Songwriter Q+A: Brendan Graham

Irish songwriter, composer, and novelist Brendan Graham is best known as the lyricist for Rolf Løvland’s ubiquitous “You Raise Me Up,” which has been covered by Josh Groban, Westlife, and Il Divo, among hundreds of other performers. After finding international success with “You Raise Me Up,” Graham has gone on to work with international acts like the Chieftains, Sissel, and Steve Mac. In addition to being a prolific songwriter, Graham has written three novels, including bestseller The Whitest Flower. We caught up with him to find out a little more about his career and his approach to songwriting.

How did you get started as a songwriter?

I was an industrial engineer in the clothing industry in Ireland. And then in the early ‘90s, at the age of 48, I was made redundant from the company I was in. At the time I was writing songs sporadically at night and on the weekends, but I have 5 daughters and they were all in school and needed to be kept in school.

I entered a song called “Rock’n’Roll Kids” into the Eurovision contest, a yearly song festival that takes place in Europe. And I did it differently from the way songs are normally done on Eurovision, which forced people to focus on the song. And it won. In 1996, I decided to enter another song, a very different kind of song—very Celtic, rhythmic kind of song—for the Eurovision again. And again, against all the odds, it won again! People started calling after that.

Your greatest hit to date, and the one for which you are best known, is “You Raise Me Up,” a collaboration with Irish instrumental group Secret Garden. How did that song come about?

Rolf Løvland [of Secret Garden] already had the music done and wanted me to do the lyrics. So they came over and played me the melody of what became “You Raise Me.” I worked on it that day. I got the title, the hook and chorus, and then I got most of the first verse. I phoned Secret Garden and they came over to hear what I had come up with. I put on the backing track and I start squawking away. They liked it and so I finished the second verse. Totally random.

Did you have any idea that it was going to turn into a huge song?

Not at all. I think we knew that it was good, that there was something to it. But I have had that feeling with other songs, and none has ever taken off like this one.

At what point did you realize the magnitude of the song’s popularity?

Intellectually, I know it is a huge hit. But there’s a part of me that’s still coming to grips with the notion that it is. I suppose I knew how big it had gotten when I heard Josh Groban’s version of it. I love Secret Garden’s version with Brian Kennedy, but in the United States, it was Josh Groban’s version that catapulted it. Then he performed it at the Super Bowl and that brought it up to a whole ‘nother level'

And on Oprah!

Yes, and she sang it! That gave it another kick. In the UK, Westlife sang it and got a number one. And in the U.S., a Christian group, Selah, had a number one on the Christian charts with their cover of “You Raise Me Up”. I thought that once someone had a huge hit with it, nobody else would touch it. But it didn’t stop people. The versions kept coming out: Il Divo, Russell Watson, etc.

I read somewhere that it’s been covered more than 125 times.

It’s nearly up to 400 times now.

What does that feel like?

You’re suspending disbelief when something like that happens. You do the song, and you’re not thinking about what happens afterwards. You’re thinking, how can I make this song as good and as beautiful as I can? People ask me, “How do you write that song?” And I say I don’t know. I know I sat down, I listened to the music and I had a pen and paper and I wrote it. There’s a sense of magic about any creative process and I think we should just be grateful when it happens for us.

Initially when “You Raise Me Up” was written, it was turned down by a number of publishers. They said it would never work in America. If I went to a songwriting class in Nashville, I’d be sent home. Because I’ve done things with the lyrics that are not perfect rhymes, I’ve inverted sentences, there’s ambiguity in the song. But it works.

Do you have a general notion of what makes a song good?

Yes. You can write a song with perfect lyrics and a perfect melody, but if it’s missing that other emotional dimension…If it touches you, the more likely it is that it’ll touch other people. I was in a hotel in Dublin and a woman said to me about “Rock’n’Roll Kids,” “You must’ve known what was going on in my head.” That was one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever had as a songwriter. And I think that’s where a song works—that my experience links with yours in some way you’re not able to verbalize. Songs are all different, but ultimately at the core of it there has to be something that speaks to people.

I often hear that one way to tell if a song is truly good is to see whether it translates to different genres.

Yes. And I love that. That if I write a song, it can live outside the first skin in which it was written. Fortunately, a number of my songs have had a number of different kinds of covers, and I love that because it means somebody is getting the core of the song.

What’s your songwriting process like?

If I’m given a melody, I try to find out what is the thing in the melody that is crying out to be written about. If I’m doing music and lyrics, I usually try and get the good idea, the hook, the title first, and do the chorus and work backwards. I like to be open about the song and what it might be. I like to sometimes do music rather than lyrics, sometimes to do both, sometimes collaborate. I’m not good at getting into the studio with somebody and we have to have a song by 5pm. I don’t mind meeting up with people, but then eventually I like to go away and think about it. I’m a slow writer.

Do you have any pre-writing rituals?

Fear and hope. It’s a strange process. Intellectually, you can tell yourself, I’ve done this before; but, emotionally, you’re filled with this thing approaching dread. Will it work this time? Will I be able to do it? I’ve learned to say, Ok, that’s fear, and let the fear come and sit with me.

I also always have all the paraphernalia of songwriting; I’ll have a pen, paper, my rhyming dictionary, a Roget’s thesaurus, a book of old Celtic prayers that sometimes I read. None of those things themselves give you the answer, but what they do is help you if you’re stuck. I’ll have a dictionary of quotations as well. I like to have those things around me so that if I am stuck, I’ll read one of them and they’ll kick me off.

Which songwriters or musicians do you consider particular influences?

I love people like Neil Sedaka, who has proved his position as a great songwriter over many, many years. Jimmy Webb is a kind of hero songwriter of mine. And there are great writers out in Nashville, the Willie Nelsons and such. I like Bach very much, too. When I’m doing lyrics, I love traditional Irish music because their music just puts me in the place. Very raw, basic stuff. What the Chieftains do, what bands like Dervish do. So you can see there’s quite a range of stuff. I love that. I love being challenged. I’d love to work with Pink, for example. Just to see, could I do it? I should be able to do it, because that’s my trade. Unfortunately you get pigeonholed by people who say, Oh, he’s a Nashville writer, he’s a crossover writer, he’s a folk writer. I think that’s all baloney. It’s either you can write music and you can write lyrics, or you can’t.

Are there any pop artists you’d like to work with?

The problem is most of them write their own songs. I love people like Alicia Keys. Norah Jones also has a wonderful way with a song. An artist like Michael Bublé is superb; he can take a song and turn it inside out and it becomes something else. There’s also some people in the operatic world; Bryn Turf for example, at the Met Opera at the moment

What advice do you have for young, aspiring songwriters?

Focus on the song. The biggest problem with the songs people send me is that they’re not finished. They’re great ideas, but I think, Oh, why didn’t they just push a bit more? The other thing with songs is to not force them too much; leave them space to come to you. Just be alert and ready.

Access what you’re due.