I love it when I friend lends you a book that you would never choose for yourself. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut with your reading habits – like that year I read nothing but Spanish translations of Barbara Cartland novels – and jumping into someone else’s rut can be just the way to get out of your own.
One recent hand-me-down was a book called ‘Moby-Duck’. I would ordinarily have passed over this book on the ‘strength’ of the title alone, and the description beneath the title would have sealed it: ‘The true story of 28,800 bath toys lost at sea and of the beachcombers, oceanographers, environmentalists, and fools, including the author, who went in search of them’. It really didn’t sound like my kind of thing at all, but I dived in anyway, trusting that my friend wasn’t lying when she said that the water was fine.
In the case of ‘Moby-Duck’, the water in question was the North Atlantic, where a container full of the aforementioned bath toys had tumbled from the deck of a storm-tossed ship and then burst open as it hit the water, releasing the 28,800 brightly-coloured plastic critters into the grey vastness of the ocean.
The author, having come across a small newspaper article about this incident, decided that he wanted to know more, and proceeded to trace the journey of these bath toys – both backwards and forward in time. In the process, he learnt (amongst other things) about the history of the toy industry; manufacturing in China; merchant shipping; the nature of ocean currents; the ‘science’ of beachcombing; the state of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and its effects on wildlife and the ocean itself; and the attempts various groups of environmentalists are making to address these effects. It turned out to be a fascinating, depressing, and somewhat motivating, read. It certainly significantly reduced the number of plastic items I purchased in my Christmas shopping.
However, reading this book had another, much more unexpected, effect on me, which was that, in a strange tangential way, it reignited my desire to get back into songwriting (I did say strange and tangential). It was all to do with the books description of beachcombing: it reminded of the way I write songs.
You see, there are different kinds of songwriting process, just as there are different ways of being a visual artist. Some songwriters, like some painters and sculptors, are masters (and I use this term in a non-gender specific sense) of technique. They have studied the history of their particular art form, understand all the rule of composition, and have a massive tool kit of techniques and strategies that they can dip into to solve any problem, and to work their way out of any creative impasse. All they need is an idea and an instrument/canvas/lump of stone and they can turn out a thing of beauty that is absolutely faithful to their original idea. You’ve probably already guessed that I am not that kind of songwriter.
In the visual arts, the equivalent of my approach is the art of the found object. Now for many people, this term brings to mind the idea of the ‘ready made’, made famous by Marcel DuChamp, where the object is completely unmodified – for example, this work entitled ‘Fountain’:
My approach, by contrast, is more like those artists who find an object that inspires an idea, and who then search for complementary objects that will help them to realise this vision even if those complementary objects end up being a pair of googly, plastic eyes from a two dollar shop – see below).
Yes folks, this sculpture is the perfect visual representation of my songs and my approach to songwriting: I am kind of like a melodic and lyrical beachcomber. A line of music comes to me, I overhear a particular turn of phrase, I find a striking passage in a book that I’m reading, and they all go into a little, yellow exercise book that I keep for exactly this purpose. Then, when the mood takes me, I dip into the book to see if any of my found objects might fit together, whether I might be able to form a vaguely coherent whole out of random pieces of flotsam and jetsam that have nothing intrinsically to do with each other.
As you can imagine, it can be a torturous task. Some of my songs have sat for years in a state of near completion, waiting for the final piece of the compositional puzzle, and some of the most beautiful pieces of ‘driftwood’ I have found I am yet to find a use for.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not completely passive in this process, just waiting for things to fall into my lap. I do chip away at some of my found objects, trying to shape them into a more usable form, and I have a least a handful of basic compositional tools that I use to fashion a rough beauty from formless lumps, but I am no craftsman: in the completed works, the joins are always visible, the transitions far from seamless – though I like to think that there can be beauty in those imperfections too.
Anyway, I haven’t written anything in my yellow exercise book for a while, nor have I leafed through it to find the kinds of unexpected juxtapositions that might be the beginnings of a song. But I’m going to do it again soon, thanks to the unexpected inspiration of ‘Moby-Duck’.
For those that are interested, one of my favourite examples of my songwriting process (or in this instance, lyric writing process) is how the words came together for a song of mine called ‘Solid’. I have embedded the song below (it was on an EP that I recorded about 7 years ago called ‘So Far’), and it is followed by the lyrics (in italics) and notes on those lyrics.
The world looks solid but they say it’s full of holes,but nothing stops moving long enough to really know.
This opening line came from a poem a housemate of mine wrote about 20 years ago. I carried this line around in my yellow note book for a decade.
That’s why lookouts are better than trails, that’s why shells are better than snails, that’s why I carry a pocket full of nails. The dead are so still and beautiful. The dead are so still and beautiful.
This is my riffing on the line from the poem: putting forward the perverse idea that perhaps stillness/death is better than movement/life.
The next verse is completely unrelated, and comes from an incident that happened years later. I was driving in a friend’s old red Diahatsu, and singing along to a demo of some of my songs, and it occurred to me that the situation was just like some kind of really crap music video for a musician with delusions of grandeur. So as I drove, I worked up a small set of lyrics to that effect.
The critics all said that I’d never go far. But here I am driving all alone in a little borrowed car. Listening to a tape of songs that I made. Thinking what I’ll buy the day I get paid. Drinking, driving, and singing at the top of my lungs. Pulling down the visor to hide the sun. Pulling down the visor to hide the sun.
The next section of lyrics is another random set of words that represent my default setting as a writer, ie me wrestling with the fact that I have almost invariably chosen to be a good boy in my life, and have, as a result, spent much of my life staring through doors that I haven’t allowed myself to go through. I’ve got a lot of songs about this.
Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe it’s me, but it strikes me as strange that when I take I look through an open door, I can’t look away, I want to see more. I keep on feeding what I know I should ignore.
The next part of the lyrics I came up with in the recording process. My friend (and producer) said that the song needed a middle section, which we worked up musically, and then I needed to come up with some lyrics. I think I had already been playing around with the idea ‘drinking something without reading the label’, and the rest flowed from that image of self-destructive naughtiness. It ends up seeming like a fantasy sequence for the kind of character presented in the previous section.
You know I’ve been a bad boy. Touched what I was meant to destroy. I’ve pissed without leaving the table, I’ve drunk without reading the label.
The last verse kind of returns to the road trip idea of verse two, and so was probably a belated attempt to give the song a through line, but it begins with a completely unrelated idea that I had one day while listening to ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ by Joni Mitchell. Her chorus begins with ‘Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone’, and it occurred to me that there must be a way to update that very 1970 sentiment. So I sing…
‘You don’t know what you’ve got, til what you’ve got is gone. And even then it’s hard to be certain just what it was.’
Then there is an image based on the ‘insight’ I once had while driving, that driving heaven is to have your fuel gauge as high as possible, and your temperature gauge as low as possible, and driving hell is the opposite. I sweated over how to incorporate this insight into my song and came up with the following, which begins wtih one of the best rhyming couplets of all time.
Fuel gauge falling, temperature rising, I think I see a service station on the horizon, better pull over and fill up while I can. The clouds are building in the southern sky. I think it’s going to rain before the day is night.
I’m not sure anyone has ever rhymed rising with horizon before, and hopefully it will never happen again.
Anyway, you get the idea. Even the false sense of closure created by the driving into the sunset motif at the end can’t hide the fact that this song is all over the shop lyrically. Still, I figure that incoherence can put you in good company. I remember a story about David Bowie saying how much he loved it when people talked to him about their interpretations of the lyrics of his songs, because more often than not he had no idea himself, and so was really glad to find out what his songs ‘meant’. Though I may just have made that story up.