27-year old pop songbird Paloma Faith is making major waves in her native England. With a sound that fits comfortably between Amy Winehouse and Adele, her 2010 debut album Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful? was a smash hit. Faith was tapped to be a judge on the British version of The Voice, and got to carry the Olympic Torch during the opening ceremonies on her birthday. She’s also acted alongside Tom Waits in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. We talked to Faith about songwriting, her new album Fall To Grace and the song of hers that makes everyone cry.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I wrote my first song when I was eighteen and it was rubbish and I didn’t write another one again. But I sort of used it as therapy thing because I’d been through a very difficult break up with someone. It was sort of dangerous and everything. And then I started writing songs again, well, I just kept writing songs for men but it took me a long time to sort of understand songwriting. For example, the songwriting on my second album is more accomplished than that on my first, the exception is the song “Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?” and I think I was learning as I went along.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Dolly Parton is one of them. The thing is, all the music that I like, this is dreadful what I’m about to admit, because I’m not that geeky about it, but all the music that I like is from an era where singers never write their own songs, so I don’t know the names of the people, because I don’t sit and like geek out about it. I could tell you that I love all the songwriters that ever wrote for Etta James, in particular, the song “At Last” and the person who wrote the song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday. But I don’t know my favorite songwriters, because I like the singers.
I think it’s a combination when you’re a great songwriter: being a great songwriter and having someone amazing sing the song. And when you’re looking at the past, usually they weren’t the same person. You can’t really say they’re particularly profound, the songs that do that now. But I really like particular songs like, for example, the song “Into My Arms” by Nick Cave is an astonishingly well written song, but I wouldn’t be able to say he’s one of my favorite songwriters, because he writes so much that it’s inevitable when you write that much, not every song is amazing.
What’s your approach to writing lyrics?
I tend to like going through life with a notebook in my pocket or a notebook on my phone or whatever. Sometimes I hear somebody say something on the street, I’ll like to capture a sentence and it resonates and takes on a different meaning for me.
I spend a lot of time in movie theaters and that helps me write songs. And reading books. Either they trigger a thought or I take direct lines from films, and take it out of context and put my own meaning on it if it’s poignant to me. For example, there’s a song on my record called “Streets of Glory” in which I took that line from the Cohen brothers’ movie True Grit. I went to see that and somebody said, “See you on the streets of glory” to the other. It didn’t really go and specify what it meant, but I read that situation as him saying, “See you when we’re dead.” I still don’t know if it means that or not, but for me it did mean that, and so I kind of took that to mean that for my own song. I do a lot of things like that.
When I’m experiencing things, I write my thoughts down like a diary and then when I get into the songwriting studio, I usually work with the musician ‘cause they play an instrument. Sometimes I come in with lyrics or a poem, and other times I respond lyrically to a piece of music that I hear without looking at anything. Other times I do a bit of both. I might hear a piece of music and say, “Oh I wrote a couple of lines down last week. I’m going to get them out.” I write them on the page and then I’ve got them bonding. It’s sort of different really, but generally something that I do very organically, and I don’t care to do a lot of working into lyrics. I tend to prefer them when I let them kind of just flow out of me.
What percentage of songs that you start do you finish?
I finish every single song but I throw most of them away. On my first record, I wrote 250 songs and I have ten. And the next time, I wrote about 70 songs and I get twelve.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
“Just Me,” because it doesn’t need any production. It’s just piano and vocals and I don’t think it needs anything else, which is difficult really to achieve successfully. It’s difficult to write a song about something that everyone’s written a song about. I think it’s an unusual twist on a love song. It’s a love song to the modern age, and it’s a love song that acknowledges how hard it is to stay loyal and stay in love with somebody in a world where we’re used to just throwing in the towel early on. Rather than it being all kind of sentimental and just like everything’s perfect; it doesn’t say that at all, you know “I wanna be with you.” There’s one line that says like, “Let’s stay together until everything that once drew me to you eventually gets on my nerves.” I think that’s a modern day sacrifice now. And I don’t think there’s many love songs that would be as honest as that. It’s unusual because it’s honest.
What’s a song of yours that really touched people?
Well, that’s the one. Everyone cries to it. We just recently shot a video to it and everyone on set was crying.
Are there any words you love or hate?
A lyric that I hate to hear in a song is the word “e-mail.”And I’ve done it once in one song on my first record but I did it and I wrote it away because I hate it so much. It doesn’t even sound nice does it? It’s not a very romantic or poetic sounding word. A word that I love very much is, well I like two words: grace and glory. Obviously I called my album Fall To Grace and I’ve got a song on my album called “Streets of Glory.”.I think they are very beautiful words ‘cause they conjure up so many sordid levels and they have a history to them, the history that stems from like early religious iconography and symbolism which is all about love, and it’s something quite exotic about those words.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
I would like to co-write with Andre 3000. I’m a fan but also I think he’s one of the most innovative people alive in music.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Underrated? What’s his name? It’s just gone out of my head. He’s got ginger hair, he’s American, and he doesn’t look like what he sounds. [Furiously googles “ginger songwriter”] He’s a singer-songwriter, I really love it, but obviously not enough because I can’t remember his name. [asked if it is Jason Mraz] No, definitely not. Absolutely not. Can’t stand it. He’s so underrated that when you put it in, you don’t get him. [looks it up on her phone] Brett Dennen.
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
I think the perfect song written by somebody else is “Into My Arms” by Nick Cave. I mentioned that at the beginning, didn’t I? I think that song is perfect. It’s got something so spiritually cleansing about it, lyrically, like it’s a sort of thing where you just think, I wish that I had said that to someone or I wish that someone said that to me. I wish I’d met somebody who could think like that. It’s beyond anything.