Sam Hawksley, the evil genius behind Song Club
Sam Hawksley does not look like the dragon master, the relentless driver, the ringleader of a circle which exists to make innocent workers grind away 365 days a year on penalty of expulsion, excommunication, and for all we know, a lifetime in Dante’s seventh circle of hell - house band of a revived Hey Hey It’s Saturday.
The benign face beneath the full beard notwithstanding, Hawksley, a songwriter, producer, singer and musician for hire, is the driving force behind Song Club (Australian chapter), and he’s proud of its kinkiness.
Song Club? As we recently discovered when members/refugees/escapees Felicity Urquhart and Josh Cunningham released an album by that name, this is a club which demands of its songwriting members that they contribute a new song every week, posted to the group for everyone to hear.
Song Club isn’t short term either, or dependent on the eight to ten writers in it at any one time. While you can leave, it will go on. “Song Club never stops,” says Hawksley with what might well be an evil laugh that comes from holding a long waiting list of hopeful members.
The rules are simple, if devilish. Each week Hawksley offers a prompt that can be an inspiration or a starting point or the whole point of the song – a word, a phrase, maybe even a line – and by the end of Thursday each member of the Club must submit a recording of this new song. No cheating by pulling something from backup files/bottom drawer, no sneaking in a co-write, no excuses, and one “hall pass” if they miss a deadline, before being asked to take their acoustic guitar with them on the long walk out for missing again.
“I liken it to being like if you play soccer,” says Hawksley from his home in Nashville, where he’s lived for 11 years, though the accent is still pure Australian (“Well I moved here when I was 40 so I wasn’t going to bang on an American accent,” he says indignantly.)
“You have soccer practice Tuesday night and because you’re part of a team you turn up every Tuesday night and run the drills and all of that, so that you are ready for the game. It’s a little bit like that with the songwriting thing: having to do it every week and not sitting around going ‘om … hit me divine inspiration’. It’s ‘here’s a prompt - last week it was sugar high – [start writing]’.”
The prompt the week we speak was “dirty lonely” and the night after the interview, Hawksley sat down and wrote a song as he digested the news that the Australian Government was likely to keep him out of the country until 2022. Here’s an extract: “I ain’t been home/Since I can’t remember/And I won’t see it any time soon/It seems the distance/Is just too far/So It may as well be the moon …Maybe someday/I’ll find my way/There into the light/But now I’m just lonely and/dirty at the world tonight.”
So it works then? Well, Urquhart and Cunningham’s album (not to mention their developing relationship), and a coming one from songwriter/producer Shane Nicholson which also pulls in some Song Club efforts, suggests it isn’t a waste of time. And that’s just the ones we’ve seen so far.
In fact, Urquhart described the imperative to file as a great motivator, saying that “there’s nothing like seeing that red circle in the diary, knowing I had to deliver something by midnight every Thursday”. Fear or potential embarrassment can be great spurs.
“It works great when everybody writes around that prompt, and you get to see to see how people’s brains work,” Hawksley says. “Some people use it as a line, some people go all in and make sugar high the chorus, whatever people’s different twists and takes on that idea.”
It's fitting that Urquhart and Nicholson are the most visible members of the club. One of their links with Hawksley, the guitarist Glen Hannah - who was married to Urquhart and a close friend of the two men - was a significant part of the motivation behind its formation.
Hawksley had been part of a song club in Nashville for about 18 months when the news that Hannah had taken his own life spread through the Australian country community in early 2019.
“With Glenn checking out on us I realised that I didn’t know he was not doing well, so maybe I need to check in with my friends more, and have more of a community with those folks. That was part of the reason,” says Hawksley. “Songwriters will tell you that not everything is autobiographical, and sure, it’s not, but sometimes it’s like [they] write a song and you just go, hey is everything okay? How are you going?”Keeping connected was a starter, but keeping inspired is the driver, whether you’re an old songwriting hand or a new kid on the block like Clancy Pye, who Hawksley was keen to see involved so that she could not just push herself each week but benefit from seeing up close the work of, and feedback from, more experienced writers. She joined at the end of January 2020, is still in it, “and every week her songs get better and better and better”.
Hawksley is making full use of the club – or clubs - too. His own schedule involves a song on Monday or Tuesday night, “after I put my daughter to bed”, with his Nashville Song Club deadline of Tuesday night and his Australian song club deadline of Thursday night – both using the one prompt. Sensibly, he submits the same song to both.
“No, that’s not cheating,” he insists when I query it as maybe playing for two teams. “I let the prompt float around my brain for a few days before I did again. Every now and again it’ll be a Friday and I go ‘oh, I’ve got it’ and run upstairs into the studio and crank something out.”
Rather than haphazard performance, these acts of “keeping that creative muscle flexed” are actually all about discipline and craft. Something like the songwriting hubs at publishing houses all over Nashville where creativity is not just monetised but “manufacturised”, except this time without the forced corporatisation of that city’s Music Row.
“[Song Club] pushes you to be a little more in the moment. Like I said before, not waiting for some divine intervention. It’s a little more craftsman-like, getting the germ of an idea and going at it, letting the ideas flow out before you get too critical because you don’t really have time to do that,” Hawksley says. “Having a prompt is just like knowing where you are headed, rather than sitting there with an acoustic guitar strumming and seeing what ideas come out.”
And if you’re wondering how Hawksley manages to contribute to two and run one club all year while also operating a professional career and a personal life with a wife and daughter? “I just don’t think it’s a big ask”.
“This is what I do, I’m a musician. There are people here in town, like [Australian] Phil Barton who I went to university with, who will write two songs a day with people, 365 days a year, and not crack a sweat,” Hawksley says. “So don’t really think it’s a huge ask to have people write one song a week. I don’t really see it as being a huge challenge.
“And you’re not getting a grade, it’s just showing up.”