The Myth Of The Solitary Songwriting Genius

News that an unknown, unsigned songwriter has been nominated for an Ivor Novello award has caused a minor media stir, and it’s easy to see why. The backstory is irresistible.

35-year-old factory worker Nick Hemming penned the song in question, ‘‘The Last Of The Melting Snow’, alone on New Year’s Eve, having run into an ex. “I thought we were going to get back together,” he told reporters yesterday. “But instead she had invited me round to tell me about her new boyfriend.”

A cynic might say: mwa mwa, sad face. But now, thanks to the Ivor Novello nomination, Hemming’s band, The Leisure Society, may finally get a break. It’s perfect British underdog, heartstring-yanking, Susan Boyle-type stuff.

But the story fascinates on a broader level, and I think for this reason: it appeals to our fantasies of how creative inspiration works. We feel this is how songs should be written: one man alone with his sorrow, a bottle of vodka by his side. Strumming his pain with his fingers.

Think of the startling wave of critical brown-nosing that met Bon Iver’s ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’, written – as we were reminded so many, many times – alone in a log cabin in Wisconsin after Justin Vernon had been dumped by his girlfriend.

There’s just one problem with this romantic view of creativity: it’s largely bollocks.

Sure, songwriters often play up to the myth. Coldplay’s Chris Martin has said his best songs tend to be inspired by a melancholy, “left the party early” feeling – although from a less kind perspective this could just as easily be seen as a “self-pitying teetotal inadequate” feeling.

Unfortunately, Martin then undercut this by admitting that one of his most lachrymose songs, ‘Trouble’, came about when he was dicking around on the piano one night, trying to play Taylor Dane’s ‘Tell It To My Heart’ (listen to the intro riff, it’s exactly the same, just in a different key).

This gets to the heart of how composition really works. A great song is just as often the result of a happy accident as it is the outpouring of an unquiet soul.

‘Live Forever’ was written on a building site. ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ was written as a joke (how many other Guns N’Roses riffs sound like that?) Kings Of Leon’s Nathan Followill wrote almost all of ‘Only By The Night’, including the album’s seemingly most confessional track ‘Cold Desert’, while whacked out on wine and painkillers; he would often wake up with notepads full of lyrics, with no memory of having penned them.

Nick Cave, meanwhile, works methodically. He doesn’t wait passively for inspiration to strike. He goes to an office every day, 9 to 5, hammers it out. Songwriting is business. It is work. According to Paul McCartney, he and John Lenon used to sit down together and say, “Now, let’s write a swimming-pool”.

Many classic songs started life as contractual obligations. Bruce Springsteen didn’t want to write ‘Dancing In The Dark’, he was ordered to by his manager Jon Landau, who thought ‘Born In The USA’ lacked a radio hit (hence the first line, “…I ain’t got nothin’ to say”: Bruce was in a huff, he was trying to make a point).

We choose to believe in the myth of the solitary songwriting genius, because we like how it looks, whether it’s Leonard Cohen in his underwear, banging his head on the floor at New York’s Royalton hotel, desperately trying to whittle ‘Hallelujah’ down from 80 verses, or Dylan tapping away at a typewriter in the small hours, cigarette in hand, as captured in ‘Don’t Look Back’.

But this is the exception, not the norm. Songs are only very rarely the pure cascade of one man’s oceanic genius.

More usually, creativity arises from a thousand factors – commercial, interpersonal, prosaic. Songs are altered by bandmates, bowdlerised by producers, remastered for radio. There is, ultimately, no songwriting without mediation.

Burt Bacharach understood this, which is why his observation on the art – or, more accurately, the craft – of songwriting sounds so infinitely wise: “Music breeds its own inspiration. You can only do it by doing it. You may not feel like it, but you push yourself. It’s a work process. Something will come.”