Putting words in his mouth
Polly Samson has written lyrics for her husband, David Gilmour, for 20 years. They tell Helen Brown why it works so well – whatever Pink Floyd might think
‘Getting the wife to write the lyrics? How tragic!” Roger Waters’s verdict on Pink Floyd’s 1994 album, The Division Bell, was exactly what Polly Samson had been dreading since her husband, David Gilmour, had convinced her to take credit for her contribution.
The couple can laugh about it now. As Samson says, Waters would never be able to get away with his sexist jibe in 2016. But the memory still makes her curl into a protective ball: “At the time, it felt awful. It stung.” The Division Bell was only the second album Gilmour had made with the band after Waters’s acrimonious departure in 1985.
The daughter of two writers, Samson was working as a journalist when she met Gilmour. “I had never felt nervous about writing,” she says. “But I did feel nervous about being known to be writing lyrics. I was a 30-yearold woman, writing for a band of blokes in their mid-40s. It felt like sticking my head above a very particular parapet.”
Samson, whose mother is half Chinese, was “really frightened” she’d find herself on the receiving end of the “misogynist, Orientalist bull----” meted out to Yoko Ono. “Today I’d love to be compared to her. She’s an inspiration: a woman in her 80s, still making great art. She shouldered all that s--- for something she didn’t do. We all know she didn’t break up the Beatles. It’s ridiculous.”
But surely, by 1994, the Onobashing was over? Gilmour shakes his head. “Even in the Nineties,” he says, “the rock’n’roll business was the preserve of unreconstructed, tyrant men. Not necessarily in the band, but the people running it. There was a constant niggling atmosphere.” He shrugs, exasperated. “Polly suffered.”
The guitarist gives his wife’s knee a comforting pat; she flings a hand to her brow in mock anguish. Sitting side by side on a blue velvet sofa in their airy, London mews house, they make a thoughtful and entertaining double act. Gilmour, who turned 70 this year, is 16 years older than his wife. Between them, they have eight children: four from Gilmour’s first marriage, one from Samson’s relationship with the poet Heathcote Williams and three more together.
Samson, now the author of two highly acclaimed novels and three short story collections, is a lively raconteur. She draws out the “reticent” Gilmour, who wishes he could “speak only with my guitar”, as he quietly gets things done: opening the door, making tea, fixing the smoke alarm.
He deflects the question when I ask about the bent propeller standing beside their grand piano, but Samson explains it’s a memento from “an early date in ’92 when he flew me to France in a Harvard – a Second World War plane that looks like it was made on Blue Peter – and on our return we had what is termed a ‘good landing’ because, apparently, any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. We lost a wing, the undercarriage, severed several branches from a chestnut tree and narrowly missed an old folk’s home.”
When they appear at the Hay Festival to discuss the songwriting collaboration that has stretched from The Division Bell to Gilmour’s 2015 solo album, Rattle That Lock, Gilmour says: “I’ll do a bit of strumming and play snippets of songs on my iPhone. Polly will do the meat of the talking and I’ll interject with the condiments.”
Samson is a “proper fan” of Roger Waters’s lyrics – “he always finds the right image to illustrate a point” – and never set out to replace him as Pink Floyd’s chief wordsmith, although she does hate Another Brick in the Wall because she thinks the world needs more education.
The role evolved naturally. In the early days of her relationship with Gilmour, when he was jamming with his Pink Floyd bandmates for the first time since the Seventies, Samson was “suffering from a horrible bout of glandular fever, just lying there sweating”. “I would bring you chicken soup,” says Gilmour, “and play you the tracks. One day we were having a great big argument and I probably did shout: ‘ What do you want from me?’ [a famous line from The Division Bell] and I was wondering what the next line should be and Polly started suggesting things. Trying to gee me up.”
Samson says she could see what he was trying to say, so she would throw out clumsy lines in the hope that he’d polish them into what he wanted. But once the fever had passed, she found – to Gilmour’s relief – that she’d caught the lyrical bug. “Inevitably, the power in the arrangement slid gently sideways,” he says. “There’s absolutely no reason she shouldn’t have been doing it. She can write.”
Samson says “the oddest thing” about the arrangement was that Rick Wright, the band’s keyboard
Reticent Gilmour wishes his guitar could do all the speaking for him