With Glenn Tilbrook, Chris Difford has written a string of acclaimed pop hits. Duncan Seaman spoke to him ahead of their concert in York.
Once dubbed the new Lennon and McCartney, Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook have been writing songs together for four decades in the pop group Squeeze.
This month they venture out as a duo for a string of dates they’re billing “The At Odds Couple” tour – a knowing reference to their sometimes fractious relationship over the years. Difford explains their set list will encompass a fair bit of their shared history.
“We start off the show playing songs from our past – quite a way back, in fact – then I do four songs and Glenn does a short set and we come back together and play for a bit longer. If anything,” he says, “we’re really trying to get as much into the show as we possibly can and give everybody good value.”
Some of the material even dates back to Squeeze’s formative days in Deptford, south London. “There will be some songs from before we had a record deal that have not been released before,” the 60-year-old lyricist reveals.
Although there are no plans at this stage to perform any songs from their only album as a duo, released back in 1984, Difford says teasingly: “We might do – who knows?”
These concerts will also offer fans the chance to hear work in progress from the the next Squeeze album. “There will be three songs from our new album which will be out next year. We’re road testing them I suppose is a good way of putting it.”
He is, however, loath to pick out his live favourites. “I can’t say which is my favourite – they’ve all got lives and stories of their own, they all have different places in my heart.”
For several years Difford has been encouraging up and coming musicians by running songwriting retreats – the latest one was in conjunction with a national broadsheet newspaper.
“I learn a lot about myself,” he says. “The last few I’ve done have been very fulfilling, really hard work but really beneficial. You’re working with people who are learning how to write or looking for a push in a different direction – it’s great fun to be part of that.” Difford has even taken songwriting workshops out to inner-city schools. “That was interesting too. Some of the talent you come across sometimes is just remarkable,” he reflects. “I love teaching and mentoring, it’s very rewarding.”
He has no particular routine of his own for writing. “Life seems to get busier as you get older – there are less hours in the day, for some strange reason. Whenever there’s time there’s a lyric.”
If each phase of life gives writers something different to write about, Difford is certainly not downbeat about the ageing process. He’s found life in his fifties “intriguing”, he says.
“It’s very different from being 20. There’s again a lot to realise about time as you get older and how valuable it is.
“There’s lots of goodness to be had from getting older – I recommend it.”
Outside of Squeeze, he has also organised a series of concerts called Songs in the Key of London. A celebration of the city in song, they’ve involved a diverse cast of musicians and singers including Jools Holland, Suggs, Robyn Hitchcock, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Ed Harcourt.
Difford says says the events have been “a lot of work” to stage “but the outcome has been so fantastic that I love to do it. I’ve done three now and they’ve all been fantastic journeys. I still can’t get over how many songs about London there are, it’s extraordinary.”
He chooses the songs, some of which go back “150 years or more”.
“They’re all about the River Thames and London and what a great city it is, but it’s not just about that,” he says. “There are a lot of cities that have great songs written about them. I might do one about Songs in the Key of Leeds.”
The most recent Songs in the Key of London concert in Regent’s Park also featured promising Irish band The Strypes, who Difford co-manages.
He says he was attracted to the up-and-coming young rhythm and blues outfit by “their incredible ability to play music – their love of music is something that’s uppermost in my mind”.
“They are all really lovely people,” he adds. “They’re on a journey of their own, they’re ambitious. They’re making their second album now – I’m looking forward to hearing how that sounds.”
He refrains from offering them songwriting ideas. “Songwriting is definitely their bag, it’s not for me to interfere,” he says. “I’m just there to have conversations with on what it was like for me and my past, which was very different.
“I can be there to support them. When you are young sometimes you don’t want to listen to somebody old, so for me it’s just about being there for them if they need me.”
Besides there’s still plenty of life left in Squeeze yet. Difford once suggested “the best was yet to come” from he and Glenn Tilbrook. Today he’s more circumspect.
“I don’t know, I take it a year at a time,” he says. “At the moment we have got a really good relationship going. We’ve got a great writing thing going on and we’re enjoying each other’s company.
“Hopefully that will come out when you see us play – unless we’ve had a huge row or drama.”
Should that be avoided, Difford believes the pair could even revive an idea they once had to actually write together rather than separately as they have for the past 40 years.
“We’ve not really got to that bit yet,” he says. “But I’m sure we will.”
• Difford and Tilbrook play at York Grand Opera House on November 17.
• For details visit http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/chris-difford-and-glenn-tilbrook-of-squeeze/grand-opera-house-york/