Fyfe Dangerfield’s Songwriting Survival Kit
With the help of his favourite robe and studio “den”, the former Guillemots frontman has returned with a new EP
From their arrival in 2005 until the release of their final album in 2012, Guillemots had more imagination and inventiveness than the majority of indie bands, surely helped by the fact that members came from England, Scotland, Brazil and Canada. Even the vocal style of frontman Fyfe Dangerfield (the English part of the equation) felt especially grandiose when compared to the faux off-key nature of much of the mid-00s scene. A re-listen to classic songs like Trains To Brazil, Made-Up Lovesong 43, Get Over It and The Basket reveals a group who could take classic strong structures and stretch them in interesting ways.
Dangerfield recently released The Birdwatcher EP, his first official new music in a decade. Ever the experimentalist, the six songs combine to form a lush and multi-textured soundscape brimming with ideas and wonder. Fully immersed in his world, we needed to know more about the tools he uses to bring his songs to life…
1. MY STUDIO
I was lucky enough to start renting my own studio space a few years ago – I have a couple of adjoining rooms in this mad old crumbling ex Turkish delight factory, and I love it. There’s a whole community of us in here making all sorts of bits & pieces; furniture, clothing, screen prints, etc. It all feels quite Willy Wonka – and it’s been a lifeline to me. It wouldn’t really pass muster as a “pro” studio – it’s more of a den, really, but it’s my den, you know? I feel totally at home here, I can make music as and when I please, and for me, that’s the number one thing I need in a creative space – a sense of total freedom. So I guess this picture as a whole represents the spirit of the place!
2. “THE ROBE”
I couldn’t not put “the robe” in… I saw this in a shop in Galway a few years ago and loved it so much, I bought two. I had no idea at this point that it was anything to do with Marvel. I don’t really have any particular affinity with that world, all I noticed was the multi-colour. But it’s kind of become my ritual now; I get to the studio, change into some comfy loose clothes and on goes the robe. I feel strangely protected when I wear it.
Again, it’s that feeling at home thing. I’ve played the piano since I was three, and there’s just something so elemental about playing a real, acoustic piano; it’s a constant I’ve had since childhood that I can keep returning to. It’s made a big difference getting one here at the studio. I keep meaning to actually sit down and write at the piano more; I think that’s a great discipline for someone like me who’s so easily sucked into sound-worlds. But it’s not so much about needing it to write, it’s more like just having an old friend who’s there any time you want to hang out. Just to wander over for a few minutes and play… it’s reassuring. And also, it’s a great palette cleanser. If I’m getting over-saturated in ‘production world’, I’ll sometimes just step away for a bit and play a version of whatever I’m working on at the piano. You often get a totally different perspective on the music that way, which can really re-invigorate things.
Ah, reverb. I’m a bit of an addict. It’s not that I don’t love the sound of a super-up-close dry voice in the right context, but usually, when I’m writing, it really helps to hear reverb on my voice. It kind of blends me in, like a bridge between the reality of my oh-so-human mouth making its noises, and the fantasy world of what I’m hearing in my head. It helps to land me in that imaginary place. I’ve represented reverb in the picture here with a Boss pedal that I use when I’m at the piano. I run my vocals through that into a little amp, just for writing. But, much as I love pedals, most of the time when I’m in production world, it’s more likely to just be a computer plug-in, which brings us to the…
This seems like a very unromantic choice; I’d love to say that I actually do most of my writing at the lute or something. But to be honest, laptop recording has completely thrown the gates wide open for me. A huge part of the last decade for me has been spent tinkering around with Logic, getting to a point where I feel more AND more able to get the sounds in my head out there without losing anything in translation. Just finding my own ways. I know that strictly speaking, song-writing and production are separate processes, but for me, most of the time, they run in tandem. So much of the emotion I get from music comes from the way it sounds, not just its composition.
6. DAFT SOUNDS
The strange old electric guitar in this picture is one that’s in such a deranged state of upkeep that it sounds more like a broken sitar. It’s not that this specific instrument is one I turn to all the time, but more about what it represents to me. When all else fails, try a ridiculous noise. Sing the song you’re working on in a comedy accent. Just be silly. The biggest obstacle I face when I’m making music is how absurdly seriously I can take it all. It becomes such a “big deal”. But it’s invariably in the moments when I’m at my most playful that the real magic happens. And the daft sounds you add, even though they might be more for your amusement … they can often end up bringing that missing ingredient to the stew. Or, at the very least, they can swerve you back into that play-state where you’re at your most open.
Along the same lines, playing the drums is so good for the soul. Just the physicality of it. I’m not talking so much about drumming on my own music – though I love doing that – but more just playing along to other people’s records, for fun. Not trying to nail a perfect take or anything; just playing. That’s what I did when I was a kid, playing along to Beatles songs on the piano or guitar. I have to keep finding ways to jog myself back into that sense of playfulness, that child-like state where you’re not trying to “achieve” anything, or chase after anything… you’re just messing around. It’s a strange but true paradox that, in the game of creating stuff, the magic usually happens when “doing something great” is the last thing on your mind.
8. DOING SOMETHING CREATIVE THAT’S NOT MUSIC
I’ve represented this in the picture here by showing some of my random paint splurges on the studio walls! Sometimes just operating in a completely different creative zone can be a really good way to mix things up a bit. I’ve got quite into doing visual stuff recently – either random painting or manipulating images on my phone. I feel like a total novice at it all, and that’s lovely, that feeling of having no clue what I’m doing, you’ve no choice but to be guided by instinct. In music too, I think that’s why I love things like playing the drums, because I’m newer to it. Again, it’s a balance. It’s lovely and satisfying to gradually work at techniques, to reach a point where you really feel confident about what you’re doing. But I think you’ve also got to keep tempering that with big sloshes of “not-having-a clue-ness”.
Sometimes the kindest thing you can do for yourself creatively is just to take a nap. Refresh. Reset. And let yourself go there guilt-free. So I’ve put a little bit of my bedspread in the picture on behalf of sleep’s restorative power. It’s a balance, all of this is; it’s easy to tip over into laziness and lethargy. Some days you absolutely should force yourself to keep going. There’ve been so many days when I’ve nearly stopped trying, and half an hour later something magical happens. But on other days, a proper little snooze can be miraculous. Those moments where you’re right on that borderline of awake/asleep can be when some of the most exciting ideas float in. And if you wake up feeling rested, you get that lovely moment of true space and clarity before the thoughts come marching back in, which can be so insightful. I actually really like music-making in bed too. Laptop, headphones, being comfy… that can be a great way to work, to do some proper detailed mix/arrangement zoning-in.
Or, alternatively, don’t go to bed, get outside and move instead. Or have a dance. This can be a great way to listen to music too, to think about lyrics… whatever you’re working on can come alive while you’re stomping/bouncing around. So I’ve bunged a pair of shoes into the visual mix here too. I find that the deeper I get into idea-hunting, the harder it can be to step away and take myself into a different space; I tend to want to keep on going, not leave where I am until I’ve found what I’m searching for. But this is where, once more, allowing yourself to switch off can sometimes be the best way to make yourself available to that mysterious inspiration Honey Monster.
11. FREEDOM FOR ALL IDEAS
And finally, an old pair of gorilla slippers, acting as bouncers, there to protect all ideas from any self-conscious, self-censoring nasties that might be hanging around the neighbourhood. Those ideas which at first seem laughable, too abstract, too out-of-the-blue, too basic, are often the moments that really end up hitting home the most. The beautiful thing about creativity is that it’s a practice within which you’re truly free to do anything; this isn’t a place for holding back, or rules. And it’s the subconscious mind that usually has the tastiest goodies, but this part of us needs to really feel safe AND encouraged to express itself freely. So I really try to just let anything come out when I’m writing; to not get in my own way. Give all ideas a chance to blossom, and the right ones will stick around.