Gregson & the Black Art of Songwriting.
A NetRhythms Micro Interview.
Clive Gregson’s new release "Comfort & Joy" is another entirely self written, played & recorded collection. Gregson demonstrates an understated flair for arrangements with a light touch, knowing references to classic pop hooks & considerable instrumental prowess but it is the sheer quality of the songs which drive this album.
As on Dylan’s "Blood on the Tracks" the writing is deceptively simple without ostentatious lyrics or incongruous musical changes. Despite references from English folk to Buddy Holly, these 12 songs form such well crafted wholes that it’s difficult to deconstruct them to determine what makes them work; they just do.
NetRhythms tied down Gregson for a few ‘virtual minutes’ to expound on the art of songwriting.
Q: The songs on Comfort & Joy have been well road tested - do they change much between creation & recording?
A: As far as the basic song goes, not really. Once a song is written, I try it out onstage and try to gauge the response. If a song isn't really working after 2/3 outings, I usually shelve it. If a song stays in the show, I might tweek a word or chord here and there. That's about the extent of it.
Q: Like your previous album you've played all the instruments yourself. What dictates the arrangements?
A: I don't really have a budget to make albums, so basically if I can't play it and don't have it to hand, I do without it! Luckily, I've managed to put together a halfway decent studio over the years and can play a fair number of instruments so that's not particularly a bind. The starting point for the "arrangements" is the live version. I bosh down a guitar and vocal and then add parts to that. Although it's only me playing, I like the albums to sound like "real" people
playing "real" instruments. Organic! I just try to support the songs in a simple, unobtrusive way.
Q:Do you have a specific approach to songwriting? Is there a usual starting point or do they just "arrive"?
A: I really believe that there are no rules when it comes to songwriting. The writer just has to like the end result. Sometimes I start with a title, sometimes a chord sequence. Sometimes it's just a snatch of tune, sometimes I have the whole lyric. Every now and again, one drops out of the air fully formed! Those are my favourites. No work involved!
I think the trick is to just be open and receptive to ideas, however they come. I try and write something every day. Lots of it remains unfinished or gets tossed. They don't all have to be great or even good! They are just part of the ongoing process. I typically find that I need to write at least thirty songs to get a dozen for a record. You should hear some of the rejects! Real howlers...
Q: How do you feel about Comfort & Joy with the benefit of hindsight?
A: I really like it. There's very little about it that I would change if I had the chance. That's usually a good sign. I mostly like my records these days. I'm very fortunate: I can pretty much do what I please, secure in the knowledge that only six people are ever going to hear it!
Q. What can we expect to hear next from you?
A: I'm working on a bunch of songs about the North of England: about growing up in Manchester and about how I view England generally now I live in the USA. I've been playing a few of them live recently and people seem to like them which is great. Watch this space!
– A to B (2001)
Iain Matthews must have a Dorian Gray style recording of a really awful sounding folk singer in his attic. How else could you explain the fact that he still has the same warm clear voice heard on early Fairport records & his classic 1970’s albums?
He has also evolved into an accomplished songwriter with a fine line in cynical invective as demonstrated by the stand out track on this mini album ‘To be White’, a bitter snipe at the ‘white man’ in all his ‘hang & flog em’ racist, xenophobic forms.
Plainsong are now stripped down to a duo of Matthews & fellow founder member Andy Roberts who contributes laid back vocals & various stringed instruments including warm, vivacious acoustic lead guitar.
Aside from a Yo La Tengo cover & a trad. arr., songwriting chores are shared evenly & include Roberts’ ‘Wordplay’ an amusing take on the spoken clichés in relationships (& too many song lyrics) & Matthews’ ‘Big Rumour’ (surely not another song referencing Amelia Earhart) which contains such hilarious lines as:
"there’s a rumour that Lloyd Webber is a musical genius/there’s a rumour you can dig a hole clear through to New Zealand"
The songs benefit from an uncluttered production & relatively sparse arrangements supported by sensibly minimal percussion programming by Roberts. The whole disc almost has the feel of a demo & sounds all the better for this.
Well worth a listen & may leave you eager for a full album of new material.
originally a limited edition CD for sale on tour, also available via Iain Matthews’ agent at:http://www.uktouring.org.uk where there are also details of Iain’s forthcoming tours.