London-based rock trio Black Orchid Empire have just released their brand new album Archetype and are currently touring the UK in support of it. Having performed alongside heavyweights such as Biffy Clyro, Feeder, Editors and Skunk Anansie they have their feet firmly set in the scene. We had a chat with vocalist/ guitarist Paul Visser to find out more about the lyric writing processing and where the inspiration comes from.
Mosh: How does the lyric writing process begin for you – Does the music come first, or the lyrics? Do you collect fragments and ideas when inspiration strikes?
Paul: For me, I think partly because we’re a three-piece and I play guitar as well as singing, the music almost always comes first. My melody ideas usually come whilst I’m writing riffs or chord progressions, and then I build words and phrases around my melodies. Sometime a random word will fit a phrase and spark the idea for the lyric, and often I do have little collections of fragments and words, which I write down as they occur to me now and again, that might fit. Very rarely I might write a whole passage, like a poem, separate from any music. Those can be very hard to make musical later though.
Mosh: Is this process always straightforward for you? Have you ever struggled with ‘writer’s block’ or similar?
P: I’ve been lucky to have a fairly luxurious process for Black Orchid Empire because the only timetable imposed is from ourselves, so I haven’t struggled to complete songs on a tight schedule, which I think helps. Also, I do a lot of work as a songwriter for other artists across lots of different genres in our studio, so I’m literally practising the art of lyric writing all the time without the burden of it representing my own personal expression. It’s often hard to say something meaningful at the same time as nailing the feel, dynamic and percussive elements of words. Practise outside of your own world is really helpful.
Mosh: Do you go back to lyrics you have previously written and edit or refine them, or is it a case of ‘one and done’? Do you collaborate or share lyrics with other band members and take their feedback on board?
P: I think if I didn’t do that I would never be happy with a song. Never accept your first draft. Prose writers have editors – as a songwriter you have your own reflection and the opinions of your band mates. The tricky part is taking on board ideas without losing the point that was important to you in the first place.
Mosh: Are there any bands or artists that have impressed or inspired you lyrically? Do you try and emulate any other lyricists in particular?
P: Oh my god yeah – Jesse from Brand New has incredible lyrics, and I love Jeff Buckley’s poetry over music. I love some of the tech metal bands like Tesseract, there’s so much room for lyrical expression in those less conventional musical landscapes. Loads of artists are inspirational to me, although I don’t think it’s unfair to say that really quality lyric writing is often overlooked by heavy bands. I love the fact that, unlike mainstream pop, ANY subject is up for approaching. It’s not just topping for riffs, it can be really potently meaningful.
Mosh: Do you draw lyrical inspiration from outside of music, such as authors, films or artists?
P: Yes absolutely. I love Sci-Fi books, especially Iain M Banks’ Culture novels. Also films; our song ‘Melancholia’ is directly based on the Lars Von Trier movie of the same name. It’s a heartbreaking, weird, moving film about the end of the world and mental instability, and I was blown away by it. In terms of other inspirations, my favourite American author is Charles Bukowski, closely followed by Cormac McCarthy. Those guys can pack more punch into one sentence than most writers manage in a whole paragraph. I’m also obsessed with Haruki Murakami, his writing is so smooth and perfect but so surreal, like a lucid outer body experience. I’m writing a song right now called ‘Toru’s Maze’ which is based on the main character from Norwegian Wood, one of my favourite books.
Mosh: Is there a specific space (mental or physical) where you get ‘in the zone’, or can you write anywhere at any time?
P: That would be nice wouldn’t it, to have the time to shut yourself away and achieve a Zen-like state of inspiration. But no, I always have far too much going on, you cram in your ideas when you can, scribble lines on the walk to the station. I do have to make an effort to think about lyrics though. Music comes to me more subconsciously, like melody ideas or riffs just popping into my head, but lyrics I normally have to concentrate on.
Mosh: Do you choose to publish your lyrics or keep them personal? Is it important that fans be able to access lyrical content?
P: Oh I think one of the things I used to love most about getting a new record as a kid was to listen with headphones on, reading the lyrics and looking at the album artwork. It makes the experience so much more engaging. It’s the downside of not having a physical product, you can’t do that in the same way. I think if you believe in your writing enough to record it in an indelible format that will probably outlive you, you should have the confidence to write down your words. Not that I’m not horribly insecure about some of them, but hey – put your shit out there. Let others take from it or impose upon it what they will.
Mosh: Can you remember when you began writing lyrics? Was it a conscious choice? Something you drifted into out of necessity?
P: I started learning to be a proper singer later in my musical life – around 22 or 23. I’ve played guitar since I was 10. So it all came later as part of my evolution into being a frontman. Having said that, I’ve loved working with the written word since I was a kid. I was (and am) a total geek for reading and writing language.
Mosh: What is your favourite lyric and why?
P: I absolutely love the lyrics to ‘Limousine’ by Brand New because they seem a little all over the place until you look up what the song is about and then BOOM. Instant poignancy. It totally floored me. It’s a true story about a horrible drunk-driving car accident and a mother dealing with the death of her daughter. Dark, horrendous, breathtakingly beautiful.
Mosh: What is your favourite lyric that YOU have written?
P: A lot of the content on ARCHETYPE is basically about me dealing with the idea of committing to a relationship and setting up the blueprint for a real, proper, grown-up life, and how inspiring that was, but being literally terrified by it at the same time. The song Riches and Rags has the line: ‘If I could, I would wait forever. So give me the time.” It’s powerfully and inexplicably moving for me. I guess it sums up the whole paradox.
Mosh: Is there anything you actively try and avoid when writing lyrics? Any topics or themes you think are overdone?
P: Man, rock music has a lot of paradigms that are tricky to shift. It’s hard to write anything light, or fun, or in any way not po-faced without becoming a comedy band, which is weird because rock music is all about having fun and catharsis really. The trouble is, with all the dark imagery a lot of people turn into caricatures of themselves. All that half-baked emo angst from the nu-metal era that was my adolescence is too much for me now.
Mosh: Is it important to you that lyrics always tell a story or have meaning?
P: I always try to write based on a real feeling or experience, but also to be creative. You can tell stories – songs don’t all have to be auto-biographies. Imagine if we held authors to that standard, no fantasy or made-up story-telling. In terms of meaning though – lyrics without meaning are literally just empty percussion and melody – although sometimes that’s OK. Nothing wrong with simple sing-along sometimes. The trick is to be really hard on yourself but allow your indulgences at the same time. Some things you think will be lame end up being really cool anyway. Some things that are poignant could just come across as arrogant. You never know.
Mosh: Does your knowledge of your vocal delivery have any impact on how you write lyrics? Do you write to fit a vocal style, or fit the delivery to the lyrics?
P: It’s all tied together really – I can’t really separate the lyric from the delivery. The other boys in BOE are amazing producers, they have the objectivity to help me work out whether the delivery is right for the part. It’s often counter-intuitive. The best piece of advice I ever got in terms of delivery was from a bad-ass producer, Greg Haver. I asked whether a part I was tracking should be like this or like that. He looked at me for a minute and said “Just sing the fucking song”
You can catch Black Orchid Empire on tour right now. They’re set to play:
16 Nov Bridgwater Cobblestones
17 Nov Basingstoke Sanctuary
18 Nov Corby The Hut
20 Nov Chester Live Rooms
22 Nov Edinburgh Opium
23 Nov Dunfermline Monty’s Bar
24 Nov Aberdeen Underdog
25 Nov Workington Lounge 41
26 Nov Bradford Underground
27 Nov Dublin The Thomas House