David Rotheray’s 10 tips for songwriting after an extended break

Dave Rotheray
David Rotheray

David Rotheray: “Get on the ferry for a couple of days. It’s like a mind cleanser.”

The former Beautiful South guitarist offers some advice for any songwriters hoping to return to the craft after a break

Having completed duties on 2013’s Answer Ballads, David Rotheray decided to leave the music industry behind. Formerly the lead guitarist of masters of wry pop The Beautiful South, Rotheray called time on his career and opened a pub in his hometown of Hull. Ironically, it was the very thing that was intended to replace songwriting which brought him back to it – inspired by snippets of conversations he heard while pulling pints, songs started to form in his mind.

Released under the name Prosecco Socialist, Songs From Behind Bars is proof that Rotheray was right to return to his first love. Here he explains some of the techniques which helped him start writing again…

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1. Stop, collaborate and listen

“The first thing that was important for me was to collaborate with somebody. Working with somebody else wakes you up mentally – you up your game a bit when it’s not just you in the room. As well as the motivational side to it of having someone else there, there’s also the fact that people all work differently, so working with someone whose methods are dissimilar from yours stimulates you and makes you think in a way that you wouldn’t normally.”

2. Stir it up

“I wrote a lot of songs with the Irish folk singer Eleanor McEvoy. We did a song where we did it all by email, I wrote a bit of a tune on my phone, emailed it to her and she corrected it and emailed it back, and we did that for six months. On the other hand there are songs that I’ve written in 20 minutes. Every different method makes you write differently. Anything that shakes things up and makes them more interesting helps.”

3. Location, location, location

“Along the same track is changing the environment that you write in. Go away somewhere to a different place that you’ve never been before. I like going away on the train and we’ve got the ferry here in Hull – it’s the ferry to Rotterdam and that’s a good one, get on the ferry for a couple of days. It’s like a mind cleanser. I’ve also found that walking is really good. I’ve noticed that the rhythm of walking helps put things into a rhythm. I find it really helpful to sing to myself while I walk, though it must look a bit weird to people walking past.”

4. Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

“Also, try writing on a different instrument, one that you don’t normally play. Anything to shake yourself out of your comfort zone and make you think in a new way. I wrote a couple on the piano, I know where the notes are but I don’t play it. If I go to the piano it’s always G and D and that’s it, but that’s good in a way. Sometimes it’s good to write a song that is just G the whole way through and writing on a different instrument can make you do that. I even do things like cutting chords out of a book and then pick them out at random and try to make some sense out of them.”

5. Beginner’s luck

“I think part of it is that it has to be an instrument that you don’t play because it’s the lack of proficiency that makes you do something different. I used to sometimes retune my guitar. I’m not one of these people who can play different tunings, but I used to do it so that when I put my fingers on the guitar I would play something unusual by mistake. Obviously a lot of the time it was rubbish but sometimes something quite nice would come out from doing that.”

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Prosecco Socialist

Prosecco Socialist (left to right): Mike Greaves, Eleanor McEvoy and David Rotheray

6. It’s got to be… perfect

“Once I start writing again, the desire to make it good overwhelms everything else. It overwhelms the lethargy and the distractions and everything. Not doing it is easy but once you start, if you’ve got any pride, you want to make it decent. So that becomes the driving force really; not embarrassing yourself by making something totally awful.”

7. Same same but different

“There’s nothing wrong with copying something, especially if I have words and no tune. I’ll start off by writing to someone else’s tune. I’ll pick a song that I’ve heard on the radio or that I know and I’ll write the words to it. Once that’s done and the lyrics are finished I’ll go back and change the tune to something else, but I’ll have used that song as a stepping stone. That can work quite well because most people write differently to you, so if you write it to somebody else’s tune it puts you into a different rhythm to what you’d normally default to. As long as you remember to go back and change it!

“There’s a Radio 4 panel show called I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and one of the questions on there is to sing one song to the tune of another. So you get the words of one song and sing it to a different tune; I sometimes like doing that. It’s the same thing again, it forces you into a different place and makes you come up with something that you wouldn’t come up with otherwise.”

8. Do it yourself

“It helps that I’m doing it all myself this time, so there’s no record company or anything and there’s no real sense of it being a business. Obviously there’s lots of administration stuff like registering the songs but there’s nobody saying, ‘We need to sell so many copies of this.’ It was just get it done and get it released. That makes it easier in a way because you don’t have anyone looming over you. In another way it’s bad because you haven’t got the backing and the weight behind you to promote it and get it in the public space, but on the other hand it means you don’t have anybody to answer to and you can do it however you like.”

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9. Under pressure

“Another good thing, especially if you’re doing it on your own, is to impose deadlines on yourself. If you haven’t got a band or people around you saying, ‘We’ve got to get this finished by June 12th,’ it’s easy to keep on correcting yourself and never finish. If you’ve not got the record company hounding you, you can end up in a self-referential pool where you just keep on. I think the demise of the album has made that worse as well. When it was all albums it was like, ‘I’ve got to get 12 songs done.’ Whereas if you take that discipline away, there’s no shape to your week or your month or your year anymore, you just keep doing it again and again. Impose a deadline on yourself. If you can only afford a week in the studio then you have to get it done within a week, and I think that’s good. I’m quite glad I haven’t got a studio in my house or GarageBand; if I’m paying to be in a studio then I’m going to get it done.”

10. You cannot be serious

“Most importantly, if you enjoy it then you’ll do it. You’ve got to find a way of doing it that makes it fun for you. If there’s one other thing I’d add to that it’s perspective – don’t get too caught up in your own grand image of yourself because the universe doesn’t care. Even if you’re super successful, nobody cares that much. I remember listening to the radio a few weeks ago and someone was talking about Never Mind The Bollocks and they said it changed the world, and I was thinking, ‘Well how much did it change Kazakhstan or Tibet?’ Even if you’ve got a No 1, most of the world doesn’t really care, so try and keep some perspective.”

Interview: Duncan Haskell

Songs From Behind Bars is out now. For all David Rotheray’s latest info, check out his Facebook page and davidrotheray.com

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