Inside Compulsion

Working through some of the Japanese translations I’ve been doing recently, I happened across Paddy’s explanation of the compulsion he feels towards songwriting.

“There’s a strong desire – similar to a feeling  of hunger – to make new things… I’ve been doing it for a long time so when I don’t I feel uncomfortable and I’m on edge. It’s like an appetite – if I don’t eat, I can’t survive as a human being. Music is like that for me. A few days after I’ve finished writing a song I feel like I have a full stomach, but after a few days, I want to write the next song. I’m driven by an impulse like when my stomach is empty. So what I’m doing if I take a walk is that I’m looking for something like a title or something that is likely to be the subject of a song…”

This fascinates me, because it describes so well the sort of obsessive compulsive behaviour that drives me too, including what lay behind the creation of this site.

And it struck me that it’s probably something most people don’t experience themselves, something which may seem odd, and so may be worth talking about. I think it explains exactly things about Paddy’s behaviour that people don’t quite get. “Why doesn’t he just record a few things and release them to fans on a Patreon?” for example.

Now the word “disorder” often follows “obsessive compulsive”. In other words it falls into the category of “mental illness”. Because of the highly pejorative connotations of mental illness, the sense of weird otherness and vague danger the term engenders, that’s maybe a little unhelpful. The image people have is dull eyes, voices in the head, destructive behaviours, powerful medications and concerned voices in the corridors.

For me – and I approach the world via a sort of set of serial obsessions, they usually last about 8 years – which means by the way I’m probably drawing to the end of the Prefab Sprout one – it doesn’t feel remotely like a disorder or an illness. It feels like doing something that interests me. I want to go deep into whatever I’m doing and become “the” expert. I love finding things and finding things out and going just that little bit further than other people. There is a sort of gnawing existential hunger that drives the pursuit, so I wake up every morning thinking of what I’m going do to advance the project I currently have on.

It’s not that it’s all I do for every waking moment, but if I’m not doing it, or more accurately if I’m prevented from doing it by (for example) the arrival of friends at the house or having to sit with the baby at lunchtime, or having to go out and do something with the family, or just having to go to work, I don’t feel quite right. I can get resentful too. And uncomfortable and depressed, just like Paddy describes. When I get back to it, everything slots back into place and I’m comfortable again.

To the outside world, it undoubtedly seems odd. But it’s not as if it blocks you from functioning on a rational level. You can force yourself into doing what is expected of you, you may even decide at some point to do something a bit out there to break the habits you’re getting into. Extrapolating to Paddy, I suspect that – in combination with maybe a bit of a mid life crisis possibly – is what was behind the very incongruous 1999 trip to Japan and the 2000 tour. But you soon revert to type.

Generally partners or close friends are forced to make allowances. You get left to things, because the cost of pulling you away can be an extended sulk and even loss of temper.  Of course you feel the frustration and incomprehension sometimes, or you’re told about it directly when particular lines get crossed. It makes you hard to live with certainly because it’s very self centred. All the same, the compulsive part makes it very difficult to break out of the loop, even when you recognise it’s not particularly healthy.

As Paddy put it in another of the Japanese interviews:

“So I don’t seem to be able to live with people. I’ve never spoken about this but I’m preoccupied with what I do. I love it. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible for a human being to be so crazy. It’s like a drug, the more you write, the more you want to see how much you can improve. This is a terribly selfish profession. Because I don’t want to lose even a second of my time. I’m trying to change, I don’t think it’s healthy or a good way to live. But as long as I really love what I’m doing, maybe it’s the only life I can live.”

For me, it’s always been something of an “escape room” too. I get absorbed in something when I want to be on my own. Usually that’s because there’s something else wrong going somewhere else. This is my world, I can shut the curtains, arrange the furniture like I want, explore where I want, no one else comes in here unless I let them. The ever-present danger though is that the escape room turns into a prison cell and you become reclusive. You need strong partners and friends to pull you out from time to time.

I really think this is Paddy’s psychology too. I didn’t approach Prefab Sprout looking for self affirmation in any way, it’s really just something I noted as I went a bit deeper in. For me it’s very natural that Paddy feels he has to write songs to exist. I could easily feel the same if I wanted to write songs. It’s equally natural that he’s particular about what he lets out into the world – the process of producing a finished product is dull and limiting in comparison with creating a song that has never been in the world before, and has the potential to be absolutely perfect. He happens to have had the same obsession for 45 years where I chop and change. But it’s still an obsessive compulsion, and I see nothing but similarities with my own behaviours.

Whatever, the upshot is that Paddy creates songs not to satisfy an audience, not to create critically acclaimed albums, not out of any sense of connection to fans, not even to make a living, but because he simply can’t do anything else without feeling that the bottom has fallen out of his world. That’s why he’s piling up songs and albums.  That is a sort of side effect of the compulsion, not unlike the mountains of Sprout memorabilia I have on shelves is a side-effect of my own obsessive behaviour.

So if I’m right, the answer to the “Why doesn’t Paddy just record a few things and release them to fans on a Patreon?” question is that the fans are somewhere outside the secret room he wants to be in. He can appreciate we’re out here with our noses pressed against the windows. He can be grateful and gracious to us when he ventures out. But we’re outside, not inside. Inside is all about creating the perfect song, living in his own head and imagination.

Not oblivious but preoccupied.






One thought

  1. Ah yes, there are some who want to be in music and others who need to be. The latter are not fixating on the glory unless that glory is encapsulated in the music. The pursuit is for the magic and an old magician has many a trick up his slaee. Who wants doves anyway?
    Great article x

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