I've been fortunate to interview songwriters who achieved considerable success in the 1980s and beyond: Chris Difford (Squeeze), Neil Finn (Crowded House), Cy Curnin (The Fixx), Andy McCluskey (OMD). I figure all are worth listening to when they discuss the work ethic of the songwriter. That's the one common element of their songwriting process: they write all the time. The idea of waiting for the muse is a foreign concept, because writing is something you have to work at.
You can add Jim Kerr of Simple Minds that list. Kerr writes every day in his journal, first thing in the morning. It's often not even a song. As he says, "Creativity is a muscle that needs to be flexed." Kerr is also hypersensitive to his environment, both visually and aurally. It's not a conscious mining for song ideas, just an awareness so he can keep the well of ideas stocked. He told me that if we went to the bar for a beer, half of his attention would be on our conversation, the other half on others' conversations. And when he does write, he's a simple man: all he needs is good light. But it has to be a halogen bulb.
Read my interview with Jim Kerr of Simple Minds after the video for "Honest Town," off their new album Big Music. Of course, for the three people in the world who haven't heard "Don't You (Forget About Me)," you can watch the video here.
Do you do any other writing besides songwriting?
I’ve kept a diary for a long time. It’s quite detailed. It’s not a recap of today’s events, like what I had for lunch or something like that. It’s a journal of the long road the band has been on.
The diary is a part of my creative process. For a long time I was one of those people who used to buy into the idea of the muse, the idea that some days it’s there and some days it’s not. When you have periods of inspiration and periods when you don’t. Then about ten years ago I read a book on creative writing by Julia Cameron where she talked about the idea of daily notes and daily pages. She wrote that creativity is a muscle that needs to be flexed. It’s the opposite of the muse. I started reading about the writing processes of famous authors and was impressed by how they go about their work. They give themselves so many words or so many pages that they have to write each day. They lock themselves in a room and don’t leave until it’s done.
What struck me about that idea, besides the perseverance, was that it didn’t matter what was coming out as long as something was coming out. It’s all about the mind as a muscle. Wherever you go mentally, whatever emotional state you’re in when you write, the more you write the easier it is to get into that state.
Did the diary start after you read this book?
No. I had been writing before that, but I was just not as diligent. The idea of morning pages, as she calls it, was intriguing to me. You get up each morning and the first thing you do is write what comes through you. It’s all about getting something down. I know a lot of people who would not write anything until the clock was running or someone metaphorically had a gun to their head.
Jimmy Iovine the producer once told me that artists hate the empty page the most. They all procrastinate. I was that way too. But I procrastinated not because I was lazy but because I used to think, Yeah, that’s my first idea and I like it, but just wait till I work on it! So it would just sit there. And I ended up running around in circles chasing my tail. I’d always end up back at that first fleeting idea.
How often do you write in the diary with the idea that these words might end up in a song?
I collect stuff. And by stuff I mean that ever since I was a kid I’ve always been interested in the turn of the phrase. I’m always listening for words or phrases that sound good. I’m curious as to why a certain phrase sounds more potent or more attractive. Often putting words together in the song is like a puzzle. I like the way words hang together. The meaning sings louder when certain words are in combination. Today on the flight from Glasgow to London I read through the travel magazine, and there were about four phrases where I thought, I like the rhythm of that. So I wrote those phrases down in my phone. I use those phrases as if I were starting a fire, like little scraps of paper to light it.
Is your diary paper or digital?
When I started off, I was big on handwriting, but now it’s mostly computer. Laptop, iPhone, everything digital. I mean, I used to write everywhere: on the back on those inflight sick bags, on cigarette packs even though I don’t smoke. Anywhere I could get it down. I think that reflects how I’m always on. Someone will say something and during the conversation I’ll think, That’s a line for a song. It’s not necessarily what the line reveals or the meaning of the line. It could be just the rhythm of the words.
I’m always stocking up the pool. I’ve always been a reader of books, newspapers, and magazines. I’ve always been a watcher of plays, films. That’s what I mean when I say that the pool is always being stocked, even though I’m not aware of it. I’m not consciously mining those sources for ideas. Your songs are a product of you, and you’re a product not just of your physical environment, but where you’ve been putting your head.
When you talk about reading and watching, are you also hypersensitive to your physical environment as well?
Absolutely. It can be a landscape or a person. If I go for a drink with you in a bar, half of me is listening to you and half is listening to the other conversations. Laughs.
The idea of inspiration always comes up in my interviews, whether it’s something you have to work at or something you sit back and wait for. Is there a tension, though, from an artist’s perspective of seeing what you do as work? Does that put more anxiety in the process?
That’s just the deal. If someone gives you a record deal and a bunch of money and tells you to make an album, you’ve got a responsibility. Laughs. I’m the lyric writer in the band. My songwriting partner ever since the early days is Charlie Burchill. We’ve been writing together ever since we were 14 or 15. Charlie gives me stuff and I feel a professional responsibility to work on it. Some ideas take time. They may take years. Other times it’s instantaneous. But it really is all about rolling up your sleeves and getting disappointed for five times before it clicks. You give it up, put it on the back burner, and you finally crack it at some point.
But I like what you say about the people who do the muse thing and the people who do the work thing. I’d like to add another category to that, and it’s where I am now. It’s a lot more fun. I see it as a game. After all, it is called playing music, and when I realized the idea of playing it took a lot of pressure off of the process. Sometimes we hit the jackpot and other times we have to look back and say it’s just not working.
I imagine taking the pressure off of the process really opens up your mind to be more creative.
How has your process changed over the years?
It hasn’t changed that much over the years, but where it has changed is that I don’t leave things till the last minute anymore. I used to leave things to the last minute because I liked the idea of having all my options. But then I realized that I was leaving everyone in the dark waiting for me. I'd give them a title, and they would say, “We like the atmosphere, but we don’t know what it’s about."
As a singer, there’s usually something very vital in that first take, even as a demo. There’s some immediacy in that first take that has a very strong appeal. You can’t get it later because you know the song too well. Before, I might only have had half the song when I demoed it, or I’d have a good opening line and a scat second line. It would then be a nightmare to try to match up the sounds, so I try to be more prepared early now. I try to have the song almost written before I demo it.
Do you revise your lyrics a lot?
Usually two or three lines just don’t sit well that are bit clumsy. Our producer on the new album, Andy Wright, was the first guy to say to me, “Your second verse should be your first verse." He told me that if I made it the first verse it’s much more personal. There’s a song on the new album called “Spirited Away,” and it opens with the line I’m not a complicated guy. That line was originally in the second verse, and Andy told me, “As soon as you say that line, I’m there. I’m curious. I want to know more.” I had to agree with him; there was something very point blank, very frank about that line. He did that with a couple of the tunes on the album.
Do you set aside ideas that aren’t working and come back to them later, or are you afraid that if you do that you’ll lose that initial spark?
I do it all the time. It’s imperative to do. Perspective is a great thing. I might listen to something 80 times, and eventually that song or demo will become dull. It won’t excite me anymore. But if I leave it for a few weeks or longer, it almost always excites me again. I’ve read about some of the classic painters who wouldn't look at a piece for three years, then come back to it and see it from a different perspective.
In Simple Minds, we focus a lot on atmosphere. It’s the atmosphere of the sound that will put an image in my head. Or I’ll see a picture, a room, a landscape, or a person that will remind me of an Edward Hopper painting. The title of our upcoming box set is called Sparkle in the Rain. I got that title sitting in a taxicab in London on a wet Tuesday afternoon. I looked out at a bus stop where a guy was reading the sports page of a newspaper. The headline read, "West Ham Sparkle in the Rain.” That phrase became a song and an album title.
How important is environment to you when you write, or are you pretty adaptable?
I’ve become very much a morning person. I spend a lot of time in Sicily and it gets so hot there for most of the year. By midday the day is over, so I get up early to enjoy the morning. I have the world all to myself.
When you say morning, how early do you mean?
I mean 5:30 or 6 o’clock. I probably get a day’s worth of work done in the first three hours in the morning. Place isn’t really important when I write, but I do need a nice light. Even certain bulbs make me feel good. I like a good halogen bulb.
So you prefer a halogen bold to natural light?
Well, the problem with going outside is that there are too many distractions. That’s why I’d rather be inside, where I can focus.
Last question: how much reading do you get to do and who are some of your favorite writers?
I was raised in a working-class family and my father was a construction worker. But he read all the time even though none of his mates were readers. He read all the Russian classics and told us to read them too. I love those Russian authors. My favorite book is by Bulgakov called The Master and Margarita. I also love the magic realism stuff. But I also love sporting books so I’m all over the place. I also love Vanity Fair!