Songs are born in all manner of ways, from many different kinds of ideas. That's why the question “so how do you write a song?” is such a pain in the bum to answer – because I don't have a set formula that I stick to every single time. If I've started by thinking of a riff, the challenge is to come up with a good melody and lyrics that work over the riff; if it's a particular line or lyric hook it's a case of what does that evoke or lend itself to; if it's a particular subject matter then I've got to think of how on earth I can express that using lines that sound good (most of the time there is some kind of rhyme structure involved!).
And if you thought it was that cut and dry, there'd be no point in writing this in the first place. But what interests me here is the songs that end up being so dramatically different from how they might have turned out.
One thing that I've done quite often over the years is taken chord structures from some of my older songs and reworked them into new ones, completely rewriting the lyrics. I think it's fair to say my knowledge of music theory and particularly my harmonic language matured quite a long time before my storytelling outgrew adolescence. That's how I ended up with “Images of a Semi-Fantasy”, for example. A couple of other songs from Mere Words and Melodies – namely “Tellin' It Like It Is” and “Ghost Town” are based on some of my own instrumental writing (yes, I have written instrumental pieces!).
Other times I get to a stage in writing a song where I just want to throw in something different – maybe I think what I've got is too similar to something else I've got, or maybe I just find some other reason why it should go in a different direction. Sometimes I take advice from others (yes, I have done that as well!), as I did on “Mere Words and Melodies”, which I'd originally thought of as quite a bouncy, up-tempo guitar strummer before it was put to me that it would work better slowed right down and stripped back.
But the most interesting examples are often when changes of circumstances mean I don't want to write about what I wanted to write about when I started – or at least not from the same perspective. Back in the summer of 2013 I had set out intending to write a simple love song (or at least as simple as mine ever are…) and ended up with “These Winds of Change Have Blown” and “Ain't Much of a Reason”, the latter of which begins with a homage to Andy Murray's Wimbledon victory and ends by “tanking it north, much to England's delight”. So not simple love songs at all, then. Then there's “Freedom Square” which Glasgow audiences have become very familiar with. When I started writing that it was going to be a cheerful, triumphant kind of anthem; it very quickly turned into an anthem of the very non-triumphant variety.
We may never know if any of them would have been better without the dramatic mid-composition changes – but I always felt the important thing was I was happy writing them.