Interview: Chris Difford on the NHS, photography and the craft of songwriting

“I hope that the voices of all the unsung heroes, their efforts and sacrifices are heard in this music. For me this record is a thank you to all my colleagues on the frontline, from the porters & domestics, to the doctors and nurses, I’ll never forget how we all stood side-by-side on the frontline fighting this illness together.”  Hannah Grace Deller, matron paediatrics, Imperial College NHS Trust

There are very few benefits coming out of the current pandemic but the charity record ‘Song Club’, containing songs inspired by the photographs of NHS Nurse Hannah Grace Deller of her front-line colleagues dealing with COVID is one of them. The record is curated by songwriter and  Squeeze mainstay Chris Difford and contains songs inspired by the emotions invoked in his songwriting friends by Hannah Grace Deller’s photographs. The songwriting friends include, amongst others, Beth Nielson Chapman, Kimmie Rhodes, Judith Owen, Sara Douga, Graham Gouldman and Robert Vincent who came together through attending Chris Difford’s songwriting workshops. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Chris Difford to discuss the album, his approach and love of all things songwriting and why UK and American songs can sound different. It is great to hear one of the UK’s best songwriters talk about his craft and this love of the song is reflected in the quality of the songs on ‘Song Club’.

I  hope everything is OK with you and your family and friends COVID-wise.
Yes, we have been very lucky.

What was it about Hannah Grace Deller’s photographs that you saw on a TV programme that made you want to record this album?
In the first lockdown, I was watching Channel 4, Grayson Perry’s TV show, and this photography came on and I was very moved by it so I approached her and asked whether she would mind if we used her photography as inspiration for an album. Of course, she was jumping for joy and I reached out to as many writers as possible and at the end of the three months it took to build, we had over 25 songs, so it was pretty good, pretty cool.

You say you reached out to as many writers as possible, how did you select people to reach out to, or was it simply random?
What happened was that it coincided with a Zoom conference call with songwriters I would normally be seeing in-person but because of lockdown that wasn’t possible. So we all got together on Zoom to say hi, and just check in with each other to see how we were all keeping, and then I sprung it on everyone and asked if they would like to write some songs. I put them all into groups of two and they came up with these songs and I am absolutely thrilled that they did.

In a small way, this is something positive that has come out of COVID. There are some very interesting songwriters on ‘Song Club’ so how did you build that network? It seems to be roughly 50 50 men and women, UK and US-based songwriters. It doesn’t seem an obvious choice of songwriters, so how did they get together in the first place?
It was just the way it fell because they were all friends of mine, and they had all attended my writers’ workshop which I do every year, so I knew everybody in person. It came as no surprise to me that everyone gave their love.

There are various genres on ‘Song Cub’. Is that because a songwriter is a songwriter and that the genre is secondary to the actual song?
In this instance, it didn’t really matter what kind of songs you wrote, as long as you had a passion for writing and wanted to be involved in this project. From one end of the spectrum you have someone like Komal, who is an 18-year-old songwriter whose parents are both doctors from Indian origins, to Beth Nielson Chapman on the other hand. You have a real mixture there that has inspired me to make sure that we work as hard as possible to get the record listened to and heard.

How did you record the record? Was it all home studio work?
It was very simple. Everyone has their own home studio facility that allows them to record at home, so everybody in the background went off and recorded the backing tracks and sent them to each other so they could sing on them or write the lyrics to the music, or whatever way they chose to record their track. We then got it mastered at Abbey Road and that kind of really brought it into focus, obviously. It was just so emotional for me that everyone had taken the time to dedicate themselves to these songs.

You had your idea, you got people enthused about contributing, how much of a hands-on approach did you take to the process, or did you simply step back and let everyone follow their own muse?
I didn’t have anything to do with the songs, I just lit the blue touchpaper and then ran for cover. Everyone then just delivered. I never worry about what people are going to do or what they are going to achieve because it is a natural process, songwriting, so I just let it evolve and I think that was the right thing to do.

If you look on the internet you will see unlimited bits of software and books to help the budding songwriter. When you say songwriting is a natural process Chris what do you mean, how much is perspiration and how much is inspiration, how does it actually work from your perspective?
Everybody has their own approach to songwriting, and I don’t think it is a sweat for anybody. It is a joy to be able to write a song. People have different approaches in terms of how they develop a song but for me, it is a natural process. I sit at my desk and I wait for the song to come, and when it comes I appreciate it and see whether it is good or bad.

So you make that call yourself, whether a song is good or bad?
Yeah. Yeah, I think after all this time I have to sort of test my judgement.

As a songwriter, have you ever had to deal with writer’s block at any time, or is it always there?
That is an interesting one, writer’s block can always be there. It is dependent on how much commitment there is, once you have found the commitment then it is all wonderful. I am a bit of a binge writer and I can sit at my desk for days at a time and nothing will happen, and then suddenly, I am binging and I have about six lyrics in an hour. So it depends on the muse, I guess, you just have to wait and see what happens. In lockdown, it has been quite a difficult process because I don’t know what the outcome is, I don’t know where we are going to be in six months time. It is hard to cork this particular inspiration.

You are primarily a lyricist, do you write any music at all?
I haven’t written any music since 1973. I concentrate solely on the lyrics.

Do you always have a collaborator or do you have lyrics ready written for some future collaboration?
I always like to have somebody in my mind who I am working towards, it doesn’t matter who it is, but I have to think about what they want and how it is going to work. It is a journey and it is a good one.

Well, you have spent your life doing it Chris so you must enjoy it?
I do.

Coming back to ‘Song Club’, I wouldn’t dare ask you what was your favourite track, but are there any tracks that really surprised you and you thought I didn’t expect that?
The Judith Owen track is something that when I first heard it I didn’t understand the song or the lyric. I found it emotional, but I didn’t know why. I then spoke to Mark Nevin, who wrote the lyric, and he explained it to me and I was transfixed by the emotion and it is a very powerful song. That one I find very fulfilling in a very nourishing way. But equally so, they all have something very special about them.

I’ve listened to the album a couple of times Chris, and I can’t help but agree with you. You have Graham Gouldman on the record, is he a particular friend or someone who you have worked with?
We have known each other for many years and I am a huge fan of his songwriting for obvious reasons because he is brilliant. He is such a lovely guy, so giving as a person as well as a great songwriter.

He went back into the background a bit after 10CC’s heyday but he has been able to continue working.
Yes, he does. I think after everyone’s heyday you go through a bit of a rest.

A lot of the songwriters on ‘Song Club’ are American, do you see a difference between UK and American music, or is it simply a case of good and bad music and it doesn’t matter where it comes from?
There is a slight distinction between the two genres, if you like, just by the virtue of the fact that people have grown up listening to different music and they have different backgrounds and that is what brings everyone’s skills to the table. I love country music, I love americana, I love pop music and I also love Tamla Motown so I have kind of a wide palette to draw from when I want to be inspired.

How do you know Robert Vincent?
He has been to my songwriting workshop a couple of times, he has become a good friend and I love his sense of humour, but more than that I love his voice. I think he is the most incredible singer and songwriter.

He is from Liverpool I believe. You have done various interviews in the press, and apart from the obvious stuff is there anything else people are doing to get the record to as wide an audience as possible?
I think it is a really tricky time. The BBC are not particularly interested in charity records because they want to keep the mood flowing and of course, it came out around the same time as Bob Harris’s record, so there are only so many charity records you can have in a chart at any one time, and I understand that. I am kind of of the opinion that the songs are what is important and they will be around for a long time whether it is a success or not. That would be fantastic if it was but I just know the songs are deep and meaningful and that is the most important thing.

What are you going to do to ensure those songs have a longer life?
Well, it is only an internet record at the moment so it is downloadable and you can buy it on iTunes, I am talking to a record company about ways of distributing it as a CD, because I think a lot of people prefer a CD. It has a longer life.

You mentioned CD, what is your view on vinyl?
It is too expensive for a record like this to put it out on vinyl. I think vinyl is for the collector not the mass consumer, unfortunately. It was obviously years ago, but not anymore.

For yourself Chris, you seem to have done various things in the music business, as well as simply being a songwriter. Did I read somewhere that you had managed Bryan Ferry for a bit?
I worked with him through a couple of years and I really enjoyed it, yeah.

As far as Chris Difford goes you are a songwriter, you still have Squeeze going, you have your songwriting workshops, do you see yourself having a mixed portfolio of activities to use the common parlance?
When the government say you have to adapt you do. I suppose the only thing I can’t do is the plumbing, but I can do lots of other things and I enjoy doing lots of other things. I like to keep as busy as possible because the mind is only kept healthy by it working so that is what I like doing.

Squeeze have been around for a long time. You have put them in the box only to get them out again, what is the difference between Squeeze and the work you have done by yourself and as a duo with Glenn Tilbrook?
When you are younger and are in a band it is the only thing that you do. As you get older and you have a family you go off and start striking out doing different things, you become adaptable. Glenn has recorded a number of solo records and so have I, I don’t think that that has damaged the Squeeze success it is just a different outlet for us as people. I think that that is quite healthy because sometimes you can express yourself in a different way if you are working on something that represents you rather than a band. Glenn does that really well and I hope I do.

All those years ago, did you ever think that Squeeze would still be around 40 years later and very popular in America?
I don’t know. When you join a rock’n’roll band you think the good die young, that is what you think.

Until you get a bit older and then you change your mind.
Yes, it changes. I am just so grateful for the journey I have had, and still have, so I feel good about it.

Did Squeeze’s success in America surprise you?
Not really because we kind of worked very hard to get success in America. I was very pleased when it all fell into place.

What are your plans for 2021, COVID permitting?
I don’t really know. Day by day I keep thinking I maybe should release a jazz album I recorded 15 years ago because I think it was potentially a really great record for me. So I am thinking about that, and then Squeeze will be back on the road in I imagine 18 months time, so we have plenty of time to enjoy this break because we wouldn’t have had this break without COVID. Just be patient, sit still, be creative and remain safe, and see what is around the corner.

Are you able to really take a break, Chris?
This is a break, though I am doing lots of other things. It is a break from getting into a car and going to a gig, as much as I would like to be in front of an audience with Squeeze and getting catering at this time of night, getting suited and booted and ready for the show. It is just not going to happen so you have just got to sit still and wait for something.

The young Chris Difford, who were his real songwriting influences that have stood the test of time?
Everybody I grew up with really. From The Beatles to Jimi Hendrix, whatever was on the table was edible in those days, and still is you know. Joni Mitchell brings out a new collection of songs, Bob Dylan’s new album is amazing. People still surprise me how gifted they are even after all of these years.

Are there any new or emerging artists that have caught your attention and you have thought maybe, maybe?
My head isn’t into what could be with people. Komal who is 18 is extraordinary, I love her work. It doesn’t matter about the youth of the writer, it is about what they have to say as a writer. There is lots to say in this day and age, it is surprising really, but I don’t have a tip or see anyone in the paddock who will come out and jump every fence.

You mentioned your own songwriting workshops and musician’s workshops seem to very popular these days, pre-COVID of course.
I run them all the time and I enjoy them.

It is a bit suprising isn’t it, all these rock’n’rollers getting into there fifties and sixties and running what are seminars that seem to be well attended.
Yeah, it is all good.

At Americana UK we like to bring new music to our readers. Do want to share the top three tracks, or albums, on your current playlist?
Robert Vincent and Sarah Douga are definitely two people I love very much, and The Wildhearts I really like very much, then there is a songwriter called Amy Wadge who is incredible, she doesn’t fall particularly into americana but she can and she is a great writer with a lovely voice.

There is always a debate about what is americana and what isn’t. Some of it is obvious but some aren’t quite so obvious. There is an argument that a key characteristic of americana is good songs. You still live in your home area of East London. Have you ever moved?
Not really, it is quite cosy.

Obviously, you must like it because you could live anywhere in the world. Do you get anything from the area you grew up in?
London is unrecognisable from what it was like when I was growing up. It is a kind of ever-evolving city, just like every city is. It can be a nightmare but it can also be absolutely wonderful at the same time.

If you were to draw up a list of the typical British songwriters, Chris Difford would in there near the very top. Is that a help or hindrance to Chris Difford the songwriter?
I don’t see it like that at all. I don’t have those kind of thoughts, I am just me, the kids and the family and that’s it.

Doing what you enjoy doing.
Yeah.

Is there anything you want to say to our readers?
No, I think we have covered everything.

Chris Difford’s ‘Song Books’ is available for purchase here.

Proceeds to (Royal College of Nursing) RCN Foundation COVID-19 Support Fund www.rcnfoundation.org.uk

 

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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