For his latest album, Harmonograph, Boo Hewerdine resolved to record his own versions of songs he had written for, and often with, other people. From around 400 such songs he drew up a shortlist of 140. After listening to these with the album's producer, Neil MacColl, he settled on a shorter list of around 80.
Then he more or less gave up. Each morning he would arrive at the studio and simply pick whichever song he fancied doing next. He resisted any pressure simply to stack together versions of his most successful collaborations. "It's not like a CV," he says. "It's not an attempt to go 'look what I've done'." One song seemed to lead on to the next: "There just seemed to be an atmosphere emerging". That was what he was after. The twelve songs that eventually surfaced - some well-known, like the Eddi Reader hit single Patience Of Angels, some not, and some never recorded previously - became Harmonograph.
At his father's recent wedding, Boo Hewerdine met up with his cousin Simon, and they reminisced how they had both decided while playing on a beach when they were seven that what they really wanted to do was to make up songs. (Simon, too, would follow through, somewhat. He now publishes children's books but was previously in Flesh For Lulu.) In his teens, even before he could play an instrument, Boo would approach local bands and tell them that he had written a song for them. "I'd just go round their house and sing at them," he says. "I got such a buzz off that. And some of them would do my songs, amazingly." It taught him, right from the start, that songs, once written, could leave their author and have a life all of their own. He loved how songs came from nothing, and how short they were, and what they could do to people. "I was extremely shy," he remembers, "but it was a way of not being shy, and I liked that. Because it's a nuisance being shy - you've got all these things in your head and you can't say them."
The life and career Boo now has first began to blossom with the group he formed in the mid-Eighties, The Bible. Two of their finest songs, Graceland and Honey Be Good, came tantalisingly close to becoming huge hits. (A third, Glorybound, is one of the recordings about which Nick Hornby rhapsodises in his book 31 Songs.) Boo now wishes he could have enjoyed The Bible's time on the verge of success a little more. "I think I felt under a lot of pressure," he reflects. "There were a lot of people telling me what I should do and I felt very bullied." And some things take years to seem funny. The Bible first decided to disband after being flown over to Germany to perform Honey Be Good on, they belatedly discovered, a talent show. A man who wore a bowtie with lights on that spun round, and who went by the name of Mr Gadget, won with 140,000 votes. The Bible were told that they had received twelve votes. "We all took it so personally that we split up," says Boo.
The first Boo Hewerdine solo album, Ignorance, was released in 1992, followed by Baptist Hospital in 1996 and Thanksgiving in 1998, both made with Nick Drake producer ohn Wood, and by Anon in 2002. In between, in 1994, The Bible briefly reformed though the album they then recorded wouldn't appear until released as Dodo at the end of the decade. That same year five songs Boo had written or co-written appeared abum, Eddi Reader, triggering a parallel career with her that continues to this day. (In 2003 he produced Eddi Reader's acclaimed Sings The Songs Of Robert Burns.) Over the past decade Boo has not only regularly played and written together with Reader, but has also enjoyed composing songs for her under her instructions: "Writing for Eddi, I'm forced to write from a woman's point of view a lot of the time. She sets me homework. One song she asked me to write, which I nearly did a version of on Harmonograph, is called Forgive The Boy - she said, "I'm a single mother and I've got two teenage sons and I want you to write a song about how women should sometimes forgive the way that men behave'. I like doing that."
For many years Boo had been writing with and for other artists - in 1989 he released a whole album, Evidence, in collaboration with the American country singer Darden Smith - but towards the end of the Nineties he also began to write songs for and with pop artists, something he considers a complete separate endeavour. "I don't think of myself in that world at all," he explains. "It's just I quite enjoy the Brill Building aspect. I enjoy it because it's not what I do." Amongst the many artists he has written for in this way are Natalie Imbruglia, Mel C and Alex Parks.
"I just read that Bob Dylan book, Chronicles," Boo explains, "and I was amazed that two of the things that were in the back of the mind when he wrote, which you don't hear in his music, were two of the things I had right from the beginning - always Robert Johnson, though my music doesn't sound anything like it, and Jacques Brel, though my music doesn't sound anything like that either. I've also now got Nashville in the back of my mind, and pure pop, though you might not know it from what I do. I just love having that stuff there. Some people think I'm a folk singer, but I actually have this really bizarre life where I may be hanging out with a pop singer or doing lots of different things, and I kind of want people to know that." (Amongst the other different things, he also wrote the film scores to the movies Fever Pitch and TwentyFourSeven with Harmnograph's producer, Neil MacColl, who was also in The Bible.)
Meanwhile, other songs had their own adventures. Baptist Hospital's Last Cigarette, for instance, was covered by k d lang (as My Last Cigarette) on her smoking-themed album Drag. And in 2004 Boo was asked to re-record Thanksgiving's Bell, Book And Candle for a climactic, award-winning death scene on the TV soap Emmerdale.
"At my gigs people cry a lot," says Boo. "Not necessarily because they're miserable. Maybe it touches them. With songs, the subject matter's not the most important thing - I just like to pinpoint something. It's more that feeling. You don't have to be specific or breast-beating or anything like that. They know what I'm talking about. I sometimes try to write a song about ridiculous things because I don't think the subject matter is as important as the feeling. When it's right, there's a sense of something."
In the late Nineties, Boo got nervous about playing live on his own. The evening in September 2001 at a folk club in a hut in Claygate where he rediscovered what it could be like - when you get that feeling down the back of your neck, and know for sure that someone in the audience is experiencing the same thing at the same time - is captured on his live album A Live One. "That was a very important night," he notes. But for those who have not had the opportunity to see Boo Hewerdine perform - and for those foolish enough to feel that popular culture criticism is not thriving in modern Britain - here is the full, unedited text of a local newspaper review of his October 2005 tour:
"Boo Hewerdine and Andy Comley performed at a packed Cellers in Eastney last night. Boo Hewerdine was the main attraction but Andy Comley got the crowd going with beautiful songs including Paradise. He showed his strong voice when he performed the Paul Young cover Wherever I Lay My Hat without music. When Boo started the crowd cheered, and he dazzled us with a range of songs that defied belief. He calls himself 'a man with a guitar' and he lived up to this, playing it with ease. He interacted with everyone, cracking jokes. Both singers performed well, thrilling everyone. Highly recommended."
Almost exactly like being there. Over the same tour there were other odd acknowledgements of both the power of Boo's performance and his remarkable catalogue of songs. One new fan approached him after a concert in Portsmouth, otherwise full of praise, expressing only one reservation: "I'm just surprised you do so many covers". In reality, less a criticism than a nice, accidental compliment - as is often the case, that night Boo hadn't played a single song he hadn't written himself.
"Having come from bands where the songs were complicated, I keep trying to get more and more simple," Boo explains. This can be heard in the direct, often unflinching new songs he has been performing live - "definitely the best bunch I've ever had" - which he intends as the core of another album later in 2006. "I like Lucinda Williams," he says, "because her songs sometimes seem almost stupid they're so simple, but they're brilliant. There's a song called Lonely Girls that I love where she just sings 'lonely girls' four times in a row and then goes something like 'they're lonely'- phenomenally brilliant."
That is also the outlook that guided Harmonograph. In terms of attitude and a freedom of spirit - rather than in terms of recording quality - the task Boo and Neil MacColl set themselves was to make a set of demos: "They're like demos in reverse. What we said was, we were taking finished records and making demos afterwards."
Its title, too, seems perfectly appropriate. Boo had stumbled across a book about harmonographs ages ago: two-dimensional patterns created by the swinging of coupled pendulums in a piece of apparatus also called a harmonograph invented for this purpose in the nineteenth century. By varying the length ratio between the pendulums so that they correspond to the relative wavelengths of different musical intervals, different harmonographs can be generated which offer a graphic representation of those same musical intervals.
"So it all seemed to fit - a visual representation of notes, and it's a beautiful word as well," he says. "Like 'photograph' with 'harmony'."