For the third year running I attended the Glasgow Songwriting Festival last weekend. It followed the same format as previous years – you stay in a group of about eight and spend a two hour session with each of the four tutors over the Saturday and Sunday – but unlike previous years in the unique setting of Govanhill Baths, this was in the salubrious City Halls in Glasgow’s Merchant City.
Last year, while I enjoyed all the sessions, I was disappointed with my own output from it, half a song that had some potential but not enough to motivate me to finish it. This year I was buzzing with the stuff I created, all collaborations with other participants, and I definitely hope we can continue some of them online.
I also need to mention that, attending the opening tutors’ concert on the Friday night, Fi (my Heaven Sent guitarist) and I had one of the best dinners ever in the Glad Cafe, a selection of Thai-inspired vegan dishes so good we missed the start of the concert to enjoy it!
My first session was with Emma Pollock, formerly of the Delgados. Her interest was phrasing and melody. We started by listening critically to The Clapping Song and considering the various rhythms of the lyrics, which Emma illustrated with a drum machine. We then, as a group, started reading lines from books in those rhythms until we had the bones of a verse and chorus on a flipchart. I provided a basic backing of one chord on the guitar.
Just as I was thinking ‘what a lot to get out of one simple song’ we turned to another: the Beatles’ Penny Lane. Penny Lane is the gift that keeps on giving. Every time I hear it I wonder that I never get fed up with it and today we studied its very unusual chord sequence, with multiple changes of key, which you’d never notice as such because the melody glues it all together. Inspired by this we put together a chord sequence for the lyrics on the flipchart until we had a song. It wouldn’t stand up to lyrical analysis of course, but we all loved it and and it were singing it quietly to ourselves in the coffee break.
Findlay Napier then had us choosing titles from a list of phrases. He would only divulge their origin if someone could guess correctly where they came from, but no-one did, so we don’t know. He gave us a rhyme scheme to work with and we paired off. I worked with Lorraine Rahmani on a comedy dialogue between two partners called ‘Seriously?’ which was really fun. It almost wrote itself. Lorraine had the best lyrical ideas and great comedy timing to deliver it. We plan to record this one so you may hear it eventually.
After a singaround on the Saturday night (and another dinner at the Glad Cafe) we reconvened on Sunday morning with an impromptu performance by classmate Nan of her Kate Bush act, just for our small group. Carol Laula then had us looking at lyrics drawn from memory and emotion, starting with phrases and gradually working them towards verses and adding music. Again I found a great collaboration partner in Mark. It felt like we had worked together before as we were able not only to put forward ideas and drop them if they didn’t work but also say no ideas we didn’t want to use. We went off into another room and completed a verse, chorus and middle eight of a ‘holiday and sunshine’ number called Cobalt Blue which lent itself to harmonies and a tasty guitar solo by Mark.
Our final session was with Boo Hewerdine, one of the most in-demand songwriting tutors in Britain (and also author of a wonderful Thai chicken curry recipe but that’s another story). His session was based on stories following several albums he’s done working with groups of people around a place or historical interest and turning their life stories into song. We each wrote a story from our lives, passed it to the next person round the table, who turned it into verses following a particular meter (just to reduce the number of decisions that had to be made), then passed that to the next person, who set it to music. While it wasn’t always easy it was probably the most stimulating task of the weekend, and we were lucky to have it as the last session, when we’d got to know each other and lost any inhibition about stringing together words and music.
The event then ended with votes of thanks to everyone who’d helped, but especially Findlay Napier, who, as well as being a genial host with a gentle sense of humour, puts the whole event together out of his own pocket, which must be a considerable risk to take.
What do I as a singer-songwriter get from events like these?
It’s not especially about the songs themselves. While there were a few things I could re-use in my own writing from the weekend, they were written in a hurry and I probably wouldn’t put them out there exactly as they are (except for ‘Seriously?’).
For me it’s more about drumming home the point that this isn’t world-shattering art that has to be deliberated over for years. They’re just songs and one you churn out in twenty minutes can often be as good as one you spend long months revisiting and retweaking. On my new album Don’t Ask Me was started in 1982, but the title track Ten Objects was a twenty-minute write from an exercises like the ones on this weekend. After that initial write I only made two changes to lyrics over the following weeks. One of those – to Gerry’s disbelief – was at the last moment of the editing stage of the recording!
Each of the tutors supplied us with tools and tactics to use when you want to start a song, or when you hit a creative impasse. Again, it’s about getting things moving.
Finally there’s the pleasure of spending a weekend talking about songwriter-nerdy things with people who actually want to talk about it rather than indulging you because it’s your passion and you can’t shut up about it.
I’m ready to sign up for next year!