On shelves now – and, if we’re honest, looking every inch the sort of Christmas present we’d be up for receiving this year – Isle Of Noises: Conversations With Great British Songwriters is a new book from Daniel Rachel that finds its author interviewing a wide variety of (you guessed it) British songwriters about their methodology, influences and on-going craft development.
Amongst the artists spoken to: Ray Davies, Jimmy Page, Lily Allen, Paul Weller, Sting, Noel Gallagher, Damon Albarn, Annie Lennox, Billy Bragg, Pet Shop Boys, Madness, Jarvis Cocker and Joan Armatrading.
Here, Clash is pleased to publish excerpts of Rachel’s conversations with two highly respected domestic songwriters: former Smiths guitarist turned solo artist in his own right (and regular axe-slinger for hire) Johnny Marr, and Mercury Prize-nominated indie-folk singer Laura Marling.
Rachel is a songwriter himself, having fronted the band Rachels Basement and released solo material. Isle Of Noises is his first book. In its introduction, he writes:
“A song can get us from A to B as simply and effectively and with the same familiarity as a daily journey to work or a walk to the local pub. But some songwriters choose to take the scenic route. It’s still the same starting and finishing point, but our minds have been opened along the way and our senses excited. Along with depth, originality and imagination, great music that makes a lasting impression has an honest craftsmanship running through it. Over time, and often with renewed appreciation, we bestow the word ‘classic’ upon it.
“At a time when technological advances constantly distract listeners from the craft of songwriting – downloads without compositional credits; songwriting acknowledgements reduced to unreadable sizes on the iPod – there has never been a better moment to celebrate 50 years of classic British songwriting. God Save the Noise.”
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Johnny Marr – ‘The Messenger’
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Johnny: In songwriting there is no right and wrong. If there was, it would be pretty boring: everybody would be copyrighting the right side. You’ve got to respect and like the mystery of it. It’s very easy to get into the idea of formulas and systems. Almost everybody on The X Factor sings a ballad: a slow, quiet bit to set the song up, about 14 seconds; a bridge with a little build and then into the chorus at a minute. I went through a period where every record I heard on the radio followed a certain kind of pattern, where things kicked in and devices were used at exactly the maximum commercial point. Aside from that idea being utterly crass, I’m not entirely sure that it even succeeds. I don’t think humans react to music in such a Pavlovian manner. There are so many wild-card examples of commercial music over the years that betray that idea of a system and break all the rules.
When did you first become aware of song structures?
I started listening to records in a certain way that was almost analytical. My parents used to say that I didn’t so much listen to records – I studied them. I got that directly from my mother. One of the strongest memories from my childhood was her and my dad’s sister, who were both very young at the time, breathlessly rushing into the house having bought the Everly Brothers’ record ‘Walk Right Back’ and watching them play it 15 times in a row stood up at the record player. I observed the glee and the joy that they got from watching this thing go round and discussing it. From that day on I just joined in.
Up until her late-20s my mum used to do her own charts every week. She’d be sat by the radio going, ‘T. Rex have gone down: I was sure that was going to go up to number 14,’ or, ‘Bryan Ferry’s dropped down 11 places.’ They weren’t musicians but here was a culture of records and obsessive observation about songs that rubbed off. I started to clock things like breakdowns and what fadeouts were about. Production, songwriting and devices to make records were all a part of the same thing and have stuck with me. There’s a distinction between a record and a song. A song was a 45. That’s a whole discussion in itself: is a song the words backed up by some music or is it part of a whole thing?
Often the line between songwriting and arrangement can be blurred. Billy Bragg’s ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’ is heavily defined by your playing on it, but credited solely to Billy, whereas another song you both appear on, ‘Sexuality’, is a co-write.
Billy is a good example. His words are very important and standalone from the music in the way poetry can. ‘Greetings…’ is from the album ‘Talking To The Taxman About Poetry’, which is probably something he did. My part was as accompanist and musician; using the guitar as a way of adding colour. I guess I was following his melody, really.
‘Sexuality’, you’re right to say, is completely different. That was written by the two of us when I heard him singing the word sexuality with that five-note tune and this reggae skank, for want of a better word, on the one chord of G. So I said, ‘Sing that onto a cassette and let me finish it?’ I tried to turn it into a record and along the way I didn’t notice it was a song. I was just trying to come up with a tune. The end result was what I was thinking about. I had the production in mind when I was coming up with the chords, like the middle eight (singing), “I’m sure that everybody knows how much my body hates me”: I thought it needed a Patsy Cline bit. When I was producing him I was saying, ‘Make him more Patsy Cline,’ which just shows how completely abstract musicians can be.
In the studio I had a complete backing track done. I was quite nervous. I thought, he’s either going to hate it or hear a hit, which is what happened. What some people call arrangement: playing your instrument, the flutes come in there, or that’s the way the bass part goes; that’s instrumentation. The structure of chorus, bridge, verse, breakdown, whatever it may be: those building blocks in a linear way, is the arrangement. I’m very lucky because I get to work with all different types of approaches.
Writing a song as a member of Modest Mouse, stood in a room with five other guys all with different agendas trying to pull something out of the sky, is different from the way I would sit down with Kirsty MacColl or Neil Finn.
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Billy Bragg – ‘Sexuality’
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Can you sense inspiration arriving?
When you’re already writing, sitting down plonking around or absent-mindedly doing something, it sneaks up on you and kind of starts to fall under your fingers. The other side of it is that it kind of can happen and you scurry around going, ‘I’ve got this really strong feeling, I need a guitar.’ I get into these slightly introspective moods where it’s time to try and turn it into some music.
A physical sensation that needs to be channelled?
Turned into something, yeah… I don’t put myself under any pressure if it’s going to be any good or pay the rent or please a critic or do anything other than be channelled into something creative. There’s another kind of mode whereby if you feel like, over a period of a few days, that you’ve got some idea and you want to write a song, you kind of have to get really quiet and need to set up a scenario where you make yourself almost bored. Particularly in this day and age where there are so many distractions.
I used to write a lot of songs when I was younger just for something to do. Passive entertainment, whether it’s sitting watching television or listening to crappy radio or whatever, just didn’t have enough gravity. I had a real serious drive to make music, a massive passion and joy for it, but there was also this feeling of dissatisfaction just in the way I felt: some kind of hole that needed to be filled up, like a nag. Not necessarily a negative thing. It could be a beautiful kind of nagging. At 12 or 13 I’d be doing something and not be satisfied with it, so I’d have to go and sit in the corner of my bedroom and play guitar for a few hours and out of that would come a song.
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Laura Marling – ‘Master Hunter’
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Why are you a songwriter?
I think out of necessity is the reason why I keep doing it: it’s a necessary exercise. I don’t know the reason why I started doing it.
What would the exercise be?
I’ve had to struggle to accept that some people have a creative need and some people just don’t and are quite happy going about life without the need to express something. I would never have considered myself one of the other people who need to be creative because I find it can become an excuse. If I don’t have an outlet in which to express myself, be it through songwriting or other mediums of writing, I get a bit jittery and a bit odd. I think it’s a necessary thing and a blessing for that.
Can you explain your state of mind when you are writing a song?
I guess it varies but it’s becoming more apparent to me the situation in which I tend to write songs – which is late at night. My biggest thing, and this will probably come up with all the questions that you ask, is that I hate the idea of once somebody proclaiming themselves an artist is perusing art for the sake of art. I was intrigued by what you were going to do because I find talking about songwriting so embarrassing, because it’s such a self-indulgent pursuit of art and living in an artistic way. Well, it’s quite brave to do that. I’ve got this constant tussle of whether by putting myself in those situations where the songs are written, am I indulging in a kind of lifestyle that perpetuates that kind of behaviour? Is it my saviour or is it my downfall?
Suggs was reluctant to label himself as a songwriter because he saw it as a lofty term that applied to people like Bob Dylan. His songs came because they seemed to just tumble out.
From seeing other people and other songwriters that I admire, the ones that really stand out are the ones that are brave enough to give themselves over to their art.
Have you done that?
No, and I don’t intend to. They are now solitary, untouchable, barely real existences.
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Laura Marling – ‘When Brave Bird Saved’
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So you’re fighting being a creative spirit or being a writer? You reluctantly put songs out?
Well, this is the thing: it’s a complete contradiction, I suppose, because I do it and I am very grateful for having that outlet. I’m very grateful for doing a job that I love, but I would never completely give myself over to pursuing life for the sake of my creativity, or I hope I wouldn’t. You can so easily become alienated or completely disconnected from what is reality. Music is not the be-all and end-all of anybody, I don’t think. In the grand scheme of things, what my music or my songwriting means to other people is not grand enough for me to tip myself over the edge.
Are you aware of when a song is coming to you?
Yes, I think so. I think I know when the situation arises. There’s too much clutter in my brain and it does literally feel like big chunks of mess that have come out. I’m pretty unawares as I write. I’m pretty bad company for a couple of days before a song is written.
Why would that be?
Preoccupied, I think. Not by thinking about how I’m going to write a song, but whatever I’m thinking about. I suppose melody is an afterthought. When I do sit down to write a song – I’ve always got a guitar around and I’m always playing guitar when I’m at home – I guess I’ll be coming up with little melody lines and chord sequences all the time without really thinking about it. Then suddenly a song will just come out with one of those chord structures I’ve been playing with. It just seemed, I don’t know, the right time.
Do you record little ideas and later build on them?
No, it’s all from memory. I’m a complete technophobe. Sometimes if I finish a song very quickly then I write it down because I’ll definitely forget it the next day. But I can’t read or write music so I do write down chords and stuff.
Can you just sit and write a song at will because you want to?
I’ve tried, and it’s awful, awful, awful, awful.
Because you’ve put undue pressure upon yourself ?
Yes. I do it as an exercise sometimes: just writing for the sake of writing. Actually that’s a lot easier; you can be a lot more absent-minded, but because you’ve got a guitar in front of you and you’re trying to write a song then you end up trying to write a song about what you think a song should be written about, and it’s always a disaster.
Because it’s not coming from a true place?
Writing a song is a marriage between the guitar and the pen. You wouldn’t isolate the two forms?
No, I never have. It would be incredibly convenient if you could.
Dylan has said that your intellectual mind can hinder the creative impulse.
Ah, nice. Well, that’s interesting. I mean, it depends what he means by that. I take that as what I just said about not allowing oneself to be completely taken over by creativity, which I think is a sensible thing, personally. I don’t know if Mr Dylan would agree. Also, I have to give a little credit to not knowing anything. That’s probably why I write, because I’ve got so many questions unanswered. And also I don’t know my instrument very well, which has helped me a lot. I was never taught the guitar properly and I was never taught music properly. So maybe in that way my lack of intellect has somehow helped my creativity.
Naivety in not knowing an instrument allows a freedom to explore – is that how it is?
Yes, definitely, in some ways the not knowing… you don’t know what potential mistakes you could make. The not knowing is quite important.
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Words: Daniel Rachel
Find more information on Isle Of Noises: Conversations With Great British Songwriters at the book’s official website.
Buy the book direct from the publisher, Pan Macmillan, here.
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