"Let me teach you how to write a song / The first line must be brief but strong /
And the second line should rhyme with something in your baby's heart /
Something that they know but cannot name / And in that way every song's the same."
—From “Every Song's The Same,” track two on Lower Reaches.
Though he exercises some artistic license in the opening line above, Justin Currie points out that he's "as clueless as the next person" when it comes to the arcane art of songwriting. "It's a process that will always remain a mystery to me", he says. "When I wrote “Every Song's The Same” I was aware that it could be misconstrued, but it was more, 'Can somebody out there write something I can get excited about; something I can aim at?'"
After six albums with Del Amitri and three solo albums, what Currie has learned about songwriting is that you have to make yourself available to the muse. "Make sure you're bored", he says. "Make sure you're alone."
To that end, in 2012, the Glaswegian singer briefly extricated himself from city life. Renting a remote cottage, he hunkered down beneath The Cuillins, the mountain range that dominates the Hebridean island of Skye. Currie had no Internet and no mobile phone, just an acoustic guitar, a piano, and a ghetto-blaster on which to record his ideas.
"I suppose it was a bit like my Brill Building", he smiles. "You're being your own boss and putting yourself under pressure to write. I thought, ‘[If it doesn’t work out] at least I can go hillwalking…'"
It was songs rather than Skye's famous munros that got bagged, however. Currie wrote fifteen of them in eleven days, something of a personal best in terms of rapid-fire delivery. The Lower Reaches songs “Falsetto,” “On A Roll,” “On My Conscience” and “Half Of Me” were all shaped on Skye, and in the end Currie came back two days early and repaired to the pub for a well-earned pint. His mate Aldo remarked that he'd never seen him looking so relaxed.
By now the singer had over 30 songs demoed for the album that would become Lower Reaches. He'd noticed that, broadly speaking, they addressed three subjects: love, mortality and music. Though his acclaimed solo debut What Is Love For (2007) and the follow-up The Great War (2010) had been self-produced, this time out Currie wanted an outside producer. He needed someone who could steer him on which songs to record, someone who would "take him out of the equation a bit."
Having heard and rated Clear Heart Full Eyes, the debut solo album by The Hold Steady's Craig Finn, Currie approached its producer, Mike McCarthy. McCarthy liked what he heard, and soon Currie was headed for the vintage analogue gear-festooned den that is McCarthy's Austin, Texas-based studio. He packed a copy of Amexica:War Along The Borderline, Ed Vulliamy's book about drug feuds down Mexico way, in his suitcase.
"The sessions were actually quite scary", says Currie. "Mike just took over. The local musicians around Austin revere him because of his work on the …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead records, so there was no question of me leading the musicians.
"I hadn't met any of the guys he hired to play before I went out there, but even although some of them were half my age, they all had exquisite taste. I didn't need to explain any references or worry about the palette."
David Garza plays guitar and piano, and other musicians include members of White Denim, Phosphorescent and the Heartless Bastards. Together, they help Currie navigate a filler-less album that begins with a funeral and ends with a wedding. On the buoyant, almost Badfinger-esque “I Hate Myself For Loving You” and bijou, vintage beat-box propelled “Priscilla,” Currie's highly-attuned pop sensibility is well to the fore. There are few if any songs on Lower Reaches that don't have darker or more wistful undercurrents, however. Indeed, even “On My Conscience” - ostensibly a breezy, Byrds-go-Octopus's Garden-like palette cleanser—drips lyrical bile.
"I hate those really romantic, 'baby I'm going to take care of you' type songs", says Currie when quizzed about “Priscilla,” a song wherein the protagonist appears to accept culpability for damage to an ex-lover. "It doesn't give me anything to get my teeth into, plus I think you can be quite nasty in a song while the subtext is genuinely romantic. Look at “I'm Not In Love” by 10CC - it works because the guy so obviously is in love."
It's on “Into A Pearl,” Lower Reaches' remarkable piano ballad, that mortality raises its ugly head most movingly. Currie says he previously side-lined the song because "it was just too personal and emotive", and because of certain stylistic similarities to material on his What Is Love For album. The moment when his unguarded vocal glides up into the falsetto is quite magical; one of this album's draw-dropping moments.
Elsewhere, men - and perhaps women - of a certain age will identify with the conflicted protagonist of “Half Of Me,” a character torn between cordial-enough domesticity and the need to 'Go out blazing trails in a haze of rock 'n' roll.' We say protagonist, but we of course mean Currie, a man honest enough to admit that, even as he approaches 49, fifty-percent of him still wants to traverse America in a tour bus.
"Yeah, it's embarrassing, but the desire doesn't go away", he laughs. "Me and my mates will go out to Nice 'n' Sleazy on Sauchiehall Street and they'll be playing Cramps records [extremely] loud. Everyone else in there is 25 and doing Jaeger bombs, but they look great. You catch yourself in the mirror and wince, but then you think, 'I'm not a golfer or an accountant - maybe this is okay.'"
In truth, Currie can hold his head high. And not least because he has just received props from the songwriter's songwriter, Jimmy Webb. Together with the likes of Brian Wilson and Kris Kristofferson, Currie guests on Webb's upcoming duets album, Still Within The Sound Of My Voice. In his self-penned sleeve-notes, Webb writes:
"Justin Currie is probably a revelation to some people in America. This is a voice you have heard somewhere and made a mental note to try and find out where those unique and seductive shivers originate. I thank you Justin for lending your great mastery and power to me."
All of which means Justin Currie can die happy.
As he readies his fabulous third album, it only remains for us to ask him about the significance of its title.
"I liked the fact that the only time that phrase appears is when such and such a record troubles the lower reaches of The Charts," he smiles. "I also liked that I travelled all the way to the lower reaches of the US to make a record. I didn't find it easy to cede all responsibility to Mike McCarthy by any means, but it was ultimately a brilliant experience."