Stout and to the point

Eleven years, the Pennine hills and their chosen form of expression separate Guy Garvey and Simon Armitage, but the Elbow frontman and the Poet Laureate have some similar views on the creative process

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Guy Garvey and Simon Armitage sit in the corner of the beer garden at the back of the Eagle Inn in Salford, a pint of Guinness apiece. It’s certainly not the first time Elbow’s frontman and the renowned poet have shared a beer, but when they do, they don’t usually chat about work.

“We have a laugh,” says Garvey.

“It’s down tools, off duty,” adds Armitage.

“Simon’s words encouraged me to use my own vernacular and the phrases that I grew up with.”

But today the two men, who have known one another for 15 years or more, have come to this red-brick pub, just down the road from the studio where Elbow have recorded much of their music since 2003, to discuss their imminent appearance at the Manchester Literature Festival, where they will take to the stage together.

What can we expect on the night? Both men look to one another and crack smiles before Armitage explains they’ve decided to have a host with them on stage “so they can ask provocative and intriguing questions. Otherwise it would just be me and him…”

“Prattling on,” adds Garvey.

“We’re expecting questions about creativity, imagination and maybe some kind of response to the current political climate that we are living in,” says Armitage. And it’s clear as the interview progresses that the two will have no trouble responding to those questions, put to them by creative all-rounder
Katie Popperwell.

“Before I knew Simon as a pal, I knew his stuff, and it really inspired me,” says Garvey, launching into how his songwriting and Armitage’s poetry overlap creatively. “The generosity of the language that he uses in his poetry is very important to me.”

The admiration is mutual. “We have a shared idea about who we want to communicate with,” Armitage says. “Both art forms, taken to the extreme, can be elitist and I’d say, listening to Elbow’s music, that they are looking to make an inclusive sound.”

“And that’s exactly what your poetry does and why it’s on the school curriculum. Simon’s words encouraged me to use my own vernacular and the phrases that I grew up with,” says Bury-born Garvey.

“Phrases you were probably discouraged from using when you were a kid,” agrees Armitage, who is from Huddersfield and who recalls how his grandma sent him to elocution lessons because, she thought, “that was the only way we were going to make anything of ourselves”.

The fact that both men have retained their regional accents now benefits them, says Armitage, adding a sense of “authenticity” to their work: “the idea that by holding onto your accent, you are saying something more truthful”.

Another element they have in common is their attention to detail. “Your songs are kitchen sink songs,” says Armitage to Garvey. “They are about the material and fabric of everyday life. And that’s how I’ve always written as well, to try and make poetry out of the ordinary, the commonplace, domestic and the fine details.”

Garvey nods as he rolls a cigarette. “The way that a lighter is put down on a table, for example,” adds Armitage.

“We were brought up in an era that didn’t have the same sense of disposability that exists now,” says Armitage, who is 56, 11 years older than Garvey. “So if something came into the house – a new object, a vase, or, god forbid, a settee – it would be a talking point. I think we ritualised objects and moments of everyday life because they were quite precious. I don’t think that’s true anymore for people who grow up in a world where if something isn’t working, you just go and get another one.”

And what about their differences? There’s a fundamental one that Garvey is looking forward to exploring when they get together for the literature festival: what it’s like for Armitage to write alone, while he, though chief lyric writer for Elbow, has the support of the rest of the band.

Photos by Howard Barlow

Even with seven Elbow albums under his belt, an eighth about to be released, and a solo album, Garvey says the music is still always easier than the words. Indeed, when the band first started out, the words took a back seat.

“I didn’t even complete the songs before we performed them, because I knew we could play through. I used to garble nonsense if I didn’t know the words. And then somewhere along the way the writing became the most important part for me. I think it was the first time someone responded to a love song and told me how meaningful it was. And I felt an equal sense of real excitement and responsibility for that.”

These days, Garvey is still in the driving seat as far the lyrics go, but the rest of the band are happy to give their opinions. “The lads are really quite critical now and we can fall out for months over a lyric that I think is right and they don’t.”

For Armitage, his writing “never gets any easier, it just gets quicker. There’s a familiarity to the practice and the process, but that also sounds an alarm bell, when you know you are using a shortcut because it’s worked before. I don’t think I’m a natural writer in the sense that I know poets who will sit down and achieve a finished piece of work far quicker than I will and in fewer drafts.”

Both accept that writing is part of their everyday lives now. “Your head is always switched on to that in some way,” says Garvey, who recalls how after Elbow’s first album Asleep in the Back he stopped writing for a year as the band undertook a demanding world tour. “That meant the second record was really difficult because I was out of practice and I had to learn to do it again.”

“If you don’t write for a while your imagination can become a little arthritic,” says Armitage. “And it can be painful to get going again.”

Do they hope that the Manchester Literature Festival event will help break down some of the myths about their work? That poetry is sometimes seen as more literary than songwriting, and therefore more inaccessible, for example.

“I hope so,” says Garvey.

“Let’s not start dismantling the enigma,” jokes Armitage. “Where will that leave us?

“One of the things that helps humanise all kinds of work is the physical performance. I know that’s happened to me with bands that I’m not sure about or don’t quite get. I’ll go and see them live and take that back to the record and that happens with poetry on occasions, where it would seem aloof and then I’d go and see the poet reading and take the physical presence and vocal patterns and just the idea that this is an actual person back to the work and suddenly it would seem more relatable.”

Elbow’s new album, Giants Of All Sizes, is heavily influenced by current political events, says Garvey.

“This is by far the darkest record we’ve written, set against the backdrop of uncertainty that everyone feels, not just through Brexit but also obvious changes in the climate and that kind of thing. I’d also experienced a lot of loss at the time – my father died in March last year and I lost two close friends last October. I felt like the stuffing had been knocked out of me and there are an awful lot of bewildered questions on this record.”

Thinking about his father, Garvey turns to Armitage. “You met him, didn’t you?” he asks.

“In the toilets at G-Mex,” says Armitage.

“We got kicked out for smoking,” laughs Garvey. “Simon came into the loo and me and my dad were having a cheeky cigarette. I offered Simon one and he just took it – and he doesn’t even smoke!”

Back to the album. Garvey says there is also a lot of anger there too. He had just moved to London when the Grenfell Tower disaster occurred, which had a profound impact on him. “It made me examine feelings of uselessness, not just as a privileged white man but also as a writer. It’s the most appalling illustration of inequality – people burning to death for being poor and no one being held accountable. I couldn’t not write about that.”

Conversation turns to Armitage’s post of Poet Laureate, which elicits a loud “woohoo!” from Garvey.

“How does that feel?” asks Garvey. “I know what Ted Hughes meant to you. You don’t expect gold medal moments when you go into writing or music. When we won the Mercury [for 2008 album Seldom Seen Kid] it was a bolt from the blue.” He’s clearly delighted for Armitage’s elevation to the position. “It’s amazing and the reason I’m excited is because it’s so absolutely appropriate.”

Armitage, self-effacing and humble, nods. He recognises he is following in some big footsteps, including Wordsworth, Tennyson and of course, Hughes, a fellow Yorkshireman.

Is there an obligation to write poems about certain events, or avoid certain other topics?  He says there is a sense of pressure associated with the role, because “people are very titillated by anything that involves the royal family and now I am a member of the royal household”.

“What rights does that give you?” Garvey asks.

“Well there’s the sherry,” says Armitage – confirming that the Poet Laureate gets a case of the stuff as part of the role.

“In part, it’s an honorary position with an expectation that you will meet certain occasions with words. I’ve been writing for 30 years now and have already written laureate poems, so I have taken that bit in my stride. But it’s also a working role so I’m trying to develop a national centre for poetry and institute an annual prize for environmental poetry – and undertake a decade-long tour of readings.”

“Poetry is in good shape at the moment, isn’t it?” says Garvey.

“It’s in incredibly good shape. And particularly healthy amongst younger people who have found it a very valuable form of expression.”

Talk of younger people moves us on to their work at Manchester Met, which is co-organiser of the literature festival event. Armitage was a senior lecturer at the university, while Garvey is now visiting professor of songwriting.

Do they agree that humanities subjects are becoming the preserve of young people who can afford to study them?

“It feels like a lot of young people are faced with a stark question,” says Armitage, “which is how do I earn a living? Studying English, music or the arts doesn’t seem like an obvious route into achieving that, especially if you’re going to be paying out tens of thousands of pounds while studying. I think that the financial climate where we have made students customers at universities has changed the nature of what education is, and not in a good way.”

Garvey says: “It is a truth, to a degree, that yes in the last few years the music that has come through has been by people who already have enough money to do it.” But he says different avenues of producing music and getting it out – through You Tube for example – has meant new voices can get heard. This and the opportunities that music festivals offer, mean that “if you do have something about you, you can quickly cut through the noise”.

He recognises, though, that there’s still room for change in the way artists are paid through streaming services. As a well-established band, Elbow have the muscle power to earn more money from these services simply by threatening to withhold their music, whereas less established acts are still woefully underpaid. “There’s a lot of money not going to the artist at the moment,” he says. “And all it would take is some legislation to change that.”

And can people make a living out of being a poet?

“In the same way that music works, it’s about doing events, getting out there,” says Armitage, draining his beer glass. “It doesn’t always boil down to book sales and published pieces. But having said that, people were talking 15, 20 years ago about the death of the book and it being replaced by electronic devices, but it seems people value the book. There’s a physicality to it that people
like. They associate the text with the heft of the book, the smell of the page, the texture of the paper and they like having ownership of these objects in their lives.”

But like music, Armitage recognises that the “routes of transmission” for poetry have broadened. “You can have poetry in a pub or club, or published on paper or on the internet. There’s no one way of doing this now.”


Garvey and Armitage on homelessness

As well as discussing their writing practice, Guy Garvey and Simon Armitage had a few things to say about homelessness when they chatted to Big Issue North. Both are aware of the rise in rough sleeping and begging in Manchester and around the country.

Garvey, who says that he has his favourite vendors and that he has always admired Big Issue North, is hopeful. “I think that something can be done but I think there are an awful lot of myths about homelessness that need to be quashed – the idea that it is a choice, for example. And a national look into the connections with mental health would help.”

Armitage, meanwhile, recalls seeing a poem he had written about homelessness, Give, chalked onto a pavement in Manchester. “It was incredibly humbling,” he says. And he agrees with Garvey. “Something about the discourse needs to be changed in people’s minds. There needs to be a long-term, radical response.”

Sitting in the Eagle Inn – a pub that has been around since 1848 and has managed to avoid being demolished as apartments spring up around it that few local people can afford – Armitage says he was also shocked on a recent visit to New York by how people had been priced out of the US city. There was a stark contrast between the haves and have-nots. “And it’s incumbent upon cities that they remain inclusive places that can accommodate all walks of life.”

Guy Garvey and Simon Armitage In Conversation took place at the RNCM on 13 October. Manchester Literature Festival is on until 20 October.

Big Issue North is media partner to MLF (manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk) and you can read interviews with more visiting authors in the Reading Room section of bigissuenorth.com. Giants Of All Sizes is out now.

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