I wrote my first song when I was 10. I was very fortunate in having been treated to both piano and guitar lessons for a couple of years already. I feel sorry for adults who tell me of their toils trying to learn guitar, or how much they “want” to. It’s hard to make the time, or make a firm commitment to how you spend the time when you’ve got it. I find almost any new skill requires too much patience and repeated failure for me to bother my arse. I still can’t roll a joint. The thing with being a little kid is you’ve got all the time in the world. I treasure the memories of long days doing nothing but listening to music and playing guitar. Basically you have to be addicted, and kids have no responsibilities, so being addicted is fine.
My guitar teacher was a wonderful and kind Canadian man named Mike Bastow (every Canadian I’ve met is wonderful and kind, by the way). We had been working on grade one classical stuff, but I arrived one evening with a cassette tape of the single Walkaway by Cast, and I asked Mike to teach me how to play it. He pressed play, grabbed his guitar, and had it down before the song had finished. I still marvel at players who are this good by ear. I still marvel at Walkaway, too. It has one of the most beautiful guitar solos you’ll ever hear. I hope you can hear a bit of that track in everything I do. Live the Dream is a Cast song that also lives in my blood. By the time I formed a band with my friend Alastair in year 6, I was playing loads of Oasis songs, and even some by The Verve. How I scoffed when kids asked me who my favourite Spice Girl was! (Though admittedly a guilty fondness for their craft would come much later). Our group was called “Depth,” which doesn’t roll off the tongue well enough for a band name. Ali let me change it to “Flynn’s Piece,” which was a small park in Wallasey we played football in, and a name that I stuck to for two decades. We wanted an original song to add to our set of Oasis covers, and soon enough I sat down to write one called Bright Side. Here’s the chorus: “Look on the bright Side, bright side, Don’t look back to see all the bad things that happened today, All the bad things that happened today. You’ve only got yourself to blame, Only got yourself to blame, to blame.”
I realise only now that the song offers both cheerful support and a bit of sneering salt in the listener's wound, a juxtaposition that still turns up quite a lot in my stuff. One might say The Verve already had me writing bittersweet lyrics . One might also say that Bright Side was a cringe-inducing, painfully shit song, and it was. The verses consisted entirely of Oasis-like tropes:
“So get up, get up, and look at me Cos I’ve been through it all before. Now I’ve thought of a different solution, baby, Please don’t close the door Please don’t close the door.” Musically, I was very proud of my B7 chord resolving to an E major chord on the “only got yourself to blame” line. I’m trying to sing it now though, and I’m not sure my vocal melody had any business being in that key. I think Ali and I just sang whichever notes our voices happened to land on that day, irrespective of what the guitar, or indeed each other’s vocals were up to. I’d love to say I got the bug, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a writing streak long enough to call it that. The songs come in batches, after lengthy spells of nothing. I keep striking until the batch feels like an EP or an album and then, even when I tell myself I won’t, I stop writing completely. There’s an argument here about the time needed to plant and cultivate before you harvest, but the truth is I’m just really lazy. I’ve already given myself far too many breaks writing this. The next song of any note arrived 5 years later and was called Miss Me Too. To my great thrill, a girl I fancied was bang into it. When she asked me to reveal the identity of my subject I told her it was a secret, but really it was about no one. I find it adorable when people who don't write songs assume every love song must be for someone. Especially when the writer is 15. You write about fictional break ups because you want people to fall in love with you, and early on for me, that’s really all there was to it. “Joy is gone and pain is here, When love was never further away. And I can’t think of other things for falling down and crying again.” Miss Me Too was still cringe-inducing, but it was my first upgrade from painfully shit to just crap. I was obsessed with Coldplay’s Rush of Blood to the Head album. Flynn’s Piece was a band again, this time with lead guitar, bass and drums, and for about three years we absolutely loved it. The summer of 2006 was to me what The Summer of '69 was to Bryan Adams. I was obsessed with The Strokes, I loved The Smiths. I loved Radiohead. I declared Paul Simon’s Graceland my favourite album of all time. With the help of the band, the music started to get more interesting, but lyrically I still only had one gear: Self-deprecating and sexually frustrated. Of the total of maybe ten songs that I wrote in that period, only one of them was pretty good, and it was called Fear of Failing. Grammatically it should have been ‘Fear of Failure', but in terms of how it rolled off the tongue (which is just as important as a good lyric), I stand by the call.
“And when your chance was denied, you didn't mind. Rules to go by made you stand in line every time Wait in line every time. It's not fear of failing, Just wont take a chance nowhere, If we're not careful we could disappear down here. And why would you care? You and her are making such a lovely pair." It was essentially me being pissed off when band members put matters like girlfriends before the group (shoulda known we’d never get far). It was still angsty and sixth form but it also felt real, it was about something. I was inspired by the life I had right in front of me rather than making one up. The melodic duelling of guitars and metronomic, thumping rhythm section held up as a decent product of my new Strokes obsession. It banged, but I didn’t write again for three years.
I wrote a song called Lavender in 2009 in student halls. It happened accidentally while I was learning lots of covers quickly, having scored my first solo gig in a pub. The rhythm guitar sounds just like The Strokes’ I Can’t Win, only back-to-front and slowed down. I was only subconsciously stealing by this point, so it's fine. I hollered some melodic gibberish over my guitar playing, and soon enough I turned it into a song for my late Grandma. Here's verse two:
"Someone moved into your house, but I went by to smell your flowers. I could call out saying hi, cos after all we didn’t say bye. Remember when that song came on? That Perfect Day, that Lou Reed one, we talked about how great it was. You told me that you’d had one once." Family songs would became something of a strong suit for me, and the storytelling formula stayed the same as it was then: Truth and specifics. The fact that my Grandma Beattie really did tell me of a perfect day with her husband, the fact that she was inspired to do so by Lou's timeless and brilliant song, and the fact that I managed to work that into a song of my own, well. Now I was getting somewhere. It wrote itself, all I did was brainstorm some memories.
It was four years before I felt I'd saved enough money to track Lavender at a proper recording studio, and we did it across two days in Parr Street, Liverpool. Two days is far too much time to record a four minute song, but then again so is four years. Lavender was a breakthrough stylistically as well as lyrically. It was an acoustic-driven, jangly, scouse country song. But I came to realise that musically it was still missing something. Now that I think of it, it was actually missing a chorus, but that wasn’t bothering me so much as my lazy use of chords.
I was strumming along to Cornerstone by Arctic Monkeys in 2015 and felt utterly humbled by Alex Turner’s nifty chords. The first time he sings "I kept my shortcuts to myself”, he goes from E major to A. But the second time he sings it, he goes from D minor to A. It’s such a lovely move. My next song Partner was built on making sure that I stole that exact trick. I wrote the last line of the chorus first, and worked backwards from there.
A E Bm Dm “If I don’t seize the last of my youth, baby, I’ll always wish that I A could.”
I vowed I would always try and use my chords from then on. It became a mantra. Use your chords. I love the trial and error of singing the same line over many chord options. Just to check you’re not missing a trick. Using your chords is what made a lot of Beatles songs amazing. With all that cheeky, youthful charm, you’d be forgiven for thinking their musical toolbox was basic. But they knew their shit from the get-go, and they composed with sophistication. They always used their chords.
Partner is a song I'll still perform at any gig. I went back to producer Tony Draper at Parr St and recorded it, this time in just one day. I think we over-complicated the rhythm section a bit, but it sounded great in places. I recorded my own guitar solos, and when the second one blasted back at me in the control room it felt like my finest hour. We went for a glorious pint in The Jacaranda that night. I put Paul Weller’s Sunflower on the jukebox, and didn’t have a care in the world. I still wasn’t writing enough to be a real songwriter. Again, it’s the patience and repeated failure thing. Until something is a habit, you often can’t face the horror of failing at it. I would try and write songs for an hour, and just berate myself for having nothing worth writing about. I became king of the snippets, racking up about 800 voice notes on my phone of ideas that I should develop further. Some would come in handy much later. I only wrote two more songs in about 18 months that followed Partner. One was called Out Alone. “So low and then, I get a good grip on myself again. Got writer’s end. Cringe hard over each thing I’ve ever said, Like how I wanna be your friend, I'll show you friends. I tend to never call my friends again.” It had a danceable, very deliberate War-on-Drugs energy to it, but lyrically I was falling back into old habits. The third line is essentially what Chris Martin sings in Trouble, for God’s sake. It was melodramatic throughout, almost emo. It might have come from a real place of loneliness (and I hoped the masturbation joke in line one was clear), but at 28 I didn’t want to be writing like this any more. The next tune was Bright Lights, a song about being obsessed with “making it,” as I was. I enjoyed singing from the point of view of “it,” whatever “it” may be. A ghostly, nagging spirit that won’t leave me alone. In the studio I tried to make my vocals as ghostly as I could.
“Bravest boy. Sorry if we made you chase her off the scene, But lovers, what do they know? About our pride and joy. We know that it pains you, staring at the screen, Sinking in the same boat. The sun is up, the bigger picture crashing down. It isn't much but so sad. It's why you swore you had the gall to get out, step your shoes upon a new path. Looking for bright lights. It couldn’t be your life without your bright lights calling you home. Sleeping Giant. We won’t let you fade out. We’ll be in your dreams, we’ll make you sick we love you so. So come on weeping child. Come on, it’s getting late now. Well you can kick and scream. It doesn't mean we'll let you go. The sun is up, the bigger picture crashing down, It isn't much but so sad. It's why you swore you had the gall to get out, Step your shoes upon a new path, Looking for bright lights. It couldn’t be your life without your bright lights calling you home. Calling you home from your family and friendships now All your coffee shop bullshit now. And all your plans to make plans. I bet they never quite panned out.” I was struggling with adulthood. I began to believe that if a person goes all-in on their vocation, their sense of destiny, then it made not calling or visiting their people okay. It makes failing to build lasting romantic relationships justifiable. Like Dylan, or how I imagined Dylan. He belongs to the world and to his craft, not to anyone else, blood-related or otherwise, and not to any concerns of being a nice person. But if you're not going to go all-in, then what the hell are you playing at not speaking to your sister since Christmas? What are you playing at not looking for a real career after 15 years making coffees? What are you playing at still awake and coked-up at 10am, when your mate says actually yeah you should probably go now? The sun is up, the bigger picture crashing down. The limbo between all-in and all-out was my nightmare, and it's what inspired Bright Lights.
I was writing better lyrics, and I was using my chords, but at nearly 5 and a half minutes long Bright Lights was slow, indulgent and bloated. Partner was lean and I wanted all the songs to be lean. If you’re noticing a theme here, yes, I was twenty years in and I still didn’t feel like I’d written and recorded a great song. I suspect that when enough time passes, I may yet decide that the entire Showin’ Up, Startin Again album is just as hopelessly naive as my very first song. But maybe it's healthy for an artist to look back and cringe over the whole lot, if it stops them looking back. I was 30 years old. I knew that I needed harder, longer writing hours if I had any hopes of the holy grail. I was about to discover the huge importance of habits and routine. I was about to feel the magic of momentum. In 2018, everything was finally about to begin.
Playlists: "Twenty years of context: Song Index" Link: https://spoti.fi/2SyvxOw Tracklist: 1. Cast - Walkaway 2. Cast - Live The Dream 3. Oasis - Talk Tonight 4. The Verve - Sonnet 5. Coldplay - Green Eyes
6. The Strokes - I can’t Win 7. The Smiths - That Joke isn’t Funny Anymore 8. Radiohead - Let Down 9. Paul Simon - Graceland 10. Bryan Adams - Summer of 69 11. Lou Reed - Perfect Day 12. Arctic Monkeys - Cornerstone 13. The Beatles - In my Life 14. Paul Weller - Sunflower 15. Bob Dylan - When I Paint my Masterpiece "Flynn's Piece" Link: https://spoti.fi/2SvwGGB Tracklist: 1. Partner 2. Out Alone 3. Lavender 4. Bright Lights