Marlene Enright released her debut solo album, Placemats and Second Cuts, at the end of March and I chatted to her about it for The Point of Everything podcast. You can listen to the interview below, via Soundcloud, or on iTunes or whatever podcast app you use. Some of the interview is transcribed below, as we talked a lot about songwriting.
You’ve said you wrote the first song for the album in October 2015. Does the album go further back than that?
Even before myself and Pat [Carey} started doing stuff for the Hard Ground I was writing away material for a good while, just singing and playing it myself. I did record a few songs, actually probably eight or nine years ago, in a studio in Tralee and I never released them. I spent a few days down there – and I had intended on releasing them. But then we got rolling with the Hard Ground, so then I put my own stuff on hold for a while. It was always something in my mind to do… I guess I always knew I wanted to put something out there on my own… In terms of writing material that I wanted to put on my own album, I s’pose that was really only two, two and a half years ago that I started doing that. I’d lots of ideas for things saved on my phone, like hundreds of little clips of stuff, and I knew in my head I’d save certain ones for me because I knew they wouldn’t suit the Hard Ground style so I’d save them and come back to them.
Do you find it weird listening back to the clips on your phone?
Sometimes I’ll only listen back to them if I have nothing current going on, if that makes sense; like, if I sit down to write something and nothing’s coming for a few days or weeks, I’ll listen back to them. Some of them are awful so I’ll delete them – actually I don’t always delete them but I just cringe and go on. Some of them you do find little nuggets of things; ‘oh I forgot about that’, and it could be from two years ago but it could be a melody that you kind of remember instantly and you’ll remember where you were when you came up with it. But they’re definitely useful to listen back to, and it’s good to have them stored. To be honest with you, I think most people who write songs probably have that, a little bank of stuff that they can tap into.
Do you experience writer’s block?
I think it’s mainly, if you’re writing – if songwriting is your full-time job, for want of a better word; it doesn’t really feel like a job in many ways – but if it’s all I was doing, maybe I wouldn’t experience blocks so much because you’d be doing it so regularly that you’d be bound to come out with songs regularly. Most musicians and bands, like, you’re working outside of it and it’s not like you have all your time to dedicate to it either so when you do decide, ‘OK I want to write some songs now’, they don’t just come out because you haven’t been doing it. You could go through a few weeks or months without sitting down to do it and then when you do sit down and do it, it’s not like the first thing that comes into your head will be good, so I s’pose it’s like anything: you do have to practice it and it’s like exercise, if you go back to it after not doing it for a while, you’ll be crap so it’ll take a few weeks to get back into it again. It’s like a muscle that does have to be exercised. It is something that I think if you were doing it on a very regular basis you’d be pushing out stuff all time. But I’m not, unfortunately.
Do you set aside time during the week to write?
Oh yeah, definitely. I’d try a lot of evenings after work. If I came home I’d definitely do an hour or two or more. It kinda depends on the week – certain things would take priority some weeks. But I always try to do a few evenings or a few morning before work or whatever, songwriting, because it doesn’t feel like a chore. I love doing it. But it’s kinda like everything: sometimes the things you love doing get pushed down to the bottom of the list because life can be like that. You end up prioritising other things because they feel more pressing at a given time because other people are depending on you for certain things. Whereas songwriting’s just for me, and often the things that are just for you end up at the bottom of the priority list, which is silly, but it happens.
The album sounds like it’s quite heavy. The PR states: ‘Hindsight has made me realise that it’s a much more self-reflective album than I initially realised. It speaks of self-doubt, dancing the fine line between feeling comfortable in your own skin and feeling totally lost at sea, indecisiveness, the battle between strength and weakness, passion and apathy, belonging and isolation and self-acceptance.’ You say that with hindsight you realised all that, so when you’re writing are you just trying to make sense of stuff? How does it all happen?
When I go to write something, it usually starts with – and I’ve spoken with a lot of people about this, it tends to be the way for a lot of people – the melody. You’ll have an idea for a melody and the chords. For me anyway, I just start singing syllables and random words over that cause I like the sounds of them. They don’t necessarily make any sense. The lyrics always come last, the actual lyrics. Sometimes the lyrics are dictated by the phrase or the sound – I like the sound of certain words. That puts a structure to songs… When I’m writing, I don’t always realise what I’m saying, even when it comes to the lyrics side of it. I do to a certain degree, it’s not like these things pour out, they are thought about. It takes me quite a while to write the lyrics because I like to tweak them and make sure they’re saying what they need to say, that it’s me. I like trying to find different ways of saying things that aren’t so straight up and obvious, like finding colours that convey certain emotions. A lot of the songs are based around sentiment as opposed to actual scenarios. But often I think when you’re writing them you’re writing them about how you’re feeling at a certain time but you mightn’t be altogether aware that you’re feeling that way. I know that might sound strange but it’s a few months later, a few months down the line, and I look back on them, they make a lot more sense than they do in the moment. Hindsight can just bring clarity to situations. I find if I’m feeling particularly foggy at a certain time when I’m writing songs, they come out and I know what they’re about but it’s a few months down the line when I really know where they came from.
Do you find it cathartic working and writing songs when those things are happening?
I certainly find that it’s therapeutic. In a way it’s like exercise makes you feel better, or meditation makes people feel better. I think songwriting makes me feel better, even if temporarily it makes you feel worse because you’re sorting through a few things or realising a few things. In a way it is like a therapy session with yourself. But maybe you’re not always divulging everything either because you’d bore people to tears.
Is that something that you’ve gotten just from your years with the Hard Ground? You were the co-writer with Pat, have you just become more confident as a songwriter through all that?
It does come down to practice, and I know that sounds like a very practical way to look at something like that. But songwriting is like any other skill that people have, something that people do: if you want to get good at it you have to do more of it. And I’m not saying I’m good at it but I love doing it. I think from years of doing it with the Hard Ground, that was really good practice. This time round, for my own stuff, I was more confident to be a bit more honest lyrically, whereas before, everything was cryptic, maybe it wasn’t so clear to know what a song was about… It’s actually something my mom always said to me. She’s like, ‘I don’t know any of those songs are about.’