It is widely acknowledged that the music industry has changed immeasurably over the past decade, favouring the global brand artists who can use their celebrity standing to sell as many pairs of tracksuit bottoms as they can copies of their albums. So what of the humble songwriter, quietly plugging away at their art, often only for meagre returns? A PORTRAIT OF BRITISH SONGWRITING, an exhibition put together by creative agency Wolf & Diva, is a candid look at this oft-overlooked craft, through a series of photographs and accompanying audio interviews with some of Britain’s most influential independent songwriters from the Domino Publishing roster.
Photographer Rachel King (Wolf) and writer/songwriter Rachael Castell (Diva) devised this exhibition as a way of celebrating the never-diminishing power of British music, to contemplate the rich pool of musicians whose talent for capturing experiences of a place and a time in song is as strong as it’s ever been. They launched Portrait at Sonos Studio London in October 2015, and we are fairly stoked to be working with them to bring the whole exhibition to Liverpool, running between 8th July and 8th August at Bold Street Coffee.
Bill Ryder-Jones, Kate Tempest, Steve Mason, Clive Langer, Bella Hardy, Jon Hopkins, Luke Abbott, Sara Abdel Hamid (Ikonika), Eugene McGuinness, Oli Bayston, The Bohicas and Hot Chip’s Felix Martin and Al Doyle all invited Rachel and Rachael in to their personal creative spaces, with the resulting candid photography and intimate interviews reminding us of the physicality of songwriting, the work of the art.
Ahead of the exhibition’s launch, Rachael Castell spoke to us about how A Portrait Of British Songwriting showcases what Steve Mason described as the “beauty and compassion, joy and love, emotion and heartbreak and all the things that go to make us the complicated, wonderful things that we are”.
“I am a songwriter myself. I write songs with a writing partner, but it took me a really long time to give myself permission to be a songwriter because it felt like it was a dark art, or a mystical process that I wasn’t party to. I’m intrigued by songwriting because I like to listen to songs and think about how they’re constructed. What was interesting to Rachel and I when we started this project was not only the craft of songwriting, but also the skill and the practice and the work of being a songwriter in the time that we live in now.”
“In the series, it comes across that there is no one way to write a song: people come at it from different angles and from different places. It is an endlessly fascinating area. I could just keep having these conversations with songwriters for ever and ever because everyone’s different: the experience of making music is unique to everyone. The liberating or enlightening thing about it is that people just find their own way. It’s a vulnerable thing, particularly if you’re a performer. I’m really in awe of people for whom [making music] is just what they have to do, that is their beating heart.”
“We’re living in such a strange time to be a musician and you have to be so dedicated. I mean, I write songs as a hobby, but these people do it professionally. How you keep that going and what your working life is like and how do you find your inspiration – these are the questions we were interested to ask. There’s a whole layer – a really, really rich layer – of British songwriting talent that isn’t really in the public eye and doesn’t get celebrated as much as it should do. Portrait is us looking at songwriting through the window of now, asking ‘how can you survive and keep that passion burning?’.”
There were some themes that came about that were really fascinating to me. For instance, there was a whole theme around people who see music, like Jon Hopkins, and Ikonika. They talk about literally having a visual accompaniment to the music that they can see. There was also a really strong rhythmic bedrock to the people we interviewed: Ikonika again, Luke Abbott, Steve Mason, they all started out playing drums. So there’s something about the comprehension of rhythm that’s at the heart of songwriting. And then the other thing that I think is interesting is the marriage between words and music. I write lyrics and I love writing poems, but for many people words come later, they’re not quite so integral – apart from someone like Bella Hardy, who comes from the folk tradition. She’s always writing lyrics and then the songs find their way from the lyrics.”
“The other thing that was particular to the project was that all the songwriters let us go to the creative space where they make their music – so you’re suddenly looking at the equipment and the headspace that an artist has to get in to make music. And that’s different for everyone. Ikonika, for example, has a cabin behind her mum’s house where she works, which was full of little bits of paraphernalia that are specific to her. It was a whole world that I don’t know about too much, but you could suddenly feel where her head was by being in her space.”
“Bill [Ryder-Jones], in particular, is really anti the demystification of songwriting. Him and Steve [Mason] both kind of said, ‘I don’t really wanna talk about it because it’s not something that I wanna reveal to myself’, in a way. And then when you get them going they just talked for hours! There is no demystification: you can talk about it [the process] and it doesn’t become any less moving in the moment. I could kind of sometimes see pennies dropping when I was talking to people, where they’d be like, ‘Oh yeh, I guess I did do one album like that…’”
“I didn’t want to race in [to the interviews] with a Dictaphone and be like, ‘OK, let’s talk about songwriting – GO.’ I wanted to settle myself in their creative space, and feel respectful about it and learn about it and have a conversation before pressing record. So I think that made quite a difference in that we took our time. Rachel [King] was shooting on medium-format film so there was a real analogue taste to the whole thing, and that felt quite unusual. I also recorded most of the interviews onto tape. There’s something more raw about that exchange.”
“Who was my favourite to interview? Ooh, that’s really tough. I loved talking to Steve Mason, he’s got so much character and has so much to say. He’s got a real history, too: he’s written songs as part of a band, he’s done it on his own, he has that mystical relationship with his art. He’s funny and warm and has had dark days and bright times – he was just a great, fun interview! And he definitely gave us a lot of himself; he was very raw and authentic. But then, they were all interesting to me in so many different ways. It kind of made me feel really proud of the history and tradition of British songwriting too, and also really excited about British music. It was hard when it was over really, because I wanted to keep talking to people!”
“I love doing interviews, I love people and I love listening to people. I like to go deep quite quickly, and I’m not often sure how it ends up happening. But then, I suppose that’s the magic art of conversation. Speaking to Jon Hopkins really inspired me to take up a course in improvised singing. One of the things with songwriting that you feel you should know is the technical aspects of music, but I’m not very good at that stuff. I realised that I needed to trust myself more because so many people talk about the music, the songs just presenting themselves to them: they just open their mouth and sing. So I took a course to try and exercise that muscle. So, it’s lived on in lots of different ways.”
A Portrait Of British Songwriting runs at Bold Street Coffee from 8th July – 8th August. We will also be inviting special guests to Bold Street Coffee to take part in a Bido Lito! Social on Thursday 21st July, in the form of a panel event followed by a live show.