0 In Cast of Creatives

The Songs of Love Foundation with Alwyn Thomas

James Pearson  

Hello and welcome to Cast of Creatives – the series dedicated to exploring creative work, and the impact this has on mental health and well being. I’m James Pearson, founder of Wedding Industry Mental Health and Wedding Espresso, and I’m delighted to be joined today by Alwyn Thomas, songwriter of bespoke wedding songs, songwriter for Film and TV, songwriter for Eurovision, and songwriter for the Songs of Love Foundation over in New York. Alwyn, how are you doing, my friend. 

Alwyn Thomas  

I’m great James, how are you?

James Pearson  

I’m super duper I’m loving all this sunshine. So I think we need to start right at the beginning really and share with everybody a little bit about what the Songs of Love Foundation stands for, and what is the work that they do, and put out into the world? So can you just run us through that. 

Alwyn Thomas  

Sure. They’re based in New York and they write personalised bespoke songs for seriously ill children. So these children are, you know, it would be children suffering from Spinal Bifida to Down Syndrome. Various forms of cancer, you know, right right across the board. Anything that’s a serious illness, they qualify for a free personalised song, and the song is basically written around the child. The songwriters look at a brief, setting up the child’s name, age, likes, dislikes, what they love doing. And then the song is designed to uplift that child, and give them something to listen to, during times of trauma, when they’ve got repeated horrible hospital visits, and to lift their spirits when they’re at home. So they were formed in 1996 by a chap called John Beltzer who’s still going and still writing songs. It’s now just about 1000 songwriters, so it started as an idea for one chap and we’ve now got 1000 songwriters, working on this, over the period since 1996. There’s been 33,000 songs written. And they benefited children in every state of the USA. What I’m finding at the moment is all my work is for American children, and I’d love to start raising the profile of the foundation in the UK and start helping UK children as well.

James Pearson  

Are there any plans for for that to move into the UK at the moment, or is that something you’re pushing for?

Alwyn Thomas  

It’s something that they’ve said I can do. If I can find UK customers, great. But I don’t think the New York office is currently looking at the UK. But if we’ve got any hospitals out there that think they could benefit from the service, just get in touch with me on LinkedIn.

James Pearson  

Excellent, so I was really, really intrigued when I discovered this, and I discovered it through you, so that’s a pleasure. I was really, really intrigued, this idea of giving a child an escape from the trauma really that they have to live through. And having that gift, just arrive, and it’s a proper CD in the jewel case, so there is that, it’s a proper job, it’s not just emailed to them as an mp3 or something, it’s actually delivered as a physical item.

Alwyn Thomas  

Yeah, it’s a proper thing. I think they may now havemoved away from CD, and they use a USB to record them. But there is the certificate with the lyrics typed on it. So yeah, there’s a physical thing for the child to hang on to, and if you look at their page on LinkedIn, you’ll see plenty of photos of happy children holding up their CDs, their sticks and their certificates.

James Pearson  

That’s incredible! I’d urge anybody who’s interested to actually go onto the Songs of Love Foundation website, and then just have a look at that because, just seeing that visually is incredibly heartwarming, you can see the joy coming off the children’s faces and I love that. So, the songwriters, the 1000 songwriters that are involved, they volunteer their time, voluntarily, don’t they, they’re doing this, free of charge.

Alwyn Thomas  

Yeah, they get paid a stipend, which is a funny term, we don’t come across it much in the UK, which is, you get a payment for the song you do, but it doesn’t reflect the commercial value of the work you’ve put in. 

James Pearson  

The idea is really just to cover production costs?

Alwyn Thomas  

That’s the idea. I mean, you know, it keeps me in guitar strings, it’s fantastic. Yeah, and helps to pay your registration fees for the copyright agencies and so forth. So yeah, it’s not a commercial situation. But, I mean the writers, when I was told about the project, which attracted me was Billy Joel, Nancy Sinatra, there are other celebrities who contribute. Because when I actually came across the songs of love foundation, it was in response to an advert and the advert said, come and join Billy Joel and write songs for us. I thought haha that’s never gonna happen. 

James Pearson  

But have you had the chance to speak to Billy Joel? 

Alwyn Thomas  

No, no, no. You are giving to it, but you get so much back from it. You know, all of the briefs you get have a photograph with the child at the bottom, and you open that photograph and you can see their, their difficulties. But you see them smiling. And that then is all the inspiration and drive you need to get going and get that song.

James Pearson  

I imagine that, because it’s a story song essentially, I think it must be the same kind of muscle as maybe writing a wedding song, in the sense that you take a couple story and turn that into a song, and I think this is a sort of similar experience. But how does it actually feel to finish that song and deliver it? What does that process feel like for you, ultimately?

Alwyn Thomas  

It’s fantastic. And my rule is that unless the song, rocks, it’s not going to be sent in. You look for that groove, you get the groove. You’re told what sort of music the child likes, and that will vary from from country through to EDM, through to rock. I’ve done one recently. The child who was only three liked 1950s Rock and roll. Now I don’t think that was because of the child, it’s probably because of his dad. But yeah, you get to ride across the entire spectrum. So you get it going just as I would for a wedding song, or indeed, a song for film or TV, it has to be at that level. Because that’s, that’s the key thing with the Songs of Love Foundation, the stuff they give out is really, really good. If you listen to their playlist on Spotify, you’ll see what I mean, listen, really good songwriters and artists working with them.

James Pearson  

One of the things that got me really fired up, like you said, when you do go to that playlist and you play a couple of the tracks, it’s amazing to hear. Kind of like the little intro sometimes from the band saying hey we’re such and such a band, and we’ve written a song for you. And it’s done in such a spirit of being uplifting, some really, really uplifting and emotional work. And it’s hard not to be emotionally affected by the content on this website.

Alwyn Thomas  

Yeah, I think uplifting is the key word. I can’t quote their strapline because I’ve forgotten it, but their whole ethos is about writing uplifting songs for children. We did have an email from the song foundation last week saying, if a child asks for soft and soothing music, please try to avoid using minor chords and minor keys, because they are all about happiness, being uplifting, even if the music is beautiful and soothing. They want it to be uplifting! It’s really the major keys. As far as I’m concerned, tap your feet! If you can’t tap your feet and nod your head along to the song, you’re just done! chuck it in the bin, it’s not good, start again!

James Pearson  

I imagine that, with me being a songwriter also, although very amateurish, there’s a sense that you simply can’t let something go until it reaches that certain standard, or that certain quality, and I know you said that if it doesn’t rock, it doesn’t go out. So I think that’s such a heavy investment of someone’s time to care for something so deeply. But the actual result must be worth that input. Do you have anything… do you have any  two way feedback from the child? Do you receive this, or how does that work?

Alwyn Thomas  

You do sometimes. I mean, these parents are going through tremendous trauma with their children. So, you know, they don’t all get the chances they would like, to respond. But you do get letters of thanks back from the parents. And then the Songs of Love Foundation will pass a copy on to the writers, together with a copy of the child holding the piece of music.

James Pearson  

That’s amazing, I think, sort of looking looking ahead, I think the gesture offered there must have such an ongoing impact, with brothers and sisters and other family members who are touched so deeply by that kind of gesture. And then, growing up with that, may instil this kind of idea that they want to give something back in the future as well. I think that it’s not just the gift in the moment, but the continual sense of that gifting.

Alwyn Thomas  

Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I mean part of the brief is the narrative of family members, siblings and parents, and a requirement is that, if someone is named in the brief, then they have to be part of the song. So, I’ll always have, probably, verse one, you know, we’ll be mentioning all the siblings, and the parents as well if you can fit it in, in a rhyming perspective. Because sometimes it’s quite difficult, fitting in loads of names, and then getting rhyming structure going. Absolutely. You’ll get there in the end.

James Pearson  

So, have you ever come across a situation where you’ve received the spec, and maybe it’s a very difficult one to approach because of the content, or maybe the style requested? Has there ever been a challenge?

Alwyn Thomas  

Oh yes. I mean, that does happen. We’ve all got our genres that we work in. I like to think I can work in many, but I’m acoustic guitar based, EDM, country singer songwriter, that’s really where I’m at. 

James Pearson  

Which is quite broad!

Alwyn Thomas  

It’s quite broad. But you do get some ones come through and it’ll be Rap. Okay. Right. But, you know that is a great opportunity for me to explore that genre, you know, to go on to YouTube. You’re listening to the Rap stuff, what’s the drum doing? That is different to what I would normally do… okay it’s that sort of beat on the bass drum, fine. So then you build it up. And the most challenging thing about Rap is the actual vocal. It’s getting that right. Getting the music together is relatively easy, you can break that down and it’s a sparse production really. But it’s getting the metre or whatever you want to call it, in terms of your rapping, which takes you back to school days, and all those English literature lessons that you hated, right? But they’re also useful because you can think back and get those rhythms from those old poems. That’s what I tend to do. So yeah, sometimes you will get a challenging one.

James Pearson  

I think that’s probably the underappreciated art, or artistry of Rap isn’t it? The fact that the music is actually quite basic. so it sounds basic, but when you actually dig into the rhyming structures, and the word structures, it can be absolutely first class writing. It’s an interesting genre.

Alwyn Thomas  

Oh yeah, absolutely it is.

James Pearson  

How many of the songs have you written to date?

Alwyn Thomas  

Oh, I should have checked that out for you. I know in July, I wrote 8. 

James Pearson  

Okay, so that’s just in the month of July?

Alwyn Thomas  

Just in the month of July. What happened I think like so many sectors of business in the economy, when COVID struck, things got a bit difficult. Because I think a lot of the instructions come through hospitals, and they were so overrun with COVID-19. There was a period, a period until about a month or so ago, when my briefs, more or less dried up. Not because the organisation wasn’t funded, because their funded really well. It was the fact that the hospitals weren’t taking the time, if you like, to deal with this aspect of the business. It was all hands on, you know, but that has changed now. Certainly in July because I did eight songs for them. And my arrangement is for four, so I was really lucky. I think it’s also probably as a result of the fact that they partnered with The Superhero Project. You mentioned a little bit earlier I think about escapism helping with trauma. Well, the superhero project is where the seriously ill child creates a superhero alter ego. So it’s based on what they would love to do if they were Superman or Spider man. And The Superhero Project is linked up with the Cleveland Institute of Art and they create a cartoon image of that child’s superhero. The Songs of love Foundation have now bolted in on that. So we get a song as well, so the child gets their superhero alter ego created, they get the cartoon image of it. And then they get a song written about it. 

James Pearson  

Wow. All right. Yeah, excellent. 

Alwyn Thomas  

And that has resulted in a lot of instructions coming in. In fact, I think the entire eight I’ve just had in July, were all via The Superhero Project.

James Pearson  

Fantastic. Is there any sense of community within the songwriters? Such as like we said, we may encounter a situation where a song is requested slightly out of a comfort zone? Is there any community within the foundation that you can lean on each other for? For help and support?

Alwyn Thomas  

That would be a really good idea. I think if you were based in New York, then they were, pre COVID anyway, they used to have fundraising sessions, concerts, and they would meet physically. Being across the pond is a little bit more difficult. I did sing in one of their concerts, but it was remotely on a stream with everyone else who couldn’t get to New York, so that was great. So they do include you and you do feel part of a family. But actually, yeah, making links to other songwriters across genres, it’s a great idea James and I will look into that!

James Pearson  

Where it comes from is a space in my head where a lot of these creative endeavours are quite isolated activities. Songwriters, like you just mentioned,  you’ve got your head in the music, on your guitar, or your piano, or your PC screen, or whatever, and you don’t really have the opportunity to… it’s not a communal activity, it’s very solo. And whilst it’s nice, I think, as a kind of escapism to be able to write music, at the same time, you know it’s good when people can pull together and work as a community.

Alwyn Thomas  

Yeah totally right. You need someone to say, yeah, actually that’s not that good. That task usually falls to my wife, but, you know, she’s getting bored with it after all these years, so another muse would be really good actually. There’s some great videos on YouTube of how the Beatles used to write. And that was, you know, in a collective fashion. So yeah, great idea, I’ll take that up.

James Pearson  

Interesting. Are there many other UK songwriters or are you are you flying solo at the moment?

Alwyn Thomas  

I’ll take a punt and say it’s only me but I could be wrong there. I’m sorry if there’s some other UK guys out there. But I think most of them are in the States. 

James Pearson  

Right. Cool, so this could be the start of a new movement for the UK. Fingers crossed. Is it a question of getting in touch with the hospitals or the people that arrange that sort of extracurricular activity, if you want A Song of Love?

Alwyn Thomas  

If you think that your client base or customer base, your patient base, would benefit from a Song of Love, you can just go on the website, which is songs of love.org, forward slash, request. And that takes you to a very simple form to fill in with the child’s details. Pop it off to New York, and, of course, ask for me as your songwriter.

James Pearson  

Do you get to request a songwriter then? Is that how it works? Is it more a question of just scheduling and getting them out in a timely fashion?

Alwyn Thomas  

They do give you a fair amount of time. I think it’s a month actually to do a song ,but when it comes in, you know, I pretty much start in my subconscious writing it. A quick look and then you’re trying to get it back within a week. Because you know, some of the children are in end of life care, so you don’t want to be hanging about. And if I get one of those, then it’s really drop everything and send it in straightaway.

James Pearson  

And in terms of your push in the UK then, what’s next for you, what are you going to push, how are you going to push this thing forward?

Alwyn Thomas  

Well, I think it’s a question of now that COVIDs over, contacting the larger children’s hospitals and getting them interested. I can then act as the conduit to introduce them to the base in New York, and we can go from there.

James Pearson  

Excellent. Well I guess we’re fast approaching the time limit here. So, that’s been really informative. I think it’s really exciting. It’s great to hear about new endeavours and exciting new opportunities, and it’s going to be really interesting to follow the development of that and see if it takes in the UK. Because I think it is a fantastic idea. 

Alwyn Thomas  

Good, thank you James. 

James Pearson  

Awesome, well thank you so much for sparing the time and it’s been great to catch up. 

Alwyn Thomas  

My pleasure. 

James Pearson  

Brilliant. I’ll speak to you soon. Okay, take care. 

Alwyn Thomas  

Cheers James bye for now.

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