Harry Styles, Ed Sheeran….Adele? Making your audience think, ” we’re not afraid to twist the knife.” Simon Jones talks effective song writing with the good people of Milton Hide.
Sunday night, just gone 8pm, over half way through my weekly two hours on the radio during which my producer and I attempt to educate, entertain and inspire enthusiasm for music with roots, place and character. To be honest this week, the tracks we’ve been sent by various agents and acts whilst good aren’t all that attention grabbing. There’s an overdose of pretty but fey voiced girls with acoustic guitars and songs that explore romance or lack of it, Americana half of which comes from places like Croydon or Rotherham – and straight Scots trad, what we need is something that’ll pick you up by the lapels, dispel the critical fog that’s hanging about and bring back the sunshine. Steve, he’s my producer, plays a song he’s been considering all week, wait a minute… what’s this? A driving rhythm…a melody you can whistle…. lyrics with something to say…. a jaunty chorus…. all in an undeniably Albion rock style. Quick Steve, who’s this? “Milton Hide,” replies he. Now fully awake, the song’s that good it gets an immediate repeat before Steve can even get his review read. Milton Hide…. sounds like a place more than a music act. Further investigation follows promptly and before I know it I’m babbling enthusiastically to Jim and Josie Tipler, telling them how much I love their composition ‘Making Progress,’ and enquiring about background, influences and where they’ve been hiding.
Of course they hadn’t been hiding at all, turns out they’d often used quotes from Spiral Earth’s review of their last album by Philip Thomas, which I shame faced confess I’d not clocked and I’m the one who sent Philip the recording for consideration! Jim and Josie turn out to be ever so chatty and keen, they’re decidedly Albion not only in their writing but you can’t get much more English than dwelling in rustic isolation on the Sussex Downs close by The Long Man of Wilmington chalk figure. Milton Hide is a rural area nearby…..
Jim and Josie had been in and out of various groups – especially Cajun bands – over the years some of which had been fairly successful, they decided to give their own songs a shot in 2017 beginning in folk clubs, bar gigs and festival slots across the south east. Encouraged by audience responses they released a series of download singles and EPs – all still available on their highly entertaining website – but left it until the space bequeathed by lockdown to tackle a full album. It was from that recording ‘Temperatures Rising,’ ‘ Making Progress’ was sourced. They say in the publicity blurb that they’re as much story tellers as singers/musicians, further their songs ‘ well crafted- transport you from the Sussex Downs to the Appalachian Mountains introducing a host of intriguing and memorable characters along the way.’ That’s some claim, we fall to talking about the craft of song writing and their singular compositions.
Do you feel that the art of the singer songwriter is healthy at the moment?
Jim : “Yes in the sense that there are a lot of people singing their own songs – from amateurs and semi-pros to world famous pop singers – Ed Sheeran, Adele, Harry Styles. Certainly at grass roots level we come across many, many people who write and perform their own material. Whether there is an audience and a market for all of them is an entirely different question and much of the time will simply be performing to other singer-songwriters.”
Is the term itself outdated?
Jim :”That can certainly be argued. Whether those famous people mentioned would class themselves as singer-songwriters or performers who happen to write a lot of their own material, I just don’t know. I do know many of them collaborate with other writers. We decided right at the outset our aim is to only perform our own material – for better or for worse!”
Josie and Jim ” entertainment is priority, making them think is a bonus.”
How easy is it to produce an effective lyric which fits purpose?
Josie : “Sometimes lyrics come easy and fall into place – almost write themselves, other times not so easy. Often I find I have to work and rework lyrics. Sometimes I will put a kind of place holder phrase in to be replaced at a later point, and often that placeholder text will stay and kind of grow into the song.”
How important to you is it to give a song a proper context? That is to set it in some kind of background.
Josie: “With the type of songs we like to write – inspired by people, places, points of view, personal emotions – giving background to a song is an important part of engaging with our audience. In a live setting, it’s unusual for the listener to completely take in the lyrics – ironically if you have done a good job with the music and arrangement, the ‘story’ could get lost. We see ourselves a little bit as story tellers and on occasions the song could be about an extraordinary person and it would be a shame for that to be missed.”
Is a personal connection from the writer’s perspective important with the song?
Josie: ” I think so – even if it is not a direct connection. We get connected to a song when we perform it. The subject of our song ‘Buckle Up’ is the tragic episode of USAF Sgt Paul Meyer, a young airman and Vietnam Veteran who in 1969 became so ill with homesickness, that he commandeered a Hercules transport aircraft and was lost over the channel. During the brief flight he was patched through to talk to his wife and there is a transcript of the conversation. Every time we perform this song, we feel a little heartbroken for Paul despite the fact we have no direct connection with him, other than human emotion.”
In what ways do you feel your material connects with your audience?
Jim : “Certainly songs like ‘Buckle Up’ have connected us with an audience. There is often a pin-drop moment after the last note when we know we have done a good job. Some of our songs talk about the human condition. Our song ‘A Little Piece Of Mind,’ is quite often brought up. It was written at the time that Josie was in the depths of menopause and neither of us was sleeping well. Often people will come up to us after a gig and say how much they related to a lyric. That is always very, very satisfying.”
How far should a musician go if it’s a ‘pointing the finger song’ as Dylan used to say? I assume there is a fine line between comment and preaching?
Josie : “If there is an injustice we feel strongly about and we find a vehicle in a song to highlight it then that can be a great thing. We try to be subtle with a lyric but not obtuse and we are not afraid of twisting the knife if we can.”
Is it more important to leave a mark on an audience or make them think if the song is topical?
Josie : “The most important thing is to entertain. If you can make people think, that is a brilliant bonus.”
How’d you view or judge audience reaction from the stage? Can you think of a time when either of you had to change tack mid show to satisfy an audience.
Jim : “Hmmm, good one! You can certainly pick up when you lose an audience or when you are failing to engage from the start! We have discovered a few tricks but they’re not always successful. Sometimes you think a rowdy audience will respond to a lively up-tempo number but often it can have the opposite effect by simply increasing noise levels. You have to be brave to play quietly in those circumstances but it can pay off and you can bring the audience in to your world. When it happens, it’s like magic.”
When composing what is it about an idea or stimulus that gives you the satisfaction that the song is going to be successful?
Josie. “When melody and lyric fit come together like they were always meant to be paired. Almost like the song was there to be unearthed.”
Which would come first the tune or the lyric? Maybe that doesn’t matter?
Jim: “ Sometimes I’ll write a melody that demands a lyric, sometimes the lyric demands a melody and sometimes we have a notion that demands both. We’ll often write together. Josie might pen a lyric than has a rhythm and pass it to me to write the music.”
Josie: ” I once came up with some lyrics for a song about Social Media over-reliance that I particularly wanted in a klezmer style. Jim came up with the music and we adapted the lyrics a little to fit.”
Does Milton Hide have a high turnover of songs? Is there a waste paper basket in the back room full of abandoned material?
Jim : Not really, although we have a few songs that we don’t perform very often. We may not record on an album. They are like tools in a tool box – one day you will need that particular blade that you have never used before!
Milton Hide down amongst the daisies and er… pylons of rustic Sussex.
Should the music always match the song’s intention?
Josie: “In the sense that the intention is to create something interesting and moving, yes. A song might be about a very serious subject but we don’t think music has to sound ‘weighty’. One of our favourite reviews is “…so subtle that you don’t know the stiletto has arrived until it is slid in.” ”
What are your feelings about covers of your material should any arise?
Jim: ” We would be completely honoured if someone thought they would like to cover a song of ours. It’s only happened once so far to my knowledge. As long as the performer doesn’t claim it as their own it’s fine.”
How do you get around the fact that live you’re often just a duo and on the records you can have a full band? Does audience expectation alter what you do on a regular basis?
Jim : “It is something we contemplate quite a lot. When we recorded our releases, we thought we simply wanted to present the songs in the best way possible – if that means a full band, that’s what we would do. We do find that the songs totally stand up as an acoustic duo. After all, we have performed them widely for months before we committed them to album. What mostly happens is that albums are sold following a live performance, so, in a sense it’s a bonus for people who buy the CD!”
Do you have a picture in your head of the people or person you’re writing for when you compose?
Josie : “Not at all. We specifically try to avoid that and simply write what we want to write.”
Do both of you have to be satisfied with a number before you’ll play it live?
Josie : “Not 100%. But we trust each other absolutely. If one of us is confident about it, the other will nearly always go with it!”
Finally, can you name 5 artists you’d say were effective singer songwriters – don’t feel restricted by musical genre.
The list arrived at SE Towers later, these are the Tipler’s Choice. Billy Bragg, Gerry Rafferty, Peggy Seeger, Robb Johnson & Gilbert O’Sullivan.
All matters Milton Hide can be perused and wonders ordered at miltonhide.com