The 12th and final SongHubs for 2018 and the first to ever take place in South America wrapped last week.
Electro-pop songwriter/producer/performer Chela and songwriter/singer/instrumentalist Jess Cornelius (aka the acclaimed Teeth & Tongue) were selected to fly to Brazil to work and play for three busy days at producer Dudu Borges’ state-of-the-art studios in São Paulo.
They both documented their experiences in the studio and on the streets of the busy, big and beautiful Sao Paulo.
Curated by none other than SOUNDS AUSTRALIA’S Export Music Producer Glenn Dickie, 16 songwriters and creatives from Australia and Brazil collaborated on new works, including Nick Weaver and Nic McKensie of Deep Sea Arcade, Alexander Biggs, producer Mitch Kelly and more.
Let Chela and Jess take you behind the scenes at SongHubs – São Paulo.
JESS: On the way in to São Paulo from the airport we drove past favelas stretching for miles and miles, then many more miles of crumbling high-rise housing crammed tightly amid rundown neighbourhoods. Further in, lush jungle seemed to sprout up uncontrolled around museums and government buildings.
In one surreal moment, our car was surrounded by acrid smoke billowing from burning tyres on the street, with shirtless kids and police on bicycles all trying to beat it out with pieces of clothing.
Mostly, though, I was struck by the green-ness, and as we neared the inner neighbourhoods the buildings and murals became more colourful.
JESS: The SIM São Paulo music conference was happening just before SongHubs, so we’d arrived a few days early. I got to play my first South American show at the SOUNDS AUSTRALIA AUSSIE BBQ (pictured), held on the rooftop of the São Paulo Cultural Centre.
Alexander Biggs and Deep Sea Arcade played as well, and the previous evening we’d all watched as Chela (Chelsea Wheatley) blew everyone away at the Australian night showcase.
CHELA: My first few days in São Paulo were spent enjoying performances and panels at SIM music festival and conference, before SongHubs began. This picture was taken by photographer Caroline Bittencourt who was on snap-duty at the AUSSIE BBQ on the rooftop of the event, which was in one of my favourite buildings – São Paulo Cultural Center, designed by architects Eurico Prado Lopes and Luiz Telles in the ’70s.
JESS: The night before SongHubs began, we all had dinner at a trattoria, maybe somewhere in the Villa Mariana or Paraiso area? I think we walked there.
Anyway, this is where we met all our sweet Brazilian co-writers. Here you can see Brazilian singer and topliner Samille Joker (left) with Deep Sea Arcade’s Nick Weaver, Alexander Biggs and Mitch Kenny (with Birdz in the background).
JESS: We were introduced to Dudu Borges’ studio for the first time, and it was INSANE. There were about five fully-equipped recording rooms, beautiful guitars hanging everywhere, a wall of synths, many over-the-top music-related knick-knacks and trimmings (the door handles were guitar headstocks, the light faders were guitar knobs, etc.) And it was all for us, for the next three days.
It was surreal, and felt a little bit intimidating, especially when we saw all the Grammy Awards lined up in the office.
CHELA: Not far from the bike wall was this wall of vintage synthesisers and keyboards, featuring some of my favourites – a Roland Gaia, a Juno, a Hammond and a Rhodes (the one I’m playing in this picture).
On this day I wrote my new favourite song ‘Dilemma’; starting with chords played on one of the studios beautiful keyboards.
At the studio there was also a collection of acoustic guitars with artistic features such as this Takamine. I am pulling what I like to call ‘sesh muso face’ here.
JESS: Glenn Dickie— SongHubs curator, organiser, mastermind and tour manager extraordinaire—announced our groups. I was to write with Joel Byrne (Wolf & Cub) and Brazilian artist Monica Agena, (pictured below) who performs in a band called Moxine.
We were all a little nervous, as no one in our particular group had really done anything like this before. Monica was to take on the production role, which she pretended not to be very well-practiced at, but she was a total gun at everything, especially playing funk bass and a very fast, arpeggiated Brazilian guitar style called guitarrada.
We started playing around with some chords on guitar and eventually, with much input from everyone, we had a bit of a chord progression and the makings of a melody. But rhythm-wise we were kind of stuck.
We had decided we wanted to write a song for a Brazilian soap opera (a VERY big deal for Brazilian musicians) and took Fleetwood Mac as our guide, since one of the biggest soaps had recently used ‘The Chain’ as its theme song.
But, as the day wore on and Glenn kept poking his head in reminding us that we not only had to write the song but also record it, we realised that, rhythm-wise, the song wasn’t cutting it. We couldn’t nail the energy.
By this time Joel had set up an acoustic drum kit and started playing a disco beat with 16th-note hats. Somehow what we’d already written fitted with the new vibe—and that was that.
Monica played an incredible funk bassline, Joel played guitar, I wrote some lyrics with input from the others that were partially political (very few Brazilians I met on this trip were happy with the new situation) but that could also be interpreted as the complaints of a confused and frustrated lover.
Against all odds, we finished it. We made a disco-rock song called ‘Losing My Head’, which we all ended up pretty happy with.
JESS: For the second day of ‘co-writing bootcamp’ I was paired with Celso Fonseca, a Latin Grammy-Nominated composer, guitarist and singer, and Lucas Silveira, a producer and singer from the popular Brazilian rock band Fresno. (I realised later that Lucas has 321,000 followers on Instagram. Brazil is a big place.)
Celso began with a sequence of guitar chords, very pretty and jazz-folk-trad sounding, and hummed a melody. I added a verse chord progression, and then we discussed turning it into something more upbeat. I tried the Funkbox drum machine app but it didn’t stick.
Lucas went to the computer and created a sort of heavy pop-rock bed track, and said he had a lyrical idea about ‘why did you wait so long?’. I turned that idea into some lyrics about a person who’s stuck in a stale relationship and is tempted by someone else.
We simplified the chords and Lucas wrote an extra verse in Portuguese. Glenn walked in and said something about the song suiting Kelly Clarkson, which made me laugh. It’s called ‘Stuck in a Rut’ and it may be the most commercial-style pop track I’ve ever worked on but it was fun.
Then, with one hour to go, we wrote a minimal folk ballad together, and recorded it live while people were filing in for dinner. Shhhh!
CHELA: I was very pleased to have stumbled upon Ai Weiwei’s ‘Forever Bicycles’ in Ibirapuera Park on an early morning stroll before my last day in the studio. So I decided to take a couple of snaps of myself in front of the masterpiece to prove that I was there.
JESS: On the final day I was teamed with Nick McKenzie, from Deep Sea Arcade, along with Brazilian singer and songwriter Samille Joker. Because Samille has written songs featured on Brazilian soaps (my dream! haha) I was keen to go down that path.
What we ended up with, though was quite different: a sort of Go-Betweens-slash-Blondie ode to Sao Paulo itself. It has a line in it about the lit-up buses that I saw one night on Paulista Avenue (pictured).
Once I’d recorded the English vocals, we did a whole other version, with Samille singing beautifully in Portuguese (entirely different lyrics with a different subject matter!) Samille only had about 30 minutes to finish her lyrics, fit them to the song and record them, and she nailed it.
CHELA: On my last day I wrote two songs with producers Los Brasileros and the exquisite Gloria Groove who is one of Brazil’s most treasured drag queens. We wrote a bombastic dance song in English and a slow jam in Portuguese. It was a hell of a time.
JESS: By the end of the writing day, everyone was super stressed out as everything had to be finished and bounced down, including all the songs we’d made on the previous days.
It was like a reality TV show where the contestants had to open a restaurant. Caterers were busy setting up for our cocktail-slash-listening party downstairs, and people are frantically doing vocal takes upstairs. Chela and I still got time to mess with keyboard sounds though.
We had a listening party which made everyone quite ecstatic I think. As a group we’d made 23 songs, and they were all pretty incredible, especially having each been written from scratch, arranged, recorded and produced in less than a day.
As each song played, the writers stood up and had their photo taken, like an awards ceremony. There was a lot of pop, R’n’B and Brazilian funk, so we ended up dancing through the final tracks. I wanted to hug everybody in the room, and I think I did, in the end.
My mind was blown and I was like, “What the hell just happened?” I was thinking, “Remember this because you’ll probably never do anything quite like it.”
Curator Glenn Dickie gets swarmed at the wrap party