Was it Stephen Sondheim who said that writing a hit musical provided absolutely no insight whatsoever as to how to write another one? Perhaps the same principle applies to hit songs. Songcraft remains at the heart of success for music artists in every way – critical, commercial, self-actual – the song is the ultimate unit of currency in the music industry. The Art of Longevity podcast is now five short seasons in (34 episodes) and I’m still discovering more ‘secrets to success’ for long careers in music, so many of which revolve around songs.
Take Tears For Fears. The iconic British pop duo hold the highest accolade in songwriting – an Ivor Novello for Outstanding Song Collection. It was therefore fascinating (and disconcerting) to hear about how Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith were locked in a songwriting camp for over a year, with an elite group of hitmaker writers and producers in ( a fruitless) search for hit tunes. Eventually, Roland and Curt abandoned the project altogether. Instead, they started from scratch as a duo – the way they wrote songs 40 years ago for The Hurting – and with great results (listen to the second side of their most recent album The Tipping Point).
As the music industry heads further towards new levels of industrialisation and commodification, it is heartening to know that some things can never really change. Despite the best efforts of AI and computers, and large teams of songwriters, the very best songs are still created by just one or two hearts and minds. It is something the tech community that so engulfs the music industry these days might try to appreciate a bit more.
Songs may be getting shorter, and some writers and producers might well look to a formula when it comes to navigating the streaming algorithms, but really – the song remains the same.
Here are five more of my favourite songwriter stories I’ve discovered through my conversations with songwriters on the Art of Longevity.
The song that takes you further than you imagine
Hang out for a day with UK ‘alternative radio’ (if indeed it still exists) and at some stage you will hear them spin Feeder’s ‘Buck Rogers’. The track reached number five on the UK chart back in January 2001 but remains a radio standard even in its 21st year. Grant Nicholas originally wrote the song to impress Norton in the hope he would be persuaded to work with Feeder. Despite the Sci-Fi character title (adopted purely because Nicholas fancied the tune sounded futuristic) the track is a drunken break-up song, knocked out quickly after a drinking session down the pub (Grant was drowning his sorrows after splitting up with his girlfriend). Buck Rogers contains a big guitar riff and stream-of-consciousness lyrics about being jealous of his rival’s brand new Jaguar (with a CD player) and whatever else came into his drunken head. Including drinking cider from a lemon.
The rest is as they say, history: but a very important part of Feeder’s history – and with a plot twist. Through the medium of song, one man’s momentary misery and frustration has led to millions of joyous moments. And while cars no longer come installed with CD players, people will always want to drink themselves silly and sing along to Buck Rogers (the song may well surpass 50 million streams soon). Not only that, but Grant came up trumps not just by way of a hit single, but by winning over Gil Norton to become the band’s next producer – for what was to be their best-selling album Comfort In Sound. Oh, and the lost girlfriend? – that would be Kana – his wife and mother of his two kids. Sometimes the ability to write a good song can take you a long way.
The song that just comes to you
We all know the story of how Sir Paul McCartney wrote yesterday. He dreamt it, waking up with it almost fully formed, so the story goes.
One of my favourite conversations so far is with one of the UK’s most underrated songwriters, Nerina Pallot. Before we spoke, I had done my prep, listening to Nerina’s entire back catalogue at least once. However, I got stuck on one song in particular: ‘The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter’, from Nerina’s 2017 album Stay Lucky. I had assumed the song was a cover version, such is its classic quality (that’s not meant to offend Nerina, whose catalogue I was not too familiar with until then). I’d assumed the song must be an original from the likes of Christy McVie, or Billy Joel, or Carole King. But it was an original of Nerina’s. I asked her about how she came to write such a classic:
“That’s my favourite song I’ve ever written. It fell out of me in an hour, or an afternoon. It’s everything I wanted it to be. We cut it live in four minutes, I felt if I was to fuck with it too much I would kill it. It’s one of those rare moments where it all came together.”
Every songwriter hopes for the song to ‘be sent from above’, the divine intervention that comes in a dream or Eureka moment. Nothing will invite it more than practice though is my guess. The 90% perspiration might just be what lets in the inspiration.
The song someone else gifts you
Another of my favourite episodes was a conversation with Fin Greenhall, otherwise known as Fink. While Fink is not one to bend to the whims or will of the record industry (“I’ve never tried to write a hit”), there is something savvy in the way the band has navigated a path through. In 2014 the band created its own label ‘imprint’ RECOUP’D Records, with long-term partner Ninja Tune (the iconic electronic label felt like the band’s new material wasn’t quite in its wheelhouse). On that year’s ‘Hard Believer’ album, along came the song ‘Looking Too Closely’. The song is an exercise in economy, grabbing you with the acoustic strum intro and the genius opening couplet “This is a song about somebody else, so don’t worry yourself, worry yourself”. It doesn’t rely on a big chorus or any kind of hook, yet Fin just knew it was a more commercial song, so much so that his first instinct was to throw it out:
“I wanted to cut it from the album, but my manager said they would walk away if I did.”
Now that is good management! The song was initially given away as a free download, but 100 million streams later this deeply alternative trio has a genuine streaming hit – something that gave the band the freedom to do whatever they wanted from that point on.
When I asked Fink how he wrote it though, his answer was even more surprising. “It was something my wife said to me, so she wrote it in a way”.
Between his wife and his manager, Fin was given his own song as a gift, twice over.
The song that brings you a new lease of life
There are plenty of examples of late-bloomer hits, but that’s not quite what I mean. For the season finale of Season 5, we’ve gone full circle with the show by talking to Brett Anderson, the lead singer and songwriter of iconic British band Suede. It was a quote from Brett about the lifecycle of a commercially successful band that inspired the concept behind the podcast.
On listening to Suede’s new record (Autofiction) I was struck in particular by two songs, ‘Personality Disorder’ and ‘Shadow Self’. On these songs, Brett goes for a spoken word verse, influenced by the recent trend set by young British bands such as Dry Cleaning, Yard Act and Working Mens Club. Brett wanted to give it a go, never having tried the vocal technique before, and the results are superb. He’s brilliant at it for one thing, but for another – both songs have a liberated, post-punk vitality that takes Suede back to their very best. The band spent four year writing the songs for Autofiction, and for such a fresh sounding record that’s a deceptive but simple fact. But it is nice to hear examples of classic bands being influenced by today’s up & coming artists. Also, there is something about post-pandemic albums, they appear to be better than before.
The song that comes from a bad place (otherwise known as the pandemic inspired song)
Speaking of great post-pandemic records and in a similar vein to Suede’s Autofiction, the Texan band Spoon (just about my favourite band as it happens) went back to basics for their album Lucifer On The Sofa, recording the songs as a full band, sometimes after just a few takes. The title track is particularly inspired. When I asked Brett about its origins he told me:
“It was a song that we were jamming, from a long time ago. We turned on a drum machine and looped it. That’s the chord progression, and then in 2020 during the pandemic, I sat down to do something with it. Lucifer on the sofa is me when I’m at my worst, when I’m depressed and anxious. It’s the character that makes me lose my motivation, when I’m bitter and nasty. Sometimes it takes me a long time to write lyrics but they came to me really fast and I loved that character of Lucifer On The Sofa.”
Songs as catharsis often make the best songs for both the writer and the listener, and this is a great example. It’s also one of the best album closers you will ever hear by the way!
The song to be grateful for, always
A moment does not make a career, but for many of the artists I’ve met their initial stratospheric rise to the top was largely attributable to a single song – usually a hit song. It’s fair to say that those songs have become symbolic in their longer careers, often evolving into a complex ‘relationship’ between the songwriter and their successful ‘child’.
Some examples are James’ ‘Sit Down’ or Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’. For The Divine Comedy that song is ‘The National Express’ and for KT Tunstall, ‘Suddenly I See’. For The Waterboys it is ‘The Whole Of The Moon’ and for Turin Brakes, ‘Painkiller’. The list goes on and on.
One thing I’ve always been curious to know is how these artists feel when they hear these songs played on the radio, especially when they might have recently released new material (and many of these artists have written a batch of other excellent songs of course). Or when they are heckled at every single live show by someone in the audience to play it? The answer though, overwhelmingly, is that they are grateful to those songs. They might have to play new interpretations (when he plays live, Joe Jackson never plays his chart hits as they were recorded) or rest the song for periods (James steadfastly would not play Sit Down live for over a decade).
But those songs helped to make their careers and as such, need to be loved and cared for long after they have ‘left the family home’ to continue the analogy. Besides, when it comes to longevity in music, fan favourites cannot be dismissed.
Not every songwriter can be a hit machine like Nile Rodgers (“hits are my natural comfort zone”), but songs can come from many different places and can take on a life of their own. After all, look at the economic value now being created from just a relatively small batch of the world’s best pop songs. Songs inspiring covers, new interpretations (and interpolations!) keep driving the industry on and that will never stop. The songwriter does not get their fair dues from much of this, I know. But then again, without good songs there would be no industry, no artists and no entertainment with such phenomenal, global power to evoke human emotion. Would we get any of this with AI? No.
So songwriters, keep writing!
Keith Jopling is the creator and host of The Art of Longevity featuring many of the above mentioned artists and songwriters. Season 6 of the show commences in November 2022.