How do you write a hit?

On the eve of the Ivor Novello Awards for songwriting, Harry McVeigh of White Lies reveals the secrets of the band's dark, introverted lyrics and sweeping, epic tunes
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The Independent Culture

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.

We decided to wait a rather long time, about five or six months, before we played as White Lies. We did that on purpose so we could generate a lot of interest before we played that first show. People had no idea what we looked like or how old we were. Within a few days of our first gig, in February 2008, we signed with Fiction.

The moment we signed our record deal we suddenly felt like we could actually do this, that this could be a career, that this could be our chance.

With Fear of Flying, we had sort of scratched the surface of the music industry. We had a couple of singles out on limited edition vinyl. We were introduced to the producer Stephen Street by one of our good friends at school, who happens to be his son. Stephen very kindly offered us some time in his recording studio. We spent a couple of days in there. It's beyond me why he had any faith in our band and why he gave us that opportunity in the first place.

We also toured a couple of times around the UK so we did get a taste of what was to come. Even though our songs weren't very good, I look back on Fear of Flying with fondness. It was a definite learning curve.

We haven't really experienced any horror stories. Fear of Flying basically got ignored by every record company under the sun. It was a very hard thing to deal with.

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.

The Joy Division comparison is a little lazy. There's such a coldness and morbidity to Joy Division. Our music is warmer and more organic. The main reasons we get compared to them are the way that I sing, and also the decision made by all of us at the beginning to wear black clothes on stage. We decided to do that because when we were growing up, with the whole new rave scene in the UK, people were starting to judge bands more on what they were wearing the crazy outfits, the bright colours, the weird patterns than their music. We wanted to remove ourselves from that. Black is a very neutral colour; it blends into the background and people tended to focus on the music rather than on what we looked like.

We're not really intense young men. We do have a lot of fun as a band. Maybe the public doesn't really see that, but we don't take ourselves too seriously. There's a common misconception that we're very depressed, introverted and weird people because of the nature of our music. 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 sense 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.

Radiohead is a band we look up to. I would love our path to move in the same direction as theirs has. They've never sacrificed their integrity, never made a record they didn't want to make, never made something that's conventionally commercial. One of the other things I admire about them is that they're not ridiculously famous as individuals, they still manage to remain very private, mysterious. Yet they are still one of the most famous and successful bands in the world.

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 Price 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. The drive and determination come from the years we were in a band that didn't work. It takes a long time to hone your craft as a songwriter and as a musician.

Taken from the Ivor Novello Essays published at The Ivor Novello Awards, presented by BASCA in association with PRS for Music, take place tomorrow


You get homesick

I wish I'd known how long I would be away from home for. That is one of the hardest things about being a touring musician, the time spent away from home. We just got back after spending about five-and-a-half weeks away, which is really tough actually. We loved it, we loved playing the shows, that's what makes it all worth it. Playing live is the best thing about being in the band, it's a wonderful experience. Performing is something I'd recommend to anyone. But being away from home is tough.

It's hard work

It's a lot of hard work, it's not all about the rock'n'roll lifestyle and parties. Nothing can really prepare you for being in a band. It's the same as doing any job or making any career choice. You learn the most in the first year that you do it.

Foreign languages are useful

I was so bad at learning languages at school. Now we're trying to learn. We have these fantastic audio books which teach us how to speak various languages. You can learn the basics in a couple of days on some of the longer plane journeys. I want to learn a little bit of Japanese it's so alien to me. I'd love to be able to speak that language. Certainly a little bit of French and German is good. I think it's politeness to be able to talk to people in their language. I always feel I'm being a little rude if I'm not making an effort do to that.

Fans expect a lot

Fans can be intense. I won't go into it, but it's very dark and also probably quite private to them. We've certainly experienced a fair bit of that. It's very flattering and very complimentary but sometimes you do almost feel like saying, 'I'm not a therapist, I can't really help you with your problems. I'm not at all trained to do this, I'm just a musician and that's just a song we sing and that's just the subject which we chose to write about. I don't really know much about how to help you.' It's a very strange thing indeed. It's a testament to the power of the music. Obviously people connect emotionally with the songs, and they think that the people who wrote that music have the answers whereas in fact we probably don't.

Royalties are the icing on the cake

It's a wonderful thing when you receive your PRS statement because you feel like you're getting money for nothing. You've done the hard work writing and recording the songs. You don't have to go and physically play the songs on the radio. When you have a record that's played a lot, you get a little bit of money, which is very nice actually. The amounts do surprise me.

Taken from the Ivor Novello Essays published at The Ivor Novello Awards, presented by BASCA in association with PRS for Music, take place tomorrow