Why Leeds Beckett University lecturer Carl Flattery is heading off on songwriting retreats

With many artists heading on retreats to create music and lyrics, Carl Flattery is exploring how places influence songwriting and performance. Laura Drysdale reports.

Carl Flattery is a lecturer in the music department at Leeds Beckett University. Picture Tony Johnson.

“I don’t know how I write songs. I only know that if I don’t sit at the piano for four hours a day, I don’t have any.”

Carl Flattery recalls the words of Benny Andersson that have stuck with him since he heard the ABBA star speak at a music production conference in the Swedish capital of Stockholm.

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With lyricist partner Björn Ulvaeus, keyboard player Andersson crafted all of the group‘s hits, records which have sold some 370 million copies worldwide and formed the heart of hit musical-turned-film Mamma Mia!

Bjorn Ulvaeus, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Faltskog and Benny Andersson of the Swedish pop group Abba in 1974. Carl said Benny described songwriting perfectly when he heard the star speak at a conference in Stockholm. Photo: PA Wire

That conference day in December 2017, special guest Andersson was asked about his songwriting. “He gave the perfect answer,” says Carl. “Because no one can really tell you how to do it. You just have to do it and you have to treat it like a job.”

Carl, a lecturer in music at Leeds Beckett University is studying for a PhD in songwriting, delving into ideas of memory and place. Inspired by his interest in artists including Bon Iver, whose first album For Emma, Forever Ago was created in an isolated Wisconsin cabin, he is exploring to what extent place influences the writing process and is evoked within lyrics. “How much is it just a story and a way to talk about a song?,” he asks. “And how much is it affecting the process of what people are writing about?”

Many a song has been written about place - By The Time I Get to Pheonix by Jimmy Webb, America by Simon and Garfunkel, and On The Streets of Philadelphia by Bruce Springsteen to name a few - and travel has provided inspiration for some of the most famous musicians and songwriters in the world.

Carl is exploring whether place influences songwriting and performance for his PhD.

It has been widely reported that the debut album of recent Brit Award winner George Ezra, Wanted On Voyage, was inspired by a travelling trip around Europe, whilst visiting The Netherlands on the ferry is said to have become somewhat of a songwriting ritual for Paul Heaton, formerly of the Housemartins and Beautiful South.

“It is partly inspiration because if you travel, you will find things to write about,” Carl reflects. “But it’s partly just getting away from the day to day pressures. You need time to write.”

One case study Carl is exploring is that of The Magnetic North music collective, made up of Erland Cooper, Hannah Peel, and Simon Tong, formerly of The Verve. They have created two albums centred around place, one a focus on Orkney in Scotland and the other on Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, where Carl grew up.

“What they wanted to do was capture that whole place,” he says, referring to Orkney: Symphony of the Magnetic North. “So it’s in the lyrics. They went there, they did field recordings of different things happening around the town...

“They recorded some of the songs with them playing in different parts of the town and they brought all that together to get a real sense of place. I thought that was really interesting.”

Carl wanted to emulate examples of artists heading to a place and writing songs there, to see what he could learn about his own practice.

“I wanted to go find some places, go to those places and absorb the surroundings and then see what happened basically - write some songs and then actually analyse those songs and think are they different to the songs I normally write when I’m sat at home or in my studio? How do they differ? The idea is to base most of my PhD around that.”

He began his doctoral degree two years ago and has up to six years to complete it. He plans to do three or four retreats in various locations and examine the songs he has produced.

His first, and only so far, was on an island in Stockholm, following the music production conference in 2017. He spent three nights in a cabin there, with a view to writing five to ten songs a day. But things didn’t go to plan.

He took many walks along the seashore and through the forest, jotting down ideas for lyrics, taking photos, making films and collecting items to inspire him, but in the end he only wrote one song. And when he played it to his daughter Frieda, now eight, over Skype, she turned to her mother, Carl’s wife Joanie, and said “it’s not very good is it?”

On his final night, he had another look, stripping away melodies and lyrics. He listened back to the re-writer when he returned home.

“I thought this is actually really, really good...So now I need to work out what happened in that process.

“Essentially I planned to write a load of songs, I only wrote one - normally I’d write a lot more than that - but what I did write was very, very good. I need to work out is that just luck? Is that coincidence? Is that just because I had the space and time and it had nothing to do with the place? These are all the questions that I’m currently looking at.”

He is planning his next retreat this coming summer - though this time he wants to absorb the place whilst he is there and then write over a longer period when he returns home, based on his experience.

“It is more of a personal journey,” he says. “I’m looking to find out about my own songwriting but also that practice could then inform other people’s journeys. They might consider using those ideas to develop their own songwriting. Certainly in my own teaching, that’s what I’m always trying to do. Most of the lessons I give I say these are about inspiration points.”

Growing up near Liverpool, Carl says he felt a strong connection to music from a young age. He was taken to gigs by his brothers Mark and John during his teen years and formed his first band aged 16. As soon as he could play three chords on a guitar, he found himself writing songs.

Carl joined Leeds Beckett in 2003, initially teaching multimedia and web design after working in that industry. After 18 months, he began teaching in the music department and went on to develop a songwriting module.

In doing so, he was given the opportunity to attend a week-long songwriting retreat in Italy hosted by Chris Difford of Squeeze. Each day he would be teamed up with different songwriters from all over the world and tasked with writing - an experience he has recreated with his students on retreats in the Peak District.

“What I found was that not only was I able to write quite easily once I was given that time and that inspiration but actually I was writing some of my best songs and really benefiting from that idea of collaboration.”

There’s lots of wastage in songwriting - terrible songs for every one that is great, Carl says. He plays his music to his wife and daughter to gauge their reactions. “My wife is very critical which is very useful because I know that if she says she likes it, it must be very good. It’s quite a good filter in that sense because she doesn’t pull any punches.”

As for the secret to songwriting, he takes the same view as Benny: “Just keep doing it.”