Name: Gareth Dunlop
Occupation: Singer, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist
Current release: Already a respected songwriter for artists like Tim McGraw & Faith Hill, and John Oates, Gareth Dunlop has been working hard on raising his own profile over the past months. His new single "Look Back Smiling" is a harbinger of his full-length album Animal, out March 18th 2022. Dunlop is also currently on tour with Vance Foy.
If you enjoyed this interview with Gareth Dunlop and would like to stay up to date on his work, visit his official homepage. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
It's always welcome when inspiration strikes … for me personally I get inspired by film, music and conversations with the people in my life. I listen to a lot of instrumental music. It lets my mind wander and formulate emotions not spoken verbally through the music I’m listening to. Sometimes inspiration comes from something someone will say or has said to me in conversation. A lot of songwriting covers the big themes in life and everyone has their own experiences of those themes - love, loss, friendship, family.
I go through seasons of writing and not writing… I feel when I’m in a flow of writing, I’m also in a flow of searching. The same interaction, movie or piece of music could pass me by when I’m not searching. But when I am, I feel it’s different.
‘Born Uncool’ was written after I spent the day at my folks’ house watching old childhood videos.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas or what some have called a 'visualization' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
When I sit down to get something started I usually have a few different pages in front of me. One page might have the guts of a theme I’m wanting to write about. This page is usually littered with offshoots of connected feelings, rarely rhyming and usually pretty un-formed. The second page is usually a little tighter. Some more thought out and formed sections. The guitar or piano is under my hands when I look at this page and I’m singing out lines. The last page is where things get a lot more locked in. There’s a clear beginning, a middle and an end.
It might sound a bit formulaic, but that first page is where the chance happens for me. I don’t think about structure, or rhyme and rarely melody (unless that’s been the catalyst). There’s still elements of chance on the 2nd page but I’m more aware of a structure. And there have been many times that the 3rd page gets ripped up and I go back fishing from the 1st page.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
In a perfect world the house is quiet, kids asleep, my Martin D18 is sitting on the table top, there are pages in front of me, I’ve got a good pen (not pencil) and my phone is silent beside me to record ideas as I go. That scenario is rarely the case though.
My kids are usually making a joyous racket, the dog needs to be taken out, people are calling at the door and my phone is lighting up like a Christmas tree.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
Coffee is a big one if I’m writing during the day … and if I’m writing at night I usually have a few whiskeys.
One thing I’m told I do incessantly is pace around the room when I’m searching for something. I think the act of moving around shifts focus from the paper in front of me to the actual thought.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
It’s different every time. Sometimes it’s a melody, sometimes it’s a musical pattern and sometimes it’s a lyric.
A long time ago I was advised to always write in pen because there are no bad ideas.. they just might not end up getting used. There’s a commitment to pen I love but also a freedom to know that just because I wrote something down doesn’t mean it has to be used.
‘Look Back Smiling’ was one of those songs I felt like I had to write straight away following a parent/teacher meeting about my son. The lyric “look back smiling” was the first piece of that puzzle.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
For me the lyric usually takes shape along with the melody I’m humming. There’s been a few times that I’ve been without my guitar and I’ve written down a full 3 verses, bridge and chorus. But even then the lyric usually gets reshaped when the music or melody starts to come.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
It seems like a pretty obvious thing to say but I love lyrics that are honest, sometimes painfully honest. A great writer once told me to write like no one would ever hear it. It’s a difficult thing to do because somewhere in my head I’m always aware of the end product and how people might react to it.
On a technical level I love lyrics that have a real depth of field. Paul Simon is the master of this in my opinion. Inside of a single line he can take you from the creases of a palm to 30 thousand feet in the air.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Once the bones of song have been tackled I more often than not move the process into my studio. Gradual is the perfect way to describe this part for me. Finding the right tempo, key, arrangement, accompaniment and production can take time. It's time I love spending and for me is equally as important as the first phase of actually writing.
‘Traindriver’ was a mess of a song on acoustic guitar when it was first written. It was only when I got it into the studio and threw some sounds at it that it came to life.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
It's like two parts of the brain. One part is unchained and the other is in more control - sorting through those notions for the meat of the song. 3rd page vs 2nd page.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
Yeah this happens for sure. You’ve got a clear path in front of you and all of a sudden a lyric or thought comes out of nowhere and flips the song on its head.
Sometimes this is great … almost like your inner conscience has a better way to do it! And sometimes it's just great fodder to have written down for another song.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
I’ve been writing songs for 15 years and I’m still amazed at how songs come about. How there can be nothing and then be something.
I don’t know if I have a fixed creative state. But what I find helps me personally is turning up for the moment - having a dedicated time and appointment with your own creativity (this is discussed beautifully in Steven Pressfield’s ‘The War Of Art’) and also being okay with the idea of not getting anything.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
Being a bit of a studio nerd, the end of the process for me is when I can listen back to a mix and sign off on it to go out into the world. I have hard drives full of completed songs but they aren’t produced or mixed. These fall into the unfinished category for me.
‘In a Hundred Years’ was mixed and re-mixed and at one point was going to end up in the unfinished category until the last mix came through.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practice?
I have a bad habit of thinking everything new is great! It's only when I go back with fresh ears and a clear mindset that holes can start to appear in the lyrics or the melody doesn’t stand up the way I thought it did. It's really important for me to give myself time away from new songs … especially if I have been pouring over not only the writing but the tracking, production and mixing.
When I’m getting to the point where I’m feeling really good about something, I usually let other trusted folk hear it to see how it hits someone completely outside of the process.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
Very involved … I’m aware that great songs should be able to stand up on phone recordings but I’ve also seen and heard first hand the massive role the right production and mix can play in the energy, feel and overall emotion of a track.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Yeah this is a strange feeling … all that soul searching, writing, re writing, recording, editing - the list goes on and on … and then it’s out. Your job shifts from creation to promotion. Frank Zappa once said “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” I try to remind myself about that line every time I put something out into the ether.
Getting back into the creative side after a release can be tough. But I’m a firm believer that being creative for a songwriter doesn’t have to live and die on the blank page. It helps me to try to fill those days with time in the studio mixing other artist's music, practicing a new instrument or even getting my head around a new piece of studio gear.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
I personally believe you can be creative and find creativity in most aspects of life. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they plate a meal or reply to an email.
Music gives me the chance to express how I put thoughts together, my feelings on the big issues in life, how I feel about events in my past, how I feel about my future and how I value the relationships around me. Those thoughts probably don’t go through a barman's head while he’s pulling a pint, but the best pints are still pulled with care, a smile, a ‘hows your day going?’ and in a warm, welcoming atmosphere. In my book, that takes a bit of creativity.