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Songwriting in COVID-19

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When asked what the best thing I do by myself, making and recording songs is always my answer.  However, it’s not an easy life to make a living from music, which is why I’m actually an engineering postgraduate at Lancaster University, but I keep songwriting as a hobby.  The disadvantage of keeping the best thing I do as only a hobby is that I sometimes feel like I’m in the wrong place or the wrong job, which isn’t ideal.  But, as I’ve grown older, I’ve found that it’s unfeasible to love what I do 100% of the time.  For a start, what would I write the lyrics about if I didn’t do other things?  It may surprise some people to know that the members of their favourite bands also quite definitely have part- or full-time jobs.  Whether this is a positive or negative reality is subject to a debate which, sadly, is not the content of this article.  What I would like to talk about instead is how my music has taken on a whole new trajectory since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown and how my experience of university (which I would describe to an alien as my job, which I’m very fortunate to still have) has changed as a result.

The big advantage of having songwriting as just a hobby is that there is no management advising me what I write about whilst pointing to a pie chart, there are no deadlines, and I’m not obliged to adopt the façade of self-confidence which sells records (the words “sell” and “record” also inaccurately describing reality).  Due to this freedom, over the years my songs have become like answering machine messages (remember them?) which I can listen back to and recognise where and who I was at the time of recording.  Furthermore, since moving to Lancaster in 2017 to do a PhD, I’ve been inspired a lot more by the folk music in the thriving open mic scene (which I dearly hope will return strong someday).  Folk music, I find, is a very good genre for succinctly capturing tangible moments of human experience which I think is why I, and many other musicians, gravitate towards it when composing alone.

When I was an undergraduate in London I wrote a lot of songs about my experience of university life, the friction I perceived between different kinds of people like engineers and artists, supervisors and students, indigenous Londoners, and transient students like me.  I wondered whether there was a better way to be in society that made us feel less alienated.  Songwriting helped me think about and also express this.  But when I started university in 2013, the UK changed in ways I could never have imagined by the time I left in 2017.  Though these changes were tumultuous, at least I was still free (physically at least, perhaps less so economically) to navigate through places, real and imagined, that I could write about.  Now I’m in Lancaster, the whole world has changed due to COVID-19 and my songwriting content has not been as organic to obtain because day to day experiences take place mainly inside my flat.  I went from living through constant change, going to new places for work or pleasure, seeing other things which inspire a viewpoint, to a period utterly unvarying and predictable because a crisis like this understandably leaves less room for stimulating perspectives.

I do live in my flat with my wonderful partner, hence I should make clear that my situation since the lockdown was (and is) very far from terrible.  Nevertheless, as my music is such an important part of my life, I sometimes felt a bit pent up and low.  But then things changed.  I began making songs with my partner, something I’d barely done before, and they were really good; both the final product and the process.  Also, some old friends, with whom I used to be in bands, got back in touch with me because they, like me, had time to do more home recording, their hobby.  What was once a very contemporary, personal endeavour suddenly became collective, in a vain of reminiscence, and I found myself rekindling friendships I thought I never would again.  One of my earliest songs, written in freshers’ week, contained the lyric, “all the nearly-friends who you never see again”, lamenting the coming and going of people through our lives, especially when you’re young.  We’ve all had acquaintances like this, who we could have got to know better, but didn’t because there were too many of us and we were all moving so fast.  Few of us say goodbye properly to people during times like these because we don’t realise it’s the last time we’ll ever see them.

Recent graduates from all stages of education, but especially university, will have missed their all-important rituals of goodbye because of COVID-19.  For many, you won’t see your peers ever again (apart from your favourites) and it is a stark reminder of how fragile our social lives are.  We form and are formed by those around us.  But you should not despair!  As I have found through my music, though my family and friends must keep away for a time, I have become connected in entirely new ways to the people near me (but not too near without a facemask, ta!) and also those old buddies who are far away.  I dearly hope you, readers, may find these connections too!

Check out Alex’s band ‘The Filthy Laugh’ on Bandcamp.

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