- Published by:
- Wirral Life
- Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor
- Album This interview has been made to promote the Egypt Station Official album.
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As Paul McCartney prepares to wow the Echo Arena on December 12th with his new album’Egypt Station’, Wirral Life heard about a podcast the former Beatle has justtaken part in with two podcasters from Liverpool who have interviewed some of the world’s most successful songwriters about how they approach the art and craft.
Our friends Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor are the duo behind Sodajerker, thecreative partnership of two long-time friends who love songwriting. Their independent podcast, ‘Sodajerker on Songwriting’ has been downloaded millions of times by music fans the world over and has charted in more than 50 countries via Apple Podcasts.
Since its launch in November 2011, the show has released over 120 episodes featuring in-depth discussions with the likes of Paul Simon, Noel Gallagher, Joan Armatrading and Nile Rodgers.
Simon and Brian sat down with Macca at LIPA to talk about the writing process behind the record.
The new album is just a fantastic collection of songs, completely blown away by it.
Oh, thank you, yeah. I’m pleased with it, you know, we had a good time recording it and I enjoyed working with Greg Kurstin and Ryan Tedder, we had a laugh, it was great. We didn’t want to just do sort of everything straight, you know, a lot of the songs I had were pretty straightforward, love songs or ballads and stuff, you know, but we put in a couple that were just a little bit left field.
Those very atmospheric stations that you’ve got book ending the album, did you have those from the start, was that part of the concept or was that something you brought in later?
It was about halfway through that I said ‘I think Egypt Station might be a good title, for the album’ and Greg liked it. I kind of explained that it was a painting and that I thought we might make a little sound scape and then had this idea to have the choir come swelling out of it so it was like heavenly vision. I was thinking in film terms almost in a station, then the song comes out of it. So no, that was more towards the end, once we had the title and we knew what we were going to do, making it all take place, sort of start in the station and then going through with all the songs at different stations and we end up at the destination.
The new songs came across great at your secret Abbey Road gig, ‘Fuh You’ we thought was a particular highlight. Kind of a mischievous word play on that one?
Yeah, well, I mean, you know, if you’re in a studio, you’re there, you’re working, but it’s music, so its a bit of fun and we like to not take it too seriously, so you develop a little camaraderie where you’re having a joke. So on that song we were making it up and I went out and sang that and we knew it would be misconstrued, but we were quite glad to put it in. When you read the lyrics it’s perfectly straight, but my daughter, when she heard it, she walked into the room, she said, ‘did I just hear what I heard,’ [laughter], I said, ‘l don’t know,’ but yeah, good to have a bit of fun, you know.
Was that one you did with Ryan Tedder?
That was Ryan. I did three tracks with Ryan and that’s the one on the album and then there’s two others, they’re nice. We only had a week, because there was a time when Greg was doing something else and my manager rung up and said you could maybe get with another producer, just to switch it up a bit, so he sent me some suggestions and I liked Ryan’s stuff. I rang him, and I think we decided he’d come to my studio for a week and we’d just see how we went. I said, ‘I’ve got a lot of songs we could do,’ but in the end, he just fancied making it up, so we just, you know, we went in with nothing, just got a beat, got a thing, got an idea for some lyrics and just built it up, you know, but he knows what he’s doing.
You mentioned Greg Kurstin, who produced the rest of the record, what kind of a collaborator was he?
Well, he’s great, you know, I’d actually written all the stuff that I did with Greg, so it was more a question of just trying to make good records of the songs that I had, so that was how it worked out with Greg. With Ryan, because we only had the week, it was going to be just make them up and we did the three songs, you know, in the week, which is pretty good going and they’ve just got a different feel, you know and that’s sort of what we wanted to do, it was just break it up a bit, not have every station the same sound, you know.
Greg’s a multi-instrumentalist as well, isn’t he, did you let him have a go with the recording process?
Yeah, he plays quite a bit of the keyboard on the record. He’s really good. In one of the tracks, there’s like an instrumental thing and I said, it would be good to like break it down and just play this on piano, so I started learning it, but then I said, ‘oh, this is going to take me forever, Greg, could you do this?’ he goes, ‘well, let me try’ and he plays it perfectly, Of course, you know. so he did that and he’s got a great ‘producery’ feel, particularly for keyboard. I knew he’d done Adele’s Hello and he’d done the instruments on that, so if you listen to it, it’s very simple but the keyboard is like a really good sound. Just got to have some space to breathe, you know, so yeah, he’s a keyboard wiz.
How long had you been developing those songs for? I remember, when Flaming Pie came out, for example, it had Great Day on there, which I think you have from the seventies. Were all these songs kind of bespoke, custom made for this record, or were there bits and pieces in there?
No, you’re right, it’s true. There were some that I’d had for quite a while. Most of them were kind of new, but there were a few that I’d written quite a while ago. I think we did about 20 tracks, but there’s about 10 or so that didn’t get on the album, so some of those particularly were older ones. On this album, yeah, there was a few that I’d written a couple of years ago, ‘Who Cares’ was a couple of years ago, but most of them were kind of recentish, you know.
At the Abbey Road gig, you told the story of Confidante, and that it’s kind of an ode to an acoustic guitar, can you elaborate a little bit on that?
What happened was I was at home on my own once and I just looked over at my guitar, it was propped up in the corner and then I thought, wow, there was a time when I would have just been playing that all this evening. But I had something else to do, I’d been for something to eat and I was going to watch a bit of telly, so I had kind of side lined the guitar and I kind of felt a little bit sorry, you know, that I’d sort of grown out of just playing guitar every minute of the day. I thought, okay, I’m going to apologise to this guitar, so started sort of strumming and saying, you know, ‘you used to be my confidante, my underneath the staircase friend’ – because that was like one of the places you’d play it, you know, hiding away, you’d always go into little hidey places. People who don’t know that story are going to think it’s about other things, you know, it can be interpreted as humans, rather than an inanimate object.
It kind of brought to mind Junk a little bit, imbuing, you know, an inanimate object with these kind of emotions and like human characteristics almost personification.
[Laughter]. I don’t know, sounds very posh to me. That’s right, I mean, you never know what you’re going to write a song about, you know, just get a little inspiration and you just think here goes nothing, I’m writing to a guitar, but I’m just going to follow it through. Then I kind of liked it, you know, – I played with you throughout the day, told you every secret thought – because it’s kind of what you do when you’re writing a song. It’s like a therapy session, you know, you’re getting all these little things you don’t say to people into your song.
Does that mean that you’ve got a lot of those little things lying around, would there be books at home with titles and possible lines in, lying around?
Yeah, but not at home, they’re right there. [Laughter]. I’ve got books of my travels and then the other thing is fun, fun is just loaded, loaded with fragments, little ideas. I know I’ve got a lot of ideas, some of which are just little ideas, some of which are pretty good – he said modestly, – I know I’ve got to take some time, sit down and actually finish them, but in this thing I’ve got loads of stuff, all sorts of just things, they just grab, you know, little songs.
When we spoke to Paul Simon a couple of years ago, he said, when it’s time for an album, he just basically writes the songs he needs, writes enough songs for an album, then he stops, is that the case for you?
Yeah, that’s what it is, yeah, I mean, you know, I’ve got maybe like 10, 12 songs or maybe more and I think, woah, this is too many, you can’t just keep having 30, 40 songs, you’re never going to get around to it. So when I go, okay, now, let me think of who might produce this, think of where I want to go, how I want to do this, whether I want to involve the band and yeah, that’s the cut-off point when you’ve got many songs, yeah.
You’re obviously one of the all-time great melody writers and one of the prettiest melodies on the album we thought was Hand in Hand. When you’re formulating a tune like that, are you singing out loud over some piano chords or something?
Yeah, I remember it was kind of late at night, we’d been out somewhere, but I didn’t kind of want to go to bed yet, so I’m noodling on the piano, I got those chords, those opening chords and I was thinking romantically about Nancy, so you know – let me show you my love – and I kind of finished most of it up there and then I went to bed, but I knew I only had the easy little bits like the middle to do and I did the middle the next day, but yeah, I always thought it was a pretty little thing.
So when you know you’re onto a good idea like that, you’ll chase it or try and finish at least a good portion of it?
Yeah, there’s the chorus, well, there’s the first verse, there’s a chorus, then the second verse and then the chorus and that was sort of, that was the bulk of it and I knew I would just have the middle to do, so by that point, I was getting a bit knackered, so I went to bed, knowing I could finish it tomorrow and I made a little recording of it, you know.
Those melodies at the piano, they’re always so distinctive, I wonder how hard you work in finding those notes, for example, “This Never Happened Before” from Chaos & Creation, that’s another piano song where the melody just leaps around to just the perfect choice of notes, do you spend a lot of time thinking about where you’re going to go?
Not really, no, you know, if I’m lucky it just comes, you’ve just got to be in the right mood and just feel like, oh, I’m going to really write a great melody now and you just start up and if you’re lucky, be like, oh yeah, this is good. So no, I don’t really sweat over melodies, I’m very lucky, I have this thing, they kind of come to me quite naturally, touch wood.
And in terms of lyrics, will you usually kind of finalise those once you’ve cemented that melody?
Often it happens the same time, ‘Hand in Hand’, was just the same time. It happens different ways, you know, sometimes it’s that, you’re playing, you’re singing it and you get the words, sometimes it’s just the melody and you don’t have any words, so you just work on the melody and make sure you’ve got that right and then sometimes one or two songs, not many, they’ve just been lyrics. I remember once, I was on a Beatles tour bus and we had three hours from Southampton to London or somewhere, you
know, so I’m just sitting there on my own and I thought of the lyrics to All My Loving, so then when we got to the theatre where we were, then I’d sort of go to like a piano or a guitar or something and get the tune of it, you know, but the lyrics all came first.
Will you switch between guitar and piano typically when you’re writing something?
Yeah, writing, it’s either guitar or piano and sometimes I will just actually switch them, I’m getting fed up, I don’t think I’m going anywhere on the piano, I’ll just say, well, let’s see how this would sound on guitar and it somehow can lead you just to a different place and then you could go back to the piano, or just anything to get of not knowing what to do, got a couple of little tricks.
We’ve heard you say in the past that sometimes you’ll think about other writers when you write, like, you’ll think, alright, I’m Ray Charles or something like that, is there any of that on this record?
Right at the end of the album there’s a track called Hunt You Down and it’s just like a little rocky riffy thing and that was written right after I’d seen Prince, it was written in a New Year and he played a New Year’s Eve concert, so I was definitely thinking of him. The thing is, you know, you think of them, you get inspired and you write it like you’re him and then you listen back, so it’s nothing like him, you know, but it’s okay because you used the inspiration to write. I mean, Long and Winding Road, I had Ray Charles in mind, certainly didn’t turn out like Ray, but those chords, [sings], I can imagine that being Ray… It’s just little tricks like that you get, that once they work a couple of times, you go, if you’re stuck, you pull them off the shelf and you’re, okay, let’s try that trick, let me pretend I’m Bob Dylan, you know, for this bit and pretend I’m Elvis or whatever, you know and it often breaks the deadlock, just leads you into a good place.
Every time we come back to the album we kind of notice some little detail we missed, like a little backing vocal idea or a little riff, a little hook or some kind of clever orchestration, how do you go about composing all those additional little parts?
Well, they just happen, you know, as you’re making the record. You’ve done the song and you put down the basic thing, but then if you want to have something like an orchestration or you want to produce it a bit more, then you can add things. Basically, just sitting around with Greg, I would say, ‘you know what I think might be great with this piano, a harpsichord,’ and mix that in with the sound and we’ll get like a hybrid, it’s just good fun to do that, instead of just putting a piano sound down. That’s okay, but it’s kind of nice to sort of start messing with the tonality of it, you get a sound you like, you go, ‘oh yeah, that’s better’ and that’s what we did.
Back in Brazil is a good example of that, isn’t it, you know, you’ve got that samba style Wurlitzer, electric piano type thing and you’ve got the electronic beeps kind of going on as well…
Yeah, well, that was always a hard one to crack because I’d written it on a day off in Brazil, when I just happened to be on my own. Nancy had gone to New York for something, so I happened to be just there on my own. I’d done everything I wanted to, I’d had a breakfast, I’d been to the gym, so now I was just lounging around and there was a little piano in the, little Wurlitzer in the suite I was staying in, so I started playing with that and so I knew the basic thing, so I wrote the song there in Sao Paulo. Then we came to record it and we couldn’t kind of get it right, we tried quite a few things on the rhythms to get the feel and in the end, we got the one that’s on the record and we were pleased with it. Greg put that sort of, [makes beeping sound], little sort of thing and we put some percussion on it and suddenly it just fell into place.
We’ve always loved the way you use different movements in songs though, if you go back to Band on the Run or Uncle Albert or something, the way those sections fit together works so well.
Yeah, it’s something I’ve kind of enjoyed doing, it’s something people started doing in the sixties. There was teenager opera, it was like a sixties thing where they start to have little segments, so I think a few of us got into that and then Townsend got into it with Quadrophenia and I’ve always enjoyed it, it’s a nice little thing. I did it in Live and Let Die, it’s just to put these little sections in and go out of them into something else, makes it a bit more epic, like you say. I’d written, Despite Repeated Warnings, I’d seen that in a newspaper in Japan and I was looking at it and it said, despite repeated warnings, so and so happened.’ I thought, yeah, that’s my title, you know, so that was it, I did it and it became one of those episodic epics, – hey, that’s a good title. a bit hard to say when you’ve had a few. [Laughter]. It’s a tongue twister, episodic epics, yeah.
Come On To Me, was another one that held up great with the older stuff at the Abbey Road gig, it’s another kind of spicy lyric, that one, isn’t it?
Yeah, I mean, let’s face it, we all have these thoughts and for me, I often remember, occasions and places where it was, and to me, that’s straight out of the sixties. Some of the parties in the sixties, where you’d see a beautiful girl and she’d just give you a sort of look and you’d go, ‘oh, I’m on, I’m on or whatever,’ you know, and we all know about that! So it just seemed like a good subject for a song and then once I got the idea – I saw you flash a smile, seemed to me to say you wanted so much more than casual conversation – and I was off. That was sort of how it happened in the sixties at the parties, it’s just an imaginary thing and I write a lot of those, like, little mini novels or little short stories based on something I’ve seen or thought or done.
I remember George Harrison saying to me, ‘why do you do that, how do you do that?’ because George’s songs, a lot of songs are kind of autobiographical. It’s just a way of writing that I kind of like. You know, in this very room, I got taught by this teacher, Alan Durband, he was called Dusty Durband and he turned me on to English Literature, so I kind of read a little bit more than I had to. I got really interested in it and still am. I like these little short story things, so I quite like it when I get into telling the story about a girl in Brazil and how she’s got a man and how he breaks the date, because he’s got to be working late. I just like these little things, you know, and I do that.
To listen to all of Sodajerker’s conversation with Paul McCartney, subscribe via Apple Podcasts https://applepodcasts.com/sodajerker or stream all of the episodes at https://www.sodajerker.com/podcast
Last updated on November 30, 2018