Sodajerker serve you up a real treat, as they speak to one of the most acclaimed songwriters of recent years
songwriter’s power can come from different qualities: their ability to articulate a scream against oppression, the capacity to invent a genre all of their own or simply the skill to write a melody that resonates. Where eternal power lies, though, is in being able to sum up a listener’s life, providing both soundtrack and script to a moment in time. Stuart Murdoch of cult indie band Belle and Sebastian is one such songwriter.
Having taken piano lessons from a young age and worked as a DJ during his university days, music was always a big part of his life. It wasn’t until he was struck down by myalgic encephalomyelitis – chronic fatigue syndrome – in the late 80s, though, that songwriting became the most important part of it. Unable to work for seven years, Murdoch took the isolation that he felt and pushed it into writing. When he finally overcame his illness in 1995 he began looking for a band to utilise the songwriting skills he’d developed, leading him to form Belle and Sebastian a year later.
Known for an intimidating productivity early in their career – with their first two albums Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister both released in 1996, and only five months apart – and their touching delicacy, Belle and Sebastian have gone on to become one of the most beloved bands of their generation. Their music has become synonymous with the difficult, lonely years of discovery that run from your teens through to your early twenties, and in doing so Murdoch has become the counsel within a pair of headphones for countless people across the world.
Here the Sodajerker boys sit down with Murdoch and find out just what gives him his songwriting skill.
I’m seems as though you’re someone who’s had the experience of songs almost tumbling out fully formed, as if you just have to transcribe them…
“Yes, certainly in the early days when I was ‘hot’, so to speak. I had a conversation with [Belle and Sebastian co-founder] Stuart David the other day and he’s just brought out a book about the formation of the band (In The All-Night Cafe). He was talking about when he first met me and how I would write songs, and it caused me to think about some of those songs that were written very quickly. He was very surprised with just how quickly I would write, because at that time I would sometimes write two songs a day and the songs wouldn’t necessarily start off being about anything.
“The nice thing about that is that you’re not tethered to a subject; you can start off talking about something non-specific and then bring it back to the personal. Sometimes that doesn’t work, and if you set out to do it then it feels contrived, but if it’s a genuine urge then you can surprise yourself. Some of those songs we still sing today – songs like The Stars Of Track And Field and Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying – and you don’t really know what they’re about, they just start with a feeling and then they go somewhere.”
Does The Everlasting Muse try to deal with this idea of being inspired?
“That’s one song that’s slightly contrived. I had a notion that I would write a letter, that I would write a song for the muse and ask them to help me write more songs. It was at the start of the LP process. So it was a little bit contrived but I think at the same time that we kind of got away with it. The line “She says ‘Be popular, play pop/And you will win my love’, I’d written a line like that in one of the first songs I’d ever written, which was very similar, and in a sense this was a manifesto to myself. That song was before Belle and Sebastian and it was never played in the band, I think it was called Collette And The Mystery Girl, so I thought it was ok to pinch from myself!”
“I thought it was ok to pinch from myself!”
Is there a process of graft and sweat that follows that inspiration?
“Not so much on the piano or the guitar, because kind of go to them in the last minute – I’ll kind of semi-apologetically go to the piano. I used to in the early days come in with much more complex and fully formed ideas, but now I just think that I’ll leave it to the band. Maybe it’s a bit lazy, I do think that I personally need to try and work a bit harder on songwriting. I did try and work harder on my songwriting for our latest LP (Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance) but that doesn’t mean necessarily that my technique got any better!”
You had the characters formed for your film God Help The Girl long before you wrote it, so was it a different process writing the songs for the film than you would normally go through?
“It was a different task only in the sense that I was liberated by writing for somebody else. That was the one basic difference and the way I went about writing songs wasn’t different at all. A few of them had a little bit more craft about them and I stood back and took a little bit more time over them… but I never tried to work too hard!”
One of your songs with an interesting intro is I’m A Cuckoo. Did it start with that harmonised riff?
“I remember that riff going round and round in my head for a solid week, but not in a bad way – it was in my sleep as well – and hearing it constantly going, and being harmonised once and harmonised twice, but knowing that I was on to something. I was so excited about that song when I wrote it; I don’t think that I’ve ever been so excited about a song because it was just at a period when the band were in good shape and I just couldn’t wait to bring it to the room, because it was so dynamic and Bob [Kildea] had just joined the group and I knew he had the chops to make it work. And I wasn’t wrong because it took shape very quickly.”
We heard you say once that you sometimes invent pressure because you like the idea of the pop songwriter with a deadline who might just churn out a hit and sell a million singles.
“It’s not so much the deadline that helps but the expectation about who’s going to hear the song. I do wish there was more of that, but things have changed and I think that my head’s a bit stuck in the past! Back in the days when Dylan brought out a new track, not only were the public desperate to hear it but other groups were desperate to get hold of it too, so that they could cover it. It just seems like songs were held in a much higher esteem back then.
“But people tend to collaborate nowadays and it’s all about pop stars working with anonymous writers and it’s just different. I do sometimes wish that our group was like a proper pop band from the 70s, like the BBC was really waiting for our new single!”
“It’s not so much the deadline that helps but the expectation about who’s going to hear the song.”
How did you develop your musical skills?
“I had piano lessons from the age of seven, from a lady called Mrs Scott, who was quite a stern English lady. I had kind of a love-hate relationship with my lessons where I did genuinely love the pieces that I played, but I hated practicing and hated a lot of the vibe that went along with learning piano. My mother had tried to have me learn violin but the violin for me was just hideous – I didn’t realise that it was ever going to make a nice noise and to me it was just only ever going to make a horrible noise, and I couldn’t live with that! Eventually I played trumpet too, which I took a shine to.”
Was it the health issues you experienced that caused you to be more interested in the process of writing songs?
“Oh that was definitely the catalyst. By the end of the 80s and start of the 90s that was the thing that happened and made me a completely different person, and all the clutter of my life that I’d felt before was just stripped away. But luckily I started to write songs.”
One of the common threads among songwriters is titles. Are titles important to you?
“Yes, titles are definitely important, and that goes through to album titles too. The Stars Of Track And Field was an ancient title that was something I wrote down in a diary in 1992 or 1993 and then just occurred to me again in ’96 and then I very quickly wrote the song. But it’s almost like the idea of the song was already wrapped up in the title, and you know those titles, sometimes they come from you overhearing something, or sometimes you imagine something, or you mishear something. It actually goes for Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, which I think was a very early Belle and Sebastian-type title and maybe it might have a song attached to it one day, but it was useful for this LP.”
Do you typically have lots of unused parts of songs that you might return to later and try to finish?
“Oh, definitely, and sometimes it’s useful, It’s almost like a scrap yard where you’ll take an old car down there and take old car parts and reuse them, and it’s the same with songs; you’ll recycle something, or you’ll slow it down or speed it up. It’s amazing how malleable melody is; you can turn pure melody into anything. That’s why it’s a good idea sometimes to not pin it down to chords or form too quickly, because melody can become classical, melody can become jazz; it can become any style.”
“It’s amazing how malleable melody is; you can turn pure melody into anything.”
We definitely got a sense of the importance of Glasgow in your early records, Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister. How important is Glasgow as a place to your songwriting?
“It’s very important and it’s good timing that you ask, because I was caused to think about this again after reading Stuart’s book. Sinister specifically was like a map to me when I look at the song titles. Every song in the album is wrapped up in a particular part of Glasgow. Maybe it doesn’t have so much relevance to the song, but I particularly remember being in a specific spot when I wrote it. I wrote them all pretty much in spring and that was just after we’d recorded Tigermilk and I was doing a lot of cycling and walking around and I remember writing Judy And The Dream Of Horses on the Clyde walkway, or If You’re Feeling Sinister on a walk up the canals.”
Having written so many songs at this point are there still new tricks you’re learning or new challenges that you’ve yet to tackle as a writer?
“That’s a good question. I almost wish there were more challenges. I would ring up our old publishers and they wouldn’t know who we were, but we have new publishers now and I’m hoping that they’ll ring up and say ‘We’ve got this new singer and we’d like you to write for her’ or ‘Why don’t you try and write with this person?’ I bumped into the girls from Haim when we were out in Coachella and they were talking about how they’re three months into writing their new LP. And they’ll do fine and brilliantly with it, but they were saying that it’s quite laborious. And at the end of it I couldn’t help myself and said ‘Look, I’ve always got loads of tunes and I’m happy to write with you and try something out.’ And I’m genuine about it, I think they’re nice people and a great band. So you know maybe they’ll get in touch!”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 70 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts –including the full 60-minute interview with Stuart Murdoch – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.