on songwriting

People often ask me if I’m not more a writer than a musician – or whether the words of my songs are more important than the music. Or often, they just assume that’s true.

And maybe it is. I’d been publishing poetry for many years before I recorded a CD of songs. And I’ve performed at poetry clubs and on poetry platforms, of one kind or another, far more often than I’ve played music gigs, and I’ve even done poetry spots in the middle of other people’s music gigs. And I’m not exactly gifted with what you’d call a melodious singing voice. I can manage about two notes, and often both of them are wrong. And I’m only a fair-weather guitarist, playing only in the summer months. In the winter my fingers get too cold and stiff to play much.

But I’ve always loved music. I grew up with music, just as much as I grew up with books. My father played various wind instruments in his youth, in military bands and police bands, though he stopped all that when the Second World War started. But in my childhood the BBC Third Programme tended to be on the wireless in the house. When my father wasn’t around I used to tweak the dial, chasing rock n’roll and rhythm n’ blues on those evasive pirate stations, Radio Caroline, Radio Luxembourg. They never stayed still long enough to let you hear a whole record through, but that was part of their appeal: this was pirate music, illegal, unlicensed, thoroughly unrespectable. Like half my friends at school, I wanted an electric guitar. My father wouldn’t hear of it: it symbolised everything he was against. But then one day, he fished my grandfather’s ancient mandolin out of the attic. I learned to play that, and went on to learn to play a guitar borrowed off a friend. In my teenage years I played in odd scratch bands with school friends, including Jerry Dammers, who later on founded Two-Tone Records and had a series of hits with The Specials. He was much better than the rest of us even back then. I still listen to a wide range of music, including classical music, gypsy music, Irish music, blues, as well as a load of pretty oddball stuff. And I like exploring different folk music traditions, and what today we call “world music”. I don’t mean I can play in all these styles myself, though. I just play quite simple stuff myself.

For years I took words far more seriously than the music. I used to read widely, and for years I made my living by teaching English. And I worked hard at honing the craft of writing. Especially poetry. The trouble with poetry, though, is that it doesn’t fit naturally into people’s lives. People don’t read it, because school has put them off it, and because it’s not on telly, and people think you’re a bit odd when they find out you’re into it. When you do manage to get a poem accepted by one of the good literary magazines, you feel a flush of achievement for a while, but then you start wondering, who actually reads those magazines? Generally, only the people who are trying to get into them themselves.

But songs get more response. True, the audience at a poetry club are likely to be more attentive listeners, but there aren’t that many of them. People like songs. Songs fit in better, into social gatherings, pubs, parties. People associate poetry with school, with “seriousness”, and they think of it as being difficult, or “deep”: but people associate songs with fun, with drinking and smoking, with going out for a Friday night. It’s not hard to see why. The words of songs may sometimes be just as rich as poems, but they don’t demand such concentration: they’re wrapped up in the music, which can bypass the rational mind and communicate directly with people’s imaginations and emotions. So even if you’re not really listening, you can still take in something of a song. It gets to the body, as much as to the mind.

So little by little, over the years, I’ve found I’ve gradually transferred my efforts away from writing poetry, and into writing songs. It’s more fun, and it’s more sociable. And it’s more immediately meaningful, because it connects more directly with more people. And I’ve been working not just on writing songs, but on performing them too. People seem to enjoy it. I’m no singer and not a great guitarist but people don’t seem to mind. People don’t necessarily expect songwriters to be good singers or guitarists. Some are of course, but you don’t have to be.

So what’s more important in a song – the words or the music? The answer is either neither or both. The art of songwriting is about getting the words and music to work together, so that both work more or less in their own right, but neither is complete without the other. They need to complement each other. Among well-known songs, “Tears of a Clown” would be an example. So would “As Time Goes By”. Or “Strange Fruit”. Or “Dirty Old Town”. Or “The Heart of Saturday Night”. Or “Stand by Me”. Or any number of songs by Cole Porter, or Shane McGowan, or Robert Johnson, or Jake Thackray – all of whom, in their different styles, are great songwriters, in my book. Or, any number of traditional folk songs, such as “John Barleycorn”, or for that matter Christmas carols, like the first verse of “In the Bleak Midwinter”. I could go on. I can’t make an exhaustive list, or even make an indicative list, and now I’m wondering whether it was wise to start making a list at all. Perhaps it’s not even a good idea to try to define what makes a “good” song. “Stand by your Man”, or “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”, have a neat enough match between the words and the music, but they’re still stomach-turning.

A “good song” can’t really be defined because in the end, a song is an event, not an object. That means the writing of it, whether words or music or both, isn’t the whole of it. Even the performing of it, whether the singing or the playing or both, doesn’t complete it. The audience is the other key factor in the event. It all depends on how people listen to it, and in what circumstances, in what atmosphere, with what attitude. The same song can be quite different on a CD in a quiet room or in a busy pub on a Friday night. When you get up to play live, you never know what’s going to happen. You may have rehearsed, but each live occasion will be different. Plenty of performers have advised me to ignore the audience. Just play for yourself, they tell me, concentrate on what you’re doing, ignore anything else that’s going on, just remember that there’s always one or two people who are actually listening. Usually anyway. And they’re right, I know: often, live music in a busy pub is quite ambient. People talk through it, but that doesn’t mean they’re not enjoying it. The pub noise is part of the experience, and you’re contributing to the atmosphere. And that’s all right. But what I enjoy myself is interacting with an audience, getting some banter going between songs, bouncing the heckles back. That’s what happens on a good night. But it’s not always like that, and I’ve been trying to get used to what pub gigs can be like, and how different they are from poetry clubs. Sometimes half your audience are outside having a smoke. Sometimes you get a room full of people just ignoring the performer, leaving you feeling like the loony on the bus, just up there talking to yourself. Pub singers think of this as quite normal, apparently. I’ve occasionally abandoned gigs half-way through when I can’t hear myself over the drunken shouting, or because I get bored because if no-one else is bothered then I can’t be bothered either. But it’s a bad habit and I’m trying to give it up.


I don’t want to try to define what I’m trying to do too closely. Songwriting, like any art form, wants to unfold itself in its own way, and can take you to places you weren’t expecting. But I do have some idea of the direction I want it to go. My musical style does draw from American sources – blues, rock, even country occasionally – because these are familiar styles, easy to play and easy to listen to, and because people like them, and so do I. But unlike a lot of British writers, I don’t write about America, and I don’t put on an American accent when I perform. My songs are rooted in Europe, and especially in Britain. Sometimes they have a sense of history, and I want to develop more of that. One of the functions of folk songs, and popular songs, has always been to explore the way we live, and how the way we live changes, moving between the pressures of the past and our hopes and dreams of the future. I’ve written songs about the miners of South Wales, about Ann Boleyn, about the Beeching cuts, about the highwaymen of Shooters Hill. I’m planning new ones about the Blitz, about the English Civil War, about the Grand National. In between these, I’m always drawn back to writing romantic love songs, too. Nothing wrong with that. I’d like to produce more cohesive albums, almost what we used to call “concept albums”, with sets of songs grouped around themes, both verbally and musically. But the songs I manage to finish don’t necessarily go so obviously with each other. Sometimes a particular song just gets stuck, and I can’t get the words right, or I just can’t work out the chords for it. Sometimes another song, which doesn’t fit at all with the ones I’m trying to work on, just pushes itself forward in the queue and insists on being written now. The most cohesive album I’ve made is still figures of 8, where I knew exactly what I was going to do, what songs were going on it and in what order, before I started recording. The others are much looser.

Part of the pleasure of playing music is playing with other musicians: trading ideas and inspirations, motivating each other, seeing how someone else’s peculiar insight can open up a new dimension in a song, make it sound different from what you’d imagined. It’s difficult to organise though, and to get people to commit to turning up for rehearsals, recording sessions, gigs. Some people are just too busy; some are just disorganised. I long ago gave up the dream of running a regular band. Three of my CDs are under the name The Owls, but the Owls were never really a working band. It’s Steve Grist on the bass, and sometimes Tom Winstanley on drums, and everything else is me. We’ve never done a gig together. Some of the best collaborations are just spontaneous, when someone just happens to be around, and something clicks, and something magical happens. But, although I’ve met quite a few marvellous musicians, who can pick a song up very quickly even if they’ve never heard it before, it does generally go better if they do know the song. What I try sometimes is rehearsing a song or two with different musicians, perhaps a banjo player on one song, a harmonica player on another, a flautist on something else. That’s simpler than trying to get a band together to rehearse a whole set, and it’s less ambitious, and more realistic. I’d still like to work with a band though, or perhaps with different bands of different kinds, on different projects, if anyone’s interested enough. For instance I’m vaguely planning some recordings with a few people who play some pretty unusual instruments, marimbas, dulcimers, bouzoukis, birdwhistlers, drainpipes, and things I can’t pronounce. I might try putting words to it, or we might leave words out altogether. On the other hand, as a writer as opposed to a performer, I’d love it if a good band, complete with a singer who can do more than two notes, wanted to do some of my songs. They could sound quite different from how I can make them sound myself.

So the future’s quite open. There are some samples of my recordings here, but if you catch me playing live I may not sound much like that at all.

Mick Bruce
May 2011

Other articles by Mick Bruce:

on the Colne Blues Festival

on musical taste

on your chance to win £1,000 towards a new kitchen

on the Norman Conquest and Youth Culture

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