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What is creativity? Singer and composer David McAlmont talks inspiration, collaboration and reveals his muse

In the latest in a series of interviews exploring pure creativity, and how it is conceived, nurtured and grown, The Drum catches up with musician David McAlmont.

Singer and composer David McAlmont, with one of the most unique voices in the music industry, has worked with collaborators from Michael Nyman to David Arnold. He recently formed new group Fingersnap with Guy Davies and, earlier this month, reunited with former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler for a UK tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary reissue of their classic album The Sound of McAlmont & Butler.

Where does your inspiration come from?

In the early days the songwriting always came from a navel-gazing point of despair and I got really sick of that, so I spent a good year (2005-2006) just recording other people’s songs. Then I decided the best idea was to have a big stock of lyrics and ideas written down that I could research instead of just trying to find them within myself.

This is something that really emerged when I worked with Michael Nyman. I’d listen to a song, think ‘this sounds like profound isolation’ and then go looking in the newspapers for a story about isolation. For instance a story like Samantha Orobator’s, who disappeared on a holiday in Amsterdam and the next time her family heard of her she was in a jail in Laos having transported heroin into the country. I researched the hell out of it, read everything, looked at the locations on Google Maps, followed the route.

Once you have all of that information you get into a bath or go for a walk – Spielberg apparently goes for a drive, composer Harold Arlen used to take a walk down Sunset Boulevard – and suddenly the couplet arrives. I shot out of the bath because the song was coming – it was like a birth. That’s the way it often works, so it was interesting to discover that lots of artists are similar.

So how closely do the two sides of creativity, the thinking and the doing, need to be aligned?

The doing is the execution, and the thing about the execution is that it seems so brief. If you get to that brief finishing point and you’re unhappy with what you’ve done, when the critics kick in it can be quite heartbreaking. But if the thinking, the process of getting to that point, is one you’re happy with, you can be confident and know your critics are wrong. There’s nothing worse than having a disquiet about the process when you’re doing the creative thinking.

Your latest project with Guy Davies has been very successful, and you’ve worked with Courtney Pine, Michael Nyman, Jools Holland... Who’s left on your collaboration wish list?

I was reminded of this the other night because I went to see the new Pedro Almodóvar film and usually the composer is Alberto Iglesias but this time it was Gustavo Santaolalla. He did the music for The Motorcycle Diaries and Brokeback Mountain and I love the sound he makes. I’d love to work with him.

How do you define creativity?

Creativity is necessary expression. My belief is that we’re all fingerprints, none of us the same, and so we all arrive with a unique message and we’re letting the side down if we don’t make it known. It’s what we do on this planet, we make things.

Can creativity be taught or is it purely innate?

Creativity can be coached. I’m a vocal coach and often people come to me who have been massively discouraged by a parent or teacher. When they were young and vulnerable, someone said ‘stop making that horrible noise’. Most people could sing with enough belief and the right coach.

Do you have a muse?

London is my muse. It’s such a vast organism that you can just about make a mark on it but you can’t ever control it. Often if I need inspiration, I just take a walk around London.

Photography by Anthony Elvy

This feature first appeared in the 13 November issue of The Drum, which is available to purchase here.

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