It’s a dilemma many creative individuals face: even if there’s a stock of ideas ready to take shape, how do you lure those ideas to the surface and make them come alive? Some songwriters approach the process as a nine-to-five engagement, but compartmentalising your time like this presumably requires an understanding of how the songwriting propensity functions, which only comes after years of experience.
Jackson McLaren released his debut LP Songs To Greet The Dawn last week, and the rising Australian songwriter is familiar with this struggle to tame the ideas within.
“I’m slowly starting to realise when I can feel that creative impulse coming on,” he says. “You can feel something sort of swelling inside your head and you’ve just got to get it out. It usually comes at the most inconvenient times – when you have to run off to your part-time job or you have to get a train or you have to go to have coffee with your friend. It’s like, ‘Oh shit, I can feel a song coming on and I’ve got to write it down.’”
It’s why the oft-heard claim, ‘I like the old stuff better than the new stuff,’ does perhaps have some valid roots. See, the ‘old’stuffgenerally comes together before songwriting becomes an artist’s exclusive focus and the magic evaporates.
In his case, explains McLaren, “I carry a song journal/notebook around with me pretty much everywhere I go. I write a lot of songs when I’m on the train or going somewhere. Then [I start] paring it down and picking out the best bits and putting it into songs.”
McLaren’s debut record is characterised by patience and clarity, which belies the fact it was patched together from fragmentary ideas conceived in transit. After the initial onset of inspiration, he actually employs a rather considered approach to songcraft.
“I’ve got hundreds of notebooks in my bedroom, and if you look through them you can see how an idea will start a bit rambley and eventually you perfect it over a series of rewriting and coming up with different ideas and putting in new things.”
McLaren didn’t simply pile together the first crop of songs available. Three EPs preceded the album, and one track from each EP shows up on the LP. “It was written over quite a long period of time so there was an abundance of stuff to choose from,” he says. “I really wanted to have it as a big cohesive picture, to have the first album as one initial impression of that period of time. I could have quite easily released an album with 20 songs, but I just wanted to pick ten really good songs that worked together really well.”
There are a couple of key ingredients that help to tie the collection together. McLaren’s trusty sidemen The Triple Threat and producer John Castle have been with him since 2011’s Mirrors & Strings EP, and the group’s coordination is integral for realising each song’s potential.
“I think it’s really important, when you’ve got other people in the same room as you and you’re all in a project together, to collaborate a little bit and throw ideas around. I’m always very open to what the band would like to do. John Castle’s ideas and recommendations are usually quite clever, so I’m always open to trying out things and exploring different avenues.
“I see myself more as a songwriter rather than a musician,” McLaren adds. “I can play the guitar and dabble around on a few instruments, but I’m not particularly good at them. So it’s kind of the songwriting which is the huge focus for me.”