Daniel Rachel – Isle of Noises: Conversations With Great British Songwriters

If your thoughts are turning towards Christmas gifts, the music scholar in your life will love Isle of Souls.
As our inboxes prove on a daily basis, there’s nothing terribly difficult about writing a song. Throw a few chords together, arrange them into some kind of logical order (or maybe not if you’re feeling particularly ambitious) and lay a melody on top. There – you’ve written a song. The difficult bit, obviously, is writing a good song, one that will resonate with an audience beyond your immediate family and friends. That’s more difficult; from the one-hit wonder to the legendary artist reduced to regurgitating pale imitations of past successes, song-writing – and the alchemy involved – becomes a much more intangible process.

It’s a subject Daniel Rachel seeks to explore in this new, weighty tome, sitting down with 25 of our best known song-writers, starting with Ray Davies and working through the decades to Laura Marling. Despite the title, all bar one are English (although a few have Irish blood pumping through their English hearts) but that’s nit-picking over a work that offers a valuable insight into the working practices of those who’ve written the songs that have dominated both the airwaves and lives of listeners the world over for the last 50 years.

What Rachel uncovers, perhaps unsurpisingly, is that even those who’ve spent their lives making music don’t quite know what the trick is, at least in terms of what makes a ‘good’ song. There are formulas to fall back on; at other times it’s just a case of hanging around waiting for inspiration to strike, but it’s nigh impossible to write a hit to order. As Damon Albarn notes, “I may never write another hit single. A little secret corner of my heart would like that. I’m sure Paul McCartney secretly feels the same way … just one more.” In an industry built on statistics and sales, the validation that comes from a hit must be strong – but very few of those interviewed are likely to be troubling the top end of today’s charts. It’s the conundrum that lies at the heart of many of these conversations, although it’s never particularly addressed – where does the muse go? Do musicians wilt over time? With age and financial comfort, does the flame dim a little? Or is television and radio to blame? Are these artists making music that’s just as good as ever, and we just don’t hear it due to the vagaries of fashion and taste? You probably have your own theories. Certainly, most of those interviewed continue to make new music, believing it to be good work, but when they haul up in Newcastle or Birmingham on tour, they know most of those who’ve bought tickets just want to hear ‘the old stuff’.

Although all the interviewees have something interesting to say, Rachel’s conversation with Lee Mavers is particularly enlightening. A man with obvious gifts, natural gifts, but dogged by suspicion of the music industry, and almost crippled by a Brian Wilson-esque inability to capture on tape the sounds in his head – which is why we’ve not heard any new music from him in decades. Mavers talks positively about new songs, and believes the wind just needs to change direction in order for him to be comfortable enough to tackle them – but such endless procrastination hardly bodes well. It’s a sobering reminder that while music is a gift and a blessing, for those engaged in its creation it can be a source of pain and frustration.

This is one of those books where you’ll immediately seek out the chapters dedicated to the artists you like most, but then find yourselves engrossed by someone else (if only Noel Gallagher’s music were half as charming as he is). If your thoughts are turning towards Christmas gifts, the music scholar in your life will love Isle of Souls.