Next in our series on songwriters is another participant in A Third Tip of the Hat to Leonard Cohen on 20th November, Calum Carlyle. Calum is from Orkney originally, but is now based in Edinburgh. At the bottom of the post, you can listen to Calum’s excellent take on Cohen’s ‘On That Day.’ In the meantime, here are his answers:
Music or words first? Or a bit of both?
A bit of both and beyond! I usually write a lot of songs in one go, so
it helps me to stay creative if i try different methods, so a lot of
my songs I will write on different instruments, maybe start with a
bass line, or even a chord sequence on a melodica. If I am
collaborating with someone, they may have written lyrics already, so
that’s an exercise too, writing a song around an existing lyrical
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?
Yeah, they produce different results. As I said, I will often start
with a different instrument than last time, it can be interesting
writing a song with just the words and melody, or another thing I
really enjoy is setting down a bass part first, and then building the
song up on top of that.
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?
Jack London once said “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go
after it with a club”. Basically, if you don’t sit down and write a
song, you won’t get any songs written. And the more you do it, the
better you get at it, as well.
For the last few years I’ve been participating in the FAWM and 50/90
songwriting challenges, basically it’s a thriving online songwriting
community, collaborating and sharing their songs during specific
months of the year. The aim is to get a load of songs written in a set
time, and I’ve found it makes me very productive as a songwriter. I’ve
got a lot of good songs out of it that I probably wouldn’t have
Name an influence on your songs that maybe wouldn’t be obvious
to most of your fans.
Hendrix? or Grand Funk, Mountain, The Doors, Grateful Dead… maybe
those last two are more obvious. I like a lot of music though. I’m not
sure myself how much I’m influenced by this or that artist though.
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
I sometimes write songs with difficult to reach notes, just to make
sure I can still get those notes! Occasionally I write for someone
else, particularly if I know it will definitely be someone else
singing. To be honest though I think plenty of singers could sing my
stuff and it’d sound great, even if their voice was totally different.
I’d love to hear more people doing my songs actually. Darren
Thornberry once did a lovely version of one of my songs at the
Listening Room open mic, and it was an ear opener to hear someone else
play the song for a change!
Do you ever revise your songs after you’ve started performing
them, or are they pretty much fixed?
Pretty much they stay as they are, but yes I’ll revise them if it’s
warranted. One or two of them have gained an additional instrumental
section, or in one case the entire music (but not the lyrics) for the
middle eight changed. One time I forgot the final verse of a song and
had to write another one. I’ve never remembered the original third
verse, but I’m sure the new verse is actually better anyway.
Sometimes the songs just revise themselves gradually. It’s always
worth recording a song shortly after writing it (as well as during
writing) because if you’re still playing that song in later years,
you’ll be quite surprised at how it’s developed since you wrote it.
Name three favourite songwriters of yours.
There are plenty! Let’s say Captain Beefheart (complex songs!), George
Harrison (underrated, i’d say) and i’ll say Jimi Hendrix too. He was a
pioneer in using the studio as a part of the songwriting process.
Apart from hearing Calum live at the Cohen gig, you can listen to his excellent solo material (I especially enjoyed Our Scotland) but he’s also part of an interesting cross-genre collaboration, the Urban Folk Crowd.
For those of you visiting the site for the first time, Andrew Ferguson is one half of Tribute to Venus Carmichael, and one seventh (or occasionally a bigger fraction) of Isaac Brutal, an acoustic(ish) configuration of which will be bringing their own take on Lenny’s songwriting genius on 20th November.
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