The other guys are a hard act to follow. However, while I’m waiting for a couple more in this series to come in, I thought I’d have a go at the questions myself. So…
Andrew C Ferguson is a writer and musician blah blah blah. Since I’ve updated the About page recently, you can always go there if you want a flavour of who the hell I think I am.
Music or words first? Or a bit of both?
Music first, almost every time. It’s interesting that the other guys have different approaches, which is why I asked the question, of course, but for me it starts with a tune, or a bit of a tune. It might only be a few notes, but unless there’s some sort of musical hook the song doesn’t get going, really.
Like Norman and Mark, I have a notebook, and jot down lyrics which can sit for months, or years, waiting for the right melody before they become something. I suppose, having written in so many different forms – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, stuff in between – before I dared to call myself a songwriter, I’m stupidly confident I can knock out a few words if there’s a tune of some sort to set them to.
I mean, songs are just flash fiction that rhymes mostly, right? Could explain why mine are so wordy…
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?
Well. Again, I’ve played guitar for years, and that was initially my go-to instrument – usually the De Ville semi-acoustic, because it’s so easy to pick up and play.
However, I bought a second-hand Korg X5D off Gavin Inglis a couple of years ago. It’s got some good sounds and some not-so good sounds, but one good one is a setting called ‘rock piano.’ A whole lot of songs are starting to come out of that, now. Basically, I’m not a good enough guitar player to know how a complicated chord change, or a melody line, can be played straight away – whereas with the piano, you can modulate chords or pick out a melody with only the most basic musical knowledge.
Having said that, I could never imagine not using the guitar at some point with most songs – it brings a whole different energy. I mean, I’m not planning a whole career of slow piano ballads!
The main thing though is capturing the melody (see below).
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?
Melodies have a really unfortunate way of coming to me at inopportune times – my mobile phone has a collection of voice recordings of me going dah dah-dah, dah-dah-dah dah… as quietly as I can because there’s a tune in my head and I’m trying to capture it before I forget it. I’m usually doing it quietly because I’m in a public place and trying not to have people think I’m in need of urgent psychiatric assistance.
One place I hear a lot of new tunes is in the swimming pool. I’m not sure why: I think it’s a combination of half-heard songs over the tannoy, and the rhythm of the swim. Either way, it’s pretty hopeless – I can’t sing them into my mobile, and when I get back to the dressing room there’s Bogie in the Morning on Forth FM or whatever playing some crap song, and the whole tune just gets obliterated. Really annoying. I’ve composed whole albums in the Fife Institute, but I can never remember them!
If I’m really lucky, I wake up on a non-work day with a tune in my head (they often come to me just at that stage of waking up, when the door to the sub-conscious is a sliver ajar; or, funnily enough, just after lunch) and I can fire up the computer, switch on the keyboard, and capture it without waking the rest of the house up. Then, sometimes, it feels like I’m pulling a kite in out of the sky – it really does feel as if the whole thing’s been up there, waiting to be hauled in whole.
Or, the other analogy I have for the process sometimes is that it’s like that experiment you used to do in Chemistry making nylon – did you ever do that? Where you wind a bit of this glistening thread onto something and, gradually, gently, you pull more and more of it out of this beaker full of gak until you have a great long piece of the stuff. If I have a chorus, for example, but not the verse; and I just have to sit and wait for the rest of it to get drawn out, piece by piece.
The lyrics are a lot more mechanical – after that intial idea in the notebook, it’s a case of deciding what story I want to tell. That can take a while. I’ve got a tune down in Mixcraft at the moment that I think is The Best Tune I’ve Ever Come Up With (I tend to think this about every third song or so) and I’m trying to craft lyrics that are good enough for it.
It’s kind of like the tunes are female friends of mine and the lyrics are new boyfriends who are never quite good enough for them. Work that out for yourself, Sigmund.
Name an influence on your songs that maybe wouldn’t be obvious to most of your fans.
Carole King. When I used to write songs back in the day as a student, I had a bad case of Dylanitis and thought the lyrics had to be some sort of mad poetry. Unsurprisingly, my lyrics turned out as if I’d been bin-diving in Bob’s paper recycling – really bad knock offs.
King, on the other hand, taught me that you can say things quite directly and simply and that’s all you have to do, if the tune and the performance is good enough. That came from her crafting songs for other people with Gerry Goffin in the Brill Building in the early Sixties, but she didn’t forget it when she went solo in the Los Angeles Canyons. It’s about capturing an emotion.
Also anyone else who writes lyrics that have the ring of honesty. A lot of the early punk was like that. Though it’s hard to beat as a couplet the Proclaimers line ‘Even with the girls on the back of the bus/there was always the risk of a slap in the pus…’
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?
I don’t have much of a singing voice. I mean, I can just about hold a tune, but that’s it. I suppose, though, I write with my own voice as the initial instrument, and then stand back in awe when a proper singer like Kelly takes it and does what she does with it. I mean, the very first time she’s done some of my stuff the hairs on the back of my neck have literally stood up. Listening to a playback of my own voice singing makes my teeth stand on edge.
Do you ever revise your songs after you’ve started performing them, or are they pretty much fixed?
Pretty much fixed. I sometimes think a word or two could’ve done with a bit of fiddling, but by then it’s usually someone else singing it, and I feel it’s too late to tell them to change.
Name three favourite songwriters of yours.
Dylan (obviously, though he’s still a bad influence)
Nick Cave: I’m a late convert, but the breadth of what the guy does is just stunning. My brother recently called the song Norman Lamont covered (see below) Cave-esque, which I’ll take any day.
Leonard Cohen. Again, a bad influence on me, because he’s got that whip-smart, literate, lyrics-as-poetry thing, but they’re never just smart for the sake of it. And he’s not depressing! Well, not all the time.
And to redress the gender balance, Suzanne Vega. Oh, and Regina Spektor.
Andrew C Ferguson can most usually be seen toting his De Ville as one half of Tribute to Venus Carmichael. Their EP is still available, but not in the shops.
Below here there might be an advert. Nothing to do with me squire.