Paul Weller: In Conversation With A Great British Songwriter, Part 1

Music / March 2, 2015
by admin

Significantly he became an influential figure for Oasis, Ocean Colour Scene, The Rifles and the bands that followed on from them. In the first of a two-part interview he talks to Daniel Rachel about his songwriting and some of the singles that established his first group, The Jam, as one of the finest English bands ever.

Q: How do you know when it’s time to write? 

Paul Weller: Sometimes I get a feeling, an inkling of some kind, a physical sensation that you think, ‘I’m going to write,’ but I can’t say it happens every day or every week. They’re great, those times, because you know you’re going to come away with something when you sit down. You might even get two or three things out of that feeling. It’s the same with lyrics: some days or nights I’ll just sit down and I’ll write away and get two, three or four pieces, or just a verse or a couplet which I’ll use as a cornerstone for something else and work on at a later date or improve upon.

I don’t use a tape recorder. If it’s good enough it’ll always come back to me. It might be buzzing round for days or weeks and when I can be bothered to I’ll sit down with a guitar and find the chords to go with the melody in my head – even that I don’t do these days very much. I think you get lazier the older you get, in those terms anyway. The days of waking up out of my sleep and thinking, ‘I’ve got to get up and write this down,’ I can’t be arsed. I just think, ‘I’ll wait till the morning and it’ll come back to me,’ or it won’t, whatever it may be.

Q: ‘Down In The Tube Station At Midnight’ revealed your sophistication and depth as a songwriter. Can you describe the evolution of that song? 

PW: That started as a long prose-poem thing, like a short story in a way. It came from my insecurity and paranoia at being in London. I didn’t have any music for it. I was in two minds whether to do it. I was coaxed and talked into it by Vic Smith, our producer at the time. He was saying, ‘This is really good, you should try and set it to music.’ The attention to the details is part of the person I am anyway, but it’s also bound up in the mod ethos which is predominantly all about attention to detail. We were talking about English songwriters: it’s picking up on the mundane, the everyday things and putting them into a different setting, the very, very ordinary feelings, emotions or details that, once in a song, you hear them in a different way. Without sounding too poncey or pretentious I was thinking about pop artists as well, where they took the everyday objects and made them into art. I don’t think it’s that dissimilar.

Q: What was the appeal in chronicling the mundane? 

PW: It’s a very English thing, the way we all like to moan about the weather or we like a cup of tea or a particular biscuit and all that nonsense, but it’s us. It’s our identity, isn’t it?

Q: ‘Saturday Kids’ and ‘That’s Entertainment!’ are songs that touch people’s experiences very deeply but with an apparent simplicity. Was that difficult to achieve? 

PW: It was easy for me because that’s just who I was. I was a very simple person; there isn’t any great intellect behind it. It was the simplicity that people connected with: a 20-year-old kid or young man writing how I saw and felt it and connecting with other 20-year-old young people. I didn’t have to sit down and deliberate too much on it, put it that way.

Q: You’ve said in the past about the importance of the Beatles Songbook: how much was it plundered for ideas?

PW: Oh yeah, as much as we could, really. Even now, after all these years, there’s still certain chord changes I’ll use which directly come from the Fabs. If a song’s in a major chord and then all of a sudden it will be in the same key but drop to a minor change, that’s really dramatic and that all comes from the Beatles book.

Q: Would you consult the book if you were stuck on an idea now?

PW: I don’t need to now because it’s so much a part of me, so much inside of me, and forty-plus years later I’m still listening to The Beatles.

Q: Reading your lyrics is often like opening a diary: ‘My Ever Changing Moods’, ‘I Should Have Been There To Inspire You’, ‘Time Passes’, ‘Love-less’, ‘Invisible’. Do you regard songwriting as a confession box? 

PW: Not entirely. There’s definitely that cathartic thing about writing. Sometimes there are things you really want to say or get off your chest that you can’t necessarily articulate in everyday life, but you can in songwriting. Some of my songs are definitely biographical, but probably a very small percentage of them, to be honest. Even if they start off with a thread of it I might still run with it or take it somewhere else. I don’t live an interesting enough life to write about it all the time. I don’t really care about those records that just talk about themselves, that whole singer-songwriter thing from the Seventies: f**king hell, give it a break, cheer up, d’you know what I mean?

Q: When did you first write a song perfectly suited to your voice? 

PW: ‘In The City’ I thought suited my voice. It was a lot more crude and raw but that was because I was only eighteen. My voice has obviously changed over the years. In the last five years I feel really, really comfortable with it, much more than ever before. I don’t really have to think too much any more, I just open my mouth and it happens.

Q: ‘Start!’ was a fantastic summation of the pop song and the artist–listener relationship: If we communicate for two minutes only it will be enough / For knowing that someone in this world feels as desperate as me.  Has the decline of the single affected your approach to songwriting? 

PW: It hasn’t personally, because I’ll always be rooted in the music of the Sixties, that’s the first thing that I heard. That will always be my benchmark of a good song; to be able to put it into this short space of time. The death of the single is a shame; it’s potentially the death of another art form.

Q: Our Favourite Shop was lyrically a very direct, dogmatic and socially aware album: did that create a greater challenge to find melody? 

PW: Yeah, it was, nearly all those songs I would have started with the lyrics first.‘Internationalists’ definitely; ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ I’m not too sure. I was writing as a definite reaction to what was going on around me. It worked on Our Favourite Shop but there’s other stuff where it definitely didn’t work: too much emphasis on lyrics, and melody taking a back seat, which is never good. The great stuff is when both work at the same time: the melody’s really strong but the words are special as well, saying something. Confessions Of A Pop Group which was a few years later, there were some great songs, but a few things was me trying to push a square shape into a round hole.

Q: What was your belief in lyrical communication at that time? 

PW: It was a political awakening for me, for someone who had no political background whatsoever. My parents were totally atheist and apolitical, that’s putting it mildly. I never thought about politics and I’ve gone back to that. I’ve gone full circle. But the early Eighties, the rise of Thatcher and the breakdown of a lot of things like society and community, whether trade unions or local communities, the loss of individualism and a sense of having no control over our lives or say in our country or our future. It was born out of being aware for the first time and reading more – I never read any books at school – becoming educated and discovering politics and socialism. You couldn’t fail to be moved or react when you saw those pitched battles with the miners and the cops, ’83, ’84 time. It was a reaction to all that was going on.

Part two of this interview to follow.

A much longer interview with Weller, which this is extracted from, appears in Isle of Noises: Conversations with great British songwriters( Picador). It features fantastic interviews with Mick Jones of The Clash, Noel Gallagher, Jarvis Cocker and many many more. You can buy it below.

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