In popular music, does absence really make the heart grow fonder or is remaining in the zeitgeist just as important as the quality of an artist’s body of work? This is a complicated and worthy question, as time away from the spotlight in the streaming age can mean the end of a career for some, while the holdout for a reunion for certain artists can only build a legion of rabid fans to build a newfound cult status.
In the case of the Irish band Snow Patrol’s lead singer Gary Lightbody, before the release of the band’s 2018 album “Wildness,” he spent seven years uncertain of whether or not he would be able to write another song after their 2011 album “Fallen Empires.” During that time, he had to do some serious soul-searching and introspective self-help that included kicking his addictions to both drugs and alcohol in order to be able to get a handle on the demons that were sidelining his creativity. I spoke with Lightbody about what seven years without Snow Patrol was like and how he was able to overcome his fears and take the stage again.
Before last year’s album (“Wildness”), it had been seven years since a proper Snow Patrol release. Do you feel that the time off put things in perspective for you?
It’s a difficult thing to think about at the time, I think, as you’re sort of meeting each new challenge as it comes. In hindsight, I can see the picture quite clearly. But at the time, I was wading through a whole bunch of different stuff. I didn’t know if I could write another song. I just thought that was it. I’ve told this story before but I apologize for recycling it. I read an interview with Henry Rollins, who I’m a big fan of… He was asked why he didn’t make any music anymore and he said: “I’ve had my songs and that was it.”
I was in a real barren drought for a long period of time and I read those words and I thought, “F–k. I’ve had my songs!” This is coming from the mountaintop. This is coming from Henry Rollins! A man I’ve admired as much as any. He just told me what the problem is. I’ve run out of f–king songs. It took me a while to get over that, to be honest. Not that I’m blaming Henry Rollins for any of this [laughs]. But it did make me think that I was fighting an unwinnable war. It just made me dig in a little bit more. It took me a while to realize that this had nothing to do with the music. It was what was going on in my head that was the problem.
That was a long, long process and that’s why it took seven years. It wasn’t seven years of trying to make an album. It was five years of trying to get my life sorted and then six months of studio time making the record and 18 months of trying to write it with a clearer head.
At one time, you were writing as a music columnist for a couple of different magazines. Was writing a good creative outlet to help you to get in the right headspace for writing music again?
Partly that but also my degree is in English. I wanted to become a music journalist. With the band, it was 10 years before we had a hit. So, I just assumed I would never have any success. I just figured that I would try to get into journalism. I was sending my stuff into magazines, I was living in Glasgow at the time, and I was kind of getting knocked back everywhere. The demos we were sending everywhere were getting knocked back. The copy I was sending was to magazines getting knocked back. It was a lot of slammed doors in the face but it kind of made me more resilient at the time. But, it got to the stage where people were actually asking me to write for columns when the band had some success. I just jumped at the chance. I’ve always wanted to do it. I love enthusing about music. I’ve always wanted to tell people about the music I loved but I don’t think I would be a good journalist because I wouldn’t be able to write about the music I didn’t like. I never got to the situation where I had to write about an album I didn’t like. That’s not in me. I know what it takes to make a record. It’s very hard. Even if I don’t like something, to even think about criticizing it… If you put your heart and soul into a record, it has value. Whether or not people like it or not or you individually like it, it doesn’t matter. I was just never able to say, “Well, I hate this because… [laughs].”
It is kind of funny as you get older that you can appreciate music more on simply it being created rather than if it is cool or not. You begin to let go of what you think you are supposed to be listening to and just enjoy things on a more basic level.
Yes. Absolutely! It always amazes me as well when you catch people in pubs sometimes when you get the feeling that they immediately don’t like you and you guess that it’s because they don’t like your band. It’s so funny when you are able to have seen behind the doors of all of it. I’ve met members of bands that I haven’t liked the music of and they’ve turned out to be the loveliest people I’ve ever met and I’ve met bands that I’ve adored and they’ve turned out to be hateful. You can’t ever judge someone by their music. The people who make the saddest or the angriest music turn out to be the loveliest people. They are just able to get it out off their chest and communicate with the world.
A lot of the lyrical content on this album echoes strong messages of self-help. The line “Don’t fall in love with the way things were, it will f–k up your mind” sticks out to me. Your music has always been very full of empathy, but do you feel as though it is harder to really share yourself with your fans without it being a burden on your shoulders? Is that something you struggle with?
I think I used to struggle with it. I would keep something back from myself. Part of it was I thought, if I share this — the darkest places I wasn’t able to open those doors and look in in the past, and any time I thought about trying to look in — I thought people would run from me was my greatest fear. If I showed anyone the darkest parts of myself, they wouldn’t want to be my friends. The recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction was interwoven with the album and I knew that once I opened those doors and not just looked inside but sat inside and shared many meals with my demons, that I was never going to be able to go back. There was no closing the doors, they were just going to be open. I had to write about it and I don’t think I was necessarily brave, I was just too scared not to do it. It kind of backed me into a corner and I said: “Well, I have to do this now.”
I didn’t think people sent letters anymore, but I’ve got so many f–king letters. I don’t know how they got my address, but I guess it must be on the internet somewhere! People saying how much the album means to them, means a lot to me. So, I don’t think it can be a responsibility. I think your responsibility has to be to yourself, in a way. Nobody wants to hear the record that you make for everybody else. They want to hear the record you make for you. You just have to hope that it relates to other people because if you start trying to second-guess what people want, you are doing you or your fans or anybody else who listens to your songs a disservice. It’s not a guidebook, it’s just what I went through. I’m glad that it has connected with some people.
Snow Patrol will be in town to play Terminal 5 on Tuesday, April 30.
Stream, download Snow Patrol album “Wildness”
Snow Patrol’s album “Wildness” is available on all major platforms.