Ben Ottewell, Gomez

Ben Ottewell, vocalist and guitarist for Gomez, released his solo album Shapes and Shadows this month. It obviously offered Ottewell much more freedom in his creative process: as you'll read, everything went "a lot faster" since the buck stopped with him.  Read my interview with Ottewell about his songwriting process after the video.

When you sit down to write a song, what comes first?

I normally start with a guitar riff or guitar part, something that's a bit more unusual.  I like to use open tunings to try and get different, unsual flavors out of the guitar.  I get a simple melody or line I sing over and over again.  With this solo record, I'd often start with a loopy guitar phrase, something that keeps going around and around, then the melody went over top of that.  The hard part for me is knowing where to go after the bit of verse or chorus. 

When do the lyrics fit in?

About ten or twenty percent happen on the spot right there.  They're often not that thought about.  I rarely say that I am going to write a song about a certain idea or topic.  I usually take whatever the impulse I've struck upon, and expand on it at a later date. 

What's interesting about this solo record is that some of these songs are literally six years old.  I write collaboratively with Gomez as well.  So I might have started with four or five lines of bits and pieces of songs and fragments, and from that got a larger perspective on the lyrics. 

How much collaborating done on your solo record?

I had many song ideas, some of which were pretty finished, some which were just a verse or chorus.  Some were just demos.  So I sent my co-writer Sam Genders what I had, and we met a few times. He's an excellent lyricist, so he'd expand on the songs that had just one verse, for example.  A lot of it was just my take, but some of the time when I wasn't so sure I'd let him help form it and run with it. 

When you start with guitar part, when do the lyrics come into play?  Does the music dictate the lyrical content?

Pretty much.  The two go hand in hand.  Not to be too cliche, but if you are feeling a little blue, the music will reflect that.  When you play the guitar, you tap into something emotional, and once that happens, you're almost there. 

Is there an example of a song on Shapes and Shadows that you felt the need to write?

The most obvious is "Chicago," which was about being in Chicago, of course.  I wrote it there when I was feeling a bit down. 

Is it hard to write about a place until you've left that place?

The song's not really about Chicago.  It could have been about Boise.  But I was there at the time and felt homesick.  It's an interesting song because I had the first verse all set, and I took it to Sam and I think he went on Wikipedia and pulled up some facts about Chicago. Laughs. He put in a line about an osprey's breast, the osprey being the bird of Illinois. And then I added a few more things.

It's hard to get perspective when I'm actually writing lyrics when the idea comes up. I give myself over to the idea, but what I'm thinking about the most is where this can musically lead, rather than the emotional or the lyrical journey.  So normally, the lyrics will come after the music when I write.

How much revision do you do to the lyrics after the first pass?

Generally, everything hangs on that first pass.  Most of the time, the first line that pops into my head frames the moment in the song.  I don't mess with that.  Certainly, in Gomez, we revise each other's lyrics, but I find it extremely difficult to go back and rewrite a song.  Honesty is very important, because people can sniff out if you are bullshitting. 

How do you get inspired to write?

I let it come to me.  What I do is allow myself time and space and always have a guitar nearby.  I really don't play or practice unless I am in the mood. 

How disciplined are you as a writer?

I fall in the ill-disciplined camp, and that's probably why only a 1/3 of the songs I'm credited on are those that I've written from start to finish. Laughs. My existence as a writer has been mostly collaborative.  I didn't write a song on my own until I got into the band.  They suggested that I start to write. But I had never written outside of that, which is why this record is so interesting for me.

What's the most enjoyable and the hardest part of the solo songwriting process?

The most enjoyable is that it turned out exactly as I wanted it to.  Even with the collaborating, the buck stopped with me.  I had the reins the whole time.  Having that sense of responsibility was liberating, but put a lot of pressure on me.  In Gomez, there are always four other guys to turn to.  The creative process on this record certainly happened a lot quicker when I worked by myself! Laughs.

Does not having affirmation from band members when you write make you nervous?

Not with these songs at all.  I didn't need it.  They are exactly how I wanted them.

How important is your environment when you write?

I just have to be alone.  I've written on a tour bus, but I need peace and quiet.  I've got twin 3 year-old boys, and it does help when they aren't around.  When they were babies, just playing the guitar to them, trying to get them to sleep, was quite productive. I think having kids has made me more disciplined as a writer.  It's given me a window where I can write and not feel guilty about it.  The whole thing about writing is that it's self indulgent, you need time and space to work on it yourself.

What do you do when you have writer's block?

I switch up instruments or switch tunings. I'll switch over to a banjo or ukulele.  Or think of a song I really like and not pastiche it, but get inside the workings of that tune.

Do you worry that you'll end up ripping off too much of the song?

If you do that and find you are ripping it off, you just don't use that material.  What's important is that you are writing.  There's something to be said for just spending time flexing that creative muscle.

Are you a cyclical or a year-round writer? Some songwriters I talk to don't do much writing on the road.

Most musicians are programmed to be cyclical, but we should be writing throughout the year. You write a bunch of songs, record them, then go on tour.  I'm trying to break that habit and stay closer to my guitar.  I don't see the value in saying you won't write on tour; there's too many songs about the road. Laughs.

Do you write lyrics on computer, or are you a pen and paper guy?

Pen and paper.  I can't type, and it doesn't seem right to type lyrics.  I want to be able to scrawl things, and there's something to be said for crumpling up a piece of paper and throwing it across the room. 

Who are some of your favorite authors?

I like Haruki Murakami. I like the way he creates the wonderful dreamworlds, even though the characters seem so straight.  It's that magical realism stuff.  Now, I'm reading an Iain M. Banks.  I am not a sci-fan fan, but he's great. His characters are great. 

What was the hardest song for you to write on Shapes and Shadows?

The song "Chose" because it's about a loved one.  It's probably the most honest song I've ever written. 

When you are really struggling with a song, do you see that as a sign that it's not meant to be?

It depends on how you feel about the tune. Sometimes yes and sometimes no.  I've hit a brick wall before, but I knew that what we had was great.  Like the Gomez song "How We Operate."  It took me so long to get that chorus right, but I just could not let it go.  Some of the songs on the solo album have been around a while, but I revisited them with a new perspective.