In this series, I ask other songwriters about their quest for inspiration and how they tackle the day-to-day tasks of writing quality, engaging songs. Behind every good song is a hard-worker. I want to know how songwriters work and how they fill their well so it never goes dry.
Sarah Howells is one half of the Welsh folk-pop duo PAPER AEROPLANES who played to a sold out crowd at the iconic Union Chapel on Thursday night. With her musical partner Rich, they write perfect pop melodies that pack an emotional punch, and she delivers them with delicacy and power. I think her voice should be studied – it is truly stunning. Their new single, “Guessing Game” is out today, and the dreamy folk pop tune really delivers: sparkling arrangement with a great beat and an unforgettable melody. Read on to see how Sarah creates the magic.
1. What is your typical work day?
There is no typical day! I actually find it quite hard to get into a routine because each day and week varies so much. When I have an entirely free day to work and song-write I will get up around 7.30/8am and hang out in my PJs answering emails and checking all our social networks, reading and replying to any messages. I get breakfast at the same time and then after showering and getting dressed I’ll feel more in the mood for playing a bit of guitar. If I have just lyrics to write, I like to head to coffee shop with a notebook to feel more focused.
2. What tools do you use to keep you organized and productive?
I’ve only recently discovered how lovely a Moleskine notebook is. Really slow to the party. They are now my favourite place to write lyrics, notes and to do lists. I just use Garage band in my Mac to do quick recordings or when I have a day dedicated to getting new song ideas I’ll use my zoom portable recorder and just set it to record and leave it running while I jam ideas.
3. Do you have any habits, exercises or activities that jumpstart your creativity?
Not really but I find a walk is often when most my lyrics come… usually to my surprise. Or in the middle of someone else’s gig when they use just one word that turns me on :)
4. Are there any specific (or favorite) books, films, lectures, etc. that have impacted your creative process?
There’s a famous TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert where she quotes Tom Waits walking about his moments of inspiration, that changed the way I looked at my own. I’m not a prolific writer and I tend more to rely on moments when ideas are sent to me than sitting down to squeeze ideas out. Even though I know those times can be really fruitful too. I recently bought a book by Dr Jenny Boyd called Its Only Rock and Roll which is a series of interviews she did with all the huge, influential musicians and artists of 70s and 80s. She asks them about their early days of making music and their writing and creating habits. It’s definitely worth a read.
5. Where do you get ideas for songs? How do you catalog them?
Ideas spring from lines or just titles that catch my interest. I store them in my head and sometimes they come back at the right time when I need them.
6. What have you been listening to lately?
My latest musical obsessions are a German electro group called Aperat and Alt J’s latest album.
7. Who are the songwriters you really admire?
Guy Garvey from Elbow for his lyrics and Jeff Buckley for his use of melody. There are a few professional pop songwriters like Ryan Tedder I admire for their craft, in a less emotional context.
8. Do you have any advice to offer a new songwriter?
One piece of advice I struggle to take myself but I know is true and useful, is that writing a bad song (or a song you don’t feel has turned out well) isn’t a waste of time, it’s necessary as it’s inching you closer to finding the good songs.
Thank you Sarah! Listen to the fantastic “Guessing Game” below and buy it on iTunes!