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A tune with a view

What do songwriters look at when they’re looking for the idea that will make them immortal?

David Hepworth | November/December 2013

No matter where you are on the planet, a song is probably being written nearby. Ever since the Beatles accidentally persuaded anyone who could play an instrument that they must be able to compose songs on it, songwriting has become the most widely practised creative art. PRS for Music, the official song-licensing body, estimates that it registers 700,000 new musical works every year. That's just in Britain.

There are more songwriters—pro, semi-pro, would-be or simply deluded—than novelists, composers, screenwriters or painters. That must be because songwriting looks easy. Where novels and paintings require stamina, don't great songs simply materialise? Paul McCartney says the tune for "Yesterday" came to him in a dream. Keith Richards woke in the middle of the night and played the riff for "Satisfaction" into a tape recorder by his motel bed. Songwriters know the unease when their subconscious comes up with something good. Where did I pinch that from?

Even if the process clearly involves sweat, there is usually a moment when chords and words magically mesh. "Somewhere in a burst of glory/Sound becomes a song", Paul Simon sang, in one of the intricate compositions which he spends months polishing. Biographers and critics like to think the best songs are inspired by events, which is why they treasure so-called break-up albums. In fact they're usually inspired by nothing more than a chord change that seems worth repeating, a snatch of conversation that might make a title, and a studio booked for Monday.

All songwriters agree that the best ideas seem to alight upon them rather than coming from within. Waiting for the song fairy is the hardest part. Modern songwriters long for the structure of the music publisher's cell, the spur of a deadline. Chris Difford of Squeeze would rather do it for someone else: "I like to write to order. Like a tailor making a suit." Owen Parker, who has worked with Pet Shop Boys, talks yearningly of how the veteran Ervin Drake was told to come up with a song for an artist who was arriving the next day. In his notebook he found "song about ageing as if stages of your life were like wine"; 20 minutes later he had written "It Was a Very Good Year". "The best songs", says Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile, "take exactly as long to write as the song lasts."

Jimmy Webb wrote "Wichita Lineman" when Glen Campbell, who had had a hit with his "By the Time I Get to Phoenix", demanded "another song about a city". Webb dashed off a song about the working man with the soul of a poet and found that Campbell had recorded it before he'd had time to fit it with the standard middle eight. It's widely regarded as the best record either man has been associated with.

For all the money lavished on videos, the words uttered in interviews, the dark arts of marketing and the occasional whisper of corruption, the music business remains at root a songs business. The destinies of large companies hinge on that one person staring into space in their attic, killing time on Twitter, contemplating another cup of coffee or a walk in the park, trying to banish all conscious thought apart from a silent prayer to the songwriting god that the next five minutes will bring the wisp of the idea that earns them immortality.

I spoke to a number of songwriters working in different fields to find out what's going through their heads when they write and what they're looking at as they wait for that inspiration to strike.

 

GUY CHAMBERS

While leading the Lemon Trees in the 1990s, Guy Chambers learned that it takes more than talent to have a hit. Since then he has co-written with many stars, notably Robbie Williams on multi-million-sellers like "Let Me Entertain You". Now 50, Chambers is at the forefront of the modern hitmaking process wherein songs are fashioned for an intensely image-conscious star and tracks are zipped around the world from one laptop to another, long before they grow anything resembling a traditional lyric or melody. 

"I've just come back from LA, where I've been writing with Robbie for the first time in ten years. He wanted to do it old-school. No tracks or beats, just him and me and the A&R man around a piano at Robbie's house. Suits me because that way you're writing a song rather than a record. He might say, 'do something like "The Candy Man" by Sammy Davis Jr'. What he wants is a twist on that. He doesn't want it just like that and I don't want anything that's going to breach copyright. When we last worked together, we were very influenced by that Moby record 'Play' and he'd say 'do something like that'. The piano line on 'Feel' was me trying to be Moby. When you're working with a singer, you have to come up with songs they feel comfortable singing. With 'Rock DJ' it took three months for Robbie to feel that the track was cool enough to sing it. I'm very much a back-seat person. He's the one at the front who has to sing it.

"Your surroundings often shape the songwriting. We wrote 'The Road to Mandalay' in the Hotel Costes in Paris and it has some of that luxurious atmosphere in it. Recently I was writing with Rufus Wainwright and he insisted that we do it in the room at the Chateau Marmont that Marilyn Monroe used to stay in. We hired a piano, met for lunch and did two hours a day for five days. He'd turn up and say 'I've got a line' and then we'd start from there. In my position you have to be very attentive while appearing not to be."

 

TRACEY THORN

The frontwoman of Everything But The Girl, alongside her partner Ben Watt, Tracey Thorn also sang lead on Massive Attack's hit "Protection". She retired in 2000 to raise a family, returning in 2010 with "Love and Its Opposite", a set of songs about clubbers hitting middle age, and "Bedsit Disco Queen", a bestselling memoir. She lives in north London with Watt and their three children.

"In the past I tried to write songs in a disciplined way but, since I came back to it after a ten-year lay-off, I find words and melodies come when I'm doing something completely unconnected with songwriting. 'Oh, the Divorces' appeared to me while I was walking round to school to pick up the kids. 'Singles Bar' came into my head almost as a complete song while I was in a taxi with Ben going from Nice airport to a hotel for a short break away from the kids. I've no idea why I should get a song about a middle-aged divorcee while I was on a mini-break with Ben, but there you go. 

"'Joy' began while I was sitting in the café at the ice rink by the Natural History Museum, watching the kids skate a couple of years ago. My sister had just had an all-clear from a cancer scare and I was thinking about Christmas, and there it was. The initial idea often comes quickly but honing that into a song can take ages. There's something wonderful about the time when you have a song in your head, and you're working on it, mulling it over, returning to it while you're doing other things—even singing it to yourself when it's finished, but at that point no one else has heard it. It only exists in your mind. Does it in fact exist at all? Will anyone ever hear it? Only if you think it's good enough. I love that period of a song's life."

 

THOMAS DOLBY

A 55-year-old Briton with a donnish air, Dolby has been making music since the early 1980s. His biggest hit in his own right was "She Blinded Me with Science". As a producer and collaborator he has worked with Joni Mitchell, Foreigner and Prefab Sprout. He is the musical director of the TED conference. After moving back home from Silicon Valley, he now works in the Nutmeg of Consolation, a ship's lifeboat from the 1930s which he had placed in his garden on the Suffolk coast and converted into a recording studio. 

"My garden floods from time to time, so I couldn't have the proverbial garden shed. This studio is powered by a wind turbine and it's got solar batteries, so I can work late into the night via renewable energy. I have a periscope for when the sun's too bright or people walking on the beach are looking in. I see these container ships going out at night from Felixstowe and in certain lights they look like the Manhattan skyline. Sometimes it looks like there's this archipelago of islands out there. So this is how the idea for my last record 'A Map of the Floating City' came about."

 

RON SEXSMITH

Ron Sexsmith is a Canadian singer-songwriter whose songs have been covered by Rod Stewart and Michael Bublé. His admirers include Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney. Sexsmith's songwriting fits into a daily routine he calls his "coffee walk". 

"I go out, grab a coffee and walk to the community swimming pool, where I swim for 30 minutes. I use this time to think and develop any idea that may have come during the night. I get quite a lot of melodic ideas when I'm doing something like walking that doesn't tax the brain too much. Generally I get this seed of inspiration, but it can be quite small and it can take days, weeks or even months to turn it into a song." 

At home in Toronto, he writes at the piano in what he calls the front parlour. "There are always people walking by. Sometimes I'll get a nice melodic idea going but then I'll be distracted by something and forget what it was. But the surprising thing for me is that if it's any good, it'll usually come back to me a few days later, as though it was stored somewhere in my mind or like it was meant to be."

 

MARK KING

Mark King is the singer, bass player and prehensile thumb of the Eighties jazz-funk institution Level 42. Now 55, he lives on the Isle of Wight, and still tours and writes songs. "I have a converted garage in the garden that at one time housed a pig. The idea of stepping out of the house is important to me—it symbolises going to work. There's nothing in the studio but instruments, cables and computers, so it's very much the workspace. I often have the BBC news website scrolling along the screen, and being able to reference almost any music source via iTunes and YouTube still gives me a buzz. We never had any of this in my day!

"I have written to order in the past. In 1984 Polydor reminded me that I was supposed to record a solo album two years earlier, and if I wasn't going to deliver could they have the advance back? Somewhat panicked, I booked a week at the studio and showed up on my own, with no idea what I was going to record. Fortunately, the studio tea room always had a barrel of the local Hook-Norton bitter on tap, so after a couple of those I lurched into the live room, and, spotting an old Hammond B3 organ in the corner, demanded that the engineer throw the machine into 'record'. So began 'The Essential', a 20-minute homage to self-indulgence. Still one of the best things I have written."

 

CHRIS DIFFORD

As one half of the engine room of Squeeze, alongside Glenn Tilbrook, Chris Difford has written the words for some of the enduring hits of the past 35 years—"Cool for Cats", "Up the Junction", "Tempted". Now 58, he runs a biannual songwriting retreat, at which beginners and professionals get together to see if they can fan a spark into a memorable song. 

Inspiration strikes him in some unexpected places. "I remember being in the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square [in London]—a round table, some nibbles and the soft ambience of strangers. I was off with the fairies and enjoying every crumb, words tumbled like dust from the sun above onto my notepad, I wrote for hours. When I got home, I was surprised to read that it was pretty good. I was once driving in the rain and heard an idea in my head, I stopped the car and went into a church. I sat at the back as something was going on, wrote my words down on a sheet of paper. I sheltered there for about 30 minutes. It may have been a wedding, I’m not sure. I was in the zone, the happy place."

 

DANIEL TASHIAN

A Nashville songwriter, Daniel Tashian has his own group, the much-admired Silver Seas, but is mostly employed writing for country stars such as Lee Ann Womack and Mindy Smith. To do this he repairs to the traditional base of the Nashville composer, an office on Music Row. "About 60% of the time I have a collaborator of some kind or another, either another songwriter, sometimes two, or an artist who needs help writing songs for a project. If I was a novelist I would write in Starbucks, because I do enjoy being around a hive kind of environment where people are busy. For songwriting it doesn't work, because you can't write a song while music plays in the background—although I did hear once that Duke Ellington could."

 

MIDGE URE

Midge Ure wrote "Vienna" for Ultravox, "Do They Know It's Christmas" for Band Aid and had his own British number one with "If I Was". Now 60, he lives in Wiltshire where he writes on his own and with the reunited Ultravox. "I have a studio, which these days is a glorified potting shed at the bottom of the garden. To me the songwriting and recording are merged into one process, so the real nuts and bolts have to be assembled in the studio. I have a little porthole window opposite where I sit and can just see the tops of the trees. I also record on a computer, so I have an electronic window to the world if I need a change of scenery. Most writers can travel in their heads, so the idea of sitting looking over a beautiful vista in order to inspire is just fantasy. 

"I once woke up with an almost complete song. It was called 'Dear God'. I only had to pop to the studio, give it a couple of tweaks and there it was. It hasn’t happened since."

 

KIMBERLEY REW

Rew, 61, read archaeology at Cambridge before becoming a guitarist with Robyn Hitchcock's Soft Boys and then Katrina and the Waves. He wrote "Walking on Sunshine" and "Love Shine a Light", which won the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest. His song "Going Down to Liverpool" was a hit for the Bangles. The revenues enable him to play his own music, while also walking the coast of England and Wales in the footsteps of the Edwardian writer Edward Thomas. 

"If I'd rather be watching television, I'm probably writing a boring song. Philip Larkin had a great system of going out for a drink of an evening, to test himself, and if he found he'd rather be writing the poem, it was a sign that it was going to be a poem that people would want to read. I can make up songs in my head. So sometimes I can make up songs when I'm travelling around, but I think that's caused more by the concentrated state of mind you can get some way into a journey rather than being suggested by the surroundings. People often ask how long it takes to write a song. I've got in the habit of replying 'all my life up till now'. Hopefully not in a pretentious tone of voice."

 

HEIDI TALBOT

An Irish singer, songwriter and ex-member of Cherish The Ladies, Heidi Talbot performs on the folk circuit with her husband John McCusker. They live in rural Scotland. "I could be anywhere when I get an idea for a song, but when I consciously sit down to write, I always look out the same window in our bedroom. There's a dry stone wall outside, and across the road the ruins of a mill, and beside it a forest of evergreen trees. My eye always falls on the tops of the trees—they look taller than the mountains behind them. 

"There's a song on my new album called 'Will I Ever Get to Sleep'. John had written a melody that I loved, but we had no lyrics and I was starting to record the album the next day. We were travelling to a gig and I was in the car with John and our two-year-old Molly Mae. I was giving her snacks, trying to keep her amused, and at the same time I wrote lyrics for his melody. It ended up being quite a humorous song. I think it would have been impossible to write anything too serious given the circumstances."

 

PAUL BUCHANAN

The main songwriter in the cult band The Blue Nile, Buchanan has also worked with Annie Lennox and Peter Gabriel. In 2012, he released his first solo album, "Mid Air". Now 57, he writes at his flat in Glasgow. 

"I have an ancient piano beside a window looking onto trees, a garden and the street. My most productive state of mind is in the few moments when I'm not thinking of something else or of writing a song; I suppose it's between the conscious and unconscious, where things you have noted and ways you are feeling swirl into a recipe. Once in a while I leave the TV on quietly, as a distraction, trying to fool myself I'm not working. I keep the rooms where I work very minimal, I don't like to see anything literal. No newspapers. Songs have their own calendar. It's about finding the space for the song to occur, rather than the song fitting the space.” 

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