A while ago now, I wrote a song - Tonight Matthew – railing against the rise of so-called ‘Reality TV’ music – the X-Factors and talent shows of light entertainment, spawned by their more innocent ancestors like ‘Stars in Their Eyes’ and ‘Opportunity Knocks’. For someone who’s also felt the urge to write and sing their own songs, resisting the pressure in live performance to ‘sing something we know’ has been a feature of my entire adult career as a musician.
It’s not always easy – writing a good song means finding the right balance between familiarity and novelty; familiar enough for an audience to latch on to some of the musical elements, but ideally saying something that’s not been said before, or not said in that way before.
I cut my song-writing teeth in the Cottage By The Brook Folk Club in Stafford where I was a student. I made a point of bringing a new song to the club every week, and I relished the challenge of coming back each week with a new offering. Most of those songs weren’t that great, to be honest - although a few have survived – but that’s not the point. What mattered was having somewhere to be able to take new songs to where you knew they’d be listened to, and where you could hear other people’s song-writing skills develop too. The instant feedback of audience response is a great barometer for knowing how your songs are working.
Linus Paul famously said, “the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” The same applies with song-writing: the best way to write a good song is to write more songs. But new songs need somewhere to be heard. When I play Tonight Matthew live nowadays, I also use it as a way of thanking the audience for turning up to listen to live original music. It’s so much easier to stay at home and glue yourself to a screen these days, rather than venturing out of the door to be part of any local celebration of everyday creativity. Keeping live music alive needs people – audiences, performers, sometimes both – to come together in the magical little spaces where creativity still thrives.
So I’m thrilled to be co-hosting the first Secret Chord Song-Writers’ Circle with fellow local song-writer Paul O’Halloran (of the Black Guards) at Florence Arts centre in my old stamping ground of Egremont in west Cumbria this weekend. I’m hoping that a few new faces will appear, song books in hand, to test out their latest ‘beginnings’ in front of an appreciative crowd. And I hope that the event draws an appreciative crowd away from the gogglebox and into the magical surroundings of Florence Arts Centre, a former mine and now a thriving hub of local creativity.
I also hope I’d have had the courage as someone at the start of their song-writing journey to get up and sing one of my hard-won creations – although I fear that my earliest outpourings like Nigel My Parrot and Police Country Gentleman will never see the light of day again. And that’s probably for the best.