What would a song about your town sound like?

by Justyn Surrall, University of Worcester



In a public talk in Worcester, Dr Paul Newland, College Director, Research and Knowledge Transfer, will examine how place and song go hand in hand and what makes songs about places so enjoyable. But why is this such a fascinating topic? And why do we feel such an affinity to places we’ve never visited because we love the song, or we enjoyed the film?

I’ve been speaking to Dr Paul about the inspiration for his talk.


Yellow cabs waiting for green light on the crossroad of streets of New York City during sunny summer daytime

Pause for a second.

Imagine you’re stepping out into a New York Street. You can probably hear the traffic and the odd distant siren, the unmistakable accent, you can see the yellow taxis and endless high-rise buildings disappearing off into the sky… and it’s quite possible you’ve never actually been there.

But you’ll have seen Friends. You’ll have heard Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’, and there’s every chance you’ve put a pack of five New York Bakery Co bagels in the trolley at the supermarket at some point.

And it’s these experiences (perhaps excluding the bagels) that give you a sense of the place without being there, and they’d impact how you felt if you were.

Dr Paul Newland has written about and published pieces about place, and about cultural geography.

“I’ve written about and published a lot of work about how places are constructed in cultural texts,” says Paul. “In particular, how films construct senses of place and how we get to know them through cinema, through film, through representations of the location, rather than actually being there ourselves.

“I’ve had a career as a songwriter, as a musician, and that’s led to all kinds of varying degrees of success,” says Paul. “Not financially!” he adds.

But when he has incorporated his experiences of place into his work, he has connected with people all over the world.

“Critically, I’ve been in a band that has had reviews in Mojo Magazine, Uncut, The Wire, they reviewed albums that I’ve made about places,” Says Paul. “Three of those albums were about Aberystwyth in Wales, and the surrounding area when I was living there at the time and we’ve had global radio play on the BBC, in the States and Australia.”

Piano in a library

So how do you transport someone from Adalaide to Aberystwyth for three minutes? Well, that’s what Paul wants to explore deeper in his forthcoming talk in Worcester.

“I’ve spent hours in libraries,” says Paul. “Reading books about songwriting as a practice, looking at how the great songwriters do what they do. I’ve looked at the importance of the first line of a song, creating that sense of a place that the listener can kind of imagine straight away, and then you’re in this imaginative place which you go to and inhabit for three or four minutes or what have you.

He’s already looking forward to what the audience will bring in the form of their own experiences of place through the songs they love.

“I’ll be getting the audience to think about the songs they know about places, and what about them they love, and how much they’ve inhabited these places imaginatively when they listen to the song.”

When I personally visited New York a number of years ago, I took with me an impression which had been built up in my mind long before landing at JFK. Songs by Alicia Key and The Pogues, films like Goodfellas, Spiderman and Taxi Driver had all influenced how I would feel when I was experiencing the city in person.

“That’s what interests me as a researcher,” says Paul. “It’s how, not only through the materialities of what you’re seeing and feeling when you’re there, but also what you bring with you when you go to a place through what you’ve read about it, or heard about it, and how your experience when you visit is shaped by what you’ve already done.”

And it’s funny how place, emotion and connection go full circle when it comes to our musical tastes.

The street sign for Penny Lane in Liverpool UK

“The band that got me into music when I was a kid was the Beatles,” says Paul.

“I’ve got a very vivid memory of being at a friend’s house in London in the mid-70s. He put on his dads copy of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in the front room in this suburban house, and that sound came out of the speakers, it was electrifying to me, and I remember thinking ‘wow, this is what I want to be engaged with for the rest of my life.

“Take Penny Lane. McCartney starts setting the scene of this suburban place where he grew up, we all know the song. I went there with my son recently and it was actually nothing like how I’d imagined, but that song had profoundly influenced how I experienced that place.

“I remembered the lyric, ‘Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout, a pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray’.

“We found the bus shelter in the roundabout but there was no pretty nurse! There were, however, references to The Beatles everywhere! It was as if we had stepped into an outdoor Beatles museum.”

Paul notes that this is a good example of how a song has changed the place it was written about.

“There was a ‘Sgt Pepper bistro’ in the bus shelter!”

Around a hundred miles south of Penny Lane, at The Hive in Worcester, Paul is preparing to share his experiences and academic expertise on locale and song; could this be the start of the origin story for another Penny Lane?!

Paul says “How many songs are there about Worcester, or about Worcestershire? What would it take to write a song about Worcester? And what would help us write that? What would be the first line? How could you draw people in, how would you draw a listener into this place.”

And it’s making people connect with a place which makes a song of this kind so unique and memorable, remember, you don’t have to have done what Paul did and go and visit Penny Lane; you can just put the song on and you’re almost sitting in the barbershop looking at the photographs on the wall yourself.

Paul and I have more common ground than a love of music, in that we both call the same Worcestershire hillside town home. And that’s something we share with one of the greatest composers of all time.

Aerial view overlooking the Malvern Hills at sunrise

“We’re both from Malvern,” says Paul, “Where Elgar wrote Nimrod. And it’s a case in point, you don’t always need lyrics to reflect place, because melody is sometimes reflected in landscape. Think of the up and down of the rolling hills, I mean, this is putting it very simply but with songwriting, it’s not just about the words, it’s about how those words work with melody to evoke a place, you know, a movement either towards or moving away from somewhere.”

It's a topic limited only by how eclectic your music taste is. Think about the songs you love, the places they’re about, and the places which inspired them, and crucially, think about how you would write about your own home, or favourite place, if you were to compose a ‘Penny Lane’, a ‘New York, New York’, or a ‘Walking in Memphis’ about the street you grew up on.

Dr Paul Newland will be giving his talk at The Hive library in Worcester on 6th June. You can book your tickets on The Hive website.