Songwriter Interviews

Jim Kerr Of Simple Minds: Writing Through The Good, The Bad And The Indifferent

by Dan MacIntosh

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The Simple Minds frontman on their latest album, playing Manchester the day after the bombing, and the Velvet Underground influence.

Simple Minds has been making music since 1977, and while the lineup has changed, the core writing team of guitarist Charlie Burchill and vocalist Jim Kerr has remained constant. Their latest album, released in 2018, is Walk Between Worlds. Many of the songs have a kind of positivity rarely heard in alternative rock, especially from a group that's been going for over four decades.

In this discussion, Kerr talks about how the album relates to faith, including their cover of Ewan MacColl's "Dirty Old Town," which took on a special meaning for the band when they played Manchester the night after the 2017 bombing.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I read a quote of yours in Billboard magazine that really struck me. You said, "All the songs are about abstract religious content, about your faith or the maintenance of your faith. It's something we've looked at before, and it definitely resonates now, albeit from a much more experienced point of view."

Which songs from the album Walk Between Worlds do you think best express and supports that quote?

Jim Kerr: Dan, the quote's not wrong, but there's one word that shouldn't be in there. There is not a religious element unto it.

The first track on the album, "Magic," and the last track on the album, "Sense Of Discovery," they're about faith. And when I said faith, I didn't mean it necessarily in the religious context. I just meant all manner of faith, and different faiths. And why we would write about that stuff is that it's always been in our music. There are certain themes going back to New Gold Dream [1982].

I don't make the music. I write the words. And what I do is try to translate the feeling in the music. The thoughts. The sentiments that the music evokes in me. And I can understand sometimes why people would think it's religious, because when you say faith, most people think of a religious context. But it does not have to be.

I'm not trying to avoid the religious issues. I am not personally religious. Everything else you said there, yeah, that sounds like the quote.

Songfacts: A lot of my friends that are of a particular spiritual persuasion find a lot in your music that speaks to them.

Kerr: Great.

Songfacts: Even though that's maybe not your intention.

Kerr: You can release something out there, and it can send different ripples. And if they get something that makes them feel good - and when I say good, I mean it in a profound sense, in that it reinforces something good - then no one's happier than me about that.

The world seems a very divided, torn-up place at the moment. But this album, with song titles like "Magic," "A Sense of Discovery," "In Dreams," is all positive language. How come I'm not writing about all that other stuff? Well, I write what I hear in the music. I transcribe what I hear in the music. Apart from that, what can I tell you about all that other stuff that you don't already know? Art takes your feelings and thoughts above that. You kind of avoid the gravity.

Songfacts: You cover "Dirty Old Town" on the new album, which is not the most positive song. What was it that drew you to that song?

Kerr: The song was poignant because of that horrible incident that happened in Manchester last year. There was a bombing at the concert. There were terrorists, and a lot of kids were killed. We were playing that night close by in Liverpool, so it was about 45 minutes drive away, maybe 50. We did the gig in Liverpool and we were on route to Manchester. We were due to play the next night, and the coach driver said to us, "We may have problems getting into Manchester. Something terrible's happened there."

We went to Manchester. We did get in, and we had to hang around the next day because the city was in a state of emergency. We had to see, first, if the concert was going to go on, and also, we had to figure out if playing music was appropriate, given the mood of the city. Anyway, the concert was allowed to go on and we wanted to play because that's our response to everything. We always want to play. But the theater we were in was less than 10 minutes from where the tragedy happened. And at the soundcheck, we said, "We've got to do something positive, something for Manchester."

"Dirty Old Town" was written by Ewan MacColl back in the 1950s about Manchester. But even within that, he's loving the city. He's loving the town, despite the grime, the dirt and the industrial landscape. We did it and we recorded it at the soundcheck. Played it at the gig and caught the moment. We just felt it would be good to let the world hear it, especially with the vocal Sarah Brown did on the track.

Ewan MacColl's daughter, Kirsty, was also a talented singer and songwriter. She died in 2000 at age 41 when she was struck by a boat propeller while scuba diving in Mexico.
Songfacts: The song I think I first heard by Simple Minds when I was in college was "Speed Your Love To Me." And I didn't realize Kirsty MacColl was the backing vocalist on that track. What do you recall about recording that song and her participation?

Kerr: When you say that, I get emotional about Kirsty. We used to live in this hotel in London, and everyone would come and hang around. And there was this younger girl called Kirsty. She liked Simple Minds and she would hang around, but you know, she would piss us off. She was hanging around, hanging around, and we'd say, "Get out of the way! Go home, you're young." Whatever. She was a ballsy little thing. She was smarter than all of us, and she could just kill us in one line. And that would make us laugh, and then we would let her in the gang.

So, she would come down to the studio. We knew that she was the daughter of Ewan MacColl, albeit they were estranged. But anyway, we knew that she had roots. And we knew that she played a bit of acoustic guitar and did a bit of singing. We allowed her to come down and hang around, and as soon as she'd get in, she started bossing people around.

We were a bit lost on that track. We knew it had a great melody, but the arrangement was kind of puzzling us. And with a stroke, she said, "Do this. And put that there. And put that little bit at the end." And we were like, Listen to you!

I've got great memories of that. And, of course, she said, "I want to sing on it, as well. Let me do this thing." And she went. We were listening to the track, Charlie Burchill and I, and we could hear Kirsty's little voice and how could we not be emotional?

Songfacts: There's a line in the song "Unchained Melody" that says, "God speed your love to me." Is there a connection?

Kerr: That's wonderful. Yes, there must have been. We loved that song. I think it was [producer] Steve Lillywhite that said, "You know, there's, 'God speed your love to me' in The Righteous Brothers' 'Unchained Melody.'" And, of course, it's wonderful. Such a great sentiment.

Songfacts: On that same album, you covered Lou Reed's "Street Hassle." I had never heard Lou Reed's version before I heard yours, which is embarrassing to admit. You took it and turned it into an epic song. Were you Velvet Underground and Lou Reed fans at the time?

Kerr: Oh, we were Velvet Underground freaks. In the UK, they were pretty unknown, really. When we were growing up, they were one of the ultimate cult bands. They may only have sold 5,000 records in the UK, but probably everybody who bought that record went on to form a band. That's how influential they were. And the reason for that, although in fact their music, when you looked at it, the lyrics were incredibly deep, the songs themselves were only two or three chords. So, if you were starting a band, anyone can manage two or three chords.

Of course, the thing about The Velvet Underground was, they had the feel. You either have the feel, or you don't. You could learn the chords to half a dozen of their songs in a day, so anyone starting a band, there you go. That would make you feel good.

But apart from that, we loved the street poetry of Lou Reed. It was the other side. I know we were talking about optimism. Simple Minds worked in the light, but The Velvet Underground certainly worked in the dark. You need night as well as day, and their music was of the seamier side of life, although there was still tremendous heart in it.

So, yes, we loved Lou Reed and certainly that track. We saw him play it live in London, and just hearing that orchestral thing coming out, it just blew us away and I guess we wanted to emulate that.

Songfacts: Did you ever have a chance to meet Lou Reed?

Kerr: I did. If you get a chance, check out a Simple Minds track called "This Is Your Land." It's from an album called Street Fighting Years. Lou actually sings the bridge of the song. Not only did we meet him, we managed to sort of coerce him into coming down to the studio and singing on one of our songs.

Songfacts: I never met Lou, but I've heard stories that he's not always the most friendly person. Was your encounter different?

Kerr: I was terrified because I'd also heard these stories, and you could see he had that look. If anyone had told you he was difficult, it wouldn't have been hard to imagine, just by his look. And so, I was terrified. But, in fact, he couldn't have been sweeter. Maybe I got him on a good day. [Dave Stewart had a similar experience in his Lou Reed collaboration.]

Songfacts: I wanted to talk about another cover song, and I never realized you covered one of my favorite bands, The Call, "Let The Day Begin," which is a wonderful cover. What is it about that song that made you think it would fit with Simple Minds' repertoire?

Kerr: It's a tremendous coincidence - if you look at my Facebook page today, I've posted a thing about Michael Been [Lead singer of The Call, Been died in 2010. Jim's statement appears on his memorial page]. And the reason I posted it today, is I'm in New York and I have good memories of being with Michael in New York.

How did we get to know him? Well, we toured together two or three times. Although The Call were opening for Simple Minds, in our eyes Michael was like a mentor. He became a kind of mentor to us, not only because of his art and his music, but because he was older than us and he knew more about stuff and certainly America was still new to us. And to travel through America, to have him as a kind of guide, was really quite something. But I thought he was one of the great underrated songwriters. They were a great live band, too, and they just missed the kind of commercial success which I think they merited.

"Let The Day Begin" is like a gospel for the working man. It's a song we played live a few times. I have to tell you, we've got a song called "Waterfront," and Michael always loved that song. He'd say, "Man, I love that." The song itself is about the rebirth of our city in Glasgow. It talks about the water, and anyone listening might think it's Biblical. A baptism or something. Michael loved that song, and about a year later he came back and he said, "I'm going to play you a few songs." He played me "Let The Day Begin," but before I had the chance to say anything - because I wouldn't have said it, but I was thinking it - he said, "It's not a million miles from 'Waterfront,' is it?" And I said, "No, it's not."

It's got the same rhythm, but his song is much better. And we feel really proud to play it, especially to people that don't know it, therefore it's a kind of lost treasure. He sings on a song called "Sanctify Yourself" on Once Upon A Time. You can hear him bellowing in the background, doing his gospel thing.



Simple Minds has a lineup of seven for their 2018 tour, in what Jim calls a Sly & The Family Stone style.

Songfacts: If you were to list a few of the songs you're most proud of, the ones you love singing the most, which songs come to mind?

Kerr: I don't know why, but pride is not a word we use a lot. We just don't. So, we never really think about that too much. But when you're talking about singing, you're talking about the live context, and there are certain songs that are going to set the ignition. "Waterfront" is one of those songs.

By the end of the night, it's the songs that can get a feeling of collectivity going. Songs that feel congregational. So, they will be the songs with the big choruses and the songs the audiences join in on. They might not be the best-written songs, they might not be the fanciest songs, they might not be the cleverest songs, but when it comes to singing live, nothing feels better than when you get that congregational thing going.

Songfacts: Do you think you're still learning as a songwriter? Do you think that's something that, when you sit down to write songs, you're still honing your craft and getting better as you go?

Kerr: I know I'm still learning. I'm elated that we're still learning, and I think I'll always be learning. Charlie Burchill and I have written over 300 songs. They've not all been recorded, but we've written that amount. Yet, I can tell you that when you sit down and you start a new song, you always feel you're in a different game. You always feel like it's a different puzzle. You always feel it's a different combination you have to crack.

There might be some rules, there might be some general things, but from the start, it's so subjective. No one knows. Your sitting there is an act of faith in itself that the music has done something to you that is going to work on someone else. Who the hell knows? All I can tell you is we enjoy working on that puzzle so much.

And it is work. I will tell you, the one thing I have changed since the beginning days, is that I don't believe in The Muse. You know, you just gotta wait for The Muse to strike. It's true, some days you get lucky - a song comes into your head from nowhere. But in general, it's turning up and doing the work. Writing through the good, the bad and the indifferent. And that's where you find the nuggets.

Songfacts: I've interviewed songwriters from Nashville, and they would say the same thing: It's not about waiting for The Muse. They sit down, they have a few ideas, and they work through them. There is a practicality to songwriting, right?

Kerr: Oh, sure. I even think there's a muscle involved. I need to be in a place, still. I need to be in a place where it's quiet, and the place it's quiet is in the morning. I'm an early morning writer. At that time, not only do you feel like you have the world to yourself, but the day's still full of optimism. And that's where you get into the pattern and it gets easier to get into that place of concentration. That's where things start to happen.

Songfacts: Can you recall when you realized you had a talent for songwriting?

Kerr: That's a good question. I would find it hard to pinpoint a song because the realization comes when you stand up and play it in front of people, not really when you write it. For me, that's when the rubber meets the road.

You have a hunch, but it's not until you stand in front of people and put it across. And even then, not all songs you play the first time will wow people. Sometimes it takes 20 goes until you really know how to perform it. But essentially, that's the deal. That's when you know, because up until then you could be tricking yourself.

Songfacts: Are there songs you perform with the band that have changed over the years, that mean something a little different as you've matured?

Kerr: Yeah, that's a strange thing, as well. There are some songs that you write them, you like them, you grow out of them. You discard them, you think it doesn't make sense. Those days have gone. Lo and behold, 10 years later it becomes somehow relevant again. You identify with it again. It's really strange.

Songfacts: Can you think of specific songs that would fit that description?

Kerr: Quite a lot of songs from the '80s, around '80, '82. They were kind of quirky. They had my '80s voice, which was not my voice. It was me trying to find my voice. And then when I found my voice I thought, "Well, I've outgrown that adolescent voice." And then, later on, (in a high voice), "Hey, that adolescent voice was cool." Yeah, some of it was off-kilter, but that's what made it cool.

Songfacts: I remember there was a phrase that was going around at the time, "the big music." And your band, and U2 and the Waterboys got categorized as that. When you think of that term, what does that mean to you?

Kerr: It means a few things. It usually means there's a spirit. Something larger than life beyond the four walls. There's a landscape involved, imaginary or realistically. It's about a big heart. It's about open arms. It's not about cool.

Songfacts: We talked in the beginning about the optimism in the new music. What keeps you optimistic and singing optimistically in the face of so much negativity these days?

Kerr: There's so much negativity, but there's always negativity. I'm not personally sitting in a warzone in New York City. There are different kinds of wars. If you go through Europe, like I do all the time, you're walking on battlefields. Those are negative times, but you have to find a point in it all. I've got a purpose in my life, and I try to give meaning to that purpose in what I do, and that gives you something to hold onto.

Songfacts: You write with Charlie Burchill. Do you write separately?

Kerr: It's very separate. Charlie and I don't even live in the same country anymore. In the initial period, he'll work on stuff. I'll get a bunch of ideas sent by MP3. In fact, it's so cool. A few days ago, I landed in New York City and I was waiting at the baggage claim to pick up my bag. There was a ping for an email from Charlie and he'd included a new idea he'd worked on that morning. I got my bag and ended up wide awake at four in the morning. I thought, "Hey, great. I'll work on that song Charlie sent me."

I try to give it a melody, or maybe a better structure, and then we get in a room together and flesh it out. We take these fragmented ideas and try and make them into a chorus. And that's about it.

Songfacts: When you write songs, do you need an album as cause to write, or are you constantly thinking creatively, whether you have an album to do or not?

Kerr: You gotta write, regardless. You've got to be in there working with the clay, and then when the time comes, you look at what you've got. There might be half-baked songs. There might be seeds of songs. There might be songs that are fully finished. And then you ask, "OK, where are we now?"

The album is really where they fit together, and I think Walk Between Worlds is a good example of when they fit together really well.

March 28, 2018
Tour dates and more info at simpleminds.com
Here's our 2015 interview with Jim

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 1

  • Shawn from MarylandGreat interview. I really like Jim Kerr and just Liked the Simple minds Facebook page.
    When I read here on Songfacts an interview with Mr. Kerr and the topic of "All The Things She Said" came up. I always thought it was a great song but I now have a new appreciation for the song!
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