There are many extraordinary things about Pete Greenwood’s debut record â€” the imagery that casts between “the canyon’s twisty trees” and “cash on the bedside to pay the funeral bills”, the guitar-playing that is fine and translucent and new-stemmed, but perhaps the most remarkable thing of all on an album of such rich, ripened subtlety is the fact that Greenwood has only been writing songs for less than two years.
Raised in Leeds, Greenwood, 27, had relocated to London in 2002 with his then-band. When the band floundered, he enrolled upon a music degree at Goldsmith’s, where he signed up for a songwriting class taught by Pete Astor of The Loft / Weather Prophets.
“Lovely bloke,” says Greenwood. “But I took the class on on the premise that I didn’t have to write songs; he said I could write film scores, orchestral stuff. Then the first assignment comes in: ‘to have two songs written, with vocal and lyric for next week.’ And I’d never done it in my life. I’d never written anything before that.”
Greenwood sat at home with a pad of paper and a guitar and worried. He listened to Blood on the Tracks “a few hundred times” and he worried some more. And then he set to writing. The result was Any Given Day, one of Sirens’ most intoxicating tracks, a tale of a poor boy and a stranger and a crush.
Back at college, Greenwood sat before his classmates and played Any Given Day, and a second song â€” the delirious Bats Over Barstow (a track he describes as his effort to condense the whole of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas into three short minutes). “I was sat there shaking,” he recalls, “just thinking oh god this is embarrassing. But at the end, the whole room just erupted, and I got a first for it. And Pete Astor said, ‘you do realise you’ve got to carry on doing this now because you’re a bit special ’” His undoubted specialness is something Greenwood does not wish to dwell upon. He gives a little shrug. “I figure if you’ve been listening to the best songwriters your whole life then it’s bound to come out somewhere isn’t it?”
In truth Greenwood’s musical education began long before university. As a child he would sit at his father’s feet and watch him detune his guitar, he learned piano, and grew up steeped in folk music. “Of course I did what any teenager would do which is completely rail against it for a while. My Dad’d sit me down and say ‘Listen to this, this is Nick Drake.’ And I’d say ‘Ugh, he sounds crap!’ and go and listen to Megadeth.”
Indeed Megadeth was his first gig. Followed by Reef, where he stole the bass-player’s fags. And some while later came a memorable Sleeper gig, where he was arrested for urinating in a doorway. Somewhere in between he stumbled upon Bob Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay and was awed. “I stayed up all night listening to records,” he remembers of that somewhat inebriated evening plum in the middle of his teenage years. “And I must’ve listened to Lay Lady Lay about 25 times before I fell asleep.”
There have been other inspirations since then â€” a brief jazznut period in 2002, for example, when he was supposed to be playing in “an angular punk pop band” but instead bought a double bass, started using licorice rolling papers and professed a desire to play like Charlie Mingus. And there have been the unlikely muses found in his longtime dedications to snooker, mountain biking and golf (had he not gone into music, he insists, he would’ve been a professional golfer). Still, the Megadeth, the golf, the jazz have all added up to something pretty unique: “Well jazz, for instance, taught me to deconstruct a song,” he says. “It’s like your first aid training for music, that’s what jazz is.”
Although he also plays with The Loose Salute and The See See, Greenwood’s heart lies in writing his own material, and for the past two years he has been enjoying exploring the strange new world of songwriting. Generally, he explains it runs like this: “The first verse is quite specific, and then the next verse it goes really weird. And then I put a guitar solo in cos I panic. And then I desperately try to reel it back in to some kind of narrative, and then it doesn’t really conclude in any sense.” He has also been drawing up some strict songwriting rules and regulations: “I’ve set myself parameters and I can go bonkers within them, like ‘don’t mention the word ‘love” or ‘don’t talk in the first person’, or ‘don’t let things rhyme’. It’s so I don’t get lazy and fall into too many cliches. I think it’s really important with music not to think music’s so precious and sacred that you can’t knock it into shape. Surely not.”
The result is less of an album and more of a sort of musical trellis; twelve songs of structure and rigidity and lush lyrical sprawl, including Greenwood’s attempts at writing “a really really crappy ITV drama”, tales about taxi drivers on the Westway, Victorian gin, Charles Manson and the search for a pair of decent shoes, all told in his soft, earthy tones. It is a collection of songs that he hopes tethers him to a narrative songwriting tradition: “Like Broadside ballads, you’re just trying to tell a story. And I always made up stories. My English teacher always said ‘he’s got a very vivid imagination.’ My favourite story was one I wrote about a magical technicolor dog that lived beyond a gate at the end of our cul-de-sac. But to be honest I was always a bit scared of writing songs before,” he admits. “Because I don’t like failing.” Thankfully Sirens is about as many miles from failure as one could get. “Yeah,” Greenwood mutters sheepishly. “I keep thinking it should’ve been harder than this.”