'Such A Perfect Fit': David Gilmour And Polly Samson On 20 Years Of Collaboration

David Gilmour (left) and Polly Samson, who have been married since 1994 and have collaborated on songs for albums by Gilmour and Pink Floyd. (Courtesy of the artist)
David Gilmour (left) and Polly Samson, who have been married since 1994 and have collaborated on songs for albums by Gilmour and Pink Floyd. (Courtesy of the artist)

As a member of one of the most successful and influential bands in rock and roll history, David Gilmour has acquired a distinct perspective on the full breadth of creative relationships — at their most brilliantly productive and cripplingly toxic. Over nearly half a century as the guitarist and vocalist for Pink Floyd, the fragility of collaboration is something Gilmour has experienced in full. It's this knowledge that makes the 69-year-old Cambridge native grateful for two decades of a rewarding relationship with his personal and professional partner Polly Samson.

Samson began her lyrical contributions on Pink Floyd's 14th release, the 1994 album The Division Bell. On her own, she has garnered acclaim for her work as a novelist, most recently for The Kindness, which takes direct inspiration from John Milton's Paradise Lost and its complex portrayal of good and evil. That same theme connects to Gilmour's recently released fourth solo album, Rattle That Lock.

A ten-track exposition on loss and discovery, Rattle That Lock is another product of Gilmour and Samson's intimate and honest relationship. One of its most striking songs is the jazz-influenced "The Girl in the Yellow Dress," the animated video for which is streaming below. In a conversation about the album and their work together, Samson points to that song as a place where her narrative work as a novelist came together with Gilmour's songwriting in a natural way. While both were eager to discuss their separate creative endeavors, for Gilmour and Samson, the topic seems to always drift back toward who they are together.

There's a great deal of introspection with Rattle That Lock. Is that sort of self-awareness something you've always realized?

David Gilmour: Well, I still haven't realized it really. The songs just lead you where they want to take you, and the ones that I've written the lyrics for, my own subconscious I guess has guided me to wherever it thinks I ought to go. I think it's always been more of a subconscious thing than it is out on the surface. I just sing about the things that come to me and try to make music that will be emotional in some way that people will have an emotional connection to. The words lead where they want to go, and I would count it as a success if people are getting that. I find it hard to sort of pin down exactly what my intentions are at any given point in making the music that I make.

Was it more challenging for you to embrace that instinct or creative malleability as a young man with Pink Floyd back in 1968?

DG: I guess when I was younger I worked harder towards trying to actually write music from the outside, and I would sit down and attempt to do it. These days I tend to wait until it knocks on my door a little bit, and I've come gradually to the realization that the ones that sort of announce themselves are the ones that are better than the ones you work hard at finding. There's a lot of hard work in getting them from the initial spark of inspiration to the point that they are the piece of music that they become. But yeah, these days the muse is quite often knocking on the door, which I'm very happy to say. I can allow things to really force their way to the surface and beg to be listened to. It's what I've always wanted to do. It's been my life.

Polly, The Kindness contained a very obvious Paradise Lost influence that also informed the album. Was that sort of connective narrative between the two projects planned from the beginning?

Polly Samson: Not at all. I had never been made to read it, and when I started research for The Kindness, I decided that my main character Julian was going to be a scholar of Milton. At that point I'd actually never read Paradise Lost, so when it came to me starting the book about five years ago, I thought: well, I can't write this character without studying it. It took me a year because I got completely swept up in it, and the moment that I typed "The End", I knew that I would immediately go into writing lyrics. What I tend to do when writing lyrics is walk for miles with the music in my headphones, and I knew the subject of the title track was going to be about protesting. I got that idea and very quickly got the chorus, and then I was miles from home one day thinking: How will I write these verses? Where are the examples of those people who've bravely challenged someone? Immediately I think: Book II of Paradise Lost, so I immediately ran back to the house, picked up my copy, turned to Book II, and thought: I can do a sort of parallel narrative so that no one needs to know Paradise Lost, but it offers you so much and is so relevant to the times. So it wasn't deliberate, but it was a joy.

As a musician, David, how did you find the appropriate entryway to allow for those themes to become a part of the music you wrote?

DG: Well, it's something that's been right at the forefront of her mind for some time now as she's been writing this book for four years. Tying it to the idea of Satan going to confront God and stand up for himself, Rattle That Lock is also about encouraging people to stand up for their rights and to fight out against oppression. The political climate in our country has been cracking down on completely legal dissent from the government line on all sorts of issues. The wars that we get inveigled into joining, the charging of tuition fees, which make a proper education a privilege for the richer classes of people — normal things that people fight out against. These are all the things we're trying to encourage people to stand up against, but the whole Milton thing is something I'm not an expert in whatsoever. I'm a rock guitar player and singer. [Laughs.]

The song "A Boat Lies Waiting" from the new record is an homage to your late bandmate Richard Wright. What's the story behind it?

DG: The song comes from a little piece that I played on a little piano in my sitting room with the noise of the household going around it, and I played it onto a MiniDisc player. That was 18 years ago, and it was the sound of my son Gabriel as a tiny newborn baby making a loud squawk on there at one point, and he's now a 6-foot-tall, 18-year-old [laughs]. That is the base of that song, and Polly had spent a lot of time with Rick and loved Rick and saw what mine and Rick's musical relationship was and understood it very well. Rick loved sailing, and the rolling motion of that piano made Polly think of boats, and then made her think of Rick. It's a mark of the success of her words, and I can sing them and sound as if they're mine because it's something that's coming from the heart of me. It's one of those where Polly presented the words to me, and I started to sing them and just went: "This is extraordinary. This is just such a perfect fit."

Considering that lyrical narrative and the one you create with the music, do you see the relationship between the two as entirely natural?

DG: There's no great intent to try and make it connected. My assumption is that the music will drive the guitar playing that I play as it will drive the vocal lines that I sing over the top of it and will also help to dig out what that lyric is going to be about. Allowing it to be something natural is what I've always attempted. Practice makes perfect, and I think that Polly and I both are getting better at making those things work, and of course she also has an influence on the music because she's full of very forceful and valid opinions on every aspect of what's being done.

Is there a distinction for you between writing a narrative for your fiction work and the narrative for an album, Polly? Is it the same process but expressed through a different conduit?

PS: I think it depends on the song. Something like "The Girl in the Yellow Dress" actually felt incredibly similar to writing a short story. With "A Boat Lies Waiting", I really tried to get under David's skin. There was no point in me writing a song that he naturally wouldn't sing, so I tried to look as clearly as I could through his eyes. So yeah, it feels very similar to writing fiction. The added advantage is that there's someone prompting me. There is no blank piece of paper, because the music is there.

Looking back to your first collaboration with Polly, was that decision on your part born out of the frustrations you were dealing with at the time with the band's inner friction?

DG: Well, by that time Roger had left Pink Floyd, and he's quite a hard act to follow. [Laughs.] I'm very proud and happy with some of the lyrics that I've written, but I'm not prolific at that, and when I got together with Polly personally, it was wonderful to have someone around who had that enormous ability. Initially it was really her just trying to help me say the things I wanted to say but better. Gradually, through the process of making The Division Bell, her abilities became too obvious to ignore, so she started dominating that whole process. It wasn't my intention when we got together, but to have her become a part of the whole thing was a thrill and really good for me and for Pink Floyd. It brought even more of a provocation of thought.

Was it your plan initially to become David's co-lyricist?

PS: It was nothing I'd ever considered. In 1993, we were in a pretty new relationship, and I have what's called Epstein-Barr, and David was looking after me. He was doing the jamming sessions for what eventually became The Division Bell with Rick, Nick, and Guy Pratt, and it started with him coming home one night saying, "I just really need some words for this one," and I'm lying there in bed saying things like, "Oh, well have you thought about this?" Once my temperature started to come down, I could see that he'd written down all these things that I'd said in this hallucination state with my fever. [Laughs.] I looked at these pieces of paper and said: "You can't do this. It's not right at all," and started to rewrite them. It happened quite organically, and I was happy to help him. When it was finished, he came to me and said, "I'm really sorry. I know you don't want your name on this, but it's going on there," and I argued, to which he said, "You might not like it now that I did this, but there's nothing worse than not being credited for work that you've done."

When writing or on the stage, regardless of the song, are you still that same kid in Cambridge listening to Bill Haley and Chuck Berry, David?

DG: [Laughs.] I think the same sources are there that have always been there at the heart of everything I do. I don't spend much time now listening to new music in that obsessive way that I did then, and there are precious few moments nowadays that leap on me and knock me over like those early records did. Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" was the first single that I bought and Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" was a major thing as well, and still every time I listen to it, I think "How did they put something as perfect as that together?" But there are a thousand other influences that have sort of gone together — folk music, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, John Fahey, Joni Mitchell — there are thousands of players and singers who have directly influenced the music that I make and who have sort of created the bedrock of what you might call my style. It's so deeply embedded in me that I have no idea where it comes from now or where it's gonna go. But the influences that I had as a child are still very deeply embedded in me.

Do you see nostalgia as a potential obstacle just in terms of Pink Floyd's legacy, and its effect on what you're trying to accomplish now?

DG: I'm rather loathe to look back too much. I did spend all that time putting together The Endless River album, and I felt that before it got too late, I should do something about all that music. I listened to it all again, and I thought: "Yes, this should come out." I'm playing some nice Pink Floyd songs on this tour because I love them, but I just don't spend a lot of time looking back and thinking about the whole Pink Floyd thing. It's really about moving forward. It's very easy to desire the rush of love and stuff that accompanies going back, because there are a lot of people out there, and a lot of fans clinging to the past, and they encourage you to cling to the past, but I don't have that desire. That past is my heritage. I loved it. Despite the impression that one might get, 95% of the time that I spent working within Pink Floyd and the various incarnations of that were full of joy and satisfaction with what we did together, and dare I say it was a lot of laughs and fun. The small percentage that wasn't is something I don't want to dwell on. The whole thing is done. Realistically it's not possible to go back. You can't go backwards, and I have no desire to. I'm full of the joys of moving forward.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.