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A research retreat into songwriting

In our latest PhD spotlight feature, we caught up with Carl Flattery, principal lecturer in Music here at Leeds Beckett, who is studying for a practice-based PhD in songwriting, delving into ideas of memory and place.

Carl Flattery

What is your PhD all about?

It’s about songwriting, particularly how places influence the writing process and are evoked within the lyrics and performance; as well as how people weave their memories into lyrics and how songs themselves can evoke memories or have a sense of place about them.

My PhD is practice-based so it’s also about performance - I’ve been performing in different places, looking at how the surroundings affect the performance and the viewing of the performance.

I am traveling from the east to west coast, along the M62 corridor, making 16 videos along the way. I made my first film with the sunrise at Spurn Head and plan to film the last one with the sun set at Formby in Merseyside.

I’m making most of the films on my own but we did one in the Great Hall here on campus with a student team from the Broadcast Media Technology course. On stage with me was a choir made up from a local community choir and our Music Performance & Production students, plus songwriter Nicky Bray who co-wrote the song with me on a student writing retreat. So it will be exciting to see that one finished.


I’m also looking at the process of songwriting through retreats. In December 2017 I spent three nights in a cabin on an island in Stockholm to see what it would be like to be isolated and write five or six songs a day. In the end I only wrote one song, on the last day. But it’s possibly the best song I’ve ever written! The next stage is to find some more retreats but to do it differently. I’m going to just write words and take photographs, make videos and do field recordings of the sounds and then take all that home with me and write the songs over a longer period of time.

Why did you choose your subject?

I’d been wanting to do a PhD for probably 10 years. More and more people started doing practice-based PhDs and I realised that I could focus on my songwriting practice and bring that together with my interest in performance in place as a very multimedia PhD.

Who is your favourite songwriter?

It has to be Paul McCartney because of what he achieved, especially during the time of the Beatles. The diversity of his songwriting is just amazing - all the different styles he turned his hand to in such a short space of time at such a young age.

And what is your favourite song about place?

America by Simon and Garfunkel – it’s not just a song about memory and place but one of my favourite songs ever!


Why Leeds Beckett?

I did speak to other supervisors in other universities but they all had their own ideas of how they wanted the PhD to be - and it was areas that I wasn’t very interested in; whereas Leeds Beckett were very open to the idea of me directing the PhD to be what I wanted it to be.

I decided it was most important to me to do the exact PhD that I wanted to do and really enjoy it.

What’s the best thing about doing a PhD?

It’s encouraging me to spend more time on my own practice. I’ve always been a songwriter but I was getting to an age where I’m not playing in bands any more. The PhD has got me excited again. Suddenly I have another output for my songs and a reason to delve deeper into my own process and other people’s.

I get to meet other songwriters and talk to them about their songwriting – I’m focusing on a band called Magnetic North which is a collective, run by Hannah Peel with Erland Cooper from Erland and the Carnival and Simon Tong from the Verve. They make albums about place: their second album is about Skelmersdale, which is where I was born and grew up.

And what’s been the biggest challenge so far?

The biggest challenge is time – I’m still teaching full time, doing the PhD part time and I’ve got a young family. I could happily spend every day working on my PhD because it’s fascinating, but I can’t.

What’s the most useful thing that you’ve learnt so far?

That people are excited about songwriting and like to talk about it. Nearly everyone has got a suggestion of an album or song to listen to that’s about place, or someone they know is writing about place. I’ve learnt that if I talk to people I’ll learn new things and get pointed in new directions.

Carl Flattery

What is your proudest achievement to date?

It has to be the birth of my child! And also getting this job at Leeds Beckett - I was very proud to get my first job here in 2003 and I’m still very happy to be here.

What is your top tip for new research students?

Find something you love - because you’re going to be doing this for a long time. That’s why I’m so happy that I’m doing songwriting because I love it. If I had picked another subject I think I would have struggled to see it through to the end. So just find something you’re really interested in and then you’ll enjoy doing the research.

What do you do to unwind?

I play guitar and write songs! I walk in from work and pick up my guitar, sit down and start playing. If I’m playing guitar and working on a song idea, I’m not thinking about anything else so it’s a great way to unwind. I usually manage that for about 20 minutes before family duties call!

What is your favourite Twitter account to follow?

I don’t have favourites but I mainly move between music, football and politics. So I suppose ones that pop up a lot would be Empire of the Kop – which is about Liverpool Football Club – and the Brudenell Social Club to find out about gigs that are coming up.

What would you say to someone thinking about applying for a PhD at Leeds Beckett?

It’s a great place to study in terms of the support you get. And there’s a big network of people to meet, working in all sorts of different areas. It’s becoming a very popular place for doing a practice-based PhD and we’re very lucky for that.

Where do you want your PhD to take you?

I’m happy working here and would like my PhD to help influence my teaching and broaden my network of songwriters and researchers. It is also helping me produce work – because it is a practise-based PhD, I will have recordings at the end of it that I might not have finished without the PhD.

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