How I Unlocked the Songman In Me – Joe Craig

The train from London to Peterborough isn’t as glamorous as the Orient Express or the Trans-Siberian Railway. It’s not even as exciting as the journey from Edinburgh to London, which was, I think, the journey on which JK Rowling first conjured up Harry Potter.

Well for me, it was London to Peterborough. ‘Hold on,’ you might be thinking, ‘that journey’s only about an hour – how inspirational can it be?’

An hour is enough. Enough for my mind to wander, enough for me to re-evaluate my entire creative life, and certainly enough for me to write a song. I used to do it all the time. Before I was a novelist I worked as a songwriter and every day I gave myself the task of writing a new song in an hour.

If you can’t get the basics of the song right in an hour, it’s not worth writing. (I use a similar principle now when I’m planning my books – if you can’t tell the whole story aloud, off the top of your head, in ten minutes, it’s not worth telling.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I want to stay for a moment on that train from London to Peterborough, where I was – how did I describe it? – “re-evaluating my entire creative life”. Yes, that was how it felt.

Most writers I meet have always wanted to be writers. They can’t imagine doing anything else and they say they can’t be happy unless they’re writing. These are people who have always written and who seek out stories so that they don’t have to stop writing.

I don’t have that kind of desire to be a writer. I enjoy it, of course, and I feel very lucky to be able to do it for a living. But I don’t live for it. As long as I continue to have ideas I will want to write them, but if they ever stop, so will I. And I won’t miss writing. That role in my life has always been played by music.

Once my first ‘Jimmy Coates’ book came out in 2005, people I met for the first time had no idea about my past as a musician. The books took over. Within a couple of years even people who had known me before, seemed to forget that I am, at heart, a songwriter.

Eventually, I think I questioned it myself. Could I still write songs? Was I so far steeped in the world of writing children’s thrillers that I could never get back to that first creative passion? Was I, in fact, more a novelist than a musician?

I love writing thrillers. It’s a job to which I give total dedication and I’m hugely proud of everything I’ve published. But I think of it as a job – a very fun job. Writing songs feels like an identity. While I wasn’t doing it, what was I losing?

On that train to Peterborough, on the way to a book event at a school, it all came to a head. I wondered whether there would be a piano in the school hall. There’s usually a piano in every school hall – I knew this because I’d given hundreds of talks in school halls, every time standing in front of a covered or locked piano that played no part in my event. I decided I didn’t want to do that again.

Very quietly, I started to hum. I found a tune and some lyrics. Nothing perfect, but it was a pleasing enough diversion. Then, as if someone was trying to tell me something, the train was delayed. Not for long – but just long enough for me to polish the lyrics in my head. To hone the tune. To come up with a middle-8 and experiment with ways of harmonising what I had.

When I arrived at the school I went straight into the hall. There was the piano. I whipped off the cover (without asking for permission) and did a little final tinkering with the arrangement while my audience filed in. I was buzzing. The songwriting synapses had come un-gummed. Parts of my brain that had been dormant for years were suddenly fizzing.

I delivered my talk with a slightly manic excitement, knowing what was coming up. Then, at the end, I gave the World Premiere performance of The Travelling Songman. It became the first track on my album and you can hear it here: http://joecraig.bandcamp.com

Joe will be talking about his journey ‘From Stories to Songs and Back Again’ on Thursday, June 2nd at 9.30pm in The Horseshoe Bar and Restaurant. Click here for details of how to book.

You can learn about Joe Craig on his website: www.joecraig.co.uk