The duo have just released their new track 'Supernatural'
It’s an unusual claim for a duo only just appearing on the radar, but between them Bright Sparks — singing, songwriting multi-instrumentalists Ash Hicklin and Kimmy Sawford — have already been responsible for eleven Number One singles, and countless more hits around the globe.
For over half a decade the duo’s versatile songwriting has been in demand from artists like Tiesto and Sam Feldt to international winners of The Voice, The X Factor and Idol, but 2017 is the year in which Ash and Kimmy will take centre stage for the first time thanks to a refreshing brand of organic dance pop that strikes a chord somewhere between artists like Years & Years — whose producer Andy Smith worked on their debut Wildfire EP — and Feist.
Kimmy Sawford and Ash Hicklin
Theirs is an authentic, expansive modern sound underpinned by melancholic lyrics and the duo’s distinctive voices. “We wanted to make music that would grab your heart somehow, and tell stories,” Ash reflects. “It's easier to make songs believable when there's sadness somewhere in the lyrics. Nobody believes someone who's happy the whole time, do they?”
The Wildfire EP kickstarts the next phase of a creative partnership that dates back to Ash and Kimmy’s time as students at Leeds College of Music. Ash was after accompaniment for some of his vocal work, and when presented by a tutor with a list of potential pianists decided to pick the one he fancied. “He tends to tell people I was his groupie and number one fan,” Kimmy laughs. The pair’s respective courses proved unhelpful (“we'd have been better off going straight into the industry and figuring it out for ourselves,” Ash admits), but Kimmy and Ash were flung even further together by circumstance. Following a slightly strange episode in which Kim was suddenly homeless following an argument with her housemate over said housemate’s pet rat, Ash offered Kimmy a spare room at his place.
The duo began performing for one-man-and-his-dog sized audiences in local pubs — no problem for Ash, who’d been playing at open mic nights at his mum and dad's bar in Scarborough since he was 13, or even for Kim, who was brought up to the strains of Agadoo, watching her father drum for a Butlin’s house band. “There were a lot of crap gigs in total dives,” Ash laughs now, but those difficult shows set the stage for one of Bright Sparks’ pivotal moments — a nationwide tour which, in typical Bright Sparks fashion, was rather unconventional.
For a start there were no venues, with the band simply pitching up in public spaces and performing for whoever would listen. The street tour also took place in Germany and, amazingly, it actually made the band money. “We’d heard that there was a promotion on the German rail network,” Ash recalls. “For a flat fee you could use any train, anywhere in Germany, for the entire month.” Taking advantage of the offer to an extent where it bordered on taking the piss, Bright Sparks played thirty dates in thirty different cities. “We took our instruments along — mine was a toy piano I'd bought off Amazon,” Kim smiles. “We'd play a couple of covers to entice them in, then move onto our own songs. It worked! We made nine grand in a month. Mind you, the weather was good.”
Listen to Bright Sparks new single Supernatural:
Bright Sparks stayed in Germany and honed their live skills, while Ash’s songwriting was gaining traction outside the band. Having been highlighted by BBC Introducing, he signed a publishing deal and before long scored his first hit for another artist — it became a Swedish Number One for Johan Palm. Others would follow, and while Ash and Kimmy continued developing Bright Sparks, they found themselves contributing to dance tracks through labels like Spinnin' and Armada. Once again, the band found their own way of doing it. “We noticed that every time instrumental tracks got sent out to the world’s songwriters, we'd be competing against a hundred other people,” Ash explains. “So we switched it around. We wrote songs we thought would fit DJs, then sent them out. Rather than us fighting to get on one track, we had DJs fighting over who'd get our songs.” It’s been a win/win tactic: producers appreciate working with melodies and lyrics that began in an authentic place, while Bright Sparks find more creative reward in starting their own song than finishing someone else’s. “Also,” Kim adds, “it means we can keep the best songs for ourselves.”
The duo’s success writing for other acts (and TV viewers should also be note that Kimmy is the voice of Loctite adhesive) put Bright Sparks in the unusual position of being self-sufficient, meaning that when they returned to the UK they could set up their own studio and, more importantly, set their own agenda. This was particularly beneficial when the band sent music to prospective management teams. One unexpected response came from a management company who, as a softener, offered a slot supporting Olly Murs for several nights at London’s O2. It was an experience they felt disinclined to repeat. “We realised afterwards,” Ash adds, “that while we’d definitely like to play the O2 one day, we'd like to be on that stage for the right reasons.”
Those O2 shows represented something of a Sliding Doors moment, prompting Ash and Kim to choose representation more in tune with their ambitions, which in turn led them to the team at legendary management outfit Big Life, who broke acts like London Grammar and Snow Patrol. During 2016 the band contributed vocals to releases by Sam Feldt, TV Noise and LVNDSCAPE but for their own music Ash and Kimmy took their time, honed their sound, found the right balance between the musicianship that brought them together and the electronic influences in which some of their outside songwriting had immersed them, and hit on the sound that underpins both the Wildfire EP and the music that’s set to follow. “We moved into the electronic sound through our work with DJs and dance producers,” Kimmy adds, “and we found that playing around with drum pads, synths and equipment we'd never experimented with before totally opened up the music.”
The four-song Wildfire set finds Bright Sparks covering love, life and even their own relationship. Slow Motion, Kimmy explains, “is about one person wanting more than the other, and how for one half of the couple the pace of the relationship is in slow motion”; Wildfire, meanwhile, is a more understated sound with powerful lyrics about relationships in which true intimacy remains tantalisingly out of reach. Or, in Ash’s words: “There’s always a boundary, a wildfire, between two people that means they can never get close enough.” Supernatural rewinds to the very beginning — as Kimmy puts it, “it’s about looking across a room and seeing someone who’s totally out of this world — knowing that there are a million types of love, and anything’s possible.”
And there’s even more just around the corner. Bright Sparks may have established themselves as the writing talent — and voices — behind hits for other artists, but 2017 will find Ash and Kimmy finding their own, much deserved, place in the spotlight.
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