“Poets have collaborated on libretti and hymns and lyrics for songwriters right back to the beginning, so it’s not unusual,” says Simon Armitage of his move to mix music with poetry, although starting a band, LYR, is particularly unsurprising behaviour for him. Surely the indie-est of poets with his floppy hair and loudly proclaimed obsessions with The Smiths and The Fall, he even wrote a music-based memoir called Gig: The Life and Times of a Rock-star Fantasist in 2008.
“It has recently occurred to me that only through the process of failing to become a rock star have I become a writer,” the West Yorkshireman, 56, said in the book. While his status as a poet has risen consistently – he was appointed Poet Laureate when Carol Ann Duffy’s 10-year tenure came to an end in May last year – his musical achievements to date have been mixed. There was a teenage punk band called Tess and the d’Urbs, and in 2009 he released his only album as the lead singer in The Scaremongers, who his dad told him should have been named Midlife Crisis. However, he also has an Ivor Novello award for his lyrical contribution to Feltham Sings, a Channel 4 documentary featuring singing prison inmates.
The balance shifts again with LYR, a collaboration with singer-songwriter Richard Walters and producer Patrick Pearson who have signed a major record deal before they play their first ever gigs, which are next week in Leeds and then London. It stands for Land Yacht Regatta.
On their forthcoming debut album, Armitage speaks his lines in his dolorous northern tones, Pearson adds piano and electronic textures that create a slow-moving, glacial atmosphere, and Walters floats in occasionally with sung responses to the principal vocals. It’s sad and very beautiful and full of the tiny details that make Armitage’s poetry so affecting.
“Almost every track is a monologue from a character who is in some sort of crisis,” explains Armitage. “They’re all calling out in some way.”
What makes these words require music when most of the rest of his work doesn’t? “I’ve always argued that with a pure poem you’ve got to write everything in there, because there’s not going to be a backbeat or a chord sequence to run the engine of the emotions. With these pieces, the writing is more on the surface. They’ve been left open to some other element, which is provided by the music.”
Walters first contacted Armitage about a decade ago about working together. The poet provided lyrics to Redwoods, a lovely ballad which Walters sings on his 2012 solo album Regret Less.
He and Pearson, who had been in another band together, posted a dictaphone to Armitage, and waited. “It gathered dust for a while, this big furry microphone like an animal in hibernation, waiting to be reactivated,” he says. “Finally I started pulling together some pieces of written work that were waifs and strays, really. They were in this overlap zone between poetry and song lyrics, so even though they do function as poems, in a way they’re stood there trying to hitch a lift, waiting for something else to come along.”
When his words were sent back with music added, did it sound as he was expecting? “It sounded better.”
LYR arrive at a fertile time for lyricists. “I grew up in an era when you couldn’t really hear what thrashy bands were saying on records. Maybe through rap, language has become more conspicuous in music. I think there’s a reenergised interest in language these days,” says Armitage.
Just don’t call him a rapper. “This is definitely not rap! Whatever I’m doing comes out of a literary tradition, a folk tradition, even the tradition of the hymnal.” But as he stands centre stage in Hoxton next week after a lifetime in gig audiences, you know he’ll be feeling just a little bit like a rock star.
LYR’s new single, The First Time, is released today on Mercury KX. The album, Call In the Crash Team, follows on May 29.
Mar 10, Hoxton Hall, N1. hoxtonhall.co.uk