JOSH PYKE AND YOUTH GROUP’S TOBY MARTIN ON THE FINE ART OF SONGWRITING
August 29, 2006 | Author: Stu McCarney. Pics by Julia Wilson
What happens when two of Australia’s most talented young songwriters sit down and talk shop? Stu McCarney chairs a chat between Youth Group’s Toby Martin and singer-songwriter Josh Pyke that explores the heart of their passion and craft.
Let’s start with your earliest memories of songs and music…
Toby: One of the big records played around my house was Will The Circle Be Unbroken. All these 1950s and 1940s country musos came together in the 70s and recorded this six record live set. I particularly remember a song called “Wreck On The Highway” which is about a drink driving accident. I used to love listening to it – it used to freak me out as well (laughs). One of the lyrics was “whisky and blood mixed with glass where they lay”. It’s really like gothic country. When I listen to it now it sounds like a hokey country song, but when I was 10 it was a bit scary.
Josh: So a country-folk song, that was your first influence…?
Toby: By the time I started writing songs I was more listening to The Cure or REM or Ride or the more popular music at the time. But I think that early country music maybe influenced my interest in melancholia, but more subconsciously, I’d say.
Josh: The stuff you listen to as a kid comes back to you. It’s probably in your blood or whatever. Mine was early Doobie Brothers, The Beach Boys, The Beatles. Their harmonies drive me crazy and I’m obsessed with harmony still. Similarly, I just used to trawl my parents record collection. Like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (NGDB)…
Toby: That’s on Will The Circle Be Unbroken…
Josh: Bullshit! Really?
Toby: Yeah, on that record they were like the backing band for all the singers and lead musos.
Josh: They did the song I did on Triple J’s Like A Version thing. The song that absolutely got me into music and made me realise I had an affinity for music was a cover of a Kenny Loggins song that the NGDB did of ‘House At Pooh Corner”. It’s almost like a nursery rhyme but there’s something incredibly sad about it and it’s the first song that I ever just… I remember sitting on the stairs of my house just crying. I remember asking my mum about why I would be crying about a song and that’s when I realised I just gotta get more of this emotional response from music. It’s just a really sad song, about your innocence fading and I find they’re themes I sing a lot about now. So, the NGDB was probably the first one that killed me.
Who are the songwriters you cite as influences now?
Josh: For me, it’s all lyric based stuff. I really, really love Augie March – they taught me about jamming as many words as possible into a song. Listening to Thom Yorke taught me to space one phrase out over almost a whole verse. And Elliott Smith taught me about throwing horrible bitterness in there as well, and juxtaposing that against beautiful, really child-like sentiment. So they’re probably the big ones recently. And also Interpol.
Toby: I love that new Augie March record, just thinking about it. The first record’s fantastic too…
Josh: “Owen’s Lament” off that first record… I love that line where he says “May your children remind you of me / whether by another or the ghost of me and you”. It’s brilliant. Every song. He’s one of those guys, I read his lyrics and I’m like I’m never gonna be this good.
Toby: I think my favourite lyricist is David Berman from the Silver Jews. I’ve never heard anyone write lyrics like him. They were sort of a country-esque band and Steve Malkmus from Pavement was in them for a while as guitarist. But David Berman is a poet and then he started sort of putting his lyrics to music. I don’t know how to describe it (laughs). It’s pretty cosmic but it’s also very real at the same time. Yeah, very big fan. I also think that Paul Simon is a very good lyricist, and kind of under-rated in some ways cause he’s a contemporary of Bob Dylan. He manages to write some very simple and powerful things.
How do these guys inform your work?
Toby: For instance, a song like “Start Today Tomorrow” on our new record is a very Paul Simon kind of song. It’s a very interior narrative. Just about someone thinking about stuff but it’s just trying to be interesting about that.
Josh: That’s the thing with all the artists I mentioned. They make you try harder and look at things in a way you mightn’t normally have. Whatever it is that evokes the response in you to their songs, you want to make other people respond like that to your music. And you can’t over-think that because you’re gonna write something really contrived and it’s not gonna work. You need to balance that thing of following your instincts and saying something that has instinctively made you react to something and not worry about whether it makes sense or not. It influences me in the sense I try harder but I also try less in a way – like I don’t try and make it something somebody could understand.
Toby: That’s a good way of putting in it. When I first started writing songs I was really into Billy Bragg, who’s a very literal songwriter. But more recently I’ve been interested in doing something that‘s instinctual and on paper might not be the cleverest lyric but there’s something in the words and the way they fit the music that makes you feel something. But I think both ways of writing is valid…
Josh: You’ll probably bounce between both approaches. That’s the thing with songwriting. It’s an exploration of what you’re capable of and whatever’s floating your boat at the time.
Does listening to these songwriters help you find your own unique voice?
Josh: Listening to those artists makes me want to try harder and follow my instincts more. If I want to write really honest, basic boy girl stuff then I’ll do it and not feel conscious about it.
Toby: (laughs) Some of those really good people can freak you out for a few weeks. You can get very obsessed with the way they write and sometimes it’s a challenge to look for the spirit of their music rather than literally what it is. The songs that just appear to arrive in your brain tend to be the best ones.
Josh: You almost question it sometimes. You’re like, ‘I didn’t try very hard to write this’. I don’t know about you, but half the time I sit down… actually I would say every time I sit back and look at a song that I’ve written I don’t recall writing any of it. It’s bizarre.
Toby: Yeah. I think to write a song you’re happy with your mind has to be relaxed or something to the point where you are just channelling.
Josh: It’s almost like… “Middle Of The Hill” I didn’t try at all to write that song. I just sat down and the next thing it was written. On the last tour I did I was actually listening to it while I was playing it and I was going, ‘Oh actually, that’s not bad how that changes from that to that…’.
Toby: That’s really interesting. Cause to me “Middle Of The Hill” sounds like one of your more thought-out and considered songs.
I guess there’s just so many lyrics in it…
Josh: I just sat down and it was written.
Toby: The song called “Sicily” on our new record I really wrote in the time the song goes for. It was almost a thing to do. I was thinking about going overseas and I just wrote what was in my head and I never even considered it would be on the record. I played it to Danny, our drummer, and he said ‘I thought it was a cover! (laughs)
How do you know when you’ve written something magic or good?
Josh: Hindsight is really the only time the writer can know. With “Middle Of The Hill” I remember thinking ‘I can guarantee no one is going to like this cause it doesn’t have a chorus’. But it became the most well received song I’ve written. It’s quite a humbling thing to accept that you can’t be objective about your own music. You have to have some discipline in making sure you don’t talk yourself up to people when you’re talking about it and say, ‘Well, I’m the writer,
I know what I’m talking about in this song’. Everyone knows that every band that plays around the world every Saturday night thinks they have a shot at being the best band in the world, but it’s often not the case.
Toby: I think you sometimes have to try and forget about being the songwriter and try and be the audience. Sometimes it’s as simple as: if you enjoy playing and listening to the song there’s a good chance other people are as well. Like even though with Middle Of The Hill your conscious brain thought, ‘It doesn’t have a chorus’, you just enjoyed playing it.
Tip for emerging songwriters?
Josh: Don’t try too hard and follow your instincts.
Toby: That’s a lesson for life, not just songwriting.
Josh Pyke’s ‘Feeding The Wolves’ EP and Youth Group’s album ‘Casino Twilight Dogs’ are out now on Ivy League Records.
Websites: www.joshpyke.com www.youthgroup.com.au
JOSH PYKE AND YOUTH GROUP’S TOBY MARTIN ON THE FINE ART OF SONGWRITING