The FREE online course ‘How to Write Your First Song‘, from the University of Sheffield and featuring yours truly, starts on Monday. People have signed up in their thousands from all around the world, and there’s still time to get in on it. Take a peek:
Ahead of the course starting, I’ve put together a songwriting playlist, made up of music that has had a direct or indirect effect on me as a songwriter. It’s sort of chronological starting from my teenage years right up to now. I’ve also included some further listening – not everything I wanted to put on the list was on Spotify, and also it would have taken me months to perfect this list, I had to stop!
Explanations below the list. Enjoy! And then sign up!
1. The Delgados – Pull the Wires from the Wall
I heard this song on John Peel’s show when I was about 17. I was just teaching myself the guitar at the time and this is one of the first songs I learned to play and sing, and I think that had a big influence on the playing style I developed. There’s well-done pop structure here, with the picky, dark verse and the upbeat chorus with those beautiful high strings that lift it right up. It’s interesting pop that would be a major influence later on Monkey Swallows the Universe.
2. PJ Harvey – Plants and Rags
PJ Harvey’s songs were also among the first I learned to play. Polly has remained an influence on me ever since, but it’s always been these early songs that had the biggest effect on me right at the start of my songwriting life (see also That Was My Veil, Hardly Wait). It’s the darkness, the swaggering rhythms and the brazen delivery that works for me.
3. The Kinks – Autumn Almanac
I also had a Kinks superfandom phase in my teens. I loved how fun their songs were while still being really interestingly put together, and how honest and ‘normal’ they felt.
4. Teenage Fanclub – Ain’t That Enough
This summery pop song is mostly on the list for its Beach Boys-esque harmonies, but also it’s a good example of something that sounds really happy without being too saccharine, which is hard to do. If you listen to just the melody, it’s actually a really melancholy tune – it could have been a very different song if put together in another way.
5. Longpigs – Loud and Clear
OK, it’s gone a bit Britpop. But in my teens they were an important band for me and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that Crispin Hunt’s approach to melody and lyrics didn’t rub off on me somewhat, probably more than I realise. I’ve picked this one because I think maybe it is actually a bit ‘me’ and also it’s important to have parts of a song that you get excited about when you’re getting close to them, and for me it’s the ‘boy next door’ bit here.
6. Bjork – Hyperballad
I’ve realised while putting this playlist together that I’m picking lots of songs that I love to sing along to, and it’s because I’m trying to give importance to the physical giving and receiving of the song – you want to enjoy performing it every single time, and you want people to want to hear it again and to look forward to those singalong moments. Bjork’s melodies and structures are just so good.
7. Ella Fitzgerald – Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered
I wanted to include a song on this list that further highlighted the importance of a song’s delivery. Creating a vocal melody that’s in time and in tune is all well and good, but if you really want people to listen you have to work harder than that. Choose carefully when to hold back and when to show some balls (see Bjork again); you should have the performance of the song in mind whilst writing. You should be having fun writing it too – if you’re getting frustrated, stop. Do something else. Also see the Nina Simone/Patsy Cline/Howling Bells songs in my further listening list for more examples of excellent delivery.
8. Nick Drake – Hazy Jane II
There’s something a bit magical about this song, it sort of feels like it’s living and growing, always new even though I’ve heard it a thousand times. I love how the music has to wait for the vocal. I’d love to write something like it.
9. Pavement – Shady Lane
It’s hard to pick a single Pavement song, but I’m choosing this one for the interplay with the guitar and the vocal melody – it’s probably had an influence on me when it comes to me fitting those two basic crucial elements together in that complimentary, echoing each other way.
10. Belle & Sebastian – Century of Fakers
This song, like lots of B&S, has an aloofness and indifference that mesmerises when mixed with soft pop rhythms and interesting textures. It’s that gentle bite, the intrigue it creates. (See also Waiting for the Moon to Rise)
11. Connie Converse – One by One
Connie’s songs are complex but sound simple. They are often circular in structure, eschewing the verse/chorus for something that is both at once. Discovering Connie a couple of years ago and learning to play her songs inspired me to return to the way I approached guitar when I was first learning it, going back to focus purely on that interplay between those two basics of guitar and voice. She was an influence on Neighbour of the Year in this way.
12. Red House Painters – Michigan
Again it’s an apparent simplicity here when the songs aren’t really that simple – Mark Kozelek uses interesting chords and structures and the notes of his melodies are so deliberate. It’s also that understatement, the holding back, that I always love in music. (NB I actually wanted to include Have you Forgotten, but the version of it I wanted to share isn’t on Spotify).
13. Lift to Experience – These are the Days
Sorry to put an 8 minute + song on the playlist. It’s hard to explain what’s so brilliant about this one, but I’ve included it as an example of excellent communication of feeling; it’s the uncontainable energy that explodes and moves and speaks to the listener in different ways throughout it, the way everything works together for that purpose. To me, this song sits in a different place in my head to a lot of other music. It’s not something that I can listen to repeatedly or often, which kind of goes against what I’ve said earlier, but some things are just different.
14. A Winged Victory for the Sullen – A Symphony Pathetique
If you want to write books, you have to read books. If you want to write songs, you have to listen to songs – make sure your own musical experiences are as rich as possible, and demand more from your listening all the time. I’m always looking for drama and dynamics, restraint and surprise, in all those elements I’ve talked about above, all in an attempt to master the ability to powerfully communicate feeling through song.
Some further listening:
Richard Dawson – Wooden Bag
Neil Young – After the Gold Rush
Van Morrison – Madame George
Arthur Russell – I Couldn’t Say It To Your Face
Dory Previn – Lady with the Braid
Judee Sill – Jesus Was a Crossmaker
Joni Mitchell – Carey
Joanna Newsom – Sadie
Diane Cluck – Half a Million Miles from Home
Fionn Regan – Penny in the Slot
Sufjan Stevens – Casimir Pulaski Day
Beirut – The Rip Tide
The Decemberists – The Mariner’s Revenge Song
Idaho – The Sun is All There Is
Daniel Knox – White Oaks Mall
The Postal Service – The District Sleeps Tonight
The Shins – Saint Simon
Yo La Tengo – Our Way to Fall
Low – California
Tap Tap – Half Moon Street
The Everly Brothers – Cathy’s Clown
The Beach Boys – God Only Knows
Nina Simone – I Loves You Porgy
Patsy Cline – Crazy
Howling Bells – Ballad for the Bleeding Hearts
Sibelius – En Saga, Op. 9