The art of writing love songs
Mark Robertson goes to the source and asks ten great songwriters about the fine art of writing love songs
How do you approach writing about love?
Kenny Anderson AKA King Creosote, Fife’s own regal tunesmith of the heart With my heart on the accelerator and my head on the brakes. Emotional turmoil is exactly what you need to get the pen moving, but whether it’s new love or the losing of love, feelings override experience and common sense.
Malcolm Middleton, formerly one half of Arab Strap, now celebrated solo troubadour If it happens and the sentiment is there, there are two routes open to me. The first is captured by songs like ‘Fuck It, I Love You’ which is self-protecting: ‘I’m here if you want me but I’m not really bothered if you don’t feel the same’. Secondly, it’s really liberating to embrace all the clichés and just go for it. I find it hard writing a love song where I don’t distance myself or put up any defences. It’s a Scottish/male thing I think.
Emma Pollock, writer of sublime, subtle songs I tend to steer clear of writing about the subject in too transparent a way. It’s so clichéd. As a lot of my lyrics talk about relationships, however, I guess it comes into play, but not as the main focus.
Karine Polwart, feted scribe of understated folk songs I guess I’m going mostly for understatement, which isn’t one of the defining qualities of a love song! So mine’s are songs from mothers to sons or to dead or dying lovers rather than straight ahead romantic affairs.
Craig Armstrong, multi-faceted Glaswegian composer Writing about love depends very much on what type of love you’re writing about. The more abstract is easier. I’m currently writing a short opera with Ian Rankin called Jesualdo. In an act of passionate rage Jesualdo kills his wife and her lover. That’s a particular kind of love.
Are there any processes you go through that are particular to this kind of song?
Aidan Moffat, former Arab Strap don and Scotland’s prime music mediator on affairs of the heart and loins I rarely write about anything else, so for me the songs are often expressing something that’s difficult to say in the real world, something that would maybe seem trite in words alone, or they consist of afterthoughts, things I should’ve said at the time. They’re a way of coping with a bad situation. And I suppose I feel that forming these thoughts into a song gives them a power that they would lack anywhere else.
Kathryn Williams, English folk songstrel I’m never quite sure what is going to happen or come out when I start writing. Once I begin I can start twisting things but first off it’s always a mystery. When I was writing ‘Come With Me’ (from the new record) I imagined being at a party a few years ago and the butterflies feeling of love about to start.
What (if anything) have you learnt about love, lust and relationships from writing about it?
KC I’ve learned not to confuse the first two and to be very selective about the third.
Mark Eitzel of San Franciscan heartbreakers American Music Club Nothing. Water does not flow uphill. Shy people are boring. I am a shy person.
AM I think you can only really learn about yourself rather than the abstract concept of love, but you do find that virtually no one is unique – we all seem to go through the same emotions and turmoil at some point in our lives, which is why love remains the theme of most songs written.
EP None of it makes any more sense no matter how many times you write about it. Love really is the most powerful emotion, whether it’s in the context of family, friends, lovers or even something more tangible like a choice of vocation or favourite place.
Peter Pepper, vocalist with aspirant power pomp rock kids Palladium When I look at songs I wrote a few years ago, apart from being rubbish they were talking about things that don’t really resonate with me now.
KP I write about what I’ve learned rather than learn through the writing. But I have learned that songs have an amazing capacity to connect with people in ways you can scarcely imagine as a writer and over which you have no control.
Dean Owens, Scots Americana master and hopeless romantic I’ve learned that love and lust are the easiest thing for people to relate to in music. The song can always take you back there to that feeling. It can also be cathartic. It can do you the world of good to listen to a wonderfully melancholy love song.
MM I don’t think anyone learns anything from love songs, they’re simply safety blankets that people wrap themselves in when they need too.
Is there a particular art to writing about love and relationships that differs from writing about other subjects?
ME It is easier to make a fantasy than make yourself, but personally, I like love songs that make you think that the writer actually experiences things like a human being.
KC If you’re too clichéd about love, people will gag, but too much attention to detail and you’re in trouble.
KP I’m very guarded about my own experiences. All told that makes me a fairly rubbish chronicler of lust and romance. Other people can do sex, spleen venting or soul searching much better than me so I leave them to it!
What qualities would you say make a love song great?
ME Pain. And also pain.
KC A balance of experience and naivety, conflicting emotions, and a tune to fall in love/break up to.
AM The best love songs usually concern the loss of love. I think they need a hint of sadness and doubt; a strong sense of yearning. Without that edge, they can be appallingly bland and boring, but not always. You do have to keep an audience in mind if you ever want anyone to listen to them – without a common truth, it’s just narcissistic wank and no one will want to know.
MM Clichés, humour, honesty, drama, wallowing, desperation, begging, bravery. Oh, and a good melody combined with a background atmosphere that cleverly makes the hairs on your neck stand up.
PP You’re trying to portray a feeling. And the words, melody, harmony and rhythm have to be evocative of the thing you’re trying to portray.
DO It needs to be real. As John Lennon once said, ‘Love is real. Real is love’.
EP Don’t use the word love. Don’t use any of the clichés. Try to express what it is that makes your experience of love unique to you. It can speak to so many more people when a writer describes a situation they’ve been in and how idiotically they’ve reacted as a result of how they feel.
KP Most of the greats have a poignant, aching quality to them. They’re about the universality of parting or loss. The enduring songs are either for wrapping yourself in like a cosy blanket or bawling your eyes out.
CA I’m a big Chet Baker fan and almost anything he sung was a love song. He could have sung the telephone directory and it would have sounded like a love song. People love pop music because the songs are wrapped up in the events that make up a memory.
Is writing love songs as brave an endeavour as it seems, laying your feelings out there in the open?
KW Isn’t that what all songs should be?
EP A released song is a bit like a tattoo in that respect, you better hope it all works out . . .
ME I don’t think that is important. Great love songs can be absolutely phoney and still touch you. Writing a great love song is participating in the great mistake of the human mind.
AM You can only ever be as brave as you allow yourself to be, and anyone who claims to be a slave to their writing is a charlatan. As a writer, you create your own limits and work within them. Firemen are brave, songwriters aren’t.
KP Too often what might pass for bravery is just self-pity or self-indulgence.
MM This kind of song is good for the writer, but also good for the people who can’t always express their own feelings as eloquently. It’s great to listen to a song and be able to relate to it and say, ‘yeah, I feel like that too’. Singer-songwriters are the foot soldiers fighting in the trenches and on the front lines of the War of Love. People can listen from the comfort of their own homes safe in the knowledge that the battle’s going well and that even though there are many casualties our boys are winning!
American Music Club play Oran Mor, Glasgow Fri 8 Feb; King Creosote’s album Bombshell is out now; Aidan Moffat’s new album I Can Heart Your Heart is reviewed on page 67; Malcolm Middleton’s new album Sleight of Heart is out Mon 3 Mar; Dean Owen’s Whisky Hearts is reissued in Feb by Vermillion Records; Kathryn Williams’ collaboration with Neil MacColl is out Mon 3 Mar; Emma Pollock’s solo debut Watch the Firework is out now; Karine Polwart’s new album This Earthy Spell is out Mon 10 Mar; Palladium play Oran Mor, Tue 5 Feb and the premiere of Craig Armstrong’s opera Jesualdo is part of Five:15 at Oran Mor, Glasgow, from Fri 29 Feb.