Bess Atwell’s Songwriting Survival Kit
A second-hand Spanish guitar, a drum machine and ugly surroundings help this singer-songwriter to write her captivating modern folk music
The music made by Brighton-based singer-songwriter Bess Atwell floats and flickers like a tortoiseshell in flight and, just like the butterfly, still manages to grab attention during moments of rest. Her new album Already, Always, out this week, centres on the deeper relationships that have informed her life to date, mirroring the loves and losses that we all experience over time. It’s a textured and touching collection of modern folk music that deserves to spread its wings and soar into the hearts and ears of all fans of carefully crafted and intimate songwriting.
Fully captivated, we were keen to know a little more about the creative cocoon in which the album developed…
I wish I was about to write something about being a cool surfer chick, but unfortunately this is a metaphor. For me, if the ‘mental surf’ isn’t good, I’m not going to be able to push through it and find a wave to ride. I know a lot of artists recommend writing through writer’s block, but that doesn’t work for me personally. I wake up in the morning and I know if I’m going to be able to catch a songwriting wave or not, so on days when the surf isn’t good, I don’t take my board out.
MY NEW SPANISH GUITAR
I recently bought a second-hand Spanish guitar from Facebook Marketplace. It’s no fancy make or model but it sounds amazing and has definitely influenced the direction of my writing recently. I normally write on my Martin or Danelectro, but I was finding myself getting stuck on the same kinds of guitar parts. I’ve never really considered myself a guitarist, but this guitar sounds so good that it’s pushing me to use the instrument as more than just a vehicle to write with.
I often find myself wondering how I would have ever written a song before the advent of voice memos. Whenever I sit down to write, I always make sure I have my phone to hand so that I can record anything I come up with, whether that’s a melody, lyric, or guitar part. If I didn’t do so, I genuinely think I wouldn’t remember any of my songs the next morning which is pretty scary.
UGLY SURROUNDINGS (hear me out)
I used to bring my guitar on holiday because I loved the idea of writing music somewhere new and beautiful. The problem with this is, when you’re looking at something beautiful it shines a flattering light on whatever you’re hearing. Think of an album that reminds you of a place you love… you probably wouldn’t love it quite so much out of that same context. I’ve found the same applies when I’ve been writing somewhere beautiful. I’ll be lazier with my choices because I have a distorted view of how good the song is. It often doesn’t stand up so well when I take it back to my flat in England. Okay, so maybe my writing location doesn’t have to be “ugly”, but it doesn’t seem to help when it’s beautiful!
I use my laptop one of two ways:
Way one is a demoing device. I generally subscribe to the idea that a good song should be able to hold its own acoustically. However, sometimes I’m writing a song that I know I want a full band on, or that I can hear specific parts to, and I want to create a more realised demo. That’s when my laptop, and Logic, come into play. This is often one of the most absorbing and enjoyable parts of writing for me – having a way to illustrate what I can hear in my head and the vision I have for a song.
Way two is as an instrument. I mostly write on the guitar, but occasionally I find myself stuck and uninspired and that’s when I like to move over to my laptop and MIDI instruments. I’ll lay down synth loops and sing over them. I’m not a pianist but one of the songs on my new record was written entirely on MIDI piano. It can be an amazing tool to develop your songwriting.
This is another tool for when I’m feeling like I’m recycling old ideas and stuck on the same rhythm. I’ll often just choose a beat at random and challenge myself to play along, on the guitar, and write a topline over it. I love doing this because it keeps things fresh and stops me writing the same song over and over.
This one is kind of obvious but for good reason. I write pretty much exclusively autobiographically. That’s not to say that every song is about me, but that they’re about my perception of things or about those I love. I wouldn’t have much to say otherwise!
NOT LISTENING TO TOO MUCH MUSIC
I think this might be a little controversial, but it’s what works best for me. I sort of go through listening phases and then writing phases, but the two phases rarely meet. I used to be terrible for comparing my music to other’s so I’d find myself constantly checking to see where my music stacked up in comparison to whatever great record I was listening to. This is a killer for creativity so I separate the two things. Taking inspiration from other art is important and unavoidable, but by giving myself time and space from the music I’ve been listening to, I find that the influence comes out a lot more authentically and without the judgment of comparison.