Growing up in Northern Ireland during the 1990s, soft rock songsmith Pete Gardiner had a plethora of content to work with. Writing songs about alcohol-fuelled affairs, greed, violence or even celebrity-obsessed culture, he is a true poet of contemporary society. We were lucky enough to speak with this Dylan-inspired artist about his single ‘Pick Your Side’ and much more!
Why did you decide to enter the music industry?
I didn’t really decide anything. I always knew music was going to be a big part of my life. I got my first guitar for Christmas when I was 8 years old and I think it was the first and only time I’ve ever cried tears of joy. I started writing songs from an early age and just kept trying to get a little better at it.
The industry as in the business side of things is incidental. If you stick around for long enough it creeps into your life when you’re not paying attention. I’ve had some experience with it. I’ve worked with a couple of record labels, I had some radio play and I’ve played shows in a lot of places. After all these years, I still don’t really recognise myself as being part of the industry. I still feel like the same kid trying to write a good song. It’s going to happen any day now.
Can you tell us about your single ‘Pick Your Side’?
The lyrics began as dark humoured and petty disgruntlement with the world and everyone in it, but it gradually became what I guess you could call a protest song. Like I do in a lot of my songs, I was trying to convey a sense of urgency and frustration that reflects how a lot of people feel about the issues plaguing the world at the moment.
People are outraged about matters like Brexit, Trump, climate change and, more recently, COVID-19 and the tragic killing of George Floyd. Everyone has to pick their side with all of these issues and the world feels more divided than ever because of them. That sense of division is what drives the chorus.
What was the recording and writing process like?
Well, the writing process took place when I’d been living kind of out of the way on a farm in a caravan for a while (long story). I’d had writer’s block and I was terribly bored. Things were too calm and I was starting to feel like I was missing the necessary components required to write a decent song. I used to write so easily when I was in my hometown in Northern Ireland, surrounded by a cast of characters who were maybe just a little more insane than I was. Now living in relative isolation without any real affiliation to a town or city, the words just weren’t coming.
I found a way to bite through the boredom by writing a verse about ‘being bored’; then everything spiralled from there. I decided that I didn’t need to be near anyone to write with the sense of urgency that’s always present in my songs. I decided there were more than enough things happening in the world that I was reading about every day that demanded an angry song. So, I started leaving my own narrative behind and focusing on the big picture and the issues that are affecting everyone. I wrote three songs while I was in this mindset and the other two in the trilogy are also released and available on Spotify. They’re called ‘Bourbon and the Truth’ and ‘Dangerous People’ I think they might be the three best songs I’ve written to date.
The recording process was unbelievably quick, efficient and painless. I’m recording with London label The Animal Farm at their studio and the song took about two days to record and mix. Their producer, Matt, is very easy to work with and I couldn’t be happier with the results I’m getting from working with him. It’s the grittiest I’ve sounded in a while and the music just goes so well with the lyrics.
Does the single have any significant meaning for you?
Well, it doesn’t carry much sentimental value. It’s just the latest in a long line of my songs that preach about why things aren’t as good now as they used to be. I’m starting to become a songwriter version of an old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn.
What do you hope people take from your music?
I’d be flattered if anyone took anything at all. I’d hope they can hear something in it they wouldn’t get anywhere else, especially not on mainstream radio. It’s definitely for people who want to listen to words. A lot of people don’t and that’s fine, but my heroes are people like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen where the words are everything. I’m trying my best to carry on that tradition in my own very small way.
What is more challenging for you – melody or lyrics?
I’ve always been much better at writing lyrics than creating original melodies, but I’m well aware of how important the melody is and I’m trying to get better in that respect. These days I’m taking more time with the tune and experimenting with different chords that I wouldn’t have bothered to before. I usually start off with a few lyrics that I’ve collected here and there on my phone and fit them into a chord progression later on. It can be a gruelling process. You try to fit the lyrics with different chords and keys and it feels like you’re trying to open a combination lock of a safe. Eventually – and it could take months or even years in some cases – the combination works and the safe flies open. That’s a great feeling and it really is worth the wait in the end.
How do you keep yourself motivated?
Sometimes with great difficulty, especially now in these circumstances.
I read a lot of music biographies of the people who have influenced me over the years and I find that hearing about their journeys makes me want to succeed on my own. I remember being in various bands in school and I had a lot of friends who played guitar and were trying to write songs. I can remember thinking even back then that I was going to be the only one still doing this in 10 years. Everyone else had more sense.
I go through periods of being disheartened just like everyone else, but ultimately I know that I’d be miserable if I wasn’t a songwriter or a performer and I’m reasonably sure it’s what I’m supposed to be doing on this planet. If it’s not, I’m in a lot of trouble.
How would you describe your sound?
Well, I suppose you could call it folk-rock. Some people have described it as having an Americana feel to it. I’ve always thought about the sound as being secondary to the lyrics, but the last three or four singles I’ve recorded definitely have a style that I’d like to continue with.
I recorded an album a couple of years ago with Tommy McGlaughlin from Villagers and he was undoubtedly a top-class producer. But the songs ended up being too polished and clean-cut and lacked the excitement and dynamics of the tracks I’d recorded with my friend and hometown producer Paul Steen in Northern Ireland. So production-wise I feel like I’m on the right track again and I’m more excited about the studio recordings than I’ve been for a long time.
It really is difficult to put a label on things though. We’ve got 60 or 70 years of pop and rock music to influence us when we write a song now and the genres have crossed over so much that their categories are becoming less relevant. A good song can be found anywhere.
What do you think is the best way to discover new music?
If you really want to find something current, I think the best way to do it is to google a list of top twenty albums in a genre. For example, ‘best indie-folk albums of 2019’. Then you listen to a few songs and when you come across an artist or album that you like Spotify will recommend similar artists and albums. I don’t spend nearly enough time doing this as I should, but Spotify really is an excellent tool when it comes to discovering fresh blood.
What does the rest of the future hold for you?
Well, I’m too late to join the 27 club. The founding members didn’t respond to my initial applications anyway. So I guess I’m doomed to wander the earth for all eternity showing up drunkenly and unexpectedly at various gatherings and soirees ruining the tranquil evenings of civilians with my abrasive brand of controversial folk-rock music. Forever in search of that mythical and elusive lucky break.
Do you have a message for our readers?
I don’t have a message, but music is a very powerful thing. A few notes of a song can change your whole outlook on life and very quickly alter the type of day you’re having. I just hope one day to affect somebody with something that I’ve written in the same way I’ve been lucky enough to be affected over the years.