With a voice reminiscent of Neil Young and a timeless songwriting style, Jo Rose is one of Manchester's best kept secrets. With recent national radio appearances on BBC 6 Music and forthcoming European tour supporting First Aid Kit, it looks like the cat is out of the bag. Jo's debut album Spurs is out now. Here he discusses his songwriting tips.
- Do you have a daily songwriting routine or do you wait for inspiration to strike? I wouldn’t say that I have ‘routine’, as the way songs come together seems to change every time I do it. Often it will be just sitting with an instrument until a melody or chord progression I like hits me. Sometimes it will be an idea or an image that I want to find it’s way into a song. There’s normally a point at which all these shreds of finished pieces have to find a place alongside one another. That part, at least, has to be sort of methodical and organised!
- Do you have any tricks to get the creative juices flowing? It can be a lot of things. Quite often, it will be going to a show, or seeing a film, hearing a record, or reading something that interests you enough to follow an idea of your own through. Sometimes you have to seek these things out, but I guess I’m always looking for things that could do this for me even when I’m not ‘really thinking about it’.
- Do you find you normally start with a melody or lyrics? For a long time it’s always been melodies that have stuck with me that I’ve added lyrics to after. Recently, I’ve been enjoying writing lyrics first. The wonderful thing about this is that the only constraint placed on you as to what kind of music will accompany it is the meter you choose to write the lyric in (or lack thereof). You can see how different melodies or chords frame the lyrics differently and how they interact with them more flexibly. You can see how adding music to words becomes an interpretative gesture. There’s something I enjoy about having a piece of music and just muttering bullshit over the top of it until something sticks too. Both approaches have their merits.
- Do you think that melody is the most important aspect of a song? I can’t really make the separation! I suppose as far as publishers are concerned, it is, but that shouldn’t matter too much. What I enjoy is the way the lyrics, melody and chords interact (not to mention choice of instruments, etc), and the fun part of the creative process is playing and working through your options to produce something that interests or excites you.
- How long does it take you to write a song? Sometimes years, sometimes twenty minutes. It varies a lot!
- Could you explain a little about the writing process behind a few of your songs? Mary’s Dress: This is a song that was transparently non-autobiographical and spoken from the perspective of a fictional character, but I liked the way the lyrics worked enough to put it at the end of the album. It was a classic case of sitting up until late with a guitar and singing to the chords until something stuck. I wrote it during a phase of really liking using songs as a way of producing a narrative. I know that I had an idea for a story and the way I wanted the different images and ideas to work together, and I knew that I wanted it to resolve in the way it did. Nonetheless, it happened in a kind of ‘organic’ way. There’s a lot about writing it I don’t remember. I’m Yr Kamera: After a long period of not writing much, this came from visiting a friend whose home I used to lodge in and who I knew owned a piano that I loved, and told myself “you’re not leaving this place or eating until you write a song”. I sat at the piano and wrote this in a morning and afternoon. And it was a lot of fun. Sometimes you can be romantic and wait for inspiration to strike and sometimes it’s better to see it as a discipline. Whatever psychological trick works. Terrible Liar: This one was almost complete and hanging over me for a long while. The melody was there with the key ‘hook’ and most of the verses. It just kind of needed tying up. I wasn’t happy with how it worked. I ended up going to my friend Lucy, who has an interest in words and lyrics and writes poetry, and talked it through with her until I felt like it tied together in a way that I was pleased with. It’s sometimes good to step out of this myth that you can only be creative in this sad little vacuum.
- What songs that other people have written do you particularly admire? At the moment “I lost something in the Hills” by Sibylle Baier I think is pretty perfect lyrically. I also really like “The Sophtware Slump” (the Grandaddy album) as a body of work in regards songwriting, lyrically, melodically and sonically. I also was really impressed by the lyrics to Nick Cave’s “Higgs Boson Blues” on his last record. Isn’t that one of the best song titles ever? Also, all the Neutral Milk Hotel stuff. Most particularly “Oh Comely”, but the songs in the oeuvre prior to that too. “Ferris Wheel on Fire”, “Everything is” are all lyrically fascinating and always keep me coming back to them.
- Do you think that a technical knowledge of theory is important or does it get in the way? I think it can be enormously helpful and also pretty restrictive. I sometimes wish that I knew less theory so I could play around with stuff without having so many pre-conceived ‘rules’ about how something should go. It’s still possible to surprise yourself though and the theory is so dense and complex there’s always more to investigate.
- Do you tend to revisit your songs and rewrite them? I almost always return to them when I feel ready and brutally edit them. Some of them, though, stay exactly the same. It depends if it feels like it’s needed.
- Do you write songs with a view to being commercial and following current trends? Not consciously at all. I guess the fact that I view song structure as tending towards choruses, verses and repetition shows that I’m not entirely divorced from a way of thinking about music that is at least in part directed by commerce. When I’m writing, though, I don’t really have any interest in what is a contemporary trend. A lot of contemporary music doesn’t interest me at all. Certainly the stuff that seems to be shifting a lot of units right now. I tend to just find records that grab me from whenever and take what I like from them.
- Who do you view as great songwriters. Who has inspired you musically/ lyrically? Bill Callahan, Jeff Mangum, Jason Molina, Klara and Johanna Söderberg, Gillian Welch, Jason Lytle, Gabriel Minnikin, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, Samantha Craine, Neil Young, Cat Power, Nina Simone, Simon Joyner, Gram Parsons, Joanna Newsom, Ray Davies, Ryan Adams, John Prine… there’s a lot of people.
- Do you feel that when there's conflict/struggle in your life that it inspires better songs? All songs do well with a problem or a conflict that to struggle with. Your life doesn’t have to be in any kind of turmoil directly though. You can play with things that don’t ‘work’ or cause problems or contradictions and it can be quite a joyful thing without having any guts of your own to spill. It’s another unfortunate myth that you have to be having a shit time to write a decent song.
- Do you have any idea where you ideas come from? Yes! All the stuff. I’m always sifting through a lot of trash. That’s the fun of it!
- Do you have any advice you'd like to share with budding songwriters out there? To try and always keep yourself interested. To abandon any idea of doing it ‘correctly’ and think of it as something you’re always working through. You don’t have to preach or make a grand, authentic speech. It’s just music, after all. You can do it a great disservice by taking it too seriously.
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