What I learnt from Ray Davies in a Water tower
Last year I told you about my plastic carrier bag full of ideas. Let me tell you how I turned that into something completely different back in 1996. In the early days of my songwriting I joined the Guild of International Songwriters - sounds incredibly fancy I know. It’s still in existence today - https://songwriters-guild.co.uk/index.html. One of their services was to offer song critiques for lyrics or whole songs. This kind of service still exists today - one site I can recommend who do this are Song Cabin: https://songcabin.com/expert-song-and-lyrics-critique/
I usually received the following feedback; “your songs are not commercial and probably more suited as singer-songwriter songs”. I didn’t really know what that meant at the time. Now I would understand that to mean, perhaps they were a little too quirky and could only be sung as the artist yourself.
Returning to the story; every month I would receive a newsletter, and most times this would not be very exciting, that was until the month it advertised a week long songwriting retreat on the Suffolk coast in a converted water tower called ‘House in the Clouds’. The thing that really drew my attention was who was running it - Ray Davies from The Kinks.
You don’t hesitate with opportunities like this, and I booked myself on it. I would regard this as a key moment in my songwriting journey, and the lesson here is to take every opportunity that comes your way.
Set in the quaint seaside town of Thorpeness just down the coast from the Nuclear Power station in a converted water tower, about ten of us arrived and made this our home for a week. Ray Davies stayed nearby and joined us to set the challenges and returned to listen to the outcomes and give feedback.
The first challenge was set to write a song about why we were there. I had never ever completed a full lyric, let alone put chords to a song, and certainly not considered singing the result of such an exercise in public. But when the lead singer from The Kinks tells you to do something, you do it.
I was totally outside my comfort zone. I wrote a song called ‘Inside Out’ which talked very simply about getting my feelings from inside me and expressing them in song. I’m fairly sure the song was appalling and probably the singing wasn’t great either being the first time I’d ever sung in public, but that didn’t matter - I had achieved it.
Over the week we had the opportunity to have some one to one time with Ray. The most bizarre of these meetings was when he suggested a chord riff for one of the songs I was working on - then grabbing my guitar I sat there watching the writer of “All day and all of the Night” https://youtu.be/fOGMRnKl5co (possibly one of the greatest chord riffs of all time) playing my guitar and helping me write a song!
Those one to one meetings were short but packed with so much, probably the best mentoring I’ve ever received. He told me to buy a 4 track and finish the songs in that plastic carrier bag. I got home and spent the next 6 months doing just that. I topped off that same year visiting one of the other writers in Edinburgh, and played my first open mic. The story of a stolen hotel carpet can wait for another blog!
I’ll finish this blog with one of the key things he taught us, and in his own words:
“The chorus needs to arrive like a brick through a window”.
Next time: Writer’s block isn’t real - Editor’s block - oh boy!