Being in a band – attention seeking behaviour

Continuing my musical life story with one of the stranger episodes- how attention-seeking ended the first band I led.

By the middle of the 1980s, in Manchester, I’d got over the novelty of multitrack recording and begun to take songwriting seriously.

Solitary songwriting

I’d been writing songs since I was 16 but I’d always tended to rush it, taking the first draft as ‘it’ and if inspiration didn’t come, not writing at all. Moving to a new job in Staffordshire, I found myself living in a hotel during the week while Mrs Lamont was selling our house in Manchester to enable us to buy in our new village. This was expected to be a couple of months but actually took six months.

Six months in which I was stuck in the Peak Weavers, Leek, with an acoustic guitar. I started to use the time to revise some old songs that had I’d been messing with for a while, completely rewrite some and write some new ones. Without my Portastudio I had to focus on melody and words rather than adding layers of instruments to disguise weak songwriting. A couple of the songs that eventually – very eventually – found their way onto my albums were drafted and redrafted in this hotel room: Call Back Fall Back and Best of the Blues (a rewrite of a cringeworthy song from the days of Window Bill).

The Peak Weavers

But once Mrs Lamont and baby Plague (I find myself returning to the names I gave my children when I started blogging – Plague and Pestilence!) had moved from Manchester, I began to think about a band. I’d never had a band of my own, doing my songs.

Violinist? Not exactly

I advertised in a music shop in Stoke for a violinist and bass player. Nothing happened for months then out of the blue I got a call from a young man who played blues harp and whistle, but who fancied being in a band. Without much enthusiasm for those instruments I drove to Stoke to meet him. After hearing his deep voice on the phone it was a bit of a shock to learn Matt was still at school! But he was a superb player, able to quickly find something appropriate for every song, and adding drive and raunch to my languid songs. Moreover he knew a violinist, Chris, even younger than him, but a good player. He didn’t improvise much but he could transcribe melodies I hummed, learned them quickly and added ideas of his own. With a handful of my songs and some covers and folk songs – I can’t remember any now – we played at a couple of folk clubs. As they were both under age I was responsible for getting them in and out of the pub sober and getting them home.

He was into Bob Dylan in a big big way

One Saturday evening in October 1988 I wrote The Ballad of Bob Dylan (the full story of the song is here) and eagerly presented it to the band that week. We knew this would raise the stakes for us and it did. It gave Matt a chance to shine on blues harp. We added a bass player, Toby (thankfully not another schoolkid), and started playing regular floor spots at Keele University folk club. Our popularity there grew until we were offered a headline spot. Then, after some weeks, another headline spot.

And that’s when it happened.

The Hungry Ghost

For four years in Manchester and the first year in Leek I’d been creating music with an imaginary audience, dreaming that one day I would discover people who liked my music. It had become a central fantasy. Now it was becoming real. You’d think I’d be satisfied. You’d think I’d be happy. After our second Keele headline quite a few people had congratulated us, shaken my hand, asked if we had records (of course we didn’t), praised the songs and the performance. I took Matt and Chris home and started the drive back to Leek. It was nearly midnight. I was reflecting on the way people had been complementing the music, liking my performance.

And suddenly – so suddenly I can still see the the bend in the road where it happened – I realised it wasn’t enough, I still wanted more and I would ALWAYS want more, no matter how much I got. It was a terrifying vision of endless dissatisfaction and craving for approval. I came home shaken.

I was reminded of the Tibetan mythical characters the Hungry Ghosts – people whose lives were characterised by greed, who find themselves reborn as creatures with distended, empty bellies and choked thin necks who crave food but can’t swallow it. So much so that, as a reminder, it would become the name of my next band years later.

For the next few days I couldn’t bring myself to contact the band. It was a wake-up call that said if I continued to try to feed my ego this way I would always be hungry. I couldn’t see a way to get on stage again without starting the whole process up again. I had my family, and a new baby about to be born. That would have to be my focus. I would have to find a way to make music for its own sake, in its own time, not just to get people’s approval. A few weeks later Pestilence was born and I willingly laid music aside for a year or so.

In hiding

Looking back I’m happy with that, but what I’m not happy with is the way I treated the band. I just didn’t contact them – ever again. I knew I couldn’t explain to them what I’d seen – I didn’t think anyone could understand it – and I didn’t want them to think I was ending the band because of any fault of theirs. So I just hid away. Before social media it was much easier to do that. I feel bad about it to this day, they deserved better. Then again, I’m sure they got over it very quickly indeed!

Just over a year later we moved to Edinburgh. The house sale process threw me into another six months of songwriting solitude in my new city. The vision of craving for attention would return time and again to haunt me, and prompted a second withdrawal from performing in the early 1990s, but I’ve reached an accommodation with it now and it’s just like a familiar itch that needs scratched every now and then.

That’s how I had my first band, and panicked myself out of it.

 

Glasgow Songwriting Festival 2017 – swimming in the air

This past weekend I was at the Glasgow Songwriting Festival 2017. A weekend course rather than a festival. Here’s what happened and what I got from it.

Govanhill Baths

Inside Govanhill Baths The course was held in one of strangest venues I’ve been in. A hundred-year-old building housing several swimming pools, rows of private bath cubicles and a theatre, it has been derelict for years since a community sit-in saved it from demolition in 2001. Protesters were evicted and the building was closed but it had been saved. Today a community trust is turning it into an arts and wellbeing venue, but with the aim of restoring it to full use as a swimming pool. Much of it is crumbling and derelict but has that Edwardian determination to combine functionality with beauty.

In a songwriting class with guitars you get together as a group but then need to go off and find a place to play your instrument in relative privacy. That was the adventure. We found ourselves in bath cubicles, changing cubicles, admin rooms, at the deep end of an empty pool and on the stage of an empty theatre space. And oh, the echo of the porcelain walls! This was so much better than an anonymous hotel with ‘breakout rooms’. The character of the building and its history placed us firmly in Glasgow with its tradition of social activism and optimism.

The tutors

On Friday in a local music pub there was an opening concert that introduced us to the tutors:

 

Findlay Napier

Findlay Napier, the organiser of the weekend, sang warm-hearted story-songs of characters from Glasgow and elsewhere;

 

Emma Pollock (credit: Alden Chadwick)

Emma Pollock, former singer of the Delgados, gave us more of an indie sound, with a shimmering semi-acoustic;

 

Karine Polwart

Karine Polwart brought the haunting melancholy of traditional music, accompanied by her tenor guitar;

 

Jim Hunter
Jim Hunter

Jim Hunter gave us big-voiced country blues and impressed with his mastery of the dobro.

Who was there?

On Saturday morning we gathered at the baths, around 30 people I reckon. We had a wide spread of ages, probably averaging around 30-40, and numbers of men and women seemed about equal. Most came with guitars but some had keyboards, one had a harp and some no instrument. The best songs and part-songs I took part in over the weekend were with a superb singer from Aberdeen who needed a guitarist to find the chords to her words and melodies.

The sessions

We stayed in the same group of eight for the the weekend, spending a half-day with each of the four tutors.

With Emma we dissected a Beatles song, exploring our emotional responses and the musical changes that triggered them. Emma’s focus was on chords, melody and musical movement but she also had us improvising – singing lines from randomly-selected books while another group member provided some chords on guitar. This was liberating – we became willing to ‘have a go’ and just throw it out there, which set the scene for the rest of the sessions.

We then went to Jim, who got us to write lots of titles, saying this was a well-known cure for writer’s block. We talked about our titles then had to go off to one of the the strange corners of Govanhill Baths and write at least part of the song that goes with that title. This was my first ‘high’ of the weekend, where I managed to write the lyrics to a complete song – nothing profound, just a fun self-deprecating country song – in about five minutes flat, which gave me the time to work with singer Christian on two songs of hers, one of which was a real beauty.

On Saturday night most of the group met with the tutors in a local bowling club (a sedate Glasgow bowling green, not a bowling alley) for a singaround that went on till one in the morning. Covers, new songs, old songs, it gave us a chance to hear the singers from the other groups. Again I was amazed not only at the quality but the range of styles. The highlight for me was playing Jim’s dobro.

There seemed to be no hangovers on Sunday morning as we went into Karine’s session. This took place actually in the empty pool, and she had us walking round in pairs capturing our childhood memories of swimming pools. Her focus was on lyrics and the power of restriction. We discussed some haiku that Karine had brought and had the task of writing some with the strictest rules governing number of syllables, avoiding adjectives and including scene-setting and an emotional turn.

When I had walked the pool, my teammate Emma and I found both of our memories of swimming pools were fearful experiences, she because of pressure from her mother, me because I was the only one of my friends who couldn’t swim. These fears found their way into my haiku:

Head breaks the surface
I dived, I did it right!
Mum wasn’t looking

Stood by the poolside
Toes grip on the porcelain
Everyone’s swimming

Karine then gave us an equally strict set of musical instructions and got us to create the beginning of song from the raw material of the haiku and the pool memories.

In our afternoon session with Findlay we brought together the themes of working within restrictions and working from titles, and added the pressure of time – ‘speed writing’, three short collaborative sessions with a different partner each time. Christian and I came up with our third co-write of the weekend on the subject of ice cream.

Why did I do it and what did I get from it?

I felt I’d got stuck over the years in the thought that every song was a big deal. At most it ‘should’ be some sort of profound statement or at least it should be something that would become an audience favourite when I played it live. That’s a lot of expectation to put on a fragile and tentative process. That’s how I’ve got into the incredible development cycles of some of my songs which have taken up to, sometimes over, twenty years to go from initial notes to solo versions to band versions or recordings.

Some of my friends would take part in online projects like writing a whole album during February and while I envied their ability I could never see myself doing that. Over recent years I’ve had the experience of writing a couple of songs quickly that seemed better than a lot of the ones I’d laboured over ( Makes Sense To Me and If I Could Be With You), so I’ve had a taste of the possibilities.

This weekend gave me much more confidence to just write for the sheer pleasure of it, without thinking of it as being carved on my tombstone, and also began to chip away at my inhibitions about co-writing. I came away exhilarated and energised. Big thanks to Findlay and his helpers for putting it together.  It was up there with the Orchy Sessions and Guitar Craft as one of the best musical times I’ve had – ever.

Other posts on songwriting

 

Songwriting on the hoof – take a song for a walk!

Photo of man's feet walking on misty road.
I remember a quote attributed to Bob Dylan about songwriting although I’ve never been able to verify it:

Q: How do you write a song?

A: Take a song you know, change the words then change the tune

The weather’s been glorious and I heard it’s going to break tomorrow so I decided to put work aside and get out for a walk while it lasted. I set out from a local car park along a forest path. I’ve made up some of my best songs on walks and haven’t done it for a while so I decided to make one up as I was walking.

But where to begin?

Sometimes I’ve had good results in the past starting with a well-known song and gradually adapting it until nothing remains of the original but the memory of where I started. I decided to do that today and the first song that came to mind was a hit from the 1960s. That would do, I thought: it’s short, I know it off by heart and it’s universally popular. It’ll do as skeleton to build on.

Mentally I scanned the song beginning to end, picking out a structure:

ABCDBCDACDA

I didn’t do it as comprehensively as that, just an overview of what ‘bits’ there were – instrumental passages, verses, pre-chorus, chorus and so on.

The first big break

I listened to the first verse in my head. What could I do with that? That’s where my first big break came. I had a title in my mental file of ‘titles to use for songs one day’  which, when I thought about it, fitted the metre of the original song’s title exactly. That came at the end of each verse preceded by two rhyming lines, a couplet.

With that momentum, it was quite easily to come up with my first couplet, completing with the title, then another. Mentally I was still singing something like the original melody.

 I now turned my attention to the pre-chorus and found a tune to sing that somewhat followed the original but was further removed – if you heard it I don’t think you would know the original song from it. By now I was humming it and quietly singing it as I walked along the empty path.

Playing around

For the next 15 minutes or so, I just played around with more rhyming couplets following the theme the title gave me, each one ending in a repetition of the title. I found a different lyric for the pre-chorus so I now had two. The chorus fitted the same structure as the verse so I mentally marked some couplets as better than others and thus more suitable for the chorus. What had been a ‘big’ challenge, writing a song, had now shrunk to a ‘small’ challenge – writing another couplet to fit.

Keeping a note

By now I was aware that I would forget a lot of these. In fact after 25 minutes walking I had already forgotten some of the first couplets I came up with. I tried a Notes app on my phone to sing into, hopefully looking like I was making a call as I passed people by. After a couple I found that wouldn’t work as my ear was touching the screen right at the record/stop button on screen and cutting off the recording as soon as I started!

I switched to Evernote and the same thing happened. There was nothing for it but to hold the phone in front of my mouth as if dictating. That made me feel a bit self-conscious but most of the time nobody was around. When someone was passing I put it away!

Building my collection

Now I was feeling more comfortable with the song and, although I had forgotten some couplets I knew I could make up more. I turned and started retracing my steps, pausing every time I thought of a new couplet to sing it quietly into the phone. By now I was sure which one would be the chorus and main hook of the song, it was just a case of getting as many recorded as I could so I could screen them for quality on another occasion. Don’t let the editor’s mind interfere with the creative process – editing comes later.

Now change the tune

Another task I set myself for the walk back to the car was to find a new melody for the verse, which still pretty much followed that very recognisable 1960s hit. I thought I could probably defer that until I brought it to guitar – by changing the chords I could change the melody. But I wanted to see what I could do purely in my imagination so I pictured the melody, its rising and falling shape. What if I reversed it? It was hard to do with any precision but I got an idea of a melody that started with the last note and worked its way roughly towards the first. It sounded like a new melody. I couldn’t manage to do it note for note but I knew it could be done when I got home, either in manuscript or in MIDI.

What have I got?

I came home and had lunch. Predictably I could remember only a few parts of the new song. But I do have twelve audio files in Evernote to remind me of some of the song. I should be able to piece something together from that, then write more to fill it out.

What next?

What I might do next:

  • sing it along to different drum loops to see if I can take it further away from the original model song
  • take it to a friend to work on it.

In songwriting as in so many arts, the hardest thing to do is to get started. This is one way and it worked for me today.

B-sides of this post

(I wrote this ten days ago. I haven’t done anything with it yet, but the friend I was thinking of is back from holiday so that might be next week’s task.  When I have a first draft I’ll update this post with it, and spill the beans about what the original hit was.  In the meantime, here’s a video in the same theme.)

It’s just a song, after all …

Footprints

Vintage engraving of man writing at deskThis is one for all the performers among my friends.

Tonight I wrote a song. The first time in a year, during which I thought I either couldn’t, or didn’t need to, write another.

So I’ve written one, and I think it’s good. Big deal. Why is that such a bitter sweet feeling?

The myth

Since I was 14 I’ve lived with a story, a myth only occasionally conscious at the back of my mind, that everything to date has been a prelude to a wave of popular recognition and acclaim for the ‘work’ I’ve produced. Every song, every gig, every album is part of the path that leads to that moment. Every lesser achievement, however good it feels, never satisfies, it’s only a stepping stone.  It’s not quite the recognition I need. But, like many of you who read this and share that myth, the golden wave never sweeps in and the world continues to look intently everywhere but here. And now I know that at this time in my life, that’s hardly likely to change. So what do you do?

Twice already I’ve *seen* that feeling, raw and scary, and I’ve known in the moment what to do. Once, in Staffordshire, I broke up the band as a knee-jerk reaction, unable to even face telling them why I was doing it. Another time, years later in Edinburgh, when another band folded I thought it was a signal that it was time to give up the myth. I’ve often told the story of how I took up Arabic percussion instead, saying goodbye to songwriting, only to find myself months later writing This Horse about the decision.

Defeat

I came across this the other day, Leonard Cohen quoting his Zen master friend, Sasaki Roshi:

“The older you get, the lonelier you become, the deeper the love you need. Which means that this hero you’re trying to maintain as the central figure in the drama of your life, this hero is not enjoying the life of a hero…. the hero is suffering defeat after defeat. And they’re not glorious defeats, they’re ignoble defeats. One day you say ‘Let him die, I can’t invest any more in this heroic position.’ From there, you just live your life as if it’s real. As if you have to make decisions, even though you’ve absolutely no guarantee of the consequences of any of those decisions.” (Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen)

Arthur C Brooks, in the New York Times,  puts it another way:

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we are wired to seek fame, wealth and sexual variety. These things make us more likely to pass on our DNA. Had your cave-man ancestors not acquired some version of these things (a fine reputation for being a great rock sharpener; multiple animal skins), they might not have found enough mating partners to create your lineage.
But here’s where the evolutionary cables have crossed: We assume that things we are attracted to will relieve our suffering and raise our happiness. My brain says, “Get famous.” It also says, “Unhappiness is lousy.” I conflate the two, getting, “Get famous and you’ll be less unhappy.”
But that is Mother Nature’s cruel hoax. She doesn’t really care either way whether you are unhappy — she just wants you to want to pass on your genetic material. If you conflate intergenerational survival with well-being, that’s your problem, not nature’s. And matters are hardly helped by nature’s useful idiots in society, who propagate a popular piece of life-ruining advice: “If it feels good, do it.” Unless you share the same existential goals as protozoa, this is often flat-out wrong. (Love People Not Pleasure)

Zen teacher Brad Warner has more thoughts on this theme here, but the answer, for me, is to find happiness in just playing music, for its own sake.  To my surprise, I found that in the three gigs the band and I did in August at the Festival.  After them, I felt satisfied, not craving more. That was a new experience – I didn’t know simple satisfaction could feel so ecstatic.  I’d played for my family, friends and a few strangers, played mostly as well as my bandmates, got one or two new people interested – and it was enough.

Afterwards I was torn between a voice saying ‘quick, get more gigs while you’re still all playing together’ and another saying ‘that’s a fine place to let it rest for good’.

The answer came in seeing some great musicians in the Fringe, particularly Graeme Mearns, who inspired me to focus on learning to play guitar more competently in service of the songs. So I started playing acoustic at home for pleasure, something I hadn’t done for a long time.  And out of some jazz chords came a song.

The bittersweet I talked about is, can I work on the song and play it to an audience without that whole dumb myth in the semi-conscious pond of my brain stirring back into life and coalescing around it?  Well, I think I can.  See you out there.

Am I the only once narcissistic enough to worry about this, or does this resonate with you performer types?  Let me know.

Restrictions make you work better

Spiderman by Steve DitkoSometimes when something’s difficult you can manage it by making it a different kind of difficult.

I’ve been confounded for most of the year by a big ‘ol baddie that sits on my shoulder saying ‘ You can’t write anything, certainly nothing as good as you used to, nothing as good as <name anyone>, and nobody can be bothered with you, so why not occupy your time in other ways and forget singer/songwriting ‘.  It’s a familiar pattern to me and lots of others, I know it doesn’t last forever, so I just ride it out. Usually something breaks it eventually.

I’ve been experimenting with various ‘restrictions’ in creative work both in my day job and trying to get back into ‘my stuff’. For example restricting time to 30 minutes or even 2 minutes.  At the same time, trying to declutter both my office/studio environment and my thinking (e.g. cancelling subscriptions, that sort of thing). Nobody ever tells you how long decluttering takes and how much more time you can spin out of it to avoid creative work.

But while deleting old files from my computer I found a lyric I didn’t remember writing, which seems to have been an attempt at rewriting the lyrics of  Talking Heads Life During Wartime as if it was set in Edinburgh. I read it with delight thinking ‘this isn’t bad at all’ but when I tried to sing it I found that it didn’t fit. Why not?  I found that David Byrne’s verses were written in pairs with the last line of each rhyming, whereas all mine were just single verses with no rhyme.  I was still enthused with the song so I thought ‘How hard would it be to write a twin verse to each of the verses I already have?’   Turned out it wasn’t that hard at all.  And it broke the blockage just for half an hour, and I had a pretty much finished song which I’ll be able to perform when I’ve memorised all twenty verses.

Here’s a taste:

 

Roadblocks at Cramond

Roadblocks at Gogar

They took some money each time

 

They took my ID

Round five different people

They like to mess with your mind

 

 

See those neds

On every corner

Where did they get all those guns?

 

They’re shooting cats

They’re shooting dogs

Don’t interfere with their fun

 

 

Who’s got the castle?

Who’s got the station?

Who’s got Calton today?

 

Who’s got the Old Town?

Who’s got the New Town?

I just keep out of the way

Songwriting: the juice and its flowing

Woman writing words while holding guitar.,

Some thoughts on songwriting, from the first blog I kept, written in 1997, but I’m still behind most of this.

Magic

It’s just magic! It feels that way anyway. Writers may disagree about the proportions of inspiration and perspiration that go into making a song, but everyone recognises that leap of the heart when you think ‘Hey, this is actually something good!’. For many of us, this is immediately followed by the cold sweat of ‘Is it someone else’s song?’ It would be so reassuring if we could just say ‘Computer – is there already a song that goes hmmm hmmmm da da da da?’.

(Remember I wrote the first draft of this in 1997 – there probably is now!)

I remember having a nagging doubt that one of my songs was borrowed from an Ultravox hit of years ago. I had to dash off to the local audio library and scrabble for an Ultravox Greatest Hits collection. (This was before Spotify or even the Napster revolution!) The librarian had probably never seen anyone require an Ultravox album with such urgency! I rammed it into my walkman and leaned back on the outside wall to learn my fate. Yes, the song I thought it was did exist, but it was different enough to let me admit this proto-song that was tapping at my window.

Some writer (Donovan I think) said words to the effect that you don’t create a song
– songs are all around in the air, and you just reach out and catch
one. While it may not be good metaphysics, his statement does reflect
the constantly surprising feeling of the completeness of a newly-conceived
song, for me anyway. I seem to hear the entire song, voices and instruments,
in a way that is much closer to remembering a previously heard song
than it is to deliberately starting with a few elements and considering
consciously what you’re going to do with them. Hence, I suppose, my
anxiety about the possibility that I am simply remembering a song
I’ve heard years ago.

The circumstances may give rise to different feelings about the conception
of a song. The vast majority of my songs, and probably my best ones,
first pop into my head out of doors, usually walking in the street.
When I do sit down with a guitar to write, it is more deliberate,
more conscious, less immediate. One reason for my songs being catchy
and easily remembered is that if I think of them in the city street,
they have to have a damn good hook for me to retain them till I get
home and work out the chords. I can’t write music and found singing
furtively into a microcassette too embarrassing to adopt as a standard
practice.

 

The kind of new song that astonishes and delights me most is when I
just open my mouth and start singing, not knowing what I’m going to sing,
and the song is suddenly ‘there’. Like most writers, I find a few good
lines are ‘given’ and the rest I have to craft. The sense of completeness
I mentioned earlier doesn’t mean I immediately know every word of every
verse, but only the sensation that somewhere the other verses do exist
– like the sculptor who looks at a block of stone and takes his task to
be that of removing all the bits that aren’t the figure. I ‘heard’ the
third verse of The Desert Was Better as
I walked from work to Haymarket station, and scribbled down a fair amount
of the final lyric in the station waiting room; the rest took weeks to
hammer into shape.

Bob Dylan’s cryptic advice for songwriters – ‘Just take a song you like
and change the words then change the music’ – rings true for me. Some of my songs
started out as attempts to write in the vein of another song, or even
just to play it! Fortunately, the new songs seem to settle down and make
their homes acceptably far away from their original inspiration. The song
The Ballad of Bob Dylan poured out of me the evening
I bought the Traveling Wilburys first album and picked up my guitar to
try to play Tweeter and the Monkey Man. Likewise New
Eyes moved a long way from its initial inspiration: ‘Trains and Boats
and Planes’
which I was humming as I walked along Lothian Road to the bus stop.

These examples are the most exciting but not the most typical. Often the ‘seed’ of the song is tantalisingly brief, and it can be a struggle to bring it to completion. The basic idea for Still, A Hungry Ghosts song, possessed me while changing trains in, I think, York, but it was a struggle of weeks and months to find a context of words and music with which to surround the very sparse but appealing chorus. In the end it was my impatience to hear it sung by Tricia Thom, the singer I was working with at the time,
that forced me to write a couple of verses, which I then tinkered with but didn’t replace over the following weeks.

 

Having a fulltime (non-musical) job and a family, my opportunities
to write on an instrument are few and far between. When I do write on
guitar I write a different kind of song, usually one suggested by the atmosphere evoked by a chord sequence (Hungry Ghosts.)
This is much more a crafting experience than one of inspiration. In other
words, I have to spend more time consciously experimenting before the
‘Hey this is actually good’ moment, which is not any less narcotic
for all that!

So what tips would I give for someone writing songs. I’m hardly a role-model (whoever heard of a songwriter afraid to sing in his own house?) but came up with the following in a discussion on a message board:

  • carry a notebook at all times – write down anything that you think sounds interesting. Overheard conversations are a good resource.
  • if you’re writing lyrics, switch off the internal censor – fill pages with every possible verse, line, couplet for the song you’re thinking of. Don’t be forced to make everything rhyme – that just slows you down and inhibits your ideas. Try to write as much as possible as fast as possible. Then leave it a few days without looking at it (a few years in the case of most of my songs). When you re-read it, look for the phrases that jump out as being good and copy them to a new page. Now you can think about stuff like rhyme. (If you’ve got more than one good phrase 😉 )
  • follow Dylan’s advice: if you want to write a song, just take a song you like and change the words then change the music. There’s something in that. The aim of the exercise is to get so far from the original the audience would never know. Instead of taking the tune from the original, take the structure (verses and choruses etc); or pick elements of the song you like and do the opposite.
  • …or Eno’s advice – write a song without the word ‘I’.
  • listen for songs when you wake up. My Polecats was composed or ‘given’ – I don’t know what – when I was half awake half asleep in the morning. If I hadn’t gone straight to a notebook I’d have forgotten it by the time I’d shaved.
  • make up songs when you’re walking or driving. It removes the dependence on your guitar or piano knowledge, and guarantees that they must be memorable – if they’re not you’ll forget them before you can write anything down.
  • just start! Open your mouth and start! Trust that something will happen. (Honestly, this has worked for me. Just walking along I started quietly singing the first thing that came into my head. Turn, The Desert Was Better and This Horse all came out that way.