Sometimes when I transcribe these interviews, one of the artist’s songs constantly loops through my head. That’s a testament, of course, to the powerful melody the songwriter has crafted. This happened as I transcribed my conversation with Cy Curnin of The Fixx, but it wasn’t just one song. It was several: songs like “Red Skies,” “Stand or Fall,” “Secret Separation,” Are We Ourselves,” and of course “One Thing Leads to Another,” with their infectious choruses and bass riffs, never stopped playing in my head.
Curnin knows about writing a well-crafted song. The band formed in 1979 and had four hits in the US top twenty. I’ve interviewed other artists from that time period—people like Colin Newman (Wire), Chris Difford (Squeeze), Neil Finn (Crowded House), and Andy McCluskey (OMD)—and they all have one thing in common: discipline. Sure, they are artists, but they work at their craft. There’s no waiting for the muse. They write every day and they actively seek inspiration. There’s a reason these songwriters have been around so long: at some point, they accepted that what they do takes work. With his methodical songwriting process, Curnin is no exception. While some songwriters tell me that the songs just happen, Curnin knows how, when, where, and why they happen. His words are decidedly self-assured, but with his catalog, it's no surprise.
The Fixx is back with their original lineup from the chart-topping days of the 80s. Their most recent release is last year’s Beautiful Friction, with a new release slated for 2014. Read my interview with Cy Curnin about his songwriting process after the video.
What other creative outlets do you have besides songwriting?
Cooking is one of my creative outlets. I also like to make things with cloth; I had a little side business making hats a few years ago. And I’ve started writing poetry, which is really just lyrics that go beyond the time frame of a song. But for the most part, I stick to songs because it’s a marriage of melody and words for me. Quite often the melody summons the words. At an early age I realized that all I had to do was sit down at the piano and hum along to what I was playing. Pretty soon, words started flowing from my mouth, coming from my subconscious. As I grew older, I came to recognize that this was another voice inside me talking.
When did this voice talk to you?
It would strike when I was most unaware. If I tried to sit down with a pencil and blank piece of paper and say I was going to write, there was no guarantee that something would come out. I liken it to a gestation period: the words came out when they were ready. I didn’t spend too much time as a young man introspecting on where it was coming from; I was just waiting like a hunter by the rabbit hole. Songwriting was a very physical process for me. My mood changed before the words came out, and I felt myself getting agitated or anxious. I disconnected from the people around me. Then after the song came out, I was ready to join humanity again. Laughs.
It sounds like the process almost always starts with the music.
Yes, but I’m always fishing for a great line. What I like to do is take phrases I hear or read and pull them out of context. Removing that phrase from its context gives birth to other contexts. Part of me is always fishing and stealing from wordplay around me. I use those phrases as ammunition when I’m in a musical environment and there’s a melody around me. This way, I have something to go to. I’ll have some awareness of a lyrical rhythm, and then if I recognize that rhythm in a melody or a jam, I have somewhere to go. I pump that phrase out, then whatever is behind it forms inside me.
Then I go back and craft the lyrics, looking for better words and better rhymes. That all comes later, but the original impetus comes from a melody that gives me a rhythm, at which point I go to my cellar of start points. l have list upon endless list of single lines on my computer that to me are little compressions of whole emotions. And I just wait for something to add a bit for gravitas to that emotion.
So when you hear or read these phrases, how then does music emerge?
Yeah, there’s a rhythm. If there’s a phrase, I say it in different ways. Take the phrase “Ships are safe in harbor, but that’s not what they’re built for.” If I say that to you in conversation, there’s no rhythm. But if I sing it to you (he sings it) I might break up the phrase in different ways with different pauses. From there, I build on the idea that we’re all build for greatness, but most of us settle for mediocrity. So I develop that line and build on it in the chorus. There’s my rhythm.
How often do you sit down with the express idea of writing a song?
I’ve tried, but it’s always unsatisfying. I’m more of a free thinker about it, more philosophical. What I will do is tell myself I have to write a song, but I won’t tell myself what it’s about. The song always mirrors the emotion I’m in that day, whether it’s a happy, anxious, sad, or boring day. I do like to play music every day though, and that is just as important to me as being a wordsmith.
I try to start every day with writing. The first thing most people do in the morning is check their email and their phone messages. The problem with this is that it wakes a part of my brain that’s a distraction, so I try to start each day by avoiding anything electronic. I’m unplugged for the first hour or two of my waking day. It’s a good way to think about my dreams and to process what went on yesterday. By lunch, I’m spent, so I turn on my computer and engage with the outside world. I’ve tried to do this more and more, and because of this I’m regaining more access to what’s out there rather than being so specifically reactive to anything that’s bugging me.
You’re a disciplined man. I don’t know many people who could wait until noon to check their email or turn on their computer.
Well, it also depends on who you’re waking up next to. Laughs.
Where do you stand on inspiration? Does it come from the muse, or do you have to work at it? Do you set time aside every day to write?
Yes. It takes enormous discipline to be a writer. I’m out on the road now with my guys, and we’ve been together for over 30 years. We talk about keeping our passion alive and the sacrifices it takes, though not in a “woe-is-me” kind of way. But when you see what the discipline gets you, there’s justification for the sacrifice.
The last Fixx record took three years to write, but during that time I wrote two solo records. Those solo records were great for the band, because they helped me focus on what it was like to write with four other guys where each if us have a different musicality. We’ve set ourselves up for another album release next summer, so there’s not as much time. I don’t know what songs are going to be on it, but I have lots of bits and pieces.
When you write every day, are you always writing songs or do you write words that you know are never destined for a record? Because writing anything can be valuable too when it comes to keeping the brain fresh.
Sure, sometimes I write little doodles. Almost like a snowflake forming. You’re building something, but you don’t know what it is. And that’s ok. It’s only when you pull back that you can say, “Aaaahhh. That’s why I was obsessing over that idea.” The story becomes clearer later on.
Of course, as a singer. that’s important too. I need to sing to keep my voice in top shape. I’ve been listening to a lot of old, great singers and am amazed when I catch someone else’s technique and think, “My gosh, they are so far behind the beat.” They’re in much less of a rush than I am. I tend to lay back a bit on the beat, which gives me more time to sing a word, which gives me more time to use additional words. I can use more syllables or hold a long vowel sound. Then I think, “Is that vowel sound nice to listen to, or is there a better sound I can make?” It has to sound appealing, even if you don’t understand the words, because there’s a tune, a sound, to the words themselves.
Are you ever willing to sacrifice a word for the sake of the melody?
There’s a trade. The first thing I’m willing to sacrifice is the rhyme, so with age I’m beginning to realize that simplicity is the goal. But it’s really hard to be simple. In a perfect world, if you visualize a song as complete, there’s the way it should be, the way it could be, and the way it is. And it’s all about how much effort you’re willing to put into it, not to make it perfect, but to be able to walk away from it without nitpicking. But yeah, sometimes melody is king. It used to be that I would stick to a word that now sounds jarring or stupid. So now I sing the word the way I should have sung it back then. I have the luxury of being able to retrofit. Laughs.
I want to get back to my first question about other creative outlets. I recently interviewed Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, and she told me about what she calls her “silly creativity." These outlets have nothing to do with songwriting, but they still makes her a better writer. Do you think the things you do, like cooking or working with cloth, have that same effect on your songwriting?
You’re orchestrating the left part of your brain with those things. For me, it’s cooking. If I just put one pot on the gas range to boil water for an egg, I will invariably forget about the water and boil that pot dry. But if I have six pots going, cutting this and slicing that, it all comes together. Once you up the pressure and tension, that’s the creative element. If you just go into some automatic process, like boiling water for an egg, it’s just therapy. There’s a difference between therapy and creativity. So you need a little chaos to stay creative. Plus, that chaos gives you an ego reward at the end. It can also be a very contemplative time because while there’s chaos, it can also bring about relaxation.
Do you ever take time off and deliberately avoid writing so you can refill the well of inspiration?
Yep. People used to call it writer’s block, but I don’t want to have that fear. I don’t want to call it a “block”; I think there are just times when you need to go and breathe in, breathe out, get wet, get dry. Opposites attract. When your output is done, you need some input. So I’ll go out for an adventure or hang out with friends just to get out of my own head. Go fishing, go on a journey. I just know that if you tense up and think about not writing, it only worsens things. With age, I’ve learned to relax and accept that I’m not meant to be writing all the time.
Do you actively go out and seek inspiration?
One of my biggest sources of inspiration as of late has been just how much I spent during my younger life hiding my limitations. As I’ve gotten older, I realize that I’m celebrating my limitations now. The same limitations, but there’s an acceptance to it. “Compromise” used to be a dirty word to me when I was younger. I wanted to change the world. Now I can only change my world, and compromise is now diplomacy. Trying to get to a point of balance in my life has been a big source of inspiration.
From the 70s to the 80s, I was there at the dawn of New Age thinking, when people who did yoga were freaks. Now everyone does it. Everyone meditates. It’s like the New Age has become commonplace. The religious icons have collapsed, withered through being so stiff and refusing to grow. Yet the Eastern philosophy has never been about leaving the planet but about existing on it. I find inspiration in marital arts programs, yoga, and breathing exercises. I find that if I just breathe in deeply enough and oxygenate my brain, it’s like living in a dream.
How important is environment to you when you write? Is there a time of day when you get your best writing done?
Early morning after a great sleep. But it used to be late night after a great joint. Laughs. And it could be anywhere as long as I have that great sleep. I don’t have to be in the environment I’m writing about. I can spend a day climbing a mountain and write about it when I’m in the city, or vice versa. Like I said, opposites attract. I always see things better from the outside. Yearning and homesickness also work for me. Missing my kids. Being on the road so much, I’ve let myself off the hook by saying, “Well, what do they want? Do they want to see their dad being active and doing the things he loves, or would they rather I be twisted and bitter telling them, ‘Get out of my way!’”
That reminds me of what Hemingway said. He always maintained that you can never write about a place when you’re in that place. You have to be somewhere else. So he could never write about Paris when he was in Paris.
Absolutely. I was not aware he said that, but I wholeheartedly agree. However, the journey between places is also a source of creativity for me. I always get overemotional on airplanes. I don’t know whether it’s pressurization or altitude, but some dumb movie that I would immediately turn off at sea level somehow makes me weep. So instead of watching that movie, I try to write. Trains have also been a source of creativity.
I’m the same way, but I get a lot of writing done on the train and the plane simply because my options are limited when it comes to what I can do.
See, there it is. Another opposite. You’re limited, so your thoughts become more expansive. When your options for activity are expansive, your thoughts don’t have to be. Sometime when you’re running, good thoughts come because you don’t have to think too much about what you’re doing. But when you’re whitewater rafting, you’re not thinking about a song. You’re thinking about surviving.
Do song ideas come to you when you run?
Yep. After the first fifteen minutes of agony have subsided and I hit my rhythm, I try to get rid of obsessive thoughts and reflect on recent experiences. Maybe it’s about oxygenating the body, getting rid of the old and replacing it with the new. Often I go running then head straight to the studio.
Do you stick with songs that are difficult to finish, or is it easier to discard them and accept that they just weren’t meant to be?
If the melody is really strong and I’m having trouble placing it, I work on it. The first verse and the first chorus are easy for me. One I get the chorus right, I’m fine. It’s all about the second verse and the bridge. Sometimes you want to extend the story but not repeat the idea. You want to look at it from a different angle. Those songs are worth sticking with, even if it means setting them aside for another day. When I go over some of those songs later, I’ll jump into those second verses and get a eureka moment. I used to have a rule where if I wrote a song and remembered it the next day, it was worth keeping. If I didn’t remember it, it was crap.
Last question: who are some of your favorite authors?
Ah, there are several. Ian McEwen, William Boyd right. Some of the classics like Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling. I’ve been partially enthralled by William Boyd now.