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Interview: Chris Difford, singer, songwriter

04 October 2019

‘When I went into rehab, I surrendered to God. I handed over my weakness’

I was bored at school, and not very good at paying attention. Being in a band seemed like the best option, and I loved music. I was full of blind ambition.

The songwriting partnership with Glenn Tilbrook just happened. Oddly, we just fell into the way we write by sitting around and trying things out. Our songs became the bridge between us that kept us always close. Some writing partnerships suffer upsets along the way — that’s only natural, like any relationship. The key is giving each other space and time to heal from any fallout. Yes, we’re often compared to so many different writers, even Lennon and McCartney. To me, we are simply just us; unique like all the others, but it’s nice to be compared to the greats, too.

I’ve been inspired to write by so many people, from Sammy Cahn to Elvis Costello, and, more recently, Alex Turner [of the Arctic Monkeys]. I wait for songs to come to me. I never fish for ideas, as I often get let down that way; so, I sit and hope and wait until they drift into view. It’s a spiritual process, I think.

When I write songs for other singers, I do have their voices in mind. It helps me to focus, and, like a tailor, I hope that I can cut the cloth accordingly. Glenn has sung more of my lyrics than anybody, and he does it with such skill and soul. How he used to wrap himself around my stories is a gift of life.

If I had to make a Desert Island Discs selection of my songs, I’d take “Up the Junction”. I’d love nothing more on my desert island than a record player. Other records would be mostly jazz standards. I’d love to learn to sing and play in that style. As I creep older, I love to listen to all kinds of jazz.

The Trussell Trust’s foodbank scheme has been a passion of Glenn’s — and I support him. It makes sense. On this tour — which we’re doing with Squeeze, in aid of the Trust — I guess our songs will do the talking, or singing.

I’ve never been hungry for food, but for many other things, yes. There has always been food on the table, one way or another. I guess that God provides.

Playing in churches has become more common for us. I’ve played a few in the past couple of years. They sound great, and they feel so wonderful. Cold sometimes, though, and pews maybe are not the best seats for people to sit and listen to music. I’d be happy to play more, and in places like village halls, where the community can come together and rub shoulders with each other while enjoying live music.

At the moment, we’re touring in America. It has become easier over the years, with nice buses and a great crew who look after us. It’s tiring, but rewarding in so many ways. We’ve been selling out all over the place without a new album, just on the strength of our history, which is wonderful for both Glenn and myself. Our tour takes us to the end of the year, and then, in 2020, there’ll be more; so, lots to look forward to.

My blog is a footprint of touring life, and, sometimes, it may seem tired. I can’t sleep that well on the bus; so it’s a reflection of my place, but that’s a good place.

Solitude is often found in the moments between songs, and on the bus. When I’m on my own with nobody around, I can just wade in the here and the now and respect the emptiness that it can bring, one day at a time. I find my footing in the solitude of the soul. I need to be alone, sometimes, to know where I’m going and who I might be.

Reading on tour is impossible for me. I have to keep focused on other things, like just being. I have never been a big reader, but I love books and I have a great many of them. Poetry is something that I’m learning about, slowly. I do love to listen to poems being read. They seem and sound so final.

The US likes beds, pizza, cars, teeth, and apps — but there are lots of really wonderful things about America. My blog speaks of some of the things. The country is badly run at the moment, but it’s mostly an incredible place. They’re not very clever at recycling, but maybe the next generation can sort that out.

My childhood was simple and sweet: mum, dad, and brothers; church school; and holidays once a year — nothing much to not like about that. I miss the feel of the ’60s and ’70s — especially the music.

When I went into rehab, I surrendered to God. I handed over my weakness and my loss of life to him. In doing so, he gave me back this place: a place of love and a place of now. It’s not easy to maintain, though; keeping it in the day is all I can do to survive.

My faith grows and it weakens, depending on how hard I work at it. It’s a daily prayer, it’s a reprieve from the past, and one I wish I had more time to dedicate myself to.

The thing that’s demanded the greatest courage from me is the darkness and staying away from its familiar soft surroundings. I need to come out of my cave to find all the love that I need. That’s where the courage comes into play.

When I talked to my vicar at a low point, he said that I needed a home and a family — and he was right. I have kids running around the house. They know where the fridge, the TV, and the oven is — that’s in their satnav. They get fed and watered, and that’s all they need — and some support when things are not quite right. I feel proud of them: they are bright and finding their feet in this funny old world.

These days, I’m never at home, always on the road, and I’m feeling it. Family and home is and should be everything. It’s hard to keep and to be part of sometimes.

[My book] Some Fantastic Place: My life in and out of Squeeze [Weidenfeld & Nicolson] had lovely reviews and emails. I hope that it was honest, and I loved writing it — the discipline was great for me. It feels like a good time to write again, but I can’t find the time, although I have all the ideas ready to go in my head and I can’t wait to do it. Writing is a passion; it brings joy and a sense of the wilderness about it. Out there, you never know what you might write. You plant the seeds, and, before too long, you have a forest of ideas — good or bad.

I would love to walk more and see the horizon around me. I like to walk on the Sussex Downs. I can see for miles up there and view the village from the heavens. It’s a wonderful thing.

The internet and politics make me angry. There is no way to resolve the way the world is now. The next generation will have the answers, and possibly curse us for not doing more. I wish my voice would be heard. If it were, it would say: “Stop. Stop packaging, stop hurting, stop cutting down trees, stop driving, stop eating rubbish. Just be in this place and love our planet. It’s a gift, after all.”

Seeing my wife when I wake up each day makes me happiest.

I love the sound of the wind, the sound of the rain. The church bells tolling the hour in my village.

Hope means an open hand to all, a place to find myself, with the soul of my past in touch with the heart of the present day.

I pray for my children, and that they are safe. I often pray for peace. I hope one day it will be heard.

If I was locked in a church for a few hours and could choose any companion, I’d choose Peter Owen Jones, the vicar in my village. He would be a safe pair of hands, for sure.


Chris Difford was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

“The Difford and Tilbrook Songbook Tour” takes place during October and November with Squeeze, Chris Difford, and Glenn Tilbrook. It will raise food, funds, and awareness for the Trussell Trust. For dates and tickets, visit gigsandtours.com/tour/squeeze.


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