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Polly Samson talks about David Gilmour's new solo album -- and the unchattiness of Pink Floyd

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Kevin Westenberg

Polly Samson is an author whose most recent novel, contemporary family drama The Kindness, was published earlier this year. But she is as equally well known for contributing lyrics to the last two Pink Floyd albums and to her husband, and Floyd guitarist, David Gilmour‘s recent solo releases including his new collection, Rattle That Lock (out Sept. 18).

If Samson had had her way, however, she wouldn’t have been known for writing songs at all. “We were a very very new relationship in 1993 when those jam sessions took place that became (Pink Floyd album) The Divison Bell,” she says. “I had really quite bad glandular fever (the British term for “mono”), and David said, ‘You must come and I’ll look after you.’ And he put me to bed at his house. But he would then go out in the day and do these sessions. Then, he’d come back with all this music and say, ‘Oh, I really want to play you these tracks.’ He’d say, ‘Oh god, I really need some lyrics and what could this song be about?’ And I’d be lying there saying, ‘Well, maybe…’ I thought, I’ll just help him by suggesting a few things he might like to go away and write about. I didn’t know how much he hated writing lyrics and I didn’t notice at first that he was writing down these things I was saying. I’d look at this piece of paper and say, ‘You can’t be serious. You cannot sing those half-formed words.’ So I’d try to knock it into better shape. But throughout the whole thing I’d always had this sense of not wanting to stick my head above the parapet. I said to David, ‘Please don’t tell anyone. I’m really happy to do this with you, and I’m really happy for you to pay me for my work, but don’t put my name on it.’ Which sounds odd now but back then it was a completely different culture, especially around rock’n’roll. I imagined all sorts of horrible things would happen to me for being a woman and daring to write for this male rock band. When the album was finished, David came to me and said, ‘I’m really sorry, but your name’s going on it. You might not feel it now, but one day you will thank me for this, because there’s nothing worse than not being credited for your work.’ At the time, I was horrified. But now I think he was entirely right. It would be such a dishonest thing to have not stuck my name on the lyrics—and I’m very proud of them. I was rather tricked into it, I sometimes think. But I’m very glad he did.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I appreciate David is always working on new material but how did the process of contributing to Rattle That Lock start for you?

POLLY SAMSON: David’s been writing these piece of music and it’s clear that another album was kind of bubbling up. I was writing my book and I’m incredibly obsessive, as is David actually. David was waiting for me to finish the book, which took four years. Towards the end, I could feel that he was starting to get a little bit impatient but on the whole he [coped with it] pretty well. What was great for me was, that moment when I typed “The End”—which really for me is a day of grief—I put a track with a scat that David had done for me straight onto my iPod. It was the track that became “A Boat Lies Waiting.” So, I never had that moment of, “Ugh, now what do I do?”

“A Boat Lies Waiting” was inspired by Rick Wright (Pink Floyd’s late keyboard-player, who passed away in 2008 as the result of cancer). What made you decide to write about him?

You know, I knew Rick for 23 years and, for example, we’ve never been able to watch (the Wright-featuring Gilmour DVD) Live in Gdańsk, to this day. Normally, we would stick something like that on—but it’s incredibly painful. That last year with Rick, and he was playing like a demon, I mean, it was incredible, he really came to life on that tour, and our friendship got really deep throughout that tour. And then this awful awful, mercifully quite quick, decline.

David had been trying to find other keyboard-players and, until he tried to find other keyboard-players, I think he hadn’t realized what he’s lost. I mean, he knew that he’d lost his friend. But he didn’t realize how completely irreplaceable that musical kinship is, that history of playing all those years together, that way that, without any communication, they can just play music together, and it will sound like that. So, he was in a state of some despair about how was he ever going to find someone that he could play with in the way that he played with Rick.

It was at that point that I was walking with that piece of music and it’s got that real suggestiveness of a boat rocking. And Rick lived on his boat. In a way, the time when you most loved Rick was when he was on his boat because that’s when he was happiest. As I was walking along thinking about it, I probably saw a boat in the distance and I suddenly thought, I know how to express this, and I know that this is the thing that David is feeling the most acutely at the moment. And that’s how it came about. Actually, it’s been the song in the lead-up to this album being completed that, when he’s played tracks to friends, it’s had a 100 percent make-them-cry hit rate. Which is a bit cruel to the friends but it’s been terribly nice for us.

“The Girl In The Yellow Dress” is a very jazzy track.

Yes. I think he should go and do it one night in a club, in Ronnie Scott’s (legendary London jazz club) or something. It would be so great. I wrote a lyric for that at the time of On an Island (Gilmour’s 2006 solo album) and it’s the only lyrics I’ve ever written that David rejected. When I was 18, when I first lived in London, I didn’t know anyone, I was very lonely, I used to go to this jazz club called Tufnell Park Tavern, on my own. I’d get my pint of lager, sit there, lonely. And there was a very very old man that played saxophone and he played it so beautifully that I developed a sort of saxophone crush. I must have freaked him out—you know, 18-year-old girl sitting there, staring at him every time he played.

He must have loved it!

God knows what he thought. And so when that jazzy piece of music was first presented to me I thought, Oh, I’ll write about that. I wrote a song about my rather bizarre saxophone crush and David looked at these notes and said, “I don’t want to sing that, thank you.” After that failure, I stopped trying, really until Phil (Manzanera, guitarist and regular Gilmour collaborator) said one day, “Polly, you know, that song, it’s about a beautiful sexy woman. Come on, you can do that.” I thought David can’t sing about another woman. Then, I was thinking, ‘Well it is beautiful and I’ve got to come up with something.’ I was sitting in the room where I write, and I looked up, and David has a painting, and it’s set in a jazz club, and it’s a girl dancing in a yellow dress, and she’s got her hand on the shoulder of one man, but her eye contact is absolutely with, as it happens, the sax player. I was sitting, staring at this painting, and I thought, Oh my god, that’s who it’s about. It’s the closest to a short story that I’ve ever written as a song lyric. As soon as I noticed I thought, I just want to write their story: what is going on here?

I believe the album’s title track, “Rattle That Lock,” was inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost. I was going to say my Milton has gotten rusty, but it was never that shiny in the first place.

I’m sure there must be [only] 10 people in the world who are like me, who adored him, who love it. Because Julian (the lead male character of Kindness) is a scholar of Milton, I realized before I even put pen to paper that I was going to have to study Milton. I became so absorbed—I think you could spend the rest of your life reading it, if you so wished. When I came to write “Rattle That Lock” I knew that I wanted to write a song about protest. I was thinking quite a lot about things like the Occupy movement. I was walking with it, and I was miles from home, and I suddenly thought about Book II of Paradise Lost, where Satan takes that amazing, heroic flight to challenge God. And I thought, That could really really work for me. And I ran home. [Laughs] I ran three miles home, jumped through the door, got my Milton, reread Book II and thought, This gives me everything I need.

Is it always the music that comes first?

On the whole, music first. The only one I’ve written without music first was “Louder Than Words” on the last Pink Floyd album (2014’s The Endless River). Those were sessions from 1993 when Rick, and Nick (Mason), and David, and Guy Pratt on bass had all gone in to these jamming sessions. What came out of it was the Division Bell but there were all these other great tracks. With Rick’s death, there was a call from lots of people to release this stuff. In the end, David thought, We must do it, it’s actually the best tribute to Rick we can do, is to release those pieces of music, where he was still playing so beautifully. At that point, I said to David, I don’t want to write lyrics for this album because it would feel wrong. It would feel, to me, like I was imposing a trumpet solo or something. It felt like such beautiful things, just the sound of those men jamming. But David felt very strongly that he wanted one song and he wanted a full stop to Pink Floyd.

I remembered that at Live 8 (the 2005 benefit concerts which saw former Floyd bassist Roger Waters return to play with the band) that something had struck me then, I’d made some notes. At Live 8, they’d rehearsed, there were sound checks, lots of downtime siting in rooms with David, Rick, Nick, and, on that occasion, Roger. And what struck me was, they never spoke. They don’t do small talk, they don’t do big talk. It’s not hostile, they just don’t speak. And then they step onto a stage and musically that communication is extraordinary. So, I’d kind of made some notes at that time. I went off into my room absolutely without a piece of music, and wrote that lyric, and then said, “David, if this would do, and if you have a piece of music, you’re welcome to try it.” And he loved it. So that’s how that that one came about but that’s the only one I’ve written where I didn’t have the music first.

I wrote a piece about Genesis a long time ago and they pretty admitted that they almost never spoke about their private lives with each other, regardless of what personal trauma they happened to be experiencing

It’s just such an unnatural situation when you think about it. [When] you’re in your late teens, early ’20s, you don’t think that for the rest of your life you’re going to be stuck in that gang. You move on, you get new friends, your life changes. It’s a really unnatural thing—Genesis, Pink Floyd, any of these bands, there they are, all these years later, still with those same people. And maybe they’ve had all the conversations they’re ever going to have. But if you’re the person in the room—it made me feel very very nervous. It’s perfectly affable, it’s just silent. [Laughs]

You can see the video for “Rattle That Lock,” below.

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