I got the rebirth and energy back.
It makes sense. Being in a band playing in their garage, reaching the heights, breaking up then becoming disillusioned with it all isn’t a cliché for no reason.
There were a lot of bands with a similar setup to us that were making that [kind of] noise. But that wasn’t who I was. I’m not really an indie guy, that’s just what worked for us at the time. Now, it’s just about expression and falling in love with whatever works for the song. Whether a song’s successful or not, you’ll always be able to sit with the song you’ve written and play it. If nobody else likes it, so what.
Was there a specific moment that humbled you after The Music? When I was 21, 22 I went into rehab.
I stopped drinking, stopped smoking; I’ve literally not touched a drink, drugs or even caffeine for 15 years. I’m not afraid to start again, but I’m aware of the allure of what music can do to the ego. I’m afraid of that, because it taps into a part of me that I don’t like.
Is that where you’ve found a contrast between being the frontman of a band, to taking more of a backseat as a songwriter?
I’m not fussed about the centre stage anymore. I’ve scratched that itch. I’m not old by any means – I’m 38 – but [being a star] is a young person’s game. Now, it’s about trying to keep developing, and trying to help other young people and artists. Trying to pull as many people over the wall as I can. I manage an artist called Harlee; if I can just bring a few people along that’s something that I’d love to do.
Is that attitude something you’ve learned over time, maybe through working with acts like Clean Bandit and Rudimental?
The Music happened at a really young age where we didn’t really have the foundations to support our success. I’ve always been successful before I’ve really ‘done the work’, and Clean Bandit was similar as a songwriter. It came early in my career, and I didn’t really understand it. I knew how to write good songs, but I didn’t know how to do it consistently or how to manage my emotions on a consistent level. I was up and down, emotionally. If someone didn’t like my song, I’d be like ‘fuck you’. Now, it’s not as emotional for me. I don’t know whether that comes from getting older, or maybe I feel a little more included now. Maybe I just feel a bit more validated. I don’t know.
Perhaps it’s a feeling of having proven yourself as a songwriter?
I will just write a song because I want to write a song, but I still want people to like it. There’s something that makes us [songwriters] want to keep doing this. Maybe it’s insecurity, a need to prove ourselves, or a need to feel loved. There’s maybe a need to prove people wrong. I’ve definitely had a problem with never feeling like I’m enough, so maybe that keeps me going. When I was younger, music for me was my football. It was my way of getting people to realise I was good at something. [Music’s] the first thing I felt that people respected me for, so maybe that’s something that’s stayed with me.
Now you’re in that role as a mentor, and you have to guide someone.
I get to share what I love about music with Harlee. As I move into my forties I’d like to take a bit more of an executive position where I can facilitate writing and help people, rather than constantly being the one on the front foot going around the country trying to do it all. I’m still learning, and I’m still trying to teach what I’ve learned as well.
Over the time that you’ve been songwriting, from The Music to Joel Corry, how has the industry around you changed?
Obviously the internet changed everything. Around 2005, it changed dramatically with the Arctic Monkeys and iTunes. Then, afterwards, there was a period where I had to ask myself: Do I want to be involved in this? Or am I just going to be some moody indie guy that sits on the sidelines and comments about how much they hate new music? I didn’t want to be that.
The one thing that doesn’t change is just the power of a song, the power of an idea. That’s all I really focus on. I think I’d be overwhelmed if I thought about the minutiae of how things have changed [in the industry] over the years. I have a foot in two worlds.
I love the idea of raw, organic, unapologetic music. I think we need that more than ever. I think things are so sanitised. I miss spitting, swearing and blood on people’s T-shirts. Everything’s so nice now. For some things that’s good, obviously. There are other cultures and communities being included [in mainstream music] now.
“If you’re a young songwriter coming up, you write a massive song, give it to a singer and it’s a worldwide success, the idea that the artist is going to make 10 times what you have is madness.”
That’s a beautiful thing. But there’s a youthful energy, [artists] who’ve got something to say, I think that’s missing. It’s hard to have that come through when everything is so ‘in the box’. If you said to me when I was 16 or 17 with The Music, ‘Have you thought about what you’re going to post on Instagram today?’ I wouldn’t have understood you.
We called ourselves The Music because we couldn’t be arsed thinking of a name. We didn’t care about anything else other than smoking weed and making a fucking loud noise. I miss that, and I don’t know how that comes back. But I’m 38 now, not 18, and I don’t really know what young people think. Just because something doesn’t speak to me, doesn’t mean it’s not great.
I think music is very much a backdrop to other things now, as opposed to being the main thing that people go do or see. For better or for worse. I was talking to the drummer from The Streets who brought his son to a gig we did. His tastes are so eclectic. When I was younger, you were just into one thing. There were the goths, the people listening to happy hardcore, and us who were listening to Oasis. Now, people listen to everything, and that’s magic. I’d also love to see more female producers.
“When I was younger, you were just into one thing. There were the goths, the people listening to happy hardcore, and us who were listening to Oasis. Now, people listen to everything, and that’s magic.”
There needs to be more opportunities for young female producers and songwriters; it’s a must. I know so many ridiculously talented female producers I’m constantly in awe of. It’s definitely better than it was, but we need to create more opportunity. And I think songwriters deserve to be paid better. It’s just crazy how songwriters get paid the least [of anyone associated with a record], and if there is any negotiation people use publishing as a negotiation tool.
How is that fair? We’re already not getting paid anything, and now it’s being taken from our publishing? If you’re a young songwriter coming up, you write a massive song, give it to a singer and it’s a worldwide success, the idea that the artist is going to make 10 times what you have is madness. I’m well aware of the service that labels provide, but all of it stands on the foundation of songs. We need to start protecting that.
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