In non-musical classroom settings, some students shudder at the thought of group projects, especially those who always end up tasked with most of the work. This is not the case in Neil Diercks’ Collaborative Songwriting course at Berklee Online, where group projects are welcome and have been the catalyst for numerous successful music partnerships. This includes a group comprised of students Danielle Collavino, Jamie Dickinson, and Billy Henry, who took Diercks’ course last year, and have decided to keep their remote songwriting dynamic going. Their first EP under the name Future Perfect Sound is out now.
“We’re different people from different parts of the world and we really just enjoy making music together,” says Danielle. “What’s really great is the fact that everyone has so many different skills. There’s such a versatility in the team that someone could come up with an idea, someone will come up with a melody, someone a groove, someone lyrics, and it changes as we write a song.”
Danielle, who lives in London, has been a musician for two decades with piano as her primary instrument. A performing artist for most of his life, Jamie is an Interdisciplinary Music Studies major at Berklee Online living in Northeast England. Billy, from Austin, Texas, is a composer, professor, NPR radio host, and before the shutdowns, he was a touring musician with the Chicks and Shakira.
Back in March, Billy performed on The Ellen Show with the Chicks. As he was about to board a plane to New York for The Colbert Show, he received a call from his road manager telling him to go home. His life as a touring musician came to a halt, which prompted him to enroll in Diercks’ class to stay accountable for his songwriting.
“I’m terrible without deadlines,” he says. “If I have a deadline, great. It’s like, ‘Okay. Write a song this week. Excellent.’”
The group of three were familiar with each other after previously having Diercks as their instructor for the Songwriting: Writing Hit Songs course, but first collaborated as a trio about half way through the Collaborative Songwriting course when students are allowed to pick their own groups.
“With Billy, Danielle, and Jamie, they got to know each other over that time and they really hit it off,” says Diercks. “You see the value somebody else has because you see, ‘Wow, that person brings something to the table. They have skills and a sensibility for music that I don’t.’ When we combine that you always end up creating something you would never create on your own.”
When the course ended, Jamie was able to take the five-hour drive from Northeast England to London to record with Danielle. Billy joined in on Zoom. The session resulted in three songs that appear on the EP. The first song, “Lookin’ for Love” is a modern disco track.
The next song “Nothin’ to Prove” is an upbeat blues-rock tune with a catchy guitar hook. The inspiration for it comes from the Netflix show The Umbrella Academy. Written with Elliot Page’s character Vanya Hargreeves in mind, the song captures a “You can hurt me, but you won’t break me,” type of feel says Billy. The group intends to pitch the song to the series.
The third song is titled “Everybody’s Going Nowhere Fast,” which you might assume is speaking to an experience in lockdown, but is actually written for the HBO series Euphoria, which they also intend to send to the show. In the last few weeks in the course, Diercks teaches his students how to approach a television show, including how to find the right contacts and how to phrase your message.
“In the last few lessons, students start assembling a list of people working in the industry, from artists to writers to producers to record label people,” says Diercks. “I ask them, ‘Who’s out there in the industry that you feel would be useful to know and who could help you with your career?’ So they assemble that list and I tell them how they contact somebody in a unique way so that they separate themselves. Rather than asking for favors, they’re asking for advice. I’ve seen just contact after contact made this way.”
Regardless of whether “Everybody’s Going Nowhere Fast” was written with the pandemic in mind or not, the trio can agree that their virtual collaborations have extended some of the needed structure from the class into their lives, which is welcome considering all three of them were sheltering in place during the time of this interview.
“Being able to write with Billy and Danielle on regular occasions, and work with lots of other people around the world, is allowing me to just cope and makes it feel like there’s something going on, because obviously in lockdown it doesn’t feel like that a lot of the time,” says Jamie. “That’s the main thing, is being able to talk and just share my passion with other people who are just as passionate about it.”