Songwriter and singer

 7 April 2011

Joe Cang is a songwriter and singer. He also plays bass guitar, guitar and percussion. His bestselling hit ‘Shine’, for Aswad, sold over a million copies.

Joe has written for various artists and bands.
Joe has written for various artists and bands.

Joe Cang released his first solo album after being signed to Arista records in the 1990s.

He has toured, recorded and written for various artists and bands including Ian Dury, Scritti Politti, KT Tunstall, Hall and Oates, Leona Lewis and Marianne Faithful. His new album ‘Bed’, released on Universal, is a unique blend he calls ‘new swing soul’.

Starting as a musician

Joe is the first to admit that school was not for him. He has dyslexia, which meant that academic and written work did not come easily. Joe left school early after a period of home tuition.

“I started playing guitar and singing around the age of eight and dreamt of becoming a musician. Being home educated during my teenage years meant I spent lots of time on my own, which led me into music. Although my parents arranged proper guitar lessons for me, I found the structure and formality off-putting.”

Around the age of 14 Joe saved up the £39 needed to buy his first bass guitar. He is essentially self-taught, and developed his own musical style combining his many influences.

Joe progressed to playing local gigs with friends, whilst working as a builder’s labourer during the day. His first band Freefall played gigs at the ‘Dublin Castle’ in Camden, with Madness (before they became famous) as the support act.

“Practice wasn’t an effort. If the music moves your heart then the discipline follows effortlessly, which is what happened to me. I just used to enjoy playing along to other people’s songs, and spent many happy hours doing this. At this stage singing and songwriting were not on my mind at all”

At the same time some of Joe’s older brothers friends had bought an old Decca studio, and he used to this to gain experience of recording demos.

Becoming a songwriter

"There are less deals and fewer advances, but musicians can release music on iTunes for virtually nothing.”

Playing gigs and recording music meant that Joe was starting to make contacts in the music industry.

Through friends he heard that the post-punk band Scritti Politti were looking for a bass player.

“I played bass on Scritti Politti’s first album, did a few gigs with them and also recorded at the BBC’s recording studio in Maida Vale. Up until now I had not paid too much attention to the lyrics of songs, but this was soon to change.”

Joe started working with Reebop Kwaku Bahh, who later died very unexpectedly. His music and philosophy had an immense impact on Joe’s own work, which was becoming freer and more experimental.

“On the day that Reebop died I went for a walk trying to make some sense of what had happened. During my walk the lyrics and melody for a song just came into my mind. I dashed into a nearby newsagent to buy a pen and paper to write it down. This event marked a significant change in my life, which was both exciting and scary at the same time.”

Success as a singer-songwriter

Joe was still playing bass and touring with artists such as Ian Dury, but soon he had moved out of London to Brighton and was living quite a solitary life. This provided the necessary mental space for Joe’s song writing to develop, which he did with the help of a four-track portable home recording studio.

“After writing and producing seven songs for a girl-band (which did not get very far), I was approached by the music publisher John Stirling. He had heard my music and offered me a publishing deal worth several thousand pounds. At this stage I decided to turn this down, instead asking John to become my manager as I wanted to become an artist/producer.”

With John’s support Joe’s songwriting improved, and he soon secured a huge deal with Arista records. Joe recorded his first solo album at the Virgin-owned Manor Studios in Oxfordshire, aged 26.

“I was really thrown in at the deep end. I wrote all the tracks, sang the vocals and played virtually every instrument."

Joe went on to successfully record and work with various musicians over the coming years, including Marianne Faithful, Aswad, Hall and Oates and Leona Lewis.

New challenges for songwriters

“Practice isn’t an effort. If the music moves your heart, then the discipline follows effortlessly."

Like many musicians Joe now works from a well-equipped recording studio in his own home, using Logic Pro' software on a Mac.

“No-one wants to allocate money for recording studios these days so it’s tough out there for songwriters. Having your own high-quality recording equipment is essential.

"The lines between songwriter, artist, producer, publisher and record company are becoming increasingly blurred. This means there are less deals and fewer advances, but musicians can release music on iTunes for virtually nothing.”

Joe also uses social networking sites for publicity, as well as his own website where people can download his music.

“The poor quality of MP3 downloads on the internet is disheartening. I am hoping this will improve to benefit everyone. My latest album will be available as a CD.”

Inspiration for songwriting

You won’t always find Joe writing songs in his studio. Some days he might prefer to sit by the fire or in a sunny spot in his house. Joe writes songs using a guitar if he is at home, or with a piano if with his co-writer Matteo Saggese.

“I am not a trained musician as such, and tend to imagine new songs visually, like a painting, always drawing on emotions. The melody usually comes first, and then the lyrics arrive after this.

"It is important to enable the space for this to happen. I always start each day with a time of meditation, which enables me to connect with my inner self and the larger universal space. Strolls in the park or some yoga practice also benefit the creative process for me.”

Advice for aspiring songwriters

  • If you love songwriting then go for it, but don’t let money be your driving force
  • Listen to advice from other people, hear what they say and then work out your own route. Enjoy the journey, as the destination is not guaranteed.
  • Try to write lyrics with a simple message and universal appeal that speak to a broad range of people. You need to listen for that internal 'click' when something feels right to you.

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