British acoustic folk-rock trio Bear’s Den (Andrew Davie, Kev Jones, and Joey Haynes) released its first EP, Agape, in August. Formed just last year, the band has garnered critical acclaim for its honest lyrics and multi-instrumental harmonies, and supported acts including Of Monsters and Men, Ben Howard, and Mumford & Sons. Lead singer/guitarist Andrew chats with American Songwriter about the band’s first American tour, his source of songwriting inspiration, and why it’s important to write ideas down.
What are some of your distinct memories from your recent US tour?
I think my most distinct memories are of the Gentlemen of the Road Stopover Shows. We’ve been on tour across America for six weeks now and getting to visit small towns not usually visited by touring bands was just amazing. Meeting people from the towns was awesome and they seemed so appreciative of what Mumford and Sons were doing by organizing shows there. People we played to and met at those shows have travelled for up to 6 hours to see us play in other states on the Daughter tour which has been just incredible.
Who would win in a fight between you and indie rockers Grizzly Bear?
Definitely Grizzly Bear. If they are anywhere near as badass as their music is then I’m pretty sure they’d kick our asses.
Tell us a bit about your new EP.
Our new EP is called Agape and it’s a bunch of songs that we’ve been touring for the last year. The EP explores themes around family and loss and we’re all really proud of it.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
I think Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Bonnie Prince Billy are probably my three main heroes.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I started writing songs when I started learning guitar. I was 16 and they were terrible. Really bad. It kinda just took over my life though. Despite them being bad it was my first attempts at making or creating something and I got a real kick out of it. I’d hope after 9 years that the songs sound a little better! I definitely don’t think of it as something that I no longer need to work at. The discipline, graft and potential self-discovery of songwriting is what appeals to me and I don’t think that’s going to go away anytime soon.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
The first song I ever wrote was called “Long Dark Night of the Soul”. I completely ripped off Needle and the Damage Done by Neil Young for the chords and it was pretty terrible. Very angsty lyrics as the title suggests and I’m gonna stop talking about it because it’s making me cringe even thinking about it.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
I wrote a song called “Bethlehem” the other day that I’m pretty excited about. Now I have to try and convince the band that it’s not totally rubbish which I find really intimidating.
How do you go about writing songs?
Recently I haven’t really been able to sit down with a guitar and write while on tour so I’ve been writing a lot on my phone and I try and grab five minutes during soundcheck to play them through a little bit. I used to write songs religiously and spend days and weeks working on one song till it was done but once I started getting busier I just have about 3-5 ideas on the go at the same time and when I have some time I work on them and I probably get more songs done this way than I ever used to.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
My friends and my family inspire me a lot. People accidentally say things all the time that are amazing and a lot of our words are taken directly from things that people close to me have said to me. A lot of my friends are in bands as well and listening to their music inspires me a lot. I was recording some demos for a friend of mine called Henry Brill back home just before i came out on tour and that was a really great experience. He is a very talented writer. I also try to read a lot and study how people tell stories as I think it’s an amazing gift and I love learning how different people do it.
What’s a song on Agape you’re particularly proud of?
I’m really proud of “Isaac”. I think Joey’s banjo parts are really beautiful and I love Kev and Joey’s harmonies. Lyrically I think it’s the song I understand the least as well and I find new ways of interpreting it all the time which keeps it fresh and interesting to me when we’re playing it every night. I think whatever your religious beliefs are – the story of the binding of Isaac is interesting and in a weird way quite an obvious place to look for inspiration when it comes to themes about family.
What’s a lyric or verse from Agape you’re a fan of?
I like the verse in “Mother”:
“Hindsight is beautiful
But not so forgiving
The truth just follows and festers inside
You can choose just what you remember
But the truth gets lost and found by your lies”
I took that verse from a poem I wrote when I was about 14 so it feels cool to be connected with my emotions from that time in my life. I guess that’s a good reason to always write your ideas down.
Are there any words you love or hate?
Not really. I’m pretty open. I just don’t like being too obvious. I think when you start trying to rhyme at all costs in songs that can be counter productive. When you’re rhyming words like “redemption” that can be a slippery slope. I guess that’s when it becomes about how you set yourself up to avoid any cliches. I kinda think Bob Marley is allowed to use that word but only him.
The most annoying thing about songwriting is…
When you think something’s brilliant and work all night on it and then hear it back and think its the worst thing that ever happened in the world ever.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
I think Pompeii is probably the song that seems to connect most with our audiences. I don’t fully understand why but I’ve received a lot of emails from people asking questions about it and telling me about their relationship with the songs which is just incredible and very moving.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Buddy Holly. Unbelievable songwriter. So simple yet so perfect. I feel like he was only scratching the surface of what he was capable of when he died and his songs are amazing. I think were he still alive today the whole musical landscape would be totally different. Imagine if we only had “Please Please Me” by The Beatles. Imagine no “Imagine!!” John Lennon’s introspection just never existed, no white album, no Sgt. Pepper!!!
I’m sorry. To answer your question: I’d love to have written a song with Buddy Holly.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Nathaniel Rateliff is my favorite songwriter at the moment and a very dear friend. It’s so strange that he’s not better known. His sense of timing and delivery is second to none. His lyrics and melodies are fantastic. He is truly unique and his new record is amazing! I listen to it in its entirety a couple of times a day at the moment.
What do you consider to be the perfect song?
“Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen. I think sometimes when a song is written so perfectly and all the parts and words compliment each other so well it almost feels like a hymn or like it has always existed. Almost as if there is no writer. It’s just a sort of truth that’s been in the air forever and somebody just grabbed it. There is a magic to that song that I can’t explain but it’s just amazing. He’s a bit of a legend.