Writing, any sort of writing, is a strange sort of thing to do. The generally accepted wisdom is that writers often write as a way of making sense of the world around them and their interactions with it, however obliquely that might turn out.
When it comes to songwriting, of course, things can get a bit more mystical. Some of the greatest songwriters of our age talk about acting as a sort of channel, or conduit, for the song: you can make the explanation for that as spiritual or scientific as you like, depending on whether you think the Big Fella’s up there dictating lyrics down the pipe to them, or artistic types have a nice gooey bit in the wall between the right brain and the left brain so the subconscious gets to slip some of its non-linear thinking in when they’re scribbling.
Personally, I have no idea where any musical ideas I have come from, and I’m agnostic as to whether it’s choirs of cherubs whistling a hooky tune in my ear as I wake, or I’m mishearing my id playing Metallica underwater on the other side of that gooey wall. Either way, the music is the magical bit for me: so far as the lyrics are concerned, sometimes it feels like I’m hacking them out of granite, and sometimes they arrive, practically fully formed and glistening, as fast as I can write them down; pretty much all of the time though, it wouldn’t take Sigmund Freud to work out where I’m coming from with them. I’m just not that deep.
Which is not to say the words aren’t meaningful to me: and although they’re not always completely autobiographical, they can have an emotional impact when singing them, especially the first few times you string them together. Some songs more than others, of course, express what could be described as heartfelt.
Take the Venus Carmichael song ‘Icarus Wings,’ for example. I found myself getting a bit trembly-lipped the first couple of times I sang it through: but I hadn’t expected that Kelly would take quite a few rehearsals to get through it without tears. And that’s one that’s meant to be uplifting!
Which leads me to the subject of today’s blog, ‘If God’s Not On The Angels’ Side (Who The Devil Is).’ For a long time the title line sat in my notebook alone, waiting to be called into service of a tune. Then I got this country chord progression in my head: it’s not the most original on the planet, but I liked its simplicity, and the way it dived for the minor chord by the third line. When I sat down with the tune firmly embedded to write the lyrics, they came out fast, man, real fast, and when I ran through it, the second verse in particular, about the narrator wanting to see his parents again, brought a big old lump to my throat.
I stuck a version on my Country Casual EP, and uploaded a video of me doing it acoustically to Youtube; a few people said they liked it, but my good buddy and musical collaborator, Martin McGroarty, said he really liked it, and asked to use it. I said yes, of course, not then realising just what it meant to him. I’ll let him take the story from here:
‘…as soon as I heard IGNOTAS I knew I wanted to cover it. The more I listened to it, the more I realised that the words could have been written by me trying to convey my thoughts in the 22 years since my mum was taken by cancer (at roughly the same age I am now) – thoughts about life, death, God, spirituality and, well, “what the fuck is it all about” anyway.
When my mum died I fell out with “God” big time. It just wasn’t fair. Not only was she too young, my first born was on the way and she was literally over the moon with excitement at becoming a gran. She died three months before Ewan was born and she was, I felt, cheated out of that. So I wasn’t overly-enamoured with the Big Yin it’s fair to say.
Everybody (okay, no absolutes) loves their mum. But my mum was a living angel. A more selfless person you could never meet. And your song immediately screamed at me… your song, and the feelings it has stirred in me, have made this project a pretty cathartic experience for me to work on and I feel I’ve unconsciously processed a lot of lingering un-processed stuff surrounding my mum’s passing…’
Martin’s single is now out. It touches me in turn that he’s using it to raise money for Macmillan, because, although my own Mum died of a combination of Alzheimer’s and old age, in her final months she was misdiagnosed with liver cancer (the family always found it darkly amusing when the doctors in the hospital asked her about her drinking, and she would say. ‘the occasional sherry,’ because, unlike many of their patients I suspect, that really, really was true – one sherry on a Friday night, and a glass or two of wine on high days and holidays, was the most she ever had!)
We still don’t know if the misdiagnosis was just a kindly way of getting Mum and Dad support in those desperate days, but either way it meant she got access to a Macmillan nurse, who was a fantastic source of comfort, practical help, and empathy in those final months of her life.
Cancer is an utter, utter bastard. Just in the last few days another friend has had news of another tumour needing treated – thankfully it’s treatable – and it’s depressing to think that, whilst the current pandemic will come and go, the Big C will go on, taking us out, year on year on year. As long as it does, Macmillan do a fantastic job, and deserve our support.
Speaking of fantastic jobs, that’s what Martin’s done with my song – a super-smooth production with an outstanding vocal. I was very pleased to contribute a bit of slide and moothie to it; it was kind of appropriate, though, that the final version had to wait for Martin’s mate Hugh to get back from New Orleans to Texas to add his excellent accordion part: musically, bringing it all back home from cajun to country.
Note to self: about time you wrote a song that makes them laugh instead…