Tips of the Trade: Dance Music with Amba Shepherd
Amba Shepherd knows a thing or two about working in dance and electronic. As a topline writer and singer she's collaborated with the likes of Hardwell, Tiesto and Afrojack and has just signed a management and agency deal with Ministry of Sound Australia. She recently spoke at our Dance Music Connect meeting in Sydney and here she shares some tips on making music that gets the blood pumping on the dance floor.
What do you see as the key ingredients of a killer dance track?
For me it has to be musically intelligent. It has to have movement and dynamics in the chord structure, combined with an unforgettable melodic hook somewhere. Whether that’s instrumental or vocal, it needs to have a power and energy in it.
Dance music is about feeling a connection in the moment at the festival or club. It’s like a tidal wave when the bass and the beat and the vocal all combine along the journey of an epic track. It’s really about mind-blowing production, incredible songwriting and a vocal that really speaks.
You’ve collaborated with a lot of producers and artists over the years. What have you learned about creative collaboration in dance and club music?
It’s a very personal thing - every artist or songwriter has a different approach. For me, being that I write topline melody and lyrics, I need to feel an instant connection to the track. I have to have a reaction that basically makes me want to drop everything I am doing and go work on it right away. Without that, I find I am usually forcing my way through it, trying to come up with a line. It’s always possible, but it’s never my best work. So I try and avoid working on a project unless I am really dying to.
Also it really helps to have a great personal connection with the other artist - that energetic click so you know that beyond the creation of the song, you’re going to ‘get’ each other and the release process also. One of the things I find hardest is getting other people to produce my vocals. So I mostly do that myself because in my experience, there aren’t many producers who really understand the energy, finesse and time required to give not only a good vocal performance but a great one. It’s not impossible though! There is one producer who I have to mention at this point - Philippe-Marc Anquetil. He is the best vocal producer I have ever worked with.
Earlier on in your career, how did you go about finding producers and other people in the dance music scene to work with?
My first release was in 2010 with Nick Galea (‘I Believe on One Love’). Nick and I literally found each other on MySpace. We were just like, “Hey wanna collab?” That track did really well! So I was really lucky.
Right after that I went on a self-funded songwriting trip to Stockholm that led to a record coming out in Spain in early 2011 (‘Black & White’ with Joan Reyes on Fresco Records). It got the attention of a lot of big record labels like Armada and Cloud 9 in Holland, Island Def Jam in the US and artist Porter Robinson who I collaborated with a couple months later. From there it’s been one giant snowball and it hasn’t stopped.
Networking is an essential part of what I do. Every year since 2013 I go on seven to eight trips to Europe and the United States for events like Miami Music Week, or Amsterdam Dance Event, which I will add are all self-funded. I have a burning desire to meet everyone and pick their creative brains!
I really love meeting everyone - label bosses, publishers, the most successful artists and artist managers in the world, promoters, DJs, producers, publicity, event producers. Plus it’s the best way to find out who you are a good match to work with. In terms of tips, I would only say find out where you need to be and who you want to work with and reach out. Don’t be afraid to approach people and just be yourself.
Tell us about your creative process
I usually write topline over tracks that are almost fully finished. I need them to be fully finished so that I can really feel what the producer is trying to communicate through the music. That way I can work out what my contribution is going to be and how my vocal can really add something.
I never set myself a certain amount of time to finish an idea because forcing ideas can cause blocks. But I do work 24/7 so I’m always on. I’ll usually start with melody - that’s pretty instant. Then I work out the lyrics to fit around the melody.
I don’t really experience writer’s block. I have days where I hate everything I write but I have learned to accept it as part of the ebbs and flows of writing. Sometimes it’s super easy and other times you have to write loads of rubbish to get through to the good stuff. It’s not good or bad, right or wrong – it is just part of the process. I think being comfortable with that is really important.
You also have experience writing pop and rock songs. What advice would you give to budding songwriters from other genres wanting to get into the electronic/dance/club music scene?
I used to write pop/rock but stopped because it was really soul destroying to be honest - pitching songs and seeing other artists destroy my work. I realise that sounds terribly diva, but there are some really bad artists signed to major labels and I have no idea how. I bring it up because the pitching system that publishers and labels run, it really affected me and I think it’s really bad for creativity. Obviously I only speak for myself, but it’s totally beyond me how it’s relevant to hash out songs day after day like a factory - songs that someone else wants you to write to sound “sort of but not exactly like” another song that already exists. How that’s going to result in music that affects anyone or makes any real meaningful contribution to the world, is totally beyond me.
That aside, songwriters that want to get into electronic/dance music could look for an artist such as a vocalist to align themselves with and seek out collaborations with producers that they love. I think there is so much room for cross genre collaborations and that’s something to really take advantage of right now. They could also approach DJs and producers with finished songs and turn them into collaborations that way.
How can dance/electronic/club music makers make the most of their APRA AMCOS membership?
APRA AMCOS is seriously such an amazing organisation. There are so many benefits - the main ones being royalty collection and getting to meet so many amazing creative people (writers/publishers/music people) through all the events they hold throughout the year and online too!
My advice is to go to all the events. They are so well run and super relevant in my opinion. All the guys at APRA AMCOS are genuinely interested in helping songwriters succeed and creating connections wherever possible which I think is really amazing.