An artist’s journey is one from noise to silence. In the beginning they need and want to be heard yet, at some point, silence will be required to stay sharp. They should never choose the sound of their own voice over the work. Staying quiet is not what artists are very good at but it is what needs to be done sometimes. Silence doesn’t have to last forever and invariably there will come a time when a fork in the road is reached: one way ‘stop talking’, the other ‘continue speaking’. The artist will feel in their bones when this fateful day arrives.
When I was younger I felt a lot more confident in my inner voice. I used to think of my subconscious as a shield against outside forces that might bring me down and also, as a key into a world behind the veil – where truth could be spoken without thinking too much. Songs felt like magical opportunities, a chance to present the best of myself to the world, and receive the wonders of it in return. A typical writing session would consist of me sitting, zoning out, letting a thought or idea come. And when a worthwhile thing came along I would attempt to fashion it – using the craftsman side of my brain – into something resembling a piece of art I could stand behind, and release.
I was conscious of looking for something that could be intimate and personal and also universal in a way. The first line that came to me when I wrote ‘Graveyard’ (2008) was ‘I kissed you in the graveyard’. This deceptively simple line was the exact kind that could open up a whole banana-bunch of possibilities. I was thinking about T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (1922) and imagining the idea of a kiss in a world of death as a good old two-fingered salute to the grim reaper – the idea of two lovers sharing a brief, graveside moment, a microcosm of their whole lives. And the ambiguity of a line like, ‘it’s a short, short distance from the nipple to the soil’ appealed to me.
A song, about sneaking into a graveyard with a lover, could maybe communicate the shortness of life and the quicksilver importance of transcendental moments. These moments where time seems to freeze in order to allow your memory bank to open up a little wider to take in a scene you know you’ll never forget.
Experiences that make life worth living are perfect fodder for a song. Translating them is usually a sure-fire way to get people to nod and say, ‘Ahh I feel that…. where’s the merch table?’. This was how I used to write back in those times. I could kind of tell when an idea would resonate, and it was important for me to ‘be seen’ so I ran with this, and it was fairly successful for a while. Then I reached that fork in the road.
The silence began to present itself to me.
After a little success arrived for my songwriting I became suspicious of my methods. They did not provide the succour my soul was crying out for. In order to satisfy my own very personal itch I had to try something else. My work felt cheapened by taming the initial subconscious Eureka moment into something tailored to get people to notice. I could probably say goodbye to a mansion in Dalkey.
I began to dissect why the secondary part of the process felt so wrong. The craftsman side of my brain moulding the initial idea into a sellable shape bothered me and I struggled to understand why. It felt egotistical and selfish; it was like a vegetarian eating steak, completely ‘allowed’. Still, by the standards I had set myself, a failure of sorts (there’s nothing wrong with failure of course). My job as a songwriter changed. I now listened for ideas and lines except once they arrived I did not attempt to shape them. This method felt closer to a purity worth aiming for, closer to the unarguable truth of silence.
I listen to songs on my latest record Sentinel (2019) and I only have a vague idea what they are about. I like them all the more for it. In a track like the ‘The Sea Shade’ I can see it is somehow about loss but it doesn’t spell itself out. The tonality and the textures speak as much as the words, my voice submerged in the lake of its surroundings. And it’s not as much mine any more – it feels like everything – and yet it is me, inching towards saying something by not saying anything, trying to evoke silence by making noise.
On the title track ‘Sentinel’ the lyrical theme loosely revolves around kindness and accountability while it, crucially, floats above these concepts (you can check out the premiere of the beautiful 16mm video from director TJ O’Grady Peyton below). This looseness keeps me interested in continuing to work. I need to be confused by what I’m doing in order for me to allow it to be. Some might argue this could result in obtuse and self-indulgent work. I have allowed myself to place a bet that eventually this confusion will lead to understanding. That’s the artist’s wager.
Of course I have to accept that this might be folly and lead me to a place of complete redundancy. ‘The cruellest trick is that Sisyphus believes he is making progress. He would give up but the mountain peak seems closer every time’ (tweet via @ctrlcreep). I suppose we’ll see about that some day.
A few years ago I saw an artwork that was a piece of paper that the artist had stared at for many hours. The end result was this simple white sheet of paper in a frame, hung up for all to see – completely blank. This is where I know I’m heading to. The final form, the ultimate song.