John-Paul Stephenson

Interview: Pete Scott

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Pete Scott is a Newcastle-born singer-songwriter who has toured with, amongst others, Lindisfarne. He takes time out to talk to John-Paul Stephenson about his new comedy album, his update of the “Blaydon Races”, and teaching music in prison.

JPS: Firstly, Pete, there is a big tradition of humour in music in the North East…

PS: I was inspired by [Geordie songwriter] Joe Wilson. He wrote some hilarious songs, and some very dark songs. I thought that’s the way to do it. If Joe was around now, he would play the guitar.

I’ve always had humour in even my straight stuff. My previous album, Why Sing Goodbye Songs, has one song called “Fantastic Pasty”, and another about a guy who has been lying dead for three days before anybody finds him. Some of my sad stuff are funny in a kind of way. I’ve never seen a problem with that mix; some people do. I’ve always found it a strength to be able to write different sorts of songs, although the industry likes to put in you a hole.

JPS: Because they work off each other. The humour emphasises the pathos, and vice versa.

PS: You’d hope so, yeah. Sometimes a sad song with a jaunty tempo makes it more tragic.

JPS: You clearly get a lot of satisfaction from quirky little rhymes, especially if you can sneak in a local reference.

PS: I regard myself as a kind of poet who plays the guitar. For me, the words come first; it’s about the lyric. I concentrate heavily on the lyric when I teach song writing courses.

JPS: There’s not just the satisfaction for the writer who came up with the line, but there’s also the pleasure for the audience listening to it.

PS: It’s like punchlines. I like to split words up to get rhymes. I find when I’m writing funny stuff, in the early stages I’m falling about laughing at my own jokes. The tune is formed as you’re going. By the time you’ve got it in shape, you’ve heard it a hundred times, so you wonder if it’s as funny as you thought it was. And you don’t know until you try it out, and it’s very gratifying when people start laughing.

We did a tribute night to Jake Thackray [a musician from Yorkshire], who was a big inspiration to me, at The Polite Room. I realised this was a room full of people who were listening to the words; enjoying the wordplay and the skill and humour in the rhyme. People do like to listen to somebody who is crafting. Mitch Benn is another singer-songwriter I admire. He surprises you. With some people, you know what’s coming. He comes up with some good ideas.

JPS: I see there’s a sequel to “Fantastic Pasty” on the new album [Songs to Sing & Jokes to Tell].

PS: I wrote a sequel for the new one, but I put the original from the previous album on again otherwise it wouldn’t make much sense. It’s about a guy seeing off his girlfriend at the Central station, but all he can think of is his pasty. I did that song at the last Sunday for Sammy concert.

JPS: Last year, you updated the lyrics to the “Blaydon Races”. How did that come about?

PS: That was absolute magic. The BBC wanted to do an update to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the races. Now, I know my north east songwriters so I knew all about the history of the songs. Geordie Ridley took the tune of an American song called ‘Brighton’.

Most of the time we were working with topics submitted by BBC Newcastle listeners. There was one line submitted by a listener: “St. James’ Park was once so amazing; now it’s just a place for that bloke to sell his claes in”. But, the BBC didn’t want two verses about football, and they preferred the rhyme about Demba Ba, so this poor guy’s verse got the chop.

I was at home waiting for the lyrics to be approved. When they were, I emailed them to opera singer Graeme Danby, who was waiting with a film crew to record them in a studio in London before he had to fly off somewhere. We never actually met until we performed it live at Grey’s Monument.

JPS: You weren’t involved in Metro the Musical were you? That was brilliantly naff.

No, but I wish I had been. That was something else I saw, and thought, “I could’ve done that”.

JPS: I see that BBC Lincolnshire have just done a similar thing, but they have a continuous shot of 500 people miming to Take That songs. It’s well produced, but…

PS: Why did they use Take That songs instead of original music?

JPS: Do you enjoy performing live?

 PS: The album launch at the Miners’ Institute in Newcastle was a real blast. Everyone got a free pasty.

I’m going up to Redefest in Northumberland in August, and then I’ve got a couple of gigs, though nothing local.

I went through a period when I wasn’t playing live, but when I wasn’t playing live I wasn’t writing any comedy. I once had to come up with some one-liners at a gig so turn it around; that’s when I realised that I was there for the audience’s benefit, not the other way around.

You can get intro some hairy situations live. You can’t just walk out of a gig because you don’t fancy it. I once did a gig at an Air Force Base; I walked into the room at half six expecting to do a sound check, and the room was full of the drunkest people you’d ever meet. I sat in the loo thinking of every one-liner possible; the gig was fantastic!

JPS: What changes have you seen in the industry across the years?

PS: I used to have various publishing contracts, but royalty statements used to be telling you how much you still owed them. You ended up paying for everything, from the recording costs to the artwork.  Now I can operate entirely on my own terms; I can make my own records, and get good artwork done and sell them at gigs and from my website. I’m not looking to make a fortune; if I wanted to make a fortune I would’ve sold insurance. I’m not in it for the money, but you need the money to survive. If you listen to a track on Spotify, I only get 0.1p.

JPS: Is it true you taught in a high-security prison?

PS: Teaching music in prison was the most significant thing that happened to me as a writer and as a person. It was an unbelievable experience.

There was an enhanced wing at the prison, which, although mightn’t suit you or me, was a bit better than the normal wings. Inmates could move onto that by toeing the line. An officer said to me, “when you first came here I thought it was the biggest waste of time, but now the number of lads who make it onto this wing carrying a guitar…” It settled them down and got them focussed, because you’ve got to have such discipline to play an instrument.

At the end of the first six months, we had a choir and a rock band. We had a brilliant drummer; he was a lifer. It was quite a thing to do. You’re getting people who are very self-centred to work as a team. I had previously taught at a local college, but at the prison I felt appreciated. Students were motivated, and some of them had real talent.

Pete Scott’s new album, Songs to Sing and Jokes to Tell, is available from his website, Amazon and iTunes.

Listen to a clip of Fantastic Pasty: The Sequel: