Sep 18, 2008

David Llewellyn Wins John Lennon Songwriting Contest ( Folk Category ) With Song About Welsh Coal Mines

Singer-songwriter David Llewllyn, of Welsh birth and Nashville, Tennessee residence, is the grand prize winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest's Folk category for his coal miner's lament on the sacrifice of his child to the life of the mine, "Take Us Down," (lyrics below).

The John Lennon Songwriting Contest is an international competition, open to amateur and professional songwriters since 1997. The Contest features two sessions, with 72 Finalists, 24 Grand Prize Winners, 12 Lennon Award Winners and 1 Maxell Song of the Year, twelve categories: Rock, Country, Jazz, Pop, World, Rhythm & Blues, Hip Hop, Gospel/Inspirational, Latin, Electronic, Folk, and Children's. This years' judges included The Bacon Brothers, Natasha Bedingfield, rap ensemble D12, Fergie, singer-songwriter Jesse Harris, Al Jarreau, Sony A&R VP Ken Komisar, VP of A&R, John Legend, Columbia Senior A&R Director and radio and tv host Matt Pinfield, singer-songwriter Ryan Sham, Australia's "The Veronicas" and Grateful Dead founding member Bob Weir.

David Llewellyn left the mining valleys of south Wales to pursue a career as a musician at 17, the first generation in his family to not go down into the pit. David played Welsh and English working men's clubs for the next hard-working ten years, until hearing Randy Travis introduced him to the organic, instrumental honesty of American country music and pointed him to Nashville, where he's mostly been since.

So, David, how does it feel to be the winner?

"You get lots of pats on the back after performing at gigs etc. Everybody’s happy, some are drunk, some love the way you sing, but this is purely an award for songwriting – looked at in the cold light of day. They are much harder to get and this is a pretty big one. I feel greatly honored. Now, where did I put my acceptance speech . . . :O)"

How did you find out your song won?

"I was sitting in the departure lounge of the Dallas airport at 5am waiting to fly back to Nashville, and just checking my email. A friend had sent me a email which just said “Congrats”. I dug around and there it was! Problem was, it was 5am, so I couldn’t call anyone – I then had to sit on the plane for three hours without any cell phone service! The guy next to me on the plane thought I was nuts, and just went back to sleep."

Did you expect to win, what did you think about your chances when you submitted your song? Were you waiting impatiently to hear back or were you more blase' about it?

"It’s a Sonic bids thing. You hit the button, and off goes your submission. I never thought a little Welsh coal mining song had a chance in hell of doing anything at a prestigious international contest like this. But I did like the logo – a John Lennon self portrait – and thought why not. No guts, no glory!"

Did you know anything about your competition or hear their submissions?

"No, not a thing."

Tell us about your process in creating this song - how did it get written, what inspired it?

"I cannot answer this question without mentioning my manager, Kari Estrin. It’s easy to get lost in the 40,000 songwriters in Nashville. We are all trying to hit that small target, to get that cut on Music Row. It makes us want to fit in. Kari took one look at me and said “Hang on, your Welsh. That’s what makes you stand out.” DUH! She booked a few clubs in the UK, and we visited 'my' Wales. She made me see it through her eyes. She was with me when I went down 'Big Pit', a historically preserved coal mine, and we got talk to the old miners who are the tour guides now. They were fantastic. They took us on a personal, extended tour with lots of stories and descriptions of just how brutally hard life 'underground' was a 100 years ago. I was lucky enough to be part of the first generation not to go 'down', but the generations before me did, and it brought back early memories for me. 'Take Us Down' is based on their words, their stories. I asked, 'I bet you’re glad not to have to do all that now?' and their answer surprised me: 'Naw, we miss it bad. We miss the comradery, the community. It bonded us together somehow. Together we could make it through, no matter what.'"

How would you describe your sound? A particular genre or mix of genres?

"To keep a loooooong story short - My mother loved the “Crooners” Bing Crosby, Jim Reeves etc. and I think I learned to sing singing along to Nat King Cole. The Beatles hit when I was seven or eight and were everything. The American singer/songwriters returned that invasion in the early seventies – John Denver, Don McClain, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, so many, and all of a sudden, I was playing guitar (or at least trying to). Ten years, full-time doing the workmen’s clubs of South Wales and England, singing through God awful P.A. systems, choking down clouds of cigarette smoke (and the slightly more than occasional draught beer) will certainly hone your sound.

"Then to America and Country music. I spent four years playing the Honky Tonks around Austin Texas, three or four hour gigs, three or four nights a week. Then I moved to Nashville in ‘96 where I’ve sung a ton of Country demos and really, really learned how to write songs. And finally, the last few years, I’ve spent looking back over my shoulder to my real home, my childhood in Mountain Ash and the small coal mining valleys of South Wales. I sing about this now – sometimes the Welsh accent pops out. The grit and tears are just under the surface when I think back with fondness to that community, that safe, dirty, rainy, grey valley. I hear all of the above influences melding together in my voice, my songs. An overnight success? Hardly, but it’s been fun."

Is there a usual pattern to your process, ie; do you get lyrics first or melody or story? Do songs mostly come to you whole or have to be built?

"No. No real pattern, but I do recognize when the 'muse' is around. She comes and goes when she wants to - just got to make yourself available as often as possible, and don’t stop writing until she’s gone. Sometimes it’s a good topic, something you really want to write about, or maybe a great hook or title. Either way I might jot down a bunch of related ideas, but at some point I want to set that hook to music. I’ll sing it, usually with guitar, trying different melodies, rhythms etcetera, until it feels natural, conversational. There is music built into speech, I try to find it. And there, somehow, we have the key, the tempo, the groove, the genre, the seed. From there it’s just a matter of letting it grow without pruning your rose bush into a privet hedge. Some can just pour out in the time it takes to sing the damn thing, sometimes it’s months. The melody for the winning song 'Take Us Down' took a few minutes but the words percolated in my head for several months. A lot of them being honed down during a couple of 14 hours road trips – Nashville to Austin Texas. You have to keep a tape recorder with you at all times!"

Are there any musicians that you would particularly name as your influences or inspiration? Anyone you'd be happy to hear in your own music?

"It’s the singer/songwriters here on the road that I listen to now. Great performers. Great writers. They could so easily be the James Taylor or Elton John or Carole King or Buddy Holly of this generation but the U.S., and particularly it’s tight genre radio, is so difficult to break into. Please check out people like Tom Kimmel, Pearce Pettis, Dana Cooper, Darryl Scott . . . All my top 40 myspace friends."

As an artist, what work are you the happiest with, most proud of? What do you think is your best work?

"My newest song. You’ve got to be blown away by your current song or project, or why do it!"

You're in Nashville today but you're from Wales - how was it coming from Wales to the the US music scene?"

"My twin sister moved to Austin Texas in her early 20’s. She sent me, and my mother, airplane tickets to come to her wedding. I was 30, frustrated with the computers/samplers/pop music in the British charts, and the 'Your songs are too Country – try America' responses from London music publishers. I just fell in love with the Austin vibe, the climate, the evenings spent out on the front porch sitting and strumming with so many good players. It took 5 years to organize, to sell everything, but even though it probably meant sleeping in my car for awhile (and it did) I knew I had to try it. I’m so glad I did. Now I get to go back to Wales/UK a couple of times a year, and hey, I can even get the gigs back home that I never could while I lived there!"

TAKE US DOWN ©2006 ( and other songs ) by David Llewellyn

"A child's first day down a Welsh coal mine His father's feelings . . ."

Lyrics, "Take Us Down"

Take us down my friend, and quickly
Take us down lest we wise up
Take us down to make a living
Count us down, and count us up

Here is my son, who stands beside me
The pride and joy of Mountain Ash
Better hold on tight to my leg boy
This old cage goes down real fast
And I can't believe I ask you
Aw, to fill a miner's shoes
They don't make a miner's cap
For one as small as you

And with eyes as big as saucers
You stick out your little chin
And that would fill me up with pride inside
If I didn't feel so ill

Give him chance you ugly bastards
It's his first time, it's his first day
And they all stopped with all their joking
Cause they all started 'exact same way
Heed ye well those sweet gray ponies
Oh, they were once as white as snow
But they've been blinded by the darkness
They'll trample you and never know

Kneel right here, right here beside me
And catch the coal as it come loose
They're only paying for the lumps today
All the small coal ain't no use
And host it up into that hopper
So they can weigh our sweat and blood
Paying pittance for our labor
In this hell hole that we've dug

And let me host you on my shoulders
Cause this shift is nearly done
And we'll march through town triumphant
But you'll cry when you see mum

You always were a dirty muchen
But coal, it gets beneath the skin
You can scrub to wash it all away
But that's a battle you won't win
So let me dry you in this towel
'N carry you upstairs to bed
Just the way that my dad did for me
And I'll cry like my dad did

Better count those toes and fingers
Take a deep breath while you can
Best forget about that schooling
Cause today you became a man

But it cuts a deeper sorrow
Starting you off down the mine
Cause it’ll kill you soon or later
It just bides it’s own sweet time

So take us down my friend, and quickly
Take us down lest we wise up . . .
Take us down to make a living
Count us down, and count us up

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