Chris Difford, Squeeze

When Chris Difford of Squeeze sits down to write a song, there's actually two Chris Diffords in the room: the one at the desk penning the lyrics, and the one on the couch in the corner telling the one at the desk how he feels.  It's those feelings that form the basis for Difford's songs; for him, the songwriting process is "cathartic. . .like keeping a diary."

There's not much I can say in this introduction about the songwriting duo of Difford and Glenn Tilbrook that hasn't been said somewhere else.  For over 35 years, they've adhered to the same routine: Difford writes the lyrics and Tilbrook writes the music.  The result has been some of the most well-crafted and memorable pop songs: "Tempted," "Cool for Cats," "Black Coffee in Bed," "Pulling Mussels from a Shell," "Is That Love," "Hourglass,". . . the list goes on.  They are certainly one of the most legendary (and I will also say strongest) songwriting duos in rock history. If you know music, there is no need for me to extol their excellence.  But if you need proof, there's this: Difford wrote the lyrics to "Tempted" in about two and a half minutes in the back of a cab.  And that first draft was the only draft: he didn't change a word from what he wrote in that back seat.

Squeeze released Spot the Difference last year and supported the release with a tour.  Difford and Tillbrook are still writing together, and the voices of both still sound fantastic. I am not one for hyperbole, but it's true; just listen to any of the band's recent performances on YouTube.  I've long since worn out my Squeeze LPs; East Side Story is, to me, a classic. Difford and I spoke recently over iChat, so read my interview with Chris Difford after the video. Songwriters, take heed: lots of good advice here. 

Have you ever had any other creative outlets besides songwriting?

I'm working on a book, but that's the only other creative outlet, really.  I've always been in a band or around a gang of musicians since I left school at 15.

What's the book about?

It's called Is that Love, and it's a book of letters to people that have come through my life.  I'm using the letters as a vehicle to tell people what it's like to be in a band and survive.

What drew you to songwriting?

My first song was probably inspired by David Bowie, so it was very surreal and very English.  I made the transition from writing poetry to writing songs midway through my schooling.  I was writing nursery rhymes, really, like dreamscapes.  But then I had a brilliant teacher who asked me if I had heard of Bob Dylan.  I said no.  He played a Dylan album, and suddenly putting words to music made sense to me. 

You write poetry, but do you read a lot of poetry?

Actually, no.  I read hardly any poetry.  I don't really understand how it works, but how I write it makes sense to me.  I was talking to a publisher the other day, and he said that what will help me get my book published is understanding how other people write books.  But that's not how I work.  When people told me that to be in a rock n' roll band I had to learn how to play other songs, I just ignored them and played my own.

Do you ever start writing a poem that ends up as a song?

That could happen, but I get quite pretentious when I start writing poetry.  I've images of me walking around the English countryside with a big hat on and a quill pen.  So I can't take myself too seriously when I do it.

What made songwriting appealing as a method of expression for you?

I read an interview with Pete Townsend, and he said the best thing about being in a rock n' roll band was the money, the women, the drugs, the drink, the fast cars, and private jets.  I heard him say that, and said, "Ok, that's the gig for me." 

I've read a few interviews where you said that you like to write songs while walking or while on the train.  Why does motion influence your creativity?

There's something about motion that the mind isn't quite clear about.  When you are on the train or car or airplane, the old fashioned man inside you is wondering what the hell is going on.  And it can't quite assimilate time, which it normally does by sitting still.  So when your mind is racing, trying to understand what all the motion is about, it takes the drawbridge up and your imagination can flow much more creatively.  Your mind has so much to think about, it just has to look around and take in all this information just to survive. 

Do you walk as a way to inspire creativity?

Well, today I've had a whole day of being stuck, so I went for a walk with a friend, had a cup of tea and some lunch, and I was still stuck.  But it wasn't that I couldn't find anything to write about; it was that I wasn't in the mood to write.  And I have to accept that. You can't always be in the mood to do something you really want to do.  So I sat here in front of my Mac and swallowed up the day.  But that's fine, because I know that I will be more focused tomorrow.

When I look back at today, I had to get past the feeling of not wanting to write.  I had to write something, so I wrote a letter to a friend.  Having done that, it's moved that blocked issue away from me so I don't have to think about her anymore. The door is open, so I can flow again. 

Some writers believe that writer's block is a myth.  One told me it's a "failure of courage." In other words, you have to be OK with writing badly.

That's very good.  I like that very much.  If I was going to sit here and think I'm going to write "Tempted" every day of the week, I'd be crazy.  You have to be open minded to that idea of writing badly.  I don't get writer's block, so it doesn't panic me.  I just write and write and write.  But today was one of those days.  The weather and the emotional floss in my life at the moment kind of made me sit still and absorb what was going on.

Do you make it a point to write every day, or do you write in cycles and gather in the dormant phase?

It's like being a mother ant.  All the other ants are out there collecting the words for you, and they bring them back.  With writing, you wake up and realize you have all these words at your disposal to write a song.  I've just gone through quite a long period of not writing anything, and it was absolutely fine.  But I find that emotional distress helps shake up the mind.

Like what?

Like if a relationship is not working or something is going on in your love life that you need to think about, suddenly the pen becomes the sharpest sword.

Ernest Hemingway always said to write about a place, you can't be in that place.  You have to be removed.  And that applies both physically and emotionally.

That's good.  I think that sometimes when you are in an emotional upheaval, it's difficult to write about.  But for me, writing is like going to the therapist.  I see myself over there in the corner, sitting on the sofa.  When I wake up in the morning, I sit here at my desk and say to that guy over there on the couch, "How do you feel?" And he transmits how he feels to me, and I write the lyrics.  It's like having an imaginary friend.

When your writing is like therapy, you are writing for yourself.

Gosh yes. Most of what I've been writing about recently is very representative of what I've been going through in the past year. Some of it is quite hard to write, but if I get angry and think about something that's happened to me, I can write with a lot of venom. But I can also write with a ton of love, and I like writing from that place as well.

What's your preferred emotional state when you write?

It's a really weird world to be in when I'm writing.  It's slightly removed from reality, kind of like being on a cloud.  I can't touch the ground in case it ruins what I'm thinking about.  It's a nebulous state.  It's like being a photographer.  I take lots of snapshots of what's going on and put them in a darkroom to let them develop.  Then when I go back to look at the lyrics a week later, I can tell whether it's going to be a great picture or not. 

Is it important to start and finish in the same period?

Yeah, that's a good point, and it does happen.  "Tempted," for example, was written in one sitting.  It took about 2 1/2 minutes to write that song, and not one word changed.  I got in a taxi, the first line came into my head, and I wrote it on the back of a cigarette box.  By the time we arrived a few minutes later at the airport, I had written the entire song.  It was what I was seeing and experiencing at the time. 

The other day I wrote a lyric and it fell out the same way.  It just felt right.  From beginning to end, it just took me a couple of minutes.  The only thing is that I wonder if it's right for Squeeze or somebody else.  Is Glenn going to sing it, or is somebody else going to sing it?

But then there are other lyrics where I go back and cannot believe I wrote it. The other thing about songs, which is different from any other art form, is that when you hear the words come from somebody's mouth, things can change.  Somebody might not be able to sing certain words.  It's like working with Elton John or Bryan Ferry.  You can't put a phrase like  "ironing board" in a lyric because they can't sing it.  But luckily Glenn can!

Why not?

I just can't imagine Elton John or Bryan Ferry singing a song with "ironing board" in it!  It's not in their vocabulary.  They've probably never seen one.

How much do you revise lyrics?

I don't revise an awful lot.  I'm interested to see where Glenn takes it, so I leave it to the gods. I prefer to get it right the first time because when someone is singing into a microphone and wants to change a line, it's not that easy when you are in mid-record. 

  How has technology changed the songwriting process?

I think it's made it more square.  Sadly, it's taken some of the soul and imagery out.  It's more manufactured. When people write music on the computer, they spend far too long on the design of the song, how it looks on the screen, as opposed to what it sounds like.  It seems like too much time can be taken up that way, instead of just sitting with a mic and playing, because you get a real sense of spontaneity and love that way.  All of our earlier albums were done that like, and they sounded great.

When someone asks you to write a song, how do you get inside that singer's head?

I was working with a singer recently and talking about his audience, because he doesn't really have one yet.  But he's looking forward to having young girls screaming at him. I said, "Lets communicate with these people and have them embrace what you say." We knew that it would be mostly girls, so the song title was "Why Don't You Ask Me to Stay?" That was a way of communicating with them.

 What's your process when you collaborate or write for someone?

I sit down with them and get to know what they are feeling.  I wrote all the lyrics on the Matt Deighton album.  It was about his breakup with his wife.  I just helped him go through that.  But on doing that, I realized it was about me as well, since I was also going through a breakup.

How much do you get to read?

I am actually a slow reader, and my ability to keep my eyes in a book is not that strong since I get so easily distracted.  But I have always been in relationships with women who have lots of books.  So I go out and buy a book, then when the girlfriend comes round, I'll get her to read the book and precis it to me. Laughs.

How do you think you've matured as a songwriter?

Songwriting is like keeping a diary.  It's what you've witnessed in your life.  Ken Emerson from the Boston Globe said to me, "All the lyrics of your albums reflect a certain growing up." And he's right.  East Side Story is just on the verge of a first marriage falling apart, and now I'm writing songs about adults having vasectomies.  

Do you set out often to write a song about a specific topic?

It comes quite naturally, and I don't think about topics, but it's a good idea to have a sticky page with topics on it.  That could work well.  I haven't thought about that.  What I do when I write is have the book on one screen, the music on another screen, and the lyrics on another.  When I get bored with one, I move to the other.  That keeps me fresh.

Each year, and for the past 19 years, you've been involved in a songwriting retreat, where songwriters come from around the world to write under your tutelage. But what I like about this is that you see yourself as a facilitator, not as a pedant telling people how they should write songs.

I can't teach them how to write songs.  I can inspire them and facilitate ideas.  It's about the magic of putting three people in a room and telling them to write a song.  It's very cathartic.  People normally write on their own, so this is a big change.  Communication and conversation is sadly becoming a thing of the past.  Storytelling is something I promote.  People don't sit and negotiate storytelling the way they once did, due to technology. 

Do you give people tips on how to be a better storyteller?

I might give them a short story by Damon Runyon about a guy who blows up a safe but has to bring his kid with him because his wife won't look after the child.  So they enjoy the story for it's worth, then I tell the students to go write a song about that relationship.  What's going on between those two?

What do you hope people come away from the retreats with?

Each day, I lock them in a room for six hours and run away.  At the end of the day, they perform their songs for the rest of the group.  But how do you give people tips on songwriting? That comes from life experience.  I learned from being in the back of the van, traveling the motorways, taking drugs and drinking alcohol, having a great time and going to see bands I really like. 

But you can't instill that in someone in a week.  And a lot of young writers don't have that experience anymore, because they spend too much time in front of the computer screen and uploading songs to Myspace.  They have an instant audience when they upload a song.  But when we were starting out, it might have taken five years to get a song heard, and then you were REALLY judged, because those same listeners are in the room with you.

When it comes to storytelling, what's the most common error you see?

That people are lazy when it comes to using language.  They don't delve into their imagination enough because they don't have that storytelling gift.  People used to sit around and talk, but we don't do that enough anymore.  It's Facebook chat.  When I try to talk to my kids and find out what is happening in their world, it's very difficult.  

You mention the "gift" of storytelling.  What is the gift?

It's when someone tells a story that touches me, and melodically it moves me.  The way that people like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor can move me and take me on a journey.  There are not too many people in the charts who do that to me.  But people like Adele can; she tells a story.  Not in the way Janis Joplin could, because there was a lot of mystery surrounding her.  With Adele, we know where she is coming from.