Thursday, April 23, 2009

Songs in the Key of Life Sharp

I am a serious music listener.

By which I mean, of course, that I am an anorak. I hunker beside the stero, clutching the sleeve notes in a sweaty fist and nod knowingly everytime I convince myself that I, king of the fans, understand every allusion, reference and sly invocation projected by my favourite artists.

I think the term "wanker" also applies.

I've been this way all my life. I like to be in on the joke - thus side-stepping much of the worry that I am the joke.

(Yes, I am aware that a light dusting of professional help would not go amiss on the Kenton cake.)

After several years of writing and releasing songs, however, the shoe is now on the other foot. I, less often than I'd like actually, have people asking me what songs are ABOUT, where and how were they written, how do I feel about them in hindsight?

My answers are, usually, in order:

1) The Aftermath of the Korean War
2) Inflagrante Delicto
3) Tuesday

Yes, "wanker" is as good a word as any.

Documenting one's inner life is a dangerous pastime, though. There's a reason people wait decades before serialising their diaries.

As I write more with other people, it gets even stranger. Not simply because things are often sung and performed in a very different manner to how I or the band would have approached the material - that can be immensely rewarding - but because unexpected self-examination is the most jarring and discomforting of all.

There are many ways in which this can occur. For instance:

1) A song that obviously meant enough to you at the time to put pen to paper has, nonetheless, been living with its other parent since conception and therefore reappears unexpectedly in your life all grown-up, asking you to co-sign a loan.


2) An old song suddenly catches on with new listeners and, in a fit of idiocy, YOU decide to revisit it.

Songs are like photographs. They capture the moment at the time, sure, but over time they become embued with all manner of emotional baggage.

Hearing a song unexpectedly, therefore, is like finding that bundle of old pictures you'd imagined lost, while you were actually looking for electrical tape and a flat-head screwdriver.

With music, however, you have an added "bonus". While you're looking, misty-eyed or rattled - at the shaky Polaroid of you and your ex-wife in a brief embrace between blows, someone else is looking over your shoulder and passing comment.

There are two songs on our last album: "Apologia" and "Audrey Hepburn" for instance that I adore, but which, at different times, I have found difficult to listen to. They are very intense documents of two very intense relationships. I remember exactly where I was when each was written, exactly what I was thinking and exactly what motivated me. And late at night, when the whisky flows like vodka, you can find yourself catapulted back in time - not always in a pleasant way. Everyone has songs that remind them of the past. Think what it's like when those songs are about your past.

Since the ist back catalogue showed up on Spotify, and I noticed people listening for the first time to some of those songs, amongst others, I took a trip down amnesia lane. Sure, I've performed a lot of these songs live, but songs mutate live - the meaning grows, sometimes changes all together. The recordings are of their time and bring back so much more. Memories of recording them and the grand dramas that always seem to surround me - well, all of us to be fair.

Over the last few months as well, I've started to see co-writes appearing in various forms. And I'm finding that experience even more peculiar, because it hasn't been me that's spent months/years living with the song.

Also, the very experience of releasing songs sometimes changes them.

"Let's Not Fight This Christmas" - the Chris Difford Xmas Single that came out in December (when else?) is a prime example. Now, the song is a bit of fun (albeit with more depth than it is given credit for, IMHO) and personally I have a great deal of affection for it. It conjures memories of a very strange and inspiring week in Wales... it conjures memories of seeing it performed at The Thompson Family Christmas Show in London with so many of the people who had inspired me to take up music in the first place on the stage that I promptly burst into tears. It has an added dimension for me as due to familial lunacies, I grew up without Christmas. It's a loaded gun of a song for me, emotionally. And so on, and so on.

Releasing it, however, was an almighty pain in the ass. There's nothing quite as disheartening for a struggling musician than realising that as one climbs higher up the ladder, the air simply gets thinner and many of the people around you become even dumber from lack of oxygen. It's an important lesson, but not a fun one. I was still up every night working the net, driving myself mad, and dealing with the very real fact that one does not always get credited for one's work, despite the best and valiant efforts of those with whom you wrote the thing in the first place.

Still. C'est la vie. It was an honour to be involved with it, and if it didn't quite go to plan at the time, it's a part of my life now which can not be taken away from me.

Now there are other songs coming out of the woodwork. "Grace" by Madelaine Hart, which we wrote, almost as an afterthought, in a hammock-festooned room in Italy. Madelaine started playing a piece on the guitar that for some reason wedged the words, "It's been seven hours and a packet of Luckies..." into my head and we were off, telling a very dark relationship tale which may not seem autobiographical on the surface, but comes from a part of me I can't afford to visit unless I've had my shots.

Sometimes, you don't even discuss this stuff with your co-writers. You work on the story, on getting the emotion out, but you don't always delve into what's driving you to do so in the first place. I'm sure I'd find that these songs are equally about things, places, people about whom I know nothing at all.

Heard one yesterday, first recording of a song called "Night Train to Milan", which I wrote with a lovely man called Jan Bijker. He started telling me a story about a train journey and I started writing (in my head) another story altogether so it must mean completely different things to both of us. Which is quite wonderful, in its own way. Mine had all sorts of life panic, girl trouble and repressed Canadiana going on... : ) In Italy.

I hear tell of more collaborations coming to a headphone near you as well which I shan't mention by name for fear of jinxery, not to mention the "actually happening finally thank Christ" release of Toothpick Bridge this summer, which contains songs covering the two and a bit years I've been hidden in a variety of studios and writing sheds and which, I'm sure, in a few years' time cause me all manner of introspection.

There is every possibility, however, that I am just in a peculiar mood and this song-inspired revisitation of a life lived weirdly is just some kind of early onset mid-life crisis. Mind you, I had my first of those when I was 12, so I've been on borrowed time for a while now.

In what should have been Enrique and Willie's words: "To all the girls I've loved before. I am SO sorry about that."

There must be a song in it somewhere.


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