Tim Wheeler, Neil Hannon and Duke Special on writing and playing songs. Click Play Audio for a podcast

‘I was an arrogant little fucker when I was young,’ admits Neil Hannon, ‘but I needed to be. It’s such a difficult business to make your way in. You have to believe, to the point of idiocy, in your own ability… I think humility is overrated.’

How the Northern Ireland Music Industry Commission quite managed to pull it off is anyone’s guess, but pull it off they did. For an hour in the newly refurbished Ulster Hall, three of Northern Ireland’s most successful contemporary musicians open themselves up to questions from the audience on the subject of song writing. Plenty of time for private jets and groupies later.

Ash frontman Tim Wheeler, Divine Comedy leader Neil Hannon and solo star Duke Special (aka Peter Wilson) have more experience in melody making than most, and for the aspiring rock and pop stars in the audience, it's too good an opportunity to miss.

Chaired by journalist and broadcaster Fionnula Meredith, Songcraft is the first in NIMIC’s Output talks series. Today is given over to that most illusive and illusory of artforms. Wheeler, Hannon and Wilson try as best they can, however, to explain the creative process in simple terms.

‘I find the notebook incredibly important,’ proffers Hannon with all the dry wit that you might expect. ‘Top tip! I’ve got tons of notebooks filled with what appears to be gibberish. But when you sit down and work on the music, and try to think of random lyrics, it’s really hard. If you’ve got things that you’ve collected through your day then you can find something that might stick to a tune.’ 

Although Hannon is famous for his literary lyrics and droll turn of phrase, for Wheeler - a writer of catchy self-contained, pop rock melodies - songwriting, somewhat surprisingly, seems to be an altogether more emotive experience.   

‘For me it’s a way of getting stuff out of your system,’ admits Wheeler. ‘It’s definitely cathartic… I’ll sit down and play guitar or piano and just doodle around and eventually something will come out. Generally it reflects the mood you’ve been in or what you’ve been feeling. Sometimes you’ve got something you’re dying to say, but then sometimes it’s a matter of practice.’ 

For Wilson songwriting is about trial and error, practise makes perfect, and the best way to learn how to write good songs, he suggests, is to listen to other people's. 

‘I’m definitely a champion for anybody who’s currently writing shit songs,’ comments Wilson. ‘It was probably about ten years ago that I actually started writing songs that I could bear anyone else to hear. I really envy people who hit their stride early on. I think songwriting is something that you can get better at. There’s nothing better than listening to really good songs and not Sting and Phil Collins, like I did.’

On the subject of lyrical content, Wheeler, Hannon and Wilson were of the same opinion – they can be fictional, humorous, subjective, but most of the time you write about yourself, which is why creating a rock star persona can often help to protect, to shield the songwriter from his audience.

‘I find I can say really, really personal things,’ confirms Wilson, the most overtly theatrical of the three. ‘Sometimes you say something quite desolate and everybody’s singing along with big smiles on their faces! I think it’s your job as a songwriter to be honest, because that’s when a song really connects with someone.’

Relaying a question from an audience member named Victoria, Meredith asks the artists for their opinions on the difficulty of producing something in the studio which cannot be recreated live.

‘We were a four piece with Charlotte [Hatherely] in the band,’ comments Wheeler. ‘And we went back to being a three-piece. There were guitar lines that we would leave out, or backing vocals, but we still had great shows. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same.’

‘For me it’s like the difference between cinema and theatre,’ is Wilson's response. ‘A record is like cinema, where you want to rehearse the scene over and over again until you capture something forever, whereas live it’s like theatre, it’s purely for that moment, which is why I don’t like live albums. I love the fact that it’s spontaneous.’

The full recording of Songcraft will be available to download as a podcast from the NIMIC website in the weeks to come. In the meantime, click Play Audio above to listen to an edited version.

Lee Henry