(Laura Barnett’s interviews appeared in the Guardian, 1/2.)
• For fear of making us sound like the Waltons, my band [Elbow] are a huge source of inspiration for me. They're my peers, my family; when they come up with something impressive, it inspires me to come up with something equally impressive.
• Spending time in your own head is important. When I was a boy, I had to go to church every Sunday; the priest had an incomprehensible Irish accent, so I'd tune out for the whole hour, just spending time in my own thoughts. I still do that now; I'm often scribbling down fragments that later act like trigger-points for lyrics.
• A blank canvas can be very intimidating, so set yourself limitations. Mine are often set for me by the music the band has come up with. With The Birds, for instance – the first song on our last album – the band already had this great groove going, and I knew I wanted the vocals to reflect the bass-line, so that was immediately something to work with.
• Just start scribbling. The first draft is never your last draft. Nothing you write is by accident.
• The best songs often take two disparate ideas and make them fit together. When I started writing lyrics for The Birds, I was sitting in a cottage in the grounds of Peter Gabriel's Real World studios. I was looking out at the birds outside, starting to think of lyrics about them; and then I thought about the last time I'd been there, 10 years before, at the end of a great love affair. I thought, how can I combine these two ideas? So I came up with an idea about a love affair that had ended in a field, with birds as the only witnesses.
• Don't be scared of failure.
• If it's all getting too intense, remember it's only a song. I learned that the hard way: when I was younger, I played the part of the erratic, irascible drunk in order to have something to write about.
• The best advice I've ever had came about 20 years ago from Mano McLaughlin, one of Britain's best songwriters. "The song is all," he said, "Don't worry about what the rest of the music sounds like: you have a responsibility to the song." I found that really inspiring: it reminded me not to worry about whether a song sounds cool, or fits with everything we've done before – but just to let the song be what it is.
Polly Stenham, playwright
Playwright Polly Stenham at the Royal court theatre.
• Listen to music I always have music on while I'm writing. I'm a very aural person; as soon as I hear a lyric or phrase, I'm transported to a particular time or place. My taste varies wildly. When I was writing That Face, I listened to Love Her Madly by the Doors, which seemed to say a lot about the characters' relationship with their mother. For Tusk Tusk, I played Radiohead's album In Rainbows over and over. One lyric, about being an animal stuck in car, even made it into the play's plotline.
• Doodle I'm very fidgety, and I seem to work best when my hands are occupied with something other than what I'm thinking about. During rehearsals, I find myself drawing little pictures or symbols that are somehow connected to the play. With Tusk Tusk, it was elephants, clowns and dresses on hangers. I'll look back at my doodles later, and random snatches of dialogue will occur to me.
• Go for a walk Every morning I go to Hampstead Heath [in north London], and I often also go for a wander in the middle of the day to think through a character or situation. I listen to music as I go. Again, it's about occupying one part of your brain, so that the other part is clear to be creative.