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By Skip Matheny
Skip Matheny— currently a songwriter in the band Roman Candle and former bartender in a retirement community recently talked with UK songwriter, now living in New York, Bobby Long. Bobby is a singer/songwriter from Wigan (near Manchester) England. His major-label debut record A Winter Tale came out on ATO records in the U.S. as did his 2011 follow-up e.p. The Backing Singer. Bobby is currently touring with Steve Winwood and has spent the earlier part of the year recording his next full-length. This interview took place at the Oak Bar beneath the Hermitage hotel in Nashville.
What’s your favorite drink?
My favorite drink? I like milk. But I also like beer and red wine. Not in the same glass.
I know on your website you post different bits of writing or poems. Is that something you’ve been doing for a while?
It’s always been on the side but I kind of had a bit of — not a writing block, but just kind of getting frustrated with writing songs, putting pressure on myself to write the next album. This album had only been out for a month and I already had 15 [more] songs. I just wanted to finish them. But I couldn’t, so I went back into the poetry thing. I am doing it every day and it looks like I’m going to be releasing a poetry book in 6-8 months. But I’m not sure of how big of a deal it’s going to be. I’ve been talking to a publisher and he really seems to be behind it, so we’re going to put it together. It’s pretty cool, it’s something I want to do. But it’s been something that’s only happened in the last 3 months. It’s kind of fun to write without having the structure of the song to care about. You feel much freer.
Who are some of your favorite poets? I think I’ve seen you mention Pablo Neruda, Robert Frost.
Yeah I love Neruda, Frost, Dylan Thomas and I love John Cooper Clarke a lot. I’ve seen him as a kid. Our English classes went to poetry readings and it used to be a lot of, mainly English poets. And some of them were fairly boring. And John Cooper Clarke turned up once and everyone was kind of like this [crosses arms, frowns] and he did [Evidently] Chicken Town. It’s really aggressive; lots of swearing, [chants] “The fucking weed is fucking turf, the fucking speed is fucking surf…” and I was like, ‘Wow, this is interesting. Poetry is not boring and written by middle class people.’ I like him and I like Billy Childish. He’s an artist and musician as well. I’ve been to his poetry readings in London and his stuff is really cool. I like a little bit of everything but those are the guys I’ve really loved.
Did you write poems before you wrote songs?
I guess I did. I’d be in class and school and I would write stuff in the back of my book, not wanting any of my friends to see it. Because I would’ve got kicked around (laughs). I did a little bit but – I don’t know where those poems are now . It’d just be me gazing out the window at a tree and wishing I was somewhere else. But songs for me, were the first thing I ever took seriously.
Who are some of the lyricists you really enjoy?
I love Bob Dylan. I’m a huge, huge, Leonard Cohen fan. I’ve seen him play a few times. I saw his last concert of this past tour. He did it in [Las] Vegas, at Caesar’s Palace. It was insane; he played for four hours. And it’s really dramatic – there’s some spoken stuff – for “If It Be Your Will” he’s on his knees – I really love him. Elliott Smith I think is a great lyricist. It’s easy to get what he’s talking about because there are some pop culture references. He’s talking about his social awareness and what’s going on. I really like that.
When you are working to start or finish a song, what does that look like? Is it mostly you and a guitar?
It usually starts with the guitar. Once I’ve got the work done on the guitar then I can take it somewhere else and I can kind of take it to finish on the train or something, or finish on the park bench. But it does usually start with me and a guitar. But that’s another thing I’ve been trying to do with the poetry is to get away from the structure of the thing of having this guitar because it does, I find, kind of slightly limit you.
Yeah there’s a big difference between writing words for a poetic structure and writing words to fit some predefined melody, even though they might seem somewhat related.
Yeah, you’ve kind of got 8 words and 15 syllables that you have to go between, and you have to be very concise to find the beginning the middle and the end. And whether you’re talking about something that happens over the space of 15 seconds or something that happens over the space of 4 years you have to be very concise.
In some of the writings you have you seem to use small details to give a bigger description of a history or setting. Like there was a detail about sitting with someone on a blanket that had been used last at a beach, and then somebody rolls over, and leftover sand falls on their arm. That little detail kind of provides a larger sense of how much time has passed in their relationship. Do you try and plan around these details in your writing, or make room for them? Or is that just what naturally comes out?
Yeah, absolutely, I try to include them. With the song thing, I’m always trying to put detail in. A little bit anyway. Because otherwise it can seem fairly vast. I like being kind of particular so things – come into focus. That’s funny, it’s surprising that a lot of people on the reviews of the album have been great; except on a couple of them there’s been this thing of ‘his lyrics don’t make sense,’ or ‘his lyrics don’t have any kind of structure.’ And I’m like, well that’s kind of the point of creative freedom of writing poetry and everything else is being able to be free with what you’re doing. And I think because I’m slightly in that “folk” thing, they expect some kind of visible amount of structure and it doesn’t have to be like that. If you were to try and pull apart some of the lyrics from Dark Side of the Moon, you’re going to be saying ‘well, this is kind of bizarre.’ Of course it’s bizarre because it’s Pink Floyd. And Radiohead, too, if you try and pull apart Paranoid Android you’re going to go ‘wow, this doesn’t make sense on a normal level.’ You obviously you let your mind roll free on it and work it out in your head.
Yeah there are several ways you can get a story across without having to go the traditional linear route: “I woke up, I ate a yogurt, I left the hospital, etc.”
Yeah there’s a Leonard Cohen song called “The Partisan,” and the lyrics are “When they poured across the border/ I was cautioned to surrender/ this I could not do/ I took my gun and vanished.” And it feels like there should be another line at the end but it just leaves it open, so you’re like: okay, that’s interesting. And then your mind creates the next scene [continues with next lyrics] “I’ve changed my name so often/ I have lost my wife and children/ but I have many friends/ and some of them are with me.” And you want to fill in the gap. And that’s great and it shows you don’t need to sum up. It can be very specific and withdrawn at the same time. Which is cool, and that’s why writing is great (laughs). I mean that’s what’s great about it.
Some of my favorite stories are told by what the writer leaves out .
And it’s letting people think. Not everybody wants this pre-depicted thing. It’s like getting a ready-meal. Some people want to go out and buy their own ingredients and cook their own thing and work their own thing out.
Was there a time when you were a kid and you heard a particular pop song and the whole notion of what a popular song was kind of clicked into place for you?
Mostly it came from the Beatles. My family were really into the Beatles. We’re not to far away from Liverpool. I remember hearing “Hey Jude” for the first time, and the first time I heard it, all I was interested in was the last bit where everyone is going crazy and singing. When I heard it I was like, ‘Oh my God. What is this?’ And we had just gotten the internet so I scouted it and I downloaded it and it just sent shivers up my spine. And then my dad told me to go to bed and I was up for most of the night trying to remember [the song] and I couldn’t do it. I just wanted the feeling the song brought. And at 7 a.m. I listened to it again and that was huge. Loads of Beatles stuff. ‘This Boy.’ That’s an incredible song. The Beach Boys, too. I loved the Beach Boys when I was a kid, but mainly it was the Beatles.
Do you have any habits that surround writing? Like walking or smoking or desks?
I definitely smoke when I’m writing, like chainsmoke. I was actually thinking, I haven’t really got the place I can write. In New York I have a little desk in the corner I just kind of sit down there. But I’ve been struggling with that recently so need to find a new place. I usually write in the evening. In the morning I’ll get up, early afternoon I’ll go out for walks and get a coffee and do some writing. And then in the evening I’ll sit down for a few hours again every night and write.
If you were going to cover a traditional folk song tonight what would it be?
Probably “Will Ye Go Lassie Go” by the Clancy Brothers. I love the Clancy Brothers. I know it’s not particularly one of their songs, but its just a beautiful song, and the Irish and the Scottish both try and claim it for their own.
Now if you don’t mind I’m going to mention a few artist’s names and you just say the first thing that pops into your head.
Blue is the best acoustic, pure record of all time. It’s incredible. And girls love it, as well (laughs). If you’re in your house and you’ve got a girl with you and you’ve got Blue on, you’re doing well.”
* special thanks to Logan Matheny for the above (color) photo, and Kent Bennett for additional editing.