The Third Something

106 / Songwriting With Sir Paul McCartney

A good set of instructions for any artist.

A portrait of Sir Paul McCartney playing guitar in his garden in ink and pen by Adam Westbrook

This isn’t a letter about the creative lessons to be learned from Peter Jackson’s documentary.

Countless think-pieces have already been thunked — and besides, you can watch the films and find your own lessons.

Something most of you cannot do, I’m guessing, is pop into the British Library on the Euston Road in London, on a frosty winter morning; perhaps to escape the cold more than anything else.

Inside you’ll find a modest temporary exhibition that’s almost trying not to be found: a few small display cases containing original handwritten lyrics by Sir Paul McCartney.

You’ll also find Sir Paul’s thoughts on the art of songwriting printed on the walls around you. I have written some down for you (in fact, I tried to photograph them, but I was told off by a security guard!)

On the mindset for writing a song: (emphasis mine)

“The act of writing a song is a unique experience unlike anything else I know. You have to be in the right mood and start with a clear mind. You must trust your initial feelings because at the beginning you don’t really know where you’re going.”

On the learning to write songs:

“For me, the first thing was to copy other people, like Buddy Holly and Little Richard. It meant memorising their songs, learning the standards of early rock and roll, but in my early to mid-teens it occured to me to try writing my own. I’d start off with the very simplest idea, and I’d see what came out.”

On the process of songwriting:

Over time, I came to see each song as a new puzzle. I often think that when I’m writing a song, I’m following a trail of bread crumbs. Someone’s thrown out these breadcrumbs and I see the next few, and ‘Somedays I look’ and see the next one. I’m following the song, rather than writing it. I often liken it to doing crossword puzzles.

On capturing a visitation:

Somewhere in a dream I heard this tune. I fell out of bed and the piano was right there. I thought I’d try and work out how the song went. And to solidify it in my memory I blocked it out with some dummy words: ‘scrambled eggs, oh my baby, how I love your legs, scrambled eggs’. I wanted to keep the melody so I knew I’d have to fit the syllables of the words around that.

This feels like a good set of instructions for any artist: clear your mind and trust yourself; copy others first and then try the simplest of ideas; the piece is there waiting to be discovered, use dummy words to fill in the gaps until you find it — and keep a piano by your bed at all times!

Until another Sunday soon,

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