How do you write a hit song? Harry McVeigh of White Lies reveals the secrets of the band's dark, introverted lyrics and sweeping, epic tunes.
We've had a fantastic year. We definitely were not expecting our album To Lose My Life... to go to number one. It's not a mainstream record. We were very fortunate with the timing of it.
People have reacted to our music in an incredible way, in a way that none of us would ever have dreamed of when we were growing up and writing rubbish songs after school as teenagers. Ever since we started the White Lies MySpace, it's been amazing.
The MySpace site was the first thing we did as a band. Obviously, we were in another group before, Fear of Flying, but we weren't going anywhere. The main turning point was when we wrote "Unfinished Business". We started White Lies with that. We knew we wanted to write an album's worth of material like that. It seemed the songs we'd been writing before were irrelevant at that point. It just made sense to start something new.
In the current climate, if we'd made an album as Fear of Flying, we'd have been dropped. So we were fortunate to have that second chance as White Lies. We went to Brussels to make the album. The ICP Studios were absolutely fantastic, with vintage equipment which was almost priceless.
Charles Cave, our bassist, is a fantastic lyricist. The lyrics he wrote for "Unfinished Business" were very different, original. It's a very brave thing to do to try and write a story within a song and have it make sense. It was very clever of him.
Usually the process is that Charles and I will sit down at my keyboard for a couple of days and we'll write the basics of a song together.
We'll start to get a rough melody line and a chord progression together using the lyrics that he's written. Very shortly after that, we'll go into the rehearsal studio and we'll work with Jack [Lawrence-Brown, drums], all three of us, all doing the song from the beginning. After a couple of months, we'll have about three songs to go and demo.
We'll have a rough version which we'll usually cut up and start to change all over again. It's a very long process between the initial writing of the song and finishing it, but that's just how we work. We're real perfectionists.
A lot of bands do it the other way around to us. They start playing the songs live before they go in to a studio to record them, but we can't work that way. Live, we're a four piece, but when we write and record we're only a three piece.
“The guitar parts don't get written until we go into the studio when I can stop playing the keyboards and start playing the guitar. It's a strange way of working. Once we've demoed the songs, we have to learn how to play them live afterwards.
We pretty much wrote half of the album when we were in the studio, that's why it sounds very immediate and spontaneous. “To Lose My Life”, the title track, wasn't really working until we stumbled across the form it's in now very near the end of the recording process. It's a great introduction to the band, it's got a really catchy chorus and it has all the elements of our sound. It's very easy for people to connect with the song — with the emotions in the lyrics and with the subject matter. That, along with our other song “Death”, our first two singles, are possibly the best introduction to the band.
The last two tracks, “The Price of Love” and “Nothing to Give”, hint at what's to come. They're the most accomplished songs in terms of their complexity and their arrangements. Sonically they're the most exciting.
It doesn't surprise me that people identify with our music because the songs deal with feelings and emotions and subject matter that everyone, no matter how young or how old they are, will have experienced at least at some point in their life. There's a misconception with our band and our lyrics that we're fascinated by death. In fact,death is more a metaphor for loss. It's about losing someone or something or losing a relationship, feelings that are associated with just about everyone.
We're not really intense young men. We do have a lot of fun as a band. Our music is therapeutic. It's an amazing thing to be able to sing loud and high about some pretty dark things, dark subject matter.
The music itself is often quite uplifting, euphoric, whereas the subject matter of the lyrics is darker and more introverted. It's a nice release of those emotions and those feelings. It gives me a wonderful of euphoria when I'm singing the songs. If we'd lived through the subject matter in the lyrics, we'd be pretty much insane, but we leave that behind after we get off stage and we live our lives like normal people.
We took a leaf out of Radiohead's book when we released a limited edition run of the album on 7-inch vinyl through the website which included a demo of one of our songs, "The Prince of Love", and also a stripped back version of a track called "Nothing to Give" which had some amazing string parts on it originally. That version has a vocal that sounds like Scott Walker. It's a lovely collector's item.
We certainly are very disciplined as people and as a band. We also look out for each other and make sure that we can always work as a strong unit.
We've wanted to be in a band for our whole lives and now we've been given the opportunity to do it, we want to grab hold of every chance we get and make the most of everything.
Taken from the Ivor Novello Essays published at www.basca.org.uk. The Ivor Novello Awards, presented by BASCA in association with PRS for Music, take place tomorrow