Natalie Shay on Writing Songs in a Changing Music Industry
NATALIE SHAY, an indie pop artist and guitarist from London, shares her experiences as a female singer-songwriter and provides some tips for young newcomers looking to break into the music industry.
When did you discover your spark for music and songwriting?
Music and performance have always been a really big part of my life. From the age of five, I learned how to play classical guitar and began training in musical theater. I remember the very first time I heard Taylor Swift – I was in complete awe of her ability to narrate through lyric and song. I switched to an acoustic guitar and began to write my own songs. As I was only 11 years old at the time, the songs were mostly about movie stars I admired, but I knew then that I wanted to continue writing songs and develop my music.
At just 22, you've achieved a lot of success. Where did your career begin?
Nine years ago, I entered a performance contest in London called GIGS: Big Busk. This was the first time I had ever performed my original music outside of school concerts, and there I was, playing to the streets of London. It was all very new to me and I’m so glad I took part. Not only because I went on to win the contest that year, but I also met lots of other talented musicians, many of whom I still work with regularly to this day. But crucially, I found the self-confidence that I needed to continue.
The following year I was lucky enough to be accepted to The BRIT School. I spent four years studying music alongside regularly gigging, performing or recording after school and on weekends. Within just over a year, I had I won the London Music Award for ‘Best Undiscovered Talent,’ The Guardian’s ‘Future Music Award’ and released my first independent single, ‘Follow You Home.’
BRIT was such a unique experience. I got to play so many amazing shows and it allowed me to work with a vast array of people and try out new things and I think all of this played such a huge part in my development as an artist and more so my understanding of the music industry.
Tell us about your approach to songwriting.
I have always felt that my songs capture the exact headspace I experienced at different times of my life. By listening to them, I totally feel I can revisit exactly how I was thinking at the time of writing. I’ve always used creativity as my main emotional release. I tend not to write unless I'm 'feeling something,’ but whenever I am, I always have something to write!
During my time at BRIT, I explored a number of things that were outside of my comfort zone – the biggest challenge being co-writes. As someone who had only ever written alone in her room (usually whilst crying) on an acoustic guitar, it was a very different world to enter writing songs with other people. But I’m so very glad I did.
I honestly think that the number of talented and varied writers and producers I've worked with over the years has had the biggest impact on me finding my own sound. I quickly learned what I didn’t like from sessions that didn’t work so well, but the ones that did have all positively influenced my journey towards finding who I currently think I am as an artist.
A highly important topic, tell us more about your experience as a young female singer-songwriter and guitarist in the music industry today.
The first year after graduating from BRIT was probably the toughest so far in my career. Although I had already achieved so much, I wasn’t quite ready to make music a full-time gig (pardon the pun!) However, this was also around the time I became more aware of a shift in industry attitudes towards women in music.
The relative imbalance in representation of female artists across lineups and the general lack of presence and support for female producers and instrumentalists was finally becoming something that people were talking about and, more importantly, questioning. It made me notice for the first time ways in which being a ‘female solo artist with a guitar’ had perhaps not worked in my favor in the past. From 80-90 percent male heavy line ups on a majority of shows I had ever played; and the fact, as a female, I was always on first followed by a male artist. There’s still so much more work to be done here, and I know so many incredible people actively pushing to change this gender bias.
I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved over the past couple of years. I’ve done some really cool things that I never ever imagined I would do; from being a writer/vocalist on dance tracks to being on the UK Jury for the Eurovision Song Contest in 2018. In early 2019, I released a track entitled ‘Yesterday’, which premiered on Billboard magazine and featured on nine Spotify New Music Friday playlists! Soon after the release I played my first sold-out headline show at the Thousand Island (now The Grace) venue in London.
What's been going on musically for you over the past year?
I released another track that summer called ‘People Like Me’, which talks about my experience in the industry tied with my general attitude to social media. Here’s one key piece of advice I want to share with any artist: you can’t compare your behind the scenes to someone’s highlight reel.
2020 finally saw the drop of my debut EP, NAKED. It’s been a strange and abnormal year to be releasing an EP, and I had to threw a lot of my prior knowledge and experience of releasing out the window. But I’m very happy with the EP and I think it captures exactly who the 20-year-old Natalie Shay was as an artist. I was lucky to work with such a perfect team on the whole project and I’m itching to release more in 2021! With every release, milestone and collaboration I continue to learn more and develop as an artist and writer. However, this year, I’ve mostly learned about myself as a person. I am more of a woman than I ever have been, a better friend and closer to the things I know are important; and I’m excited to write music from this new (almost) adult perspective I have on life, but most of all… me :)
Social media can make you feel like you’re ‘not doing enough’ or that ‘everyone is doing better than you.’ Every artist has their own path; it is not a race. Focus on your music and stay true to you.
Check out more LOUDER posts on the art of songwriting for more tips and inspiration from young songwriters.
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