Second up in the series on songwriting is my friend and musical collaborator Martin McGroarty. I’d known Martin through work for about 25 years before I knew he was a singer-songwriter: and boy, can he write a ditty or two! Here’s how he describes himself:
I’ve dabbled with music and songwriting on and off (family commitments and life situation permitting!) over the last 30 years or so. It’s only in the last 6 months or so that I’ve really got in touch with playing gigs and thinking about music again properly – marriage break-ups are hard, but they give you so much time for music! Also coincided with my first ever successfully adhered to New Year’s Resolution – to grab 2015 by the nads and kick the shit out of it.
On with the questions:
Music or words first? Or a bit of both?
I have to admit that I find the whole process of songwriting tortuous. I am definitely not a natural. [ACF: Yes, you are. Get on with it.] I have added words to chord sequences I’ve come up with first, but it’s usually about what I want to say in a song first – so it usually starts with the words for me. And it’s usually words about some great drama in my life that I feel compelled to write about – my way of processing pain or telling someone how much I feel for them. I’m going to have to learn to write stuff when I’m not in the midst of some personal crisis or other….
Do you use a particular instrument to compose with, e.g. a favourite guitar; if you use piano/keyboard and guitar for different songs, do they produce different results?
My favourite songwriting tools are a pen and a bit of paper. As I said, it’s usually the words that come from how I’m feeling about something or someone that arrive in the old grey matter first. When I get round to thinking about the music part of it, I’ll be bashing about on the acoustic until I get something I like, then try and match the words to it. When I used to play in a band in my younger days however, I did write a few songs on the bass guitar (words and music) – principally because I couldn’t play acoustic guitar then and the bass was my job in the band.
Some songwriters talk about the process as if it’s like catching something that was there already, out there in the ether – as if the song was just waiting to be pulled in. Does it ever feel like that to you, or is the process much more mechanical for you?
As I said, I’m not a natural at this songwriting business. [I’ve warned you about that already. ACF]
I love the idea of my songs existing as wee gems of beautifully structured, musical, melodic, literary works of art floating about in the ether, just waiting to be captured and crystallised over a can of lager. But it’s just not the case unfortunately – the reality is much less romantic than that (Lager? Romantic?).
I’m a bit of a wordsmith – always have been and always enjoyed word play – but the musical part of it is work for me, often quite hard work, getting the two parts of the song, lyrics and music, to meld together. So my songs start off life in two completely separate places – the words side, the easy bit for me and which therefore gets all the attention and is spoiled rotten; and the music side, which is very much the poor relation and has to live in the attic until I need to reluctantly let it out and feed it.
I usually start with one line of a song that can appear in my head from nowhere. That then gets expanded into a storyline (I’ve always liked songs that tell a story – though the danger with that is that it can get very literal, so I try to be clever and obscure the message a bit). That’s the part of the process I enjoy the most. I suppose that where the ethereal part of it can kick in for me is when I finally try to put the words and the music together….the melody seems to come from absolutely nowhere and, if I overthink it, it just doesn’t work.
I think that some people are so good musically that they can write brilliant songs that have random words or phrases in them, rather than beautifully crafted story-telling lyrics. The strength of my songs, I think, is in the lyrical side and as long as I can get something musically competent enough to be the vehicle for that I’m happy with it.
Name an influence on your songs that maybe wouldn’t be obvious to most of your fans.
Kevin Taylor is a name that will not be familiar to many people. Kevin and I have been friends since we were toddlers (so that’s a shade over 21 years…..) and it was Kevin who gave me my first taste of music and playing in a band when we were at High School. I was utterly fascinated by the way that he could come up with all these brilliant ideas for songs and then we’d work out bass and lead parts for them, and he’d come up with a few lines of lyrics and a melody appeared, and there it was… a song.
Many of the chord shapes I play and the chord patterns I use to this day come from how Kevin played/plays guitar. He’s been a huge influence on me musically. And when I write now, I’m never happy until I know Kevin’s heard my song and hasn’t told me “it’s pish”.
Do you always write with your own (or your lead singer’s) voice in mind, or have you ever written for someone else? How did it turn out?
Now, I write for me and for what I know I can deal with vocally. When I played bass in the band however, I did write songs (lyrics) for Kevin and our lead singer, Paul Smith – often again from a single line that Kevin or Paul would have in their heads that magically re-appeared as a Pulitzer Prize winning novella after a McGroarty writing session. It worked a treat, because the music was already so strong that a decent story-line lyric added to the song, rather than “made” the song.
Do you ever revise your songs after you’ve started performing them, or are they pretty much fixed?
Yip. Usually when I can’t remember the words, or where I am in the song, so you can get a Club Mix, an album version or a 12” single mix of the song depending on what night I’m playing and how drunk I am…..
Name three favourite songwriters of yours.
Apart from the aforementioned Mr Taylor, among my favourite songwriters ( and it’s hard limiting to three, but I enjoy the intellectual challenge of it) are Neil Finn, James Grant and Neil Young.
Martin is playing at the Eagle Inn, Coatbridge, supporting Gerry Cinnamon, on Friday 24th April. Then, as winner of the Texas Scots Talent Competition 2015, he’s playing at the Texas Scottish Festival in Arlington, Texas on May 8th and 9th.
For those of you who don’t know him, Andrew C Ferguson is one half of Tribute to Venus Carmichael, who also play a gig on 24th April, at the White Horse, Canongate, Edinburgh
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