Writing the book that didn't exist: conversations with great British songwriters

18 September 2014

Fifteen years ago while in a bookshop on the Charing Cross Road it suddenly occurred to me that I wanted to read about the writing habits of the country's great songwriters. It was a book which did not exist. At that time I was set to release a debut solo album; a reaction to my group Rachel's Basement splitting up. Nothing beats playing in a band and although I stubbornly soldiered on through a few more tours and another album I finally declared to a dwindling grass roots audience, ‘I’m giving up. I’m going to write a book.’ I clinically guillotined a lifetime of musicianship, shut away my Fender Telecaster, and set out to write the book I most wanted to read.

This is a snapshot of what I learnt while writing Isle of Noises: Conversations with Great British Songwriters.

Damon Albarn says that he is like a farmer. He plants seeds every day, nine to five, putting in a day’s work. Lily Allen writes nothing unless she is in the recording studio. She doesn’t carry a notebook or collect scraps of thoughts in a paper bag like Ray Davies does. Lily waits. Only when a new backing track demands input does she conjure up the required creativity. Paul Weller can hold a new idea in his mind for anything up to a month. He doesn’t need to capture inspiration immediately either on tape or on his phone. Paul reasons that if an idea is good enough he will remember it. When a project is finished he destroys all his written notes in a bonfire of used-up creativity.

“Ray Davies ... invents fictional characters ... he could tell you about their whole lives”

Chris Difford has been writing words for Squeeze all of his adult life. He invents characters and the characters live on in him. He says there are enough to fill a gig with. Chris’s writing world is a mixture of reality and fantasy. He says that for the people around him it can be a difficult to negotiate the mood swings. Ray Davies is another songwriter who invents fictional characters. Just think of ‘Lola’ and ‘Mr Pleasant’, ‘Walter’ or ‘Arthur’. Ray could tell you about their whole lives, yet in song he condenses his back stories down to three minute dramas. Ray will also tell you that he has yet to write the perfect pop song. Paul Weller and Andy Partridge of XTC aspire to Davies’ greatness; they want to match the brilliance of ‘Waterloo Sunset’ or ‘Autumn Almanac’. As with many, The Kinks are the gold standard when it comes to perfect pop songwriting.

When Laura Marling writes down her words she uses a left-handed fountain pen. It was a gift. But for Laura the paper she uses is definitely not precious because, as she explains, that would make the act of writing precious. Instead, she jots down notes in a multitude of writing journals she carries in her bag; sometimes she cuts out clippings from newspapers or magazines and sticks them in a notebook. Laura says she doesn’t return to these notices for lyrical inspiration, rather they just seem to act as a map of her daily imagination.

“Bryan Ferry ponders why there aren’t more female record producers”

Jimmy Page can envisage songs. He knew what ‘Stairway to Heaven’ would sound like before he even picked up an electric guitar. Meanwhile, Lee Mavers of the La’s couldn’t believe that any old fool hadn’t spotted the riff to ‘There She Goes’ before he did. He said the notes are right there in the G major scale. Mick Jones of The Clash also believes songwriters are just conduits to what is already out there. He’s not alone: Sting, for one, doesn’t claim any originality in his writing at all. It is one of the reasons you can hear snatches of ‘Every Little Thing She Does is Magic’ on more than one of his records.

Joan Armatrading is very proud that she is one of only a few female songwriters that have matched the achievements and accolades of her male counterparts. The trouble for Joan is retaining melodic ideas. She may forget a melody line or a poetic stanza in the time it takes to cross a room.

Noel Gallagher assesses the paucity of British women writers by concluding ‘birds get up the duff and have to take nine months off.’ Jarvis Cocker debates the problem has its roots in primeval showing-off rituals. Bryan Ferry ponders why there aren’t more female record producers.

‘We sometimes play Bernie Taupin and Elton John,’ say the Pet Shop Boys. On occasion, Neil Tennant has pretended to be Morrissey. He did it when he recorded ‘Getting Away With It’ with Johnny Marr. Neil decided it was best not to tell the Smiths’ songwriter of his fantasy role-play, particularly because they were recording in Manchester. ‘There‘s no one way to write,’ says Billy Bragg. ‘Rudyard Kipling told me that.’ For Billy, writing songs can be as difficult as climbing a sheer rock face, whilst Annie Lennox acknowledges the role of movement to release inspiration. She shares this observation with many of the songwriters in Isle of Noises.

For me, it was a privilege to conduct these interviews and hear so many greats of the past fifty years sharing their thoughts on writing music, songs and freeing their creative imagination. But what I cherish most is my introduction to Johnny Rotten: ‘John,’ his manager shouted across the studio courtyard, ‘it’s Daniel to talk with you about songwriting.’ Rotten’s reply was priceless: ‘I don’t care who it is. I’m eating my chips.’

Isle of Noises: Conversations with Great British Songwriters 

Daniel Rachel's book Isle of Noises: Conversations with Great British Songwriters is out now in paperback.

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