INTERVIEW: White Lies Tell Us The Truth Behind Their Songwriting

We spoke to band member Charles Cave about how the British three-piece comes up with their best lyrics: read the full interview!

The world became familiar with the name White Lies back in 2009, with the release of their debut album, To Lose My Life, which slowly but surely made an impact in their home country of England, then the globe, with their massive sophomore release Ritual producing the hit "Bigger Than Us". As three friends from back in the day, White Lies have been making music together for over eight years now, although individually they've been in and out of bands since their childhood years.

Although they've been compared to bands like Joy Division and Interpol for sharing their intense and rather gloomy disposition, White Lies have a sound that's all their own, which blends melancholic rock n' roll with enjoyable pop hooks, particularly on their latest release, Big TV. The record dropped last summer, and as the band's most accessible release, it spawned hits like the title track and "There Goes Our Love Again", relying on moody, yet uplifting music (and lyrics alike) that their fans find painstakingly relatable.

They've just wrapped up a North American tour promoting their newest album but we had the chance to chat with White Lies for a conversation about their lyrics and songwriting. In this exclusive interview with bass player and songwriter Charles Cave, we found out the story behind the inception of the group, the song that fans always misquote the lyrics to, and his favorite recent music recommendation in the...jazz-doom genre? Read on to learn how White Lies' write lyrics.

ML: As one of the main songwriters in the band, when did you first discover that you wanted to be a musician?

CC: I've always played music, ever since I was very young, and back then my parents were suggesting I take it up as an extra-curricular activity. My dad got out an acoustic guitar from the attic, but a bunch of kids at my school were already playing guitar, so I thought I'd try bass. For about six months, I worked out how to play bass on that acoustic guitar. And my dad finally understood that this was not just a phase, and bought me my first bass. From then on, it was played all the time.

There was never a point where I distinctly thought this was what I wanted to do for real. I just always enjoyed it, and when the chance emerged to make it some kind of career, it was a no brainer. I didn't even question it. I just went, "What time do I have to be in and where?"

ML: Do you feel the same way about songwriting?

CC: When I first started the bass, I played for an old friend and a couple of guys from his youth group, and we just did covers. But then Harry [McVeigh, White Lies' lead singer] started to come sing with us for a bit, and as soon as we could all properly play our instruments, we wanted to write originals. I was writing and composing stuff by 13 or 14, so yeah, that always just seemed natural to me. I've never had that kind of desire to learn complicated guitar solos in front of my computer in my bedroom for hours, you know? None of us really have had that. We've all been much more interested in playing with other people and writing our own music than we have just getting super super sick at shredding.

ML: When it comes to writing, what's the most random time that lyrics have come to you?

CC: I don't really think there ever is a random time. I find more often than not, my lyrics are better when I actually sit down and focus on writing them.

ML: Oh really?

CC: Of course, there's ideas and lines and thoughts that come randomly throughout the day wherever I am that I note down. 9 times out of 10, they're awful.

ML: [laughs]

CC: But I actually feel like when I put my mind to it, I'm best with lyrics. I get quite meticulous over the process, and really think hard about what I want to write and how I want to write them. I remember spending hours on our song "Tricky To Love," and it's got the least amount of lyrics I think I've ever written in a song, in terms of the actual word count. It took weeks and weeks and weeks to write those, and now I'm super happy with them. I remember reading East Of Eden by John Steinbeck which took forever to finish. I loved it, but immediately afterwards I read The Pearl -- also by Steinbeck -- which is very short in comparison. I got equally as much enjoyment out of that as I did East Of Eden, which is 800 pages or something. I think you can have such a great effect with very little words. For me, that's my aim: I keep whittling stuff down and down until I feel like I'm saying a lot with very little. And I think that's what we want to do with our music as well. Just distill it, simplify it, until it's as pure as it can get.

ML: There's definitely a simplicity in White Lies' lyrics, especially when it comes to the new album. Can you talk about the writing process behind the songs off Big TV?

CC: I think the best songs on the album all came immediately, which is usually how it works, right? Harry and I went to an old cottage in the countryside near Bath in England to write, and in that session, we wrote blueprints for "First Time Caller", "Mother Tongue", "Big TV", and "Tricky To Love". Those songs just had the most excitement around them, and I think in some ways they've got the best lyrics on the record as well. "First Time Caller" and "Big TV" are probably the best songs we've ever written. That's kind of how it works, unfortunately: you don't write for ages, and then you have this amazing initial flow of really, really great ideas. They come so easily, so you get cocky and think "Oh man, we're on a roll!" And then all of a sudden, the next song takes a month to finish.

There's a song on the album, "Getting Even", that took so long. We were working on it for weeks and weeks, trying to figure out how to better form it and what kind of style to do it in. But "Big TV" just became, lyrically and musically, a really stand-out part of the record for us. We decided it should open the album, and then we realized it was such a bizarre name, for a song let alone an album, so we went with it for the record title. This record has a very different feel than the last two. To Lose My Life and Ritual's titles totally fit with the records, but this one isn't so melancholic and murky. There's a lot more color in this one.

ML: What's your favorite lyric line from the new album?

CC: I really like the second verse of "Tricky To Love": "My love, a rush of every season / But vague, as time as delicate as reason." It's a little bit flowery, but I know a lot of people can relate to those lyrics. People find it quite difficult to love in some ways -- they're always finding the feeling of love to be utterly flimsy, unreliable, and vague.

ML: Are you working on a follow-up to Big TV right now?

CC: We really wish we could be. Trouble is, with albums, you have to tour them! But we are really restless to write again. Especially because we're all listening to so much music, and everyone's coming into our dressing room and going "Hey! You should check this out!" so we're constantly feeling quite inspired. For a while, I thought we were just being lazy not wanting to write while on tour, but Harry and I both like our home comforts very much. We've both got little spaces in our homes for where we make music, and I think we're very fond of being in a comfortable environment when we work, so writing in random places doesn't really appeal to us. Harry and I have very casual routines for writing which predominantly involves food and coffee. The actual work that gets done in a day of writing is between two and three hours, compared to the three and a half, four hours of consuming food and drink. [laughs]

ML: Is there a song lyric by White Lies that the fans often mishear?

CC: I know for a fact that people are often misquoting "Bigger Than Us." At the end of the chorus, people think it goes "I don't want you to hold me / I don't want you to pray" but it's actually "I don't want you to hold me / I WANT you to pray".

ML: You mentioned that people are constantly recommending music for you to listen to. What is the last thing that you heard that you were inspired by?

CC: I had the most amazing tip this morning, actually. A friend of a friend recommended this jazz-doom record -- yes, that genre exists -- and it's called Sunset Mission by Bohren & Der Club Of Gore. It's almost like the jazz element to some David Lynch film. It's very slowed down and very bleak, but it's still very grateful, tender jazz. It's the best tip I've had in a very long time.

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Watch the music video for White Lies' "There Goes Our Love Again" off VEVO below:

And be sure to pick up the band's latest album, Big TV, off iTunes today.

Do you have a favorite song by White Lies? Share it with in in the comments.