Saturday, November 30, 2013

What the would-be songwriter ought to be getting this Christmas

Leonard Cohen had an album called "Songs From A Room". Nick Lowe knew a pub in West London with a small function room attached and he used to go there to sing his songs aloud into the empty air. It's only that way he could be certain he'd got something.

In Daniel Rachel's new book "Isle Of Noises", Andy Partridge paints a vivid picture of how he came to write "Senses Working Overtime". His then-wife's family had a couple of rooms above a shop which he was given use of. "I found being in such an empty space was quite inspiring to fill with your own sonic pictures. I'd stand there staring out of the window or at the black wooden floor with a guitar, just trying to pull stuff out."

He was determined to write a hit (you would be if you'd just got married) and asked himself what was the easiest way to do that. Taking Manfred Mann's "5-4-3-2-1" as a starting point, he wondered what there were five of, which led him to senses, then he messed up a chord and ended up with an E-flat. He thought the chord change summoned up a picture of a medieval serf ploughing. This made him wonder what the serf would sing and he decided he would sing "Hey, hey, the clouds are whey...." That's the way the song came.

He goes into a lot more detail in the book. It's a perfect example of what a bastard craft songwriting is. I'll be talking to Daniel at Word In Your Ear at the Lexington tomorrow night. He'll be signing copies of the book for anyone who wants to give a special Christmas present to that would-be songwriter friend.  Tickets here.


  1. I've always been intrigued (and sometimes annoyed) by the use of the verb "write" to describe the creation of songs.

    Obviously orchestral composers, lacking a convenient orchestra in a "room above a shop", really did "write" their compositions down, in pen on staves. But the creative process through which people strum or noodle their way into a song surely can't be described as "writing"?

    Do we retain it because so much of the royalty process is tied up with "writing" a song? Or because people feel it somehow dignifies the instrumental improvising from which so many songs seem to be created?

  2. Fair point, and one I mentioned to Daniel last night. "Writing" always suggests the furrowed brow and he head bent over the page. It also leads to a fundamental problem in writers and composers understanding each other. Writers are looking for narrative. Composers are looking for a feeling.

  3. I don't see that the process of creation when song'writing' is any different to writing prose or poetry. It's putting together words and phrases, ideas and rhythms, just the same.

    And I would argue that your 'feeling' IS the narrative. It's the backbone(backbeat) of everything else you are putting out there.

  4. The process of 'songwriting' (i.e. ending up with a performable song) always seems to me to be akin to that of construction a building: you need both an architect and and engineer if it's going to stand up.

    In songwriting these roles are frequently performed by the same person, but I can think of many songs where the arranger or 'the band' has had more of a say in what makes the finished article memorable than the credited writer in the same way that many iconic buildings are more the work of the engineer (Sidney Opera House is the classic example).

    BTW the Kindle version of this book is currently just £3.20. I hope that Mr. Rachel is getting a reasonable cut of that!