Robyn Hitchcock, for the good of all your fans, please delete your account.
Not because your tweets are inflammatory or idiotic. Quite the contrary: I love your witty and insightful posts. But when you told me that your constant attention to social media distracts you from your songwriting, that you are "finishing up fewer songs because of it," well that's where I draw the line. So please put down that phone. No tweet is worth stifling your creative process, my good sir.
Hitchcock, 64, has been writing songs since the 1970s, both solo and with acts like the Soft Boys and Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians. He's earned praise and adulation from critics and songwriters the entire time. Like most songwriters with long careers, he writes constantly. Some of his writings become songs, some don't, although he hates journal writing. Hitchcock likes to write in the morning when his mind is fresh, but he admits that a hangover can be a good tonic for songwriting (something many other songwriters have mentioned to me). This would appear to be counterintuitive; after all, how can you write when you're in pain? But it's precisely that discomfort that Hitchcock finds so stimulating, telling me, "If you're very comfortable in your mind, why write anything in the first place? Why even act on what's there? There can't be that much burning inside of you that you want to write about if you're comfortable. Agitation is necessary." And when Hitchcock writes, it's in pencil, never pen, because he wants to be able to erase, not cross out.
Hitchcock's latest release is the self-titled Robyn Hitchcock, his 21st album. It's everything you expect in a Hitchcock release: great music and great lyrics. And as you'll read, no puns. Read my interview with Hitchcock about his songwriting process after the video.
Outside of songwriting, how much writing do you do?
I write things down all the time without wondering whether they will be songs. If they turn into songs, they will. That’s my priority. Sometimes they become more like short stories or other little prose pieces. I’ve tried writing novels, but I can’t write characters very well and I can't sustain a narrative. So I'm better off writing short pieces like poems or songs because most everything that I write rhymes anyway. If I can make something singable, I will, so I tend to steer towards song because that's what I like to do most. If I write poems then no one will ever see them. Laughs.
When you start to write, it can end up as anything then.
Basically. Sometimes I'll play the guitar with a tune in mind so I try to write words to go with it when the tune is coming through. Then sometimes I find words in my notebook that obviously are meant to be songs, but I don't remember writing them. I have no memory of writing things. I just look at my notebook and the words are there.
Do you do much journal writing?
No, because it annoys me. I'm not interested in writing down what happened to me. That can always be described better by someone else. I'm not that interested in facts. Laughs.
What about a specific writing routine?
Whenever the mind is fresh. If I'm not too hung over, I can write in the morning. If I am, then I wait until the afternoon. The problem, though, is that if I wait that long I tend not to write things down. Instead, I just sing.
Hangovers are very good for making up songs. The mind is cracked and all sorts of things come pouring out. It's very hard to consciously write anything down or even think anything when you feel hungover. Instead, you just have to let your brain stream out through the cracks. It's a bit like an egg is broken and stuff is seeping out through the sides.
If you're too composed and too smug in your state of mind, then your writing is going to be a bit dull. It's good to be in a bit of discomfort because it adds an edge to the writing. Now do you need to torture yourself to write? That's a whole other story.
That’s a common sentiment among songwriters I interview about writing with a hangover.
Really? That's interesting. All you hear is your head when you're hungover. And the head isn't a very comfortable place to be, especially when you're hungover. All the anesthesia from drink is reversed in the morning. That's probably also why I never write when I'm drinking. I don't have much to say then.
What do you mean by discomfort?
If you're very comfortable in your mind, why write anything in the first place? Why even act on what's there? There can't be that much burning inside of you that you want to write about if you're comfortable. Now, that's different if you're journaling or writing an article about something other than yourself. In that case, you don't want to be too agitated. But in terms of stuff coming to the surface inside you, agitation is necessary. It just makes the writing a bit more lively. That's why people like Sylvia Plath were such vivid writers: they were so agitated.
I'm not a big believer in mellowing out. I'm 64. It's the parts of me that haven't grown up that are still creative.
Is there a favorite place you like to write?
I think you have to be away from people. I can't really do it if I'm with people, especially with people who know me because the lines of communication are always open then. Being on a plane with strangers is great. I've often written lyrics on aircraft. Situations where you're trapped and you can't get up and walk around are always conducive to productive writing. That isolation forces you to get on with it and write. Being surrounded by strangers forces stillness. It's not the same with trains, though. They tend to be too bumpy. I don't write on a laptop; I still write in the notebook so it's hard to write when it's bumpy.
Sometimes you need a good view out the window. It doesn't have to be pretty; it just has to be something to base your thoughts around. Even though for years I just looked out at a a brick wall and wrote. Laughs.
The angle of the light is important also. I found that there are certain seats at the table that are better to sit in for that purpose. It might be like tracing magnetic north. I don't get it, but there are certain places that I know that if I sit there I will receive something. It's almost like being in a portal. I don't know how that works, but there are certain portals I'll find myself at where things come quickly,. The trick is finding those portals.
You mentioned planes and trains as a good place to get writing done. It's forced isolation, true, but I also wonder how much the role of movement affects your writing process.
Absolutely. If you were on the plane but were stuck on the runway, it would be like being in a traffic jam. That wouldn't be the same. Watching things go by the windows makes you really think.
Do you prefer pen and paper or a computer when you write lyrics, or does that not matter?
It does matter because writing with cheap utensils is horrible. It makes handwriting much worse. I'm quite narcissistic, and I don't like nasty handwriting. But sometimes when you're thinking, everything happens so fast that the handwriting becomes nothing more than scrawl. Over the last three or four years, I've written everything in pencil because if you write in pencil, you know you can erase it. There's never that awful feeling of permanence, and it's not the same as using a pen and crossing things out.
I often want to change things quite a lot. I want to put down just the basic idea, and then with that shape I can fill it in and get much better lines. I hate the idea of writing something down then thinking Oh God this is it. Because when you do that, you back yourself into a corner. You may think it's fine, but surely telling yourself that because of the permanence of the ink. So I'd rather just erase it.
How much revising do you do?
If it's good, then very little. It's like a geologist panning for gold: you crack the song open and what you've got is perfectly formed. Other times you don't have a complete song, and that's more annoying because you really have to work to find better rhymes. Maybe if it's a very clear idea then your lines come quickly, but if the ideas are abstract it takes longer to fine tune.
When you revise, are you changing meaning or are you changing words?
It's mostly words so that they sound better. Since I'm writing to sing, I don't want to sing uncomfortably. If it sings uncomfortably, it sings badly. I also try to avoid clichés. You have to find somewhere between a cliché and something too contrived. I don’t want anything to sound too contrived. I must say that I also hate alliteration. That's one of the things that really annoys me, along with puns in songs. There's something so glib about puns that really pisses me off.
Is it because it's too easy, too unoriginal?
It's like a joke but it's not funny. I mean, sometimes puns can be fun if they're very clever. But all those things are exercises in cleverness rather than meaning. They aren't artistic; they're like headlines.
Have you found that being a visual artist has made you a more disciplined songwriter?
You can't do everything. Long ago I gave up on the idea of being a Renaissance man. People don't really trust that. It can be a burden to have all that talent. You have to prioritize one over the other. I could draw long before I could write songs, and I like painting but I'm not very good at it. I'm quite good with a pencil, though. My father drew a lot of cartoons so I come from that kind of family.
Being a visual artist has meant that I like writing lyrics and songs that you can see. That’s why I’ve never really liked rock videos that determine what the listener imagines. People keep seeing the images in the video, and those videos tell you what to imagine. I like to write songs that help people imagine scenarios. They might imagine a man with a lightbulb head, or my wife and my dead wife, or a Madonna of the wasps. The songs I wrote in the 80s were quite visual, almost like cartoons.
Has your art ever directly led to a song?
I think it comes from the same part of the brain. If you can write words, you can probably draw pictures. Two of my favorite songwriters, Syd Barrett and Captain Beefheart, were both visual artists. Barrett became a visual artist long after he gave up of songwriting. And I think it’s interesting that both moved from being people who made music to people who painted. They didn’t do them both at the same time.
As an English PhD, I have to ask you about your song "Virginia Woolf."
I was hanging out with Johnny Marr from The Smiths when we played a show in Portsmouth. I was living on the Isle of Wight at the time. He said that I should write some fast songs. He said, "Write some fast songs. Those are important songs." So I went back to the island, picked up my guitar, and wrote "Virginia Woolf," one of the more up-tempo songs on the album. It was my attempt to write something speedy.
Are you a Virginia Woolf fan?
Yes, though I haven’t read any of her stuff for a while. I'm also a I’m a big fan of Sylvia Plath. I like her intensity. Both of them had this idea that if you can’t stand being alive, you have to end your own life. It doesn’t mean that you were wrong to do it, it just means that your life wasn't right for you. From an artist's perspective, they did the right thing because they just couldn’t stand to be themselves. And in the song I’m just saying they may not have been able to carry on living, but thumbs up. Their very being was at odds with itself and the rules of humanity. I’m just trying to make it into a positive really.
Was that an easy song to write?
I can’t remember, really. I wrote a load of verses and probably kept about four of them. I never remember doing anything I just find the lyrics later.
What are you reading now?
I used to read a lot more. I still go back to writers I like, people like T.S. Elliot, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley. I can’t really understand anything written before 1900, Dickens is about my limit. If I read Keats or Shelley, I need an interpreter. I love Shakespeare’s language but I have to hear it spoken. Even Joseph Conrad is quite impossible for me. But while I love those British authors, I also love William Faulkner, Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood. I’m actually reading Atwood right now. I like Robert C. Davis too. Right now I'm reading a terrific book by Donna Tartt called The Goldfinch.
I have to be honest, though: social media has put a big hole in everything I do. Most of my best lines go out on twitter. My partner and I are addicted to stimulus. I’ll be writing a song upstairs and still pick up the phone every 10 minutes to see what happening on twitter. My attention is just chopped up because of social media. I’m definitely finishing up fewer songs than I once was because of it.
I still write a lot of songs, and the one thing I’m not interested in doing is repeating myself. What’s happening in the world now dwarfs anything I can write songs about. I’m actually just concentrating on living because we may not be here next week. It just feels like one endless Cuban missile crisis. And I just feel like anything I say because what’s happening now is not relevant. Life dwarfs art now. I see the world run by people who are even more incapable than I am. I look at our species and think what the fuck are we doing here. Maybe we are just angels who know we really are devils. And at some point we have to condemn ourselves to death. It’s not good I’m afraid. At last. I have no good words.
Why are you drawn to T.S. Eliot, and do you think that all the reading you do makes you a better writer?
Elliot was a great magpie of literature. Dylan is the same way just set to music. Elliot would borrow and quote so many sources, and he was a man of excellent taste. He'd go from quoting Milton to Shakespeare to a few of his own lines, then he'd drop references from some Indian writer. Then he'd make some ironic remark to Ezra Pound.
It’s pretty clear that Elliot read everything. Don’t have time for the complete works of English literature? Just read Eliot. I keep going back to "The Wasteland." I must read that twice a year. That poem alone makes me want to pick up the guitar and sing something. All this literature, all this art, encourages me to do what I’m doing, which is be a songwriter. They don’t encourage me to do what they do, they encourage me to do what I do.