I’m currently sat in a lovely bar in Cardiff called ’29 Park Place’. They have an Xbox 360 set up with FIFA on, the temptation to go and play and be counter productive is quite overwhelming. I’m playing in Gwdihw tonight, and did some filming for a show that will be shown on Made In Cardiff TV tonight. But that’s not what this blog is about…
I’ve recently just finished reading Scroobius Pip’s latest book ‘Distraction Pieces’, which is basically transcripts from his Podcast which are equally as great. The book is split into sections such as ‘Politics’, ‘Mental Health’, ‘Comedy and Film’, but the section I found most fascinating was one called ‘The Creative Process’ and gave me the idea to talk about my creative process. I frequently get asked about how I go about writing songs, and this is a question without a definitive answer. However, I feel that if I talk about my previous experiences with writing, it may gave you a bit of an insight. Like Scroobius’ book, I’ve split it into sections.
‘ONTAW’ was the challenge that I set myself in 2015, where I released One New Tune A Week for a whole year. It was draining, emotionally and physically, but an exercise in writing that I would recommend to anyone. I originally set out to release a song every Wednesday. Due to other commitments (gigs….nights out etc), I fell a bit behind some weeks and tried to make it up in other weeks. The writing itself wasn’t an issue, the content was. Writing a song, recording said song, filming and editing a video for that song, all culminating in a weekly blog. I will just focus on the writing part for the sake of the blog though. I found that I was constantly writing, not so much with an instrument but in my head. I was very aware of my surroundings, and to quote myself, ‘Finding Beauty in Mundane’. When I reached around Week 20, I found that my brain never stopped working. I would boil the kettle and I’d get a lyric idea. All these ideas, I would write down in my phone. I specifically remember walking through my local park one day and seeing a conker on the ground. For some reason, it struck a chord (if you’ll excuse the pun), and before I knew it I had a whole concept for a song. I used to Conkers with my friends on the school yard when I was young. I’ll post the video below, and you can see where my mind took me. I always get lyric and melody ideas while driving as well, and my girlfriend bought me a dictaphone so I can get these recorded whilst on the M40.
I found myself watching and listening to a lot of interviews with my favourite songwriters to find out about their creative process. One particular interview I remember watching was with Ryan Tedder. He talked about his career and claimed to tell his parents that he’ll be the Last Man Standing. I came up with another song that night which I’ll post below.
JKLMNO was my old band, who I was with for around 10 years maybe? We had varied amounts of success. We played Benicassim festival, T In The Park and got played on the radio a fair bit. A particular highlight was James Dean Bradfield (Manic Street Preachers) praising a song that I produced on BBC Wales. In the grand scheme of things, we were useless at writing. Carl (singer) would usually come to practise with half a song and we’d put the rest to it. We found that we were always racing to finish these songs which made them suffer a bit. One month, we received a nice cheque from PRS, and we decided to book a writing holiday. We hired a cottage in Dumfries for 4 days. We set up all of our gear with the recording equipment in the room downstairs and when we had energy, we’d go and play. We had the occasional moments of jamming old songs but our focus was to write new stuff.
The reason this worked was because we all had roles in this band for this trip. I was head of recording demos and programming instruments, Carl was head of Lyric writing, Elliot was the chef, Nick was the cleaner and Pierce had FIFA. We all have very varied music tastes, which made us struggle sometimes, but once we found the middle ground, the outcomes were beautiful. We came away from that trip with 3 new songs, nicely demo’d and it was such a good trip. We barely had phone signal in this place which was a massive factor. In Scroobius’ book, Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, my body double) touches on this. He says that he works best when he’s confined. He hired a hotel room for a few weeks to write ‘Paul’, and because he was paying for this room, he stayed in it and was productive. It’s a great way to be productive. Confinement and costs.
I’ve co wrote a fair few of my songs. I struggle finding people that I’m comfortable writing with though. I think you need to be able to be completely open and honest with the person, or people, that you are writing with. If you hate a melody, you should have the confidence to say that you hate it. It’s great when it comes to lyric writing because the other writers may have been through the same thing as you, and be able to phrase it slightly differently which opens up a whole new world of ideas.
I co wrote 3 of my ONTAW songs (I think…… could be 4). The first co write was with Jenny Stanley who was living with me at the moment. We were writing a song for her solo material, but we hit a wall and started jamming out other ideas. We started chatting about past relationships and then put pen to paper again. An hour later, a song called ‘Circles’ was born. It’s still one of my favourite songs that I’ve written. We never finished Jenny’s song. Apparently I used a lyric from it in another ONTAW song but I don’t recall which one.
I’ve co wrote ALOT of songs with Dave Giles. We’re very good friends and very open with each other (sometimes too open), so writing is easy once we get down to it. We wrote an EP called ‘+1’ in 2013 and it only took maybe 3 writing sessions. One was accidental, we got drunk one night and started moaning about being single (or at least I did). As any drunken night used to go, we got a pen and paper out with a couple of guitars. We wrote a song called ‘Boy Who Gets The Girl’ that night, and I still think it’s a brilliant song. The original video that Dave put up was recorded that night, I was scared to watch it the next day. Before that, we wrote a song called ‘The Guitarist’, which we have both admitted is a dreadful song. Sometimes songs just come out fully written within the hour, ‘The Guitarist’ was one of them….In hindsight, we should’ve kept it to ourselves.
This is just another section of things to point that didn’t really fit in to the other sections:
- Don’t be scared of the distraction. If you’re writing a song, and you feel like you want to give it a break and play a computer game, do it. Distraction is good. If you return to the song an hour after, you might’ve thought of a new idea. Making a cup of tea is always a good one as well.
- Persistence. After I finished my ONTAW challenge, I took a month off of writing as I wanted to give my head a rest. This is the worst thing that I could’ve done. When I got back to writing, it was so difficult. It felt like I was starting from day 1 again. Even if it’s just for 10 minutes a day, try and write a verse, or a chorus. Some are bad, some are good, which leads me onto the next point…..
- Always finish the shit songs. The amount of times in the past when I’ve started writing a song, got to the second verse and give up because it’s truly awful. What I learned when doing the ONTAW challenge, was to finish these songs. I have around 9 songs that I didn’t use for that challenge because I had to get the shit songs out of my head. I like closure. Sometimes, I persisted with a shit song, and it came out good. You’ll get the bridge or whatever, and you’ll spark a new idea which will completely shape the song. You’ll go back and change lyrics, the melodies and before you know it, you polished a turd.
- Open mics are good. Playing new songs live is KEY! I’m lucky at the moment as I have a residency at a venue in Camden. When I’ve been writing new songs, I’ve been playing them live. As you’re playing these songs live, you can gauge a crowds reaction to find what works and what doesn’t in that song. It’s worth risking your reputation sometimes…for the greater good.
This was a long blog, but I hope you have taken something from it. I enjoyed writing it, It could’ve been 4 times longer to be honest.
Now I’m going to go and play FIFA, bye for now.
Things to check out:
Scroobius Pip’s Book (Amazon): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Distraction-Pieces-Scroobius-Pip/dp/1844039129/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1475776952&sr=8-1&keywords=scroobius+pip
Ryan Tedder ASCAP Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BgXIopnSyo
Dave Giles: www.davejgiles.com
ONTAW Blog: https://dannygruffontaw.wordpress.com/
‘The Guitarist’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHIm8s0HR3Y