The confounding variable

Here is an interview with my brother, John-Paul Young, who is a songwriter and postie, among other things. You can listen to some of the songs he wrote here. One day I’d like to make a documentary with him on the ancient art of delivering letters by hand which, it seems to me, is on its last gasp. For now though, I hope you enjoy this interview.

Tell us a little about the writing process behind your early songs. How did you go about getting the songs down on tape?

My recording methods were very primitive to start with. When I was 15 or so, trying to do multi-tracking involved moving furniture around, re-arranging speakers so they faced each other and using multiple tape-recorders. It took so long to set everything up that I often couldn’t be bothered doing any actual music-making by the end of it. Any recording I did do inevitably came out sounding sludgy and terrible. Things improved immeasurably when a departing English teacher from school sold me his ghetto blaster. It had a double tape-deck in it, and he showed me how to ‘bounce’ tracks together. It was like a poor man’s four-track. It was at that point that I started being able to record things like ‘Freak beneath the streetlight’.

With those songs, I usually started with the music first–i.e., a chord progression or riff. I wrote all the song-sections out on paper beforehand, so I would know when to change from chord to chord. I couldn’t read music so would just write the chord names, and if I was using a chord I couldn’t name, I would just draw a little picture of it to remind myself.

Having it all planned in advance also made it easier to add in the other instruments later. It was only after I’d recorded the backing music that I would give some thought to what I was going to sing–which seems a bit backwards to me now. I usually wrote the lyrics very quickly, with very little second-guessing. Likewise, I would only do one or two vocal takes before moving on. The last thing I would usually do was add the ‘confounding variable’–some kind of interesting noise or instrument that I had stumbled across. After that, it would be put onto a ‘master tape’ and thrown into the bedroom drawer.

Did you share the finished songs with many people? How many songs did you produce back then? What were your hopes for them?

I wrote dozens of songs back then. I was very prolific and could usually write one or two songs a night, which I would then compile into little albums. One album was called ‘Manufactured Moods’ and another was called ‘Unfinished Anthology’. I even did a Christmas album.

I was quite self-conscious about my reedy voice, so I did not let too many people hear the songs. Mum was my first listener, and she usually offered carefully-worded encouragement. Hutch, of ‘The Wash-house Tapes’ fame, was another early recipient of one of my albums. He rang Mum and Dad up afterwards and asked specially to speak to me, and said he loved it. I remember feeling very proud of that. In my last year at school, I developed a massive crush on a girl who worked at the library. My courting method involved skulking into the library and waiting until she smiled at me. I would then thrust a tape of my songs at her before promptly fleeing the premises. This routine was repeated every week for a number of months, and was unsuccessful.

Beyond working some kind of romantic magic, I did not have many hopes for those songs. I knew they were too rough and odd to attract much of an audience. I tended to think of them more as ‘stepping stones’ towards being able to write ‘proper’ songs. But once I learnt how to write proper songs at Polytech (I did a degree in Songwriting and Composition), I found myself wanting to return to that early, instinctive way of making music.

When did you first pick up a guitar and what inspired you to write a song?

Mum made me attend guitar lessons when I was about 10, and I quickly came to despise the instrument. I did not like the varnish-y way it smelt and I found it uncomfortable twisting my hand into the chord shapes. To get out of practising, I used to sneak up in the night and scrape away at the strings with a pair of scissors, so that they would break when I was called upon to do my nightly 20-minutes of guitar-playing. Eventually, the guitar lessons were quietly dropped. The guitar then lay dormant for several years, until I was ready to take it back up again at the age of 15.

I can’t recall what inspired me to start writing my own songs. I think my lack of musical skill–i.e., I couldn’t sing that well–meant that doing covers was beyond me, so it seemed easier to write my own songs. My early inspirations probably stemmed from the usual vagaries of adolescent politics, such as feeling unpopular or hunted in one way or another. Thankfully, it didn’t lead to too many overly angsty lyrics. In fact, one of my favourite lyrical couplets dates from that time: ‘Do you expect me to just quote ‘King Lear’/ while you hit me with your deck chair?’.

Do you have any words of advice for aspiring bedroom recordists?

Embrace your ineptitude, and beware of the ‘cult of competency’. Don’t over-emote.

What are you working on these days?

I am working on my third album. These new songs, in contrast to the songs I wrote when I was 17, are taking ages to finish. At first it was frustrating, but now I am enjoying chipping away at them. Hearing those old songs recently has reminded me of the way I used to write music back then, so I am trying to reclaim some of those old methods.

What’s your favourite chord and why?

I have always liked the common G chord. It is like the Optimus Prime of guitar chords–sturdy and uncomplicated, but capable of resolving any number of sinister minor-chord progressions.

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JP Young (left) and the author

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