Songwriters on Songwriters

Five Northern Irish writers on the international names who shaped their tastes, including Paul Simon, Feist, Nick Cave, Björk and Celtic group Clannad

Anthony Toner on Paul Simon

Like many people of my generation, I was first exposed to Paul Simon through the famous Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits album. There seemed to be a copy in every home when I was growing up. I was immediately smitten by his lyrics. I’d never heard anybody sing lyrics like: ‘What a dream I had, pressed in organdy, clothed in crinoline of smoky burgundy, softer than the rain’. And I don’t think I have since.

Over the years, Simon's preoccupations have matured. He’s been a restless collaborator, often with ethnic musicians, but the explorations of World Music are just the outward sonic texture around the amazing things the man actually has to say. I don’t know how to distil it, other than to say he discusses some of the heaviest themes a songwriter can deal with – regret, loss, ageing, death, doubt, heartbreak and decline – with superb precision, warmth and humanity.

Beautiful, sophisticated arrangements and surprising chord changes are also a trademark of his songwriting. And his lyrics sound like they just came into his head – 'A man walks down the street, he says, "Why am I soft in the middle? Why am I soft in the middle, the rest of my life is so hard?"' – and that is a rare, rare gift.

Hannah McPhillimy on Feist

I recently heard it said that it is important for an artist to know how to be serious and how to be playful. Leslie Feist certainly has got this covered, from the morose realism of 'Let it Die' – ‘It won't take long to fall in love, now I know what I don't want, I learned that with you’ – to the campfire meets garage rock space jam that is Sea Lion Woman, concerning the trials and tribulations of some sort of aquatic mammal human, the sixth track on her third album The Reminder.

Her songwriting points to somebody who can let her hair down at a party but can also engage with your existential angst in the wee hours afterwards. On top of this, however, Feist also exhibits perhaps the most desirable of all the artistic qualities, which is to know how to be a badass, a trait that I think is best heard on her latest offering, Metals, which she released in 2011. In direct contrast to the clean sound that so many chart toppers aim for, she said that in the making of this record she 'allowed for mistakes more than [she] ever has, which end up not being mistakes when you open things up and make room for them'.

The result is an album that is terrifically lo-fi, filled with clanging, stomping, scratching, meandering melodies, alongside ethereal brass and string arrangements that simmer just under the surface. Nothing about this music plays by the rules and yet it makes complete sense on a first listen. Of course, I love Feist’s songwriting for all the normal things – her sharp lyrical observations, her floating melodies, her delicate voice – but I love it most for how unapologetically diverse, beautifully chaotic and ultimately human it is.

David Lyttle on Paul Williams

Recently I've been getting big into 1970s songwriting and production. Paul Williams is someone I got a little obsessed with last year after stumbling upon Still Alive, a film about him on Netflix. He co-wrote many beautiful, heartfelt songs, including Carpenters hits 'Rainy Days and Mondays', 'I Won't Last A Day Without You' and 'We've Only Just Begun', all as a lyricist with Roger Nichols writing the chords and melodies.

Williams became famous for his own versions of his songs, more or less all of which I prefer to the hit versions. Sadly he had addiction problems in the 1980s, but resurfaced in the 90s sober and is now the president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. He is also a guest on Daft Punk's latest album, Random Access Memories. Roger Nichols, incidently, stayed more anonymous, then got out of the music industry more or less altogether. He's now a jeweller in Oregon.

Just yesterday I was listening to William's version of 'I Won't Last A Day Without You', recorded in the early 70s. It's so warm and soulful, heartbreaking but still positive. The Carpenters' version doesn't hit me in the same way and has a few changes to the chord progression and melody that I'm not really into, most noticeably in the bridge. As a sole writer, Williams wrote many songs for The Muppets too. These are brilliant songs: powerful, nostalgic, innocent. Any song sung by a puppet frog that reaches your soul must be good. I love Paul Williams.

Robyn G Shiels on Björk

There would be a fair few songwriters heard over the years that I'd tip my hat/baseball cap, to but either Nick Cave, Jeff Tweedy from Wilco or, perhaps more importantly, Björk, would be the main artists to have stayed with me. That is mainly down to them sticking to their artistic 'vision' and maintaining their own identity in the process. Those kind of people I admire most of all. Plus they still rock out in there own ways. I saw Björk at the Waterfront in Belfast – blew my mind. I saw Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds at Reading in 92 – blew my mind. I saw Wilco at the Open House Festival in Belfast – can't remember much as i was 'rightly', but them's the breaks.

Ciaran Gribbin on James Hetfield and Clannad

One of my biggest influences as a young musician and songwriter was James Hetfield from Metalica. I was 11-years-old when I first heard 'Seek and Destroy', and I went right out and bought the band's first three albums. There is a unique beauty in a lot of the perfectly crafted early Metallica songs – raw lyrical honesty, anger, pain, a great use of dynamics and amazing melody throughout, which was, and still is, rare in a metal band. Their songs are the reason I bought a guitar, and I never tire of hearing them to this day.

The songs of Clannad, meanwhile, have subsequently been a huge influence on me. Firstly they created songs that still sound like no one else, and yet capture centuries of Celtic mystery in their truly beautiful records. I had the pleasure of sharing a stage with Moya Brennan from Clannad a few years ago and it's an honour I will never forget. They write songs that have roots in the past but sound they come from the future.