I received two great bits of handwritten post recently, both notes of congratulations regarding the release of our album. And though the messages were from very different senders - one was from a friend I see regularly and the other from my Grandad - I was amazed at how much I was affected by the nostalgia of seeing both of their letter shapes again.
Without any sense of reproach at all - god knows that I’m terrible at sending post myself, possibly the worst - it was sad to me that I should see so little of my friends’ and family members’ handwriting anymore when it used to be commonplace. It was weird, too, to think that the hereditary-ish nature of handwriting (my grandad’s writing style shares definite characteristics with my dad’s) will be lost as typing not-so-gradually takes over. And that, not that it was ever much to look at, made me worry for the deterioration of my own handwriting too.
Partly I already had writing in mind because I was reading two books that made great use of their creators’ handwriting style. The first, Kate Beaton’s Hark A Vagrant, is maybe most understandable since it’s a comic - an irreverent comic-form exploration of historical figures that is SO ENJOYABLE, by the way - and therefore all hand-crafted. The other is a collage-based selection of Peter Beard’s photographs of wildlife and disruption in Kenya from 1955 onwards that also features fashion portraits and excerpts from his diaries of the time. The collages are frequently fucking harrowing, both in content and in presentation, and often all the more so because of their juxtaposition with the everyday-ness of the creator’s simple notes of addresses and telephone numbers in his journal that make you feel that much closer to the mayhem. It’s an insane reading/viewing experience. Here’s an example of one page. Note Peter Beard writing notes while lying in a crocodile’s mouth.
Anyway, these two separate things combined to make me miss the sight of my own writing lately, crap as it is. I used to hand-write all my lyrics, primarily on crappy A4 notepads after some slightly prententious experimentation with more portable (cooler-looking) notepads and diaries that ultimately enraged me with their neatness. Then at some mysterious point I started using my laptop for reasons of convenience. It wasn’t really something I considered at the time at all. Now, though, with a more recent return to writing this seems like it was a mindless sacrifice of the personal touch that using handwriting represents - and one that is out of keeping with Thumpers’ and my own reasons for making music.
Going back to hand-writing for lyrics has been useful for me for a couple of reasons. On one level there is a patience in the physicality of writing that seems more consistent with singing. It takes a longer time both to get initial ideas down and there’s something usefully calming in that. You just experience the words in a more tangible way writing them down than you can in typing them out.
Similarly, hand-writing lyrics affects the way I edit myself. There’s less room for procrastination, for leaving words on the page as placeholders for better words to come, the way that I would on a screen.
More importantly, though, as a representation of what is most satisfying to me in music - which is the direct communication of an artist’s personality and point of view - handwriting better fits the bill. It’s vulnerable, it’s knowable - if you see a big enough sample, almost without meaning to, parts of it can show the writer’s mood. And when I think about putting words with music that’s what I want too. I want the end result to convey something emotional and personal in exactly that conscious/unconscious way. There’s a time when you’re able to choose parts of how you write, whether you use your parents or teachers or siblings “a”s or “s”s, but when those choices become fully accepted through routine your style becomes set and weirdly beyond your own control. Far from feeling trapped by that, though, I actually feel glad that what’s left says “me” so strongly. That’s exactly what I like in the letters I received.
So I guess what these handwriting styles represented when I thought about it is becoming like a musical guide to me. At the start of THUMPERS, John and I had to reinvent the way we wrote songs to escape the routines we had created in previous bands. But I know that there are elements of these old processes that are untraceable to us, because they are too deeply embedded, that give us away as the new songs’ creators too. And I’m happy that they’re there because music is a personal thing and those telltales are a part of that. They’re why we record together quickly and aim for spontaneity - so that we capture them. I want to be, and am, able to choose my musical content but the way that it’s presented will and should always carry parts of a signature that I can’t change. And even though it has its idiosyncracies or even uglinesses in parts that’s so much for the better. In fact, anything else is unacceptable.
Thumpers play the Best Fit stage at this weekend’s Camden Crawl Festival (CC14) - tickets still available here.