Is God a concept by which we measure our pain?

God‘ is the song in which John Lennon denied belief in anything but himself and Yoko Ono. The list of things he didn’t believe in included The Beatles, I-Ching, Bob Dylan, the Bible, Hitler, Jesus, Kennedy, Elvis and Magic.

The opening line is “God is a concept by which we measure our pain“.

As soundbites go, it’s a good one. As a lyric from the writer of Please Please Me, it’s pretty fucking heavy.

I grew up a Catholic. I swallowed the whole thing, from Catechism 101 all the way to being an altar boy and swinging the incense at Mass. Confession was a wonder – you’d go and tell the priest all the things you’d done, and he’d absolve you, and you’d leave the Church walking on air.

But one day, aged 14, I found myself sitting at Mass feeling very bored. A voice in my head said, very clearly: “If there is a God, you are being disrespectful”. I walked out and never went back.

And yet, and yet….I miss it.

I miss the comfort, the colour, the rites, the ceremony. Every now and then, for a wedding or a funeral, I find myself back in a church. They all feel good, but there’s something special, different, about a Catholic church. We were schooled to be awed by the whole ambience. This was not the cosy, almost liberal world of The Church Of England. No, this was a world where you knew your place. God was good, but he was also a very heavy dude. If you were bad you were going to hell, no matter how small or young you were.

Another of John Lennon’s lines comes to mind: “You think you’re so clever and classless and free“. The truth is that however grown up, smart and successful we become, how rationally we can talk about ‘the real world’, Catholic indoctrination never really leaves you. You’re never properly free of it.

I remember, for instance, being almost relieved when Bob Dylan went through his Christian phase. The albums Saved, and particularly Slow Train Coming, contained such comfortingly familiar themes, and were a timely reminder that we are all part of something bigger than ourselves. These songs didn’t necessarily convert anyone, least of all me, but they did at least legitimise the internal debate.

I remember someone saying at the time, in response to the surprise that Bob Dylan of all people could be Born Again, that anyone who was surprised by Dylan talking about God hadn’t been listening. And it’s true. It may not have been so overt, but Christian teachings are littered through Dylan’s earlier work.

I know some fervent people, true believers. Good people. Intelligent people. Worldly and successful. We talk. I truly want to understand what it is that convinces them about something they believe in, that I would love to believe in. I believe in something, but not the God of creation.

I was talking about this one night to my friend Martin Sacree. When I told him I didn’t believe in God, he said a really surprising thing. “And yet,” he said, “He turns up quite a lot in your songs.”

And he’s right. I had to look at my own songs a bit more carefully. And there was God, in the lyrics, sometimes explicitly, by name, for heaven’s sake!

One example is this week’s song, Not There Yet. It’s really a song about looking for a place in the world, and never really having found it. You’ll hear me wondering whether ‘God smiles as he points me in the wrong direction‘, and whether he knows who our ‘true companion’ is, and, if he does, ‘Why does he let us waste our time?

I’m in a better place now than when I wrote that song. It appeared on my 2012 album Now That’s What I Call Divorce (which is a bit of a giveaway as to my state of mind at the time).

But it’s not a doomy song. God appears as a bit of a joker, letting us go down wrong paths, get involved with the wrong people. But, in the end, we’re all on the same journey. Some of us get there early, others get there very late. For me it’s always been about the journey itself. I’m not complaining that I’m Not There Yet. I’m not sure I really want to arrive at all.

From Dylan to The Sugababes: art and the production line

Did you ever imagine there would be song factories? Poor saps writing in teams and dreaming of getting one of their lines on a big hit, so they can share in the writing royalties?

Cold as this sounds, the results can be phenomenal. Xenomania, for instance, has produced 20 top 10 hits for Girls Aloud alone; others for Sugababes, Kylie Minogue and The Saturdays.

These factories model themselves on the old Motown concept, including having a house band ready to provide backing tracks for new material.

Motown, in turn, modelled itself on New York’s Brill Building, where songwriters like Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Carole King, Leiber & Stoller and Neil Diamond banged away at pianos all day turning out hit after hit.

Many of them turned out to be pop classics. The factory approach can work artistically as well as commercially.

At the other end of the spectrum, Bob Dylan would sit at a typewriter and hammer out words for hours on end. His ‘stream of consciousness’ was carefully crafted. Lennon and McCartney used to bunk off school and sit with their guitars, trading ideas. Less than a song a day was considered a wasted day.

Others, schooled in the art of composition, will go about it in a more formal way. My old music partner Pete Zorn can notate a song (write it down, to you and me) like the old composers. My son Noel taught himself composition and approaches it all with a Frank Zappa-like contempt for the factory approach. But he maintains a sense of wonder for the occasional dazzling pop record, the most recent of which was Happy, by Pharrell Williams.

There’s still room, though, for the old instinctive method. The pop star who lives in my house writes her own songs. She is also keenly sought out by producers who not only want some of her writing magic – which she can produce seemingly at will in the studio – they also want her voice on their tracks. She’s 16 and completely unschooled in music theory or technique.

It’s all a long cry from the notion of some tortured artist with a guitar, pouring his or her feelings onto the page – James Taylor say, or Joni Mitchell. That used to be my model. Sit at the piano until inspiration hit.

But if you open your mind, songs can come at you in surprising ways. This week’s example emerged from a very different process.

It started with an exhibition of paintings by the artist Veronique Maria.

I know nothing about visual art, so my response to paintings is visceral and subjective. Mondrian, Pollock and Rothko affect me in ways I don’t understand, but the feelings they provoke are deep and profound.

Veronique’s series of paintings under the heading Orogeny set me back on my heels, took my breath away. The exhibition walk-through included a video in which the artist explained the process that went on in her head as she created these works.

I was so struck by the poetic nature of her words that I asked if I could put them in a song. She didn’t hesitate to say yes. Not because she was flattered, nor even much cared, but simply, she said, “They’re out there” (the words) “so they’re no longer mine.” I found this an extraordinarily generous response.

The first two verses of this song, then, are Veronique’s words, pretty much as spoken in the video (link below).

The third verse is me marvelling at the way “she works paint on a canvas“. As you watch the video you will see new universes appear. “She surrenders to the unknown“, a state of mind I can only dream of.

As luck would have it, about two years before I was inspired by Veronique Maria, I had been doodling on the guitar and fallen on a rather lovely picking pattern, which I quickly recorded and then filed away.

I wrestled with Veronique’s words for some time, and then one day I found this forgotten guitar pattern tucked away on my computer and I instantly knew the two belonged together.

So that’s how this particular song came into being.

It’s fair to say that Veronique, having been so insouciant about her words being “out there” reacted quite differently when she heard them in this new context. She finds it, she says, “strange”, partly because she hadn’t expected me to quote her word for word. But also, oddly, she sees no connection between her work, her intentions, and my use of her words. Which, for me, makes it a more generous act on her part to let me go ahead.

Click here to see the interview and film that inspired this song. The film maker is Mark Birbeck.

At the beginning of 2014, Veronique put up a new video work, and threw out a challenge – which I took up – to write a soundtrack for it. So this week, you get two of my recordings for the price of one, and you get to look at two sides of Veronique Maria – the painter and the video artist.

I’ve never done anything like this before. The soundtrack piece is ‘ambient’. It follows the film, and works hard not to be intrusive, but at the same time attempts to be interesting enough to enhance your enjoyment of the film. You be the judge.

Watch the video here, particularly if you’re stressed. The combination of images and music is something like meditating.