Gary Lightbody interview: ‘Had this happened a few years ago, I would have sat at home drinking’

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Neil McCormick
·8 min read
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'There’s been a lot of dark s--- going on, but also beautiful things': Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody - Paul Cooper
'There’s been a lot of dark s--- going on, but also beautiful things': Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody - Paul Cooper

How many composers does it take to write a song? Epic rockers Snow Patrol may have set a new world record with their latest release, an EP of five songs created at sessions involving up to 5,000 people. “We weren’t all squashed into the same room,” notes frontman Gary Lightbody. “But, in a way, it works, because everybody was in the same space mentally. We were all in our own homes, we were all locked down, we were all feeling the same things.”

I am talking to the 44-year-old Northern Irish singer and songwriter via Zoom from the front room of his airy, sunlit house in Santa Monica. Lightbody grins into the lens, unshaven, sloppily attired in a baggy sweatshirt, with his long bushy hair sticking out at every conceivable angle. “I haven’t been locked down with a stylist, as you can tell,” he jokes. “I arrived in LA in March, just before everything locked down, so I’ve been on my own in my house, playing my guitar, that’s about it.”

On his Wikipedia page, it notes that ‘Lightbody has been in many doomed relationships.’ “Oh my God, that’s awful!” he says, in a gale of laughter. “What a terrible assessment. It implies that they were doomed from the start. No wonder it’s so hard getting dates!”

He has spent the time writing songs. “I’m lucky that my job is my hobby. Since I gave up drinking four years ago, I spend a lot of time in the house anyway. Gigs and touring is my social activity, the rest of the time I’m making music. I’ve written three albums since March.”

There’s an electronic project on which he has been working long-distance with producer Jacknife Lee, a solo side-project, and the bones of a new Snow Patrol album that, he says, won’t be completed until “we can all get somewhere together and enter that submarine life of a band for a few months, bouncing ideas off each other, experimenting wildly. I miss that.”  

Snow Patrol - Simon Lipman
Snow Patrol - Simon Lipman

But he has also been creating The Fireside Sessions, credited to Snow Patrol and The Saturday Songwriters. The songs were written during hour-long sessions hosted over the course of lockdown by Lightbody via Instagram Live. Around 5,000 fans tuned in every Saturday night, sending chord and lyric suggestions by text. Messages scrolled past on Lightbody’s feed as he strummed an acoustic guitar, scribbled down phrases and sang trial melodies, getting instant feedback about which avenues to pursue.

“It was all very spontaneous and accidental, like my hair and my general sartorial accumulation,” he jokes. “I was just looking up, scribbling as fast, usually only catching three or four words at a time. I didn’t need to set a theme because people were all pretty much thinking about the same things anyway. There was a sense of anxiety about our uncertain future, but also wishful, hopeful feelings about what they’d like to do when lockdown ended. I had to create some connective tissue, but it was all strangely cohesive.”

Five thousand people shouting out random chords and phrases may sound like a recipe for a mess, but the five songs that Snow Patrol chose to record have exactly the kind of melodic sweep, emotional intensity and anthemic scale that fans have come to expect from the multi-million-selling Scots-Irish band.

“For sure, songs will end up sounding like me, if I’m the only one holding the guitar and singing,” agrees Lightbody. “Melody is the easiest bit for me, lyrics have always been a struggle. There was a song on the last official Snow Patrol record, Wildness, that took me five years, from the minute I first picked up a pen until it finally felt right. That’s half a decade working on one song. These were written in an hour. Having all those lyric ideas to work with opened up a whole new place in my brain for other things, so that the song itself got to be freer, more spontaneous, less constrained by my anxiety.”

One gentle, weightless song, The Curve of Earth, was written on May 30, the day Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched astronauts into space. “People were talking about that and it became a song about looking down at the natural world: ‘The curve of earth, the curve of you / And burning hearts just look like greens and blues from here / And everything is healed and calm.’ It’s lovely stuff. That was the collective, it wasn’t me.”

A sense of reconnection with nature flows through other songs. On Dance With Me, he sings of “resetting planet springs” where “the loudest silence brings a list of all our longing”. On the dreamy Light Years, we hear: “The sun shines brighter now the skies are empty / And the loudest bird-songs fill us up again.”

“I picked up on a lot of phrases about finding new ways to see the world when stillness has been thrust upon us,” Lightbody says. “I’m going on hikes in LA where you’re seeing evidence of big animals that you wouldn’t have seen before – paw-prints the size of things that are, let’s say, troubling. There’s been a lot of dark s--- going on, but also a few beautiful things that those songwriting sessions helped me see.”

The sessions were, he insists, “just an innocent diversion to help people pass the time”. But they raise interesting questions about creativity and authorship that have parallels in the modern pop business,r where songwriting teams have become the norm, and credits seem to be expanding exponentially. Lightbody normally composes alone or with members of his group. But he has also collaborated with some of the biggest pop stars on the planet, notably Ed Sheeran (on Bloodstream, from X) and Taylor Swift (on The Last Time, from Red).

“When you’re writing on someone else’s record, you’re auxiliary to them. You have to leave your ego by the door and just be a facilitator to whatever they need, whether it’s a lyric here and there, or a bit of music, or melody. It’s more supportive than anything leading. But Taylor and Ed don’t need much help, they write songs on their own all the time.

“Maybe they just like having someone in the room. It must be lonely being a solo artist. I’ve worked with Ed a lot, and his creativity is just insane – he’s constantly having ideas. The job is more about trying to pick one of the hundred he came up with in the last 10 minutes.”

The new songs were recorded in home studios by members of Snow Patrol, with all the separate parts assembled by producer (and former Snow Patrol member) Iain Archer. It’s the way a lot of pop music is recorded these days, although Lightbody considers it far from ideal. “It took Iain far longer than normal to make it sound like a proper record. Some of the drums were recorded on six iPhones spread around a kit. You can’t really experiment and try new things out. So we had to keep it simple.”

He worries about the future of the music industry, especially for bands such as his. “It took us 10 years to have any success, and if this had happened at any time during those years, we wouldn’t have made it. I don’t know if young bands will get through without massive input from the government, private investors, anybody trying to help the arts.

“The wellbeing of citizens has to be the first priority, but we need something to look forward to when this is over. Gig-going, theatre, communal experiences like music can play a massive role in the recovery of our mental and emotional health.”

Lightbody (pictured with Snow Patrol) fears for the future of live music post-Covid - PA/Ian West
Lightbody (pictured with Snow Patrol) fears for the future of live music post-Covid - PA/Ian West

He says Snow Patrol are “trying to figure things out”, but won’t tour again until “it’s safe for everybody.” Although the band formed at the University of Dundee in 1994, Lightbody hails from Bangor, Co Down. He hasn’t seen his mother, sister and nieces since March. “I don’t think I’d be very welcome arriving home in Northern Ireland and being patient zero of the second wave.”

In recent years, Lightbody has been candid about problems with alcoholism and depression, addressing his recovery on their last album, Wildness, in 2018. “It’s not like I’m cured, but I’m lucky that I’ve figured out ways of mitigating my mental-health problems. Meditation, exercise, yoga, qigong – I can do all these things at home.

“I already had a pretty good baseline going into this. But I fear it’s going to cause all kinds of problems for mental health. If it had happened four or five years ago, I would have probably just sat in the house and drank.”

All proceeds from The Fireside Sessions will go to the Trussell Trust, which supports a nationwide network of foodbanks. “Trying to split the writing credits 5,000 ways would have been ridiculous,” grins Lightbody. “So it’s all going to charity.”

The Fireside Sessions by Snow Patrol and the Saturday Songwriters is released on August 21