Day 81: The Mainland

While I was making Tourism, my new album, I did a five-day online songwriting course run by Martin Sutton of the Songwriting Academy. Martin has written songs for Celine Dion, the Backstreet Boys, Gary Barlow, Pixie Lott and numerous others – ie: million-selling mainstream stars on major labels. I did the course because I hoped I might learn something. Also it was £5 for five days (Covid special offer!) so why not? 

Did I learn anything? Well, I made the beginning of Pulling Ragwort on the Sabbath slightly shorter so you get to the vocal quicker. But the song is still called Pulling Ragwort on the Sabbath, so maybe not.

Perversely, the song most shaped by the experience was The Mainland, which is probably also the song on this album least likely to be played on the radio. I’ll explain why later, assuming you make it that far.

Martin is a great motivational speaker and very likeable. He is passionate about what he does and kept reminding us throughout the week – in response to ambitious students’ insistent queries about how to write a hit – that if your motivation is money or fame rather than excitement about the artistic process then you’re in this for all the wrong reasons. 

It reminded me of a newspaper interview I once did with Pete Waterman, famous in the 1980s for writing and producing songs for Kylie Minogue, Bananarama and Rick Astley. As a teenager I’d thought of Waterman as a Thatcherite cynic, the Loadsamoney of pop, because his songs had seemed so deliberately, reductively formulaic and he called his studio the Hit Factory. When I met Waterman, though, I liked him a lot. It genuinely hadn’t occurred to me that he maybe really loved what he did and took his craft very seriously, but just happened to have very different and more conservative taste than me. We spent quite a bit of the interview talking about his love of model train sets, to which he seemed as sincerely, boyishly devoted as he was to pop music.

I thought I’d learned something important from my encounter with Waterman, but I realised during the Songwriting Academy course that I was still stubbornly clinging on to old prejudices. I’d assumed, for example, that the reason songs for major label acts are often written by teams of writers is to refine a product until it fits a very specific commercial formula. According to Martin it’s actually because songwriters are sociable creatures and enjoy collaborating and learning from each other whenever possible; apparently their publishers prefer them not to do this because it makes them less money. At another point I found myself cringing at Martin’s enthusiasm for a song he’d written for LeeAnn Rimes called Everybody’s Someone which I thought was trite and condescending. Months later the song was still stubbornly lodged in my head after one listen, which is why Martin has helped sell millions of records and I haven’t.

One of my favourite moments during the course was when producer Paul Statham created a series of loops for us to write ‘toplines’ (vocal melodies) to. Each one was based on an actual hit song. Among obvious things like Billie Jean was one by a hip Californian band I’d never heard of called Yacht. Paul picked apart the melody, phrase by phrase, line by line, explaining how Yacht were making little changes to conventional pop melodies to suit their style. Yes, they were subverting the rules of production line pop, but those rules were still their starting point.

In that moment I had a terrible realisation: it’s possible that my entire musical output has consisted of those little changes.

I remembered telling a friend once that I’d love to be in a cult band, and also her withering response. Nobody ever wants to be in a cult band, she replied, they want to be in a successful one. A cult band is what you end up being in if that doesn’t work. I suspect that part of where I’ve been going wrong as a songwriter over the years is that I’ve been trying to write cult music, making small alterations to the tried and tested pop formulas I learned as a child (from people like Pete Waterman) that make it less ‘pop’, when what I should have been doing is starting with an idea that’s new and weird and leftfield and making it more pop, like OMD or the Human League did, or Billie Eilish does now. And so I write songs that sound a bit like hits by people I like, but with deliberately obscure titles like The Balance Company, or Psychogeography, or This Club Is For Everybody, Even You that nobody can understand or relate to. 

Put another way, I often start my creative process by self-consciously eliminating things I don’t like rather than instinctively amplifying things that I do, and by critiquing existing music rather than trying to create something new. Word of advice to young songwriters – don’t do this. It might get you a few good reviews from geeky music journalists who appreciate that kind of attention to detail, but you’ll never have a hit.

My tendency to do this might have something to do with my own experience as a music journalist, all those years I spent picking other people’s songs apart line by line (although this clearly wasn’t a problem for Neil Tennant). I could also blame some of my musical influences, except that it was me who chose them. Whatever the reason, the Songwriting Academy course reminded me that the thing almost all the music I love has in common is that it doesn’t quite fit in the place where it seems like it should belong. It’s not radically different from the music that does, there’s just something slightly off kilter about it. 

An example. The first band I ever loved was A-ha. They were, on the surface, a 1980s boy band, but what made them stand out for me was that they were outsiders, arty, melancholy Norwegians awkwardly adjusting to a world of glossy, English-speaking pop. Scoundrel Days, their second album (and my favourite) is both incredibly bleak and full of odd turns of phrase that sound like people experimenting with a second language. A-ha became more conventional with age, musically and lyrically, and I drifted away from them as a result.

I’ve already written about my next favourite band, the Pet Shop Boys, far too much in this diary, so I’ll just say that while they are clearly a pop band and very good and successful at it, to me they always seemed to be at one remove from it – not smiling in photos, not dancing, not playing live, writing arch, bookish lyrics that critiqued pop as often as they embraced it. And that this was why I liked them. Most of my favourite PSB songs, tellingly, are their weird B-sides about dogs, Don Juan or splitting atoms. 

Prefab Sprout, my next favourite band, were also quite mainstream musically – you wouldn’t have to change that much about Cars and Girls or When Love Breaks Down to make them sound like a Gary Barlow song. But presented as they are, they’re something else (also, obviously, what aspiring pop star chooses to call themselves Prefab Sprout?). The same is true of my favourite female singer, Jane Siberry. Some of my favourite records of hers are actually her best-known ones – like Mimi on the BeachThe Walking or Calling All Angels – but in each case, again, there are strange little touches that a more conventional pop act would probably edit out. Mimi is seven minutes long. The Walking has a weird false start that sounds like a mistake and possibly was. Even Calling All Angels, her most famous song, has a very long intro consisting of a list of angels, then a lyric that seems deeply ambivalent about whether the angels are being of much help to anyone. And these are the parts I like most.

The more obscure a band is, the more I tend to like them, and I suspect this is because it’s the elements that hold bands back from mainstream success that I most relate to, rather than the elements that make them popular. For example, two of my favourite male singers are Mark Eitzel (of American Music Club) and Patrick Fitzgerald (of Kitchens of Distinction), both loved by critics and mostly ignored by the public. Interestingly, both stuck out from their genre of choice – country music and shoegaze indie respectively – partly because they were gay, which brought an outsider quality to everything they did (neither shoegaze nor country music are exactly famed for their gay sensibility). I got to interview Patrick once and I remember him complaining that music journalists were perplexed by Kitchens of Distinction because they were gay but didn’t sound gay, whatever that means (synthesisers and glitter?). As he put it bitterly, he was a ‘bad gay’. As a bad straight who has been much more influenced by Joanna Newsom, Kate Bush, PJ Harvey and Bat For Lashes than by whiny heterosexual male rock singers, I can relate. 

Obviously I’m not alone in my view that pop music is more interesting when it’s a bit weird and subversive, and when the hit songs seem like random, amateurish accidents rather than expertly and deliberately crafted. This worldview can lead to a lot of snobbery, much nonsense about ‘normies’ and ‘manufactured’ or ‘corporate’ pop, and I’ve long been baffled by people who sneer at pop music when the music they like/make is demonstrably also pop music, created according to the same musical rules but with minor differences. I want nothing to do with that and will defend pop music from snobs at every opportunity. For some reason I just find it personally difficult to commit to it myself.

On day one of the song-writing course we were set an exercise where we had to come up with ten ideas for pop songs and then try to develop three. I found this exercise incredibly difficult because it felt too much like school (a ridiculous position given that I had voluntarily gone to school but there we are). In the end I picked ten phrases used by Martin and his co-host Shelly Poole (of Alisha’s Attic) during the next lesson and tried to make song lyrics out of them. The one I was most pleased with was ‘We Could Do This All Night’, which was going to be a song about two people having a long argument then eventually deciding they were never going to resolve it and going out dancing instead. I thought it was quite a good idea, and perhaps it was, but it was still rooted in trying to subvert the whole process rather than go with the flow, and also by taking the piss out of the very people who were trying to teach me to write pop songs. 

If I could never fully commit to pop music it’s probably for the same reason that I could never fully commit to dancing in public, and also why I get terrible stage fright. It’s social awkwardness. The musicians I relate to are usually people who seem to feel the same way, who seem perplexed, amused, alienated or terrified by the prospect of commercial success – or just indifferent to it – rather than genuinely, unashamedly exhilarated by it like Martin and his Songwriting Academy friends. 

I think the moment I knew I wasn’t going to sign up to any more of Martin’s songwriting courses was when, in the final lesson, he talked about the thrill of hearing the Backstreet Boys sing one of his songs live to 17,000 people. He’d clearly been saving up this anecdote for the end of the course. This was, in his view, the pinnacle of what his students might achieve. It was his best pitch to us for signing up to the next course, the one that would be much more comprehensive but also cost hundreds of pounds rather than a fiver. And I was sat there thinking but the Backstreet Boys are really boring. Again, the numbers resoundingly demonstrate that Martin is right and I am wrong, but I can’t pretend to be something I’m not, so there we are.

I said I’d explain how my song The Mainland was shaped by this experience, so if that’s why you’re here then thank you for your patience. Like a lot of my songs it began as a joke. What if you described the mainland in the same way that people from the mainland routinely describe islands like the one I live on – as exotic, remote, mysterious, ‘mist-shrouded’, on the edge of the map, places of the imagination rather than places with actual people living ordinary lives? 

In recent years the mainland has felt increasingly alien to me, especially during the lockdown when I mostly experienced it in my imagination. Not long after moving to my wee village on the Isle of Lewis I drove back into Edinburgh at night and felt like I was in a scene from Blade Runner, which will probably sound ridiculous to most people who live there. I even developed a dislike for the glow in the sky that appears as you approach Inverness from Ullapool. The further I am from the mainland, the better I feel. 

As I worked on the song, though, I realised that this is also how I feel about the ‘mainstream’. It’s somewhere I’m drawn to, that fills my imagination, but which fundamentally I don’t understand, and can’t quite picture as a real place. This was very much on my mind when I was writing the lines ‘I’ll always be a tourist, a boat on the sea. Adrift from the mainland, but not of the island’, as I sought song-writing tips for my first Hebridean album from an Englishman who writes for the Backstreet Boys (while not quite committing to the process). 

In short, I’m really not sure where I belong musically. Nowhere, possibly. And that’s fine, I’m mostly happy to keep drifting around the ocean in my wee boat, watching giant ocean liners obliviously cruise by.

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