COMPOSER PROFILE Debbie Kruger
Australia has no Nashville. Sydney had no Brill Building. The notion of a songwriter who does not perform is less common here than in the United States. But Australia is indeed producing a new breed of writers who are content to stay behind the scenes, and Paul Begaud is an example of success at its most unassuming.
Human Nature and Leah Haywood are two of his ongoing projects in Australia, while on the international front Begaud has topped the US country charts and had his songs chart high in the UK, Germany and Asia. Not just a songwriter, Begaud is a producer, artist developer and, although he doesn’t want to promote the fact, an accomplished singer and dancer, too.
Not surprising, then, that his biggest career influence has been Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, in Begaud’s opinion the consummate pop and R&B artist and craftsman.
He’s never met Babyface, but he saw him once in a swish Los Angeles restaurant. "He was there with Gwynneth Paltrow. And all these people were going, ‘Oh it’s Gwyneth Paltrow! It’s Gwyneth Paltrow!’ And I’m going, ‘It’s Babyface! It’s Babyface!’ I mean, he’s famous, but a lot of people don’t know who he is, don’t recognise him.?
That’s the way Begaud likes it for himself. He began his career as a performer, recruited into a talent school when he was just 12, learning every facet of live performing, entertaining in clubs and shopping malls until he was 17. "I really learned discipline at that school," says Begaud. "I learned very early on that it was a business as well as great fun."
At the school the students also recorded, and it didn’t take long for the teenage Begaud to realise his true vocation. Co-founder of the school, Greg Anderson, invited Begaud to play around in his eight-track studio.
"At that time it was pretty flashy," Begaud says. "I was allowed free reign in there, to work on my demos and learn about studios. I was always asking questions. None of the other students really had an interest in the recording studio, but I always liked to be in the control room, and just being around Greg, learning what he did, that’s really where I got my basic training."
He also took a key step at the age of 16, enrolling in a songwriting course. "It was run by Mike Harvey, in a terrace house in North Sydney. I would really urge people to do something like that. Mike was great because he really taught me structure of songs, and I think, when I listen to demos of young songwriters, usually the thing that’s lacking is structure. I definitely lacked structure when I was young, too, and Mike, through his course, really taught me the basic structure of a song, the intro, the verse, the chorus."
Begaud had started writing when he was 15, his first composition entitled "How can I let you know that I love you?" His songwriting technique has stayed the same since then. "It’s always been me kind of playing chords on the guitar and humming melodies over the top, and then fitting words to it later. I’d say 99.9% of my songwriting is done that way. But back then also keyboards were getting popular, and the whole drum machine thing, so I was very interested in the fact that I could program everything on a sequencer. I had a little MC500, a Roland sequencer, and I worked on that and taught myself how to get all the sounds. It was all new technology and it was good fun."
When he left the talent school, Begaud took the performing route, signing a record deal, recording an album in Los Angeles, and touring in Europe. But the experience led him to believe that he was meant to take another direction. "The reason I got into production was because I didn’t like the production on my album. It was very Euro, very soft, and I was told literally to sit in the corner and sing when I was told."
This despite the fact that the songs on his album were all his. "I went to LA, wrote with a group of writers and came up with these songs, and I had some of my own already. The experience was extremely interesting for me, but it was also pretty weird as he was a very unusual producer. I think that it’s such an emotional thing, singing, and I don’t think he had the psychology down that well. That’s helped me later, though, when I’m producing, to understand the whole psyche behind what that’s all about."
The album was called Forevermore. "It should have been called Never More," says Begaud.
Back home in Sydney and released from his record deal, Begaud started looking for a new project. Graham Thompson, then with Rondor, approached him. "He said, ‘I’ve got this tape, a couple of songs, a four-boy group called The Four Tracks. Have a listen and see what you think.’ I thought the songs were really good so I said I’d produce a demo for them. So they came over and knocked on the door, and they later told me that when I answered the door they were about to say, is your father home? They didn’t realise I was so young. We still laugh about that today."
Begaud was the same age as the members of The Four Tracks, who later renamed themselves Human Nature. They all worked together for a year, developing and writing songs. Given the opportunity to produce them for their first album, Begaud was in his element.
"Initially the whole Human Nature thing was my first project and it was successful, so that was the turning point for me. And then I met Vanessa Corish and we started writing together. She had a deal with a record label and that took us to America. We lived there for six months, and made trips to Nashville, and that was the point where the world really kind of opened up.
"At the time of Human Nature I was so into pop music, and that was all I did and that was my thinking. But Vanessa is more into rock and eclectic artists, and that’s the beauty of co-writing, people can open you up to different things and you can stretch yourself."
Together Corish and Begaud have worked with established American writers such as JD Martin, Wayne Kirkpatrick, Andy Goldmark and Sharon Vaughn. Their songs have now been cut by Terri Clark and Wynonna among others. Their hit for Terri Clark, "Now That I Found You," went to number one on the US country chart.
"It was amazing, we were just watching it go up the charts every week and it was a real slow rise, which are the best ones. The day we found out, we were writing, and we came back to our hotel and there was a voicemail from the MCA office in Nashville, saying, ‘Hi y’all, just rang to tell you you got the number one record in the country!’ We jumped up and down for about 30 seconds and then we said, oh well, we’d better to get the groceries. It was a great moment, but I think we’ve always done that, we’ve had this excitement for 30 seconds and then we go, cool, now what?"
BMI gave Begaud a One Million Air award for the song. "I just can’t believe I got that award. I just can’t fathom that it would have been played that much."
He went on to have "End of the Line" recorded by the Honeyz, hitting number one on the UK R&B chart and number five on the UK pop chart. And while international success is always a motivation, Begaud is still equally committed to his work in Australia. His association with Human Nature has continued (their vast repertoire of hits include "Last To Know," "Don’t Say Goodbye" and "Counting Down"), and more recently he discovered and developed Leah Haywood. He and Corish are now writing with Tina Arena and Begaud has plans to write with the Rockmelons this year.
And last year, a collaboration between Begaud, Corish and US writer Wayne Tester resulted in the Olympic Games song "Dare to Dream," performed at the opening ceremony by Olivia Newton John and John Farnham. "You can’t really get a bigger song," Begaud says proudly. "It was a very proud moment. And the audience 4.5 billion people heard it!"
Still working by the lessons he learned from Mike Harvey’s songwriting course when he was 16, Begaud rejects the view that his writing might lean towards the formulaic. "I don’t consciously think of the formula behind it, but because I’ve chosen to be a pop songwriter, then I think the formula is actually an important part of what I do. Formula is a bad word I prefer structure. Because formula sounds like it’s formulated, and I don’t really think that’s the case, it’s not what I’m after. But the structure works for me, and I enjoy the chorus, the hook coming in every time."
Nor does he feel that his writing is tailored to any current trends. "I don’t really think about the current market. I just try and write good songs. If it has structure, then great. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but it just so happens that a lot of what I do does tend to have that structure, and I would assume it’s because I’ve put in place in my mind that that is how I come up with a song."