Signing her first publishing deal in 1992 when most companies were recruiting backing track/beat track writers, Sheyne was a topline writer – a creator of melodies and lyrics. Her first publisher, who she would go on to marry, saw her potential as an artist in her own right, but A&R departments were then set on signing 15-year-old girls from TV shows.
By the end of the decade, their commitment to her songwriting – undertaking trips on a shoestring budget to the likes of Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Los Angeles, Nashville and New York to build a network of collaborators – paid off in the biggest way possible.
UK teen sensation Billie had a hit with ‘She Wants You’, ‘Genie In A Bottle’ topped the charts in more than 20 countries and the new millennium brought hits from United States girl group Dream and Jessica Simpson.
Sheyne’s songs have achieved over 50 million record sales and more than 100 platinum sales, she is a seven-time BMI Radio Award recipient and has had numerous album cuts and song placements in films and television.
Of Ngāi Tahu descent, she recalls a moment when she was moved to tears by a tune she made up as a 12-year-old, but she never considered music would factor in her future. “Obviously I’d connected to music in a way by singing other people’s music, but it wasn’t I guess until that sort of poignant moment that I realised how music was deeply connected with my emotions,” she said.
“At the time I didn’t think about it in a way like, ‘Oh, maybe this is something I should do for a living.’ It was just, ‘Ooh, this is interesting,’ and didn’t think anything of it, probably didn’t write another melody for some time. But I look back at it and it was a moment of really feeling an emotional tie to music.”
The youngest of Keith and Margaret “Peggy” Plumb’s three children, Pamela Plumb grew up in Henderson, West Auckland, and took up guitar at the age of seven while at Pomaria Primary School. One of the first songs she learnt was ‘The Boxer’ by Simon and Garfunkel. “My dad said to me, ‘When you can play that with your eyes closed, I’ll buy you a new guitar,’ and he did.”
Her mum loved dancing and was a fan of James Last. The house was full of country music by the likes of Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Charley Pride and, later, the seminal pop of ABBA. The first record Pam owned was by Crystal Gayle. She adored Olivia Newton-John and Grease, and sister Patricia took her to see The Beach Boys at Western Springs in February 1978.
Although painfully shy, Pam started singing lessons at 10 and was in a production of ‘Godspell’
Although painfully shy, Pam started singing lessons at 10 and was in Henderson Intermediate’s production of Godspell. She performed several times at the Titirangi Folk Club, where the entry fee was 50 cents and a piece of firewood; and she came second in a talent quest at the Manukau City Centre mall.
The Plumb residence was a social hub for friends and family with a homemade pool table and a darts board in their converted garage. Pam became quite good at the latter as she was often called on to make up the numbers when there was an uneven number for darts.
When her father died suddenly from a heart attack, she was bereft. It was especially difficult when her mum found a new man. “You know, I wanted my mum to start again and have a chance to start again without me hanging around, and I didn’t really feel like I fitted in,” she said.
Her siblings suggested she join them in London for a change of scenery. Leaving Waitakere College with School C, she briefly worked at the BNZ in Auckland and left New Zealand in 1980. Through her sister’s contacts, she worked as a secretary at Syrian Arab Airlines and then Middle Eastern Airlines. The cramped daily tube ride to Piccadilly was a far cry from the bus trip from Henderson to the BNZ in Auckland and she was soon scouring the ads in Melody Maker for a way out of the grind.
“I sort of very innocently thought, ‘Oh, I’ll get a second job and see if I can earn a bit more money doing that in the evening,’” Sheyne said. Before long she’d successfully auditioned for Just Good Friends, bought a Stratocaster and a Roland JC-120 amp and was playing the popular songs of the day six nights a week in the Colony Room of the Sheraton Skyline Hotel at Heathrow.
In London, she was on call to sing at weddings, private parties, and bar mitzvahs
The day job didn’t last much longer. “I was like, ‘Am I out of my mind? I’m getting, like, four-or-five hours’ sleep. I can’t do both,’” she said. After a year or so with Just Good Friends, she moved on to a cabaret band for a year before turning freelance and being on call for bands playing weddings, private parties, and bar mitzvahs. For ballroom dancing competitions at the Albert Hall, she would have to sing the same song three times to ensure the dancers didn’t have any unfair advantage.
Her versatility and accessibility meant Sheyne was soon in demand as a singer around London, doing backing vocals in the studio and appearing on TV shows with Celine Dion, Tom Jones, Lulu, Daryl Hall, Bryan Adams, Mike + The Mechanics, Belinda Carlisle, Cyndi Lauper, and others.
Although harbouring an ambition to be an artist herself, the constant work on other people’s projects was extremely satisfying. “I guess I had that dream in my heart for a long time, but at that point I was enjoying the work that I was doing and earning good money for it.
“When you’re a session singer, you learn to become versatile and to fit in and mould with tones. You start getting that skill and that can sometimes take away your uniqueness because you’re not focusing on you, you’re focusing on fitting in with other people’s sound.”
Sheyne married a South African guitarist in 1985 and started writing her own songs in their home studio, but she had no outlet for them yet. Once the couple divorced, she didn’t want to keep his name or return to being Pamela Plumb, the source of much childhood teasing, so invented the name Sheyne.
When word got out that The Pet Shop Boys were looking for backing singers for a world tour in 1991, Sheyne phoned the agent to get an audition. “Sorry, love, you’re the wrong colour,” came the response, but Sheyne went along anyway with fellow singers Vicky James and Derek Green.
“We went in as a team to sing and I had to sing the Dusty Springfield part [in ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This’]. They obviously liked what I did because I got booked. But of course, the agent that wouldn’t put me up still wanted a commission!” Green also got the gig, as did James’ sister Sylvia Mason-James.
The Pet Shop Boys’ Performance Tour involved the three backing singers, two offstage musicians and 10 dancers. It started in Tokyo on 11 March 1991, and covered another 57 dates through Japan, the United States, Europe and the UK. The three shows in Birmingham were captured for Eric Watson’s film Performance.
On the final night of the tour, Sheyne told Sylvia Mason-James she was looking for a publishing deal. Mason-James suggested she approach Nigel Rush who had started working at a new independent publisher and was looking for writers. Although the industry was signing track writers (who create chord structures and musical backings etc), Rush had noticed the effect topliner Diane Warren was having on the industry and made Sheyne his first signing.
Initially zeroing in on trying to get Sheyne a deal as a recording artist, it was her songs that were getting noticed. Her first cut was ‘All I Ask Of You’ by Sheena Easton, produced by Christopher Neil, who later booked Sheyne to sing on Celine Dion’s ‘Think Twice’.
Sheyne’s first cut was ‘All I Ask Of You’ by Sheena Easton, and doors started to open
Doors started to open as album cuts increased and Sheyne’s list of collaborators grew. “In those days you could make decent money on just three or four album cuts a year,” she said. In the mid-1990s she had two separate songs on hold with Celine Dion and Tina Turner but found out on the same day that both had been declined.
Fortunes were on the up at the end of 1998 when 16-year-old UK singer Billie [Piper] released ‘She Wants You’, written by Sheyne and Tim Lawson, as the third single from her debut album Honey To The B. The song had already been released by Slovak singer Dara Rolins, but Billie’s version reached No.3 on the UK singles chart.
The success prompted Nigel Rush to contact US songwriter/producer David Frank, who had recently written with Sheyne’s friend Jodie Brooke Wilson (now Jodie O’Connor), to try and set up a writing session while Sheyne was in Los Angeles. Frank agreed on an afternoon and Sheyne suggested bringing in another co-writer, Australian Steve Kipner, who had written Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Physical’.
Frank played the others three backing tracks he had prepared and Sheyne and Kipner chose one with a distinctive double-kick drumbeat. Sheyne pulled the line “a century of lonely nights” from the back of her songwriting notebook and they were away. A few hours later they had completed the song and named it ‘If You Want To Be With Me’. Sheyne sang the demo the following day.
It was pitched and found immediate interest from representatives for 10-year industry veteran Paula Abdul, girl group Innosense and former The All-New Mickey Mouse Club Mouseketeer Christina Aguilera, whose debut album was in the wings. Now it was time for the writers to decide.
When RCA A&R man Ron Fair guaranteed the song would be Aguilera’s lead single and that Frank and Kipner would produce it, they agreed to give it to Aguilera. Fair had just one condition: “You gotta call this ‘Genie In A Bottle’ [which was the third line in the chorus] because ‘If You Want To Be With Me’ isn’t special, it doesn’t jump out,” Fair told them.
Released in May 1999, ‘Genie In A Bottle’ reached No.1 in 27 countries and was certified double platinum in the United States. It rose to No.2 in New Zealand and Australia, held off the top spot by Lou Bega’s ‘Mambo No.5’. The following year, Sheyne and her co-writers won a prestigious Ivor Novello Award for International Hit of The Year.
1999 was turning into a stellar year for Pam Sheyne, with plans to marry her publisher beau Nigel Rush in New Zealand in December. However, three weeks prior to the date, Sheyne’s mum, Margaret Plumb, passed away from a heart attack. The wedding went ahead but it was a day of mixed emotions.
BMG New Zealand got wind of Sheyne’s visit and organised a special presentation of a platinum disc for local sales of ‘Genie In A Bottle’. To include a slice of Aotearoa, they commissioned master carver Peter Plumb to produce a piece of pounamu to go in the case. “Who is it for?” Plumb asked. “Pamela Sheyne,” came the response. “That’s my sister!” Plumb exclaimed.
Despite the loss of her mother, Sheyne was encouraged by Rush to return to England via Los Angeles and write again with Frank and Kipner. Initially reluctant, she did so, coming up with ‘He Loves U Not’, which was a No.2 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for US girl group Dream in 2000. The team also wrote Dream’s follow-up single ‘This Is Me’.
While in LA, she got a call from Adam Anders to write with him and gospel singer CeCe Winans, one of her favourite vocalists. Sheyne and Winans discussed Sheyne’s loss, and the trio wrote ‘For Love Alone’, which would appear on Winans’ self-titled 2001 album.
“Much later down the line, I was in Nashville and my publisher brought me the finished version on Cece’s CD, and I remember taking it back to my hotel room, listening to it and just bawling my eyes out,” said Sheyne.
With the royalties from ‘Genie In A Bottle’, she bought a dream country house in England
With the royalties from ‘Genie In A Bottle’, Sheyne bought a dream 15th-century country house in England and an apartment in West Hollywood to save on hotels during writing trips to the States.
Further success came in 2001 with Jessica Simpson’s ‘Irresistible’ going top 40 in 11 countries, No.41 in New Zealand. Sheyne had written the song in Stockholm with Anders Bagge and Arnthor Birgisson. Produced by Bagge and Birgisson, she provided backing vocals on the single.
Other notable cuts in the following years included ‘She Said’ by Brie Larson, ‘You Get Me’ by Seal, and ‘Lighthouse’ by Idols South Africa winner Elvis Blue: a No.1 in South Africa. Her songs were also recorded by Demi Lovato, Lindsay Lohan, Corrine Bailey Rae, Sinead O’Connor and The Backstreet Boys.
Sheyne and Rush’s son Ollie was born in 2003 and the family moved to the United States in 2008. Sheyne, a strong advocate for songwriters, was a founding member of Songwriters of North America (SONA), which was set up in 2015 by Michelle Lewis and Kay Hanley in response to the unfair rates being paid by digital streaming companies. The group was instrumental in the passing, in the US, of the Music Modernization Act in 2018.
“It took a little while with songwriters for the penny to drop: what streaming was and how it dramatically affected our income,” Sheyne said. “I got a call to go to a breakfast meeting with a few of my friends who are female peers, and we talked about the huge drop in our recent royalty cheques. It was something we were all facing so we were driven to do something about it.”
Sheyne and business partner Richard Harris, whose songs have appeared on TV shows Empire and Nashville, founded SongWriterCamps in 2018, offering a range of virtual and in-person songwriting and sync programs.
In recent years, Pam Sheyne has been mentoring at the Hawaii Songwriting Festival where she gets to sing some of her songs. In May 2023, she also performed ‘Genie In A Bottle’ in front of 2,500 people at the Ivors Academy’s The Other Songs concert at the London Palladium. After making a start on an album around 2013 but getting distracted by other people’s projects, Sheyne has again been bitten by the bug and is looking to record soon.