Pinning down Amy Macdonald’s influences can be a fool’s errand. As she unpacks her songwriting philosophy ahead of the release of her new album, The Human Demands, she explains that her songwriting is less about the sound in her head than it is about the story.
And try as you might, you can’t find that from your record collection.
“I find it very difficult to just sit and write words,” she says. “I always need there to be some kind of backstory, and I think that is why I am not insanely prolific at writing songs. I can’t just sit down and reel out song after song. I need there to be something happening in my life, in the world, or in my friends’ lives that I feel like I can tell a story about it.”
Her latest single, The Hudson, is a case in point. It was inspired by her parent’s travels in New York City during the '70s – a time when New York had a little helter-skelter danger to it. Does that, as the press release suggest, betray a Springsteen influence?
To a degree, yes. Spoilers: The Boss makes her list here. But it’s more that the romance of the States tends to hold West of Scotland artists such as Macdonald in its thrall.
The guitar doesn’t matter either. Macdonald plays Taylor acoustics right now and has played a Gibson SJ-200 in the past, but they are just the medium for the song.
“I am not precious about guitars,” she explains. “I will literally play anything! [laughs] I have chopped and changed over the years. When I started out I had the Gibsons, the big Gibsons that made me look like I was tiny, but I’ve tried different guitars along the way and I have found with the Taylors I feel comfortable with them. They sound great. They work really well in a live setting. I’m really happy with them but I am certainly not a muso.”
So what is the secret behind her songwriting philosophy? It’s about following a mood, a memory and a story from her head to the page, and with the following records that changed her life, the through-line is found in how they chapter Macdonald’s life. They make accessing those moods and memories that bit easier.
1. Amy Macdonald – This Is The Life (2006)
“The thing with the records that change your life, the one that actually did change my life was my own record! [laughs] Records that changed your life? I just felt that I had to add it. Because it actually did change everything about my life. It changed my family’s lives. It changed my friends’ lives.
“I thought it was easy. I thought you just put these songs out that you wrote when you were at school and suddenly you are number one all over Europe. I thought that was just what happens, and now I know that it is not what happens, so I think I have even more of an affinity for that record now.
“I came from school, basically, to doing this crazy job and suddenly I had no free time. It was all completely new to me. I had never been in a proper recording studio before. Everything that I had recorded was in my own bedroom on a little eight-track, so for me it was completely bizarre that I was in central London, just off Tottenham Court Road, right in the midst of everything, making this album and being signed to Universal Music and just thinking it was a laugh. And it was a laugh! Making that album was fun.”
2. The Libertines – The Libertines (2004)
“When I was writing my first album, I was listening to bands like the Libertines. I have always been one who is inspired by stuff that sounds nothing like me. The Libertines is on the list because I was running riot with my mates, going to live gigs. We were all loving life at this point, with our fake IDs. And that’s when I wrote most of the songs that went on that first record.
“Music is great for memories. You can hear a song and it will transport you back to a certain time. A lot of the songs on that first record of mine are about those crazy times with my mates and these amazing friendships; I can hear the Libertines’ Can’t Stand Me Now and I can see myself in the Garage nightclub, where we were all singing and dancing with each other, and I just smile thinking about it. I’ll be inspired by those memories.”
3. Travis – The Man Who (1999)
“The Man Who by Travis is what made me want to write songs and play the guitar. It was upon hearing Why Does It Always Rain On Me on the radio. I got the album and decided I needed to play the guitar and play along. That was the record that inspired me to teach myself to play.
“I saw Travis headline at T In The Park and watching them on the stage, I told myself, ‘I want to do that. I am going to do that one day.’ The kind of frontman that Fran Healy is, is all about the stories between the songs. He likes to tell funny stories, and little anecdotes, and tell you how the songs came together. And as soon as I started doing my own shows, I just copied that. That’s where I get my stage persona. I totally stole it from Fran Healy. [laughs]
“I always loved going to Travis shows because you felt like you were part of it, feeling like he was speaking to you directly.
“What was even more inspiring for me was that, here were a bunch of guys who were not so dissimilar to me, they come from the same place that I did, and look at them; they’re on these big stages with these great singalong tunes.”
4. Michael Jackson – Thriller (1984)
“My first musical love was Michael Jackson. When I was four or five years old I was given birthday presents of albums on cassette tapes, and one of them was Thriller by Michael Jackson. My sister and I just absolutely loved it. We loved everything about Michael Jackson.
“He was the first concert that I went to. My Mum worked at William Hill Bookmakers on Saracen Street in Possilpark [laughs], and they had a touchtone phone before anyone had one in the house. When the tickets went on sale, my Mum was able to get through first time and got us four tickets to Michael Jackson at Wembley Stadium.
"I don’t really remember much about the show but I remember the excitement of it all. I have always stayed a fan. Most people’s first gigs are embarrassing but whenever anyone asks me what my first concert was I am always really excited to tell them. It was the Dangerous Tour.”
5. The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)
“Another one from the same birthday was Pet Sounds, by the Beach Boys, which my Nana gave to me. Again, it was on cassette tape. When I got that was that I didn’t have a clue of what it was, because the front cover is just farm animals. Songs like God Only Knows, Wouldn’t It Be Nice? Just absolute classics. I love the fact that I was given all this music when I was so young because I think it just paved the way for my eclectic music tastes – I would really listen to anything and everything.
“I saw Brian Wilson – again, at T In The Park – headlining the Pet Sounds Stage and I just thought it was amazing. I was witnessing something special. There was never a break in the applause. He couldn’t even say what he wanted to say between songs because the crowd just wouldn’t stop cheering him. It was really cool to witness that and think back to that cassette tape.”
6. Ocean Colour Scene – Moseley Shoals (1996)
“It represents the whole Britpop era. I think sometimes Ocean Colour Scene are a band that get overlooked when we talk about that period, but when I listen to that record now, it still sounds so fresh, and invigorating, and it still sounds inspiring to me.
“It was amazing, because when I went on my first ever tour, with my first record – we hadn’t released it yet but we went on tour with Paul Weller all across Europe, and it was just Paul and Steve Craddock from Ocean Colour Scene. They were doing an acoustic thing, and I went on and did a little half-hour thing beforehand, and I remember just going, ‘This is mad!’ I mean, I sat at home and listened to this guy’s guitar playing all the time, and now here I am…
“We just kept in touch. Steve Craddock came in and did a bit of playing on some of my songs and he came onstage with me once and we played a cover of The Riverboat Song. Just mad! I love all these crazy stories because I think back to my teenage self. If I had known whilst I was sat listening to that record, what was going to happen in the future, I would never never have believed it.”
7. Guillemots – Through The Windowpane (2006)
“I absolutely fell in love with this. It came out in 2006 whilst I was making my album, and I would drive with my producer [Pete Wilkinson] every day, and at night we would drive back out to Surrey where we were staying, and we would just blast this record.
“It was amazing because it was summer in London but it was nine, ten o’clock, that twilight, and we would listen to this all the time. I thought the production – everything about the record – is just so [perfect].
“It is so of that moment in my life, and even now, when I listen to it, I am moved by it, and I think that is the best word – it moves me. It feels like a very special record. It sometimes makes me angry that everybody doesn’t know it. I hate when there are records like that that deserve to have all of the plaudits, all of the success, and they just don’t quite break through. It annoys me! This should be an all-time classic.”
8. Youth & Young Manhood – Kings Of Leon (2003)
“It was very much the cool rock and rollers by this point… This was my sister, she had bought that album, and it was our summer holiday. We were both off school and I remember we were both fannying about in the back garden and had the little speakers out the back, listening to that over and over again, and I didn’t know who it was.
“I just felt like I was the coolest person going when I went back to school because I knew who the Kings Of Leon were. I thought was an absolutely brilliant record. They were an amazing band. Randomly, I saw them supporting Travis, which was the weirdest juxtaposition. But it was brilliant.”
9. Bruce Springsteen – Born In The USA (1984)
“I discovered Bruce Springsteen way later [in life] and I absolutely loved that I could come to it completely fresh and discover all these records years. And I love that about music; it lasts forever and you can always discover something new even though it is not new
“Although Born To Run is the Bruce aficionado’s favourite record, for me, Born In The USA, there is not one bad song on there. A friend asked me last night, ‘Name me a record that’s not got one bad song on it.’ And I said, ‘Born In The USA.’ I think it is a classic. He is an incredible songwriter. He transports you to exactly where he is, and it is just impossible to not love that whole record.
“I listen to Bruce Springsteen and feel so envious that he can roll off all these place names where he grew up, and it sounds amazing, and it sounds exciting. Whereas if I was to write about Bishopbriggs or Bearsden, [laughs] it wouldn’t really have that appeal.”
10. The Kooks – Inside In / Inside Out (2006)
“They had that indie rock vibe when all of the Razorlights and all that started doing well, and I, again, have so many great memories of that time. I had just signed a record contract but I didn’t have any commitments for a year or so. I had passed my driving test. Me and my friend used to drive about all over the place, absolutely blasting this album. We used to live for that. Should we go for a drive and get the tunes on? That was literally all we would do.
“We would drive about, put the music on and sing along and it was great. I absolutely loved that. A lot times you are not even thinking about it and yet it is having an affect on your future writing. When I look at some of the songs – She Moves In Her Own Way, You Don’t Love Me – they were amazing pop classic songs. They will last forever. It was one of the perfect indie-rock pop albums of that time.”
Amy Macdonald's new album The Human Demands is out now. For more information visit amymacdonald.co.uk