Thursday, 4 February 2016

Happy Blue: Released February 5

'Happy Blue' is released tomorrow.
The world will inevitably beat a path to my door to ask 'why?'
Why am I impelled to keep doing this thing?
It's a good question, particularly when the returns are becoming less and less rewarding. It does sometimes feel like bellowing into an empty cave. The echo is reassuring although it is but an echo.
I recognize in other writers and performers the need to put things in order; to join the dots and, in making those connections, help themselves to check and reset their compasses. But towards what? Perhaps towards some sense of 'home': home as a source of comfort, or simply as a place of sanctuary; a safe harbour to retreat to, somewhere to rest, reset and review past travels before venturing out again to share their stories with the world.

For me the best writers are story tellers. V. S. Pritchett wrote that short stories were ‘something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing’. Sometimes it’s good to write with intent. That way you’ll get what exactly what you wanted and expected. Sometimes it’s good to write just to see where the muse will lead you; to surprise yourself. The American writer Raymond Carver told that he once had a line in his head that he knew would make for a great story: “He was running the vacuum cleaner when the telephone rang.” He didn’t know where the story would lead but as soon as he
found time at his typewriter to write the line sure enough “other sentences promptly began to attach themselves… and I knew it was my story, the one I’d been wanting to write’.

I guess that like Carver I’m interested in the small dramas of everyday life. I have no answers, just observations and questions. And they aren’t always my observations or questions. I just need to keep my radar tuned. An idea might come from an overheard remark, a misheard lyric, a newspaper article or a domestic moment that unfolds in front of you. The trick is in recognizing what’s worthy of development and to distance yourself enough to be able to take in the scene; to be dispassionately engaged enough to tote and tell. My partner Di once came home from work with a story about a seemingly dysfunctional couple that she’d just seen on a train. They were both mumbling, anoraked and odd. She with a cleft lip, he with long lank hair and thick corrective glasses, hood up. They were fussing over their baby, which was wrapped in a blanket. Di was taken by their tenderness. As she got up to leave she passed the couple and looked down at the baby. It was a plastic doll… Some things you just couldn’t make up; there's a profundity in the mundane. Di related snippets of their muted conversation and I fashioned the tale into the title track of the ‘Alaska’ album.

For me it’s initially a bit like mindless trawling. I’m casting my creative net and seeing what’s out there/in there. The essence of an idea, the ghost of a song often seems to float in its own current just out of view. Instinct is key. You are aware of its presence, you just need to catch it and land it. You don’t always catch what you were expecting. If there is alchemy in the process I think that it’s in recognizing when is a good time to fish and knowing where to cast your net. Into troubled waters invariably… Oh, and also recognizing what you should throw back; sometimes the big ones taste of mud; it’s the tasty tiddlers that are worth keeping.
The currency that keeps us vital is life itself, and our vital perception not just of life as it happens, but of our processing of that experience. Our value is not just what we could be, but what we are, what we have become. The further we grow away from our histories, the more obvious their influence becomes, and consequentially, the more we idealise and cherish that influence. Reviewed and rewritten, our past becomes us. 

In Corsica around the time of writing the 1st two solo albums ‘Hopeland’ and then ‘Keepers’, I felt an increasing sense of emotional isolation.  In London the common ‘buzz’ had rendered me over stimulated, my touchstones had become mobile phones and laptops; I had to keep checking for messages to see if I was valued. It was a bit like looking in a mirror to see if I was still there. I needed to unburden myself, to disconnect and learn to be alone again, to reconnect with my imagination, to re-engage with my sense of wonder. In our remote village house I internalized and only really released through song. ‘Hopeland’ was bathed in optimism’s glow after the retreat to a simple life had gifted a startling clarity of thought. I wanted to capture that feeling of release and that Corsican idyll in song.  My most intense creativity came from that little house in Montemaggiore. I found that the ideas came pouring out. I didn’t type; I wrote, scribbling feverishly in a little yellow notebook that became like a sponge for the outpourings. I had previously written about the journey, but offered no answers, just questions. With ‘Hopeland’ I had actually arrived somewhere; destination achieved. I unpacked. I was home. Those moments in Corsica taught me to cherish the past, accept and recognise its importance, its vitality, but not to live there.

That's it: if songwriting has taught me anything it’s how to decipher the past and live in the present. It was through writing that I learnt to temper turbulence. I’d love to think that my songs comforted or helped to realign other lost souls. I’m sure that some of this sounds twee but in simplifying my worldview there was an inevitable idealizing of life. Cliché and platitude abide in the same corridors as insight and truth, just as prejudice and wisdom are uneasy bedfellows. For me the challenge is to dance around those abstractions, see them for what there are and try to redress them with fresh credence and currency. The French poet Gérard de Nerval wrote "The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile." 

Although your words need clarity and fidelity there should also be a little room left for the listener to insinuate themselves into a song in order to make it their own. Not enforced mystery; that would be too artful, gimmicky and manipulative. Just a little wriggle room for a stranger’s wonderment. For me the trick is to take a small step to the left or right, take stock, take care and then pitch common feeling as original thought and hope that folk will recognize themselves in the offering and somehow find mercy there.
Someone once wrote "Wear your life loosely, it fits better that way." The past is the authentic fabric from which we are made; we define ourselves by how we cut that cloth. The filtering of memories enables us to come to terms with what we have become, how we have tailored ourselves. The way that we do that determines our ‘style’. As long as I’m faithful to that I know that, regardless of quality, my work at least has integrity.

So, why do I write? 
- To join the dots and make sense of the past.
- To protect myself from emotional inertia.
- To help myself ‘move on’.
- To connect with myself and to connect with others.

I don’t have kids, never will.
Where’s my legacy?
What do I leave behind?
Maybe, ultimately, from head to heart, from heart to hand, I write to make a sound.
From heart to hand, I write to make marks on a page, to give myself shape and form, that form declaring ‘I am here’, and like the cave painter, my hand is poised to leave a mark that says ‘I was here’.

And look at me.
Writing like the Master Magician who holds the secrets to every mystery.
I know nothing.
But I'm doing my best.
I keep reaching into the hat not knowing what I'll pull out.
Could be a rabbit or a rooster.
It's the unknowing that keeps me excitedly dipping my hand into the darkness.
Attempting to conjure something from nothing.
I love the idea that my best trick is still ahead of me.
And there's no fool like an old fool.

The American poet Galway Kinnell wrote:
‘Maybe the best we can do is do what we love as best we can.’
I’ll bottle that and call it home…



  1. That's quite a sweeping thoughtful homily that I'll need more time to digest.
    Funny, as this morning I was watching several videos of Joe Henry expounding on the art of songwriting...

  2. Now there's a man with focus and intent.

  3. Joe chalks up a lot of his songwriting to tapping into something of a spiritual vein of the "mystery". Something I've heard other writers mention (eg: Van, Mike Scott).

    Would it be fair to say that your approach is more empirical?

    I've always been fascinated by the process...

  4. I guess that 'empirical' would excuse my inconsistencies and contradictions TT. I definitely don't have a formula. Marcus is The Scientist remember. If there's anything consistent or a 'control' it's not the subject matter but in the way that I react to it. So... it's not so much about the objects; more about their reelected light. I'm faithless but not hopeless. As the writer said "it may be a half light but it is light enough..."

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  6. I've read your dissertation a dozen times. Beautifully written and insightful. Deft philosophical & introspective nuggets regarding your motivation and rationalization of the song-writing process.

    Question: Does song-writing come easily & naturally for you? Or is it a process requiring difficult effort/workmanship, fussing about carefully "crafting" the words & music? Rather than as some claim... mystical/magical "musical gifts" that suddenly appear and often write themselves in minutes?

    PS: A couple of cool Joe Henry interviews on song-writing:

  7. Hey TT. Funny, Paul Woodgate presented me with similar questions for a forthcoming piece on songwriting. I kind of edited my answers for him into much of what's above. As for the actual writing process: Planning for me is as simple as fitting the right words to the right chords. Ultimately it’s all about the weight of words. As soon as I start thinking about structure I’m dead in the water. Deconstruct and simplify. That’s the test of a song’s strength. If it’s shoulders are broad enough the song leads the structure and arrangement. With that in mind, sometimes it helps to write away from the constraints of your instrument and the limitations of dexterity. That can add fluidity to the writing. The first thought is often the best thought. There’s a comfort in the familiar; it’s often the modest melodies and ideas that insinuate themselves and endure. After that you have to take the time to get to know your idea. Some songs just have to be written. Sometimes I just need to sit in silence to make a connection, so every day I snuggle down on the cinnamon chair with my guitar. I take the time. It's like a comfort blanket and a dream catcher. It gives me pause for thought. Songs come easily, but is the first thought necessarily the best, or is that lazy thinking? I'd like to regard myself as an original thinker, but have come to know that I'm not, something that each new song confirms. So I cut my cloth accordingly and work within myself, attempting to illuminate the mundane stuff that colours my everyday life, and hopefully present it in such a way that it connects and resonates with others, perhaps as a 'penny drop' moment. Sometimes we don't notice the bleeding obvious. Sometimes it’s enough just to be still, to stand and stare. I find that if I simply slow down an idea will always catch me or a passing thought will linger long enough for me to give it shape.

  8. As for recording ideas: I keep a notebook that I scribble resonant phrases or ideas into. I tape top line melodies and chord sequences onto my Phone. I don’t read or write music and have a terrible memory so I need to have that audio prompt. Besides slouching on the Cinnamon Chair I find the best way for me to write is to walk. That gives me a rhythm and the labour of the trudge helps clear my mind. I try and carry a notepad. Lyrics are best handwritten. The spontaneous physicality - head to heart to hand - is important.

  9. Thanks so much for the insights into creation, inspiration, motivation Trev. So it's not just prestidigitation then...

    I admire the fact that you live an "examined life" (Socrates I think). You surely are aware and proud of your very special talents/gifts - and that you do have a story to tell. Knowing that, I can only imagine your frustrations at the relative lack of commercial success. I think we all share that feeling about your music! On the positive side, it has most likely made you a better man... looking inward, more empathetic, humble and aware of yours/others strengths and weaknesses.

    I like the fact that you stay away from politics/preaching/specificity. Despite the perceived melancholy tone of your music - benevolent themes of hope, kindness, love and yes - faith invariably emerge from all of your work (for me!). Along with melodic tunes/thoughtful lyrics - eternal connection made...

  10. Trev, thanks for the steer on the "hissyfit" blog. Loving it and so much to catch up on ! Must work up my top ten albums as the other lists on here are inspirational.

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