The songwriter’s blues: The secrets to writing hits – and how to stay happy doing so
by Lloyd Cole
Stairwell of the old Polydor building, circa 1984. I’m accosted by a rather imposing Paul Weller.
“Hey Lloyd! What’s all this about you slagging off my song?”
Well, I thought it was crap.
“‘Forest Fire’ ain’t changing nothing, is it?”
No, it’s not.
“So you really said that?”
“Well, that’s all right, then. Everyone else lies and says someone else said it.”
I was always certain I knew what was good. I might change my tune, reverse it even, but at any given moment I was secure in my confidence. In this case I was right. “Long Hot Summer” had been great, “Walls Come Tumbling Down” was not Weller’s best work.
In retrospect, knowing what was good was about all I had. I had no musical training, no technique, I could just about sing in tune, and I’d somehow fallen in with a great band. And they trusted me to make the calls. That responsibility was never a burden.
I’d take maybe 20 per cent of the credit for the making of our first album Rattlesnakes, maybe a little less. But the aesthetic was mine. An aesthetic can’t play the guitar, but it can inform the guitarist. And it can shape the songwriter.
I had begun writing songs about five years earlier, in London, while briefly failing to study Law. It wasn’t something I thought about. I just started doing it. Did I have stuff I wanted to express? I don’t think so. I started because I knew, subliminally, that I must. If I was going to be the Marc Bolan of my generation, I had to be writing songs. It never occurred to me that I might be anyone else in the band.
I was especially lucky to have these five years of trial and error, and for no one to hear me. I have never been able to take seriously a band with a song called “Sally Cinnamon”, but I’m sure I wrote far worse. After the Law dalliance I was accepted into Glasgow University to study Liberal Arts. I was 20 years old. The next two years would shape my life. Postmodernism was rife and, certainly, one can look back and sneer at Foucault and Barthes now, but for me to be told that I no longer needed to look for the poet’s intent, that my reading was just as valid as his It was an awakening. I dropped out in the summer of 1983 with half of one decent song to my name, and lots of ideas. Enough, apparently.
Two things are needed, I think, to be a writer of any consequence. I had only one of them. I had yet to find a voice. With a voice and an aesthetic there is no need to worry that’s what Picasso and TS Eliot were talking about when they said that great artists steal a voice will make your work your own. Mine arrived in the demo studio recording “Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?”. I had verse one and the chorus. We needed a whole song. I sat in the corner and I wrote it. We recorded it and that was that. The intention was to put it on the B-side of our debut release. We’d spent a great deal more time and energy on the A-side, “Down at the Mission”, but eventually we had to acknowledge that it was mediocre at best. This new song was something else. It was our future.
The next year was a wonderful blur. A hit single, a hit album, Top of the Pops, magazine covers and interview after interview. What is “Perfect Skin” about? Who is it about? What is the message of the song? What is your message? I hadn’t thought about these questions, but I knew that I was at odds with the assumptions behind them. So I replied I have no message. It’s not me in the songs, it’s the narrator. Which made me either “the thinking woman’s crumpet”, or aloof a pretentious prick.
Outwitting a bloke in a cap-sleeve T-shirt with a Cure logo who hates you isn’t that difficult. Winning him over is. I started to think about songwriting and what I wanted to do as a songwriter and I’m afraid that the short-term fallout was disastrous. I really believed I could be the Raymond Carver of song. The writing suffered. I became self-conscious of my technique, and my work wore this self-consciousness with a perverse pride. I constructed monstrously dense lyrics. Couple this with a record producer who asked me to think about my vocal delivery and almost everything I put my name to in 1985 is at best mannered, at worst contrived, stilted.
Did I learn from this? Not immediately, but I think so. Certainly I became aware of what I hated in my singing voice and worked at minimising it. As a writer I learnt that a song which takes six months to write can still be awful, and that maybe having too strict an idea of where a song should be going isn’t always helpful. And for the record that 1985 album, Easy Pieces, remains the biggest seller I’ve ever had, with the band or solo.
The Commotions managed one more album, and then in the autumn of 1988 I took a New York sublet for six months. I stayed 11 years. I grew my hair, disowned my intellectual persona I tried, at least. I drank a lot and made a consciously unselfconscious record. Writing without expectations of success, without fear of failure, I crafted an album of songs, my first solo album, of which I am still very fond, and I know others are, too.
The lesson thinking about songwriting, about technique, about the aesthetic can be instructive, but not when you’re writing a song. When writing, trust your gut, trust your internal editor, trust that you know what is beautiful, and get on with it. Which is what I did then and what I try to do now.
I started writing songs because I wanted to be a pop star. I became a songwriter. Some days writing a song seems like the easiest, most natural thing; on other days, impossible. And who needs to hear another song from me, anyway? It’s a fair question.
Last month I was asked to evaluate the new Bowie album for an online publication. I concluded that it is his best record since 1979 and I will never listen to it again. This scares me. I’m pretty sure Bowie thinks he made a record which can stand beside his best work. I’m pretty sure my new album can do this, too. Could I be as wrong as he is? Or could we both be right?
In the late 1990s I became so disaffected with my lot that I quit my job. I persuaded myself that my writing had become corrupted by the business model. Nonsense, but I was tired and angry I decided to see what would happen if I never again went looking for a song, never sat at the piano fishing for ideas. I would only write if and when an idea so strong came that it insisted I write it. I basically played chicken with the “muse”. Slowly, very slowly, songs came (“Late Night, Early Town” took three years to complete). I recorded them in almost complete solitude. They became Music in a Foreign Language the album I remain happiest with, and my official exit from the mainstream.
I mention these songs now, because they came into being in such a different way to those on Rattlesnakes or my first solo effort, but I see no correlation between my methodology and the results. All I see, in my better work, is my voice, my aesthetic doing my thing.
Since then I’ve taken a pragmatic, one might say Darwinian, approach to my so-called career. I have managed to continue. I built a website which hosts an active community. This community has supported me, even partially funding my most recent two albums. Strangers have one-on-one interactions with me, some are no longer strangers. All this via the same medium which has reduced music to folders of files, playlists, and “likes”. The album is dead but I continue to make them. I could certainly poll my subscribers to see what type of record they would prefer. I could consult my Facebook logistics and see which of my songs is the most popular. I don’t. My people know this and they are happy with it. They want my aesthetic and my voice. Not theirs.
So what do I know, now, that I wish I had known when I was younger? Nothing with any certainty, that’s for sure. But I have adopted a few positions, aligned myself in a way which I find helpful, when thinking about songwriting.
To think of a song being “about” something is awfully restrictive. Not to mention dull. I prefer that a song simply is. Like a painting. If we focus on the writer’s message, we effectively close the text, as Barthes put it. We restrict the work to a single understanding. Great art exists in this interaction between the art and the spectator, the reader, the listener. Great art requires reflection, and it is in this reflection that the magic happens. Kitsch takes a simulacrum of this magic and projects it directly on to the work. Negating the need for reflection. Great art engages you, speaks to you, kitsch speaks at you. Often it shouts.
My editor asked me, “Stick your neck out what work of yours would you submit as art, and what as kitsch?”
OK, here goes
Art: “Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?”, “Sean Penn Blues”, “Like a Broken Record”.
Kitsch: “Rich”, “Hey Rusty”, “Morning is Broken”.
So I strive to make great art, knowing that much that I love in my chosen field is indeed kitsch. A guilty pleasure? I don’t think so. Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” is a perfect song, for years I heard it a certain way and then, out of the blue, I thought, maybe it’s the other way around? Is that bitterness, or is it pity? This is the mystery which makes the magic possible. “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, on the other hand, is simply lovely, and remains lovely 50 years later. But could a song be more one-dimensional? Does its allure require reflection? Not at all. But it is surely great. Great art? Great kitsch? I really don’t care.
If I strive in this way I can handle the failure more easily. The cynic expects failure, and finds solace in his contempt of his audience. You know you’ve met a rotten writer when he tells you about people “not getting” his stuff. After all of my failures, I’m strangely optimistic. I’m still trying to write my masterpiece.
Lloyd Cole’s new album, ‘Standards’, will be released on 24 June on Tapete Records. For more: lloydcole.com
Publication: The Independent on Sunday
Publication date: 14/04/13