Singer/pianist/arranger/composer/chorus director/ conductor / conservatoire professor/ instigator / PETE CHURCHILL will be at the Pheasantry in Kings Road SW3 this Friday April 15th, with Mishka Adams, Adriano Adewale, Mark Lockheart and Loz Garrett. In anticipation of that concert, he reflects on the process of song-writing, and about the specific ativity which has recently been giving both his songs and his song-writing “second life”, and which he brings to the Pheasantry this week, the “Stories to Tell” project
I have always had an equal interest in – or more accurately, an equal obsession for – music and words. If I think I am concentrating solely on the one, the other is inevitably hovering not too far away. I find that cadences of speech, without my prompting, will turn into musical cadences and/or melodic shapes – and, conversely, I find lyrics emerging unbidden from what I imagined at the start to be purely musical ideas.
So the answer to the inevitable question ‘What comes first?’ is never straightforward.
The more interesting discussion I reckon is about inspiration – and at what point, in the process of creating, our muse might appear.
For me, inspiration can happen at any time during the writing process. It doesn’t have to be there at the beginning (which is just as well as I often work to deadlines and can’t afford to wait until I’m in the mood) but can suddenly arrive at any time during the writing process. The important thing has always been to find a way to get started and not to worry about whether I am ‘inspired’ or not… and anything – a word, a phrase, a melodic fragment, a groove, a chord progression – can be a fertile starting point.
I have found that having a good grasp of song form is really helpful… for me that meant thinking beyond the usual structures of the Great American Songbook. I have examined a wide array of pop song forms, checked out all manner of folk ‘narrative’ forms as well as the more complex ‘episodic’ and extended forms hidden away on 70’s singer-songwriter albums. Becoming aware of the many ways a song can be structured and how the various sections can be organised within the overall shape was a revelation and I realised that the pacing of a song is absolutely crucial.
I am a bit of a hoarder and I tend to keep all my unfinished fragments, both lyrical and melodic, so that I always have a starting point when I find myself bereft of ideas… one of my most successful songs began life as a Grade 3 trumpet piece for the ABRSM Jazz syllabus!
I also use a book of proverbs (great for finding song-titles), a thesaurus and a good rhyming dictionary. Nowhere is it written that you have to be ‘inspired’ a hundred percent of the time – and these things can help you through that fallow period until your muse returns.
I tend not to collaborate with other people when I write – I have done so in the past but it wasn’t always that successful so I set out on my own. However collaboration is the norm in songwriting and not everyone is a loner like me.
Some songs can feel ‘complete’ on the page – they seem to have an identity of their own separate from any subsequent performance or recording. Others need to be played if they are to have some kind of meaning.
STORIES TO TELL
These songs of mine (this Friday at the Pheasantry!) have definitely been given a second life by the wonderful people I recorded them with. I realised how important it is in this life to let go of your material because they found things within my songs that I never knew were there.
I am so very grateful to have had the wonderful voice of Mishka Adams to breathe new life into this material – and the guitar playing of Ben Barritt proved also to be a game changer as we worked on the arrangements together. And then to sit back and watch percussionist Adriano Adewale re-fresh and re-frame my ideas was a further revelation. Finally, as we entered the studio, the joyous playing of Mark Lockheart lifted us all to another level. What a privilege!
It would be wonderful to see lots of people at the The Pheasantry this Friday (15th April) so please do come – bring some friends… bring some enemies and we’ll make friends of them too. Meanwhile here are some links to for you to explore….