Songwriter Interviews

Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree

by Greg Prato

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Steven Wilson is a man with a vision. So much so, that he is not only the main songwriting force for his solo albums, but was also calling the shots in the songwriting department for one of the more celebrated prog bands of modern times, Porcupine Tree. And he is quite a prolific songwriter, as well - ever since issuing solo albums in 2008, he delivers a new studio offering (on average) every two years.

But this year, he broke the pattern by issuing a 6-song EP (4 ½) barely a year after his last full-length (Hand. Cannot. Erase.). When we spoke with Wilson a few days after the release of 4 ½, he told the stories behind some of his more intriguing songs and discussed his XTC influence.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): What are the differences between your latest releases, Hand. Cannot. Erase. and 4 ½?

Steven Wilson: One of them is a grand conceptual album, and the other one is just a bunch of pop songs. Hand. Cannot. Erase. was a big project that involved basically a story. It has a musical narrative, it has a lyrical narrative, and it has a very strong theme that runs through it. Whereas the 4 ½ album is what they called an "interim release" - the title implies that it is neither my fourth album or a fifth album. It's kind of in between the two.

It's some songs that really didn't belong to any of my more grand conceptual pieces. And in a way, that's its own challenge, because I still like albums to feel like they have a flow and they have a satisfying arc to them. So I did work very hard still on sequencing that record, but the bottom line is that record doesn't have a thematic strand that runs through it. Whereas Hand. Cannot. Erase. definitely does have a very strong thematic structure.

Songfacts: How do you compare the songwriting process of your solo work to Porcupine Tree?

Steven: It's not different. All the Porcupine Tree songs started off as solo songs - me writing everything, demoing everything. It's just a different band that's recording them, that's all.

Songfacts: What about as far as prior to Porcupine Tree. Were you in projects that were a bit more collaborative?

Steven: I've gotten to a stage now where there's no point in me starting a project unless it is a collaborative project, because if I'm writing songs on my own, they're kind of de facto - now they're for my solo records. So that's very much more concerned with two people sitting in a room, just bouncing ideas backwards and forwards. I've never worked with more than one other person - it's always been just two people collaborating on songs together.

And that's a very different way of working. It's a way that involved compromise. But it's also a way that sometimes can push you further, because the other person sitting in the room with you can stop you from falling back into your comfort zones, and falling back on your clichés. Every songwriter has their own clichés - lyrical themes they keep coming back to, chords they keep coming back to, certain harmonic and musical ideas that they keep coming back to, time and time again, and I'm no exception. So one of the nice things about collaborating with people is if they can sometimes pick you up and push you into areas that you are not so comfortable with, which can be a great thing. So I definitely enjoy doing that.

Songfacts: Do you find that your best songs come the quickest?

Steven: No, not necessarily. I don't think there is a rule. I've got songs that I've bashed my head against the wall - if you'd like - of creativity for six months, just thinking that it was never ever going to sound any good. And then one day, the clouds part, and with just one little idea, one little musical motif, somehow, everything clicks into place. In my case, there's never been a rule of thumb as regards to the inspiration coming quickly or coming over a period of - some times - even months.

Songfacts: Is there something that you draw the most inspiration from when it comes to songwriting - a book, film, or listening to other artist's music?

Steven: All of the above. I think the most important thing for a songwriter is to remain curious. Remain open.

The problem I find with some artists - and you can almost see this sometimes - if you look at some of the great artists over the last 50 years in pop and rock music, you can see the point or hear the moment in their catalog and career trajectory when they stopped listening and being open to other music, and the music then begins to stagnate and ultimately becomes a parody of themselves, because they are no longer evolving as artists. Now, I find the most important thing for me is to be still curious - not necessarily liking - but curious about other music and listening to other music. Maybe not always music I would love, but music that I find interesting in some way.

But not only music, also movies, books - you have to be open to what is in the news. My last album, Hand. Cannot. Erase., was inspired by a news story - a story that I saw on the BBC. I think it is important to be traveling, meeting people from other countries, other cultures, collaborating perhaps with them. I think everything you do, every experience that you have, goes into this big melting pot inside you and should manifest itself when you start to create your own music. Your output is a product of your input, so I think it's very important to always be open to all of those things you mentioned, and a lot of other things, too.

The news story Steven mentions above (that inspired Hand. Cannot. Erase.) is the incredibly sad and hard-to-fathom story of a British woman, Joyce Carol Vincent. Vincent was the victim of domestic abuse, stopped all contact with her family, and died (supposedly by natural causes) in her London bedsit in December 2003, but her body was not discovered for more than two years. Vincent's story was told in the 2011 film, Dreams of a Life.
Songfacts: Which album from your entire career are you most proud of from a songwriting perspective?

Steven: Well, most artists if you ask them that are always going to tell you their last one. I guess I'm no exception. In a way, it makes sense to say the most recent one, because the album you've just made usually reflects the person you are at that point in your life. And that is of course true of Hand. Cannot. Erase. But even beyond that, I think it did represent for me a new level of not just songwriting, but also arrangement, about creating the music and the lyrics around this story of this concept, which span off into many different areas, too.

There was a book version of the album, there was an online blog, there were all these different elements that kind of dovetailed into the songwriting, and for me, it's very hard to think of the things separately. For me, artwork, music, lyrics, songwriting, production, the website, the live presentation - all of these things come from the same initial germ of an idea, which can be the song or the theme.

So I'm very proud of this record. I'm proud of all my solo records, because in a way I think they're all distinctly different. And I also have an aversion to repeating myself, so I like the fact that each album was a kind of reinvention and approaching things from a different perspective.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the song "Routine"?

Steven: "Routine" is a song about a mother who has lost her family in some unspecified tragedy. It's a song about grief - the stages of loss and grief. One of the stages of loss is denial, and in this particular song, the woman is going through a very extreme psychotic form of denial, in that she is using her daily work routine - washing, cleaning, ironing, scrubbing, cooking - to basically deny the reality that is obvious to the outside perspective.

Where did I get that idea? I have no idea. But I remember just walking around my town one day - I walk every day for about an hour to clear my head before I work - and the idea just popped in my head. This idea of the mechanical processes of everyday existence being used somehow to block out reality.

And I guess in a sense, we all do this. We don't all suffer that kind of loss in our lives, but I think we all have to an extent where we use routine - the daily grind, the Groundhog Day thing, if you'd like - to sometimes ignore the bigger questions: "What am I doing in my life? Am I happy? Am I happy at my job? Am I happy in my relationship? Is my life going where I want it to go?"

And I'm no exception to that, so I have times where I also question, and I need to force myself to question those things, rather than just going through the everyday motions. So I suspect the idea came from a personal perspective. But at some point, it developed into this story of this very tragic figure - this housewife using her routine to ignore something that was almost too difficult for her to confront and to bear.

Songfacts: "Arriving Somewhere but Not Here"?

Steven: That was based on a film script. There was a film script I wrote with a very good friend of mine named Mike Bennion who was making commercials, and he wanted to make a feature film. About 12 years ago, we sat down together to try and write something for him that he could direct as a first feature. I would describe it as a surrealist ghost story. I don't want to say too much more about it, because one day, I hope we might make it still.

But it was a surrealist ghost story, and the song "Arriving Somewhere but Not Here," well the title said it - it was about this idea of arriving at a point in your life that you never intended to arrive at, and I suppose having some perspective about that.

It was one of a bunch of songs I wrote for what would have been the film soundtrack, and it would have actually been my first solo record if it had happened. Because it was going to be the soundtrack to this movie that we never managed to get the financing for, unfortunately. But I wrote a bunch of songs that were all relating to the characters in this movie. "Lazarus" was another one. Some of them ended up being recorded by my band at the time, Porcupine Tree, and some of them I have recorded since in my solo career. But this whole group of songs were related to these characters in the movie script. It's difficult for me to talk about them too much without giving away the whole plot, but I can tell you that it was a story of this mother coming back from beyond the grave as a ghost to reclaim her son.

Songfacts: "Way Out of Here"?

Steven: It's a song about escape. That's from Fear of a Blank Planet. That album was inspired by a book written by an American guy called Bret Easton Ellis, most famous for his book, American Psycho, which they made into a movie. But he also wrote this book called Lunar Park, which I was very inspired by, and Lunar Park was about the generation of kids that were being born into the age of the internet, and being born into the age of computer games, cell phones, and finding it difficult to develop basic communication skills and a passion for life. It's almost this idea of when you have everything given to you on a plate, what left is there for you to aspire to? What left is there for you to dream of? The book was about this very bored, dysfunctional child, and his dysfunctional relationship with his father. I found that fascinating.

So Fear of a Blank Planet was an album about how technology affects the world we live in, particularly how it affects the younger generation, how it's created a lot more dysfunction, lack of communication. The last two songs on the record were about escape from that world, and "Way Out of Here" was a song about escape in all its myriad forms, both negative and positive. Obviously, the most negative form being suicide.

Actually, there was a story at the time. I remember hearing about one of my fans - a young, 17-year-old American girl - who had killed herself by walking in front of a train whilst apparently listening to my music, and I think she also became a part of that song. The idea was very disturbing to me, that there were young people that would seek escape through such brutal, extreme means. So that was also in there.

Songfacts: Who are your favorite songwriters?

Steven: I'm a massive fan of XTC. Andy Partridge is one of my favorite songwriters of all time. What I love about Andy's music is that every song he writes has a very strong concept or idea behind it. He's not just rattling off love songs or songs about how lonely he is. Every song has a little twist to it, and it's so clever, so smart.

Songfacts: My favorite XTC tunes are "Making Plans for Nigel" and "No Language in Our Lungs."

Steven: Fabulous. Both from that great time period of the third and fourth album. I'm a big fan of those: Drums and Wires and Black Sea. Tremendous. Actually, "Making Plans for Nigel" was written by Colin [Moulding], another guy in the band. But he's also a great songwriter. That's one of those bands where they had more than one fantastic songwriter - it's like the Beatles thing again, isn't it?

Joni Mitchell is a phenomenal lyricist, phenomenal songwriter. I'd have to probably pick her as another one. And I'm a big fan of Kate Bush. A tremendous songwriter. I like songwriters where they're also storytellers. As you can probably tell from my music, I love the idea of using songwriting as a means to tell stories. So for me, I guess the songwriters I've always admired the most are the ones who create these fascinating characters, and have different set-ups - almost every song is like a different set-up. People like Andy Partridge and Kate Bush have that. If you think back to the Beatles records, like Side 2 of Abbey Road, where there's all these different characters, "Polythene Pam," "Rocky Raccoon," and all this stuff. I love that. That's what turned me on to being a songwriter when I was a kid in the first place.

I'm a massive fan of Pete Townshend. We talked about my life of making conceptual records, well, that really comes from Quadrophenia, Tommy, and also Pink Floyd to a lesser extent, with albums like The Wall. Those albums really turned me on to the possibilities of telling stories, not just through a song, but through a whole album. You've got this 40-minute space of time, and you can tell a story through music and words.

February 1, 2016.
For more Steven Wilson, visit stevenwilsonhq.com.
Photos: Susana Moyaho (1) Hajo Müller (2)

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Comments: 1

  • David Richardson from Hamilton Ontario CanadaPorcupine Tree brought back my love of music.It was the arriving somewhere concert dvd.I turned my friends on to SW and have seen 4 times since.Unfortunately I missed Blackfield when he canceled [due to his fathers passing].I hadn't bought an album or concert dvd for about 20 yrs before SW
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