Scott Hutchison, Frightened Rabbit
The literary history of the British Isles is filled with writers for whom the water played a major role. There's Virginia Woolf, William Butler Yeats, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, and Shakespeare, among many others. This is hardly surprising, of course, given that they lived on an island and were surrounded by water.
So it made sense that Scott Hutchison, singer and songwriter for the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit, took to the seaside to write their latest album, The Winter of Mixed Drinks on FatCat Records. Hutchison wrote the songs only about 100 meters from the water. Unsurprisingly, the water had a powerful effect not just on his inspiration, but on the finished product itself: he noticed, upon listening to the album, that many of the songs had a cadence and rhythm that matched the crashing of the waves onto the beach.
Hutchison's success as a songwriter also depends, as you'll read, on his ability to make songwriting a routine, something that many songwriters are loathe to do. He sets aside time to write instead of waiting until he feels like doing it. Hutchison finds that this method of enforced discipline yields the best songs. It's a habit that began in college, when he was studying art and illustration; Hutchison was often done with projects in the late afternoon, while his friends toiled well into the night.
I talked to Hutchison backstage before their sold out show at the House of Blues in Chicago. Read more about Hutchison's creative process after the video.
How did you get started as a writer?
I was in college studying art and illustration. Up until I was about 18 or 19, I only saw myself as a guitar player. I don't know when the exact moment was when I started writing songs. I didn't sing. But college opened my eyes to being a writer. It seems quite impossible whilst you are living in a small town to even contemplate a career in music or anything original, since we did a lot of cover versions in high school.
But when I got to college, a lot of things opened up to me creatively, and songwriting was one of them. I felt a lot less sheepish about not being particularly adept at singing, as long as I expressed myself in an original way.
Did you do any writing before songwriting?
Not really. I found the format to really suit me the best.
Because it's structured and there are parameters, which especially suits the way I write. It's not particularly experimental; there are verses and bridges and things like that. It's nice for me to have a framework with which to work. A blank page is frightening otherwise. So when I write, I always have the melody and basic structure, essentially syllables, within which to fit and mold the lyrics.
I want to talk about your songwriting process, but first talk about your work as an illustrator.
I do all of the cover art for our records, but that's the only outlet I have at the moment.
Tell me how being an illustrator informs your songwriting.
The funny thing was that the main influence that illustration in college had on me was that the process of drawing and trying to put ideas forward in that manner was actually quite frustrating. It was as if I was trying to be someone I was not. But writing music was the opposite. It is who I am. So it informed me in a sense that it was not the true representation of me and should take second place to songwriting.
But I do like creating imagery in a song so that people can jump into and can almost exist within it. Or find themselves as that central character.
I talk to a lot of songwriters who started out as illustrators, but they turned to songwriting because they realized that they tell stories better with song as opposed to visual art. Is that the case with you?
Absolutely. I was trying too hard to be clever and witty in my illustrations, too conceptual and highfalutin. It ended coming across as a little bit phony. It's funny that the way I draw now has been informed back by my music. I draw now because I can do whatever I want, whereas when I was in college I felt forced into a way of working that had to have a point behind it. And now I just draw for the sake of it.
What is your writing routine like? What do you start with when you write a song, the lyric or the melody?
It's always the melody. Like I said, I need that structure in place before I start working. I like a structure and even syllables set in place so that I can fill them in.
What do you mean by syllables?
I'll be playing the guitar and just mumbling whatever, just words and a rhythm. Rather than just using a paper and pen, by starting with the guitar I can find new ways to put language together.
If you start with nonsense words, when do the real words come?
Sometime a legitimate word or phrase comes directly from that and can affect the direction of the song. And sometimes, with that in mind, I'll open my writing book and start to write lyrics from there. But I've always tried to avoid seeing songwriting as putting poems to music, because it's not that. It's completely different. It's not that I don't appreciate people who do that, and you can sometimes tell when the lyrics come first. But for me it's more important to see myself as a songwriter rather than a poet.
Let's talk about inspiration. Does playing that melody give you the idea of the song? Or do you know what the song is going to be like before you play the melody?
That can work in a number of ways. The quickest ones are those where everything ties in together. But what I like to do is actually go against the grain of the melody as well, because we have fairly light, upbeat songs. We have sing-along choruses, but the lyrical content can be quite dark. I like using the two and almost clashing them together.
You wrote the lyrics to this album on the water. Are a lot of your songs informed by where you write them?
I'm not far enough in my career to know how that works, but certainly last time it did. I have never lived by the coast before and it had a great effect on me. I was more positive, things just fit together better and there was a really rhythm to my songs and my songwriting I had a rhythm to my life that matched that, so it all worked together.
How far were you from the water?
About a 100 yards.
Do you think the cadence of the waves affecting your sound for the record?
With a lot of the songs and their backing vocals, there's quite a wave thing going on. I didn't realize it until I put the album together, with the way the songs move. A lot of what I used before was a "build, build, build up to a crescendo" type of thing, and a lot of the songs on this album move to a rhythmic yet swelling type of fashion, and I think that was the waves' influence.
How disciplined are you as a writer?
I like having a routine.
Really? Very few songwriters tell me that.
Well, I don't write on tour, but when I am back home I make a plan. Of course it can take different directions, but I still seem to need a structure within which to fit my work. Otherwise, it'll just expand beyond my control. It's the way I've always worked. I knew people back in school who would work to 3am and get the same amount of work done as I did, and I finished at 5pm. Since I knew I was going to finish at 5pm, and for me it just increased the intensity of the process.
So you literally set aside time to write?
I do. Now, sometimes it flows into hours and hours before I even know it. I don't even recognize that time is passing, and I love it when that happens. But I like to structure my day. Nick Cave does it the same way.
What do you do when you have writer's block?
I just forget about writing. Go for a walk. Watch a movie. Try to see something inspiring that I can take something from. But the last thing you need to do is force it, because the results are joyless.
Songwriters talk a lot about either forced inspiration or the type where you just wait until it comes. What do you do?
I am quite confident that it will arrive, because it happens on a regular enough basis. I do switch between modes, though. On tour, my writing brain is off. But once I get back, it's fully on. Then my brain is open to all these things, and I start looking through it. It's like collecting a whole box of stuff, and you don't know what's in it. You just start chucking stuff in there, like gathering things on the beach and seeing what you have when you get home. That's what my brain is like when I'm on tour. In a way, I am gathering stuff all the time.
Where do you store it?
I just have faith that it's stored somewhere. I don't really write it down. It's probably really stupid! Laughs. I lose a lot of ideas. I do record the odd little piece of music, but I just think if sticks around in your head, it's worth it.
How do you know when a song is done?
When the next one comes along and takes over. I like to let things rest. I take things to a certain stage, then stop and get some perspective on it.
When you think it's finished and go to revise, how long do you wait? A day?
Yeah, I try to never think of it as finished until it's on the record. I'll leave it a day or a week then come back and see if anything jumps out. It's important to seal it off.
The worst time to revise is when you've just revised or just finished. You need distance.
Oh yeah, like when it's midnight and your ears are dead. Distance is so important. And that 's when other people can come in and give feedback and make you see things that you never would have seen otherwise.
Who are your literary inspirations?
I've found that I am a bad reader. It's mostly short things. I love Ted Hughes; Songs of Crow is one of my favorite books. It's completely packed with language that's heavy and layered. Apart from poetry, I don't read a lot. Seamus Heaney, the way he uses landscape. I love it.