Peter Hammill on writing

I’ve posted quite a lot on the writing process here. One of my favourite songwriters is Peter Hammill, who has written a fascinating post entitled ‘The Writing’. Worth a look, even if you’re not a fan. I really like this characterisation of how his usual process works –

Even after a (working) lifetime hammering away at the coal face of song, the actual mechanics of how those things arrive and make themselves manifest still remain somewhat mysterious to me. There’s never an exact science to it, never a “normal” process. It’s important to allow the song to make itself known rather than force it. To a large extent that involves tricking myself into a state of readiness-to-receive.

It’s comparatively simple to find that state while – nominally – concentrating on the recording process. An immersion in sound world means that the hidden lines of vocal/lyrical sense can make themselves available in a surreptitious manner. I’ve often drawn the analogy between sculpting and songwriting and as one hacks away at the sonic material – by editing or manipulation – the inner meaning of the thing shows up in some x-ray form. At this point it’s possible to know (approximately) what it’s “about” and then get those lyrics and that top line done.

I honestly mean to say that the songs reveal themselves to me. I don’t drive them along, I don’t start out with a specific agenda or intention, musical or lyrical. Whether I’m working with a chord sequence, a slab of noise or a riff I go forward, trusting that eventually the form will unlock the song within. Naturally, this kind of approach leads to a certain dangerous frisson when the recording process is reaching an end. I’ve enjoyed that sense of finally wrapping things up at the last moment.

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