Taking a line for a wal­k

The frippery of Cole Porter or Noël Coward might be delicious, but I’ve learned from writing pop lyr

I write songs for singers. Rather, I write lyrics for composers to use for making songs - but, in my head, there is almost always an ideal performance of the lyrics by an ideal singer. Backing this up, giving it shape and rhythm, there is ghost music I can hear but couldn't ever write down, strum on the guitar or even hum for you.

The singers for whom I most often write are Dusty Springfield, Chet Baker and Billie Holiday. Holiday is a dangerous singer to dream of writing songs for. She was just too exquisite. How she sang "cry"; how she sang "time"! She could take shabby lyrics and break every heart in the room: "Love is like a faucet/It turns off and on/Sometimes when you think it's on, baby/It has turned off and gone." She could also take generalised lyrics and make them her own, while reinventing the melody as swingingly tenderly as her hero Louis Armstrong.

There are lots of songwriters who have had a bigger influence than Holiday on the lyrics that I write - Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Jacques Brel. But, in a strange way, to have their voices in my head as I write would be an embarrassment and would probably cramp whatever style I have. These great writers don't need my words and theirs are best delivered in their own voices.

This is particularly true of Jarvis Cocker, another wonderful writer, whose book of selected lyrics, Mother, Brother, Lover, is published by Faber on 20 October. Most of the time, Cocker's words would suffer badly from being covered. I can't think of any other singer who could pull off the magnificently clumsy gabble of: "She told me that her dad was loaded/I said, 'In-that-case-I'll-have-a-rum-and-Coca-Cola.'" I can't imagine ever writing that couplet, partly because I don't drink rum and Coca-Cola but mainly because, to exist, it needed to come out of the excruciating experience of Jarvis.

The singers I dream I am writing for were all defined by cover versions - songs that they inhaled as someone else's and exhaled as their own. In writing lyrics, I don't want to steal the words from the singer before I have even handed them over. They have to be my sentiments exactly but they also have to be shareable, breathable.

For me, usually a lyric starts with something that I want to say but can't, or wanted to say but couldn't. I blurt it out on to the page, as directly as possible. This is the only way it might become emotionally useful to other people - which is what I believe songs should be.

The most popular pop songs are those that allow people to say something that they need to say - either to themselves, or to a particular person, or to the world: "My Way", "I Will Survive", "Someone Like You", "One Moment in Time". These are karaoke classics for very good reason: they connect, usefully. However, there's a point at which magnificent connection tips over into cynical manipulation - the natural home for which is Steve Wright's Sunday Love Songs (on Radio Two-ooo-ooo). Because it's so relentlessly cosy, my partner has developed a bizarre liking for this mawkfest. Yet she allows me to turn the radio off whenever Steve stoops to Luther Vandross's and Richard Marx's "Dance With My Father". If it's merely "Wind Beneath My Wings", I can inoculate myself by thinking of Brian Potter in Phoenix Nights, singing his tender version - "You Are the Wind Beneath My Wheels".

Beyond even these anthems are the songs, such as "Happy Birthday to You", which become ubiquitous. (An aside: a musician friend observed that even though most people aren't keen on contemporary microtonal music, if you listen to any group of ten non-musicians singing "Happy Birthday to You", it's about as extreme as atonality gets. What he hates even more than this, though, is professional musicians who harmonise the whole way through.) The greatest songs are those in which the words and music seem indivisible. If you asked me what my grandest ambition was, in co-writing songs, it would be to come up with "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star".

The nearest I've come, in terms of simplicity and inevitability, is in the lyrics for a song called "No Longer". (I co-wrote this with Chantal Acda of the Belgian band True Bypass. They're recording an album using my lyrics.) It's a song in the persona of a beautiful, ageing woman facing the mirror: "I knew the light and how to play with it/I'd take the night and spend all day with it."

There are trace elements of Cole Porter here, I am aware. And I'll admit to being a sucker for the cupcake cuteness of "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love", the sincere insincerity of "You're the Top" or the utter bonkersness of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" - in which, having deliberately saddled himself with the "-addy" rhyme, Porter winds up rhyming it with "caddy" and "finnan haddie". This overstretching into the delightfully unexpected is a trick that everyone picked up from Byron's Don Juan. If a lyric writer isn't going for comic effect, they're best not picking a rhyme word that they're going to have to cheat on. Cohen worked this out years ago ("Hallelujah"); Bob Dylan occasionally struggles ("Shelter from the Storm").

Buried even deeper than Porter in verbal frippery is Noël Coward, although "Mrs Worthington" is redeemed by its bitchiness and "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" by the sheer tongue-twisting achievement of Coward getting through it without tripping up once. These are what I would call "numbers", though, rather than straight songs. And, as far as I'm concerned, the king of numbers is Brel: "Jacky", "Amsterdam", "Mathilde". Mon Dieu! No one else can whip words into such a frothing frenzy. I have had one serious go at the chanson that leaves the singer's life upon the stage.

It's a song called "What Haven't I?":

What haven't I known that I shouldn't
have known?
What haven't I dirtied? What haven't
I shamed?
What haven't I dreamt as I lay all alone
and my thoughts were untamed, and my
thoughts were untamed?

This is a long way from the simplicity of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star". When a work of art is truly great, it becomes almost impossible to imagine it not existing. This, I think, is what nagged at McCartney after he'd written - or thought he might have written - "Yesterday". "For about a month, I went round to people in the music business and asked them whether they had ever heard it before. Eventually, it became like handing something in to the police. I thought if no one claimed it after a few weeks, then I could have it."

It's not cool to side with McCartney over John Lennon. In terms of the lyrical-musical pas de deux, however, there is no competition. Lennon was a heavy-footed hoofer whose ancestor was Carl Perkins and whose successors were Slade and Oasis - straight lines over a sludgy trudge.McCartney, coming out of a packed radiogram of music hall, musicals, the great American songbook and Buddy Holly, is far more of a Fred Astaire. His syncopations are delicious. He spends far more time in the air. Occasionally, this is because he's peddling fluff such as "Martha My Dear". Yet, at his best, he twinkles a lyrical line over a musical line like no other English songwriter. I have sung "Here, There and Everywhere" as a lullaby to my children for the past three years and it's still fresh to me, still a miracle of melancholy poise. I love and worship McCartney, whose progeny include Costello and Paddy McAloon.

Mostly I write lyrics for the composer Emily Hall. Her background is in contemporary classical music but she has been moving towards a more folky, poppy style. Where we meet is in aspiring to simplicity. One note, one word, not five, not two. So far, we've done a set of love songs and a song cycle - "Life Cycle" - about losing, having and loving a baby. These have been performed at the Purcell Room in London and the Latitude Festival. But as far as I'm concerned, our best success is co-writing a song that has become one of my children's lullabies.

Lightning over the sea.
Won't you dance a waltz with me?
Lightning over the sea.
Won't you dance a waltz?

Not "Twinkle, Twinkle", maybe, but something emotionally useful. And I can just imagine Billie Holiday swinging it.

Toby Litt's most recent novel is "King Death" (Penguin, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The art of lying

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.