The ex-Razorlight drummer and songwriter, one half of Smith & Burrows, part-time Scientist and fully-fledged solo artist, talks to Songwriting
hat did the drummer say just before he was kicked out of the band?…”Hey guys, I’ve written a song”. It’s the oldest drummer joke in the book, but as the likes of Dave Grohl have proved, the guy with the sticks can be a talented songwriter as well. In similar fashion, Andy Burrows first came to attention with British indie-rock band Razorlight, joining as drummer in 2004 and going on to co-write some of that band’s biggest hits, including the number one single, America.
Leaving Razorlight in 2009, Burrows joined We Are Scientists as a guest drummer and started releasing his own work under the name I Am Arrows. His first effort, the album Sun Comes Up Again, received critical acclaim and sparked a prolific songwriting career that has led to a number of collaborations, such as Smith & Burrows with Editors frontman Tom Smith, creating 2011’s melancholic Christmas album Funny Looking Angels.
We catch up with Andy at his new home in the America he’d written about many years previous, in the midst of a new solo album, a growing number of collaborators and still finding time to play the drums…
You’re in New York right now. Is this a permanent move or are you just recording out there temporarily?
“I moved out here with my wife and daughter about two and a half months ago with a view to a…er…medium length stay. It’s a fascinating country and city, and ever since I used to come here with Razorlight on tour, I started to think about the possibility of one day living here. I definitely think it’s a creative move. I’m with We Are Scientists at the moment, recording an album, but I also worked with Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt a year or so ago on a project, and they’re regularly here.”
Let’s go back to the beginning and talk about your childhood. Did you grow up in a musical household?
“Yeah it was pretty musical. My grandad was a singer with the BBC choir and my father was a bass player. I don’t know why it came naturally to me though. My mum went through a phase of playing the clarinet really badly and trying to be an opera singer. I was always obsessed with the drums, but wasn’t allowed a drumkit! So I started off in a youth brass band when I was seven years old, and I was basically an appalling cornet player. I was always really fascinated by the drummers at the back, so gradually got into that and found it came really easily, and along with that came some piano.”I STARTED OFF A SONGWRITING CAREER THE WRONG WAY ROUND – MY FIRST SONGWRITING EFFORT PRETTY MUCH WAS A SONG THAT WENT TO NUMBER ONE!
When was your first taste of songwriting?
“Terrible songs around the age of eight or nine, but probably like most kids I’d make up stuff. I had imaginary bands and I was always into making the tape cover before I even had any real substance or band members – I’d get the Letraset out and type away. My band was called Impulse and then someone pointed out that was an aftershave, so I knocked that one on the head! I started writing silly ideas but never considered myself a real songwriter until 15 or so years later. I wrote a song when I was about 21 and went into the studio and recorded it and it was pretty good, but I’d definitely never consider myself a songwriter.”
“Well I do now. It kinda pays for some of the rent! I always felt I was a drummer. Johnny [Borrell, co-writer and lead singer of Razorlight] was very supportive and encouraging of me as a songwriter and, despite the many faults in our relationship, I think he gave me the confidence to write songs. He seemed interested in what I had to give.”
How do you approach songwriting? What instrument do you pick up first?
“It’s probably a fairly standard thing but I like going between the piano and guitar. I’ll spend a month only writing on the piano and then make a conscious effort to use the guitar for a bit. I find that the movement between the one and the other tends to create different ideas.”
So are you quite strict in your creative process? Do you have a regular working routine when you sit down to say write an album?
“No, that probably sounds a bit too regimented. Usually I’ll be out wandering around and something will pop into my head, then I’ll record and play it whilst I’m walking back, or just try and remember it. I definitely don’t have any real structured approach. One day I’d like to be like that, but not just yet.”
“There were a couple of times, like when I did the album around Christmas time with Tom Smith. I was so determined to write songs to that. I think that was one of the very few times I actually tried to set aside some time, like a task.”
What sort of environment do you like to create in?
“I don’t like having to be in the same place. Although, when we were living in London, I had a piano in the hallway and my daughter would be scooting up and down, people would be coming in and out of the room, and I never minded that. I quite like writing in amongst action. I feel like a go a bit mad if I’m on my own.”
What was it like collaborating with Tom after working so closely with Johnny?
“The main difference was that Tom and I are close friends, so the starting point was different. I guess there was no bad vibes. But by that same token it was also weird because we were friends and suddenly being like, ‘Right, let’s be serious and write some music’. But I always find it fascinating working with different people. It’s an intimate process and I feel I learnt a great deal from working with Tom. He takes it seriously and puts in the time, whereas I feel like I’m far more scatty – I like to sit down and try stuff for five minutes and then go out.”
Did you tend to work separately, or collaborate in the same room?
“Both really. There were a couple of songs on the album that we both wrote by ourselves and brought into the studio, and had the other one come up with parts and variations and ideas. And then there were a couple of songs that we worked on together in the studio, like This Ain’t New Jersey. I started playing around with a piano riff and then we both started singing silly joke lyrics. Then we got to point when we thought this is actually quite good! There was a song called Roselyn on the album that was an instrumental, but we had a line that was ‘What about us, what about me?/You make the coffee, I’ll make the tea’. I suppose it’s a bit like that famous Paul McCartney story with Yesterday being Scrambled Eggs! If you’ve got a melody that helps you remember a chord sequence then it doesn’t matter how stupid the lyrics are.”
Do you tend to come up with songs in that order – melody, chords then lyrics?LOTS OF GOOD IDEAS DO COME FROM SITTING IN THE PUB!
“I don’t know. I always worry about sounding pretentious when I talk about coming up with songs, but I always seem to have music playing in my head. I imagine the chords are already there, so I’m always thinking of melodies. If you come up with a hook line that’s already got its lyric, then that’s always a great starting point. For me the melody is thing I get excited about, so it’s usually the first thing that pops into my head.”
Do you like to keep going back and re-writing songs, or do you prefer to walk away and say ‘that’s it’?
“I suppose this is something which I’ve learnt first-hand with Johnny and Tom – in a lot of ways I’d feel like they’d both ‘pursue’ things. Like Tom, with When The Thames Froze, he’d start writing one Christmas and keep going back to it and then he’d finish it the following Christmas! On the whole I really don’t like doing that – if it’s not coming then I don’t think it’s worth it. I don’t have a very long concentration span. Playing the drums is my favourite thing to sit and do, but I can’t sit still for very long. Sadly the only place I can sit still for very long is the pub, which isn’t the most productive of places. Although lots of good ideas do come from sitting in the pub!”
I suppose that’s reflected in the way you work with lots of different people. How about with We Are Scientists, have you started co-writing on the next album or will you stick to drumming duties?
“I am writing a bit. I think the dynamic within bands is unique, and We Are Scientists is no exception. We’re three friends, which is nice, but essentially Keith [Murray, lead singer] brings songs to the table because it’s always been his thing. That’s not to say he’s shut off to collaborators, but it’s not been like say me and Tom, or me and Johnny. That said, I do feel like I’ve got more stuff in this album than previously. This record has lots of some incredible songs on it that I’m really excited about. That’ll be out in the new year; my album’s out first in the Autumn.”I also hear rumours that you’ve been collaborating with Melanie Chisholm and Delilah. Is that true?
“Well Delilah is absolutely true. I did a song with her just over a year ago and that was my first foray into writing outside of band-type things. I’ve always been slightly reluctant to be a jobbing factory writer – I don’t think I can churn them out, and like I say, I’ve always been a ‘band person’. But I went in and wrote a song with her as one of my first efforts and I think it’s on the record [Delilah’s album From The Roots Up, right]. So that’s really cool. It’s called So Irate and I’m really proud of it. We produced it together as well.”
“Mel C, on the other hand, is a friend and we went into the studio a couple of times. We started a song, but she and I went to the pub half way through the day and never came back! I love her to bits, I’d like to work with her at some point.”
Do you suffer with writer’s block at all?
“Yeah I think so. I never feel like it’s much of a problem because I’m a drummer and I feel that’s my day job, so if I ever get writers’ block then I’m quite lucky that I can go back to the band and just play. So that never really bothers me, but I do still feel like I’m relatively new to this. I obviously did write a few songs with Razorlight but I’m only two or three albums into being a songwriter. I feel like I’m learning about myself. So I think I get writer’s block, but whenever I feel like I’m drying up I go drumming or I’ll try to write in a different style. Even with writer’s block, I’ll try and use it as a positive. I don’t try and force it. I’ll just let things change.”
Have you got any tips for songwriters out there?
“I don’t feel like I’m in any position to offer tips particularly. But that said, what I learnt from Johnny and other people that I’ve worked with, is not to be afraid. A little bit like when you’re in drama class at school – even with the stupidest idea, if you feel like it’s going anywhere, you’ve got to go for it, because you don’t know what it might turn out to be. Also don’t be embarrassed if it’s just being expressive.”
The Colour Of My Dreams was based on a book of poems you found at home. What’s the story behind that?
“It was in between Razorlight albums and after having written America and Fall To Pieces. I kind of thought I started off a songwriting career the wrong way round – my first songwriting effort pretty much was a song that went to number one! So after that album, I kind of went back to the drawing board and thought ‘how do you write songs?’ and ‘how do you write songs with somebody?’ And I found, by rediscovering Peter Dixon’s book of poems, I was in a no-pressure environment. To just sit at home and use the Elton John and Bernie Taupin arrangement. I’ve always been a huge Elton John fan and I used to watch those old documentaries where he talks about the ‘you wash, I’ll dry’ way of songwriting, which I’m still yet to master. I thought it would be fun to literally just put someone’s lyrics to music and melody, and I felt like I wanted to have a go at that. So I spent the entire summer making Pete’s poems into songs and then I guess it was a time when I was in a very fortunate position and the A&R guy said ‘That’s a lovely thing, why don’t we do that?’ Really it was an exercise for me… to work out whether I could write songs or whether it had been a total fluke!”
Let’s talk about the single Keep On Moving On and the forthcoming album. Is it finished?
“Yeah it is, we’re just mixing it now. The single was a song that I wrote and brought to the table for a project I was doing with Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt. We started a band about a 18 months ago and started writing songs, and that was the one I brought in. We knocked it around a bit together and Mark ended up writing a couple of bits, and because the project seemed to end up on the back burner a bit, it became a song that I was really keen to do myself. So it was a semi-collaborative effort. I felt like it had a good introduction to my new record.”
Is there a theme to the album in any way?
“Not really. I always think my writing’s quite nostalgic. And there’s a lot of heartache and break – I never hold back with any of my over-the-top emotional..er.. y’know? There’s definitely a travel element. Not like sort of ‘I got on a train, then I got on a plane’ but…”
“Yeah, my last eight years has been spent travelling around the world and I suppose that’s made me think more. I do feel I’m a massive over-thinker, but that probably helps with the writing. I guess the songwriting is a comforting way of letting yourself organise those feelings and memories.”EVEN WITH WRITER’S BLOCK, I’LL TRY AND USE IT AS A POSITIVE. I DON’T TRY AND FORCE IT
So what’s next?
“The priorities at the moment are my album and the Scientist album and there’s a couple of songs kicking around with people like the Delilah one and a kid I’ve been writing with called Tom Odell, who’s signed to Columbia. He’s a great talent. And then in the future, I think me and Tom will do another album – definitely not another Christmas one!”
“Since being in New York, more so than ever I’m just loving writing stuff and not really worrying too much about where it might go. I definitely think I’m trying to change my attitude there and just do stuff and have fun with it. We’ve got an idea to do a stupid collective – our friend Tim Wheeler [Ash frontman] has a studio over here, and we’ve got an idea to jump in there when we’ve got a spare couple of weeks and record stupid songs. I like the idea of just writing pop stuff and seeing where things go. There’s a bunch of stuff in the pipeline.”
Will you be touring the album as Andy Burrows?
“We’re currently plotting and planning and trying to make it all work so that I can do…basically everything, without going insane! We’re slowly putting a band together. We definitely will tour it, yeah.”
Maybe co-headline with We Are Scientists?
“Yeah that’s something we have talked about. When we finished the tour with a couple of nights at the Shepherds Bush Empire, they very kindly asked me if I’d support, and then play drums for them, but for some annoying reason I didn’t do it. That kind of thing would be fun – go on stage, support them, come off stage, have half an hour breather and then jump on the drums. That’ll keep me fit!”
Andy Burrows Keep On Moving On is out now on PIAS.