When it comes to songs, sometimes the old saying ‘keep it simple, stupid’ is good advice, say this UK duo
implicity. It’s the most difficult of skills in the creative field, to be able to say a million words in a single line and find resonance with a few chords. It’s the realm of the truly inspired musician to be able to filter their work into something concise. Many great artists have fallen into the trap of adding layer upon layer of fat to their work, hoping to smother the lack of a clear direction with a series of half-composed ideas.
Vienna Ditto formed in 2009, the duo of singer Hattie Taylor and guitarist Nigel Firth’s uniting because of their shared appreciation for filthy Chicago blues, sinister psychedelia and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Taking those influences, the pair create music that’s both familiar and unique. Here, one-half of the duo, Nigel Firth, tells Songwriting about how he likes to write songs that are simple but that imply a lot.
Can you start by telling us a little about how you go about writing?
“I start by making loads of notes on my phone and in a little black book… notes and pictures, which 99 per cent of the time I don’t use. It will be a phrase or a tempo. If it’s a tempo then it will depend what mode of transport I’ve chosen: when I’m walking I write slower songs and when I’m on my bike I write faster songs! I used to write stuff in the studio, but I would just end up spending five hours making the hi-hat sound perfect.”
So you would become restricted by technology?
“Yeah. Now I just sit down with an acoustic guitar and strum minor bar chords that don’t go together. I try to sing a melody and it won’t work, so I change some of the chords to make the words fit; if I feel deeply about something then the writing comes easier to me, it’s like I’m digging into my consciousness, finding automotive writing. Lately I’ve been trying to make things a lot simpler. I really like Hemmingway’s style of writing, the way he uses simple sentences that imply a lot.”
Where do the soundscapes come into your songwriting process?
“It comes in when we get into the studio, once we’ve completed the outline of the song. When I was younger I was obsessed with Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds and that’s the sort of atmospheric approach that I aim for.”
What other things influence your songwriting?
“I love old Moog synthesizers, the type that you might find in a charity shop. I really like primitive electronica, though a 14-year-old dubstep producer will have a better grasp of electronic production than I do! I really love Olivier Messiaen: he was a French composer from the 1920s. I love lots of 1960s psychedelia too. In terms of our influences though, we’re most often compared to Portishead, even though Hatty has barely heard Portishead.”
“Yeah, but then I love Portishead and I love a lot of music that inspired their music. I think that’s where the comparisons come from. Though I would say we’re like a swing Portishead!”
“I want to be experimental, but keep a pop sensibility”
How do you see your songwriting developing?
“I have a strong idea of where I want to go with my songwriting. I was looking at your website and I saw that you’d interviewed Cathy Dennis – she’s someone that I really admire, a real classic pop songwriter. Then I saw that you’d interviewed Micachu & The Shapes and I adore them too. They write some really poppy stuff, but at same time it’s really experimental, without being self-indulgent and that’s where I want to go; I want to be experimental and push my songwriting as far as possible, but keep a pop sensibility and not become self-indulgent. I’m trying to find the oldest, most arcane music that I can – I’m really into rockabily at the moment. I think in terms of where the songs are, we’re in the 1890s.”
If you could have been any songwriter, who would you have been?
“That’s a big question – just one?! The one that pops into my head is John Jacob Niles, he was a sort of weird combination of childish and spooky songwriting, using lots of homemade loops that verged on the ridiculous and it’s great. Victoria Spivey is another one, I love her. She sings the blues, but it’s shocking, she pushes her songwriting, talking about murder and stuff. In a really silly way, I would have loved to have been Robert Johnson, but wouldn’t everyone?”
“Nobody’s Fault But Mine by Blind Willie Johnson. Or Standing On The Outside by Sheryl Crow, though in purely monetary terms, Eleanor Rigby or Jerusalem! The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by Peggy Seeger is another. I heard the orginal for the first time the other day and it was phenomenal, totally folky and idiosyncratic. I went and saw Peggy Seeger the other day and it was amazing. She’d got up to perform by the time I arrived at the venue and I ended up being sat in her seat! It was just was amazing to see her sing The First Time… because it was written for her by a 40-year-old [Ewan McColl] when she was twenty.
What were you aiming for with the EP?
“It went through various stages. The title track Liar Liar started off as a kind of ‘Bo Didley with synthesizers’. We did a song on the previous release that we wanted to sound like a Mexican village mariachi band and that helped to inspire us.
“We had some issues when we recorded The Undefeated. We recorded lots of percussion and realised it was in the wrong key. Then the hard drive that the recordings were stored on died. So after that we thought that we’d just make it simple, do it in a day, like taking a story and boiling it down to its base elements. I saw a documentary recently about these 60s filmmakers who edited a whole film down to the perfect film and I wrote about that instance and that was what we hoped to achieve when we re-started the songwriting process.
“Whatever Comes My Way was a simple one, we just bashed it out and my guitar was a bit out of tune but Hatty just killed it on the singing, so we had to keep it that way! And with Little Fingers we were kinda being silly in the studio. It was us trying to do stuff in a new way and failing in exasperation!
“Try and come up with a story”
What tips do you have for the aspiring songwriters among our readers?
“I went to university and did a performing arts course and I managed to wrangle it so that I did the music for the productions. It was the best job in the world: you had three minutes where you could do whatever you wanted, so I just looked upon it as an opportunity. So I’d say to aspiring songwriters, look at your songwriting as an opportunity, write whatever comes off the top of your head and then dig around to see what it means. Try and come up with a story, though a good story is tricky, so maybe just find lots of short stories and boil them down!”
We’ll leave the last question up to you. What question would you like to be asked and how would you answer it?
“I think I’d like to be asked ‘Do you think that you’ll reach a point where you’re happy that you’ve got there, that you’d made it?’. A plumber, for example, might reach the point where they’ve learnt all they can and achieved a state of perfection within their craft.
“So I guess the question is do I think I’ll ever get to that point, where I’ve achieved everything I set out to, and the answer is no. It’s weird in pop music, it seems that people get to that point where they burn out. Though I guess I could just be like Messiaen and record a load of bird songs. I teach guitar too so I have lots of people to steal ideas from! I guess to stop getting to the point where you burn out, you just have to think that you’ve never made it. Anyway, I’m just holding the fort until Hatty writes the next hit!”
Interview: Damien Girling
Liar Liar by Vienna Ditto is out now via Bandcamp. For more information, see the band’s website