Constrictive Creativity: Peter Glennie on Songwriting (and Horseback Riding)

By Ana Ottman

To listen to Peter Glennie’s music is to be pulled back to another era. His melodies cast you in to a world of tragedy, heartbreak, war, jealousy, and other uplifting themes. A songwriter, composer, and producer, Peter’s first full-length solo album, Everyone Looks Good in Black, was self-released in mid-2011. You can find him playing gigs in Manchester with his band, The Hitchcock Orchestra.

The icing on the cake? This guy couldn’t be nicer. We spoke over Skype with red wine and cigarettes as our companions (his, not mine).

What are you listening to these days?

The thing that’s really been capturing me lately is Laurie Anderson’s latest album, Homeland. I was introduced to Laurie when I was at university studying composition, and just really fell in love with her style of songwriting. I love the fact that she isn’t bound by any particular structure, so she can really explore an idea [within her songs]. Musically, she is beautiful and soulful, and the new album, Homeland, is really brilliant. The album is engaging on a personal level.

Tell me about your earlier project, 365 Minutes, and how it fed into Everyone Looks Good in Black.

365 Minutes was a project that got completely out of hand. I’d just come out of a four-piece band that I’d been in for ten years and wanted to explore my own songwriting. I thought, “I should force myself to do a little bit of writing every day.” I wrote a one-minute song, which is ridiculously restrictive, every day for one year. I had a website where I uploaded the song I wrote every day. It held me accountable. The project helped to build my confidence in my songwriting abilities. The other thing was that because I had to write a new song every day, I quickly ran out of the things that I would normally do. I was forced to explore areas I would normally never go anywhere near. I came up with loads of stuff: some of it was absolutely amazing, quite a lot of it was rubbish and unlistenable, but at the end of it I had a body of starting points in front of me that I could use for my album.

So, the more constrictive the conditions, the more creative you can be?

Definitely. Writing music is a series of decisions about what you don’t want to do, so there’s nothing better than a load of restrictions. Over the years of writing for loads of different media from theater to ad-music, I’ve found that you can actually force inspiration; quite often it will come out of something specific. There are ways of kicking yourself off by limiting yourself in some way. I’ve explored this and other ideas in my occasional songwriting blog, OneSixFourFive.

Your first full-length solo album, Everyone Looks Good in Black, explores some darker themes. What inspired you to go there?

I’ve always really enjoyed artists like Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Elvis Costello – people that make beautiful songs about terrible things. A gentle melody becomes really interesting when the subject is dark. It makes it more romantic, because there’s tragedy every step of the way. Love, for example, can be a strange and tragic place to be, and you can’t really explore a theme like love without being totally honest and including the darker aspects. I guess I’m interested in the bittersweet aspects of life.

What surprised you most about making the album?

I think it was how it sounded, at the end. I came from an electric guitar band background. I did this whole album myself, in my home project studio. Suddenly I had this array of instruments that I could mess about with. I wanted to play with different sounds, but I didn’t want to sound like some whiny-voiced English boy. I surprised myself that I made the sound work. It ended up feeling quite intimate. I had no expectations about how the album would turn out.

How does one stay open to the process, instead of carrying a set of preconceived notions about how a project will turn out?

I think the thing is you just get to a point where you let the song dictate. You just start feeling around. If it sounds right, you leave it in. You have to get over the fear of making a noise; you can always delete or record over it. If you’re not frightened to do something stupid, you’d be amazed at what works. I didn’t have any preconceptions about how the album would sound. I also didn’t sit there for hours trying to fit something into a box; I felt my way organically.

I know it’s like choosing your favorite child, but do you have a song that you’re most proud of?

Weirdly, yes. “St. James,” which is a really slow-burning song on Everyone Looks Good in Black. It took so long for me to work out what I was after with this song, but when I found it, it was simple. The problem was that I wasn’t writing a song, I was trying to write a sound; eventually I found the song that underpinned the sound. For me, it’s really precious. “St. James” is a retelling of Louis Armstrong’s version of “St. James Infirmary,” which is about a man standing over the body of his dead lover, and the song is all about him, not her. What I wanted to do was write the song from the woman’s point of view: working out what her motives were and empowering her through her own story.

When you’re not making music, how do you relax?

I’ve had to learn how to relax. For years, I’ve always felt like I should be doing something all the time. Now, I can kick back and do nothing and that’s ok. I do quite a lot of pretty much nothing. I also ride my horse, Benny, who lives just down the road from me.

Have you written songs for Benny?

Yes, I’ve written loads. The rhythm of being on a horse is really nice; I come up with lots of ideas when I’m riding, but most of them tend to be quite country, though, in a “bum-ba-da-dum” sort of way.

What are you working on now?

I just found a great recording studio here in Manchester that does lovely two-inch analog recordings, an absolutely beautiful place. I’m working with my full band, The Hitchcock Orchestra on The Black Sessions. It will be about four songs off the album, done with the full band instead of just me, and will be released as a live studio EP. The band gives the songs quite a different feel. It will give people more of an idea of what we sound like live. I’m excited by it; you’re going to hear a bigger and rougher sound.


Photo courtesy of Peter Glennie.

To learn more about Peter, visit his website, check out his songwriting blog, and follow him on Twitter: @peterglennie.

Ana Ottman is in awe of songwriters. (Ke$ha’s songwriter excluded.)

One Response to “Constrictive Creativity: Peter Glennie on Songwriting (and Horseback Riding)”

  1. Louise says:

    Great article. I’m a long time fan of Louis Armstrong and St James Infirmary. Also love the Cab Calloway version. Gonna check this version out!

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