Songwriting is what drew me into music. The craft and the process of putting together a good song seemed both exciting and magical. I have also wanted to record some of my favourite songs for a long time.
Rather than make a traditional covers record, I thought it would be much more fun to create a new type of project in which artists communicated with each other and swapped a song for a song.
The list was pruned several times and nearly all of the writers I ended up choosing for this first Scratch wanted to get involved. Sometimes we’d have an exchange about which song to choose and how to do it. Sometimes it would be hands-off. The intention was that we would each do the songs in our own idiosyncratic ways.
Heroes for me was always one of the great Bowie tracks. It is heroism in the face of oppression and desperation; it’s something triumphant despite the desperate situation. We tried a few ways of looking at it and I wasn’t very happy, then I started manipulating some acoustic guitar samples until they became interesting, which gave me something to indicate to John where I wanted to go with it. We had talked about such composers as Arvo Part and Steve Reich as inspiration, but when John came back with his first draft of the arrangement I was blown away and think its one of the best string arrangements of a rock song I have ever heard. For both of us, this gave us the confidence to be bold in the way in which we were going to approach the record. I think it’s beautiful because without any of the drive of guitar and drums, which were so key to Bowie’s original, it builds an enormous tension that bursts open. For that reason I wanted it to start the record.
The Boy In The Bubble
The second track in and it’s again one of my favourites, taken from Graceland which was a very big album for lots of people, which was full of joyful African exuberance. But what many people didn’t notice, and I didn’t at first realise, was what an extraordinary lyric this is. I think it’s one of the best rock/ pop lyrics written in the last 25 years. It is quite dark and troubled and when you strip it back different layers are exposed. I received some good feedback from Paul by email saying much the same thing.
When I first talked to John Metcalfe about this song and the album in general I asked for very emotional, sparse arrangements – I really wanted for the songs and the words to speak.
This is probably the emptiest and stronger as a result. Paul is obviously one of the great American songwriters and has an amazing catalogue of wonderful material – great melodies and words. We discussed a few different tracks together and this was one of Paul’s top four recommendations.
We came across Elbow first when they did their first album here at Real World Studios with the wonderful Steve Osborne and I really liked a remix they did for More Than This from my UP album. When I started really listening to what they were doing I thought there was a wonderful musicality, full of inventiveness with lots of beautiful melodies. When I was trying to sing this (and it was a bitch to sing!) it reminded me of trying to sing some of the old melodies I had written with Genesis (like Got to Get In to Get Out) that were full of awkward intervals.
It is one of my favourite arrangements and has references to Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. Often orchestral arrangements of rock songs are used to ‘sweeten’. I think these arrangements have a real integrity to them. They are not a decorated background for a rock band, but use all the colours of the orchestra to provide the heart, passion, intensity and groove.
Bon Iver was introduced to me by my younger daughter, Melanie, who’s a big fan. When I first heard this track it immediately registered. I tried singing a couple of his songs, but this was the one that I could feel instinctively. The first arrangement that John did was all based around the brass, and although I loved what he had done, it felt too heavy and lacked contrast. Very late in the day I sat down at the piano and tried to find a really simple part for the verses, which then allows the brass entry to have more meaning. There were a couple of lines of lyrics that felt awkward at first, but the more time I spent with it the more natural it became. It is a beautiful song
Talking Heads were always one of my favourite bands and Remain in Light my favourite album – everything was firing on all cylinders, from the lyrics and the vocals to the grooves Chris and Tina were generating with Brian (Eno)’s magical production input.
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts had been a great and influential record in terms of being one of the first to really utilise sampling intelligently. They were a band that understood the bottom end of the body – the grooves as well as tickling the brain with lots of ideas and inventiveness.
In a way it is another dark lyric about terrorism, but eloquently and poetically expressed.
The big dilemma for us was whether our self-imposed rule of no drums would kill the song, as it had been built around a wonderful groove, without it, could this creature still manage walk? Although this was one of the songs that went through a lot of revisions before we nailed it, I think John has created a beautiful arc in the arrangement, despite very little harmonic movement.
The Power Of The Heart
I knew Lou for many years and he wrote many great songs – he’s correctly taken very seriously as a great lyricist. At the Albert Hall when he was doing his Berlin show, he played this song at the end. It is a marriage proposal to Laurie (Anderson). I thought it was an extraordinarily beautiful lyric and song. However, I felt it needed a chorus figure or refrain to punctuate all the verses, and was quite nervous sending it back to Lou to see if he would approve this addition, as it was such a personal song. He wrote back very enthusiastically. Although Lou’s not the first name that comes to mind when you think of love songs, I am sure in years to come, because of its heart felt honesty, it will become a romantic classic.
My Body Is A Cage
I love the title My Body is a Cage. My first impressions were of a man trapped in his body, not unlike The Butterfly and the Diving Bell, which I had then just seen. It also reminded me of the awkward moments in a relationship when what you are able to do, and what you want to do, are not lining up.
This was also an opportunity for John to throw a lot of paint on the canvas. The temptation was to edit the song down, and I insisted that we extend it and push it to the extreme. It won’t appeal to everyone, but I love the contrast with some of the really empty tracks.
Arcade Fire are an extraordinary group. Although large in number, there is a determined singular voice that emerges in a unique way. They have independently generated this vivid environment which they inhabit.
The Book Of Love
I was introduced through a friend to the Magnetic Fields, and really fell in love with the song writing and the quirky way the band interpreted their material.
This wonderful lyric is deeply romantic and a little cynical at the same time, which opens it to an audience that wouldn’t buy slush. This was the track that stood out to me on 69 Love Songs and we were working on the strings for my track Signal to Noise at the time. I thought it would be great to hear this performed on strings and just managed to get it arranged in time and recorded during the Signal to Noise session. Claudia from the Magnetic Fields tells me that they’re getting a lot of requests now for this particular version for wedding ceremonies, and it was used on the last episode of the Scrubs TV series, and seems to have generated its own cult following as a result. It’s also lovely to be working with my daughter Melanie again on the vocals.
I Think It’s Going To Rain Today
For over 30 years Randy Newman’s been one of my favourite songwriters from some of the serious and cynical social comment to the beautiful pop songs he has done for film – there are always great melodies, words and arrangements. In his cynical mode he often speaks through the character he is ridiculing to great effect. There are so many of Randy’s songs that I love, but Bob Ezrin reminded me of I Think It’s Going to Rain Today which he’d played me actually many years before when we were working on my first record. This is a magnificent song
It was my elder daughter Anna who introduced me to Regina, who she had met in New York. I thought Regina was very gifted. It was the Russian quality of this track that I loved. It quotes from Pasternak. I tried a couple of times to sing in Russian but didn’t feel I was nailing it well enough to leave in, except for the last word, which leads well into the next passionate string section. It is taken from In the blackness of spring it burns. It’s a nice cheerful Russian text as you can tell. It’s the only place on the record where I let myself loose, screaming in a way I haven’t done since the Passion record.
When I was growing up Buffalo Springfield’s For What it’s Worth was one of the most evocative songs I had heard and it was also my introduction to Neil Young, who has been making great songs ever since. He has always been a man of conscience and a pioneer. Not many people know this song, although I think it is exquisite. Sensitive lyrics, stunning melody and magical key change all make this a superb song. This arrangement has some English influences that reference Vaughan Williams and Elgar, that we built into the arrangement. It seems to be one of those tracks that grows on people the more they hear it.
Street Spirit (Fade Out)
Radiohead have been one of my favourite bands for a long time – they’re brilliant and bold in their composition, experimentation and always seem drawn to new challenges. John messed around with some of the chords at the end and I couldn’t get the original melody to work, so what you hear is an improvised solution to that problem. It felt to me that there was a reconciliation and sense of acceptance in that last line of lyric – ‘immerse yourself in love’ that takes the song out of despair. A great and natural end.