3 Questions for British Songwriter Leon Rosselson

Leon Rosselson at Occupy protest, London. Photo by Janet Gyford.

Few songwriters mock money and power as thought-provokingly and entertainingly as Leon Rosselson. The London native has a unique way of balancing outrage with humor. A Rosselsong may approach its subject with a pointed stick, like the one that one-ups the prevalent view of looting (YouTube | Spotify) with unexpected historical context. A song about Mozart’s sister (YouTube | Spotify) is doubly mischievous — first suggesting that she would have outshone him if not hobbled by sexism, then offering the twist of an unreliable narrator. In general, no expectation goes unsubverted (YouTube | Spotify). But not all of the stimulus comes in the lyrics or the viewpoint. Rosselson also crafts elegant tunes with wide melodic leaps that are often uplifting and allow a range of complex emotional responses. Emerging from the British folk scene, he contributed to the satirical BBC TV series That Was the Week That Was (1962–63). Since then he has released about 20 non-compilation solo, duo, and group albums, many of them sold through his website as well as the usual online disc and download retailers. He has also written 14 children’s books — one of which, Rosa’s Singing Grandfather (hardcover | audiobook), was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 1991 — and released an album of children’s songs, Questions (artist site | Amazon). Two songbooks, Bringing the News from Nowhere and Turning Silence into Song, include 159 of his songs. And you can find his essays here on Medium.

Few artists who release a final album specifically designate it as such, as you have done with Where Are the Barricades? (artist site | Amazon). Why did you choose to draw the line?

Where Are the Barricades? was released in 2016. I was 82. My sense was that I was running out of rhymes. Songs in the last few years have been coming more and more slowly. The Barricades CD gathered up songs written after my last solo CD A Proper State (artist site | Amazon) which was eight years earlier. I thought it was unlikely that I would ever squeeze out enough good songs for another CD.

But there was another reason. I do not like digital recording. I find it soulless. Cold. The ease with which it can correct faults, make perfect the imperfections, smooth away the glitches, removes all the creativity from the process. I did enjoy recording the LPs, especially in collaboration with other musicians. There was room for improvisation, the unexpected. Or so it seemed. Of course, that could just be nostalgia for the good old days before computers messed everything up.

Are any younger songwriters carrying on the tradition of your work?

What tradition would that be? I’m often described as a political songwriter but I do not accept being pigeonholed in that way. There are younger “political” songwriters whose songs tend to be in the tradition of telling audiences what they believe, what they think, what’s wrong with the world. That’s not at all the way I see the song form.

I started writing songs at the beginning of the 1960s when the folk revival was taking off. Folk clubs were gathering an audience of young people who were looking for songs about the real world and who were prepared to listen to songs with words. Many of my early songs were humorous/satirical which was a good way of learning about the craft of songwriting — how to shape lines and stanzas, the importance of finding the right form, the right words, of not wasting words, of eliminating padding, the importance of rhyme — although I didn’t really learn how to rhyme properly until later when I decided that false rhymes (e.g. mine/time) were a form of cheating and from then on did my best to use only perfect rhymes or half rhymes and not mix them up.

I think those early songs were less influenced by the folksong form than by, for example, writers like W.S. Gilbert and Alexander Pope. There has probably always been a literary influence on my songwriting. What I did take from folksong was that telling stories about people was the best, most creative use of the song form. Whether a song starts from an idea or an event, I have always tried to find (imagine/invent) characters and a story. Of course, what might be called solidarity songs play an important role in rallying the faithful but they’re not, on the whole, what I want to hear at a concert. I read somewhere this definition of the difference between art and propaganda: art provokes you to think; propaganda tells you what to think. Propaganda has its place but mainly, in my songwriting, I’ve tried to provoke thought rather than tell audiences what to think.

I’ve always found the standard verse/chorus form of folksong limiting and over the years have experimented with different, more complex forms. I doubt I could have written anything like “Susie” (who “bites policemen,” YouTube| Spotify) or “The World’s Police” (YouTube | Spotify) in the early days when I was still learning what is possible in the song form. Musically, I’m sure I have been influenced by the folk idiom — modal tunes, for instance — but I have listened to and absorbed a far wider range of music than that. I was brought up with classical music, learned the piano, heard my father, a professional violinist who trained as an opera singer, launching into operatic arias. At some point I stopped using the guitar when putting words and tunes together because I thought its chord progressions were limiting the sort of music that was possible. At any rate, I have never had any problems finding music to complement the lyrics.

I have, over the years, listened to many French songs — chansons, as the genre is called — not just the famous songwriters like George Brassens and Jacques Brel and Anne Sylvestre but also songs written for performers like Yves Montand and Edith Piaf. I feel an affinity with that song style far more than with, say, songs of folk-based American songwriters. I learned from these chansons, from Brel in particular, that the singer/songwriter can adopt a persona, that the “I” in a song can be an invented character — as in “Invisible Married Breakfast Blues” (YouTube | Spotify) and “Song of the Olive Tree” (YouTube | Spotify). Song as theatre. I learned from Brassens how to mix the colloquial with the poetic, and — as I wrote in my tribute song (“The Ghost of George Brassens,” YouTube | Spotify) — how to craft a song with care.

Some years back, I initiated and, along with like-minded singers and songwriters, participated in a radio programme called The English Chanson. The idea was to give some space to songs that were not pop-songs or folk-songs, did not fit easily into any existing category but, like their French equivalent, were literate, intelligent, inventive, were about the real world and politics in the broadest sense, and were non-American. The idea didn’t really catch on. In the U.K., unlike in France, there is little or no media coverage of songs that aren’t folk and aren’t competing in the marketplace. There are talented young songwriters who write in the folk tradition but I can’t think of any who would think of themselves as English “chansonniers.” Those who perhaps do belong there are younger than me but no longer young. There was Jake Thackray, of course, who was a fanatical Brassens follower and died in 2002. Now still writing songs are Robb Johnson and Jim Woodland, both colleagues of mine in the Anti-Capitalist Roadshow, coming from different song backgrounds from mine but, I think, following a similar tradition.

Your discography includes several CD compilations of original LP releases as well as the four-disc retrospective The World Turned Upside Down (PM Press | Amazon). But for a younger person tentatively dipping her toe in the water, which songs available from the music streaming services would you recommend as appetizers?

It might depend on who this younger person is, how old she is, what sort of song forms her daily listening. Let’s suppose she isn’t used to listening to songs with words, is more attuned to songs where the lyrics are just one part of the package. I might start by recommending “Conversation on a Mobile” (YouTube | Spotify) since it isn’t lyrically demanding, it is easy to follow, its relationship problems might connect with her experience, and she might be amused. True it isn’t musically very interesting and you can’t dance to it but at this point maybe that doesn’t matter.

Then how about, in contrast, “We Sell Everything” (YouTube | Spotify)? Too many words to take in on first hearing? But the stream of words packed into verse and chorus generally makes audiences smile and the story of my encounter with a door-to-door salesman is easy to follow and, I hope, funny. And, as an attack on the consumer society where everything can be packaged and sold, it may give her pause for thought.

“Song of the Olive Tree” (YouTube | Spotify): The chances are that she doesn’t know much about Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians but I think she should. This, I hope, would make a good introduction. It’s a human story that anyone can identify with, the lyrics are perfectly formed, and the contrast between the narrow melodic range of the section in a minor key and the wide-ranging soaring melody in a major key is musically appealing.

Lastly there ought to be a love song since love songs are, I imagine, what she mostly listens to. “Let Your Hair Hang Down” (YouTube | Spotify)? It works with audiences but I’m not altogether happy with it. “Not Quite But Nearly” (YouTube | Spotify)? More imagination than reality. Or something more specific, a relationship song: “Like Love” (YouTube | Spotify). I like the form of it and the images and it is honest about the ups and downs of actual relationships.

Tomorrow I might well recommend four entirely different songs.

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Author of The Friendly Audio Guide and the annually updated Practical Home Theater (quietriverpress.com).

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Mark Fleischmann

Mark Fleischmann

Author of The Friendly Audio Guide and the annually updated Practical Home Theater (quietriverpress.com).

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