Throughout 2020, many of us have spent even more time than usual glued to our televisions, binging on boxsets and Netflix shows. And if those have shows have included the likes of Ozark or Selling Sunset, you may not realise it but you’ve already heard the compositional talents of UK-based songwriter, producer and vintage guitar aficionado Giles Palmer.
Palmer already had a rich and diverse session career before setting up his own studio and turning his hand to songwriting for TV. From touring the USA at the age of just 21, he went on to share stages with the likes of Smash Mouth, Train and Destiny’s Child, and feature on sessions, festival stages and TV and radio appearances with Kylie Minogue, All Saints, Dido, Kelly Clarkson, Neil Diamond, Paul McCartney and plenty more besides.
Encircled by a magnificent array of vintage instruments, we sat down with Giles in his studio in Bridport, Dorset to find out why golden-era gear is the key ingredient to his songwriting process and production workflow – both as essential tools and architects of inspiration.
How would you describe your job?
“I write and produce songs that get used on TV, be it a soundtrack, a TV series, reality TV or an advert. It’s all songwriting to fit a requested genre. Songs have to sound familiar yet be totally original. There can be no plagiarism, that’s such a massive thing these days.
“Everything we do has a vocal, a great melody, and complete production that we pretty much do in-house. It’s a wide range of genres, everything from really current pop to recreating retro soul tracks, country, old rock ’n’ roll or even punk.
“We’re given quite a tight brief by a production company to create a couple of finished songs so they can put together an album of that type of material. You have to be able to distill the essence of a particular artist or genre, then recreate it.”
Do you collaborate with other musicians?
“I work with a longtime collaborator called Rupert Pope. We have different skillset and complement each other’s abilities well. We do pretty much all of it in-house. I do lots of top line melody, guitar, bass and lyrics, he’s more piano, strings, production. Combined together, we then get in a great singer and we’ve got pretty much everything you need.
“We’ll sometimes get extra live musicians in to expand tracks if needed, increasingly remotely over the internet – live string and brass sections, drummers. If it’s a modern pop track you don’t really need a live drummer, drums can be programmed. If it’s something live with more retro vibe – we did some country stuff recently – it’s got to all be live musicians. People still want that and you can still hear the difference.”
How does your process work?
“Writing songs for a music publishing company is different to say, scoring to picture. Increasingly I believe it can be a better way to work, because one track can be used multiple times, a track might get used in a TV advert and then in a film or Netflix or TV show at a later date. If you are writing a score for a specific show then that’s the only time it gets used. If it’s a big, prestigious show then that’s great but I find it suits me better to write and create complete songs that can be used many times.
“Firstly I create a playlist of songs in whatever genre is required. I study lyrics, themes and imagery, and take lots of detailed notes of chord progressions, lyrical plot lines, styles, dynamics, structures, format. Just break down all the elements, you’ve got to do your homework!”
Having such an eclectic musical background must help?
“Yeah that’s where the session past comes in, I think. Prior to this I had 10 years as a session musician, which really prepares you for that you have to be able to deliver different styles under pressure quickly and efficiently.”
What TV work have you been involved in recently?
“Lots of Netflix stuff recently, shows like Ozark, the reality stuff like Selling Sunset, Love Island, all the stuff my kids watch! Kids stuff like CBBC, movies, trailers, adverts. The whole Netflix revolution has been great, so much content being produced. One of the production companies we work with are over in LA and they are looking for original stuff all the time.”
Do you find that international collaborations are on the increase?
“Yes, with the internet, you can collaborate with anyone in any part of the world. I don’t think publishing companies or TV companies mind where you work or live in the world as long as you can deliver the finished product.
“The vintage stuff inspires me to write. Not only is vintage gear crucial to getting those era-accurate tones but it’s my main source of song inspiration”
“We deal with people in LA all the time, people in the UK. We often work with singers out in Nashville, which is great because you can just do it all online. I can record in my studio, send it off to them, they record a part then send it back. It’s a great way to work, cost effective and you don’t have to fly to Nashville to hire a big studio!”
Has the pandemic had any impact on your work?
“As far as self-isolation goes, as a studio musician I’m ahead of the curve anyway! A lot of the stuff we do ends up on reality TV, and because Netflix and Amazon haven’t been able to create that sort of content during the pandemic then there will be a negative effect on income revenue streams next year.”
How important is recreating the particular sonic identity of a genre or artist?
“Absolutely essential. And that’s where the vintage guitars really excel. If you use the right gear, the gear that’s actually used on the original records, that’s just what it sounds like. If you use a 1961 Gretsch through a vintage Deluxe Reverb it’s going to make that sound that you’ve heard on the radio a thousand times. Whether people know it or not, they immediately identify subconsciously that it sounds like something from that era.
“My 1961 Gretsch 6120 would probably be my desert island guitar. It’s so atmospheric, the way it sustains and vibrates. The Bigsby is perfect. Everything about it just works and it shouldn’t, because it’s really been through the mill. It’s sustained some fire damage on the back, a total warhorse, but it sounds great on everything!
“I never thought I’d actually own one of these. I still stare at it in wonder. I stupidly sold it once. I immediately realised what I done as I walked away from the sale at Kings Cross station. I wanted to run after the guy and beg for it back. Then about a year later I saw it come back up for sale, so I grabbed it! I think it was meant to be.”
Do you find that vintage gear helps inspires your writing or performance?
“The vintage stuff inspires me to write. Not only are they crucial to getting those era-accurate tones for the songs, but are my main sources of song inspiration. They are all different and make you play differently they make you think differently. It’s just the sound. Right tool for the job.
“My 1966 Fender Deluxe Reverb is my favourite amp. It’s instant guitar heaven and just makes anything you plug in to it sing and sound like the old records. The reverb and tremolo are sublime.
“There is a reason why records sound like they do. Obviously, there’s the human element of who’s playing it but also the actual gear they used. If you are trying to recreate that you’ve got to use that gear and recreate that signal path. I find this can set you apart from other people and give your work a professional polish.”
What are some of your most-used guitars for writing and recording?
“I write a lot on acoustic and my 1966 Epiphone Frontier Acoustic with the cactus and ropes pickguard just puts me in mind of the Stones, Gram Parsons, Noel Gallagher. It’s more like a Hummingdove, rather than a Hummingbird. I went to buy a Hummingbird but played this and just loved it. It transports you back in time. Records wonderfully for woody percussive strumming.
“My TV Yellow double-cut Junior from 1960 is just Keith Richards, Johnny Thunders, Mick Jones from The Clash, Steve Diggle from The Buzzcocks. Probably the coolest guitar ever made! It’s hard to find them in good condition, especially in the UK. I suspect a lot of them got trashed in punk bands back in the day!
“Also my rare 1959 Epiphone Coronet in factory black. It’s like the lovechild of a 1950s Fender Esquire and a Les Paul Junior. Perfect chunky V-neck, lightweight mahogany body like a double-cut Tele shape. The design is totally bonkers and absolutely perfect in equal measure. I’d seen a few pictures of these and always thought they looked so cool. Super rare, only around 200 made in 1959. When one came up for sale in the UK I had to go and have a look.
”If it’s a rock session then the Junior and the Coronet are just awesome. We did some punk stuff a few years ago and the Junior was fantastic for that. It’s like the ultimate prop isn’t it? They really put you in the zone. You are using the very thing that they were using back in the day. I’ve got a couple of rare early 1970s Marshall Lead & Bass combos which complement them perfectly. They are quite rare – they made these in 2×10 combo form for mail order only I believe. I’ve only seen a few others. I bought these as a pair about 10 years ago. Very glassy and three-dimensional sounding, awesome clean and they crunch up beautifully.”
Are there any downsides of recording with vintage guitars?
“Physically, there are certain things you can’t do on certain vintage guitars, but the constraints of that are actually really good for creativity. They can sometimes force you to think or approach parts differently, maybe even play less or a different style. Sometimes you don’t want something that’s the slickest, most playable thing in the world. As long as you set them up right and sort the intonation out, I find them totally inspiring and useful tools.”
So you’ll be using vintage guitars for the foreseeable future?
“I just find them so inspiring. Vintage electric guitars don’t even have to be plugged in to be inspiring. It’s just the escapism, the vibe and the history. When being creative, escapism is hugely important. If I pick up a really beaten up old Fender Esquire like my 1956 blonde model, ideas just appear. It’s amazing for anything from Stones to country tracks. Just the right sized neck, slight V, chunky but not too big.
“My mind just turns to who might have played it, what gigs it has done, where it’s been… That switches your mind off and that’s the place where creative ideas happen. All of a sudden, you’re playing a melody and it’s like, ‘That’s good’. And then its go! Get everything down in a voice note app as fast as you can!”
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“The 1966 Gibson ES-335TD is really versatile in the studio driven or clean. You can get the Clapton Cream thing out of this and so much more, right up to modern Foo Fighters type stuff. I do sometimes have to lay a cloth over the trapeze bridge to mute some unwanted harmonics but it’s super easy to do. The patent number pickups in it sound brilliant. They are a darn sight cheaper than a 1964 ES-335 model too!”
Hofner 500/1 bass
“This 1964 Hofner 500/1 is the best bass I own and gets used on loads of stuff. When you get it out people are like, ‘Are you sure?’, ’cause it looks kind of small and flimsy but when you plug it in it sounds huge and warm. I bought it blind in an auction. When I went to pick it up from a very posh area in Surrey, the auctioneer told me it was an estate sale and had belonged to a famous EMI record executive – but he wasn’t allowed to say who!”
1957 Fender Musicmaster aka Ron
Giles’ 1957 Fender Musicmaster (recently featured in the mag before he bought it from ATB Guitars, where Giles sources a lot of his vintage instruments) is another favourite: “I’d love to know who Ron was! This was probably one hell of a birthday or Christmas present for him in 1957. What’s incredible is how beautifully it’s made. The V-neck feels amazing. They didn’t scrimp on the level of workmanship on these student instruments. It’s very playable even with the short scale.”
1967 Fender Coronado
“Apart from the super-rare Tuxedo Telecaster, my Olympic White 1967 Fender Coronado is probably the only other Fender of the era that you will find with an Olympic White finish and black binding. I purchased it from the band Two Door Cinema Club. It was described as in quite poor condition but it just needed a really good clean – it’s actually virtually mint now! A very reasonably priced way to get a 1960s custom colour Fender. The DeArmond pickups sound really sweet and great for a different texture in a studio track.
1969 Hofner 176
“Jamie Hince from The Kills gets a great sound with one. I saw an interview with him talking about these. You’ve got to get the one with the blade pickups. Amazing sounding guitar for interesting parts!”
1966 Fender Stratocaster
“For tracking anything pop it’s hard to beat my 1966 sunburst Fender Stratocaster. I’ve tried so many vintage Strats from different years and I haven’t found a better one. I just love the look of the big headstock. Duane Allman is pictured playing a similar one in a recording session for Wilson Pickett.”
1968 Telecaster with Bigsby
“My 1968 black Telecaster with the Bigsby gets a lot of use too. It still has the nitro neck and body finish in 1968 and the Bigsby just opens up the Tele to a whole new world of possibilities. The maple cap necks have such a unique sound too, a real snap to them. A custom-colour black Fender was still a pretty rare thing to see in 1968.”