Darren Hayman: Things I Learned While Writing Songs About New Towns

Darren Hayman tells The Quietus about the things he learned while writing his concept album about the concrete streets of Harlow

Harlow has inspired my first concept album

My new album, Pram Town, has twelve interlinked songs about four or so characters in the Essex New Town of Harlow. I’ve lied about some of my previous albums being concept albums but this one really is! It’s a story with a beginning and a middle, though perhaps not a proper ending.

Vocabulary is important

When writing songs about New Towns, here are some useful words; civic, bold, New Jerusalem, motorway, crumble, concrete, straight lines, community, pioneering, tower blocks, roundabouts. I didn’t use all of them so if you are thinking of writing your own concept album about a New Town then tuck in.

Making albums can sometimes seem like updating a CV…

… you need a single, a balled, a rocker etc. etc. This record has taught me to not be cautious of sustaining a mood for a whole hour. There’s not so much shouting on this one. It takes its time and whispers in your ear.

A song is like a rickety old cart…

…if you load it with too much stuff, the wheels fall off. The worst thing about songs in concept albums are they suffer from too much exposition. "Tommy went into the shop and said to Claire that etc. etc." Songs still have to be songs in their own right. A chorus still needs to act as a chorus. And that chorus has to be the simplest or dumbest part of your message. It has to have a catchy and emotive quality that can exist outside the concept of the album.

Harlow has Britain’s first tower block

It’s listed and looks like a perfectly nice place to live. It was an inauspicious start for one of Britains most reviled architectural ideas. It’s called ‘The Lawn’. Tower blocks and estates always have the most hilarious rural names. If you look on a city A to Z and see somewhere called ‘The Orchard’ it’s bound to be wall to wall concrete and knee deep in needles and syringes.

All the public houses in Harlow were named after butterflies

The Essex Skipper still stands by the Stow, Harlow’s first shopping centre. The Purple Emperor and the White Admiral are among others that still survive. They’re names are as incongruous those given to the tower blocks. The pubs are still young, no original timbers or open fireplaces here. I sat in the Garden Tiger whilst two daytime drinkers in their fifties tried to name all the members of Girls Aloud. They couldn’t do it.

I read other people’s reasons for writing songs and they never match mine

I don’t write songs because of an all consuming passion and I don’t write songs to reach people or to communicate or emote. I write songs because when I do so it’s the only time I feel truly calm. Songs, to me, are puzzles. A little while ago I believe I cracked the puzzle of how to write a slightly witty though touching contemporary folk song. I wanted to create some harder puzzles, like doing the hard soduko in the Guardian on Thursdays. This is one reason I find myself currently writing whole albums about New Towns, illegal dog fights and astronauts. How do you write a song about the building of a tower block and break somebody’s heart at the same time?

I like small things

I like Ukuleles. My bass guitar is a child’s bass guitar, the guy in the shop didn’t want to sell it to me. He said, "No, it’s for kids." A lack of money is the only thing I don’t like about my small career. I like my small gigs and my small audience. I like my small reviews, as long as I at least get a few. I like small songs about small things. I like writing a song about a fat child sitting on a broken roundabout. I like writing a song about an R&B / Death Metal band winning a battle of the bands competition at the Harlow Square.

There are plenty of people writing songs about big things. There’s room for everyone.

I’ve no time for snobbery

Slowly, I’m learning to write songs about people and places without seeming like a judgemental observer. It’s impossible not to judge, but there is a snooty, voyeuristic tone that it’s easy to slip into in song writing. The follow up album to Pram Town will be called Essex Arms and has songs about joy riding and dog fighting in the heart of the countryside. It’s important that we have sympathies for these characters, otherwise the songs won’t work.

Some people who live in Harlow don’t admit to coming from Harlow or even Essex

They say they are from the Hertfordshire border. Londoners are no different though. We all know someone who lives in Dalston who says they’re from Stoke Newington.

Pram Town, Darren Hayman’s concept album about Harlow, is out next week. Find out more about Darren Hayman and Pram Town _here.

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