Life & Culture

A Masterclass in Songwriting from Johnny Marr

The co-songwriter of The Smiths turned solo artist shares five tips for crafting the perfect song

  • TextJoobin Bekhrad

There are few things as bewildering as songwriting, let alone explaining how one’s tunes came to be. Former Another Man cover star Keith Richards has often likened himself to an antenna that picks up on particular sounds to create variations on what he views as a singular, primordial theme originally written by ‘Adam and Eve’. Robert Plant scribbled down the lyrics to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven largely on the spot, and Paul McCartney’s anecdote about writing the melody to Yesterday in his sleep is now the stuff of rock and roll legend.

Like the aforementioned, the sui generis Johnny Marr – who has penned songs that have defined eras and generations, collaborated with some of the biggest names in the business, and is now duking it out as a redoubtable solo artist — also admits that, talent aside, there’s something magical and ineffable that happens during the finest of songwriting moments. Like the time when, right after being gifted a particular electric guitar he’d had his eyes on, the music for the Smiths’ Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now simply poured out of him in his New York hotel room. That’s not to say, however, that the songwriting process is completely spontaneous, or that one can’t — to an extent, of course — look at it systematically.

Shortly before playing a blistering show in Newcastle as part of his Call the Comet tour, the pentagenarian guitarist, singer, author, style icon, and songwriter par excellence gave Another Man tips for crafting the perfect song. Just add magic, and you’re set.

1. Find a method that works through trial and error.

“I think starting with the words first [during the Smiths’ early days] was a little limiting for me, really, because you have to craft around the metre and what you perceive the words to be about. Whereas my instinct was to play the way I feel, and then get [Morrissey] to sing on top … How I found out that [this process] was best was a little bit of trial and error that happened, really, over a 48-hour period … That set the template for the rest of the band’s career … And there was the other thing I talked about in my book, which was real, pure magic, when [Morrissey and I] would also get together face-to-face, pretty much with our knees practically touching, and I’d take a little Sony Walkman, held between my knees, and the guitar on my lap, and I would play into the machine the song I had at the time with him inches away from my face, and that was a beautiful thing, and that always worked.”

2. What’s in a name? A lot.

“Often, I’ll have a concept for a song, say, like The Tracers on my new record, where I had the title for quite a long time, and it evoked a science fiction kind of situation. And as I was making the rest of the Call the Comet album, a science fiction kind of narrative started to appear in a few of the songs. About four or five songs in, I felt I needed a song to make that more explicit, more obvious that it was a sort of a loose concept running through some of the other songs, and I had this title, The Tracers. So I then set about writing the appropriate music for this concept of an outside intelligence come to reset the Earth … The Messenger, for example, was another title that I really liked, and I couldn’t really believe there wasn’t already a song called The Messenger. That conjured up a certain kind of music.”

3. Not every song has to make sense.

“Some songs work better without a narrative. In my mind, Marc Bolan is a great example of that, because his songs are essentially very nonsensical. If they’d made literary sense or if they had been a bit profound, then, you know, you would have lost everything that’s great about Telegram Sam or Jeepster. Those songs set up an imagined narrative, an imagined environment, imagined characters, an imagined world that give it a sort of esoteric quality that perfectly complements this pseudo-rock and roll background. All of this stuff is magic to me.”

4. Read. And write.

“The song Spiral Cities was directly inspired by a book called The Crystal Chain Letters, which was written in the early 1920s, and was a correspondence between eminent architects of the day who were involved in this project where they exchanged letters and designed a mostly glass community above ground level. And that struck me as being quite fantastic, in the true sense of the word, and just inspired me to think of this beautiful idea of cities in the sky, and I married that idea with a love story about two situationists.

“When I wrote my autobiography a few years ago, I got back into Joan Didion and Susan Sontag and William Burroughs… and I think the experience of writing the book really helped me with writing the lyrics on the new record. Walking to the Sea, for example, has got a spoken-word section in it, and there’s a very deliberate narrative, and this story of me clambering over rocks and diving into the sea in the hope of [reversal] – all of these are things I wouldn’t have done on the first two records, and I think they came about because of a reinvestigation of essayists, I think.”

5. Choose your tools wisely.

“I knew The Smiths’ song The Headmaster Ritual was a happening piece of music, and was quite inspired, but, because I’d been playing it on an acoustic guitar for months, I just couldn’t get away from it sounding like Joni Mitchell. But when we came to make the Meat is Murder record, and I had the red Les Paul [electric guitar], I kind of put that in the tune and it then sounded like a Smiths song, and it all came together. On The Messenger, as I mentioned earlier, I had the concept for the words, and I had the vocal melody, but I was playing it on a 12-string acoustic, and it only came together when I decided to make it an electro song … So that was a matter of putting the guitar down.”