Anthony Toner on the Art of Songwriting
The singer-songwriter offers up some tips, focusing on 'The Road to Fivemiletown' from his latest album Sing Under the Bridges
I've been writing songs for years, and I'm honestly none the wiser about where they come from.
I've had songs develop from one phrase, or from a chord progression, or a melody line. And I still have dozens of unfinished things lying around, some of which are tantalisingly close to great, others which are great lumbering turkeys that I should have stuck in the oven years ago.
Most people, if they’re interested, want to know the nitty-gritty of it – like there’s a combination or a password to writing the perfect song. Where do ideas come from? Do you get the words first, or the melody? The truth is, it’s a very slippery thing to grab a hold of. It’s different for every songwriter, and it’ll be different for you, too.
Each song is different in its own maddening way. This one started with a line, but that one was a disembodied series of chords for a couple of years until I heard someone say something on a train and then the whole thing came together. Everybody’s heard a story of a song that was written in five minutes on the back of an envelope, but many songs die before they reach the second verse.
When it comes to writing a new song, state of mind is important. Do not let yourself be disturbed. Carve out some time for yourself, close the door and get on with it. That's always the case, whether you're Paul Simon or an emerging songwriter that no-one has heard of. You need some headspace for this task, so don't do it at the kitchen table while other people in the room are watching television.
What I’m talking about is the art of observing, receiving, or, as I like to say, 'putting your radar on'. Over the years, I have found this state of being to be hugely enjoyable. Paying attention to your life and the lives of others makes the whole experience much more lively. It has led me to writing a blog, taking pictures, even sketching and drawing now and then.
I started with keeping a notebook, a little Moleskine that my wife Andrea [Montgomery, theatre director] bought me. As ideas occurred to me, I would immediately write them down. I've now filled about seven notebooks with scribbles on this or that – overheard conversations, newspaper headlines, phrases that might make a good song title. I never travel without it.
Other songwriters use their iPad, or text ideas to themselves, or scribble them on napkins. How and where you record this stuff doesn’t really matter, but it is vitally important that you get your ideas down on paper. Don't ever kid yourself that you'll remember them later. Paul McCartney almost lost 'Yesterday', which came to him in the middle of the night, by thinking he would remember it the next morning.
You should read, read, read. Anything and everything. Do your best to expand your vocabulary. The more you read, the more words and tools you will have at your disposal. The more words you have to play with, the easier it will be to find a rhyme, or to nail down exactly what it is you’re trying to say. Also try writing occasionally on an instrument you can’t play. The limitations will force you to think differently.
Don't ever tell anybody you're writing a song. They'll want to hear it and then they'll have an opinion, and the minute you have someone else's opinion in your head, it will make you doubt yourself. Believe me, it will. It's like letting the air out of a balloon. I can't explain why it happens, but it does. Get on with the work and don't show it to anyone until it's ready to stand on its own two feet.
Pick a theme for your song and stick with it. And be rigorous about that. Every line must forward the theme in some way. If you're writing a song about the pain of loneliness, don't get distracted by talking about the weather, unless it's applicable as a metaphor or some other poetic device. Stick to the subject.
Study classic songs, from The Beatles to Laura Marling, and consider how they're put together. Why does the song work? What is it about the lyric that moves you? Why do those chords sound good against each other?
I've been told that my song 'The Road to Fivemiletown' is a well-constructed piece. I’m not sure what sparked the idea for the song off originally. Maybe just the title. ‘The Road to Fivemiletown’ has a ring to it, all right. And Fivemiletown is a wonderful town name. It sounds like it’s on a frontier in the Old West.
There’s also a collection of poems by Tom Paulin called Fivemiletown, and that may have been rattling around in my bag of memories, too. It’s interesting that I don’t have anything to say about the town itself – everything that happens in the song takes place on the outskirts.
I know I wanted to say something about rural entrapment. The sense of being almost literally stuck in the mud, up a dirty lane in the middle of nowhere. I’ve always been a bit of a townie in that regard, and reading works by authors like Patrick Kavanagh, John McGahern, Eugene McCabe and lately Claire Keegan have confirmed my distrust of Ireland’s rural idyll.
There was a sense that I wanted the character, a female, to be responsible for her own situation. She marries way too fast, during a time when you married for life. My mother used to warn, ‘Marry in haste, repent at your leisure,’ and it used to give me chills – that sense that you could ruin your life and never turn back from your decision. I added to that by putting in the image of the heroine literally making her bed and lying in it.
The Blackwater River burst its banks on a number of occasions in the years leading up to the writing of 'The Road to Fivemiletown', and there were regular news interviews with defeated farmers standing in front of their flooded fields and ruined crops. That image stayed with me.
The darkness of the country at night, too. That came from childhood, staying with relatives miles outside of town. At night, when you turned off the light, the dark was instant and immense, solid and absolute. That was quite a sensation for me, a boy who had spent every night sleeping in a bedroom stained orange with the constant glow of streetlights.
I tried for weeks to find a way of rescuing the character from this rural trap with some kind of happy resolution, but I realised that to rescue her would have been a cop out. And so, if she wasn’t going to be rescued, the best thing was to underline her despair. Hence the ‘disappearing heart’ drawn on a ‘steamed up kitchen window’.
So this piece of writing was essentially a lyrical exercise. The chords and melody came more slowly, but in parallel. I remember having the melody and chord structure finished while the bridge and last verse were still being constructed, which is not always the case. Sometimes, an entire lyric sits there complete, like a line drawing, waiting for the music to add colour and depth and texture.
The subject matter, I felt, demanded a minor key. It moves from E minor up to the more cheerful G major on the lines of early promise – ‘find herself a husband’, ‘he had a farm and forty acres’ – but it gets pulled down again to E minor each time as it resolves, ‘on the road to Fivemiletown’.
When I finished the song I was convinced that I had gone too far, that the piece was too bleak. But everywhere I’ve played it, audiences have appreciated it. The strong reaction makes me think I was right to stick with my initial convictions about the character and the situation. Even though she’s a completely fictional construction, every time I sing the song I grieve for her.