The Writing

The clocks have gone back and only a couple of months remain until the end of the year; at long last I’ve just about assembled the songs for my next solo record.

This is most unusual. For as long as I can remember I’ve gone into solo recording projects with only a handful of songs actually completed as pieces of work. As the recordings have gone along the other tunes have gradually emerged until the final make up of the work becomes clear, often at a very late stage indeed.

Even after a (working) lifetime hammering away at the coal face of song, the actual mechanics of how those things arrive and make themselves manifest still remain somewhat mysterious to me. There’s never an exact science to it, never a “normal” process. It’s important to allow the song to make itself known rather than force it. To a large extent that involves tricking myself into a state of readiness-to-receive.

It’s comparatively simple to find that state while – nominally – concentrating on the recording process. An immersion in sound world means that the hidden lines of vocal/lyrical sense can make themselves available in a surreptitious manner. I’ve often drawn the analogy between sculpting and songwriting and as one hacks away at the sonic material – by editing or manipulation – the inner meaning of the thing shows up in some x-ray form. At this point it’s possible to know (approximately) what it’s “about” and then get those lyrics and that top line done.

I honestly mean to say that the songs reveal themselves to me. I don’t drive them along, I don’t start out with a specific agenda or intention, musical or lyrical. Whether I’m working with a chord sequence, a slab of noise or a riff I go forward, trusting that eventually the form will unlock the song within. Naturally, this kind of approach leads to a certain dangerous frisson when the recording process is reaching an end. I’ve enjoyed that sense of finally wrapping things up at the last moment.

Still, when I began working on the current project (as yet still untitled and without any specific direction, of course) I gradually came round to the idea that it was time to take a different approach. (Naturally I always try to have some different angle to each succeeding disc in any case.) I was starting virtually from scratch, since whatever backlog of potential material I’d accumulated in the past had been for the most part directed into “Thin Air” and then “A Grounding in Numbers”.

(An aside – I always have some musical material knocking around which has engaged me enough to start working on it, but not enough for it to come through to full form.)

As ever, I began with improvisatory playing on piano and guitar – this much is a given when building stuff from the ground up. Some improvisations were recorded, some noted down and repeated. I ended up with frameworks for seven or eight pieces. At this point I made the decision that before advancing into any further recording work I should actually write top lines and, crucially, lyrics for all of them. That I should make songs, in other words, before making recordings.

This has meant that I’ve been going at an unaccustomed slow pace for the last couple of months. With pieces this bare there’s been a great deal of staring out of the window, of carrying the tunes round in my head while walking the dogs, that kind of thing. Basically immersing myself in each piece in my imagination until the right words and tune came along to make (some kind of) sense.

Some ideas have been entirely new. In  a couple of cases I’ve discovered that themes or phrases which have been bubbling away in the waiting folder for years have muscled their way to the front. (Oh, yes, I do have a stock of lyrical ideas and phrases noted down in various books, on various scraps of paper, some of them from decades ago….)

I’m now up to ten completed songs. That’s probably one or two more than the number required for the album.

It’s now my intention to build the recordings around definitive lead vocals; these will be the next things I approach. The original piano and/or guitar parts may remain, or may be replaced by other stuff.

It’ll be the first time I’ve attempted this over an entire project; it should be interesting, I think.

Needless to say now that I’ve reached this stage I may well find myself going off into other directions, other pieces once I’m in full swing. But the plan, at present, is as outlined above.

In due course, I’ll post some notes on further progress….

22 Comments on “The Writing”

  1. Adam Matlock says:

    I find this observation quite intriguing. There has always been, to my ears, a noticeable difference between songs that had at least had part of their arrangement imagined prior to recording. Qualitative but not in terms of “better” or “worse,” usually having some marked change in the amount of density or texture of the final arrangement either live or recorded.

    A pleasure to have found this blog. I find many of the quirks in my songwriting and composing processes to be defended and even vindicated by some of what you’ve written here.

  2. Anonymous says:

    A dropping off of verve, vitality and van der graaf, ripples do reach the edge of the awfully stagnant pools. One day I’m walking along a beach, next day I’m writing the diary.

  3. […] One of my favourite songwriters is Peter Hammill, who has written a fascinating post entitled ‘The Writing’. Worth a look, even if you’re not a fan. I really like this characterisation of how his usual […]

  4. Daniel Phillips says:

    Looking forward to hearing it very much Peter.
    After the success of the (limited but then swiftly re-pressed) A Grounding in Numbers LP, my hope will spring eternal (but no doubt dashed!) that your new record will also grace vinyl (despite the nuisance of those pesky bigger boxes…).
    A belated happy birthday,
    Best wishes from another reach of Wiltshire,

  5. Juan Carlos Rangel says:

    Mr. Hammill, I am looking forward to hear your solo an VdGG projects, whatever is your music or your mind translated into songs and lyrics, it’s worth a good hearing. I am a graphic designer and I would love to design the CD art for any project you may have, I would be honored.

    Happy Birthday.

    Juan Carlos Rangel / México City

  6. ~Dave Winstanley says:

    HI Peter, and thanks for that fascinating insight. Your comment about the songs ‘revealing themselves’ is most interesting: I’m not sure whether that makes you a brilliant creator or a brilliant medium, or both. Either way, be assured we’re grateful to whatever mechanisms are at work here! Only just got to a computer, so a belated many happy returns, too.

    Dave W

  7. sue says:

    Hey…how you doing!…always nice to read your journal…..and to think new songs are in the world…i look forward so much to hearing and reading them….
    Happy Birthday!!!….
    and I still love you for playing Tall Ships in my home town of San Francisco…
    a listener to the end….

  8. T.J.W.M. Froyen says:

    A Statue erected in Belgium… A Tribute to a Legendary Group

  9. Even when you’re 64 we’ll still need you…

  10. Happy Birthday Mr. Hammill…..
    Thank you for EVERYTHING.

  11. Deolinda says:

    Happy Birthday!

  12. Anonymous says:

    Maybe with Peter’s comment that “the actual mechanics of how those things arrive and make themselves manifest still remain somewhat mysterious to me” and “I honestly mean to say that the songs reveal themselves to me. I don’t drive them along, I don’t start out with a specific agenda or intention”, there is another force that accounts for that mystery.

    Maybe we are merely conduits of a thing, higher than ourselves, which has chosen us to exhibit our talents, whether a musician and lyricist as in his case; or an athlete, CEO, painter, actor, etc. in the case of others.

    Yes, but with that, we cannot take credit for our skills, however; the talent is not ours, since we are only the means by which that skill is transmitted. But that could be a good thing – to not be distinguished (in the sense of having high rank), but rather to extinguish the ego.

    Rochester, NY

  13. Anonymous says:

    Grazie Peter,
    sarò felicissimo di ascoltare il tuo nuovo lavoro. E grazie per tutte le gioie che mi hai dato con la tua musica.

  14. I’m waiting for your masterpiece!!!
    Will you come to South America next year?
    I live in Buenos Aires….



  15. I’m waiting for your next masterpiece….

  16. Martijn says:

    ‘The Writing’ may also be a good song title, actually.
    Always intriguing to read how something one likes is concieved. I, for one, am one of the Zillion who try to write some music themselves (but never had the courage or/and(?) the talent to try to make a living out of it) and it is no small pleasure to know that some of the best music I listen to came to life in the exact same way that I try to breathe life in my own.
    I wonder: do you also start with singing nonsensical phrases consisting of whatever words or sounds come up to find the melody that’s hidden in the chords/riff/soundscape?

    Very nice read, thank you.

  17. Marc Roberts says:

    Thank you for the intriguing insights…hope you enjoy the old scraps, notebooks and whatever manifests anew!

  18. Never underestimate unconsciousness in such process. Creativity remains a mystery, out of total control. Interesting for me the difference between song-writing and writing only lyrics, a novel.
    Hope your new technique works

  19. Richard Vernon says:

    Peter, thank you so much for this insight into your approach to songwriting. I’d often wondered if you were one of the few songwriters who write lyrics first: now I know you’re far more ‘conventional’ in your approach than that. Of course the reason I’d wondered that is because your lyrics are so often exceptionally good. Thanks again.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Gracias Peter, algo queda diáfano y visible entre tanta mugre.

    Pregunta: quienes participan del proyecto?

  21. Can’t wait to hear the end result.

  22. Great!
    Another piece of your heart…
    Another handful of mysteries, emotions, strange fragments rescued from that unknown world…
    Another few minutes of ecstasy…
    Thanks once again, Peter!


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