Bob Dylan, when asked what one of his songs was about answered…3 minutes. When asked what American Pie actually meant the writer Don McLean said it meant he never had to work again. Songwriters are often reticent in explaining where the ideas for their songs came from. We all project our own feelings and circumstances onto songs, maybe by explaining each line and phrase the songwriter might destroy some of the ‘mystery’ and make a song less universal.
I’ve been writing songs for over 50 years and I still find the process hard to explain. One moment there is nothing, the next you turn around and there is a living breathing song. So, where do they come from? I remember watching Michael Parkinson interview the songwriter Sammy Cahn. Which comes first he asked, the words or the music? Sammy answered the phone call. Sammy wrote to order. You want a song about 3 coins in a fountain for a film, he’d write it for you.
Writing the new album ‘Butterfly’ last summer.
Last summer I set myself the task of writing a whole series of new songs for an album. In the past when writing songs for a musical I’d have a pretty good idea of the subject of the song I needed to write, its tempo because of the way the song had to sit in between other songs in the show and often the style as dictated by where the scene was set.
For example, in the original Cappuccino Girls show I needed to write a song for the new barista in Oyster Bay who was terribly full of himself. He said he was Brazilian, and the song need to show he loved 2 things in life, coffee and women, and sometimes he categorised women the same way he differentiated between different types of coffee. For me it was obvious, an upbeat samba with lots of coffee references.
Eddie the Brazilian Barista – Cappuccino Girls
Last summer I had complete freedom, no script or scenes to guide me just a blank sheet of paper. Each day I would sit down at the piano and guitar and start playing. After a while something would happen and a line or set of chords would stick and I’d be off to the races. At the end of a couple of months I had 20-30 new songs. Well not quite. I had 20-30 pieces of music, all structured as songs, intro, verse, chorus etc but I didn’t have many words and the words I had didn’t make a lot of sense.
I wrote one of the songs on the guitar against a reggae drum beat. As usual, as I was writing I would just sing any old nonsense. Now I am not alone in this practice. It is said that for a couple of days Paul McCartney was playing everyone a new song entitled ‘Scrambled Eggs’. It was only when he was convinced that the tune was original that he sat down and rewrote the lyrics starting with the opening word, ‘Yesterday’.
My new reggae song had a chorus which ended with the line ‘California Blue’. I had a nagging feeling that I’d heard that before but couldn’t place it. In the hope I was wrong I googled the line and found that Roy Orbison had a song with that title. With so much to do to prepare for an orchestral session in Prague I put off writing the real lyrics until after I returned from the Czech Republic.
The song still with working title ‘California Blue’ when we went to Prague to record the strings
It was only when I went back to the demo I recorded on the day I wrote the tune, and listened to my mumbling, bumbling singalong that I started to find the clues to the song. The chorus might have ended with California Blue, but the opening lines seemed to be the start of a story.
‘Well she packed her bags but waits until the morning
Thought she doesn’t think she’s going to change her mind
Everyday the signs are sending out a warning
They say that love is blind.
From the start I decided that I wanted the songs on the album to say something. Songs that might resonate with people. Songs of love, loss, sadness and hope.
With the days running out before having to record all of my vocals I finally sat down to write the lyrics. After a while it seemed so incredibly clear to me that I was shocked I hadn’t written the song with the subject in mind.
The song was to tell the story of a woman, in a relationship, which was sometimes wonderful but sometimes hell on earth. In my past as a journalist I have interviewed domestic abuse survivors. At the time they think that the abuse they suffer is just what happens in a normal relationship. Their partner can be loving and attentive but then quickly become possessive, jealous, dismissive and even violent. Sometimes the abuse isn’t actually physical, it can be controlling over the way someone looks or speaks, in can be about destroying their self-worth or taking control of their finances.
Most of the people I interviewed would say the same thing, they thought no one would believe them, they thought they were on their own. When you have children with an abusive partner who controls the purse strings and even controls who you speak to, escaping can be terrifying and seem almost impossible.
The song was meant to be part of a campaign. It was meant to be played on the radio, but what I wanted the song to say to anyone who heard it in the background, was that their situation was not normal, not good and not irredeemable. Whilst it might seem impossible, there are organisations that would help and against everything they might have been told they were not alone.
That is how I came to write ‘You Are Not Alone’.
As we all know these are the strangest of days. People are suffering in so many ways and in particular it is thought that as people are kept in lockdown there has been an increase in cases of domestic abuse. With that in mind the government announced a campaign to address domestic abuse and gave it the hashtag #youarenotalone. When I heard the announcement, I stopped in my tracks.
It’s always difficult to work out why you do things. If I tried to promote the song at this time would I be jumping on a bandwagon? I ran the story past a few friends, and they all said I should push the doors to see if the song could be useful.
My short video for Welsh Government Live Fear Free campaign #youarenotalone
Last Wednesday I had an email from the Welsh Govt asking if I would make a video and to use the music from the song. After that things moved pretty quickly. We had been working on a video for the song and we soon added some extra details at the end. We will launch the new single on Monday.
As a songwriter you always hope your songs will mean something to someone. I really hope that ‘You Are Not Alone’ might help save a life.
From City and County of Swansea
The You are Not Alone campaign is being support by Child and Family Services staff at Swansea Council and the council’s Domestic Abuse Hub.
To raise awareness, they’ve been sharing selfies of themselves with the campaign logo painted on the palms of their hands and then asking others to share using the hashtag #YouAreNotAlone
Dozens of them are taking part to reinforce the message that despite the lockdown restrictions, help is always available.
The campaign is directing people to The Wales Live Fear Helpline on 0808 80 10 800 or firstname.lastname@example.org