Skip Matheny –former bartender in a retirement community and currently a songwriter in the band Roman Candle — caught up with Fran Healy, frontman and main songwriter from the Scottish band Travis, before they played at Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre.
Who We’re Drinking With:
Travis are from Glasgow. They spent quite a bit of time at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the ’00s being one of the biggest, if not the biggest band, in the U.K. They have released six studio albums and have twice received the BRIT award for album of the year. Travis often receives credit for having paved the way for bands like Coldplay, Keane, etc. and Chris Martin has famously said that he is “a poor man’s Fran Healy.” If you are looking for a good introduction to Travis, you should check out the More Than Us (Live in Glasgow) DVD.
Though they co-wrote the last album as a band, their main songwriter (and “benevolent dictator”) is Fran Healy, who we are chatting with today.
Ed. Note: At the end of this post you’ll find a badass video of Fran and Andy of Travis done by the fellows at Lake Fever Productions. Do yourself a favor and take a look.
What’s your favorite Drink?
I like beer. But you can’t drink a lot of it because you get a fat face — a fat mask — at the age of 36. But living in Germany — I live in Berlin — it’s hard to avoid really nice beer.
When you’re writing songs do you think in terms of crafting songs for your record or do you just write what comes out?
The way you write is just something you pick up [over time]. It’s not like tying your shoelace. There isn’t just one or two ways of doing it. There is a load of ways to do it. No one teaches you how to write the song. You just stumble and roll and trip into it. So, each time I try to write a song, I stumble and roll and trip into it the same way I’ve always done from the very start, except, maybe, I can sort of do it a little quicker than I did before, but not much. The craft of it? … I don’t think of albums. It’s impossible to think of albums unless you’re a designer, and I’m not a designer. I just want to write something that’s honest and true to me.
What does that “stumbling and rolling and tripping into it” process look like for you or the band?
I think that there are two kinds of songwriters. There are songwriters and jingle writers — but within the jingle there can be truth. If you put truth in your jingle then it becomes less like an advertising jingle for your band. It becomes a little more in touch [with that truth] when you hear it, and it’s invisible, you can’t tell. But most people write jingles, because every songwriter is [also] a jingle writer. When I say jingle, it’s just advertising music without any soul to it, but it’ll get stuck in your head if it’s a great jingle. But I guess the truthful part of it comes in the lyric. If something has happened to you, or you’ve met someone, or you want to get something off your chest, and you put that in a song, it makes the song vibrate differently, it stops being a jingle. I’m not knocking jingle writers though, because I’m a jingle writer. I’m just saying that if you write a song that’s not a jingle, it’s got more depth.
I hear your lyrics as often times either very focused on one particular feeling, one particular minute, desire, etc. — the guy in the cinema from “I Love You Anyways” is an example — or else pulling the focus back to where the perspective is incredibly broad, actually all-inclusive. The song “Turn” is the best example, maybe, where all the statements are about as big and inclusive as somebody can write. Do you typically write whatever comes out, or are you aware of these perspectives between the very broad and the very focused?
That’s weird, because it just happens automatically. A great song can do many things. It’s a micro and a macro at the same time. Like “Turn” for instance is just me wishing for things that are just big human wishes, and that’s me on the ground, but you look on the bigger thing as well. The wishes are not just from me, but they’re human wishes, bigger things. So it goes both ways. For me it has to be truthful, and once it leaves the house it’ll be what it wants to be but it’ll have truth inside it, encoded into it. [The truth] will make it resonate differently from someone else’s song, that doesn’t have that little grain of truth in it. It’s not just writing words that are poetic sounding. I know bands that do that, and there’s no truth in there. It’s weird. It’s like an ingredient. The whole song doesn’t have to be truthful; it just has to have that little pinch of salt in it.
Does anything change within the band when you’re co-writing? For example on the Ode to J. Smith record, you all co-wrote several of the songs as a band. Was that a natural thing?
Well, the last album was the first time we did it like that. But it was kind of because of the necessity of that album. We had four weeks to write it, and so we kind of had to all sit down together and do it. It was almost like a school art project. Sometimes it was the same thing — as it has always been. I would come in with a song and we would work it out together. I’m kind of a benevolent dictator in our band, as Dougie [Payne] calls me, very much like, “This is it. No, this doesn’t sound right. Let’s do this instead.” Kind of like a director. On this record though, Dougie would bring in a song and we kind of had an agreement that since I’d be singing it, there are lyrics there that I could change and if there’s not a chorus, I could put a chorus in it.
But I must admit, I don’t like singing other people’s songs. It’s like if you were to put on my socks or I were to put on your socks, like straight off your feet, it just wouldn’t feel right. It makes me feel probably that same “wehhh…” But we did it on this record, and I’ve done it before. As I move on, I’d much prefer singing stuff that I sat down and wrote myself. However, saying that, the last record’s got some really good songs on it, but they still seem to — stick — live. I just can’t get into some of the songs properly when I’m performing them.
Do you have any plans to do any solo stuff?
It’s definitely something that I’ve thought about, something that I think I’ll probably do. Maybe simply to change something up… because Travis is a band that doesn’t stop. I don’t think we will ever stop making records, so it would be like a vacation.
Listening to music, did you ever go through a Bob Dylan phase?
I did. Blood on the Tracks and the Bootleg Series especially. Yeah, he’s great. But Joni Mitchell inspired me more than Bob Dylan. I think way more.
Did you ever see that DVD Woman of Heart and Mind.
It’s amazing. I cried during it. She is the “everything”– she ticks every box. There’s a lovely bit in that when Graham Nash is talking about when they were partners, and he talks about watching her write a song, and it was like…[his eyes get big]. If I remember correctly, he said she would just be fiddling around and fiddling around and eventually came this amazing thing.
Was there some minute when you were a kid when you heard a song, and the form or format of a pop song — of this little three-minute thing — clicked into place for you?
I think when you hear music when you’re a kid that occurs every time you hear it. If you don’t get it, you don’t hear it. I remember being really blown away by Annie the musical. I loved the songs and I loved the movie. I somehow related to that little girl’s character. I wasn’t an orphan, but I was an only child. I didn’t have a father. There was that whole thing about her looking for her dad. What’s strange, though, is that it wasn’t so much a mother she was looking for, but a father, and that’s the thing I really grabbed a hold off. I also remember walking to school when I was five and singing “Heart of Glass” [by Blondie]. When I hear it in my head, I see where I am. I’m on the street. It’s cold. I’m walking to school, but I didn’t know what I was singing. It was just on the radio at the time. I checked it on the internet to see exactly when it came out. It was on the airwaves for the first time when I started school. We didn’t have a television. I didn’t know who they were or what they looked like, I just heard it. It was everywhere at that point.
If your hand was forced and you had to cover a Madonna song tonight, what would it be?
Probably “Crazy for You.”
When you are sitting down to write, is that usually you going to a piano or picking up a guitar or neither?
No, it’s not really like that at all for me. With me it’s always been like doing your homework or something. I’ve always been envious of my friends who are actors or photographers and other types of the arts because in all of those arts, unless you’re a writer, something has to be there before you do it. If you’re an actor, you have a script and you act. That’s fair enough. If you’re a photographer, you have a subject. There’s a real thing there in front of you. But if you write – [you start with] nothing. It’s just a blank canvas, and I really just don’t even want to look at it sometimes. There are many ways to write though. Some days I sit down with a guitar, sometimes you can sit down with your mac and make a little drum beat, and play guitar over it, where the beat is like little traffic cones you can weave around. I think the key to writing good stuff is not thinking about it. If you think about it, it’s not going to be magic.
It reminds me of this quote from Neil Young’s camp, “The more you think, the more you stink.”
Wow. That’s amazing.
I think it was his and David Brigg’s saying. It had to do with the writing, but especially the recording for them.
That’s great. I never heard that. But it’s true, though. It’s true. Music and art do not come from a place of thought. I think that there’s a whole school now, it’s massive, the school of thought in songwriting. In certain bands it’s all about thought and it feels [too] structured.
Has your writing changed much since you moved to Berlin? I’ve always been fascinated by writers who go to a new country and suddenly write with super-infused life or accuracy about their home country, where they’d spent years.
I don’t know. It would have some effect on it. Songs come out of another place. It’s definitely just a matter of just sitting down and writing and you can do that anywhere. You can make art out of anything.
Like my two-year-old would make a statue out of those French fries, and then devour it — it wouldn’t matter where we was.
That’s a really good point. Maybe artists are the two-year-old inside everyone. Maybe artists don’t shut that two-year-old off and let it speak. The great thing is that’s why I think sophisticated music, like thought music, is not a two-year-old. The best music in me comes from the two-year-old. The worst music comes from the 18-year-old who is desperately trying to impress everyone and show them he’s not two.
I’ve always enjoyed how you lifted the “Wonderwall” chords for “Writing to Reach You,” and put it in the same key as “Wonderwall,” with the capo on the 2nd fret, and then made fun of the song in the lyrics. Can you think of any other “borrowings,” that you are willing to share? I have to confess here, that I shamelessly nicked the chords from “Falling Down” off of Good Feeling for a song of ours called “Driving at Morning.”
[Laughs] That’s fantastic, because I lifted those chords for “Falling Down” off of the D walk-down bit in “Hey Jude.”
Lastly, I’ve got a few pictures of some songwriters, and if you don’t mind just say whatever song or thing pops into your mind when you see these artists — even if the song or thing doesn’t have anything to do with the writer:
[Burt Bacharah Photo from the 1990s]
“Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”
[Marc Bolan Photo from the 1970s]
[Joni Mitchell Photo from the 1970s]
[Otis Redding Photo from the 1960s]
“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” That was weirdly one of the first songs I ever heard as a little kid, because my grandparents had a compilation record.
And introducing…our first co-sponsored Lake Fever Session with Fran and Andy of Travis recorded on Music Row. Check it out!