Interview: Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s Tim Elsenburg on lyrics, albums and songwriting

Mercury nominated folk-rockers, Sweet Billy Pilgrim, have today (April 30) released their hotly anticipated third album, Crown and Treaty.

We caught up with the band’s lead singer and principle songwriter, Tim Elsenburg a few weeks ago at the Music Sales songwriting week for a quick chat about the new album, his writing process and the challenges faced when working with new collaborators.

Hi Tim. Crown and Treaty is released on April 30. How is the new album coming along?

It’s been quite well received so far. We’re just at that kind of middle bit when you’ve made the record and you think you’ve done all the hard work, and it turns out that that’s the beginning of a really, really long road.

Is it all about just pushing it now?

Yeah, it’s all about content, content, content. Stuff for websites, stuff for our website, stuff for YouTube. It’s really good. It’s a really good way of getting loads and loads of stuff out there to people who are interested. They can find live performances, interviews; we’ve made a music video now which will be online soon enough. It’s an endless thing, you know? You make a video; you then have to film yourself making the video so that you can put that up as well.

It’s that fine line: sometimes I think “are we just giving too much a way?” Is there an argument to be made for a little bit of mystery still? Then I think, well, there’s nothing mysterious about us at all. We’re not Prince, Lana Del Rey or anyone like that. It’s just, people want to know stuff and they should be able to find it.

Would you say that side of things has almost become a part of the songwriting process, what with everything being so interlinked?

Yeah. Not consciously at the time. I mean, I try and put everything out of my head – expectations – anything, because after the Mercury, it was the first time I ever felt like that there would be people interested in what would come next. But you have to kind of cancel that out and concentrate on what it is you’re doing. And as it turned out, what I ended up doing was more, I’d hate to say commercial, but I think a bit easier to like on the first listen. But that was purely accidental really, it was just kind of what I was listening to and what I was interested in doing at the time.

It’s amazing just how much stuff’s out there if you’re prepared to look in terms of other bands, and the fact that you can do it so easily as well. You could make a video for no video. You can pretty much make an album for no money. When you consider 25 years ago, what I’m doing in my living room would have cost probably millions in terms of the equipment.

It would have probably cost as much as a house, never mind a living room!

Yeah, exactly! It’s ridiculous really. And its great that it democratizes everything, but at the same time it means if you’re looking for something good, there’s a lot more stuff to wade through to get to it.

As a songwriter do you think you’re able to take more risks and be more creative because there’s not so much pressure financially?

Yeah, I think so. Because there was no real record company breathing down my neck, and there was no real pressure, I mean, my manager phoned me up and said “come one, what’s happening?” as the months rolled by, but basically it was just a case of do what you do and see what happens. Once the album was put together and we looked at what we got, as subjectively as we could, that was when the plan started to come together.

We played it to a few people. EMI became part of the picture. But the first thing was: get the album done, see how that is, see the shape of it, what can we do with it, is it something we can market? Luckily the answer to all those questions was yes and that’s given this opportunity to get it out there.

How do you take that step back to evaluate what you’ve done?

Just a bit of time. Maybe even if its just a week – a week of no doing anything musical and then sitting down. I think probably what happened was that I mixed it all at home and then I took it to a bigger studio, just to reference and do a mix through expensive speakers.

That was the first time I listened to it hands off – well, as hands off as you ever do – try not and pick it apart to bits, and also hearing the album in the order we’d put the songs. It’s quite an old fashioned way of doing things considering the way music is consumed, but I still like the idea of an album being a journey – that the songs are ordered in a way that it drags you through with it. Even though if, in the end, people only download want they want, and listen to it on random, for people who like the whole journey of the album, we spent a lot of time trying lots of different sequences to see what worked.

When I got it into the big studio, I tried to work my way through it in the order that I wanted the songs and then it became clear if and how it worked, but I’m really pleased by the result.

The song order itself then, the journey, is that something that comes later or are you conscious of it when you’re writing the songs?

This is the first time I’ve written an album with a theme in mind, mainly because I didn’t have to do a day job whilst I was doing it. So instead of trying to draw everything together after it’s done, and kind of make a story out of what I’ve got, the journey came together as I was doing it. I knew the theme I wanted to do, I knew what I wanted to talk about – it was a question of each song approaching the theme from a different view point. Whether it being a narrative song or whether it was some kind of massive epic based around an extended metaphor – whatever it was, with all the different techniques, it was all focused on the same thing, on the same thread. Everything was done with that in mind.

I didn’t think about how the pacing would work because you can’t really do that till its done, but certainly lyrically, there was a lot of on making sure everything fitted together, everything was relevant to what I was trying to say.

When do the lyrics come into your writing process?

Generally last. I spend a lot of time on the song and then as much time just sitting with it, trying to get the lyrics right. Then again, that’s something I can do on a bus, I can do when I’m walking, wherever I am, whatever it is.

In terms of other bands, even if I really, really love their music, if the lyrics aren’t good, I struggle with it. So it’s as important, if not more important, than the music in the end.

So giving them their own special attention at the end is quite important?

Yeah, and it was quite a nice way to do it, because once I had one song with which to refer to. And then, as I was writing the lyrics, in the back of my mind I could think “OK, I’ve already approach the subject from this way, now let’s try it from this standpoint”, and then I started to build up the ideas from lots of different perspectives and directions by the end.

Your music can be very textural and intricate. In the same way you give your vocals that special attention, do you find that you need that first part of the writing process to focus on the music and getting the sound how you want it?

Yeah, it’s pretty much a finished mix by the time I add vocals: as close as I can get it to that. I was trying very hard this time, because I do do very dense mixes with loads and loads of stuff going on, to give the voice some consideration in advance of that, because previously I think I’ve hidden behind a mix a little bit with my own voice. It suddenly dawned on me, and it sounds like the most obvious thing in the world, its all about singing. When you connect – when you do it live, when you do it on a record – its all about singing. When you listen to Stevie Wonder – I’m not comparing myself in anyway – but you listen to Guy Garvey, Thom Yorke, that’s what draws you in: that humanity.

So it was very much in my mind that I wanted to bring that out, so as dense as the mixes are, when there’s singing I try to keep it a little bit more open and to be slightly less apologetic about the voice in the mix. I think on the last record, the voice was almost another instrument, which is one way to work – there are lots of records I love are like that – but on this record, the melodies are strong and I did lots and lots of work on the singing to try and bring that out and make that the focus this time. It’s possibly a little less atmospheric – certainly less esoteric – but it brings it back to most basic thing in the world which is communicating to people, which you do with your voice.

In terms of atmospheric, on the second album, there were lots of very interesting and odd sounds. How much does the idea of texture and timbre feed into your songwriting? Is a big consideration on you whilst you’re writing and the ideas are coming through?

Yes massively. I don’t write on an instrument. I don’t write a song on a guitar and then take it into a studio and record. I usually have an idea, one idea, and it might be on a guitar, it might be on a piano, it might be on a xylophone – it might be banging a fire extinguisher – whatever it is, I start with that.

Then I basically write everything on the studio. So if for the next part of the song I hear “right, that should be a harmonium” then I’ll do that on a harmonium. What I end up with is a kind of badly woven together, disparate kind of thing that doesn’t quite fit together, but with lots of different bits at which point I work really hard to really get the melody line. Then, what tends to happen to me, once you’ve got the melody line it tends to bring all those elements together and then it’s just a question of the layers and making the joins kind of seamless, the dynamics of the song are also a huge thing.

I still like traditional instrumentation and I like how we’ve got real drums on this record, but I also like those sounds that you don’t know what they are. You know, it’s not a preset on something. I’ve spent a lot of time taking raw sounds. On this record there’s another dishwasher, there’s a squeaky oven door, which worked really well in a song – it happened to be in A flat which the song was, of all keys – and trying to make that musical, but musical in a way that’s not stubbornly weird. That can be a challenge. The biggest influence in terms of that was a lot of hip hop records. If you listen to Public Enemy, they take lots of un-musical noise – The Bomb Squad, when they were producing it – and they turned it into something either rhythmic or melodic. It’s a hook and it’s just millions of tiny, weeny little details working together.

Another guy, LP – he does it a much darker way. Listening to those guys, I’m like “wow, this is really musically un-musical” or the other way round. It’s taking really unlikely source material and making it beautiful, or ugly because that’s fine as well! But I think in terms of what we do, I try and make it as un-grating as possible, but it’s nice and also people like records with sounds they’ve never heard before on, hopefully.

When you go out and play it live, we reproduce a lot of those things by triggering samples, and we’ve managed to avoid the whole click track and on-stage laptop thing, because we wanted to keep it live – if you hear a sound you see someone do something to produce it, even if it’s just hitting a pad. I think that’s kind of what makes in magical, when you’re like “what is that?! That’s a brilliant noise!” I love records like that.

Check out the video to Joyful Reunion, the first single from Crown and Treaty, below:

How has that approach tied into the Music Sales songwriting week?

This has been quite a departure for me. I’ve always worked solitarily, on my own, so this is a major departure from how I usually work. In terms of once the song is down and the band are with me, and we’re working on the mix, or we’re talking about an arrangement thing, a bass part, whatever it is, generally, most of the work has been done and its in my head, what its going to sound like.

Coming here, it’s brilliant! I don’t have to worry about details, I don’t get lost in that, and we’re talking about the broadest brushstrokes in terms of getting a song together. It’s just about, “has it got a good melody? Are the chords working? Dynamically, are there possibilities?” because there’s probably no time to actually work that out because its only be a sort of piano part, or guitar part, plus the fact working with two or three people you’ve never met before.

What I try to do, because we get a big list of everyone who’s attending and all the music they’ve done, I kind of consciously don’t listen to what they do, not out of rudeness, because I’m really curious, but because I’m really suggestible and I’ll end up trying to please them. So I want to be a bit kind of vague about what they do and its kind of difficult when it’s a big name and you know they’re stuff, but it’s just a really interesting way of working and totally the opposite of how I’ve ever done before. But I really love it and would like to do more.

What would you say is the hardest part of being a songwriter?

It’s keeping the faith – those moments where nothing is happening and inspiration seems miles and miles and miles away from where you are, and just keeping the faith that something will happen. There were times writing the album, with certain songs that I almost gave up on. I read something the other day though, I think it was Henry Miller. He’d written a list of the things to bear in mind when you’re writing a novel, and a lot of it applied to writing music, number five especially: “when there’s no inspiration, there’s always the work”.

So on a day when its not happening, when its not coming together, you sit there and you tidy up the drum parts or you edit stuff that’s still got loads of noise to cut out. You just do all the technical stuff that you leave to the last minute. You just do it when the inspiration is not there. Then on a day when it strikes again, at least you’re in front of a computer and you’re ready to go.

Just bearing with it, I think that’s the hardest, hardest thing when its not happening.

Do you find comfort zones are ever an issue with your writing?

Yeah I do, which is why I tend to use a lot of musical instruments that don’t work very well. You can’t get comfortable with them. I recorded a guitar part with my son’s plastic guitar on the last album, that only stayed in tune for about ten seconds at a time, and it was just hopeless, so I’d have to play a chord – right OK got that one – tune up again, play the next chord, and you know edit it all together, and I just find it, whenever I use unusual stuff, that tends to drag you away from chord shapes that, as a guitarist you fall into.

Or I write on the piano, which I can’t play, or a lot of programming, anything that takes you out of your comfort zone – a strange tuning on the guitar: “I understand this tuning, I know what’s going to happen if I pick it up, I’m gonna be stuck doing Blues with it.” Right, OK, we’ll change all that and then with all the tricks, even if you fall into them, something other happens.

And it is dangerous, comfort zones. You can find it with melody lines. If you listen to a Bjork record for instance, there’s a trick she does quite often that you hear throughout her music, and there are little things we all fall back into, but my attention to detail is such that I pick up on those things quite early on, and in an almost academic way, turn it around. Even if it’s something that no one else will pick up on in a million, million years, just for my own piece of mind, bearing in mind that this album is going to be around for as long as I’m around, I have to go in and tweak things to trick myself. It’s all about attention to detail.

Can your attention to detail ever get in the way? Can you ever get too self-critical? Can thinking too academically create obstacles in the writing process?

I do get lost in it. I do get carried away with detail, and part of the learning curve for me, is admitting to myself, that you’re just avoiding difficult things that’s hard by sitting there programming hi-hats, spending hours trying to get it right.

Sometimes I feel justified by it, especially if it’s something I’ve played quite badly, which often happens. I had to do drums on one of the songs – I recorded the snare and hi-hat because I don’t have a kick drum, because I live in a bungalow, so my landlord would have had kittens.

I did spend hours though. First of all, knocking it into time, and then shifting it minutely out of time so that it sounded like a drummer. So I had the hi-hat and the snare and I was doing all the editing there, and then I had to programme the kicks – I put them on the beat and made them absolutely perfect, but because my other playing wasn’t great, I then had to shift bass drums around to make it sound like it was being played by someone who probably wasn’t great at drums, although the feel was nice.

Almost like trying to break it correctly?

Yeah, exactly. It’s like you’re making things worse to make them better.

Is adding a bit of dirtiness or fault to your music important to how you write songs? Can it help to make things a bit weird and interesting?

Yeah, those imperfections – the thing is, the way I do them, I work out exactly where they’re going to go. It’s not a spontaneous, random thing. I guess if you’re painting a picture – it’s a rubbish metaphor – but you want to be sure that everything you want to put on the canvas is where you want it to be, you’re not going to leave a great deal to chance, unless you’re that kind of artist. Unless you’re Jackson Pollock, bashing paint round, because I would do that, do random stuff, but then I would spend a lot of time editing so that random stuff happens in places that I want it to and its controlled, which sounds like a contradiction, but I don’t want it to overwhelm the music, unless it works for a certain bit.

It takes a long time to find the right feel and space to put everything in its place.

Does having access to your own gear at home help you find the right placing and work those elements together?

Yeah, because there’s not some bloke there saying “what you doing?!” you can just sit there and go “oh alright, well that works, that doesn’t work” and see how things fit together.

Do you use many pedals or effects when comes to your guitar?

Not so much now actually, but I used to have loop pedals and all that stuff, and now I’ve cut all that stuff back to concentrate on my singing. We’ve got another guitarist now, who focuses more on that stuff, but there was a point where I had a harmonium in front of me, and a pretty massive pedal board and something off to the side, and it was a tap dance as well as a singing job as well as playing. Knowing where you were with everything was impossible so I slimmed it down. Now its really just distortion pedals and reverbs.

Carting it all around was joyless but we’re a six piece now, so there’s still wads of gear. For all the triggering we do, we still need laptops for the source sounds – loads and loads of cables – when we do support gigs, you can just see the sound guy muttering to himself “oh dear”.

Thanks for talking to us Tim!

Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s Crown and Treaty is out now. Purchase your copy online now and look out for the matching ablum songbook, coming soon to musicroom.com.

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