Name: Harry Stafford
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current release: Harry Stafford's Bone Architecture, a collaboration with Marco Butcher, is out via Black Lagoon.
If you enjoyed this interview with Harry Stafford, stay up to date on his work on twitter and bandcamp.
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?
I think it’s important to have a very open mind to all the arts. I love cinema, theatre, architecture, sculpture, fashion, obviously a lot of music, literature, poetry, and the alternative press. I think if you absorb these avenues on a daily basis, you cannot help but be inspired by their very diversity. When you add the domestic, the zeitgeist or indeed reverie there is a fertile area for inspiration.
With this in place on a regular basis, I find I am consumed by the muse daily. I’m not convinced everything I create is great, but from an impulse to create I am a bubbling cauldron of ideas! I also am a great believer of getting the bad ideas out of your system so the good ones will come along, hopefully later
For you to get started, does there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
Yes, I am very much of the opinion that there should be an idea which should be followed through. To make it up as you go along, leads to frustration and disappointment. Lyrically, I will have a goal and an outcome. Or a beginning, middle and an end. You can waste a lot of time meandering aimlessly with lost time hoping it will come out as a work of genius, it probably won’t. I am always amazed at artists who on commenting about their greatest hits often come out with “Oh yeah I wrote that in five minutes”, No! it was lifetime's work of planning for those five minutes to fall into place!
The song, "Bone Architecture", from the album of the same name has a very direct and clear message and I wrote the lyrics from the visualization I had in my head at the time.
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'?
I like to have an idea and then to mull over it for at least a couple of days. Because I have a child to care for and a job, it isn’t always convenient to get to the studio and put down tracks. My wife is constantly challenging me with the line, “What? you need to go and lay a vocal down? How long is that gonna take?” So, I need to find my time, but in the waiting, I am secretly preparing and when the time comes, I am ready.
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?
No definitely not, they are distractions that delay the process and create a sense of false narrative for me. I have a space that is always the same, and a place where the magic happens. The moment I walk into this space it is an area of creativity and endless possibilities, to allow foreign elements into the zone would throw my groove off!
So, rituals no but a creative space, absolutely.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
I often start with a title, which might or might not survive. The first line of text is usually a beat or poetic-metre. So, I might write down ‘da da da-da-da, ba ba’. Utter nonsense to anyone but me, but all good because now I have the rhythm in my head. Song lyrics are not poetry, they are a direct expression of a moment in someone’s story and can be incredibly simplistic. ‘Dream baby Dream, forever’ Brilliant.
I have to try and use multiple keys for my songs as most of my them in the past were in Am or Em. But I find my very limited vocal range (I used to have a three octave range, not any more, sob!) means that C or E are the easiest to sing in. Sometimes you just need a drum beat like There’s someone tryin’ to get in, and away we go!
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?
One of my absolute favourite things is to be given a piece of music by someone else and put lyrics to it. This was the most exciting thing about ‘Bone Architecture’, with Marco Butcher. He would send me pieces of music and I would have to create a story, a rhyme, a piece of prose but moreover song lyrics to fit the music. It was both a challenge and a delight.
I found that I was freer to write about a far greater area of subject matter and content than had I written the music myself. I can’t say exactly why this is, but the freedom was an extraordinary exhilaration. Previously I have written both and it’s a much longer process, maybe I am too close to the music and take fewer risks.
‘Savannah of Havana’, ‘Juniper Sunday’ were both ideas that were completely inspired by the groove of the music, Likewise ‘There’s someone tryin to get in’, in fact Marco is so good and pushing my creative buttons it is a joy to work with him.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
I like to tell a story, or at least create an image in the listeners head whereby they can even indulge their own story. But I don’t believe in leaving it totally open, I think as a song writer you have a responsibility to send the listener on a journey of your invention, otherwise your influence has been wasted.
Syd Barrett, when he wrote those amazing songs in the 60s wanted an audience to share his visions, and I think I am the same. I also like lyrics that have a neat turn of phrase, I guess Tom Waits is the master of that, he creates a world by his turn of phrase that means you can visualize the locations and mind set of the characters and situations they are in, pure genius.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
I am a stickler for being true to the original idea.
I recently wrote a song about Dante’s Divine comedy called ‘We are the Perilous men’.
I realized that I was under-researched and had to read the entire text before I could finish my song. I needed to understand the ‘Nine circles of Hell’. By the time I had finished I had a much better and accurate song that I had before. Maybe only classical scholars will notice my endeavours but for me it’s been worth it. “Led by the hand of Virgil ...”
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?
No, it’s important to have a direction. If something unexpected and creative comes along and is an interesting addition you embrace it, but an unnecessary diversion will just fuck up proceedings. I don’t want to live in a world of chaos. My younger years were all about chaos. Now I have a Plan!!
If once the plan is completed it doesn’t work I can send it to the recycle bin
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?
These are the ideas that make up another song, another story another documentary film.
There is a certain amount of clutter that is very destructive to the creative process, and that is mixing your creative monsters. If it is intrusive to your original concept move away. I know it might be interesting and it might work, but the ‘might be’ bit of the equation is the bit that brings the whole project to a disappointing halt.
But if it works for other people go for it, I guess I like how I work!
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?
Yes, I think there is the eternal state of bliss that a great piece of music can take you. This is an element of spirituality that can fuel you to a higher level of creativity that will hopefully match a work of art that moves you to your very soul.
I suppose the real test is whether it moves a wider audience who share your ethereal moment. But if it’s only a personal thing that’s for me to enjoy and have all to myself.
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?
I believe that you have to end a piece of work. You have to have a deadline and it must be adhered to. It is really important that the process ends. Otherwise, it will be a fussed over work of imperfection.
How many times have we heard about a band’s first album being their best work? It is for the very reason that it was completed/ended at the right time and released. Look at the disasters of Guns and Roses and the Stone Roses attempts to release a second album. They left it too long and it resulted in a feeble record.
Even Leonard Cohen while writing ‘Hallelujah’ which took him a number of years knew when to stop. ‘It is done,’ he exclaimed, ‘and it is good!’
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 learnt that you need to leave an album or a song for at least a month and then review it. It is a period of time that will clear your delusions of grandeur and/or make space for the realities of whether your release is any good. Only then can it be considered a serious piece of work. In the past I have released in haste only to regret my impetuous and premature excitement.
But and this is an important factor of the creative process do not tweak longer than is necessary, or your original vision will be lost and probably the song album that you wanted to make in the first place.
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?
I am less interested in the mastering and production, but completely involved in the ideas, composition, and arrangements. I will spend my days in the studio trying to explain to my engineer and producer exactly what I want, I work with great people, and they understand me.
But knowing the language of music is a long and arduous one. I am always amused when I read music critics talk knowledgeably about harmonic complexity and other musicological conundrums, when often it is an unfathomable and insular musician’s trauma. I have nothing against critics musing at length about music, I love their interpretations, but sometimes musical experience clearly falls short in really identifying how music works. And I still love to hear their opinions!
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?
I never feel emptiness I feel a sense of success, because I know that an audience are hearing it for the first time and getting a whole sense of the music that I experienced when I heard it performed for the first time and made me want to share it with the world.
Sure, while I may have lost the novel aspect of the music through my familiarity, it is still as important and vital to them. Without this belief we are all lost.
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?
No, I can separate the two. Even as a musician or a filmmaker I can draw a line between obsessing and taking a mild interest in the mundane or the domestic.
It’s important to live within a parameter of ‘WILD FUCKING MAGIC CREATIVITY’. It’s so much more than living to put the bins out.
I am in a perpetual state of wanting to write music all the time. Whether the music sees a release or a gig, it doesn’t really matter, but it is still separate from my day to day tasks – but that’s not to say I am thinking about music, film and literature all the time!!