HE’S BEEN HERE BEFORE, literally and figuratively. Lloyd Cole, on the eve of an Australian tour, has been doing this malarkey – writing and making, playing and selling music, and then talking about it to some bozo who wants the answers nobody else got – for 40 years. But not on repeat.
As might be detected from his online presence, records that have dived into different styles alongside more familiar guitar-based modes that go back to his original band, The Commotions, and regularly working direct from his vaults to you with rare releases, he has reshaped how he writes, where he writes, how he releases music and how he performs it, how he connects with fans and how he sells to them. And he isn’t starving in a garret.
He must know stuff. Therefore, across two deep-digging parts of this interview, who better to ask for advice, right?
That said, we should be mindful that on his new record, the compact but frank, electronically-hued On Pain – which, incidentally, features old Commotions, Neil Clark and Blair Cowan – he warns us that “I can’t be trusted with your money … your secrets…look what I did every time you gave them to me.” However, there is consolation because “you can trust me with your sorrow, you can trust me with your pain”.
Sorrow we got, pain we got, therefore, as something approaching an eminence grise at the age of 62, tell us Lloyd Cole what would be your key pieces of advice – what to do, what not to do, and when not to do it – for aspiring writers? Hell, for experienced writers?
“Oh boy,” he says, looking a bit like he is suddenly confronting the void, or The Borg, and isn’t sure of the wisdom. “There are a lot of different types of songwriters out there. There are a lot of different understandings of what is rewarding. There’s a lot of music that I consider to be trite but it’s very well done and the people who have constructed it have every right to be proud of their work. So I can only really comment on what it’s been like being me.”
Okay, ground rules established. Fire away Professor.
“The most important thing is to find a voice. And if you are not adding a unique voice to all this noise that is out there, then get out, do something else. That doesn’t mean you have to get out of music; it doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you have to get out of songwriting even. But if you want to be your generation’s David Bowie or your generation’s Bob Dylan you have to have your own voice.”
But if you don’t care about being your generation’s Bowie or Dylan? What if you want to be your generation’s million seller who can comfortably put food on the table?
“That is why I said I can really only comment from my point of view, based on my ambitions. But absolutely, if you want to make a career songwriting then I think it’s not so different to anything else,” he says. “If you want to be a great football player, you have to study the greats and you have to copy them. And you have to be as close to them, and work as hard as you possibly can to be as close to the greats. Sure, you might find you’ve studied Bob Dylan so much that you end up sounding like Mark Knopfler, or you studied JJ Cale so much that you end up sounding like Eric Clapton – that’s fine. What you’re looking for is success.”
Let there be rock.
“We are rehearsing in Glasgow right now and by far the best musicians in the rehearsal complex are the cover bands. You can absolutely hear it: they are so tight, they know exactly what they are doing. We on the other hand our stumbling all over the place, trying to find some interpretation of a song which is pretty much impossible to play on guitar/bass/drums, and would probably sound like rank amateurs,” Cole says, drily.
“So, if you want to make a living doing music, then sure, I would say songwriting probably wouldn’t be the best place to start. Making music for videogames would be the best place to start: that’s where the real money is these days.”
How important is “the voice”, both literally, as a singer, and figuratively, as a writer? When he started with The Commotions he didn’t think of himself as a singer; he thought of himself as the person out the front who was doing things.
“Reciting is the way I used to think of it. I used to think of the concerts as recitals.”
But he finally understood that his voice was, first of all, something useful, then worthwhile, then, finally him. That acceptance of a voice, its faults and its qualities, how do you find that? Does that come from no longer trying to be someone else, or no longer trying to be perfect? Or are those the same thing?
“I think singing is very similar to songwriting in that respect that I’m a great believer in Picasso’s advice that you should emulate your heroes and then after a while if you haven’t found a voice that is your own then maybe it’s not going to work out. But if you do find your voice and it’s a voice that connects to people and provides … provides … I always find it difficult to think, to think what it is that I provide,” a hesitant Cole says.
“I like to think that my music does the same things my heroes’ music does, which is make life better than it was without that music. So I’m trying to provide something which enhances the quality of life of the consumer. The voice, yes, is part of that. I was quite lucky in one respect in that I went for one singing lesson, when I was 24, and it was the famous London lady called Tona de Brett, who taught everybody. She’d just had Morrissey in the week before and she told me ‘he wouldn’t sing for me’ [he chuckles].
“I sang for her and she said, ‘well, you’re doing absolutely everything wrong, so if you would change that, it wouldn’t sound like you anymore. So whatever you do, don’t change what you are doing. Here are some exercises which will strengthen your voice, and here are some exercises that will help extend the range of your voice’.”
The advice stuck, as did the exercises.
“I was actually doing some of them last week, because I’ve lost some of the high notes in my old age and I’m singing a few songs live and struggling to hit those high notes. I always go back to [here he does some word-free vocal exercises that sound midway between scales and gentle interrogation].
“So with my voice I found relatively early on the things that I didn’t like about it and I try to minimise those. And those things would be the exaggerated Americanisms that you can hear on [1985’s second Commotions album] Easy Pieces, and the excessive vibrato which was probably subliminal, from my point of view, to hide my inability to pitch correctly. I pretty much eradicated those things on [1987’s final Commotions album] Mainstream and my voice has been, I think, more or less the same since 1988.”
That is a long time really, and a rare consistency to boot.
“I focused on possibly singing in higher or lower registers, depending on the year or my mood, but it’s been quite strange, my voice hasn’t really changed that much and I just have an acceptance of it. It’s my instrument, it’s what I work with, so a certain level of acceptance of it is just necessary,” says Cole.
“It’s good to be able to look at other singers who have got non- typical musical voices who succeeded, like Lou Reed or Ray Davies, and to know that it is how you present the voice, and it’s the words you put into the mouth, that make people want to listen to the voice. I know fans of mine say, oh you’ve got such a beautiful voice; I don’t think so. I think my voice is okay. I think the words that I choose to sing are what make people think it’s beautiful.”
TOMORROW: In part two of this interview, Lloyd Cole on how economic necessity became the mother of reinvention, why the new album’s love song to two heroes has a Berlin accent, and what “the biggest mistake I ever made” taught him.
Lloyd Cole plays
Theatre Royal Hobart, December 10
City Recital Hall, Sydney, December 11
Melbourne Recital Centre, December 13
Hindley Street Music Hall, Adelaide, December 14
Freo Social, Fremantle, December 17
On Pain is out now through EarMusic.
LLOYD COLE - GUESSWORK: album review
DRESSED TO IMPRESS: the Lloyd Cole interview 2019