Complete Strawberry Switchblade interview by subject

Jill Bryson interviewed 9 June 01
Rose McDowall interviewed 29 Jan 02
Bill Drummond interviewed 26 April 03
David Balfe interviewed 19 May 03
David Motion interviewed 2 Aug 02 & 15 April 03
Robin Millar interviewed 16 Feb 03
Tim Pope interviewed 22 June 06

Writing the songs

How did you write the songs? You were already writing with The Poems.

ROSE: It was mostly vocal stuff I was writing with The Poems, I wasn't really playing any instruments except the drums. I taught myself to play twelve-string guitar. Basically either Jill would come up with a guitar line and I would put a vocal melody on it and the words, or I'd come up with both and occasionally she'd come up with both. The majority of the time it was... well, it's difficult because if you actually looked at the whole thing, the whole album, I probably tended to write most of it as a whole, but Jill wrote quite a lot of the music. She'd write one song, I'd write another song, but when I did it I tended to write the vocal melody and the lyrics as well, with a couple of exceptions. We used to write like that and then come together with an idea.

Working with Jill was great, it was really really good because our personalities together were perfect for writing songs. She'd do something that would really excite me and I'd do something that would really excite her. The enthusiasm that came off each other was completely electric, it was SO exciting and SO much fun. And all we ever did was laugh. We were just really happy and we worked together really really well. I haven't ever worked with anybody like that since then.

I kind of miss that, I miss our working relationship. It was really good for most of the time, it's just that there became stresses towards the end. It was actually really good fun when we were sitting down and one of us would come up with an idea. We were good for each other, I think. We were good for each other's confidence - we were learning guitar AS we wrote the songs, 'I've learnt this new chord' 'Oh that's really nice, let's see if we can fit it in with the other ones we know'. It was like everything drew out of the same pot. We worked well together, we worked really well together.

Although it was really collaborative, you were writing the lyrics on your own. Did you ever do much explaining of what they were about? In a format like the three minute song there's bound to be so much left unsaid, but yours tend to be really uncontextualised. It feels like being dropped into the middle of a situation, like a snapshot of a relationship where although there's clearly history and consequences, the lyrics have just picked a moment and described the feeling and feelings of that moment. Did you ever explain to Jill where the lyrics had come from and what they were describing?

ROSE: A lot of the lyrics were just straight out of my life, basically. It was a memory and I'd just put it into words like a poem. Little parts of my life that were stuck in my head, I'd write songs about them. Things like Little River, the reason I wrote that song is because it was one of my favourite story books in school when I was a little girl. Things like Go Away, my cousin had taken me out into the countryside and he used to play really nasty tricks on me. He'd take me for great big long walks - cos he lived in the country and I'd go and visit them - and then he'd dump me somewhere. He'd tell me to sit on this wishing stone, close my eyes and count to ten and make a wish. I'd close my eyes, count to ten, make a wish and open my eyes and he'd be nowhere to be seen, and I would have no idea where I was. That stuck in my head, and that was what Go Away was about, basically.

And yet there's a couple of references in interviews to the fact that lyrics were never written together. I think you said you wrote By The Sea together and that's about it. Who did what in the songwriting?

JILL: When we started off I used to just do the melodies and write the music and she did the lyrics. I wrote Trees And Flowers on my own. Sometimes if I was playing I'd come up with something [lyric-wise] to fill it in, to help with the melody and the flow, and we'd just stick with it. And if I liked it I'd go 'I've got some words'. And as we went on Rose decided she would learn to play guitar as well - if I could do it in three months she could! Then she started to write her own music as well.

So did it get more collaborative or did it make you develop ideas separately?

JILL: It did get more that one of us would come in with a finished thing. To begin with I came in with the tune and the melody and she'd tape it and go off and write the lyrics, but as soon as she learned to play a few chords she did her own stuff. But then we'd kind of get together to rehearse it, thrash it out a bit.

Is there any stuff you wrote the lyrics for apart from Trees And Flowers?

JILL: Being Cold, and Who Knows What Love Is which is totally terrible and was supposed to be kind of, er, ironic. But it didn't really work out that way.

But set it to music and it just floats, it's gorgeous.

JILL: I did that one, and the words and music for Being Cold and Trees And Flowers. I think that's the only ones I wrote words for, because I'm not really a lyrics person.

Did you decide right at the beginning that everything would get credited to the two of you?

JILL: Yes. Well I just thought we were signed as a duo and we just decided to credit it to the both of us.

The writing of the lyrics; were there much explaining to each other of the meanings?

JILL: No, nothing. None.

So Rose turned up and said 'here's the lyrics' you just did it? Were you not curious about what she was writing about, and were you not wanting to explain your lyrics?

JILL: I used to ask sometimes but she never did explain. I never really asked.

Lots of them are like snapshots, taking a segment of a situation between two people and the obvious thing is to ask 'where did that come from, what did it come out of?'

JILL: I think it comes out of not thinking too much cos you have to kind of come up with it NOW, you know, and so it often wasn't thought about to much. She was never very forthcoming about what any of the things were about.

There's such a good marriage of the mood and descriptiveness of the lyrics with the melodies, so many of the songs are really of-a-piece, it's really odd they're coming out of separate minds that aren't explaining to each other.

JILL: Absolutely. I think it's that kind of instinctive thing, it's not thought of. Sometimes it's better if you just do that. After we'd done that album it was most of the songs we'd come up with - we weeded a few out and obviously we refined them a bit - but basically it was those songs. And once we got 'oh it's serious isn't it? It's like a job, we've GOT to do this', it kind of took the edge off it.

There's an extra pressure and weight when you know you've GOT to do something and you know where it's going to go.

JILL: Yeah, and it was awful, that's not really what it was about, it had been a really instinctive spur of the moment thing and that's why it worked. Cos it wasn't high art or anything, it was pop music.

Well yeah, it IS 'just pop music' and you can just hear it on the radio as you go past and you don't have to give it your full attention to get something from it, but the great thing about pop music is that you can go as deep as you want with the good stuff, it can communicate and move you on a level as deep as any other art form, especially when it's the performer's own work. You can't do that with Hear'Say but you can do that with, say, T. Rex, and certainly with Strawberry Switchblade.

JILL: Yeah, yeah I know. It's interesting to find out what people are about when they're writing stuff. If they're not writing stuff then it's just a case of performing it and do you like the performance of it or not.

Which of your contemporaries did you like and feel part of a scene with? It was a really great time for bittersweet melancholy indie music being huge with The Smiths coming through and Soft Cell just gone. Which of it were you listening to at the time?

JILL: The Smiths. And Orange Juice, we knew them and I liked them. I didn't like their recorded stuff, but I liked the weird jangly stuff, I've got loads of demos of theirs that are fantastic but, again, when the record company got hold of them they kind of sanitised them. They tried to make Edwyn into a soul singer which he clearly isn't! I mean, he's got a great voice, but it's weird, it's not Al Green. I remember wondering 'why are they doing [Al Green classic] L.O.V.E. Love? Who put that in their heads?'. I was listening to Aztec Camera. I listened to John Peel a lot, all the stuff on John Peel. I liked a lot of the Glasgow bands, we'd spent a lot of time going around to see them. I really liked the Pastels, I thought they were just fantastic, that real spirit of punk bizarre mixture of people, just great. Always good going to see them; they were hit and miss but I always thought that was great.

They're still really acclaimed now, their name crops up a lot in indie zines.

JILL: I really rate them. Bry Superstar the guitarist, he looked like he worked in bank and he actually did work in a bank, but he was really....he didn't have a bank mentality! I don't know how he did it. The Smiths were always on, always playing.

It's difficult to overstate the importance of the Smiths in music at that time. Every album track, every single, every b-side of their was great, no other band had done that. And at such a rate - an album a year plus a few singles not on the album, all with new tracks on the b-side too.

JILL: The Smiths are one of the bands I can remember seeing on Top of The Pops really really well. But yeah, all that kind of indie guitar bands. I recently found loads of tapes a friend made just after that point and they'd put a lot of electronic stuff and Janet Jackson type stuff and I can't actually listen to it. I remember thinking at the time it was quite funny, but I just can't listen to it now.

It was a music press inspired thing to pretend to be into soul music more than you were, and so to take any contemporary black artist and try to pretend they were as good as Marvin Gaye.

JILL: It makes bad listening now. I put a tape on and thought 'this might take me back'. It did, but it wasn't good.

[Change of tape - comes back in on...]

It was like this when I talked to Jill, four hours of tape!

ROSE: We're a pair of gabs, I tell you!

Totally! It's uncanny, it's so obvious that you worked together. And when you were talking about writing the songs, you used almost identical words to hers about the process.

ROSE: Really?

Yeah, really emphasising how much of a laugh you had doing it.

ROSE: Yeah, and bouncing enthusiasm off each other was just great.

And like her I've got a list of questions but I just need to look at it once in a while and cross off the ones you've answered in the course of just talking.

ROSE: It was great, we used to get together and think, 'the theme is red and black today' and throw everything that we possessed on the floor - beads, jewellery, earrings, everything that was red and black - put it all on then go out, jangling everywhere we went! People would hear us coming from half an hour before we got there!